Alberto L. GARCIA and Susan K. WOOD, editors. Critical Issues in Ecclesiology: Essays in Honor of Carl E. Braaten. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2011. xvi + 239 pages. $50.00 pb. ISBN 978-0-8028-6671-4.
Reviewed by Robert P. RUSSO, Lourdes University, Sylvania, OH 43560

The essays in this publication stand as more than a festschrift to the great Lutheran theologian, Carl E. Braaten. They signify the power of much of his ecclesial and ecumenical thinking, which has at times been criticized for the willingness to reunite with the Roman Catholic Church. Editors Alberto L. Garcia and Susan K. Wood have selected a wide array of essays from those who have worked intimately with Braaten. The larger hope of the editors is that the essays “will ‘stimulate fresh thinking’ and renew a ‘passion for mission’ within the Great Tradition and thereby honor Carl Braaten. If so, this volume will have achieved its purpose” (p. xii). Although both the editors and contributors achieve their goal of honoring Braaten, the reader may at times wonder if the essays encompass more of the essayists’ views, as opposed to Braaten’s. In either case, the reader—be they Lutheran, Protestant, or Roman Catholic—will come away with a sense that interdenominational healing has already occurred and that, although there will always be differences, “we [all] affirm the canonical Scriptures and the Apostolic tradition and are committed to the ethical integrity of our witness, right belief in terms of our doctrine, and authentic worship of God in our liturgy” (p. x).

This publication contains eleven essays from theologians of various faiths, including Robert W. Jenson, Gabriel Fackre, Joseph L. Mangina, and James M. Childs. The topics are equally diverse, and include ecumenism and atonement, freedom, authority and the universal priesthood, and Lutheran notions of ecclesiology. In Frank C. Senn’s essay, entitled “Rome, Reformation, and Reunion Revisited,” we learn of a truncated article of Braaten’s from 1966, “which reported that Professor Braaten was urging a Protestant ‘return to Rome’ and calling on his ‘fellow Protestants to look upon the reformation as an event in history which, having accomplished the reforms it set out to bring about, must now become past history’” (p. 23). What Braaten really advocated was a reunion with, but not a return to Catholicism. Senn later contrasts the Pelikan and Tillichian understanding of “Catholic substance” and “Protestant Principle” in Luther’s Reformation, citing that “Catholic substance affirms that there is no public worship of God without forms…[while the] Protestant principle holds that the actual forms of worship are not laid down in Scripture and are matters of indifference…” (p. 28). The greater point here is that although disagreements may occur, we are still called to a Universal brotherhood that transcends each denomination.

In Alberto L. Garcia’s essay entitled, “The Local Church: A Critical Point of Departure for a World Ecclesiology,” we learn that Braaten considers a true ecumenical, communion ecclesiology to be a priority in the local parish. Garcia, in citing Braaten’s Mother Church, believes that “[t]he local congregations have ontological priority because it is there where the church of God is concretely actualized through the preaching of the Word of God and the administration of the sacraments” (p. 120). Garcia also questions how the witness of local communions of faith can be used to build a world ecclesiology based upon the Holy Spirit. He later draws on his, and Braaten’s, notions of Cuban exiles to portray the separation between Catholics and Lutherans, stating that “Lutherans are Catholics in exile. Some exiles hope to go home again when all the conditions are favorable. Others do not care to go home” (p. 127).

This work is highly recommended, and should be considered by any serious student of ecumenism and ecclesiology. It is well-written and sourced, and representative of a diversity of opinions. This volume could have been a definitive festschrift to Braaten. However, as I mentioned in my opening paragraph, the reader may be confused at times as to whether they are reading Braaten’s or the essayists’ point of view. It would also have been noteworthy to have an introductory essay from Braaten, or at least his annotations to each essay. In either scenario, this publication is an excellent resource for those hoping for the peace of those who are “exiled” from the Universal Church.

TO ORDER BOOKS: - Continuum - Crossroad - Eerdmans Publishing - Liturgical Press - Orbis Books