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Emil Brunner: A Reappraisal
Emil Brunner: A Reappraisal
Alister E. McGrath
Wiley-Blackwell, 2014
264 pp., 106.95

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Stephen N. Williams

Repristinating Brunner

Not least for his medicinal efficacy.

At the start of 2014, the scuttlebutt had it that membership of the class of 20th-century Christian thinkers whose biographies or intellectual biographies had not been written by Alister McGrath was set to dwindle even further. In Emil Brunner: A Reappraisal, the aforementioned wastes no time in scotching the rumor. "This work is not primarily a biography of Brunner, nor an introduction to his theology. It is an exploration of the development of his thought, primarily in the 1920s and 1930s, set against the intellectual and cultural context of the age, leading into an assessment of his theological vision, and an attempt to make connections with our own context." In this contribution, the author is characteristically disciplined in verbal expression and diplomatic in perlocutionary ambition, but something great is at stake: Brunner offers "a powerful, compelling account of the theological enterprise, which cries out to be engaged, assessed, and applied." In fact, "it would be madness not to make better use of" his thought. Whatever its weakneses, it provides us with "a theological platform with considerable potential for the engagement of contemporary cultural concerns."

Direct advocacy of Brunner as a contemporary resource occupies a brief final chapter. The bulk of the volume is expository. Its first and longer part takes us from Brunner's theological beginnings up to his important Truth as Encounter in 1937 and the brief spell in Princeton prior to World War II. The second treats "Brunner's Vision for Post-war Theological Reconstruction." Précis of Brunner's most important works is embedded in biographical narrative. Geographically, the story is centered on Zurich, where Brunner was born (1889), appointed as Professor of Systematic and Practical Theology (1924), and in whose proximity he died (1966), having lived most of his life there. There are other significant places, notably the United States and also Tokyo, where Brunner briefly served as Professor of Christianity at the International Christian University.

Like Barth, Emil Brunner began as a theological liberal; like Barth, he ministered as a pastor in Switzerland, and, like Barth, he was theologically shaken by the Great War. The shadow of Barth falls heavily across McGrath's book because it fell heavily across Brunner's life, personal and intellectual factors being intertwined. McGrath shows that Brunner's move in the direction of what became known as dialectical theology was independent of Barth, and the form which that theology took differed from the form which it took in Barth's case. The celebrated dispute over natural theology, accorded the longest chapter in the book, only brought to wide public attention these differences. In fact, it was not really a dispute over natural theology, but over revelation in creation, theological anthropology, and the accompanying theological task. Neither disputant was at his best in this exchange, and McGrath describes how Brunner reformulated and clarified his position in such subsequent works as Man in Revolt and Revelation and Reason. This latter was published during World War II, but the "main phase of his theological development was essentially complete with the publication of Truth as Encounter," and after the war, community, culture, church, and state occupied much of Brunner's theological attention in his growing capacity as public intellectual. His status in this respect was affirmed by an honorary doctorate in law, awarded by the University of Berne in 1948, and the Grand Merit Cross bestowed by the president of the Federal Republic of Germany 12 years later. Five years before this last award, Brunner had suffered the first of his strokes; his health never recovered, and in 1966 the end came. So, at the end, came personal reconciliation with Karl Barth.

In his preface, McGrath announces that "Brunner has not been refuted; he has been neglected." Why the post-1960s neglect, since his influence arguably exceeded that of any other theologian on American theologians and preachers over the previous three decades? Barth's theological power is obviously a big factor. However, (a) superficiality in Brunner's engagement with Scripture, (b) stylistic unattractiveness in his writing, and (c) his tendency to be dismissive in relation to opponents all made their contribution to his demise. Why should he be rehabilitated within the Reformed tradition in which he operated? Because (a) he offers us "a theology of nature" as the "basis of natural law, theology and science"; (b) he lays down theological foundations for a culturally engaged apologetic; (c) he promotes a compelling personalistic schema in theology; and (d) he displays healthy "theological modesty" in his anti-speculative approach to the doctrine of the Trinity. So McGrath argues.

Within his self-imposed constraints, McGrath has written a most satisfying, persuasive, and significant volume. Although we are given plenty of interesting and illuminating detail, we get relatively little acquainted with Brunner the man, still less with the fortunes and tragedies of wife and family—but McGrath has told us at the outset that this is not a biography. We would not learn, from McGrath's account, that Brunner would describe the theology of prayer as "the touchstone of all theology" or know either of the centrality of love in Brunner's thought or of the depth of his theological engagement with Luther and with soteriology, his philosophical engagement with Kant and with selfhood—but, adamantly, this is not a criticism. Further, if the power of Brunner's writing does not always come through, it is no fault of McGrath; it is as much as he can be expected to do to convey its substance, and he does indicate that there are more riches to be uncovered. I mention these things solely to encourage further reading of Brunner. It would take a much longer and different kind of book to fill in all these gaps, whereas what we need is exactly what we get: an informative outline of Brunner's thought and the case for its repristination. Only careful reflection and erudite examination could accomplish what McGrath has accomplished. His productivity is well known, but expository clarity and evaluative balance are also amongst the familiar attributes on display here, along with a comprehensive knowledge of his subject and of the surrounding German-language literature. This serves him in good stead as he locates Brunner's thought in its social and political, as well as theological, context. In both material substance and intellectual quality, this is a fine work; both the account and the advocacy seem to me pretty well dead on target.

