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Emil Brunner: A Centennial Perspective

by I. John Hesselink

I. John Hesselink is Albertus C. Van Raalte Professor of Systematic Theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. This article appeared in the Christian Century, December 13, 1989, p. 1171. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


During the ten years immediately following the war, which were an exciting period of biblical renewal and theological ferment, American theological students were reading the works of the existentialist Søren Kierkegaard, the Lundensian Lutheran theologians Anders Nygren and Gustaf Aulén, and the so-called dialectical or neo-orthodox Swiss theologians Karl Barth and Emil Brunner. Though the U.S. had its own theological heavyweights, including Reinhold and H. Richard Niebuhr and Paul Tillich, the latter two had not yet come into their own. Nor did students then read much Barth, because only one volume of his Church Dogmatics was available in English and his great commentary on Romans, though challenging and intriguing, was not suited for classes in systematic theology.

Thus students in most mainline seminaries and university divinity schools read more works of Brunner than of any other single theologian. High on reading lists were Revelation and Reason in prolegomena, Man in Revolt in anthropology, The Mediator in Christology, and The Divine Imperative and Justice and the Social Order in ethics. His seminal work The Divine-Human Encounter (later republished with a new introduction as Truth as

Encounter) and his very popular little work Our Faith (translated into 19 languages) were also widely read. Also available in English in the 1 940s were his Gifford lectures, Christianity and Civilization (two volumes) ; by 1953 the first two volumes of his dogmatics, as well as Eternal Hope and the brief, controversial Misunderstanding of the Church, were available.

My first encounter with Brunner was indirect. In 1948, my sophomore year in college, I read the first volume of Christianity and Civilization in a philosophy of religion class. The first General Assembly of the World Council of Churches was meeting in Amsterdam at the time, and I recall vividly our professor sharing with us reports on Reinhold Niebuhr’s angry response to some of Karl Barth’s pronouncements there. Most of us in the class knew little about either Barth or Niebuhr, but we found Brunner’s approach a happy via media.

Brunner’s approach did not find favor in all theological quarters. Old-time liberals dismissed him along with Barth as being biblicistic and pessimistic, and fundamentalists rejected his alleged neo-orthodoxy as a "new modernism" (so Cornelius Van Til of Westminster Seminary) Even so, self-confessed liberal Wilhelm Pauck and leading conservative evangelical theologian Carl F. H. Henry found much that was challenging and admirable in Brunner’s theology.

His popularity in English-speaking countries was partially due to style. Unlike many German theologians, Brunner wrote with grace and clarity. This was intentional; Brunner wanted to communicate with a wider audience, not just the theological fraternity. His wife read the first drafts of his various publications, and he rewrote those sections that she found obscure. Brunner was also blessed with gifted translators, principally an English-woman, Olive Wyon, who was also a lay theologian. Two noted British theologians, David Cairns and T. H. L. Parker, translated his later works.

Unlike many of his continental contemporaries, the Zurich theologian also knew and appreciated the U.S. As a student he had spent a year in England (1913-14) , where he made many friends and improved his English. This prepared him for his first visit to the U.S. shortly after World War I. He notes in his "Intellectual Autobiography" (in The Theology of Emil Brunner, edited by Charles W. Kegley) :

This year in America provided the foundation for my particularly fruitful contacts with the English-speaking world for the rest of my life. At the hospitable Union Seminary I was not so much intrigued by the reigning theology. . . but rather by my encounter with the American people.

This fondness for Americans and their nation continued until the end of his life. Later he was invited to be a visiting professor at Princeton Seminary and might well have stayed there had it not been for the threat of World War II. In 1946 he returned for an extensive lecture tour, and in 1954, when he was teaching in Japan, he accepted an invitation to give the Earl Lectures at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley on "Faith, Hope, and Love."

