Coffee with Theologians: Emil Bruner on Revelation

*This was written on May, 20th 2018.

As someone who has never really been exposed to contemporary theology until recently, I’ve found the process of becoming acquainted with its figures, terminology, and emphases quite cumbersome. Although these theologians stand much closer to myself and the problems of our society, I often find their works to be heady and engaged in what I’d call language acrobatics at times. Regardless, these figures have made a huge impact on our modern world and on today’s church, and I believe that ignoring or dismissing them would be a mistake. While learning about these theologians and their works, I’ve noticed that the Enlightenment and 19th century idealism had a serious impact on them. It functioned as a theological bomb that left no aspect of theology untouched; nothing was no longer sacred. Either you seriously considered the Enlightenment’s truth claims or you counteracted its claims by burying yourself further into your own theological community. For those who seriously considered them, the Enlightenment seemed to function as a theological reset button that naturalized Christians’ approach to the Bible and theology.

After this “resetting” effect, some theologians realized that the Enlightenment and this naturalization may not be the best thing after all and sought to reinterpret the Christian faith in light of the discoveries of the of the Enlightenment while also tackling their problems with the Enlightenment’s theological child (classic protestant liberalism) with its anthropocentric focus and human idealism. The more I dig into contemporary theology, the more I find the fingerprints of Hegel and Kierkegaard on these theologians. It seems that much like Aristotle was to Aquinas or Plato was to Augustine, these two philosophers have accompanied our contemporary theologians onto the scene whispering, “subjectivity is truth” or “the true is the whole.” So, in order to really get these modern Christian thinkers, one has to delve into philosophy and the philosophy of religion (something I admit I am a novice at). Basically, don’t think that this is going to be a walk in the park.

Regardless, seeing how these modern theologians have wrestled with Enlightenment claims, society’s injustices, and the Scriptures, I’d have to say that they deserve some form of applause. Their context has no doubt forced them to become more creative and innovative in their approach as global events such as the Holocaust and two world wars emerged in their lifetime. It’s often easy to look at these men and women and scoff at their apparent syncretism and appeasement to and with modern culture. Yet if one takes the time to read and consider their claims, you’ll quickly realize that they were embarking on a brave task to be truly faithful to God and relevant to the context they were in. They sought to be “prophetic,” yet they are (sadly) often characterized as sell-outs to science and modern philosophy.

Coffee with Brunner

My goal in this essay is to listen and learn from these modern prophetic voices and to evaluate their claims without prejudice. In an effort to embark on this task, I’ll be providing a short summary of one of Neo-Orthodoxy’s prominent voices—Emil Brunner. Within this summary, I’ll be discussing Brunner’s perspective on revelation—a topic that is “ground zero” for contemporary theology. Keep in mind that although much of the content of this essay will be academic, my method in this instance is very un-academic and personal or maybe even autobiographical (I’m almost positive I plagiarized in this). As I summarize and evaluate Brunner’s theology, I will no doubt slip in to contemplation and entertain my own thoughts along the way. I hope that this essay will educate you on Brunner and encourage you to consider and evaluate a modern theologian who sought to be truly faithful to God while denouncing the religion of his day (or maybe our day?). In this light, he sounds much like the prophets of old and maybe he is just that.

Emil Brunner on Revelation 

Emil Brunner was a Swiss theologian and one of the pioneers of 20th century theology. Along with his contemporaries (Barth, Niebuhr, and others), Brunner contributed greatly to the movement known as Neo-Orthodoxy, which was a response to both classical liberalism and orthodox Protestantism. Brunner was neither an orthodox theologian nor a liberal theologian; he was a dialectical theologian. Without going into great detail, dialectical basically refers to a “unity in distinction.” It is someone who acknowledges the tensions, paradoxes, and ambiguities within Christianity, and would argue that God cannot be known through reason but only through God’s free grace and direct revelation. An example of a dialectic approach would be to explain that God is both free and loving. The dialectical theologian would consider these two attributes to be inseparable and constantly in tension with one another—God is freely loving and loves freely.

