Brunner, Emil

views updated May 18 2018


BRUNNER, EMIL (18891966), Swiss Protestant theologian. Brunner was a critic of liberalism and secularism. His writing on knowledge and faith was influenced by Kant; his stress on religious experience by Kierkegaard and Husserl; and his stress on God's transcendence and the need for vigorous social and political action by Luther and Calvin.

Brunner anticipated Martin Buber's notion of the I-Thou relationship, elucidating throughout his Dogmatics the encounter between humanity and God as humanity's most significant existential experience. In The Divine Imperative, Brunner argues that the source of Christian ethics lies in God's imperative. He deemed personhood to be the center of human-divine interaction, deploring the reductionism of positivism and behaviorism. Although sympathetic to philosophy, he opposed its attempts to stand in judgment of theology, as well as attempts by Paul Tillich and others to use such philosophical terms as being and ground of being in reference to God. In contrast to Barth, Brunner asserted that even sinful man can attain some knowledge of God but that, apart from the Christian revelation, this knowledge has no salvific value.

Brunner's theology is rich in the areas of ethics and sociopolitical thought. We are told in his The Divine Imperative, Christianity and Civilization, and Justice and the Social Order that God's command is to love and that the person who has faith in Jesus Christ responds to God's love by living a life of hope and love in "orders of creation"the family, the economy, the state, the culture, and the church. Though the New Testament contains no blueprint for a socio-economic-political order, Brunner believed that human institutions could be informed by love and by justice in the service of God.


Brunner's three-volume Dogmatics (Zurich, 19461960) is the definitive statement of his theology. The first two volumes have been translated into English by Olive Wyon, and the third by David Cairns and T. H. L. Parker (Philadelphia, 19501962). Crucial to an understanding of Brunner's ethics and his Reformed stance is Das Gebot und die Ordnungen (Tübingen, 1932), translated by Olive Wyon as The Divine Imperative (Philadelphia, 1947). The existentialist and personal aspects of Brunner's thought are best exhibited in Wahrheit als Begegnung (Berlin, 1938), translated by Amandus W. Loos as The Divine-Human Encounter (Philadelphia, 1943), and Der Mittler (Tübingen, 1927), translated by Olive Wyon as The Mediator: A Study of the Central Doctrine of the Christian Faith (Philadelphia, 1947). For a critical evaluation of all Brunner's works, see my The Theology of Emil Brunner (New York, 1962). This volume contains works by Brunner, interpretative essays, replies to these essays by Brunner, and a complete bibliography.

Charles W. Kegley (1987)

Emil Brunner

views updated May 14 2018

Emil Brunner

Emil Brunner (1889-1966), Swiss Reformed theologian, was a principal contributor to what came to be known popularly (though inaccurately) as "neo-orthodoxy," which was in opposition to late 19th and early 20th century "liberal" Protestant theology.

Emil Brunner was born at Winterthur, near Zurich, Switzerland, on December 23, 1889. After completing his early education at the Gymnasiumin Zurich in 1908, he pursued advanced studies at the Universities of Zurich and Berlin, receiving the Doctor of Theology degree from the former institution in 1913. His formal education included a year of post-doctoral studies at Union Theological Seminary in New York in 1919-1920. In later years he was to receive honorary degrees from a number of the most prestigious centers of learning on the continent of Europe, in Great Britain, and in the United States.

From 1916 to 1924 Brunner was pastor of a small congregation in the mountain village of Obstalden in the Canton of Glarus in Switzerland. From 1945 to 1955 he occupied the Chair of Systematic and Practical Theology at the University of Zurich.

In the early 1920s Brunner became loosely associated with a small group of theologians who like himself had become disillusioned by the reigning "liberal" religious thought in which they had been trained. The group (which included Karl Barth, Eduard Thurneysen, Georg Merz, and Rudolf Bultmann) was to initiate a revolution in Protestant theology. Awakened to the inadequacies of liberalism by the catastrophe of World War I and appalled in particular by the pervasive notion of human "progress," these men (in the spirit of the Reformation of the 16th century) set about the task of regrounding faith firmly and solely in the self revelation of God in Christ. The movement begun by these men is variously alluded to as "the theology of crisis," "dialectical theology," "neo-orthodoxy," "neo-Protestantism," "Barthian Theology," or any one of several other designations. It was publicized through a new journal of religion entitled Zwischen den Zeiten ("Between the Times") which the group had established for that purpose.

Some of these men turned their attention to problems of New Testament hermeneutics (interpretaton of the Bible) or to a reinterpretation of culture and civilization. Brunner and Barth, however, each working independently, began intensive life-long labors in the area of systematic theology.

In Christian theology Brunner was unquestionably one of the two or three most eminent system builders of the 20th century. His method was to publish a preparatory volume on each of the cardinal doctrines of the faith and then to distill the whole in a comprehensive system of dogmatics. The titles of his books, and numerous phrases in them, became favorite modes of expression of key ideas for a whole generation of professionals in theology. Always the exponent of a living faith, he was sensitive to the great issues of that faith as demonstrated in distinguished performance at the writing desk, in the classroom and pulpit, on the lecture platform, and at conference tables around the world.

