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.


Chris Tilling said...

Great post, Jon!

The very best of this series make me want to pick up a book by the chosen theologian immediately - you succeeded! I haven’t read much Brunner, but what I have, I find to be not only concise, but hits the matter right on the head. One of my favourite quotes:

‘Hier, wo mit erschreckender Klarheit die Distanzen hervortreten, wo der Bindestrich zwischen Menschlichkeit und Göttlichkeit ausgelöscht wird und an seiner Stelle ein Zeichen der Trennung erscheint, ... – hier und hier allein wird Gott erkannt’

Anonymous said...

Good to see Brunner getting a mention in this list. Thanks for the post. Of course, Brunner did once say that PT Forsyth was the greatest English-speaking theologian. Of the many reasons to read him.

Chris TerryNelson said...

Thanks for this post. I studied the theology of Karl Barth at St. Andrews for a semester, and then wrote an honors thesis on the Brunner/Barth correspondence. I'd like to read more Brunner on his own terms, rather than through the lens of Barth or only in terms of their letters. Is there a particulr work you suggest? What about the one on the Doctrine of God?

Jim said...

Excellent work Jon, and you are right on the money. Brunner was a far better theologian than Barth but was eclipsed because of Barth's ridiculous output.

In my estimation Brunner's best work is "Man in Revolt". Now THAT'S a fascinating work and if you read it it sounds amazingly contemporary. (Something that can't be said of most of Barth's stuff, by the way).

Ben Myers said...

Jon, I loved your remark that many students are committed to Barth even though they have "only flicked through Dogmatics in Outline" -- and I think this highlights one of the most significant differences between Barth and Brunner.

Barth once said to Brunner: "They tell me that I am the best known theologian in America." And Brunner replied: "Yes, and I am the most read." An important contrast!

While it may be tempting to admire Barth from a safe distance, Brunner can easily be encountered up close -- he's one of modern theology's most accessible and straightforward thinkers. (Of his books, my own favourite is The Mediator, which I reckon is one of the 20th century's best works on christology.)

Timbo said...

Thanks Jon. I too am deeply indebted to Brunner, and have long admired his work. It is unfortunate that he was so overshadowed Barth, and history has obviously favoured Barth but Brunner deserves more credit than he receives, especially from Barth devotees (which this blog seems to attract by the score...) My favourite Brunner work is 'The Misunderstanding of the Church'. A provocative, energetic, and focussed book, one which did exactly as you said of Brunner's work in general: provoked me to thought.

David Williamson said...

Brunner's Our Faith ranks with CS Lewis's Mere Christianity as an introduction to the Christian faith which engages the mind and the heart.

Michael Westmoreland-White, Ph.D. said...

One of the giants with whom I briefly studied was Dale Moody--officially retired by the time I got to the Baptist seminary. Moody had once lived in Brunner's house in Zurich and commuted to Barth's lectures at Basel. This was when the two Swiss giants weren't speaking to each other--and they kept sending messages through Moody! Moody phrased the messages more politely than either Karl or Emil and so helped to patch their friendship. It helped that he avoided saying anything about general revelation or natural theology. :-)

Another of my teachers, David Mueller, was known as one of the most thorough Barth scholars in the U.S. , but Mueller always made his introduction to theology M.Div. students read Brunner's Dogmatics. Occasionally, I have offered a seminar on "Neo-Reformation Theologians" (for lack of a better term) including Barth, Bonhoeffer, Bultmann, both Niebuhr brothers, Gustav Aulen, Gustav Wingren, D.M. Baillie, T.F. Torrance, Hendrikus Berkhof, and ALWAYS including Emil Brunner.

Jon said...

Thanks for all your kind comments. Ben... Nice picture of Emil. That's another area that Brunner had over Barth... He was a handsome guy eh? Maybe someone should hold a poll for the most good-looking theologian?

Anonymous said...

Yes, thanks, Jon. And, David, Our Faith is a little gem, isn't it? Next to it the Lewis apologetic is, well, "mere".

The personal and theological rivalry between Barth and Brunner - it's a re-run of Luther and Zwingli, don't you think? At the end of the 1529 Marburg Colloquy, Luther's parting shot was, "You have a different spirit from us." So Barth on Brunner - and like Luther, Barth was very much the aggressor.

Yet in the beginning, how's this for simpatico . . . In July 1916, in reply to a letter in which Brunner had confessed that he was miserable because he had little "experience" of God, Barth wrote that he was just the same, then concluded: "It is a question of God, and why do we marvel if he is not in the psychological labyrinth of our religious experience? 'Why seek ye the living among the dead?'"

And at the end . . . In April 1966, in a letter to a mutual acquaintance written (it turned out) just two days before Brunner died, Barth wrote: "Tell him the time when I thought I should say No to him is long since past."

Luther and Zwingli . . . Ali and Frazier - it's those vicious middle rounds of the contest we remember.

Anonymous said...

Can anyone recommend a biography of Brunner?

And, come to think of it, which are the best biographies of Barth?

Anonymous said...

Hi Curious Presbyterian.

Karl Barth (1975) by Barth's colleague and personal assistant Eberhard Busch remains the only full biography, while Busch's The Great Passion (2004) is now probably the best introduction to Barth's theology.

Sorry I can't help you on Brunner.

David Williamson said...

Other than the terrific short story featured on this blog recently, have there been many imaginings of Barth & the gang of his time in literature and film?

John Updike lifted some Barthian idioms for the German pastor in Rabbit, Run, but surely there's potential for a stage play? Just four characters maybe: Barth, Charlotte VK, Emil and Dietrich...?

Jim said...

On Brunner- yes, a brilliant and thorough introduction to both his theology and life-

Der Weg zum Glauben- by Dietmar Lütz.

It's excellent- and very detailed.

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