Chapter 6: Emil Brunner
When neo-orthodoxy, neo-reformation theology, the new Biblical theology, or theological positivism is spoken of in America, the first name that comes to mind is that of Karl Barth. Yet when one undertakes to state the position in question, it is more likely to sound like that of Emil Brunner.
Brunner associated himself so closely with Barth’s theology that he was long taken as its spokesman in this country. In 1934, disagreements between them came to focus in public debate, (The essays in question are Brunner’s "Nature and Grace" and Barth’s "No!" published in Natural Theology, Baillie, ed.) but Brunner has ever since then continued to stress their agreements rather than their differences. Only gradually has the full meaning of these differences become clearly apparent.
In approaching Brunner’s theological position, we are fortunate that it is available to us in a recently finished systematic form, complete with methodological prolegomenon. (Of the three volumes of Brunner’s Dogmatics, the first two, which are most directly relevant to methodological questions, are in English. They constitute Brunner’s doctrines of God and of creation and redemption. The third volume, published in Switzerland in 1960, contains his treatment of the Holy Spirit and eschatology. The methodological section of the Dogmatics is supplemented in a valuable way by Revelation and Reason: The Christian Doctrine of Faith and Knowledge. Other books by Brunner have been used only incidentally.) Brunner’s work runs to some 1,200 pages, but in comparison with Barth’s monumental and still unfinished opus, it is a model of clarity, brevity, and simplicity. Basically, Brunner’s Dogmatics is only a clarification and reorganization of the ideas that he has been expressing for several decades. Hence, it can be used here quite safely as the basis for expounding his general position.
Brunner has formulated his theology as a third way, rejecting both liberalism and orthodoxy, both subjectivism and objectivism. (Emil Brunner, The Theology of Crisis, p. 22. This third way is the thene of the entire book. See also Brunner, The Divine-Human Encounter, Ch. 1.) Liberalism, he declares, has become man-centered and has sought to subject the mystery of God to human reason. As a result, it has become an expression of human religiosity rather than of Christian faith, and its spokesmen have substituted the science of religion for Christian theology.
On the other hand, Protestant orthodoxy has treated the human words of the Bible idolatrously. It has failed to distinguish God’s Word from the all too human ideas about science, history, and cosmology that abound in the Bible. Hence, it has been forced to defend all manner of indefensible beliefs or to allegorize statements that are plainly intended to bear a literal meaning. In its exaltation of the book it has obscured the Christ. (The Theology of Crisis, pp. 19-20; The Word and the World, pp. 92-104; Dogmatics I, p.34.)
Brunner’s alternative is that we should recognize that in the Bible we have God’s Word in a very human medium. He likes to quote Luther’s statement that the Bible is the crib in which Christ is laid. (The Theology of Crisis, p. 19; The Word and the World, p. 94.) Jesus Christ is God’s self-disclosure to man. The Bible expresses man’s hope for, and witness to, that disclosure. Our need is to encounter God in Christ, not to believe that certain propositions recorded in the Bible are precisely accurate.
These ideas, so exciting thirty years ago, have lost much of their interest today just because of their success in refashioning the thought of the church. Almost all the theologians treated in this book could agree in general with what has been said, but this does not preclude the widest variety of interpretations among them. Hence, we must ask much more precisely what Brunner means and how he understands the implications of his teaching.
The rest of this chapter is devoted to explaining and criticizing Brunner s distinctive formulation of the third way beyond liberalism and orthodoxy. Brunner holds that the great error of liberalism (and some forms of orthodoxy) has been its effort to begin thinking outside the sphere of faith. In contrast, Brunner wishes to develop a theology that begins with faith and is wholly the servant of faith. (Dogmatics I, pp. 3, 8-81.)or this reason, we will first attempt to understand what Brunner means by faith and how he understands it to arise. Second, since theology is a cognitive activity arising from faith and bound to faith, (Ibid., pp. 28-29, 38-40, 62; Revelation and Reason, p.40.) we must see how Brunner understands faith as articulating itself reflectively. Third, since theology as a reflective enterprise claims to speak truth, (Dogmatics I, pp. 14, 43, 50, 60, 61, 63, 80, 84; Revelation and Reason, pp. 3, 362.) we must learn how Brunner justifies this claim and what this means for the method by which theology is developed. We can then turn to a brief consideration of some major doctrines that are affirmed by Brunner to see how they articulate the implications of his method. Finally, we will critically analyze Brunner’s position to determine whether the doctrines he affirms are actually warranted by the method he proposes.
Brunner understands faith as the human response to God’s revelation of himself in Jesus Christ. (Dogmatics I, pp. 61, 309; Revelation and Reason, pp. 32-37.) This revelation is a definitely supernatural act. (Dogmatics II, pp. 328, 330-332, 340, 356; Revelation and Reason, pp. 40, 99-100.) To regard Jesus as revealing God because of his ideal human obedience does not, in Brunner’s opinion, safeguard the distinctive teaching of Christian faith. In the person of Jesus, God as Person meets man. (Dogmatics I p. 61; Revelation and Reason, p. 409.) This is the central affirmation of Christianity, and everything hinges upon it.
But on what grounds is this to be believed? The authority of Scripture cannot be appealed to, for this depends upon its witness to revelation, not on independent evidence of its inerrancy. (Dogmatics II p. 343; also I p. 110; Revelation and Reason, pp. 169ff.) Obviously, philosophy cannot help us, since no philosophy could demonstrate such a supernatural event. Hence, it seems we must appeal in some way to personal experience. But the appeal to personal experience has usually been understood either subjectively or objectively. When it is understood subjectively, as is primarily the case with Schleiermacher and Bultmann, theology can deal only with Christian experience as such and surrenders its authentic focus on God and his acts. If it is understood objectively, as by orthodoxy and Barth, man’s responsibility before God is endangered. (Cf. Dogmatics III, pp. 245-252, for treatment of Barth and Bultmann in these terms.)
These consequences can be avoided if we revive the authentic Biblical understanding of the personal relationship between God and man. God meets or encounters man in Jesus Christ. This is neither an occurrence objective to man, nor an event within man’s private subj ectivity. It is a relationship between two persons that involves the personal centers of both. (Dogmatics, I, p. 61; Revelation and Reason, pp. 33, 134.)
In answer, then, to the question as to how we can know that God has supernaturally revealed himself in Jesus Christ, the unequivocal reply must be that we have encountered him there. (Dogmatics II, pp. 241,255.) If we have not done so, we cannot affirm the truth of Christian faith. There can be no rational proof to the unbeliever that Christian claims are true. By the same token, there is no need of rational defense of the truth for the believer. In this sense the starting point for Christian theology is frankly a-rational.
But this does not mean that Christian faith is irrational. It is clearly not rationalistic in the sense of deducing its content from universal principles of reason, but few thinkers today believe that any truth about life or the world can be learned in that way. Faith is entirely open to the use of reason in explicating its implications. (Dogmatics I, pp. 62, 79; Revelation and Reason, pp.16, 213; Emil Brunner, Man in Revolt: A Christian Anthropology, p. 61.) Hence, faith differs from the intention of philosophy and the natural sciences in its use of reason only in that the datum on which it rests in its entirety is not acknowledged as such by all men. (Revelation and Reason, p. 363.)
The essential difference between Brunner (and indeed most of the theologians to follow) and those treated in Part I lies precisely at this point. The latter may acknowledge a special experience that gives rise to the specific doctrines of faith, but they do so within a context that makes the occurrence of such special experiences intelligible on objectively established grounds. Brunner, by contrast, rests the entire case for Christian belief upon the occurrence of the encounter with God in Jesus Christ. Christian thinking begins only with and after this encounter.