So where does Brunner begin with his theology? Like Karl Barth, Brunner begins with revelation as opposed to reason. For Brunner, revelation precedes reason. This is an important distinction because many of his liberal contemporaries would argue otherwise, but for Brunner, the relationship between reason and revelation is the crux of the majority of theology’s problems. Unlike much of protestant theology, revelation for Brunner is not direct. God’s true essence cannot be unaltered through language because it “defies human conceptualization.” Basically, God’s “otherness” cannot be accurately captured within language. Knowledge of God exists only through God’s self-revelation, once again as opposed to reason. This self-revelation is both the content of revelation and the basis for its legitimacy. Within this framework, the Old Testament and the New Testament are “witnesses” to this revelation indirectly—one anticipating it and the other describing it. “It” in this instance is Jesus Christ—the Word of God. Jesus is the true Word of God. He is the fullest and clearest expression of God’s revelation—Jesus Christ is, for Brunner, directrevelation. He is the focal point of revelation—“the image of the invisible God.”

For Brunner, the witness of the apostles and prophets are not to be called the Word of God—they are witnesses to the Word (i.e., Christ). Revelation is not a set of doctrines to ascend to, but a living and active fellowship with God. In its most essential form this is Immanuel, God with us. True revelation is the person of Christ—not words concerning him. Jesus Christ supersedes words about him or witnesses to him because one is direct revelation while the other is indirect. For Brunner, revelation is much more of a process than a collection of beliefs. The witnesses of the apostles and prophets are not the basis of our faith, but they are a means to it. The basis of our faith remains the person of Christ, regardless if one believes the entirety of Scripture.

Brunner sees the dualistic faith in both God and the Bible of many protestants as being absurd. One does not need to have faith in the Bible before having faith in Christ. Jesus is still the Christ regardless of the Bible. This does not discount the authority of Bible; it only puts the Bible in its proper place or order—that being its secondary nature to the person of Christ and the activity of His spirit. To reiterate this, Christianity is not a religion based on a book, it is a religion based on the living Word of God, which the Bible and the church testify to through the power of the Holy Spirit. Much like Barth, Brunner believes the Bible becomes the Word of God once God chooses to speak through it. Without this divine interaction it remains a human witness to revelation that is liable to human errors. It now becomes clear that Brunner’s theology makes room for a critical analysis of the Scriptures. Could this analysis lead one potentially closer to direct revelation or the “historical Jesus” (this is just me postulating at this point)? Let’s let Dr. Brunner speak for himself;

“We are not required to believe the Scriptures because they are the Scriptures; but because Christ, whom I am convinced in my conscience is the Truth, meets me in the Scriptures—therefore I believe. Scripture is not a formal authority which demands belief in all it contains from the outset, but it is an instrumental authority, in so far as it contains that element before which I must bow in the truth, which also itself awakens in me the certainty of truth (Dogmatics, I, 110)”

With this perspective, it’s safe to say that Brunner would probably say something similar about the church—that they are an “instrumental authority,” which points one to the Word of God and awakens a “certainty of truth.” This may make some of us feel uncomfortable. How does one know what’s an instrumental authority and what’s not? If the church, the Scriptures, and nature all are indirect forms of revelation, how does one know what the true content (or doctrine) of our faith should be?  Brunner’s no-bulls**t answer would probably be the following; “all Christian doctrine is, and remains, a venture of faith” (Dogmatics, I, 49). Now, just let that sink in. Christian doctrine, at the end of the day, is a “venture of faith.” Since doctrine is in itself just the church’s reflection on the witness of the apostles and prophets, there will always be ambiguities and tensions to manage and there will never be unanimous accord within Christianity. No one theologian will create a systematic theology that all Christians will pick up and agree with. Doctrine is a “venture of faith,” and we cannot hope for it to ever be homogeneous in this life.

So, how does one come to know the truth? Where does faith fit in this scheme since there is not a rigid set of doctrines that one must believe? To answer this question, Brunner would return to the person of Christ, who is the truth in person. Truth is an encounter with the person of Jesus Christ (here the emphasis is on Christ being the initiator of this encounter; Brunner has his roots in Reformed Theology). This cannot be apprehended through reason or logic, but only through an encounter with truth itself, the Word of God, the God-Man Jesus Christ.

“The fact remains that in faith we are dealing, not with truths, not even with divinely revealed truths, but with God, with Jesus Christ, with the Holy Spirit” (Truth as Encounter, 134).”

