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1 Growing Up in Madagascar: 1930-1946 1
2 Augustana Academy and St. Olaf College: 1946-1951 9
3 The University of Paris-Sorbonne: 1951-1952 14
4 Luther Seminary: 1952-1955 18
5 Harvard Divinity School: 1955-1957 29
6 The University of Heidelberg: 1957-1958 35
7 Lutheran Church of the Messiah and Luther Seminary: 1958-1961 44
8 Lutheran School of Theology, Maywood Campus: 1961-1967 56
9 Mansfield College - Oxford University: 1967-1968 73
10 Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago: 1968-1991 83
11 The Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology: 1991-2005 133
12 Postretirement Years: Sun City West, Arizona: 2005-2008 155
Appendix: Bibliography of the Publications of Carl E. Braaten 1962-2009 180
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My three siblings, Agnes, Arlene, and Folkvard, were born on the mission field in Madagascar. I was born in St. Paul while my parents were on furlough after a seven-year term of service as missionaries in the southern part of the island. My father, Torstein Folkvard Braaten, and my mother, Clara Agnes (Titterud), were commissioned to serve as missionaries by the Norwegian Lutheran Church in America, one of the predecessor bodies of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The standing joke was that I was the only one in the family legally qualified to become president of the United States. My father was born in Norway and came to America at the age of nineteen. After graduating from Concordia College in Morehead, Minnesota, and Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, he married Clara Titterud, and then volunteered for missionary service. Together they served as missionaries in Madagascar from 1922 to 1956. They spent many beautiful retirement years in Northfield, Minnesota. My mother loved to attend musical concerts at St. Olaf College, and my father was equally avid in attending theological lectures. Every morning during their coffee break they listened to the chapel services broadcast by the college's radio station, WCAL. It was a much deserved change from their hard years on the mission field.
Madagascar is the fourth-largest island in the world, 1,000 miles in length, with a population of sixteen million, predominantly mixed Asian and African. The Malagasy language is of Malayo-Polynesian origin, spoken in many dialects throughout the island. Many of the natives still practice the traditional animistic religion that has a strong emphasis on maintaining contact with the dead. Diviners, otherwise known as witch doctors, are believed to possess the ability to initiate contact with the ancestors of the living. Christianity was brought to Madagascar by the Protestant London Missionary Society, which gained many converts, opened schools, and translated the Bible into the Malagasy language. Today about 45 percent of the people are Christian, half Roman Catholic and the other half Lutheran, Reformed, and Anglican. Madagascar became a French colony in 1895, and after a bitterly fought national uprising it gained full independence in 1960.
Through an agreement with the Anglican and Reformed mission societies, the American Lutheran missionaries were awarded the mission territory in the far south of Madagascar. At the very southeastern tip of Madagascar lies a beautiful harbor town called Fort Dauphin. That was the headquarters of the Lutheran mission, the place where I grew up from year one until I left the island after my junior year of high school. Each missionary was assigned an outlying district in which to work, to preach the gospel, teach the Bible, build churches, open schools, train evangelists and catechists, dispense health care, plant gardens, and exemplify a Christian lifestyle.
We missionary children lived together in a boarding school while our parents were at their mission stations. Twice each year we lived with our parents during a short and a long vacation period. At the home for missionary children we related to each other as brothers and sisters under the supervision of a matron. Even as teens, no dating was permitted. Nor was any overt exchange of thoughts or feelings about sex. We attended a schoolhouse with two rooms, one for the little kids (first through sixth grades) and one for the bigger kids (seventh through twelfth grades). We learned the four R's. The fourth was religion, which meant Christianity. We studied the Bible and memorized lengthy passages, especially the psalms, the nativity story, the Sermon on the Mount, the fourteenth and seventeenth chapters of John's Gospel, the eighth chapter of Romans, as well as various other Bible verses. The Lutheran principle of sola Scriptura was observed without question. Yet, as I reflect on the practice of Bible reading and interpretation, it was never done solo, but always in conjunction with Luther's Small Catechism and the study of church history, learning about the inspiring lives of the saints, martyrs, and missionaries.
The Lutheran missionaries came from the tradition of late-nineteenth-century Norwegian pietism. This meant that the Bible was treated not so much as a source book of orthodox doctrines but more as the living word of God that speaks to the heart. Yet, I can recall none of our teachers speaking disparagingly of "dead orthodoxy" as some pietists did, as though pure doctrine should be held in low regard. The theology of these evangelical Lutheran missionaries was what I would call "neo-orthodox pietism." One of their heroes was Ole Hallesby, professor of systematic theology at the Free Faculty of Theology in Oslo (1909-1952). Some of his many writings were the most treasured in my father's library, especially Hallesby's books Prayer and Why I Became a Christian.