We must further understand that the encounter is not subject to human control. A man cannot take certain steps and thereby place himself in the presence of God. It is God who encounters man, not man who encounters God. It is essential that man throughout recognize the priority of the act of God. Brunner unequivocally rejects any view that gives to man’s independent deeds a place in the scheme of salvation. (Dogmatics I, p. 310)
But this does not mean that man is a merely passive object upon which God acts. (Ibid., pp.311, 315; Revelation and Reason, p. 48.)When God encounters man, man is placed in the position of responding. He can accept or reject the grace proffered in Jesus Christ. (Dogmatics I, p. 338; III, p. 27; Man in Revolt, p.537.) Brunner unequivocally rejects any doctrine of predestination that denies to man the final responsibility for how he reacts to God’s offer. God’s act is always primary and unconditioned by human merit. But God’s act places man in a position of freedom and responsibility. His freedom is entirely conditioned by God’s prior act in encountering him, but his response is his own.
When man responds affirmatively to God’s offer of grace in Jesus Christ, he enters into the life of faith. This does not mean that he has infallible information heretofore denied him. But it does mean that he apprehends reality in a new way. (Dogmatics I, pp. 176, 308-309; II, pp. 154, 257; Revelation and Reason, pp. 49, 62, 425; Man in Revolt, pp. 65-66, 81.) First and foremost, for the first time he knows the living God. In the second place, he knows himself and his fellow Christians in a way that is quite impossible apart from faith. In the third place, he understands nature and natural man much more fully than the natural man can understand himself.
There is, then, a cognitive element in the encounter, but this is not of the sort that is usually meant by knowledge. (Dogmatics III, p. 294.) It can be regarded neither as the objective knowledge appropriate to the inanimate world nor as the subjective understanding appropriate to apprehending other persons, (Ibid., III, pp. 285-288, 292.) nor as the self-understanding on which the understanding of other subjects depends. (Ibid., III pp. 288-289.) In all these forms of knowledge, man is the agent and source of knowing. (Ibid., III p. 295.) Our autonomous self-understanding leads us to the limits of our being, where we know ourselves called to authentic existence and guilty for our failure to respond to that call. But none of the modes of cognition that we usually call knowledge enable us to discover the source of the call or to respond to it. (Ibid., III, p. 292.)
It is here at the boundary of our existence that we encounter the revelation of God in Jesus Christ as the answer to the question posed by our existential situation. Thereby we know the source of the call in God the creator and recognize our guilt as sin. At the same time we know our sin as forgiven in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. (Ibid., III, pp. 292-293.) This knowledge is a subjective understanding of ourselves, but only of ourselves as receiving our true being from the personal impartation of God. It is a knowledge of ourselves but not from ourselves, hence, a unique form of knowledge. We know ourselves in faith as known and loved by God. (Ibid., III, pp. 294-295. Thc discussion of faith and knowledge on which these two paragraphs are based is Brunner’s most recent effort to formulate his position on this point. Taken by itself, it could be understood to imply that theology can deal only with existence in faith as received from God and not with God directly. Since, however, his Dogmatics deals extensively with God, I assume that Brunner does not intend this understanding. The encounter, for him, gives knowledge of the God who encounters as well as of the self who is encountered. Otherwise, the criticisms he directs against Bultmann in this same volume would apply equally to his own position. (Dogmatics III, pp. 247 -- 249, 254) An anticipated new edition of Brunner’s Wahrheit als Begegnung (The Divine-Human Encounter) may clarify the obscurities that remain.
The central expression of the new understanding of faith is in prayer. Prayer continues the encounter relationship with God and expresses without describing the new apprehension of self and world. Thus prayer is the spontaneous language of faith. (Dogmatics I, p. 38.) However, prayer is by no means the only language appropriate to the man of faith.
The new understanding of God, self, and world that is given in the encounter can and must also be considered reflectively. Brunner shows that three motives have been at work in the church from early times, requiring such reflection. (Ibid., I pp. 9-13, 93-96.) First, there is the need to defend the faith against misinterpretations and distortions. Second, there is the need to instruct candidates for membership in the church. Third, there is the need to give guidance in the understanding of the Bible and to summarize its teaching.
These three functions are concerned with aiding Christians in the understanding of their faith. They presuppose the faith with which they deal. In so far as they replace the I-Thou relation with God by a reflective attitude toward that relation and what it signifies, they are even dangerous to faith. (Ibid., I, pp. 41,83.) But this reflection is a necessary danger, and it can be prevented from damaging faith by being constantly referred back to its center and goal in the encounter itself.
The reflective process is responsible not only to that upon which it reflects but also to the norms of reason that govern all reflection. It must live in the tension between these two authorities. (Ibid., I pp. 84, 85)If it pays too little attention to rational criteria, it will constitute poor reflection and be unable to give direction and clarification to Christian thought. If it pays too little attention to its source and goal in the encounter with God in Jesus Christ, it will be led into barren speculations which weaken rather than strengthen the faith that Christian reflection should serve.
The final outcome of reflection upon faith in the service of the church is dogmatics. Dogmatics aims at clarity and systematic comprehensiveness. (Ibid., I, p. 79.) But it aims at this in the service of the church, bound to faith itself as its decisive norm.
There are other theological tasks within the church that do not culmsnate in dogmatics. Dogmatics has as its function the clarification of the teaching of the church for believers. But Christian thinking must also be related to unbelievers. Hence, the church must also practice eristics on the one hand, and missionary theology on the other. (Ibid., I, pp.3, 98-103.)
Eristics may also be called apologetics, but this is unfortunate if it suggests defensiveness in relation to criticism. (Ibid., I p. 98.) The function of eristics is not to defend Christian faith but rather to attack the ideologies that oppose it. An important part of this attack may consist in distinguishing the faith itself from the teaching and the practice of the empirical church, both of which may be justifiably subject to criticism. But eristics makes no effort to prove the truth of Christian claims themselves. Attacks by Christian theologians such as Barth upon this whole enterprise are justified in so far as there was for a long time a tendency to regard the discussion with unbelief as a kind of prolegomenon to dogmatics itself. This is wholly inappropriate, since dogmatics is a believing thinking which in itself takes no account of unbelieving thinking. But from the perspective given in faith as articulated in dogmatics, the Christian thinker must undertake to unmask the errors of hostile beliefs. Pascal and Kierkegaard are the great examples of eristic theologians. (Ibid., I pp. 99-100, 103.)
Missionary theology is also addressed to the unbeliever from the viewpoint of faith. Its task is to make contact with the unbeliever where he actually stands with his questions and objections. Whereas eristics in its negative function attacks the errors of non-Christian views, missionary theology as the positive form of eristics attempts to remove the ohstacles that interfere with the understanding and acceptance of the gospel. (Ibid., I, p. 103.) It concerns itself with the condition of man apart from Christ, so that by illuminating that condition for the unbeliever, he may be brought to a sense of his need for Christ and to a willingness to acknowledge that need.
Having indicated something of the range of forms taken by believing reflection, we must turn to the question as to the norms by which every claim to Christian truth is to be judged. We have already seen that while rational criteria of consistency and comprehensiveness are recognized, the distinctive norm is loyalty to faith itself. But how is this loyalty to faith determined?
