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Who Jesus Is, and Why That Matters for the Church: Remembering Carl Braaten

Carl E. Braaten (1929-2023) was blessed with a long life, and was an active theologian for most of it, even up until a few years ago. Braaten was born in Madagascar to Lutheran missionaries of Norwegian descent, and he grew up to be a pastor, theological educator, and prolific author in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. He studied under Paul Tillich and was an interlocutor with almost every theological current that emerged since then. He had things to say about ecumenism, biblicism, fundamentalism, liberalism, historical-criticism, feminism, liberation theology, confessionalism, pluralism, etc.

I am surprised how often I come across people outside of Lutheranism who, while being well read in the works of major theologians of past and present, are unfamiliar with Braaten’s work. Perhaps I had only heard about him because I have spent some time around Lutherans, but I think many Christians, especially Anglicans, would resonate with his work. What drew me most to him was how refreshingly honest he was. Braaten did not “play sides,” in that he was the champion of none of the isms mentioned above. Rather, he engaged them and thoughtfully considered their merits and shortcomings in how they were in accord with the gospel of Jesus Christ. He had the gift of doing so in a way that was candid without being flippant.

Without ever having met him, I felt that he was speaking directly to my concerns,  concerns that I imagine many Christians have: How should the church approach and relate to the wider world? What beliefs should the church uphold? I imagine the frankness of the way he spoke and wrote was due to an urgency that he felt relating to the latter question: what the church believes matters, and the beliefs we hold as Christians are intrinsic to the way we approach any issue. In a world of confusion, Braaten modeled how a pastor and theologian can (and must) be a voice of clarity. He did not equate clarity with a simple-mindedness that didn’t appreciate the complicated nature of the church’s task. Rather, he took the task seriously enough not to settle for muddled half-answers.

I first read Braaten in my last year of seminary. His work was like encountering an experienced diver who had plumbed the great depths of a sea of seemingly endless lines of theological inquiry and theological positions that the history of the church has produced, and he carefully studied them. Not only this, but he tested them, just as Scripture tells us to test the spirits to see “whether they are from God” (1 John 4:1). I revisit his work only to appreciate more fully his mastery of church history and systematic theology.  But Braaten didn’t treat this merely as knowledge. He was a true theologian: applying his expertise to offer wisdom for the church. I’ve heard him scorned as a reactionary, but he was no reactionary. He was a careful analyst of the currents within theology both past and present because he cared about the future of the church.

Braaten’s lifelong love for the church was rooted in something simple: his love for Jesus. Braaten’s doctoral studies focused on Christology, and the 19th and early-20th century German theologian Martin Kähler. In similar fashion to Albert Schweitzer, Kähler exposed the futility of the 19th-century endeavors to uncover a more accurate portrait of Jesus against what we find in the New Testament documents, which, as the historical-critics allege, contain embellishments. The simple summary of Kähler’s conclusion is that there is no way to sketch such a portrait apart from the New Testament because the only portrait of Jesus ever given is via the New Testament. There simply isn’t any significant data, beyond data for Jesus’ mere existence, from which the historian can reconstruct a personality of Jesus apart from what we find in the Gospels and New Testament.

Braaten judged Kähler’s conclusion as positive in one regard: the wild and completely baseless speculation of the 19th-century Jesus-questers needed to be reined in. Kähler, along with Schweitzer, exposed the fact, Braaten says, that these people were also “not as presuppositionless as they thought.”[1] However, Braaten laments that this also regrettably led to a period of theology when the consideration of how history is related to the beliefs of Christianity was seen with little value.

Braaten sees this as taking place in several forms. One manifestation of this was in Karl Barth’s dialectical antithesis of revelation and history — or of God’s transcendent plane and the plane of our “so-called history.” In his effort to safeguard the faith from the experience-theology of German liberalism that enabled his mentors to endorse the First World War , Barth felt that God’s utter transcendence (wholly other from us and the history we humans make) needed to be emphasized. Another manifestation of this was in Rudolf Bultmann’s demythologization coupled with existentialism that led to the divorce of meaning from concrete events. While Bultmann importantly recognized that Christian beliefs like the resurrection of Jesus carry a meaning for us, he was captive to a historical positivism that did not deal with supernatural events, and therefore he was indifferent about the historicity of the resurrection and other purported things from Scripture. Braaten saw Bultmann’s indifference as a “massive interiorization of the Biblical historical drama of salvation.”[2]

Braaten points out what may be obvious to the common Christian, but which became lost in the musings of these great theologians: Christianity has beliefs, and these beliefs are about things that are purported to have taken place in history — God has acted in our time and space.