Our teachers were not biblical scholars, nor did they buttress the Bible with theories of plenary inspiration and verbal inerrancy. We were spared what Philip Melanchthon called "the wrath of theologians" (rabies theologorum), who turn the Bible into a battleground to prove its infallibility. I recall learning about Ussher's chronology and a literal six-day creation, but never thought either was that important to believe. Of course, the missionaries taught that the Bible is the infallible Word of God, not merely a record of human thoughts about God. Therefore, the authority of the Bible was the bedrock of the entire missionary enterprise. Years later, upon entering the seminary, I learned that Lutheran theologians in America were engaged in a fierce "battle over the Bible." Some accepted and some rejected the modern methods of higher criticism. Nothing in my religious upbringing prevented me from being open to all the modern methods of interpretation, provided they rendered the scriptural texts more intelligible. Just as we were taught to confess the full humanity of the incarnate Word of God, it seemed to follow that we should also accept the full humanity of the written Word of God. Accordingly, the Bible is subject to our human ways of knowing, like every other ancient document written in Hebrew or Greek.
Missionary children grew up in a multicultural context. Growing up amidst Malagasy, French, Métis, Chinese, Indians, Arabs, Norwegians, and Americans, we were exposed to many religions, languages, colors, cultures, and cuisines. Recent decades have witnessed strained and noisy clamors and special pleading for multiculturalism in American neighborhoods, churches, and schools, as though that would create a panacea of greater justice and equality in society. Then I realized, rather belatedly, what a gift it was for children of foreign missionaries to have acquired a global multicultural perspective in a perfectly natural way.
The missionaries established a school for their children in which all the subjects were taught in English. The only unusual thing about it was that every school day opened with morning devotions — Bible reading, prayers, and hymn singing. After devotions we studied the Bible, the history of Christianity, and Lutheran doctrine. I was not an exceptional student by any means. I was not an avid reader, though I was quick in arithmetic. I can remember counting the minutes for the bell to ring to mark the end of the school day — and the signal that it was time for sports. Our team sports were soccer and volleyball. Tennis was my first love; I got my first racquet at the age of nine. Since we were in Madagascar during the years of World War II, our tennis came to an end when there were no replacements for worn-out gut strings and tennis balls. Other sports included bike riding, mountain climbing, swimming, body surfing, sailing, hunting, and fishing — we loved the outdoors and were very active.
The missionaries took the third commandment very seriously. The weekly routine of work and chores was interrupted by long hours of Sunday worship. The church services were in the Malagasy language, often lasting two hours or more. The sermons seemed endless because we did not understand much of the church talk. We could speak and understand quite a bit of the ordinary language of daily life, salted with the usual four-letter words. The Malagasy are a very musical people and love to sing hymns — never skipping any stanzas like we do in the States. They dressed up for church in their finest clothes, and would be shocked to see the casual and sloppy way many of their fellow Christians in America dress when they go to church. After a lengthy church service with the Malagasy Christians, we attended Sunday school for missionary children in English. In our early teens we had to take two years of confirmation class. The day I was confirmed was the first time I wore a pair of long pants that my mother sewed. Confirmation was a very solemn occasion. We learned our lessons, but beyond that we were made aware that the promises we would be asked to make were decisions for life. The Lutheran missionaries did not advocate the kind of "born-again theology" that denies baptism to infants. Confirmation was a time when teenagers confirmed the vows their parents made on their behalf when they were baptized as babies. My mother took me aside and asked if I realized the seriousness of the vows I was about to make. I said I did, but did I really? I have often felt that growing up in this missionary colony was like being in a pressure cooker. Yet, I am thankful that my parents and teachers never used any coercive measures to transmit the Christian faith to their children.
When I became a pastor of the Lutheran Church of the Messiah in North Minneapolis, I tried to teach confirmation class exactly as it had been taught to me — Rambo style. It was not easy, because the confirmands did not take naturally to the idea that Christianity was something to be learned by heart. I did not back off. It came as a shock to me to discover that many of my fellow pastors gave up expecting students to learn by rote Luther's Small Catechism and important passages of Scripture. They thought it was possible to learn the meanings without memorizing the words. They seemed to think that if children are required to learn Christian teachings by rote, they will later rebel and leave the church. I was convinced that those for whom confirmation comes too easily are the first ones to use it as a graduation ceremony. Polls indicate that many are confirmed but few remain with the church. Why? Taking the kids bowling and on hayrides is a poor substitute for serious Christian education.