Systematically, the whole of Brunner’s theological work rests upon his answer to questions of this sort. He is clear and emphatic that theological judgments claim to be true (See references to n. 8.) and that this claim is warranted only by their loyalty to faith. At the same time he is equally clear and emphatic that faith is not in itself an assent to propositions. (Dogmatics I, pp. 28, 53; III, pp. 199, 205, 218-220; Revelation and Reason, pp. 9, 11.) Hence, the crucial question is that of the transition from faith to true theological propositions. To examine Brunner s answer to this question we must consider again his central category of the encounter as the locus in which revelation occurs, faith arises, and theological knowledge becomes possible. (The Divine-Human Encounter, Ch. 2.)
The knowledge that arises in me when another person discloses himself to me is entirely independent of my ability to articulate what I know of that person. But some articulation is possible and even natural. The spontaneous form of that articulation will be in expressions of affection, compassion, gratitude, or loyalty. We have seen that the spontaneous response to the encounter with God is prayer. But that is not the only form that articulation can or should take. I can and should tell others about this meeting, the person whom I have met, and that which I have learned about myself and my world through this meeting.
The language that is appropriate for speaking about the person who has disclosed himself to me is the I-It language of reflective discourse. To this degree it will fall short of expressing the true personalness of the one who has been met. Nevertheless, it can point to that personalness with greater or lesser success. The account of the new knowledge that I have gained In this meeting can also be more or less distorted, but the intention will be to speak truth.
Here lies the key to Brunner’s whole theological position. In Jesus Christ we meet God as Person, that is, God discloses himself to us as Person. If we respond in faith, we acknowledge him as Person and speak to him. In this encounter we gain knowledge of ourselves and of God, not of that sort which science seeks but the kind of knowledge we have of persons through personal relations. We can and should tell others what we have learned. To do so we will have to give up the I-Thou language of the encounter, and we will have to recognize that what we say will be more or less distorted, but the intention will be to speak truth.
Truth about a person, whether human or divine, cannot be tested in the same way as truth about things in the public world. Others may not have met that person. Even if they have met him, there may be differences in the way in which he discloses himself to them. But this does not mean that the affirmations made on the basis of that person’s self-disclosure are not true affirmations about that which exists in itself quite independently of the varying opinions of men.
This analogy of theological truth about God with truth about human persons is absolutely essential to Brunner’s thought. (This analogy is essential in spite of Brunner’s emphasis on the different origins and character of our knowledge of God and of other human persons. [Dogmatics III, pp. 293-296.] If the uniqueness stressed in these pages is pressed too far, Brunner’s whole position would have to be reconstructed.) Yet there are obviously special problems with which he knows that he must deal. God does not simply meet us as other persons meet us, not only in the sense that our organs of vision and hearing do not come into play in the same way, but also in the sense that the encounter with God is always mcdiated. (Revelation and Reason, p. 148.)The witness of Christian faith is that we meet God in Jesus Christ and not elsewhere.
Our meeting with Jesus Christ likewise is mediated and not direct, like our meeting with persons living with us on the earth. It is analogous, rather, to our becoming aware of persons through mutual friends or the writings of strangers. Such persons can become very important to us. They can even have a meaning for us that they do not have for those who tell us about them. But the encounter with them as persons is dependent upon the testimony of others and is fundamentally determined by the way in which these others have themselves encountered them. We must assume some fundamental trustworthiness of these witnesses if we are to suppose that they can mediate an encounter with a real person.
In our relations with Jesus Christ we are thus bound to the witness of early Christians preserved for us in the New Testament. It would seem, then, that we must first believe that the writers of the New Testament books were essentially honest and reliable witnesses before we can trust the encounter with Jesus Christ that they mediate. Roman Catholicism and Fundamentalist Protestantism have alike made much of this problem and have made the infallibility of church and Scripture respectively into the rational warrant for believing the testimony to Jesus.
Brunner refuses to follow this path. He must, therefore, affirm that the encounter with Jesus Christ is self-authenticating. Granting that it is mediated by the witness of others, Brunner teaches that we finally trust their witness because through it we have come to an encounter that is analogous with their own and that gives itself to us as real. (Dogmatics II, pp. 241, 255. At one place Brunner specifically argues that it is revelation’s disclosure of us to ourselves that authenticates it [pp. 257-259])
We may perhaps conjecture that there are analogies to this experience in other mediated encounters. I may, for example, approach the dialogues of Plato and of Xenophon without any prior knowledge of Socrates or any particular interest in him. I may also have no prior convictions as to whether Plato and Xenophon are presenting a real man or a fiction. Yet, while I am reading these testimonies to Socrates, Socrates may become for me so real and vital a figure that I no longer have any doubt of his historical actuality. I may be far more challenged by him than by Plato or Xenophon, through whom I have come to know him. I may even begin to judge Plato and Xenophon in terms of what I now feel to be the in-justices that they do to their master in their portrayals. Thus, paradoxically, they have mediated to me an encounter with a man in terms of which I then judge the adequacy of their testimony. We must now ask whether this is the fashion in which Brunner conceives of our encounter with Jesus Christ.
To some degree, at least, this analogy appears to hold. Brunner does believe that the witness of the apostles mediates an encounter with the person of Jesus that is not simply an encounter with their witness to him. He does believe that this encounter is the norm by which we judge even their witness. But this position seems to be in line with that of the now notorious nineteenth-century thinkers who sought the historical person of Jesus behind the records and criticized the records from that vantage point. Brunner is not oblivious to the dangers of this program. His justification of his own position in the face of his approval of the rejection of the nineteenth-century quest of the historical Jesus clarifies for us what he understands by the person of Jesus and our own encounter with him.
First, Brunner approves Schweitzer’s exposure of the unhistorical character of the nineteenth-century quest. (Ibid., II, pp. 260-263.) The biographers of Jesus assumed that he was a man who fulfilled their own ideals of humanity but no more. Hence, they attempted to portray him as an understandable and admirable human being. Since the apostolic witness presents him as the Messiah who preaches the imminent consummation of God’s Kingdom, they were forced to invent an almost wholly different person. Hence, in their effort to reconstruct the historical reality they used illicit imagination and projected their own ideals.
Schweitzer himself drew the conclusion, not that nothing can be known of Jesus, but that what can be known of him is precisely the messianism and apocalypticism that the nineteenth-century biographers had tried to discard. Brunner generally accepts this judgment of Schweitzer, although he regards it as extreme. He does not understand Jesus’ teaching to be wholly determined by his expectation of God’s future acts. Jesus’ awareness of the present work of God also plays an essential role. (Ibid., II, pp. 262-263.) But he agrees that Jesus confronts us as a person who claims to be something more than a virtuous man, and that any attempt to find behind this person who proclaims himself, another, who is merely human, is doomed to failure.
From the form critical school, however, and culminating in the work of Bultmann, there has arisen a more radical objection to any attempt to encounter the person of Jesus. (Ibid., II, pp. 242-243, 263-270; III, pp. 246-250, 388-391.) The Gospels are understood as consisting entirely of materials made use of in the preaching and worship of the early church. This church was not interested in the person of Jesus but rather in the mighty act of God. Hence, the materials with which they provide us are unsuited to any reconstruction of the historical figure.
