Brown’s Believing Thinking, Bounded Theology

Here’s another review — or more like a glimpse with reflections.

Cynthia Bennett Brown is the Lecturer in Systematic and Philosophical Theology at Belfast Bible College, a constituent college of Queen’s University Belfast.

Brown wrote her dissertation at Queen’s on Emil Brunner, and it was published as Believing Thinking, Bounded Theology: The Theological Methodology of Emil Brunner.

The purpose of this volume, just shy of 200 pages, is to introduce and commend the theology of Emil Brunner. The subtitle indicates a focus on method, which invariably takes us across a broad range of doctrinal territory. This focus is appropriate, because Brunner himself was concerned with method, as was nearly everyone in the wake of modern criticism: philosophical, historical, biblical, and dogmatic. No field was untouched. Each is bumping against each other, scurrying to and fro underneath criticism’s knife.

Brunner didn’t fear the knife. The best known feature of Brunner’s theology is the I-Thou encounter. It is herein that Brunner is strengthened in his conviction of Christ’s sufficiency, and it is a sufficiency for knowledge of God. This takes us to the characteristic Brunnerian emphasis on transformation and personal involvement. As Brown puts it, “He maintains that the knowledge of faith is not an enterprise by which the knower possesses the thing known, but rather a process that transforms the knower …that of knowing God personally. His claim is a battle cry to twentieth century theology to bring the study of God back to its absolute subject” (14). And this brings us to a favored antithesis in Brunner between the “active” and the “static,” which is a distinction that covers much of twentieth century theology’s self-differentiation from its predecessors in scholastic theology, especially within a confessional apologetic (notably the Lutheran and Reformed systems). Brunner is all about the active and dynamic, the personal and narratival — to wit, the biblical. This is characteristic of dialectical theology or at least one influential form of it.

In our day, we have seen a vigorous and valiant return of scholasticism, both Catholic and Protestant. In my observation, it is inevitable that a succeeding generation will want to distinguish itself from its predecessors, finding blind spots and weaknesses in the hopes of making its own mark. The dialectical theologians did this in regard to their predecessors and were every bit as polemical about it. By and large, I do not have a problem with this. We are undoubtedly the beneficiaries of a more refined understanding of the scholastics in our day. Likewise, we benefited from the “crisis” of the dialectical generation in response to the liberal and conservative forms that preceded them.

My problem is when these new shifts and correctives are given undue weight and prestige. It is as if they — the vanguards of the latest advance — will endure for all time. They somehow forget that another generation will surely do to them what they did to their predecessors! That is why humility and modesty is in order.

Brown’s book is therefore refreshing. It is about a theologian who was widely popular in his day and well beyond his beloved Swiss homeland, but today he is less well-known and the little known is invariably in relation to the famous confrontation with Barth over natural theology. That is unfortunate and not only because Barth’s interpretation of Romans 1 is more than a little idiosyncratic. While it is true that Brunner probably did not fully engage the “radical” or “apocalyptic” (to offer two buzz words, nonetheless helpful) within Barth’s theological revolution — hence, the idiosyncrasy in Barth — Brunner is still worthy of our attention. If a test for a theologian’s value is the edification of the reader, then both Barth and Brunner are abundantly worthy of our attention.

Brown focuses on Brunner’s mature work, most of which has been translated. Brunner was blessed to have Olive Wyon as a translator for English readers, which brought Brunner to a wider audience, closely pacing the original work in German. I recommend starting with Brunner’s christology volume, Der Mittler, first published in 1927 (2nd ed. 1932) and then in English in 1934: The MediatorI always recommend starting with a theologian’s own work before consulting secondary sources. After The Mediator or Man in Revolt or any other volume, take a look at Brown’s book for a reliable overview of Brunner.

Brown stays close to Brunner’s work. She does not engage with the present-day interests and later developments with which I am interested, as discussed above. Presumably she is also interested in such matters, but they are not among the objectives in this monograph. I would have liked to see such an interaction, whether at the beginning or end of the volume, and I think it would have greatly enhanced its value to the reader. Even so, the merits of the book remain.

My own theological trajectory has taken me into areas that are rather far from Brunner’s project. I am not satisfied by Brunner’s claim that we must deal with “narrative and verbal language” in contrast to “ontological statements,” even if the former is the privileged biblical form of revelation (see p. 17). I am a both/and sort of guy nowadays, woe is me! Yet, I am constantly in need of Brunner’s reminder that “when truth is personal we are accountable to the divine person,” as Brown expresses it (p. 29).


Pickwick Publications, an imprint of Wipf & Stock, sent a copy of this book for the purpose of offering an assessment without incentive.


  1. Sometimes I get the feeling that the cycle between scholasticism’s attempt to unify and then a dialectical break-away is a sure sign of a problem, rather than the natural cycle of scholarship. Well, maybe it is the natural cycle of scholarship, but maybe theology isn’t just scholarship. Obviously, you know I sympathize with the both/and, but that, itself, might not be a solution. As an acquaintance put it, referring to Mercersburg, taking two crooked houses and joining them together just makes one large crooked house.

    • Then I would like to know what the alternative to the crooked house looks like, on this side of the eschaton. A theology that can transcend or overcome the tension/cycle would be impressive. It is, as far as I can tell, unknown to us.

      • It’s not that it’s not both/and, but it is in a way that categorically escapes the see-saw, which I see as dependent on method. I’m not saying it’s the answer, at least not exactly, but there are reasons why scholasticism in Byzantium shriveled over the centuries, and it was not because it lost to a dialectical theology.

      • Sorry, I keep sending the comment in before I’m actually done commenting!

        Though I am intrigued by recent work Ephraim Radner has been doing, which is a kind of both/and but dependent perhaps on a methodological biblicism. I’m not sure it’s right either, but it’s a way of kicking out the back-and-forth of German philosophy, which I think is what instigates the cycle you describe. Is there a way to be neither pro-modern nor anti-modern? Can the paradigm be side-stepped? My historical contingency doesn’t show me, but I have hope that we can escape the paradigm’s totem status.

    • Maybe Dennis Hopper can illuminate the dialectical dilemma for us:

      Okay, sorry – I just think of that scene every time I see the word “dialectics”…

      Welcome back!

      • Ha, I’ve actually never seen Apocalypse Now. Nice to hear from you, Joel!

  2. Those are the right questions. I do not think the paradigm can be side-stepped, and I am openly indebted to the Germans (and French, as of late, more so…more profoundly so). The contingent is our bete noire, so it seems.

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