The aim of this book is to present the essentials of confessional Lutheran theology in an ecumenical and pluralistic age. The old Lutheranism will not do as the author says. The identity to strive for is evangelical and catholic or orthodox. The author feels that the LCMS is stuck in the period of seventeenth century Lutheran orthodoxy and appeals too much to the Book of Concord. The end result is that he feels we spend too much time as LCMS Lutherans talking what makes us different from other traditions, especially Reformed Protestant to the one side and Roman Catholic to the other side. Thus, he believes the LCMS and WELS tend to be anti-ecumenical because of this approach.
In Chapter One, Lutheran Identity, he spends a lot of time taking on what he feels is a big Lutheran weakness, reducing everything in Christianity to single principle. As Lutherans that principle is easily identified among us as the article of justification by faith alone. It is said quite frequently among us that justification by faith alone is the article upon which the church stands or falls. The author sees this as real weakness and believes that a systematic theology that claims to be evangelical, catholic, and orthodox is based on the twin towers of Trinity and Christology. He believes that emphasis on this chief article has come down to us from Luther's spiritual encounter with his conscience and the Bible. He poses the question what if later Lutherans do not share this same experience---What happens then to the doctrine of justification? Does it enjoy the same status? At least a suggestion is made that the doctrine of justification might not have been as important to Melanchthon because he wasn't nearly as troubled of a soul as Luther.
In Chapter Two, Ecclesiology, he seeks to give a starting point for the definition of the church suggesting that it must be "Jesus' message of the kingdom of God and it must envision the world as the field of its mission." The weakness of AC Article VII as the author sees it is that it is only a partial definition of the church. "The congregation of the saints in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered" is only half of the equation. What is missing is the church's orientation to the kingdom of God and of her missionary vocation in world history. As a result, the author feels that present-day Lutheranism suffers from this definition because mission is simply tacked on as an optional activity and is not at the core of the church according to Article VII. Again as he says, "The being of the church is to exist as the function of the kingdom of God in the open field of world history."
Chapter Two also has a prediction he makes about the Lutheran future. His prediction is that if Lutherans don't join with the Catholics and the Orthodox we will be in serious trouble. Ecumenism is a must in the day and age in which we live. He makes the point that we can't afford to go without the Catholic and Orthodox traditions of doctrine, worship, spirituality and church life otherwise we will be eventually engulfed by the surrounding neo-pagan culture now taking over both the Liberal and Evangelical forms of Protestantism. This leads him to the conclusion that the JDDJ (Joint Declaration of the Doctrine of Justification) was a great step in the right direction.
Chapter Three, Ecumenism, points out that Christians are no longer regarding each other as strangers and enemies, but rather as brothers and sisters who belong to the same Christian family, however dysfunctional the family may appear. He brings up the letter sent to the pope signed by the president of the LCMS, who I assume was Dr. Gerald Kieschnick, which was signed, "Your brother in Christ." He mentions that some old-guard conservatives in the LCMS were infuriated by this and that is just show the lack of ecumenism among the LCMS. He then brings up some interesting points about Roman Catholics that they don't really believe what we think they believe. Given more time this would be interesting to unpack. The way Braaten sees it is that Roman Catholics and Lutherans have two different theological systems but what they are saying is not that much different. They both are faithful to the Gospel from his perspective or at least not as far off as might be assumed. The obstacles to unity are thus miniscule. Obviously, for Braaten who has a favorable view to the JDDJ that should not be a church-dividing issue between Lutherans and Catholics. About the only issue he is willing to grant as a church dividing issue between Rome and Lutherans is papal infallibility and its claim to universal jurisdiction.
Chapter Four, Evangelization, Braaten who thankfully has been critical of the ELCA's stance on human sexuality, mentions that theologians must be critical of the church bureaucracy especially as the church loses its primary mission of evangelization of the world. He mentions that for a church who takes its cues from Martin Luther who wrote the 95 Theses, church theologians can't afford to play politics and not speak God's critical Word of Law and Gospel. Further, he criticizes not only Lutheran bureaucracy but also the Lutheran confessions stating that they do not project a vision of world evangelization. Somewhat of embarrassment is that Johann Gerhard put forward the incredible notion that the Great Commission of Jesus was fully accomplished in the age of the apostles! Contrary to that mistaken notion Braaten believes it is essential that the Church of God carries out its divine mission to evangelize the nations. He includes a very good synopsis of how the church's mission is threatened by relativism and pluralism.
Chapter 5, Ethics, praises the Lutheran doctrine of the Two Kingdoms with one caveat---that the Lutherans realize that faith and politics are not separate. He makes a wonderful point that the two kingdoms are not to be totally separate for if that were true then Jesus would not have been crucified by the Roman government and John the Baptist would not have lost his head to King Herod. It is faith's public expression that has been responsible for a number of the Christian martyrs. Braaten encourages Lutherans to remember that the Reformation began as an act of civil disobedience. Luther was asked to recant and he did not. He defied the emperor. So Braaten states that there will be times it will be necessary to resist temporal authorities, to break human laws that violate the justice of God. There is a time to refuse to bear arms in a manifestly unjust war. There will be times when Christians must conscientiously object even if it means going to prison, paying a fine, or suffering ridicule and exclusion.
In his final Chapter on Eschatology Braaten believes that this is an important chapter that may be last in the book but can't be last in our theological system. In fact it must be at the beginning of Christian theology. He quotes Karl Barth who said, "Christianity that is not entirely and altogether eschatology has entirely and altogether nothing to do with Christ." Eschatology is extremely important otherwise everything gets reduced down to ethical statements. Braaten is critical of those churches that collapse their entire eschatology down to the apocalyptic future because it is fails to see that we are those upon whom the end of the ages has come. We live in a tension of the "now" and the "not yet." Those churches which collapse everything into the future have lost sight of the coming Kingdom of God in the incarnation of Christ and his sacramental presence in the church.
Overall, this book is worth reading to get a different perspective on issues that divide churches and what ecumenism is doing these days. If anything just to know where we can agree and unite and where we dare not unite for the sake of false unity. It also holds up a mirror for those of us in the LCMS concerning our beliefs and that can only help sharpen our theological acumen and defense of the Gospel.
The Rev. Ryan E. Mills is Senior Pastor of Our Savior Lutheran Church, Cheyenne, WY and a contributor to LHP Quarterly Book Review (12/28/2012).