Brunner does not reject the form critical study of the Gospels; but he does believe that its legitimate implications have been seriously exaggerated. In the first place, the skepticism that has arisen with regard to the accuracy of our information about Jesus is only partly due to the fact that this information is given in the form that it assumed in the church’s preaching. It is also due to assumptions on the part of such critics as Bultmann that the actual facts could not have been as they are reported, assumptions rooted in an already outdated understanding of the modern scientific world view. (Ibid., II, pp. 190-191, 269-270; III, p. 248.) In the second place, Brunner shows that even the most skeptical accounts leave us with a historical figure, and with a figure who does witness to his own person as decisive. (Ibid., I, p.211; II, pp. 242-243, 247, 249, 328.) In the third place, the witness of the church to Jesus is a witness to the historical figure and hence, does mediate an encounter with him. The Christ of faith is the Jesus of history. The encounter with Jesus is the recognition of him as the Christ. (Ibid., II, pp. 240-241, 244,327; III, pp. 209-211, 216-218.)
In view of all this, the hypercritical doctrine that we know too little of Jesus as person to encounter him as such must be rejected. The analogy of this encounter with other mediated encounters with historical figures can be retained. However, Brunner distinguishes the encounter with Jesus from other such encounters in two important ways. First, the one we meet in the apostolic witness to Jesus Christ is one who confronts us with divine authority. (Ibid., II, pp. 325-326.) Second, the acknowledgment of that authority, which is of the essence of the meeting, is given to us in the present act of God in the form of the Holy Spirit. (Ibid., 1, pp. 29 if.; III, p. 29; Revelation and Reason, pp. 169 if.; Man in Revolt, p. 67. Brunner understands that the work of the Holy Spirit is not strictly limited to this testimony, but he does not discuss his other work extensively. See Dogmatics I, p. 31; III, pp. 29-30.) Ours is not, therefore, an intuitive act of reconstructing a personality from fragmentary witnesses. Ours is a confrontation with divine reality to which we receive immediate divine testimony. Hence, the relativity of personal opinions is radically transcended.
Although in this way the authority of the present witness of the Holy Spirit is decisive, theology does not appeal to that authority. The Holy Spirit makes possible the response of faith to Jesus Christ as he is mediated to us in the witness of the early Christian community. He does not give us additional information about Jesus or about ourselves. He is the presupposition of theology but not the norm of theology.
The norm of theology is determined by its task. Its task is to tell the truth about God as he has revealed himself in Jesus Christ. Since faith is the acknowledgment of this revelation, it is the starting point and goal of theology, but it is not as such the primary subject of theology. Theology deals with God and his self-manifestation first, and only secondarily with the human response to that act. Theology is the accurate account of what God reveals to man in his self-disclosure in Jesus Christ.
This does not mean that the theologian simply reflects upon God’s revelation as he has personally experienced it and ignores the testimony of others. On the contrary, he can serve the church only when he takes seriously the whole story of how it has witnessed and formulated its understanding of revelation. (Dogmatics I, pp. 19-20, 50-59.) The theologian must take the confessions of his own communion with special seriousness. Finally, he must acknowledge the privileged position of the apostles and the importance of the fact that his own encounter with Jesus Christ is mediated through theirs. (Ibid., I, pp. 45-47, 80-81; Revelation and Reason, p.124.)
This last fact is the basis for the correct Christian doctrine of the authority of Scripture. This authority lies primarily in the apostolic witness to Jesus Christ. This witness is absolutely necessary to our faith, because apart from it we could not have heard the gospel at all. Its particular form has relative authority as well, because despite its mediation through the human thought and experience of the apostles, it must be recognized that they shared in the revelatory events themselves in a way that later generations have not. This means that we must pay profound attention to the way in which the apostolic witness is formulated and test our own teaching against it. It does not mean that all the opinions of the apostles are beyond criticism. They share in the world view of their time, and their testimonies are not in perfect harmony with one another. (Dogmatics I, p. 46.)
It is time to summarize the distinctive third way of Brunner, by which he avoids the Scylla of liberalism and the Charybdis of orthodoxy. On the one hand, the subject of theology is God in his supernatural self-disclosure to man in Jesus Christ, testified to us by the apostles and guaranteed by the present witness of the Holy Spirit. On the other hand, every propositional formulation of the truth that is disclosed, even that through which we come to the meeting with God in Christ, is subject to human error and must be tested against the revelation itself. That these two views can be held together depends upon the concept of encounter with God as communicating a preverbal understanding that is nevertheless susceptible of rational articulation.
We are now ready to see how Brunner applies these principles in the formulation of some aspects of his doctrine of God. What does God disclose to us of himself in his revelation in Jesus Christ?
First of all, God discloses himself to man as Person. (Ibid., I, pp. 61,121-124, 139-141; Revelation and Reason, pp. 43-44.)This fact can hardly be overemphasized in our understanding of Brunner. It is the central point in terms of which all other doctrines about God are formulated. Non-Christian doctrines of God may declare him holy, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, and glorious; but all these terms mean something entirely different because they are applied to a universal principle, a metaphysical entity, an immanent process, or a primal cause. (Dogmatics I, pp. 143-147.) Unbelieving reason, furthermore, constantly attacks this Christian Personalism as anthropomorphic and irrational. All too often, theologians have compromised with these criticisms and have tried to identify the Christian God with the God of some philosophy. But in Jesus Christ, God discloses himself to us as a Living Person. Any theological doctrine that is unfaithful to this primary Christian fact is to that degree unchristian.
Brunner’s stanch adherence to Personalism in spite of what he takes to be philosophical unanimity against it does not involve him in irrationalism. On the contrary, he does not see any legitimate philosophical argument against the Christian view. (Ibid., I, pp. 139-141.) The philosopher’s rejection shows only the inadequacy of reason that is not in the service of faith. This inadequacy is based on pride and self-defense. (Ibid., I, pp. 126,156; Revelation and Reason, pp. 66, 73.) Since reason is competent to derive only principles, essences, and causes to account for what is empirically given, it wishes to restrict the area of belief to these abstractions. It is unwilling to acknowledge finitude before the Living God.
But if we begin with faith in the Living God, we may talk quite intelligibly about his relations with the world. We may even relate our discussion to the various conclusions of philosophical investigation. Especially, we may show from the perspective of Christian Personalism the errors in both deism and pantheism which have so often seemed, mistakenly, to constitute the decisive alternatives for thinking about God. Faith understands that the Absolute Person, God, wholly transcends the world, but that he also constantly gives himself to and in the world. From this perspective we may criticize many of the greatest theologians of the church, including the Reformers.
For example, both Zwingli and Calvin, among others, were deceived by the proper idea of God’s absolute Lordship and power into formulating doctrines of God’s causal efficacy for all that occurs in the world. (Dogmatics I, pp. 315-317, 345; II, pp. 154, 172-175; Man in Revolt, p. 541.) Since man must be purely receptive in his relation to God’s personal self-disclosure, they argued that faith must be simply the effect of God’s causal action. Thereby they left the revealed context of understanding the relation of God and man in terms of personal encounter and unknowingly introduced alien categories. The results were disastrous. If God is the cause of faith in this deterministic sense, human responsibility ceases. The way is open to the doctrine of double predestination, with all its horrible implications for the understanding of God, which are so contrary to the Biblical witness to his love. (Dogmatics III, p. 465.)