He was a theologians' theologian, yet he was a simple believer and churchman who spoke meaningfully to the generality of men. He professed to regard himself as first a preacher of the gospel and only then as also a theologian. He was critically sensitive, moreover, to the actual contest within which theology must take place. He wrote and spoke consciously, therefore, to 20th century man, believing that no artificial barriers should hinder the faith of those who belong by destiny to this particular stage of history. Holding that the gospel has its own inherent "offence," he was unwilling that any extraneous material should unnecessarily scandalize modern thinking men.

Apart from the Reformed tradition in which he was nurtured, three contemporary movements helped to mold his thought. The first was the religious socialist movement, which in its Swiss form had a firm Christological grounding. A second was the Oxford Group Movement, which for a time seemed to offer insights for the renewal of the church. And a third was the "I-Thou philosophy" of Soren Kierkegaard, Ferdinand Ebner, and Martin Buber, which helped Brunner toward a new understanding of truth.

From 1930 until the end of his life he was at the forefront of the ecumenical movement. From 1953 to 1955 he labored in the establishment of the International Christian University in Japan, thus crowning a career-long concern for missionary service.

Brunner was married and had four sons. He died, following a lengthy illness, on April 6, 1966.

Among his writings were: The Mediator; The Divine Imperative; Our Faith; Man in Revolt; Truth as Encounter; Revelation and Reason: The Christian Doctrine of Creation and Redemption; The Christian Doctrine of the Church, Faith, and the Consummation; The Misunderstanding of the Church; and Eternal Hope.

Further Reading

There is no extended biography of Emil Brunner in print. He left two autobiographical sketches: See "a Spiritual Autobiography" in the Japan Christian Quarterly (July 1955) and "Intellectual Autobiography" in Charles W. Kegley, editor, The Theology of Emil Brunner. Limited biographical data are available in a number of books and journal articles which are devoted primarily to his thought. See Dale Moody, "An Introduction to Emil Brunner," in The Review and Expositor (July 1947); J. R. Nelson, "Emil Brunner: Teacher Unsurpassed," in Theology Today (January 1963); and "Emil Brunner—The Final Encounter," in The Christian Century (April 20, 1966). See also Paul K. Jewett, Emil Brunner: An Introduction to the Man and His Thought (1961) and J. Edward Humphrey, Emil Brunner (1976). □

Brunner, Heinrich Emil

views updated Jun 27 2018


Protestant theologian; b. Winterthur, Switzerland, Dec. 23, 1889; d. Zurich, April 6, 1966. An influential proponent of dialectical theology, together with Karl Barth, he led the movement away from nineteenth-century theological liberalism in favor of neo-orthodoxy.

Brunner studied theology in Zurich, Berlin, and Union Theological Seminary in New York City, and taught at the University of Zurich from 1924 until 1966. He also lectured at Princeton Theological Seminary (193839) and the Christian University of Japan (195355); because of his travels and the rapid translation of his works into English, he formed an important bridge between American and European theology. His continual concern to apply Christian theology to social problems led him from an early commitment to religious socialism to a passionate opposition to totalitarianism and communism, whose anthropological basis, according to Brunner, was atheism and the devaluation of the individual before the state. He was an ardent ecumenist, although he did not see any great value in organizational unity.

The key to Brunner's thought is his concept of the dialectical relationship between philosophy and theology, faith and reason, the gospel and the law. Philosophy does make a positive contribution to the theological enterprise by delimiting the boundaries of human reason and establishing a basis for a natural ethics. There are "orders of creation" that supply norms to which revelation itself testifies. But the philosophical experience of God is at best paradoxical; as Kierkegaard pointed out, no synthesis based on human reason is possible. In contrast to philosophy, revelation comes only through a personal encounter with Christ as mediated through scripture. In Jesus Christ, God discloses himself as Person whom man must acknowledge in an I-Thou relationship. Indeed, man can only be understood as a being-in-response. Man, as the image of God, is personally related and totally responsible to the holy, loving God. But man is also in revolt against God and can be saved only by the effective action of Christ the mediator who enables man to achieve integrity through personal communion with God and his fellow men.

Bibliography: e. brunner, Revelation and Reason (Philadelphia 1946); The Mediator (1947); The Divine Imperative (1947); Man in Revolt (1947); Dogmatics, 3 v. (195061). c. kegley, ed., Theology of Emil Brunner (New York 1962). r. thompson, The Function and Limits of Faith and Reason: A Critique of Brunner's Methodology (Chicago 1970). m. g. mckim, Emil Brunner: A Bibliography (Lanham, MD 1996). j. e. humphrey, Emil Brunner (Waco, TX 1976).

[t. mcfadden]

Brunner, Heinrich Emil

views updated Jun 08 2018

Brunner, Heinrich Emil (1889–1966). Christian (Swiss Reformed) theologian, for most of his working life Professor of Theology at Zurich. He maintained a distinct position from Karl Barth, but endeavoured to retain a dialectical theology, with the utter distinctiveness of God nevertheless already ‘prepared for’, by way of recognition, in his creation. Thus in The Mediator (1927, 1934) he claimed that the command to love God wholly and solely is unrealistic apart from Christ's own fulfilment of it which opens the way to our own.