Once in my confirmation class in Madagascar we discussed the Bible passage "And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12). I asked the confirmation teacher, who happened to be my uncle, K. F. Braaten, the superintendent of the mission, whether that means that all the heathen in Madagascar who die without having heard the gospel of salvation would go to hell. He answered wisely, as I think back on it: "Our task is to preach the gospel so that all may believe and be saved. But it may well be that those who die without having any chance to hear the gospel may in the end be given a second chance." The second chance he had in mind was probably based on the belief that when Christ descended into hell he "preached to the spirits in prison" (1 Pet. 3:19). Who were these spirits? They were people who had never heard the story of salvation in their lifetime. In reality, it was not a second chance; it was in effect their first chance. This was not, of course, an idea my uncle invented on the spot, but one taught by some seventeenth-century Lutheran dogmaticians. Such an idea was more than I could comprehend at the time, but the answer stayed with me, so much so that later I adopted a version of it as my own.
Where we grew up in south Madagascar there were only two kinds of Christians, Lutherans and Catholics. Our friends were children of French colonialists, people in government and business. They were almost all Catholics. I knew nothing about ecumenism, but I learned later that the personal experience of coming to know persons of other churches lies at the root of ecumenism. The word got back to our parents that my brother and I were fraternizing with French girls, and they were Catholics. Uffda! My father called my brother Martin and me into his office to ask about this. Is it true? He told us about the differences between Lutherans and Catholics — we believe this and they believe that. I do not remember his exact words. Nothing bad came of it. I believe that our father was more curious than worried. The fraternization continued without the missionaries' blessings. Since the missionary children lived in the same dormitory, it was considered taboo for them to fraternize. The only alternative was for the guys to venture outside the missionary compound to meet the French girls; truth be told, what transpired was all very innocent stuff.
The Lutheran mission in Madagascar proved to be a huge success. The missionaries finally worked themselves out of a job. The time came when the Malagasy Lutheran Church could govern itself, support itself, and propagate the faith without the supervising presence of missionaries. In China this same sort of thing was called the "Three-Self Movement." That was severely criticized by both Protestants and Catholics, because it was organized under the aegis of the Communist regime. The Communists wanted to rid Christianity of all foreign influence. Whatever their malevolent intent, it has turned out to be providential, because the spread of Christianity in China is exploding beyond anyone's wildest imagination. This is exactly what the world missionary movement has been trying to accomplish from the beginning, to transform foreign missions into indigenous churches.
The Malagasy Lutheran Church that the missionaries left behind now reflects the kind of theology and church practices they taught. This means that the Malagasy Christians live conspicuously in a countercultural manner. In a polygamous society the Christian men are permitted to have only one wife. On the occasion of baptism adults are expected to get rid of their idols and amulets that supposedly ensure health and happiness. No longer do they consult witch doctors as mediums to communicate with their ancestors. Christians who lapse back into heathen practices are subject to strict codes of church discipline. The missionaries were very leery of every form of syncretism. Not even drums were allowed in church worship; the sounds and rhythms seemed too reminiscent of the pagan ritual dances.
When I left Madagascar in 1946, World War II had just come to an end. Not a tear did I shed when the time came to leave the island. I could not wait to get back to America and the benefits of civilization I had been deprived of during my teen years. When I landed on American soil, I felt that I had come home at last — the land of my birth. I have always been a sports nut, and am so even today. As a child I longed for things Madagascar could not provide — basketball and tennis. As soon as I came to the United States, the first thing I did was to buy a tennis racquet. When I went to Augustana Academy for my senior year of high school, I spent all my spare hours in the gym trying to catch up on basketball. It was too late; I soon discovered I would never excel at either sport. Yet, as I approach my eightieth year, I still play a competitive game of tennis, both singles and doubles.
In spite of the limited educational resources at the school (no science lab, for example) for missionary children in Fort Dauphin, almost all went on to graduate from college, many went to the seminary to become pastors, and some returned to Madagascar as missionaries. For some reason I happened to be the only one of the missionary children to earn a doctorate in theology and to become an academic theologian. This I cannot explain because there were no role models among the missionaries; not one had an advanced degree in theology, and none of my teachers encouraged the study of theology. I do remember, however, that my father read whatever theological books he could lay his hands on, and when I gave him copies of books I wrote, he read every word of them, underlining and making copious marginal comments. When later I scanned the pages for his comments, I discovered that they were always thoughtful.
Excerpted from Because of Christ by Carl E. Braaten Copyright © 2010 by Carl E. Braaten. Excerpted by permission of William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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