If in contrast we understand God’s disclosure of himself as personal, then we understand that our response must also be personal. In personal relations the category of cause as it is employed in the objective sphere is simply inapplicable. There is an initiative and a response to which the concepts of determinacy and indeterminacy are alike inappropriate. When God encounters us as Person, we in our total being are freed for faith, but we are not compelled. God desires, but does not force, our acceptance of himself. (Although I believe this way of stating matters is faithful to the spirit of most of Brunner’s writings, it should be said that in his latest statement Brunner sounds much more like Bultmann. From personal relations the emphasis shifts to the existential situation. The question of the fate of unbelievers is rejected except as it is the question of my response to God’s judgment upon me. [Ibid., III, pp. 472-474.] I have ignored this in the text because it would raise far more difficulties than it would solve, and if taken as the clue to his position as a whole, it would require reconstruction of his whole system.)
The second major truth about God that is given in his self-disclosure is his agape-love. (Dogmatics I, pp. 183-199.) His manifesting of himself to us in the encounter is an act of pure love, which we have done nothing to merit. Jesus embodies this pure love of God in his relations to men, culminating in the cross. It is precisely as love that God reveals himself to us in Christ.
But we cannot deduce from God’s infinite love that all men will receive the benefits of that love. (Ibid., I, pp. 348-353; III, p. 468.) To do so is again to misunderstand the personal relation of God to man. It is to think again of God’s love as a cause operating upon man as an effect. Once we accept that image we must choose between the terrible decree of double predestination on the one hand and universal salvation on the other. In the light of the love of God, we would have to choose the latter. But the premise is wrong.
God offers himself for all men in Jesus Christ. In this we know his love for all men. But he offers himself to men in such a way as to make them personally responsible. This responsibility must be taken with utmost seriousness, so that the possibility of man’s rejecting God’s gift must not be ruled out. God’s love is not contradictory to his wrath when we understand his wrath as his rejection of man’s rejection of him. (Ibid., I, p. 337.)
In the third place, God meets us in his revelation as our Lord. (Ibid., I. pp. 137-150.) This means, first of all, that we apprehend him as one who actually exercises sovereignty over us. It means also that we meet him as one who claims our willing, grateful obedience to his will. (Ibid., I, p. 147.) Once again, it is only as we hold fast to the understanding of God as Person that this duality can be understood and maintained.
The understanding of God as creator arises from this meeting with God in Jesus Christ as Lord. (Ibid., I, p. 148; II, pp. 8-9, 52-53.) Even in the history of Israel, God was acknowledged as Lord first, then as creator of heaven and earth. The Christian belief that God is creator does not follow from the acceptance as authoritative of the first chapters of Genesis. Whatever wisdom these contain, they must be recognized as mythical in form and content. We know God as creator of all that is because we know him in Jesus Christ as sovereign Lord.
In the order of knowledge, therefore, we know God as our personal redeemer in Jesus Christ before we know him as the creator of heaven and earth. In the order of being, however, we must recognize that he was creator of heaven and earth before he manifested himself in Jesus Christ. (Ibid., II, p. 9.) This means also that he stands in the relation of creator even to those who do not acknowledge his revelation in Jesus Christ. For this reason, the Christian understands a great deal about the unbeliever that the unbeliever cannot understand about himself. (Ibid., II, pp. 46-47.)
The believer understands, for example, that God is visible in his creation and that the failure of the unbeliever to recognize him there is due to a rebellious refusal rather than to an objective impossibility. (Ibid., I, pp. 132-136.) The believer sees in the unbeliever’s understanding of himself and his world a perverted misunderstanding of the revelation that God makes of himself in his whole creation. (Ibid., II, p. 23; Revelation and Reason, pp. 66, 73; Man in Revolt, p. 530.)
The Christian may then describe what is objectively visible even apart from Christ, although he must always recognize that he himself sees it only because of the encounter with God in Jesus Christ.
At one time Brunner spoke of this knowledge as a Christian natural theology. (Brunner, "Nature and Grace," Chs. IV and V, Natural Theology, Baillie, ed., pp. 35-60.)
It is a natural theology in that it shows the knowledge of God that is available in abstraction from Christ. It is a Christian natural theology in that it can be formulated only by one whose eyes have been opened by Christ.
So vehement was the objection to the positive use of the expression "natural theology," especially by Barth, that Brunner retracted the term and apologized for the confusion he had caused by introducing it. (Dogmatics I, p. 132; Man in Revolt, pp. 527.) He did not, however, withdraw the idea that the term expressed. It should, he agreed, be called simply "the Christian doctrine of creation." However, it continues to have a function as a point of contact with unbelievers.
This function is the responsibility of eristics and of missionary theology. These disciplines deal with the same data as are available to non-Christians, but show the inadequacies in the non-Christian interpretation of the data. (Dogmatics I, p. 103; II. pp. 70-72; Revelation and Reason, pp. 425-426. Brunner has recently avoided the use of the expression ‘ point of contact," but it still expresses his meaning. They do this from the perspective of Christian revelation, but they present their truth in terms of its intrinsic adequacy to the shared data.
Barth opposed the idea of the point of contact just as vehemently as the idea of natural theology. Even here, Brunner recognized that there was truth in Barth’s position. A point of contact sounds like some positive element in the belief of non-Christians on the basis of which they may be led rationally to accept Christian faith. But this is not what Brunner means.
Brunner’s point of contact lies first in the common data of all men, man’s total being in his environment. It does not lie in the interpretations that unbelievers place upon this data. All their interpretations are perverted by their unbelief. Hence, there can be no point of contact in the sense of common beliefs shared by faith and unbelief. The search for this kind of point of contact is erroneous and, as Barth has seen, has led to results that dilute and endanger the substance of the faith.
But man’s real situation, however falsely he interprets it, does have some bearing upon his thinking and believing. Although he cannot acknowledge if for what it is, he does have some capacity to recognize the truth of the Christian interpretation when it is proclaimed to him. Man is guilty for his refusal to see himself as he really is before God. This guilt, and man’s capacity for recognizing the truth of the Christian gospel when it is proclaimed to him, constitute the point of contact. It is through this point of contact that man can be led to recognize the desperateness of his plight and to be willing to accept God’s grace.
If we deny a point of contact in this sense, we make mockery of man’s responsible humanity. Then God’s act in revealing himself is no longer an encounter between the divine Person and the human person, but an act worked upon a purely passive entity that insight equally well be a dog or a stone. Man’s capacity to respond to revelation is given only with revelation, but man’s capacity to hear, to acknowledge, and to reject truth is part of his nature as man. (Revelation and Reason, p. 65; Dogmatics I, pp. 338-339.) This much man brings with him to his encounter with God in Jesus Christ.
The affirmation that faith has an understanding of man and his world, even in abstraction from Christ, that is lacking in the unbeliever opens up vast fields for Christian reflection. The believer’s interpretation of the findings of historiography, science, and common sense must take full account of the data and of the logical requirements placed upon all thinking. (Dogmatics II, pp. 46-47, 87, 151.) No interpretation of data can be put forward as Christian on the authority of Biblical statements as such or on the authority of the empirical church. Interpretations can be put forward only as they bring the light of God’s self-disclosure to bear upon the particulars of God’s creation.
The relevance of revelation to the interpretation of data is on a graded scale. (Ibid., II, p. 27; Revelation and Reason, pp. 383, 429.)At one extreme, in mathematics and the more technical aspects of the natural sciences, the relevance is very slight indeed. At the other extreme, where man is trying to understand his own existence, the relevance is very great. Hence, it is as we approach the center of man’s personal being that the conflict of Christian belief with unbelieving distortions becomes most critical. In order to carry out this discussion with the unbelieving world, the Christian must be fully conversant with the status of the sciences in each field. He must know what their legitimate autonomous provinces are, so as not to intrude his own judgments illegitimately. He must not ally himself too closely with particular scientific views just because they seem more congenial with his own vision. But at the same time he must be willing to enter the discussion both as one who honestly inquires and as one who has decisive light to throw upon the ultimate interpretation.