I am not immediately persuaded by two of the three reasons which McGrath offers to explain how Brunner contributed to his own demise. First, I cannot in Brunner find the detail allegedly so overwhelming that it puts theological readers off; characteristically, Brunner adds appendices or excursus when he wants to elaborate. Also, the English translation usually reads well enough; if a later theological generation had difficulty with it, it surely says more about the generation than the style. Second, I do not usually find him too one-sidedly dismissive. Whether he is dealing with his contemporaries (e.g., Barth, Gogarten, or Bultmann) or past thinkers (e.g., Augustine, Anselm, or Fichte), the attitude seems balanced. Was not the problem with Brunner after the 1960s that he was too liberal for evangelicals and too evangelical for liberals? The massive space in between was filled by the matchingly massive figure of Karl Barth, and modern theologies spawned out of or subsequent to theologies of liberation made Brunner seem a man of his, rather than of our, time.

On the other hand, and far more important, the four reasons for rehabilitating Brunner are convincing. First, it is a gain if we can speak positively of natural law in our day and if reason is given its proper scope in such a way that it is never overestimated or unduly trusted, its identification as a source of knowledge subject to the reality checks of divine revelation and our fallen condition. McGrath importantly brings out in this connection Brunner's emphasis on justice under the shadow of totalitarianism. Given McGrath's detailed engagement with the work of Thomas Torrance, it would be interesting to know whether he thinks that each Reformed theologian provides something lacking in the other when he says that "Brunner's theological framework creates conceptual space for dialogue between theology and the natural sciences."

Second, Brunner provides a theological engagement for apologetics. Contra Barth, Brunner came to see that the task of the theologian is not simply to adumbrate the doctrinal content of Christian teaching without a direct apologetic aim, but also to think theologically about life and the world in a consciously apologetic endeavor. McGrath's treatment of the Barth-Brunner controversy is even-handed; although he agrees with Brunner's underlying aim, he does not hesitate either to point out any particular shortcomings nor to sympathize in particular respects with Barth. (In his sermons on the book of Job, Calvin maintained that Job argued the right case but argued it badly while his comforters argued the wrong case but argued it well. With modification, I venture the irenic suggestion that we cast Brunner and Barth respectively in the role of Job and his comforters.) Perhaps we could add to McGrath's account the observation that the theological heart of Barth's resistance to general revelation was that "God" names the Father, Son, and Spirit constituted quoad nos by gracious self-communication. Precisely how to describe Barth here has been the subject of intense controversy, so this formulation is contestable, but it would apparently follow that, if God is not thus known, he is not known at all; he is not thus known by general revelation; therefore, general revelation gives us no knowledge of God. This is what we must counter in order to get a contra-Barthian argument for theological apologetics off the ground of general revelation, but Brunner was right to get some argument off something like that ground!

Third, McGrath lauds Brunner's personalism in terms of a "defence of relational identity," and this takes in Brunner's interest in the connection between theology and existential analysis. However, it is less this than the importance of personalism in a depersonalized world which McGrath highlights in his brief remarks on this theme. There is much which we can still profitably glean from such works as Christianity and Civilization, which McGrath does not discuss, and The Divine Imperative or Justice and the Social Order, which he does. Here, we might note a corrigendum to McGrath's exposition. It is mistaken to say, as he does earlier, that Brunner believed that the State belongs to the order of creation. In the text in question, The Divine Imperative, Brunner did not deny that the State had something to do with the order of creation, but, like the Law, it does not actually belong to the created order. In "Nature and Grace," Brunner says that it belongs to the order of preservation rather than of creation. However, in Justice and the Social Order, Brunner allows that the State belongs to the order of creation from one point of view but that, from another, it does not, and that we need both perspectives.

Fourth, Brunner puts the doctrine of the Trinity in perspective: he believes in the Trinity, but it is a confession which we cannot and should not try to elaborate along speculative lines. It is (my way of putting it) the terminus rather than the proper object of theological reflection. In this connection, one might expand on Brunner's anti-speculative convictions to the extent of connecting them with a point worth making independently with reference to the strength of his argument against seeking the logical consistency of system. McGrath may or may not want to take things as far as this. In relation to the Trinity, his claim that Brunner "does not treat the doctrine [of the Trinity] as the foundation of anything" is an overstatement. In The Mediator, Brunner says that revelation is unintelligible without the idea of the Trinity and that all Christian theological statements are grounded in it, a conviction echoed elsewhere. Belief that God is ontologically triune is fundamental; doctrinal conceptions are secondary and constitute the usual subject of his discourse on the Trinity.

Alister McGrath commands a wide readership, including many North American evangelicals. For many of them—and not them only—the big problem with taking Brunner seriously will be his view of Scripture. There is much here in Brunner which disappoints, both in substance and in quality. Nevertheless, it would be a pity if this prevented access to his thought. The spiritual and moral decay of our time is such that the significance of a project to use Brunner in the cause of theological renewal must be judged as much in terms of its medicinal efficacy as of its intellectual merit. McGrath has got us off to a very good start.

Stephen N. Williams is professor of systematic theology at Union Theological College in Belfast, Northern Ireland. He is the author most recently of The Election of Grace: A Riddle Without a Resolution? (Eerdmans).

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