There is little excuse for pretending eloquence about the meaning of the Resurrection while holding reservations about whether the event really happened. The assertion that Jesus was raised from the dead cannot at the same time be theologically true and historically false.[3]

As a young theologian, Braaten witnessed firsthand the ascendancy of a new breed of theologians and Bible scholars who emphasized a new premise: the relationship that faith and history have. For Braaten and others, this also meant that there is a relationship between the Jesus of history and the Jesus of faith: “Kerygma without history is a meaningless noise.”[4] Braaten found a way out of Barth and Bultmann through the work of Wolfhart Pannenberg. Pannenberg did not reject historical-criticism, but in fact saw how this method can actually affirm the plausibility of the historicity of the Christian claims about Jesus. From Pannenberg, Braaten learned that there is an important link between the messianic consciousness of pre-Easter Jesus and the post-Easter community’s confession of him as Messiah. This link is none other than the concrete event of the resurrection, which is the prism to look at the consciousness and confession through.

But ultimately, Braaten would always find Kähler’s insight enduring: what the church confesses about Jesus in her creeds is the Jesus that the church needs. “The study of Jesus apart from faith will at best view him as a moral example. … The result will be a Jesusology.”[5] Who Jesus is matters. If he isn’t Savior and Lord, then he becomes someone to emulate. Braaten was highly critical of the Jesus Seminar, as well as popular Jesus biographers of more recent times ranging from Barbara Thiering to John Shelby Spong for the absurd portraits of Jesus that they sketch. As Braaten says, “A person would have to be incredibly gullible to take them seriously.”[6] But not only this, these fantastical portraits of Jesus, as various as they may be, all share the principle that Jesus is the ideal person to be like. Braaten saw these authors as moralists who replaced the real Jesus who saves the human race (a species that needs saving) with a false Jesus who embodies human aspiration.

Claims such as who Jesus is and the resurrection’s historicity are central and fundamental to the Christian faith. The nature of both who Jesus is and what is confessed about him by the faith community implies that Christianity, by its own content, asserts itself to be true in an absolute sense. Braaten was ever critical of pluralistic theologians who adopted values that relativized Christianity to be one beautiful path among many that lead to God. Braaten argued that pluralistic theologians like Paul Knitter actually offered nothing new and simply rehashed the false dichotomy of the Christ of faith versus the Christ of history. For Knitter and other pluralists, the historical Jesus is mere human. The pluralist temptation for the Christian theologian, Braaten says, is to shift from a Christ-centered model to a God-centered model that can supposedly cultivate a more inclusive discussion “that gives all religions equal footing.”[7] But for Braaten, talk of God for the Christian must ultimately always be rooted in Jesus. Braaten looked to none other than his doctor-father Tillich, who spoke of “the new Being in Jesus as the Christ” as the “ultimate concern” for the Christian systematic theologian engaged in interfaith dialogue.[8]

Braaten understood ecumenism as a task of the church because factionalism is a sin that grieves Christ. He understood interfaith dialogue as a task toward the common good because hatred, which often arises from ignorance, is a sin that grieves Christ. But Braaten saw that the only way for an ecumenical or interfaith dialogue to be honest is if the representatives of respective faith traditions are honest about their beliefs. For Christians, this ultimately always goes back to Jesus, and who he is, and why it matters.

Reading Braaten reinforced the importance of Jesus for me. I am truly grateful for him.

The Rev. Andrew L. Christiansen (Drew) is the rector of St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church in Lake Charles, LA. Drew lives in Lake Charles with his wife, Rachael, a teacher in an Episcopal school. Drew was one of the last students to have gone through Bexley-Seabury’s residential M. Div. program during the days of its partnership with Trinity Lutheran Seminary, and he is working toward a Ph.D. at the Institute of Lutheran Theology. He hosts, along with the Rev. James Rickenbaker, Doth Protest: A Podcast on Reformation, History, and Theology. 


[1] Carl Braaten, History and Hermeneutics (Westminster Press, 1966), p. 55

[2] Braaten, History and Hermeneutics, 22

[3] Braaten, History and Hermeneutics, 92

[4] Braaten, History and Hermeneutics, 26

[5] Carl Braaten, Who Is Jesus? Disputed Questions and Answers (Eerdmans, 2011), e-Book Location 379

[6] Braaten, Who Is Jesus?, e-Book Location 379

[7] Carl Braaten, No Other Gospel: Christianity Among the World Religions, (Fortress Press, 1992) p. 38

[8] From Paul Tillich’s Systematic Theology, vol. 1 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951) p. 50, as quoted in Braaten’s book Mother Church: Ecclesiology and Ecumenism, (Fortress Press, 1998), chapter 7

2 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you for this tribute to Braaten. You did not mention his ecclesiological writings (e.g. Mother Church), but I have found those immensely insightful.

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