Even when Brunner is discussing the breakdown of the Newtonian world view or the importance of depth psychology, we must recognize that his thought is Christocentric. So long as he operates as theologian at all, whether his work is dogmatic or eristic, it all depends upon and serves God’s revelation of himself in Jesus Christ. (Dogmatics II, pp. 239-240.) Hence, the act of God with which the theologian must be especially concerned is that act of revelation itself.
This does not mean that theology must begin with a doctrine of Christ. Brunner actually turns to this topic only in the latter section of Vol. II of his Dogmatics. In Jesus Christ it is God who reveals himself. Hence, we may speak of the God who is revealed as he is revealed without explicitly dealing with the channel of revelation. We may even talk about God’s self-revelation in creation before we settle the questions of Christology. But Jesus Christ remains the basis of our faith, in relationship to whom all else is judged.
Brunner distinguishes the work and the person of Jesus and treats them in that order. This is proper because it is from Jesus’ work that the early Christians moved on to the questions about his person. (Ibid., II, pp. 271-273, 322.) It was because of what he did for them that they proceeded to define who he was. If we reverse this order, we are likely to obscure through a deductive process the vitality of the personal encounter through which faith arises.
The work of Jesus may be distinguished in the traditional way according to his prophetic, priestly, and kingly offices. The prophetic office consists in the proclamation of the Kingdom of God, with its demand of radical obedience in love and its offer of the forgiveness of God. (Ibid., II, pp.275-281.) The priestly office is the ministry to sinners, which culminates in his reconciling death upon the cross. (Ibid., II, pp. 281-297.) The royal office consists in his actual victory over the powers of evil in his inauguration of the Kingdom itself. (Ibid., II, pp. 298-305.) The three offices may be summed up as revelation, atonement, and kingship, and these in turn may be understood as three mutually related aspects of one work, in which each includes the others. (Ibid., II, p. 305.)
This can best be understood when we realize that in each of these three offices Jesus points to his own person. (Ibid., II, p. 274.) He differs from the prophets in that they proclaim the Word given them by God, whereas he offers himself as the Word of revelation in his own person. His work of reconciliation is consummated only in his self-offering on the cross. His kingship is embodied in his own personal claim for obedience and love. Thus in every direction Jesus’ work is his person.
The ultimate identity of Jesus’ work and his person returns us to the central characteristic of Brunner’s theology. That which God has done for the world is to reveal himself personally. We may distinguish aspects of this one work of self-manifestation, but we cannot think of some other work of God for us that is not this one, all-decisive self-disclosure. We cannot, for example, discuss God’s work in regeneration and sanctification as something other than his work in revealing himself. Revelation is the all-inclusive category for God’s saving work; this work always takes place in the self-disclosure of personal encounter; and this encounter never occurs except through the person of Jesus Christ. (Ibid., II, pp. 305-306.)
This means that the doctrine of Jesus’ person is not less important to us than it was to the early church. Since Jesus points us constantly to himself we cannot finally, but only provisionally, distinguish his work from his person. Furthermore, we must recognize that by his work he points to himself in such a way that we cannot simply regard him as man. The authority by which he fulfilled his work in his person must be divine authority. In some sense God must be present in Jesus. (Ibid., II, p. 343.)
Brunner recognizes that the Bible does not explicitly settle for us the many questions that arise as to the mode of God’s presence in Jesus. The whole apostolic witness does make clear, however, that in Jesus the man we encounter God. It is precisely to this encounter with God in Jesus that the Holy Spirit testifies in the immediacy of present experience. Hence, for Christians there can be no question that Jesus is in some sense God; there can only be questions as to how he is God.
Brunner considers systematically and historically the options that have been tried and concludes with the church that no statement is satisfactory that does not affirm both Jesus’ full manhood and his full deity. (Ibid., II, p. 359.) He does not claim that this affirmation can be made fully intelligible. He simply affirms that making this affirmation is the only way of remaining loyal to the revelatory encounter itself. Such loyalty is ultimately more important than clarity and consistency, although these latter are not to be despised. (Ibid., II, pp. 349-350.)
Brunner leaves us thus with a mystery. However, we should not understand this as an expression of a love of paradox and mystery on his part. He leaves us with a mystery because he has not been able to achieve greater clarity, not because an inherent value attaches to mystery. He is glad to go as far as he can to make sense of this mystery. The task of reflection is to prevent misconceptions of the faith and to answer as many honest questions as it can. It is also the task of reflection to acknowledge its own limits as it encounters them.
We have surveyed only a fraction of the topics treated by Brunner. However, we may hope that these samples illustrate his method fairly and give sufficient indication of the kind of theological position in which it is articulated. It is time now to raise critical questions.
It is not the intention of any criticisms in this volume to debate such questions as whether the supernatural events referred to by a theologian in fact took place. In this case, therefore, we do not ask whether in fact Jesus was both God and man or whether the Holy Spirit does assure us that in him we meet God. On the other hand, we do not ask whether Brunner is right or wrong in denying the absolute authority of the written word in Scripture and creed. Our questions are solely those of internal criticism. Granting Brunner’s central convictions, do his conclusions follow? Are there other consequences that he has not so clearly drawn that cast a different light upon the situation?
We will consider first the question as to how Brunner relates reason and revelation and, specifically, philosophy and theology. He has written extensively on this topic, but important ambiguities remain.
Brunner allows to reason unaided by revelation in Jesus Christ the capacity to work out formal relations in logic and mathematics, to assemble empirical data, and to construct and verify scientific hypotheses. However, such reason goes astray when it attempts to interpret its findings to the degree that these impinge upon matters of specifically human concern. He denies to such reason any competence whatsoever with respect to the knowledge of God. (Revelation and Reason, p. 383.)
Brunner teaches that reason liberated by revelation can interpret findings of the sciences more critically and more realistically. (Ibid., p. 393.) Hence, he affirms that there is such a thing as Christian philosophy, which is better as philosophy than non-Christian philosophy and constitutes a proper exercise of Christian thinking. This Christian philosophy seems to be almost identical with the Christian doctrine of creation, which is a branch of theology.
The question is whether Christian philosophy is also competent to deal with the doctrine of God. On this point Brunner can be quoted both ways. On the one hand, he asserts repeatedly and vehemently that all knowledge of God is given in the revelation encounter with Jesus Christ. He explicitly rejects the principle of credo ut intelligam on the grounds of the fundamental contradiction between revelation and reason. (Ibid., p. 17.)He protests warmly against any alliance of theology with philosophy. (Dogmatics I, pp. 135-136, 154-155.)
On the other hand, he teaches that there is a real analogy of being in creation that can be perceived by the eyes of faith. (Ibid., I, p.176; II, pp. 42-45; Revelation and Reason, p. 80.) He recognizes the cosmological and teleological arguments for the existence of God, which are part of Christian philosophy, as rational forms of the Christian doctrine of God. (Revelation and Reason, pp. 343, 347-348.) These teachings seem to imply that the Christian knows God not only in Christ but also in creation. Therefore, reason informed by faith is a source of knowledge about God.
