Carl Braaten's name is written all over Lutheran history and theology. Some loved him and some not. Like others, some complained that Braaten had changed his tune along the way. His fame was well beyond his own churchly circles. Born January 3, 1929, in St. Paul, MN, to missionaries to Madegascar, Torstein and Clara A. Braaten, it was highly likely he would become a Lutheran pastor. He was a graduate of one of the Lutheran Ivy League schools, St. Olaf College, B.A. (philosophy, English, French; magna cum laude), and Luther Seminary, B.Th. before he went to Harvard University for his Th.D. and then on to study at the University of Paris, University of Heidelberg, and Oxford University.
His memoirs tell his own story as a theologian, from his early years as a missionary kid in Madagascar to his years of study at the universities of Paris, Harvard, Heidelberg, and Oxford to his decades of teaching, writing, and publishing. Some in the LCMS will recall his treatment of his former Missourian colleagues and his resentment against the Seminex legacy for some of the troubles in the ELCA. Everyone will remember his complains about the ELCA's drift from any semblance of confessional Lutheranism into generic liberal Protestantism. He was certainly a prolific writer and editor -- just Google his list of articles, books, and contributions to other volumes. While some might not be comfortable with it, his was a voice for the catholicity of the Reformation even as it questioned the need for an institutional Lutheranism.
My take on this is how far the ELCA has drifted and how Braaten is viewed by the ELCA reflects that drift away from the anchor of God's Word and the Lutheran Confessions until it is barely more than a wind vane, blown by every gust of culture and society. I wish I could say it was only true about sex but the incorporation of every sexual desire and gender identity into the ELCA is a symptom of its deeper problems. At the 20 year mark of the ELCA's existence, Braaten was not shy about flunking the denomination on all fronts and, whatever you think of him, he was and is spot on. He once wrote: "At LSTC (Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, an ELCA seminary) I quit going to chapel because I could not be sure of the identity of the God being worshiped and glorified."
Oddly enough, the ELCA seems not to know what to do about the passing of such as Braaten. One reliably liberal, progressive, and loud individual put it his way -- he was one of the most interesting white male theologians of my grandparents generation. Ouch. Further down, the same individual complained that their refusal to follow where the ELCA led to be a reflection of a theology of sex that was largely inherited, visceral, ill-informed, and bigoted. According to that commenter, Braaten failed to realize that theology is feminist theology, African-American theology, [and] queer theology. Another way of putting it was that Braaten was just too Lutheran for the ELCA and that seems rather spot on.
The tragedy of American Lutheranism is highlighted by the great failure of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to retain any solid or recognizable Lutheran identity. Braaten may be one of the last and greatest serious theologians of the ELCA. While Missouri may find issues with him, he was at least a man with whom we could converse. The sad state of affairs between Missouri and the ELCA is that we don't talk because we don't have anything to talk about. It does not matter who you blame for this, the reality is that we don't even talk the same language and that is true even when we use the same vocabulary. My moment of remembrance of the passing of Carl Braaten includes the passing of a church body with whom we once had much in common. But there it is. For a more sympathetic view of Braaten, read here.