Carl Braaten: The Aroma of an Empty Bottle

I attended the 2009 Church Wide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Often voting members and visitors would ask me, “How did we get to this point?” They were referring to the sequence of votes in which a majority voted in favor of resolutions bearing on standards for ordained ministry that no Lutheran Church had ever considered before, let alone approved. How could the ELCA embrace a new doxy, indeed, a heterodoxy, that contravened what the leading theologians and presiding bishops of its predecessor church bodies — the American Lutheran Church and the Lutheran Church in America — had unanimously taught? 

I can not imagine that the decisions of the ELCA would have happened under the leadership of Dr. Frederick Schiotz (ELC), Dr. Malvin H. Lundeen (Augustana), or Dr. Franklin Clark Fry (ULC). They would not have happened under the leadership of Dr. David Preus (ALC) or Dr. James R. Crumley (LCA). The ELCA decisions would find no support in the theological writings of Dr. Martin Heineken, Dr. Theodore Tappert, Dr. William Lazareth, or Dr. John Reumann who taught generations of pastors at the Lutheran Seminary in Philadelphia, nor in those of Dr. Warren Quanbeck, Dr. E. Clifford Nelson, Dr. Herman Preus, Dr. Kent Knutson, Dr. Roy Harrisville, or Dr. James Burtness, professors at Luther Seminary in St. Paul. These names are a mere sampling. We could list scores more from Wartburg Seminary, Trinity Seminary, and Southern Seminary.

The theologians who founded, edited, and wrote for the leading Lutheran journals, Lutheran Quarterly, Dialog, and Lutheran Forum carried forward the sturdy traditions of Lutheranism. There were differences among them, to be sure, but to my knowledge none of them deviated into the kinds of heresies and heterodoxies now rampant and tolerated in the institutions of the ELCA. Thus the question is understandable, “How did we get from there to here?” Why is confessional Lutheran theology unravelling in the ELCA?

Many will, of course, deny that there are any profound theological problems troubling the ELCA which threaten its unity. Everything seems to be in order. There was no lack of Lutheran slogans and clichés flying around the mikes at the Convention Center in Minneapolis. Bishop Mark Hanson voiced them well, as did most of the speakers. The Lutheran lingo reminded me of the phrase Erik Petersen coined to describe modern German Protestantism in its defection from the doctrinal theology of the Reformation; it’s “the aroma of an empty bottle.” There’s not much left of the original Reformation. The Lutheran “solas” can be used as slogans to mean the opposite of what the Lutheran confessors intended. In the current circumstance they are the tell-tale clichés of “gospel reductionism.”

I will leave it to smarter historians than I to explain how it happened that the ELCA could slide so quickly down the slippery slope of liberal Protestantism. Meanwhile, I would hazard two suggestions. First, 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. In the history of Lutheranism the locus of official authority has been wandering all over the place. In the ELCA final authority lies in the hands of a quota-selected majority of lay members who could, if they chose, decide to merge with the Moonies or Mormons, just as they have decided in favor of altar and pulpit fellowship with Methodists and Moravians. Far-fetched? Not any more than the decisions taken at the 2009 Assembly in Minneapolis. In the church the leaders are supposed to be successors of the apostles and not echoes of majority opinion.

My second suggestion is that the ELCA has succumbed to the same ailment as liberal Protestantism. What is that? Modern Protestantism is an amalgamation of historic Christianity and the principles of the Enlightenment, its rationalism, subjectivism, and anthropocentrism. The underlying assumption is the neo-gnostic belief in the inner-dwelling of God, such that everyone is endowed with the inner light that only needs to be uncovered. The light of truth does not shine through the Scriptures and the Christian tradition as much as through scientific reason and individual experience. This is what happened in Minneapolis: appeals to reason and experience trumped Scripture and tradition, punctuated with pious injunctions of Lutheran slogans and clichés. The majority won. And they said it was the work of the Spirit, forgetting that the Holy Spirit had already spoken volumes through the millennia of Scriptural interpretation, the councils of the church, and its creeds and confessions.

