Brunner, Emil (1899–1966)

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Emil Brunner was a Swiss theologian. He was educated in Switzerland and served in the Swiss army in 1914. Later he became a pastor and then professor of theology at Zürich. He participated extensively in the work of the World Council of Churches and also for a time in the Moral Re-Armament movement. He lectured on theology in many countries, notably in the United States, Japan, and Scotland.

Brunner's earliest theological positions were typical of Swiss and German Protestantism before 1914. He accepted the liberal theological emphasis on the social and ethical aspects of the Gospel, as well as its stress upon the rational alliance between philosophy and theology. Even in his earliest theological writings he exhibited his personal interest in philosophy in a well-informed discussion of Edmund Husserl, Das Symbolische in der religiösen Erkenntnis (Tübingen, 1914). But after World War I he embarked upon a critique of liberalism that at first seemed to make him the natural ally of Karl Barth. His Die Mystik und das Wort (Tübingen, 1924) is a hostile discussion of Friedrich Schleiermacher's attempt to find a basis for Christianity in the general form of religious experience. Against this, Brunner poses the distinctive claims of Christian revelation, a revelation that cannot be discovered or appropriated through the use of criteria derived from natural theology or private experience.

The adjective much used of Brunner's (and also Barth's) concept of revelation was "dialectical." Theology is dialectical in that its attempts to grasp revelation necessarily involve the use of concepts that in purely philosophical discourse would cancel each other out. So the contradictions that arise, for example, in combining belief in divine goodness and omnipotence with an acknowledgment of the occurrence of physical evil are taken by the dialectical theologian to be simply manifestations of the necessarily paradoxical character of theological concepts. Contradiction is not a sign of intellectual failure, but of the inadequacy of our intellects before the splendor of divine revelation. Thus, if we try to use our ordinary criteria of consistency, we shall fail to grasp revelation at all. The major reason for this is that we shall be at fault if we try to understand revelation as consisting in a set of propositions. When God reveals himself, he does so as a person. Revelation is the act of a person, not the setting out of a doctrine.

It is for this reason that philosophy must necessarily limit its aspirations. The god of whom philosophy speaks is not the God of Christian revelation for at least two reasons. First, he is an inferred entity; and second, he is an object. It is not always clear whether Brunner believes that what philosophy says about God is false or simply inadequate. At times it seems clear that it is the former, yet Brunner is unlike Barth in the stress he puts upon the positive contribution that philosophy can make to theological thinking. Philosophy's role is to be critical, in the Kantian sense. It is to exhibit the limitations of human reason, and so to prevent speculative reason from attempting to occupy territory that belongs by right to revelation.

In revelation, God encounters man as person to person; man cannot argue his way to God by philosophy or discover God apart from the biblical revelation, yet when God calls, man at least can answer. Even this minimal concession to human powers brought Brunner into conflict with Barth. Barth's position, which he outlined in the short, bitter pamphlet Nein! Antwort an Emil Brunner (1934), is that man, totally corrupted by the Fall, cannot advance an inch toward God by means of his natural powers. Grace has to supply even the capacity of responding to God's initiative. Brunner, who always feared the depiction of men as mere puppets, laid great stress on the natural man's capacity for speech and for elementary rationality as a precondition of any response to God.

The contrast between Brunner's theology and both liberalism on the one hand and Barthianism on the other is most marked in Brunner's ethics and social philosophy. Unlike Barth, Brunner believes that the basis for a natural ethics, even if a very limited one, exists. He revives the idea, which is found in Luther, of orders of creation. An order of creation is a social institution or practice of ordinary human origin, not derived from revelation, but shown by biblical evidence to have divine authorization. So Christ blessed monogamy in his appearance at the wedding at Cana and in his utterances about marriage; so he expressed the divine source of the state's authority when he said, "Render unto Caesar " These orders supply human beings with norms to whose validity revelation itself testifies, but for knowledge of which revelation is not necessary. Such norms have the negative function of restraining sin, rather than any positive role. Brunner differs from liberal theology in his belief that no secular morality can hope to provide a satisfactory way of life, but is bound to founder on the sinfulness of human nature.

The key way in which sin manifests itself in human life is in the failure of men, both in theory and in practice, to understand themselves as persons. (It should be noted that it is not clear how far Brunner uses the word person in the same sense when he speaks of God as a person and men as persons. He speaks of God as the "original" person and of men as "derivative" persons, and says that before the Fall men were persons as God is a person. Some analogy is intended, but we are not told how strong the analogy is.) Brunner makes the position of philosophy in respect to human beings parallel to that which he gives it in respect to the knowledge of God. Philosophy as philosophy cannot grasp men as persons, but only as objects and inferred entities. The ghost of the view of both God and the self as Kantian noumena haunts his thought at this point. But it is not only in philosophy that the secular view of man is inadequate. In practice, too, men continually reject their status as persons.

They do this by seeking to be autonomous. The will, as the center of man's rebellion against God, seeks continually to be its own master. The ideal of the self-sufficient individual is one human ideal that must be rejected. Its counterpart, the concept of man in the masscollective manis equally subhuman. But secular thought provides us with no adequate basis for rejecting these alternatives. Only revelation can do this, for it is only in revelation that we discover not only God as a person but also ourselves as persons. This is where Brunner's doctrine of atonement finds its place. What Jesus Christ showed us in his life, death, and resurrection was a love that alone can break our rebellious self-will and that alone can provide us with a model for goodness. Secular ethics can at best exhibit the kind of goodness that can defeat depersonalization as a hypothetical possibility. The revelation of Christ alone makes it actual. Revelation, however, does not provide us with a code that we can then detach from its origin and live by. We must return continually to revelation for renewal. This is in part because of the character of human sin, but it is also in part because we must reassert the personal character of social life in new contexts.

According to Brunner, the depersonalization that is a consequence of technology is distinctive of the contemporary context. Men are degraded to the status of tools and means. The social incarnation of this process is the totalitarian state. For Brunner, totalitarianism is the category ultimately opposed to that of true community, and both Nazism and communism are forms of it. This political judgment took Brunner into further public argument with Karl Barth, on the grounds that Barth's theological views obliterate the moral differences between rival political systems by insisting on the sinfulness of human nature as such.

See also Barth, Karl; Human Nature; Husserl, Edmund; Revelation; Schleiermacher, Friedrich Daniel Ernst.


additional works by brunner

"Religionsphilosophie evangelischer Theologie." In Handbuch der Philosophie (Munich: R. Oldenbourg, 1927). Translated by A. J. D. Farrer and B. L. Woolf as Philosophy of Religion from the Point of View of Protestant Theology. Edinburgh, 1937.

Der Mittler. Tübingen, 1927. Translated by Olive Wyon as The Mediator. New York: Macmillan, 1934.

Das Gebot und die Ordnungen. Tübingen, 1932. Translated by Olive Wyon as The Divine Imperative. London: Lutterworth Press, 1937.

Der Mensch im Widerspruch. Berlin: Furche, 1937. Translated by Olive Wyon as Man in Revolt. London: Scribners, 1939.

Christianity and Civilisation. London: Scribners, 19481949. Parts I and II.

critical study

Kegley, Charles W., ed. The Theology of Emil Brunner. New York: Macmillan, 1962.

Alasdair MacIntyre (1967)