Favorite Theologian Revisited: Emil Brunner (Review of Alister McGrath’s Book: Part One)

A Favorite Theologian Revisited: Emil Brunner (Review of Alister McGrath’s Book: Part One)

My heart leaped when I saw the announcement of Alister McGrath’s new book Emil Brunner: A Reappraisal (Wiley Blackwell, 2014). Then my heart sank when I saw the price: $83.79 on Amazon! And it’s only 246 pages. (The Kindle version is less expensive but still pricey and I knew I had to own the book in hardcover!) Still, I had to buy it. I couldn’t even wait to find out if I could get a complimentary copy by promising to review it here. (That sometimes works with some publishers.)

I know I’m different. Okay…the right word might be eccentric or even weird. I love theology. I devour theology—especially if it resonates with both my head and heart. Emil Brunner’s does. Always has.

Many, many young evangelicals of growing up in the 1950s and 1960s and attending seminary in the 1960s and 1970s found Brunner’s theology a breath of fresh air. That’s especially true if we were trying to find a middle way between fundamentalism and liberalism. Over the years I’ve talked to many evangelical like that—like me. Most say the same: Brunner’s theology liberated them from fundamentalism and saved them from liberalism.

Many of us find it sad that Bunner has been eclipsed by Barth. According to McGrath (and I knew this before), Brunner introduced British and American audiences to “dialectical theology”—what later came to be called “neo-orthodoxy”—in the 1920s and 1930s. Brunner’s British and American studies and later lectures and early English translations of his early books served to make him the paradigm of dialectical theology, theology of crisis, neo-orthodoxy in English-speaking lands. Then, eventually, he was largely eclipsed by Barth as Church Dogmatics was translated into English.

In my opinion, a kind of cult has built up around Barth and his theology. Don’t get me wrong; I love Barth, too. But I find his writing extremely challenging to understand. Some months ago I published here, on my blog, an article I wrote about Barth’s qualified universalism. This and many other subjects were discussed and stated by Barth in such subtle and often oblique ways that it’s almost possible to think he was being intentionally coy about them. I find Brunner much easier to understand. His writing is much clearer and his positions on theological subjects are much more straightforward. You know where he stands on them.

But the main reason I prefer Brunner to Barth is the former’s heart. I find Barth’s theology intellectually stimulating but not particularly heart-warming. Brunner’s is both. He emphasizes the necessary roles of the Holy Spirit and personal faith in Christian existence. To put it bluntly, there is an element of Pietism (in the best sense) in Brunner’s theology missing in Barth’s. But McGrath rightly distances Brunner’s experiential emphasis from Schleiermacher’s. For Brunner, Christian experience of God through Jesus Christ is a crisis of divine-human encounter in which a person must make a life-altering decision. For Schleiermacher it is the flowering of a religious a priori—the universal human God-consciousness. The difference couldn’t be more stark. People who confuse them simply haven’t studied either deeply enough.

McGrath helpfully sketches out the context in which Brunner was embraced especially in America in the 1920s and 1930s. American theology was caught up in a false either-or between liberals such as Kirsopp Lake (Harvard Divinity School) and fundamentalists J. Gresham Machen (Princeton Seminary and then Westminster). Brunner provided an alternative, a via media, a middle way not just between but around that false dilemma. McGrath quotes from an early American lecture in which Brunner said that both fundamentalism and modernism (liberal theology) represent the same tendency—”a misplaced and uncritical quest for [rational] certainty.” (59)

The first chapters of McGrath’s intellectual biography of Brunner focus much on his British and American lectures—many of which were never published in German and exist only in obscure journals difficult now to find or in books like Word and World now long out of print and difficult to find. In these lectures Brunner could sound very evangelical. And he anticipated many themes of later, more mature evangelical theology. For example, today we hear much about “missional church” and even “missional orthodoxy.” Here is something Brunner said in London in 1931: “The Church exists by mission, just as a fire exists by burning. Where there is no mission there is no Church; and where there is neither Church nor mission, there is no faith.” (77)

This is typical Brunner. Whenever I read him (and now reading about him in McGrath’s book) I am deeply impressed by how he anticipated and forged the path for later moderate-to-progressive Protestant orthodoxy, what I call “postconservative evangelicalism,” and how (I believe) much that many people tout as “new” and “exciting” in moderate-to-progressive Protestant orthodoxy, postconservative evangelicalism, was made possible by Brunner. Most contemporaries know little about how influential his theology was in Britain and America especially in the middle of the 20th century and how it “trickled down” via seminary systematic theology courses into the warp and woof of British and American “middle way” theology and even into evangelical theology.

McGrath marches chronologically through Brunner’s theological career—mentioning Barth often as he goes. They were the two giants of Swiss theology and later of Protestant theology in general in the middle years of the 20th century. Unfortunately (I think) Brunner has almost completely been forgotten whereas Barth’s star keeps rising as articles and books and dissertations about his theology keep being published.

