Braaten on ELCA Sexuality Proposal

Lutheran theologian Carl Braaten has released a critique of the latest ELCA proposal on human sexuality. Pastor Zip has it here. He regards it as a muddled confusion of law and gospel. Here’s a sampling–be sure to read the whole thing.

1) This draft social statement identifies two doctrines as foundational for a Lutheran understanding of sexuality: the incarnation of God and justification by faith. There is no doubt that these two doctrines are basic to a Lutheran understanding of salvation. However, in Lutheran theology soteriology is not the primal basis for the ethics of sex, marriage, and family. That would be to confuse law and gospel. Creation and law come before gospel and church, both in the Scriptures and in the Creeds (Apostles’ and Nicene). To put the matter quite simply, the Old Testament comes before the New Testament and the First Article of the Creed comes before the Second and the Third Articles. Lutheran systematic theology has traditionally observed this biblical and creedal structure, both in the order of knowledge (ordo cognoscendi) and in the order of reality (ordo essendi). The doctrine of creation comes before the doctrine of redemption; law comes before gospel. The ethics of sex is not primarily a gospel issue; it is a matter of law in the first instance.1

2) The common human structures of life such as marriage and the family, labor and the economic order, the nation and the state are universal dimensions of human existence. They are created by God and experienced by all human beings and societies apart from the Scriptures and outside the covenant communities of Israel and the Church. The knowledge of what is right and wrong, good and bad, is revealed by God through these structures, by means of the way God has ordered them. No Lutheran theology has ever proceeded to deal with the matters addressed by the Ten Commandments (especially the Second Table of the Law) as though only Christians are endowed with moral discernment. In spite of the universal condition of sin, reason and conscience are not so depraved as to be incapable of grasping the universal morality expressed in the Decalogue (the Ten Words of God).2

3) The early church found itself in a life-and-death struggle against gnosticism (e.g., Marcion). Gnosticism negated the doctrine of creation and God’s covenant with Israel. Gnosticism based its understanding of theology and ethics exclusively on the New Testament, on the gospel and the church, denying the priority and relevance of creation and law. Like Marcionitic gnosticism this social statement virtually ignores the Old Testament, the Genesis story of creation, God’s covenant with Israel, and the giving of the Mosaic law. It starts straightaway with the incarnation of God and justification by faith, that is, with the gospel of salvation in Christ rather than with the law of creation mediated through nature and history. I can think of no example of such an approach in the history of Lutheran theology and ethics. Lutherans have typically followed the Catholic tradition in the way it orders the concepts of “Creation,” “Law,” “Gospel,” and “Church” in the process of constructing theological ethics — political, social, economic, ecological, and sexual. The living God is the Creator of all things; God is doing this now in an ongoing way (creatio continua).3

… 5) This document claims that the doctrines of the incarnation and justification form the theological foundations of human sexuality. However, it is not possible to argue from these particular soteriological premises to establish relevant norms, standards, rules, or principles regarding sexual behavior. According to Luther and the Lutheran tradition God governs and rules the world through the law in the struggle against sin all over the world. This activity of God does not bring about human salvation. Only the gospel of Christ accomplishes that through the power of the Holy Spirit. The law has a different function than the gospel; the law is first and then the gospel. It is not the function of the gospel to instruct human beings about sex, marriage, and family. That is the function of the law. For this reason many human beings who are not Christians are often better examples of God-pleasing behavior in matters of sex, marriage, and family. Even many pagans with no knowledge of Christ put Christians to shame — they live chaste lives, their marriages are exemplary, and their families are strong — because God is working through the law of creation (lex creationis) to address them, and they are able to respond to the divine commands through their reason and conscience.

6) As a “teaching document” this Draft claims that it takes into account the contributions from the ecumenical partners of the ELCA and other Lutheran churches throughout the world. That would be wonderful if it were so. However, it is conspicuously silent on what the mainstream of the classical Christian tradition has had to teach on the subject of human sexuality and homosexuality. This Draft confines its treatment of the controversial issues to what concerns “this church.” No other voice is taken into consideration. There is no acknowledgment that the intention of Lutheranism is to be part of the great tradition of churchly theology reaching back to Irenaeus, Athanasius, Augustine, and Aquinas. …

8) This document is worried about legalism. Some Lutherans are so afraid of legalism that they have thrown the baby out with the bath water. The root of the problem is confusion about the relation between law and gospel. Lutherans have said that we are justified by faith alone, apart from the works of the law. Fine! Does that mean that the works of the law are bad and that the only good works are those motivated by the gospel? That has led to antinomianism in Lutheranism. Luther was the first to blow the whistle on antinomianism. Antinomianism means that the law is silenced with regard to ordering the Christian life. Antinomianism is a famous word in the Lutheran lexicon. The authors choose not to mention it or define it. Why? Legalism is not much of a problem in the ELCA today; antinomianism is. The other side of the coin of antinomianism is “gospel reductionism.”

9) This 50-page essay on sexuality scarcely makes any reference to the Ten Commandments (once on page 14) or the sixth commandment. Here is an example of a statement that begs for an explanation: “A Lutheran sexual ethic looks to the death and resurrection of Christ as the source for the values that guide it.” (p. 11) This assertion sits there without commentary. I have no idea what the Task Force is trying to say. Taken at face value, it is not a true statement. A Lutheran sexual ethic is not derived from soteriology or the Christology on which it is based. The social statement asserts: “We ground our ethics . . . in the living voice of the gospel.” (p.5) Again, no mention of the law! At one point this Draft states: “Both the Apostle Paul and Martin Luther emphasized the important role of the law to reveal to us God’s intentions and promises for our lives, and to constrain, support, and guide us in daily living.” (p. 6) That is a true statement, but this Draft does not follow the lead of Paul and Luther. It replaces the law with the gospel, with talk about the incarnation and justification as the foundation of ethics, including the ethics of sex.

10) This Draft affirms that “the primary source for distinctively Christian insight is Scripture.” (p. 14) It goes on to state: “Scripture cannot be used in isolation as the norm for Christian life and the source of knowledge for the exercise of moral judgment. Scripture sheds light on human experience and culture.” (p. 15) Over against Scripture the Draft refers to “society’s changing circumstances and growing knowledge” as well as to “insights of culture and human knowledge.” In the balance the latter clearly outweighs the former. If Scripture is really the “primary source” of Christian teaching, one would expect that its most relevant passages on human sexuality would be exegeted with extreme care. The most important verses are not even quoted.

3 thoughts on “Braaten on ELCA Sexuality Proposal

  1. The proclamation of an antinomian Law/Gospel inversion by the ELCA from Dr. Braaten is almost 15 years too late, in my opinion. This heresy was codified way back in the ELCA’s second working draft on sexuality: “This church’s ‘Confession of Faith’ begins with the Gospel, instead of the sequence implied in the phrase ‘Law and Gospel’. . .” (Human Sexuality, Working Draft: a Possible Social Statement of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, October 1994). To my knowledge, this antimomian sentiment had never been officially repudiated by the ELCA. As for those who espouse such heresy, should the Office of the Keys be applied to them? Should they repent? Naw. . . . that’s Law! That’s Legalism! We’ve thrown away that key. Now all can be absolved, unrepentence notwithstanding!

  2. I agree. The church seems to be more interested in culturally getting things right, using secular sources to solidify their thoughts. the sense of justice is so great that the church neglects God’s justice, and intentions. We need the balance teaching of law and gospel, not gospel no law.

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