28 July 2001

mother church

Last night I finished reading Carl E. Braaten's Mother Church: Ecclesiology and Ecumenism (Fortress 1998). Braaten is a fairly conservative Lutheran (ELCA) theologian and the founder/director of the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology, which publishes the journal Pro Ecclesia.

He energetically argues for a vigorous ecumenism that attempts to avoid the pitfalls of some ecumenical models of the past (doctrinal laxity, relativization of truth, bureaucratic structures, returning to Rome, etc.). Braaten accomplishes this through the development of ecclesiology - an often neglected aspect of theology - and specific proposals for building Christian unity in worship, piety, and polity.

With regard to polity in particular, he makes an interesting argument that Protestants should accept the historic episcopate and some kind of notion of primacy for various sees, including the Roman see. These should not be accepted, he argues, because they are in any way necessary for the esse (sheer being) of the church, but because they were not rejected by the Reformers insofar as they could exist as non-authoritarian human institutions and because they are necessary for the bene esse of a future unified church.

All of this is offered against the backdrop of a deep understanding of Reformation history and what he calls the "tragedy of the Reformation." This is not to say that the Reformation was unnecessary or that its message with regard to the Gospel is to be in any way abandoned. Rather, the tragedy lies in our all-too-easy acceptance of the divisions among the churches as a permanent condition rather than a temporary exile (e.g., this).

Whether one approves of everything Braaten has to say or not (and almost everyone is bound to object at some point or another), he does make a compelling case for the ecumenical imperative along with some intriguing suggestions for how to proceed in fulfilling it.