I do not believe that these two emphases of Brunner are mutually compatible. If reason, even when informed by faith, cannot proceed from creation to God, then Brunner should not defend the analogy of being or treat philosophical arguments for God as a legitimate part of Christian philosophy. He would have to take the position that even to Christian eyes creation allows no inference whatsoever with regard to the creator. If he does allow that Christian reason can perceive evidence of the creator in his creation, he must acknowledge that this does provide a second basis for thinking about God alongside his revelation in Christ. He can consistently insist that this possibility exists only on the basis of the revelation in Christ, but he cannot reasonably deny it altogether.
There is a second closely related but distinguishable question on which Brunner’s statements are equally confusing. Distinct from the question of how we arrive at an idea of God is the question of the form of the idea itself. Can the Christian idea of God be philosophically formulated? Brunner seems to say that it cannot, but his arguments are far from clear.
Personalistic theism, Brunner recognizes, is that philosophy which most closely approximates the Christian understanding of God. However, he denies that the idea of a personal God which it espouses is the personal God himself. (Dogmatics, I, pp. 122, 155.) On this basis he reiterates his objection to identifying the revealed God with the God of any philosophy at all, even the most Christian philosophy.
This argument, however, is far from decisive. There is, of course, no identity of any idea of God with God himself. But this is true of the reflective theological ideas of God as well as philosophical ones. Theology also shifts from the language of I-Thou to that of I-It. Hence, this non-identity is no special objection to a philosophical idea. The question must be rather that of the relation of the philosophical idea to the theological idea.
Presumably, these two ideas will not coincide. One is articulated in relation to considerations of a general character, and the other arises in a particular encounter. But nonidentity is no objection to integration unless there are inescapable incompatibilities between the two ideas. Certainly in other spheres of experience, such as our knowledge of other persons, both general considerations and the individual encounter come into play. They may at times be in some tension with each other, but they cannot be held radically apart. (Sometimes Brunner speaks as if there were a chasm between all personalistic thinking and all rational thinking, which must deal with abstractions only. If we then understood philosophy as committed to rational thinking, we could see its necessary irrelevance to considerations of both the human person and the divine Person. However, Brunner acknowledges that reason may talk about persons at both levels. See Revelation and Reason, p. 365. He concludes from his survey of the scientific study of man that subjective understanding plays an increasing role there. See Dogmatics III, pp. 287-289. Hence, I have ignored this line of argument in the body of the text.) The issue is really the factual one as to the possibility of articulating philosophically a conception of God with which our encounter-knowledge is compatible.
Sometimes Brunner seems to argue that in the case of God there can in principle never be any compatibility between our encounter-knowledge and any other thinking about him. All human thinking, including that based upon our experience of other persons, and including the idea of transcendence itself, falls within the circle of immanence. (Revelation and Reason, pp.365-367; Dogmatics III, p. 295.) Only God’s self-disclosure breaks through that circle. Hence, all human thinking is irrelevant to God.
We are not here questioning this account of the situation in so far as human thinking is understood as thinking unenlightened by revelation. However, Brunner does not regard the Christian theological doctrine of God as interdicted by this limitation of the competence of reason. Hence, he is not excluding all thinking that is informed by faith from relevance to God. The line seems to be drawn between Christian theology and Christian philosophy. But on what basis is it drawn?
Christian theology in its reflection on God as revealed in Jesus Christ does not limit itself to the language of prayer or Scripture. On the contrary, it makes considerable use of philosophical language, at least in Brunner’s own formulations. (Revelation and Reason, p.375; Man in Revolt, p. 243.)How, then, can the relevance of philosophically formulated ideas about God be denied in principle when theology lacks any clearly distinct categories?
Brunner actually does not argue the issue primarily along these lines. Instead, he criticizes from the perspective of Christian revelation those ideas of God at which philosophy, including Christian philosophy, has arrived. He finds all philosophical ideas of God resistant to the Biblical understanding of a God who acts selectively in history. He mentions panentheism as a philosophy which, like Christian theology, avoids the errors of pantheism and deism, but dismisses it as an expression of the Christian view because it is not sufficiently dynamic. (Dogmatics I, p. 175.) Perhaps he is correct in these and similar judgments, but he has not shown anything intrinsic to the nature of philosophy that would prevent a Christian philosophy from allowing for God’s selective activity or from formulating a more dynamic version of panentheism.
Brunner’s total position could be made much clearer and more consistent if he abandoned his strictures on philosophy as such and limited himself to distinguishing sharply between all thinking that is informed by faith and all thinking that is not informed by faith. He could then recognize without the present ambiguity that Christian theology and Christian philosophy are distinguished by their focus on the particular and on the universal, but that no sharp line can be drawn between them. The Christian philosopher cannot as a philosopher speak of the unique act of God in Jesus Christ, just as he can say nothing of particular events in any area, but he can and should so structure his ideas as to allow for such unique acts and particular events. The theologian cannot as a theologian enter upon detailed discussions of the interpretation of the modern scientific world view and its relevance for theological assertions, but he can and should show the need for such discussions and their significance for his own work. The task of showing the interrelations of all the areas of thought is the philosopher’s task. (Revelation and Reason, p. 395.)
The greater part of Brunner’s statements can be understood in these terms. If he should give up those other statements in which he tries to circumscribe the competence of Christian philosophy more narrowly, the content of his doctrines would be affected very little. However, his influence, which has hitherto tended to weigh against rigorous philosophical study on the part of theologians, would instead work for such study. By retaining the unequivocal affirmation of the priority of faith over reason, while giving free rein to the work of reason guided by faith, Brunner’s position would become that of what I have called Augustinianism in the preceding chapter. But the actual shift involved would be quite minor.
If we are to raise really basic questions about Brunner’s position, we must direct our attention to his understanding of revelation in encounter as the basis for all theological reflection. The decisive principle of Brunner’s whole theology is that we encounter God in Jesus Christ in such a way as to gain knowledge about God, the world, and ourselves. If the encounter does not eventuate in new knowledge, it is clear that, in Brunner’s view, theology could not take place. If the encounter with God occurred apart from Jesus’ essential mediation, it is clear that the theology that would result would not be Christian in Brunner’s sense. If the encounter with Jesus were simply an encounter with a historical figure, however great a religious genius or prophet, it would give us new knowledge of Jesus, but it could not give us, in Brunner’s terms, new knowledge of God.
Let us begin by granting to Brunner his basic contention that an encounter with a person has cognitive consequences that can be reflectively articulated. At least in direct personal encounters such knowledge is gained. In mediated encounters this is much less clear, for the new knowledge seems to be learned through the mediating reports rather than from the one mediated. Yet there does seem to be a sense in which the person witnessed to can come alive for us and encounter us as something more than the sum of the propositions about that person which we have read and heard. Hence, let us grant that something may also be learned in such an encounter.
However, we must ask of Brunner, what person is encountered through the mediation of the apostolic witness. Is it God or Jesus? Of course, Brunner must regard this as a misleading question in so far as it implies that Jesus is not God. Yet he too recognizes some distinction between God and Jesus. God’s personhood antedated the coming of Jesus and cannot be simply identified with Jesus as person. (Dogmatics I, pp. 229-231; II, p.360.)
If, then, we insist upon our question as to which person is encountered, initially the answer must be that it is Jesus. (Ibid., I, pp. 35, 37, 124; II, p. 322.) It is Jesus who is mediated to us through the apostolic witness, and apart from him Brunner insists that there is no personal encounter with God. What Brunner affirms is that when we encounter Jesus aright we also and at the same time encounter God.
