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Thomas C. Oden


Because of Christ

Reliving contemporary theology with Carl Braaten.

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A Norwegian born in Africa? Studied at the Sorbonne, Heidelberg, Oxford, and Harvard, then returned to the U.S. to teach Lutherans of their own confessional tradition? Every step he took was a battle? Sounds very unlikely. But that is the nutshell story of Carl Braaten.

Why would such a person cause so much grief to moderate to liberal bishops for decades? Braaten himself tells the story in a memoir entitled Because of Christ. The title is fitting, but the book could have been called "The 50-Year Struggle of Protestant Theology Through My Eyes."

Among American Lutheran theologians, none have been more lively and important than Carl E. Braaten. For a personal window into the history of 20th-century theology, I know of no better place to start than this book. It reads like a combat journal of dozens of battles in theological reasoning. It is written by a courageous and plain-spoken man with a brilliant theological mind, a man who has lived through most of these skirmishes personally, and in many cases affected their outcomes.

I know of no one in American theology who has fought harder than Carl Braaten, and made as much difference as he has in navigating these stormy shoals, always with good judgment and candor and deep rootage in classic Christian teaching, especially as viewed with Lutheran eyes.

And I must confess that I know of no one in American theology whom I personally have found battling at my side, through so many skirmishes and for so many essential confessional loci, as Carl Braaten. He has fought mainly in the Lutheran vineyard and I in the Wesleyan, but we have throughout learned steadily from each, seldom differing and always benefitting from our occasional times together. So this will not be an ordinary academic review of an academic book, but a grateful review of the import of his whole body of work.

There have been several such intellectual autobiographies written by theologians in recent years, but none more penetrating and incisive in describing whole panorama of tough issues of contemporary theology. Braaten seems to have been always in the right place at the right time to obtain special insider information about crucial turns of contemporary theology: the death of God, demythology, the series of quests for the historical Jesus, the hermeneutics and history debate, etc. Always candid, sometimes acerbic, but continuously perceptive and caring, Braaten has not hesitated to enter the fray if the integrity of classic ecumenical teaching is at stake. The cheers of orthodox believers and writers the world over are called for.

The title of Braaten's memoir comes from Luther's phrase, was Christum treibt (what conveys Christ—propter Christum), rendered in English as Because of Christ. The theologian has the vocation of "contending for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints." Those solemnly charged with the teaching office are called "to judge doctrine and reject doctrine that is contrary to the Gospel." This is what Braaten has had the courage to do during his long and productive life. His writings are listed in an extensive bibliography appended to this memoir: more than a dozen major theological books (from Harper, Westminster, Eerdmans, Fortress, and Augsburg), and many dozens of articles and chapters, along with a plethora of hard-hitting editorials in his journals, dialog and Pro Ecclesia. Braaten made a special contribution by editing thematic collections of essays by major authors on themes such as Neo-Paganism, Catholicity, the Finnish breakthrough in Luther research, Mary, Eschatology, God-Talk, and Re-evangelizing the Postmodern World. Unpacking the stories and underlying dynamics of these arguments and events is the central feature of this memoir, told in an engaging and straightforward way, without pulling punches.

Braaten was born in multicultural Madagascar, where traditional African animism prevailed. He was the son of orthodox Norwegian Lutheran missionary parents. His first chapter tells of his first sixteen years (1939-1946) in that remote place, learning in a two room schoolhouse, going to a boarding school where no dating was permitted, wearing long pants for the first time at his confirmation, and playing tennis until there were no more replacements for gut strings (he remained an avid lifelong tennis player, gradually shifting toward golf in his Phoenix retirement years). Many years later, amid the clamor over multiculturalism in America, he would remember "what a gift it was for children of foreign missionaries to have acquired a global multicultural perspective in a perfectly natural way."

From his early days in America in Lutheran schools (Augustana Academy and St. Olaf College) and then on to the Lutheran seminary, Braaten was an avid student. This prepared him to go on a Fulbright to the University of Paris--Sorbonne, where his primary interest was in Sartre. He then returned to Harvard to study with Tillich, and serve as his assistant.

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