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Book Review - Carl Braaten




Book Review of A Harvest of Lutheran Dogmatics and Ethics: The Life and Work of Twelve Theologians 1960-2020 by Carl Braaten (ALPB, 2021)


You may try drugs, you may try modern liberal theology. It makes no difference - both are trips, separated from reason." Francis Schaeffer


This is a well written book. If you want to understand the theology of 20th Century liberal Lutheranism (essentially the ELCA), this book is essential. I was not terribly familiar with many of the twelve theologians Braaten wrote about. I gained a new appreciation (not uncritical, of course) of Robert Benne, Robert Jenson, and Paul Hinlicky. In several places, Braaten questioned how justification could be the most important article of our faith if no Lutheran articulates it in the same way. I very much appreciated that. 


That being said, the theological positions taken by most of the theologians Braaten reviews is dangerous, and I mean eternally dangerous for one’s soul. Braaten throughout this work critiques the theologians who deny that the bodily resurrection of Jesus had to happen. That’s what he gets right. It is the most reasonable thing in the world to believe in Jesus Christ. He was crucified and buried (He really died!) and then came back from the dead. Theologians who aren’t sure about the necessity of the resurrection are existentialists (the separation of the reason and faith - “who cares if it’s true, just believe it”) or nihilists (nothing matters because we’re all going to die).


What Braaten gets wrong is the Bible. Robert Preus was right when he said that theology begins with the Bible. To all you fundie haters out there who hate singing “Jesus Loves Me” (because it says “For the Bible tells me so"), it’s your own fault that you’re miserable. My life’s rule is this - if anyone, and I mean anyone, ever says that he’s going to die on a cross and come back from the dead 3 days later and then it actually happens, what that guy says goes. And what that guy says is the Bible. He affirmed the Old Testament as authoritative when He preached. He sent out Apostles to write the New Testament. My definition of liberal theology is that it doesn’t take the Bible as the Word of God. 


The question when we make judgments is, “What’s the standard?” If the answer isn’t the Bible, then we’re going to make bad judgments. Liberal Lutheranism’s answer to "What's the standard?" is the human being. Modern man smokes too much pot to be a reliable standard. Man is too sinful to be a standard unto himself. 


Luther scholarship (a field dedicated to the study of Martin Luther’s theology) is pretty useless these days. Like Origen or Augustine, you can make Luther say whatever you want him to say. The sad thing is that most Luther scholars don’t care about what Luther cared about - the Bible. Arguments about Luther’s theology are good for publishing books, but we already have a book, the book, that settles the arguments. 

Despite my misgivings about the theology of these theologians, this book is invaluable because it explains the current environment of Lutheranism. I’ll end with a humorous comment by an Anglican professor that Braaten included in the chapter on George Lindbeck - “The Pope has spoken ex cathedra only twice, on his own infallibility and on the Assumption of Mary, and he was wrong both times.” 


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