Tuesday, 25 July 2006

For the love of God (25): Why I love Emil Brunner

A guest-post by Jon Mackenzie

“I am inexpressibly grateful that the Lord of my life has granted to me in such abundance these opportunities to take part in the life of his ecclesia and to bear witness to the Living Christ in so many places and in so many ways.” —Emil Brunner

Being an undergraduate in St Mary’s College at St Andrews University, there is little chance you will survive without some knowledge of the giant of twentieth-century theology, Karl Barth. The place is steeped in his legacy, and his name is bandied about throughout the disciplines—in theology, church history, ethics, and even biblical studies. However, being a naturally rebellious type, I quickly tired of the irrational love of Barth among my fellow students (many of whom had only flicked through Dogmatics in Outline), and I sought out ways to shatter their naïve dreams of theological completeness.

And there he appeared in the shadows: a man who was facing the same Sisyphean task as myself; a man who stood up to Karl Barth; a man who provoked Barth to cry “Nein!”; a man who travelled against the grain. These were the circumstances of my introduction to Emil Brunner, peripheral as they were, yet leading to a fully-fledged appreciation of this Swiss theologian.

Of course, “loving a theologian” seldom correlates to “agreeing completely with a theologian.” This is the case with my love of Brunner. Why then do I love Brunner? In reading theology, my main criterion is to be provoked to thought. There are some tomes of theology that I can read without caring at all. But Brunner provokes thoughts that will not go away. His is a theology of the real world. It does not leave you alone. As Wilhelm Pauck said, Brunner’s theology “is a modern theology in the sense that it interprets the gospel in such a way that [people] of today can feel themselves addressed thereby in their particular conditions.”

There are many other reasons why I love Brunner—his books are cheap because they are shadowed by Barth; unusually for a German-speaking theologian, his work is concise; his name has a wonderfully mystic ring; and he had a missionary heart, and served in such places as Japan, Korea, India and Pakistan.

But time has gone, and my words have been few and clumsy. If you ever see that Brunner volume lying forlorn on the dusty shelf of the library or the second-hand bookstore, pick it up. Lose yourself in the pages of a man whose main aim was to meet with the God who communicates himself, and to tell the world of this God who relates.

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