Bishop Mark Hanson repeatedly assured the ELCA Assembly that for Lutherans, our unity is in Christ alone, and not in our “agreements or disagreements.” That is a false use of the “solus Christus.” Our Christian unity does lie in our agreements. That is what Nicaea was all about. That is what the Augsburg Confession was all about. Lutherans do not accept the sectarian slogan: no Creeds but Christ! Our unity is in Christ, to be sure, but according to the Scriptures and according to the Creeds and Confessions. Orthodox Christians affirm their unity through the use of liturgies and creeds, and if we share no agreement on these, then in fact we are not one in the same communion.

Frank Senn wrote in his recent book that Lutherans have enough “solas” to form a whole choir. It’s time that Lutherans quit using these slogans, born in the heat of controversy, as a fig leaf to cover up their loss of orthodox Christian doctrine.

Carl E. Braaten







25 Responses to “Carl Braaten: The Aroma of an Empty Bottle”

  1. Tony Metze Says:

    Dr. Braaten, thank you for clarity and truthfulness. How will we, the pastors on the front lines, move forward? Some pastors are telling me, “This will not affect my congregation or me.” How do we encourage pastors that this is a false serenity? We desire a church that is orthodox. Help!

  2. Arthur Turfa Says:

    Dr. Braaten- In June I returned to Chicago for the Seminex 35th celebration, and reflected on my pastoral training (of which you were also a part). Nothing that I learned in Seminex or the old LSTC would have led to what we have now in the ELCA. Since then some people have gotten drunk from sniffing the bar rag, to add to your symbol, and what faces us will not be pretty.

  3. On the troubles within the ELCA « The American Catholic Says:

    […] 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. […]

  4. Erik Samuelson Says:

    Dr. Braaten-

    Thank you for your comments. I have always held you to be one of the great doctors of the Church. Though I have never met you, through your writings are one of my teachers. I was hoping I would run into you at the Churchwide Assembly, where I was a voting member, so you could answer a question that came up for me while watching the lecture video LutheranCORE distributed.

    In the video, you refer to Jesus’ teaching that remarriage after divorce is adultery as “one of the great absolutes of Jesus”. You even mentioned your own children who had been divorced (though didn’t mention that you have, as I assume you have, advised them to remain celibate so as not to enter into adulterous remarriage relationships).

    My question is, how can the ELCA allow remarried pastors (unrepentant adulterers) and bless second “marriages”? Both of these actions and the underlying teachings put us out of line with the historical teaching (and 2000 year consensus on human sexuality) of the Christian Church and threaten our ecumenical relationships with both the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox churches? Why have we tolerated this open sin for so long in the ELCA? Might this be the next campaign for us to embark on? Perhaps LutheranCORE can tackle this next? This certainly affects more congregations and pastors than the homosexuality discussions have. Have you written anything on this that might help in our efforts?

    I’ve posted my own thoughts on my blog:


    • Michael Says:

      First, the remarriage argument is a red-herring. Unlike marriage, the Church has never, ever held up homosexual relationships as an ideal to which we should direct ourselves. On a related note, divorce, like fornication, is a forgivable sin. Sin ought not preclude ordination provided the person repents.

      Second, insofar as Jesus’ teaching on divorce and remarriage is concerned, I would argue that the traditional Church has likely misread the teaching. The teachings, I believe, arguably permit remarriage following divorce so long as the cause of the divorce was spousal adultery. To see why, you may want to read my reflection on this topic, Divorce and Remarriage.

      Not to belabor the point, but I’ve also written a fictitious parable about a King who uses the letter of the law to divorce his queen and marry his hand-maiden.


  5. Homesick for the Lutheran Church « Here I Stand Says:

    […] finally, we are rediscovering the voices of teachers such as Carl Braaten whose most recent essay The Aroma of an Empty Bottle (posted on one of my former professor’s blog) made me homesick for my Lutheran […]

  6. Paul Sundberg Says:

    If I may add a follow up to Erik Samuelson’s question: and what about those pesky women?

    The impress of the Enlightenment ways heavily on your own words Dr. Braaaten: rationalization, objectification, imperial authoritarianism which demands meta-unity be manifested through behavioral and cognitive micro-conformity – and the Law reduced to mere moralism.