Adapting the existentialism of Kierkegaard, the I-Thou approach of Ebner and Buber and the personalism of Husserl, Brunner sought to overcome the dichotomy of the subject-object split which has plagued theology throughout its history. Although loyally Swiss Reformed (a bust of Zwingli stood just outside the door of his study at home) , his great appreciation for Luther enhanced his incorporation of certain philosophical and biblical insights and resulted in what might be called a theology of encounter. This more than any other aspect of his thought makes his theology distinctive. Looking back on his career, he observed that "above all, the Christian concept of truth, truth as encounter, revelation conceived as God’s self-communication dominates and permeates the treatment of every single theological topic" ("Intellectual Autobiography")

Brunner’s notion of encounter is both simple and complex -- simple insofar as it points to a personal meeting or experience of another person or reality; complex in that "encounter" is Brunner’s way of relating revelation and faith, the Truth and truth, Word as event and Word as doctrine. He provides a helpful definition in Truth as Encounter:

To know God in trustful obedience is not only to know the truth, but through God’s self-communication to be in it, in the truth that as love is at the same time fellowship. The truth about man is founded in the divine humanity of Christ, which we apprehend in faith in Christ, the Word of God. This is truth as encounter. . . . Here truth happens, here we are in the truth, which is not in us but comes to us, which makes us free by restoring to us our true being, our being in the Thou, and our being for the Thou. In this truth as encounter, in which we understand our personal being as being in the love of the Creator and Redeemer -- and not only understand it but have it as a new bestowal of our original being -- to have and to be are one.

Whether Brunner explored this motif as thoroughly as he might have is open to debate. Even some of his sympathetic critics were disappointed that this approach did not always bear fruit in his dogmatics. However, here and there one sees a creative implementation of this principle. For example, in The Christian Doctrine of Creation and Redemption, volume two of his Dogmatics, he treats the work of Christ before the person of Christ, thereby following through on the famous dictum of Melanchthon: hoc est Christum cognoscere, beneficia eius cognoscere (to know Christ is to know his benefits).

In the third and last volume of his Dogmatics, The Christian Doctrine of the Church, Faith and the Consummation, his basic hermeneutic principle is evident in the way he treats faith in the context of the ekklesia, the ekklesia being the presupposition of faith. God’s self-communication through Jesus Christ is not simply to isolated individuals but to a Spirit-created fellowship. Edward Dowey noted that in Brunner’s work, "personness is never to be understood in isolation from community." Brunner’s personalistic understanding of faith determines his understanding of the church and vice versa. Hence the ekklesia bears a double witness to Christ: through the Word and through its life.

Brunner believed that this personalistic, existential notion of truth as encounter was a fruitful -- and biblical -- alternative to the liberalism and subjectivism of Schleiermacher and the intellectualistic objectivism found in traditional Roman Catholicism and orthodox Protestantism. Against the former he posited the once-for-all (einmalige) character of relation as a historical event centering in Jesus Christ. Against the latter he pointed out that revelation is not primarily a doctrine but an act. To use another of his favorite phrases, revelation is a "personal correspondence" between God and humanity. "God does not reveal this and that -- he reveals Himself by communicating Himself" (Christianity and Civilization I)

In his battles on these two fronts Brunner occasionally went too far. Some theologians felt his slashing attack on Schleiermacher in his 1924 work Die Mystik und das Wort was extreme. -Later he turned his guns on Bultmann’s "extreme subjectivism" with similar vigor. More conservative theologians, on the other hand, believed that his constant criticisms of Bibelglaube (faith in the Bible rather than the one to whom the Bible witnesses) , "credo-Credo" (intellectual assent to the tenets of the Creed) and faith as a bloss Fürwahrhalten etner Lehre (a mere holding of certain doctrines to be true) risked throwing the baby out with the bath water. On this front Brunner criticized objectivistic elements in traditional Protestantism and Catholicism and in Barth’s later writing. (On this see the concluding chapter, "Theology Beyond Barth and Bultmann," in the new introduction to the revised edition of Truth as Encounter.)

Despite his insistence on the personal character of revelation and its correlate, faith, Brunner did not deny the importance of doctrine. In a chapter in Truth as Encounter titled "Doctrine As Token and Framework, Indissolubly Connected with the Reality It Represents" he explains:

God, to be sure, does not deliver to us a course of lectures in dogmatic theology or submit a confession of faith to us, but he instructs us authentically about himself. He tells us authentically who he is and what he wills for us and from us. . . . Consequently, we can never abstract the abstract framework from the personal Presence contained in it, although certainly we must differentiate them.

