Above: Dr. Emil Brunner
Image in the Public Domain
HEINRICH EMIL BRUNNER (DECEMBER 23, 1889-APRIL 6, 1966)
Swiss Reformed Theologian
The Protestant theology of our day is in a state of rapid dissolution….The substance of Christian theology, the content of Christian faith, is in a state of compete decomposition. Christianity is either faith in the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, or it is nothing.
–Emil Brunner, in The Theology of Crisis (1930); quoted in Martin E. Marty and Dean G. Peerman, editors, A Handbook of Christian Theologians–Enlarged Edition (1984) page 410
Emil Brunner and Karl Barth were the most influential Protestant theologians of the twentieth century. The latter, however, has become more famous than the former. Furthermore, Willard Learoyd Sperry was openly critical of their Neo-orthodox theology. Coincidence has caused the feasts of Brunner and Sperry to fall on the same date on my Ecumenical Calendar of Saints’ Days and Holy Days. This project of mine has sufficient breadth to include theologians who criticized each other.
Brunner was Swiss, as was his contemporary and critic, Barth. Brunner, born on December 23, 1889, at Winterthur, drew from a variety of influences. One early influence was pastor Christoph Blumhardt (1842-1919), of southern Germany. Another influence was Hermann Kutter (1863-1931), a student of Blumhardt. Brunner studied theology at the University of Zurich. His professor, Leonhard Ragaz (1868-1945), taught him the works of Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), who influenced our saint profoundly.
Brunner traveled and lectured around the world. He studied in Berlin for a semester in 1911; he found both the city and Adolf von Harnack 1865-1923) unimpressive. Our saint visited England in 1913-1914 and quickly became fluent in English. He was back home, serving in the Swiss army, in 1914-1916, before becoming the pastor at a church in Obstalden, in the canton of Glarus, in 1916. Brunner studied at Union Theological Seminary, New York, New York, in 1919-1920. In 1924 he became Professor of Systematic and Practical Theology at the University of Zurich. He also continued to preach in churches. Throughout the 1920s Brunner lectured in the United States and in the United Kingdom. The Third Reich banned his books and forbade him to teach in Germany, but he did not slow down. From 1938 to 1939 Brunner was a visiting professor at Princeton Theological Seminary. He was also active in the Faith and Order Movement and the Life and Work Movement, forerunners of the World Council of Churches, organized in 1948. After World War II Brunner became a theological advisor to the Y.M.C.A. In 1949, for the Y.M.C.A., he traveled and lectured in Asia. From 1953 to 1955 our saint was a professor at the International Christian University, Tokyo, Japan. There he engaged in ecumenical and interfaith dialogues. In 1955, on the way back to Switzerland, Brunner suffered a stroke, which slowed the previously vigorous pace of his scholarly work.
In 1916 Brunner married Margret Lauterberg, niece of his mentor, Hermann Kutter. Our saint was a loving husband and father. The couple raised four sons, two of whom they buried.
A person literate in Christian theology can understand why one can find criticisms of Brunner from both the right and the left on the Internet. According to certain critics from the left, he was much too traditional. Yet, according to those who condemn our saint from the right, he was a heretic and a destroyer of faith whose insidious influence remains.
Brunner, who considered himself neither a traditionalist nor an innovator, held to a theology based to two related factors: love and the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. He rejected fundamentalism and dogmatism on the right and vague religious values on the left. Brunner was, simply put, in the middle, with many critics from both his right and his left. For example, as our saint stressed the primacy of Jesus as the Word of God and insisted upon the unique and unrepeatable nature of the Incarnation, he remained skeptical regarding the Virgin Birth. The miracle of the Incarnation, Brunner wrote, was greater with a human father. Furthermore, our saint insisted, one need not affirm the Virgin Birth as being essential to accepting the divinity of Jesus.
Brunner also pondered how God and mere mortals can relate to each other. Our saint, being himself, rejected the extremes of literalism and dogmatism on the right and of experience and feeling on the left. He wrote that God and people meet in Jesus Christ and that only God can take the initiative to bridge the gap. People, he argued, have the ability to reject God or to accept God. Furthermore, the revelation of God is ongoing–via the Holy Spirit, including in the scriptures at the present time. The reign of God on earth will become a reality also. In the meantime, Brunner argued, there must be a point of contact in sinful human nature for one to perceive the divine revelation. This assertion prompted Barth too write his famous rebuttal Nein! (1934), in which he argued that divine revelation creates its own point of contact ex niliho. Brunner referred to Nein! as “that terrible book” as late as the 1950s.
For Brunner the definitive Christian virtue was love–self-sacrificing love, the kind Jesus had. This love, our saint wrote, Christianizing Martin Buber‘s I-Thou theology, binds people to God and to each other in relationships. The responsibility to live in community with each other and with God, Brunner wrote, is inherent in us. Furthermore, we might be unaware of this duty or even reject it, but we can never escape it, he argued. The basis of this responsibility, according to Brunner, was the image of God. He criticized violations of this responsibility, wherever he saw them–in capitalism, communism, Christian congregations and denominations, et cetera. Worse than the scandal of schisms, Brunner wrote, was the lack of spiritual brotherhood in Christian community.
Brunner, a man well-informed in matters of theology, science, music, and painting, died at Zurich, Switzerland, on April 6, 1966. He was 76 years old.
KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR
MARCH 15, 2017 COMMON ERA
THE FEAST OF SAINT ZACHARY OF ROME, POPE
THE FEAST OF SAINTS JAN ADALBERT BALICKI AND LADISLAUS FINDYSZ, ROMAN CATHOLIC PRIESTS IN POLAND
THE FEAST OF OZORA STEARNS DAVIS, U.S. CONGREGATIONALIST MINISTER, THEOLOGIAN, AND HYMN WRITER
THE FEAST OF VETHAPPAN SOLOMON, APOSTLE TO THE SOLOMON ISLANDS
Almighty God, your Holy Spirit gives to one the word of knowledge,
and to another the insight of wisdom,
and to another the steadfastness of faith.
We praise you for the gifts of grace imparted by your servant Emil Brunner,
and we pray that by his teaching we may be led to a fuller knowledge of the truth
we have seen in your Son Jesus, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns
with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
Proverbs 3:1-7 or Wisdom 7:7-14
1 Corinthians 2:6-10, 13-16 or 1 Corinthians 3:5-11
John 17:18-23 or Matthew 13:47-52
–Adapted from Evangelical Lutheran Worship (2006), page 61