    If the ELCA has gone too far, perhaps it is in response to the ecclesial and theological neo-orthodox legalists who have dressed righteousness in the button-down clothes of American civil Puritanism. On the other hand, the ELCA may well be reflecting and allowing the sort of theological and ecclesial diversity that characterized the varying communities of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John, and the somewhat less than consistent epistles of Paul.

  7. Paul Sundberg Says:

    unfortunate typo – weighs (not, ways)

  8. The Black Eagle » Post Labor-Day Musings… Says:

    […] Carl Braaten writes “The Aroma of an Empty Bottle” […]

  9. A 16th century approach to 21st century problems: #CWA09 & #Goodsoil09 | Spirit of a Liberal Says:

    […] Braaten argues that ELCA Bishop Mark Hanson is wrong, our ELCA unity is not in Christ, as Hanson suggests, but in […]

  10. Obie Holmen Says:

    Braaten argues that ELCA Bishop Mark Hanson is wrong, our ELCA unity is not in Christ, as Hanson suggests, but in our Reformation era confessions. Braaten longs for the good old days of the Augsburg Confession (1530), but then he muses that even the Reformation was too radical: “When the first Lutherans lost the magisterial authority of the Roman Catholic Church, it had no sure authority to put in its place.” Too much democracy, that’s the problem. Too much enlightened thinking. Too much reason and rationality. Ah, if the Lutherans only had an authoritative, top down Magisterium like the Catholics, this slippery slope modernism would be held in check. Why, just look at who the ELCA’s ecumenical friends are these days! The Episcopalians, the UCC, the RCA, the Presbyterians, and the Methodists. Mainline Protestants all. That’s not the direction we should go, we should veer to the right toward the RC church and the LCMS.

  11. Elizabeth J. Toler Says:

    thank you, Carl Braaten! that’s all i have to say.

  12. Eric Swensson Says:

    So, Obie, it is all about veering is it? Right or left, is that all you see? What about those people who wanted to stay where they were but their ELCA moved?

    Of course, it is pitiable to think that the church must keep up with culture or any other expression of it.

    Shame on all the agenda people who had to push their opinions until they became policy, inappropriately leading the denomination into a sect. Hope they are all happy now. It is all they will get.

  13. Obie Holmen Says:


    Please note my comments were a parody of Braaten’s position. He is the one who believes we are moving left, and he would prefer a move right. We are already centered in the protestant mainstream with full communion agreeements with a handful. We don’t have such agreeements with the LCMS or RC, which seems to be the direction Braaten would have us go. He wants to change course.

    A better “movement metaphor” is forward or back. It seems you would stop time or reverse it.

    Agenda? Fighting racisim, sexism, militarism, and poverty are agendas too. Would you have the church stand silent?

    In my own blog, I posted an article about my pastor last Sunday preaching on the Markan text of the Syro-Phoenician woman, a text that deals with the exclusivism of traditional Israelite religion vs the inclusivism of the one who broke down boundaries. Half way through his sermon, he interrupted himself and said (I paraphrase): “Some of you are saying to yourself, ‘there he goes again, pushing the gay agenda.’ You are wrong. I am not pushing an agenda, I am merely preaching the gospel.”

    There it is. The heart of the matter. The canon within the canon. The core testimony. It’s not unbiblical. It’s not unchristian. It’s the gospel.

  14. Eric Swensson Says:

    Don’t take it personal, Obie, but your comments are a parody of something. Why do you think wanting to go and fix things is the gospel? Isn’t the meaning of that word already claimed? Doesn’t it mean that Jesus died for our sins?

    I will take the slam “stop time” since I said “pushing an agenda” but I do not agree you are “preaching the gospel.” You are simply of a certain opinion of what is wrong with the world.

  15. John N Says:

    This possibility is very much why I left the Lutheran Church for the Roman Catholic. Things make a LOT more sense when viewed from this side of the Tiber. So for all the rest of you who are frustrated with authority being confused with majority, come on over, the waters fine.

