Liberalism and Theological Brain Drain

Here’s a fascinating letter from one of the ELCA’s leading scholars, Carl Braaten, to the current head of the ELCA, Bishop Mark Hanson. In it, Braaten identifies and decries a theological “brain drain” as many of the ELCA’s leading theologians are bolting the flock for either Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy. Braaten identifies one of the main reasons for this exodus as being the ELCA’s drift into “the morass of what some have called Liberal Protestantism.” There is some obvious truth to Braaten’s analysis, for even this year at its convention the ELCA will consider allowing gay clergy. Braaten even goes to the extent of calling this Liberal Protestantism “heresy.” Do these charges stick? Here, Braaten is his most convicting, and worth quoting at length:

I wish I could deny it. I have been looking for some convincing evidence to the contrary, because I am not about to cut and run. There is no place I know of where to go. I do know, however, that the kind of Lutheranism that I learned. . . and taught in a Lutheran parish and seminary for many years is now marginalized to the point of near extinction. In looking for evidence that could convincingly contradict the charge that the ELCA has become just another liberal protestant denomination, it would seem reasonable to examine what is produced by its publishing house, theological schools, magazines, publications, church council resolutions, commission statements, task force recommendations, statements, and actions by its bishops. The end result is an embarrassment; there is not much there to refute the charge. As Erik Petersen said about 19th-century German Protestantism, all that is left of the Reformation heritage is the aroma from an empty bottle. A lot of the pious piffle remains, but then, so was Adolf von Harnack a pious man. All the heretics of the ancient church were pious men. Our pastors and laity are being deceived by a lot of pietistic aroma, but the bottle is empty. Just ask these fine theologians – all friends and colleagues of mine – who have left the ELCA. They are not stupid people; they don’t tell lies; they don’t make rash decisions. They are all serious Christians. What is happening is nothing less than a tragedy. The ELCA is driving out the best and the brightest theologians of our day, not because it is too Lutheran, but because it has become putatively just another liberal protestant denomination. I would think that this is a situation that ought to concern you immensely as well as all the leadership cadres of the ELCA. But might it also be the case that the very persons who ought to be troubled by this phenomenon will say to themselves (perhaps not out loud), “good riddance, we won’t be bothered by those dissenting voices anymore? We wish more of their ilk would leave.”

LCMSers and other conservative Christians shouldn’t get too smug at the ELCA’s plight. Indeed, this should serve as a warning to us all. Denominational departure from Christian orthodoxy results in the departure of orthodox Christians, which results in further denominational drift from Christian orthodoxy, which results in more orthodox flight, on and on in a vicious cycle. The only solution for the ELCA is to re-dedicate itself to its Christian and Reformation roots, rather than following any and every trend of theological “innovation.” As Braaten says, “a church that cannot take the Scriptures seriously is no longer a church that belongs to Jesus Christ.” This is most certainly true.

Tangentially related to this, it is interesting to note that all of Braaten’s colleagues took the road to Rome or Istanbul (nee Constantinople) rather than to more orthodox Reformation denominations, such as the LCMS or conservative Presbyterian groups. Why is that? The shift of Protestant intellectuals to Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy is not an unnoticed phenomenon. I first encountered it in the writings of church historian Mark Noll (“The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind“). While Noll chalks the phenomenon up to rampant populist anti-intellectualism in Americanized Protestant churches (I’m vastly over-simplifying here), Braaten’s friends are leaving the ELCA for theological rather than intellectual reasons. I think they’re making the classic mistake of Reformation skeptics that the deeper historical roots of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy protect those church bodies from error. Critics of Protestantism are fond of saying that Protestantism all too easily descends into factionalism and liberalism—and they’re right—but to conclude that the grass is therefore greener on the other side of the Tiber is mistaken. Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy are just as susceptible to the winds of historical change as any human institutions or bodies of thought. If tradition and “infallibility” were really adequate guardians of biblical truth, the Reformation would have been unnecessary. I’m afraid once the honeymoon wears off, the folks who have made the leap will find that liberalism has made inroads into even these bastions of tradition.

I’ve read some other web sites today positively gloating over the situation in the ELCA. One is run by a former-Anglican-recently-turned-Catholic who celebrated the exodus of these Lutheran scholars to “the Catholic truth.” Others are saying “this is what you get for being liberal!” Neither reactions are appropriate. We need to be praying for the future of the ELCA—that its leaders return to the truths of Reformation Christianity to stem this tide (rather than saying “good riddance” as Braaten alleges)—and for these Christian ministers and scholars that they remain strong in their faith, no matter where their journeys take them.


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