On the troubles within the ELCA

I attended a Lutheran (ELCA) college, where I majored in theology and philosophy. Much of my junior and senior year, however, were spent engaged in study of Catholic teaching (thanks to the fortunate discovery of Dorothy Day and Cardinal Ratzinger), culminating in my conversion.

In much the same manner as my familial background leads me, even as a convert, to take an interest in Mennonite affairs, I try to stay abreast of Lutheran matters and Lutheran-Catholic relations.

News of late has made for rather grim reading.

This past week, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) affirmed major policy recommendations to bless same-sex unions and give formal recognition to gay and lesbian pastors in partnered relationships.

Robert Beene appraises the decision in “How the ELCA Left the Great Tradition for Liberal Protestantism” (Christianity Today September 2, 2009).

On the ELCA and the future of Lutheranism, I would recommend the recently-established blog “Lutherans Persisting”, which publishes the response of Carl Braaten, The Aroma of an Empty Bottle.

The reaction to such a crisis will be varied — for some, it will be a last straw compelling their journey across the Tiber. Others will choose to stay and fight, a remnant of the faithful against the tide. A number of them have in this case decided to “work together for positive reform” within the ELCA — a number of familiar names among their ranks — former classmates, teachers, friends.

My prayers are with them.

* * *

What is interesting, at least from this Catholic perspective, is the extent to which the critics of recent decisions recognize the seeds of their present troubles woven into the very fabric of their tradition. Robert Benne remarks:

What was truly chilling about the assembly’s debates was that the revisionists seemed to quote Jesus and the Bible as knowledgeably and persuasively as the orthodox. Passages reinforcing their respective agendas were selected and then brilliantly woven into their arguments. Both sides seemed to have the Bible on their side. The revisionists “contextualized” and relativized the relevant texts. The orthodox claimed a plain sense reading of Scripture. The Lutheran confessions were utilized effectively by both sides. There was no authoritative interpretation conveyed by any agent or agency in the church. The church was, and is, rudderless.

Sola Scriptura, a Lutheran principle adopted by evangelicals, did not seem to be sufficient in such circumstances. An authoritative tradition of interpretation of the Bible seemed to be essential. More was needed than the Bible alone. Protestants seem to lack such an authoritative tradition, so they fight and split. In this situation, the option of swimming the Tiber seems all the more tempting.

and Carl Braaten:

Lutheranism may contain within its origins the seeds of its own instability. When the first Lutherans lost the magisterial authority of the Roman Catholic Church, it had no sure authority to put in its place. The solas sounded good in theory, but it finally comes down to who who has the authority to interpret and apply them in changing times.

Which is not to say the Catholic Church doesn’t have its share of dissenters, troubles and scandals — but there is something to be said for the authority and definitive teaching of the magisterium.

Related

  • “ELCA Journeys: Personal Reflections on the Last Forty Years”, penned by Michael McDaniel (RIP), is both a diagnosis for and chronicle of the denomination’s decline. I expect if he were alive today he’d have a few choice words.
  • See also Carl Braaten’s anguished “Open Letter to Bishop Mark Hanson From Carl E. Braaten”:

    … All of these colleagues have given candid explanations of their decisions to their families, colleagues, and friends. While the individuals involved have provided a variety of reasons, there is one thread that runs throughout the stories they tell. It is not merely the pull of Orthodoxy or Catholicism that enchants them, but also the push from the ELCA, as they witness with alarm the drift of their church into the morass of what some have called Liberal Protestantism. They are convinced that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has become just another liberal protestant denomination. Hence, they have decided that they can no longer be a part of that. Especially, they say, they are not willing to raise their children in a church that they believe has lost its moorings in the great tradition of evangelical (small e) and catholic (small c) orthodoxy (small o), which was at the heart of Luther’s reformatory teaching and the Lutheran Confessional Writings. They are saying that the Roman Catholic Church is now more hospitable to confessional Lutheran teaching than the church in which they were baptized and confirmed. Can this possibly be true?

    As Bratten acknowledges, a number of theologians have answered that question in the affirmative.


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