  16. Lawrence804 Says:

    John N,

    Thanks for the invitation, but we Lutherans still think we can get this thing right. I’m actually a former Catholic who swam the Rhine, and although I retain a great affection for the RCC, I think the evangelical Lutheran project is worth maintaining. Especially with giants like Carl Braaten to help guide us.

  17. Are ELCA Lutherans now unchurched? One theologian thinks so. #CWA09 | Spirit of a Liberal Says:

    […] theologian Carl Braaten has assumed the intellectual mantle as defender of Lutheran orthodoxy … Braaten argues that ELCA Bishop Mark Hanson is wrong, our ELCA unity is not in Christ, as Hanson suggests, but in […]

  18. Lutheran Core Convocation commences #ELCA #CWA09 | Spirit of a Liberal Says:

    […] and their unofficial spokespersons, retired theologians Carl Braaten and James Nestingen, pen articles accusing the ELCA: [of] “heresies and heterodoxies now rampant and tolerated in the institutions of the ELCA” [Braaten] […]

  19. Norman Lillegard Says:

    It is remarkable that “Obie” and others can attribute to Braaten the view that our unity is not in Christ when they have his words right in front of them, the words “Our unity is in Christ, to be sure . . ” But it is painfully obvious that “Christ” can become an ’empty bottle’ into which anyone can pour anything. There is room for a lot ‘in Christ’ but not room for EVERYTHING or ANYTHING. As for rationalism, no one needs to endorse enlightenment silliness (mostly discredited by now) in order to hang on to this much “reason”, to wit, one cannot believe both A and not A.

  20. Paul Sundberg Says:

    “One cannot believe both A and not A.” Seriously? So then you’re not at all familiar with 20th century physics…not to mention “simul justus et peccator”, consubstantion, immanence and transcendance, and Trinitarian doctrine?

  21. David Coffin Says:

    I have read Dr. Braaten’s books while and after seminary. I have experienced the ELCA as unapologetically wanting to become another mainline church. There is little of no effort to drift toward becoming just another generic mainline church. If one suggests that we maintain some sense of ‘distinctiveness,’ then I have found there is the accusation that this is more like LCMS than the ELCA.

  22. David Hallen Says:

    As long as denominations keep dividing over issues, they only selfishly
    weaken the church and make us all seem inauthentic to the world,
    because we are every bit as divided as the world.

    My brother and I have opposing views on this subject, but we go to two different Lutheran churches and are united in our faith.

    People are over-fixating on this issue when there are so many more serious problems facing the world and Christianity.

    Churches that accepted gays, did not isolate or alienate themselves from the ELCA when it had a different policy, but now that the shoe is on the other foot, those people cannot accept compromise. You can compromise without abandoning a church.

    If the focus of church is on Christ and salvation…we can not judge each other and respect the fact that people have different views.

    Churches have split over slavery, they’ve split over all sorts of reasons, but to worry about a few gay pastors that you aren’t even forced to accept means you care more about your subjective understanding rather than Christ’s prayer that we “may all be one”.

    I would worry more about what Christ says are the two most important commandments. They are difficult and without meeting them, all other topics are moot.

    Lastly, Paul was not infallible nor was Peter.

    We all have our understandings, on some topics I have never been given an answer…I don’t know..

    But I do know the basic premise of Christianity. It seems wiser to follow Christ’s prayer than get all fired up over personal convictions, which can often be so totally wrong, regardless of how right they feel.

    • David Mattson Says:

      I just wanted to make a quick comment on your statement: “Paul was not infallible nor was Peter.” This is true, but the words that they penned by inspiration by the Holy Spirit are. They are to be used for “teaching”, “reproof”, “correction”, and “training in righteousness” (2Tim. 3:16). I think your words lend a great deal to the reason why the ELCA has gone down this road.

  23. Lorraine Hill Says:

    Carl Braaten is brilliant. Unfortunately, nowadays North American seminaries are failing the pastors they produce, and therefore the congregations. There is no more “historic Christianity” in North America, just “American Religion Left” or “American Religion Right.” Which side you belong to depends only on which slogans you buy.

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