Now this can be understood in two ways. First, we might suppose that the encounter with the person Jesus "triggers" another encounter, namely, one with God. We might say that Jesus directs our attention to God, or that he is transparent to God, or that we can come to share his own vision of God. But Brunner emphatically rejects these views. Jesus does not point us to God; he in his own person reveals God. When Jesus says "I," it is God who says "I." (Ibid., I, pp. 227-228.) We must take Brunner’s affirmations here seriously.
Brunner asserts the second alternative, namely, that the encounter with Jesus is the encounter with the Person, God. That this is a mystery he certainly acknowledges; so it would be foolish to press for full clarification. But we must note again the ambiguity that arises by virtue of the acknowledged fact that there is no simple identity of Jesus and God. Jesus prays to his Father, and Brunner does not suppose he is simply praying to himself. God is really present in the person Jesus, but not in such a way as to be simply identical with him.
This point is too self-evident to require emphasis. The church has never identified God with Jesus in such a way as to raise questions about the continuance of God’s functions of sustaining the creation independently of Jesus. Even God the Son, when conceived as the Logos, continues to fulfill his eternal functions in some autonomy of the events in Palestine.
However, it is necessary to stress this simple and obvious fact in order to point to the acute and crucial difficulty in Brunner’s whole theological system. He claims that knowledge is given with revelation and that that knowledge is about him who reveals himself. By this he means and must mean God as he eternally is. Furthermore, absolutely central to all that Brunner affirms about God on the basis of revelation is that God is Person. What are the grounds of this affirmation?
If we followed the first alternative indicated above, there would be no difficulty here. Jesus certainly understood God as Person; so if we were looking with him toward his Father, we, too, would see God as Person. But Brunner has rejected this view. If, on the other hand, we could simply identify Jesus and God, then it would be clear that God is Person because it is a person that we encounter when we encounter Jesus. But Brunner certainly does not mean this. He wants to say that when we encounter the person Jesus we thereby encounter, also as Person, God, who is not simply identical with Jesus. But he gives us no basis for his view that it is as Person that God is present in the person Jesus.
I am not here objecting to the mystery of the two natures of Jesus. The problem here is with persons -and persons in the full modern sense that is Brunner’s intention. It is hardly intelligible to say that there are in this sense two persons in Jesus who are simultaneously encountered. We may say with orthodoxy that in encountering the person of Jesus we encounter also his nature as deity, but then we have no basis for affirming God as Person. We may believe that God is Person, but we must do so on other grounds, such as the authority of Jesus’ teaching, direct personal experience, or rational probability.
Brunner can, of course, save his doctrine of God by appealing to the teaching of Jesus or to the Old Testament prophets. The point here is only that he cannot in fact derive his doctrine of God as Person in the manner in which he claims to derive it, namely, from God’s self-revelation in personal encounter. This could be done only by affirming a direct encounter by men with God as Person. But Brunner regards any talk of experiencing God apart from Christ as unchristian. (Ibid., III, pp. 20-21, 31-32.)
The same must be said a fortiori of Brunner’s discussion of creation. This is undoubtedly a Biblical doctrine playing a role in both the Old and the New Testaments. But we cannot really derive this doctrine from the personal encounter with God in Jesus Christ. The person Jesus does not disclose himself to us as the Creator of heaven and earth. It is true that he refers us to the Father in terms of this sort, but Brunner’s method ostensibly is not that of systematizing the teachings of Jesus. Jesus may be said to encounter us as one who claims Lordship over us, but the Lordship that he claims does not directly imply anything about creation. Brunner appeals explicitly to the prologue of John and to certain sayings of Paul, but surely one who is as emphatic as he in rejecting the authority of Scriptural teachings as such does not mean to say that we accept the doctrine of creation because of the presence of these passages in the New Testament.
The plain fact seems to be that both the Personhood of God and the doctrine of God’s creation of heaven and earth were accepted by the authors of the New Testament with little question because they were already accepted in Judaism. (Brunner, of course, is fully aware that Judaism knew God as Person. [Revelation and Reason, pp. 89, 92.] But he says that God was not personally present before Jesus. [Ibid., p. 93.] This seems to reinforce the view that his personal presence was not the historical basis for believing him to be Person.) The disciples of Jesus did not first come to believe these things in their encounter with him. They brought these ideas to that encounter. Their beliefs were probably reinforced by Jesus’ belief, and we may suppose that Jesus’ personal experience of God gave to his teaching on these matters an authority partly independent of his inherited tradition. But even today Jews continue to believe in the personal Creator quite apart from any encounter with Jesus Christ. Indeed, it is somewhat ironical that Brunner’s own formulations are deeply indebted to a Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber.
If Brunner will agree that factually the doctrines of God as Person and as Creator antedated Jesus in the Jewish community, he may still wish to argue that for us the encounter with God in Jesus is the only ground for affirming them. If so, I can only conclude that the grounds are confusing and shaky. Furthermore, they are not the grounds on which these doctrines have historically been affirmed by the church.
In actual fact, does it not seem more likely that Christians bring to the interpretation of the encounter with Jesus some understanding of God? This understanding may not at all depend upon secular philosophy or culture. It may be formed in the Judaeo-Christian community through the whole corpus of the Biblical writing; or it may be dependent specifically upon the teaching of Jesus or Paul. Once given this preconception, we may certainly understand how the awareness of the presence of God in Jesus is the awareness of the presence of the personal creator-God. From this point on, we might follow Brunner’s presentation with little alteration.
But this would mean that Brunner must acknowledge that there is a decisive preconception with which the encounter is entered. This preconception may owe nothing to philosophy. It may be wholly dependent on the previous encounters of others with God. But if we trace these encounters to their source, we must in all honesty go beyond Jesus to the Jewish prophets. The authority for the view of God as personal creator seems to lie in the total experience of Israel with its Lord rather than in the specific encounters of Christians with God in Christ.
If so, we must raise questions about Brunner’s radical Christocentricity. Israel’s experience must also include a revelation that is presupposed by that in Jesus Christ. Some of our knowledge of God seems to arise through that earlier revelation. If that revelation can be assigned no independent authority for us, then we must see this aspect of our knowledge of God in all its conditioned relativity. But we are dishonest if we attempt to found it upon the one encounter with God in Jesus Christ. The whole history of Christian theology makes it clear that those who come to Christ with other preconceptions about God are able to understand their encounter with him apart from any implication that God is Person in the modern sense.
Like many of those who seek the moderation of the middle way, Brunner is forced to incorporate a profound tension within his own system. He wishes both to make the single encounter with God in Jesus Christ all-determinative for Christian thought and to keep within that thought the full richness of traditional theology which has fed on the more extensive sources of reason and Scriptural authority. Hence, he is driven to attribute to this one relationship of encounter cognitive consequences that it factually has not had. If he accepts other norms besides this, then he must return to some identification of revealed propositional truth, admit some other encounter with God than that which occurs in Jesus Christ, or allow authority to the conclusions of philosophical speculation. If he takes seriously his limitation of the source and norm of Christian thought to God’s self-disclosure in the encounter with Jesus Christ, then he must restrict the corpus of theology to a discussion of Jesus as Person and of what happens to man when faith is awakened in him by the encounter. If he follows the former course, he must accept the typical consequences as they are expressed in orthodox and liberal theologies. If he follows the latter course, he must limit theology almost entirely to an account of the life of Christian faith.
Karl Barth early sensed the precariousness of Brunner’s position and dissociated himself from it as sharply as possible. In the next chapter we will consider whether Barth has succeeded in maintaining the radical Christocentricity of theology on the one hand while avoiding its restriction to anthropology on the other.