Brunner’s theological contributions extend also to the fields of epistemology, anthropology, Christology, personal and social ethics, eschatology and eristics (Brunner’s preferred approach to apologetics) , as well as helpful treatments of the standard topics in theology. The breadth of his theological concerns was tremendous (as a perusal of the symposium The Theology of Emil Brunner reveals)

The great Zurich theologian had pastoral and missionary interests as well. A lifelong concern was the renewal of the church, about which he wrote a provocative little book, The Misunderstanding of the Church. This was a one-sided argument, based on an idealization of the early church. "Yet," J. Robert Nelson comments in an essay in the forthcoming book of reminiscences, Emil Brunner in der Erinnerung Seiner Schüler, "it must be said that his strong emphasis upon Christology, combined with his perhaps excessive insistence upon the free fellowship (koinonia) of the non-institutional church, have had a beneficial influence upon Christian concepts and experiences of community."

Brunner was no armchair theologian; in an intriguing variety of ways he lived out his apologetic, pastoral and missionary concerns. He was active in local church life, preaching once a month in his home church, the Fraumünster; and after his return to Zurich from Japan in 1955 he became involved in an evangelistic campaign -- "Tell Zurich" -- despite poor health. He supported almost any church renewal movement:

the Oxford Movement, the YMCA, the non church movement in Japan (Mukyokai) and the lay academy movement in Switzerland. One of his proudest accomplishments was helping establish such an academy in Boldern, just outside of Zurich. His participation in some of these movements confused some of his admirers and alienated others, but he was willing to take that risk.

His crowning achievement in this regard was becoming in 1953 the first visiting professor of Christianity and ethics at the recently organized International Christian University in Tokyo. Earlier, in 1949, he had participated in the worldwide work of the YMCA as a theological adviser. This took the Brunners to several countries in the Far East for several months. But the position in Japan was of a more permanent nature ~d required that he resign his position at Zurich University. The two-year stay in Japan was exciting and fruitful, despite the hostility of some ministers and church leaders (due to his support of the Mukybkai) and the reserve of some Barthian theologians. Even so, for the Japanese church in general and for young missionaries like myself who heard many of his lectures, Brunner’s impact was incalculable. The rigors of living in isolation in those difficult postwar years took a toll on the Brunners, but they had no regrets.

I became reacquainted with Brunner between 1958 and 1961 while on extended furlough from missionary service in Japan. At this time he was recovering from a stroke and he recognized that he was no longer one of the brightest lummanes m the theological firmament. However, he continued to take a lively interest in theological discussions as he struggled to complete the third and final volume of his Dogmatics. And he never failed to express an interest in Barth’s thought, even though their relationship had not always been amicable. This long but tenuous relationship came to a dramatic climax in November 1968 when the Brunners had an extended visit with the Barths. This "great historic event," as Barth described it, was to be their last encounter. The last communication Brunner received prior to his death in April 1966 was a brief letter of concern and affirmation from Barth.

It is appropriate that the most elaborate celebrations of Brunner ‘s centennial will take place in Zurich. There the Brunner Foundation, in cooperation with the theological faculty of the university and various church and civic groups, is sponsoring a series of lectures and festivities which began in early November with three public forums, followed by an "Emil Brunner Faculty Day" on November 29. The commemoration concluded with an Emil Brunner-Jubiläumstag on December 9-10.

Will Brunner be remembered merely as one of several dialectical theologians, or as the one who debated Barth about natural theology? Some recent histories of Christian theology have reduced him to that size.

However, even after the market for Brunner’s books in the English-speaking world wanes and his students have passed off the scene, and even when his name is forgotten, Brunner’s impact on American theology is likely to continue for a long time. Key concepts such as the personal nature of revelation and faith, truth as encounter, and the christocentric understanding of the church and ethics have entered our theological consciousness. Albert Winn’s concluding remarks in his review of The Theology of Emil Brunner almost 25 years ago are still apropos: "Though Brunner’s system may never become regnant, the great truths for which he has fought throughout a long lifetime will live on to challenge his successors and to be used by them in the theological constructions of the future."


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