Emil Brunner revisited


In a previous post, we looked at D. Stephen Long’s new study of Balthasar. Now, I am also excited to announce Alister McGrath’s latest, Emil Brunner: A Reappraisal. I assume that McGrath’s interest in Brunner is an extension of his recent work in natural theology. This includes The Open Secret: A New Vision for Natural Theology, as well as his 2009 Gifford Lectures at Aberdeen (published here) and his 2009-10 Hulsean Lectures at Cambridge (published here).

Emil Brunner was one of the most creative theologians working within the expansive movement of “mediating theology,” though with a decisively Kantian orientation that stressed the Creator’s transcendence (not “becoming” through creation). Barth saw that he was basically a mediating theologian, regardless of Brunner’s severe criticisms of Schleiermacher and the whole prior century of theology. They were both Swiss Reformed pastors in the 1910’s, professors of dogmatic theology by the 1920’s, and collaborators in the fledgling movement of Reformation retrieval in the service of dialectical criticism of the liberal hegemony in church and academy. As Barth’s rejection of natural theology became more comprehensive and clear, he broke ranks with Brunner, receiving notorious attention with the publication of No!, in response to Brunner’s Nature and GraceThis is not Barth at his conciliatory best, and he would later express some regret for his treatment of Brunner. For an insider’s account of their relationship, see this interview with I. John Hesselink.

As I look at my bookshelves, I own thirteen volumes of Brunner’s translated works. My own focus and stimulus has been provided more by Barth, who Brunner recognized as obviously the most important theologian of their day, but Brunner is stimulating and challenging in his own way. He was, after all, one of the first theologians to accurately gauge the significance of Barth’s project, including the radical reversal of nature-grace and law-gospel (to grace-nature and gospel-law), which Brunner thought was a rather presumptuous thing to do! John W. Hart has a fascinating account of the Barth-Brunner correspondence in For the Sake of the World.

A good place to begin with Brunner is his important work in christology, The Mediator (1927), which is available free online. His books are still published by Lutterworth Press in the UK, but you can easily find used copies for a reasonable price. His other works include Reason and Revelation (prolegomena), Man in Revolt (anthropology), The Divine Imperative (ethics), and his Gifford Lectures at St. Andrews in 1948, Christianity and Civilization, in 2 volumes. There are also a few collections of sermons and a three-volume Dogmatics.

David Gilland (Leuphana Universität Lüneburg) has recently published a fine study, Law and Gospel in Emil Brunner’s Earlier Dialectical Theology. He has also translated the Barth-Brunner letters, which should be published in the near future.

For a certain type of evangelical who is hyper-sensitive to “biblical authority” issues, you will not like Brunner. I have my own criticisms. But please, it is time to expand your horizons and start reading outside of the Crossway orbit. In fact, Brunner is actually the finest exponent of Free Church ecclesiology that I have ever read, as expressed in the third volume of his Dogmatics and elsewhere. He was a pietist at heart. See “Billy Graham among the theologians.”



    • No, I have not. It has been on my to-read list for a while. I appreciate the little I have read of his science and religion writings — so I have been interested to see how he approaches natural theology.

      By the way, Paul Moser (an evangelical philosopher at Loyola Chicago) has been appropriating Brunner and associated figures like P. T. Forsyth. Moser is criticized, not surprisingly, for being more of a theologian than a philosopher, which I think he would consider as a compliment.

      • Interesting. McGrath is, as far as I know, developing Torrance’s theology, which is interesting. I’ve not read his own ‘Scientific Theology’ books either though, so I don’t know how well he’s doing. He’s a hell of an intellect when he’s not doing apologetics, which I don’t think he’s very good at.

      • Yes, I agree. Brunner’s theology integrates a type of apologetics (“eristics” as he called it), which may help sharpen McGrath’s own approach.

      • Hm. I’ve actually never read Brunner firsthand, though I’m of course familiar with his basic thought through my reading of Barth. I recall hearing that Brunner held that believing in the Virgin Birth wasn’t realy necessary to Christian faith, or something like that.

  1. Yes, he was agnostic on the virginal conception, which has not endeared him to an evangelical audience. I obviously disagree with Brunner, strongly, but I think it is illustrative of his consistently pietist approach (and Buber’s “personalism”). The I-Thou was everything for Brunner, and the virginal conception is non-essential to this encounter. Brunner was not interested in conciliar catholicity. His ecclesiology is thoroughly Free Church. Only the gospel, as an encounter with the Risen Lord, unites Christians.

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