Early on in their turns toward dialectical theology Barth and Brunner were friends and comrades. Then Barth began to suspect Brunner of being infected by natural theology—to Barth the ultimate enemy of Christianity. In his first major book The Mediator Brunner discussed “eristics”—a kind of apologetic task of Christian theology in which it debates non-Christian ideologies and world views. Barth thought he detected a dangerous hint of natural theology there and began to criticize Brunner. Then Brunner laid out his “natural theology,” which was not really natural theology at all, in Nature and Grace (1934). There he criticized Barth for over reacting to natural theology by throwing out general revelation and the imago dei as “points of contact” for the gospel. And, of course, as all students of 20th century theology know, Barth responded with his Nein!.

I have always sided with Brunner in this debate with Barth. I think Barth either misunderstood Brunner’s view or decided to misrepresent it and attack a straw man rather than what Brunner really said. But I’ll return to that in my next installment. (McGrath includes an entire chapter on the Barth-Brunner Debate in the book here under review.)

I’ll end Part One of this review (which is really as much or more a recommendation of Brunner as/than a review of McGrath’s book—I’m using the latter as an opportunity for the former!) with a personal testimony.

During my seminary years reading Brunner and hearing my systematic theology professor’s lectures about him and his theology absolutely revolutionized my theological and spiritual life. I emerged from a fundamentalist college nearly totally confused. There I found almost only more questions embedded in the absolutistic but often irrational answers delivered in classes with the implied (and sometimes explicit) caveat “Eat up little birdies, or die!” (a German saying). One day toward the end of my final year in college, where I was majoring in theology, I asked my favorite professor to recommend a higher level book of theology for me to buy and read. My intention was to attempt to discover whether, within the genre of religion I was encountering in college, I might find answers missing in the rather simplistic readings and lectures. My professor recommended that I buy and read Things to Come by Dallas Theological Seminary professor Dwight Pentecost. So I dutifully and with some excitement went to the local Christian bookstore and bought it. It was a rather large and expensive tome. I began to read it with excitement as I sensed a calling to become a theologian.

I almost gave up on that calling about halfway through Things to Come—a dense exposition of dispensational eschatology. Even as a wet-behind-the-ears twenty-two year old I knew this was not what I was looking for. I saw huge gaps in Pentecost’s argument and weakness (to say the least!) in his exegesis. How he got from “A” to “B” bewildered me. If this was “the best” of evangelical theology, I decided, there was no future in it for me. I put the book down and almost gave up.

Then I graduated and decided to do the almost unthinkable—enter seminary. My spiritual and theological mentors and most of my family called it “cemetery.” Only one other person in my denomination had ever gone to seminary and he, I was told, “lost his faith” there. But the seminary I attended had a strong evangelical reputation and I began my studies with excitement and enthusiasm but also with fear and trepidation.

The seminary’s main theology professor had just returned from a sabbatical at Princeton where he “retooled” his approach to teaching theology. He had only just begun using Brunner’s Dogmatics as his main text for the two semester systematic theology course sequence. I remember Dr. Ralph Powell telling us how angry he was at Brunner’s American publisher for dropping volume 3 (“The Christian Doctrine of the Church, Faith and the Consummation”) from publication. He had to substitute something else for the last third of the course and it was, unfortunately, Louis Berkhof’s systematic theology. (I think he was just falling back on something he had used before his time at Princeton.) I loved Brunner and hated Berkhof! So I bought my own (used) copy of Brunner’s volume 3 and read it on my own.

Reading Brunner and studying Christian theology from him, absolutely opened my eyes to real theology. I realized I had not really encountered it before. Or I had tried to, on my own, but had not found it. I had been warned in college never to read Brunner or any other of those “liberal neo-orthodox” traitors to the true faith. What I found in Brunner was the middle way McGrath describes that made Brunner so popular in Britain and America in the 1920s and 1930s. Sure, Brunner’s explicit doctrine of Scripture was weak, but his treatment of Scripture (with one notable exception) was strong. Like Barth, he rejected any treatment of the Bible as a “paper pope” (meaning he rejected its verbal inspiration and infallibility), but also like Barth he proclaimed that Christian theology has no right to operate outside the authority of Scripture. But he rooted the authority of Scripture firmly in the Holy Spirit.

My seminary professor called Brunner’s theology “biblical personalism.” I don’t remember right off hand if Brunner called it that, but it’s an apt moniker for it. For Bunner, God is intensely personal and our relationship with God must be a personal one. And we must decide to enter into that relationship; God does not predestine anyone apart from their free and personal response to his grace. Brunner would turn over in his grave if I called him an Arminian, so I won’t! But his soteriology is very compatible with true, classical Arminianism even though he was an ordained minister and theologian of the Swiss Reformed Church.

I found in Brunner what I did not find in Pentecost. Later, I read Donald Bloesch’s books and sensed a real affinity to Bunner even though Bloesch, like I, found Brunner wanting at certain points (e.g., the virgin birth). Brunner’s theology was and is intellectually stimulating and bracing but anything but dry or sterile. I’m so glad McGrath is resurrecting Brunner’s theology. I’ll continue this review later. Stay tuned….


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