So, faith for Brunner exists once one encounters God and places his trust in the person Jesus Christ. This faith must rest in Christ alone, not in the Bible, a creed, or a set of doctrines. To paraphrase Brunner’s words, Jesus is not for the theologian, the intellect, or the academic; he is for the believer. What is also thought-provoking is the fact that Brunner compares orthodox protestant’s treatment of the Scriptures to the legalistic approach that the Jews took, which Jesus ironically condemned. Brunner concludes that holding a position of verbal inspiration inevitably leads one to the same legalistic approach to the Scriptures. It is the classic “the letter vs the spirit” argument that Paul employed in his letters.

An Evaluation

Brunner does an excellent job of presenting a clear alternative to orthodox Protestantism and classic liberalism even more so than Barth (in my opinion; he’s easier to read at the very least). He reveals discrepancies in their approaches to revelation and attempts to construct a framework that is both Christocentric and grounded upon faith as opposed to reason. I applaud Brunner’s move to sweep the Bible from underneath dogmatic protestants who “live or die” by their interpretations of the Scriptures. By redirecting these individuals to the actual person of Christ, it creates space for them to accept more diversity among Christian theology and practice without creating an “us vs them” mindset, which is a real Protestant problem if there ever was one (it’s almost like as soon as Protestants became “Protestants,” they fell in love with the idea of separation and division along theological lines, which is why there’s more types of Protestantism than there are types of cereal on the grocery isle). In doing so, it helps orthodox protestants recognize that they may not have it exactly right and that other group of Christians should not be polarized or demonized because they believe differently from them. As a Protestant, I enjoy getting my theology “right” just as anyone else, but we often do this at the detriment of unity and engagement with our culture. We become defined by what we are not in an effort to not be like “those other Christians who don’t _____.”

At the same time, Brunner’s open perspective of the Bible leads to a lot of questions that he may not have the answers to. How many “instrumental authorities” are there? Is it just the church, the Scriptures, and nature? Why not other religious texts like the Bhagavad Gita or the Qur’an? If an “instrumental authority” is determined by its ability to “awaken” a certainty of truth within me, are the possibilities not limitless? This perspective could easily lead into universalism without some boundaries, and I have not read enough of Brunner to know what those boundaries are exactly (I’m pretty sure he has some boundaries since I read about him accusing someone else of universalism). Yet I also think that just because a perspective could lead one toward universalism does not mean that it should be abandoned or ignored. If one never entertains any other perspective, he or she will most likely forever remain within one’s own plausibility structures being constantly coached towards a faith that is never allowed to be break from his or her tradition (something that Jesus arguably did himself—breaking from the Jewish Rabbinical tradition that is).

Heraclitus’ River (and my beef with Calvinists)  

I must admit that I do not know enough about Brunner to answer all of the questions I would have for him. For example, if doctrine is a “venture of faith,” what should we be truly dogmatic about? How do we differentiate between primary concerns and secondary or tertiary concerns? Brunner’s theology of revelation leaves one without much certainty, but maybe this is exactly where faith comes in.

What I do know is that belief is never the same. Much like placing one’s foot in a river, you’ll never place your foot in the same river twice. This makes me ponder how the Christian faith has evolved throughout its generations and how this (at times) has been very beneficial. Reading figures like Aquinas, Luther, or the Puritans are valuable, but we have to acknowledge that their feet have been in the water much farther downriver. They will never truly know what it’s like to believe today in our modern secular age. Their worldview would not allow them. This does not make them irrelevant, but it does mean that there is much more theology to be done. It did not end after the early church fathers, the Reformation, or the Great Awakening. It did not end with Jesus! Someone had to pick up the pieces and put together the nuts and bolts of our faith (chiefly the apostle Paul). We cannot only look back to an image of faith that is so disconnected from our own society and culture—which forces us to engage our world with a worldview that’s held down by ancient cultural baggage. I cannot live like a Puritan today. I cannot live like Paul today. I cannot live like Jesus today! On the other hand, I can think about how Jesus would live today in my own context—this is the work of contemporary theology, and no it has not all been “said before.” So, let’s keep this conversation going and not resort to being blinded by our idolization of a group or period in history within Christianity. Not calling any names but…the Reformed camp (many conservatives at least within it) are pretty bad about this. Yes, we know that you like Calvin, Edwards, and Baxter, but what about our faith in our world? Maybe you should spend less time caring about these historical figures who lived in a world very different from ours and more time learning how to make sense of Christ’s claims in light of our neighbors—people who obviously do not care about puritanical methods of catechizing. Time to get off of my hobby-horse because I’m clearly ranting at this point. Luckily, this is a safe place for ranting and exploration, so I bid you good day and farewell.

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