According to some Christian outlooks we were made for another world. Perhaps, rather, we were made for this world to recreate, reclaim, redeem, and renew unto God's future aspiration by the power of His Spirit. - R.E. Slater
Secularization theory has been massively falsified. We don't live in an age of secularity. We live in an age of explosive, pervasive religiosity... an age of religious pluralism. - Peter L. Berger
Exploring the edge of life and faith in a post-everything world. - Todd Littleton
I don't need another reason to believe, your love is all around for me to see. – anon
Thou art our need; and in giving us more of thyself thou givest us all. - Khalil Gibran, Prayer XXIII
Be careful what you pretend to be. You become what you pretend to be. - Kurt Vonnegut
Religious beliefs, far from being primary, are often shaped and adjusted by our social goals. - Jim Forest
People, even more than things, need to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone. – anon
Certainly God's love has made fools of us all. - R.E. Slater
An apocalyptic Christian faith doesn't wait for Jesus to come, but for Jesus to become in our midst. - R.E. Slater
Christian belief in God begins with the cross and resurrection of Jesus, not with rational apologetics. - Eberhard Jüngel, Jürgen Moltmann
Our knowledge of God is through the 'I-Thou' encounter, not in finding God at the end of a syllogism or argument. There is a grave danger in any Christian treatment of God as an object. The God of Jesus Christ and Scripture is irreducibly subject and never made as an object, a force, a power, or a principle that can be manipulated. - Emil Brunner
Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh means "I will be that who I have yet to become." - God (Ex 3.14)
Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. - Thomas Merton
The church is God's world-changing social experiment of bringing unlikes and differents to the Eucharist/Communion table to share life with one another as a new kind of family. When this happens we show to the world what love, justice, peace, reconciliation, and life together is designed by God to be. The church is God's show-and-tell for the world to see how God wants us to live as a blended, global, polypluralistic family united with one will, by one Lord, and baptized by one Spirit. – anon
The cross that is planted at the heart of the history of the world cannot be uprooted. - Jacques Ellul
The Unity in whose loving presence the universe unfolds is inside each person as a call to welcome the stranger, protect animals and the earth, respect the dignity of each person, think new thoughts, and help bring about ecological civilizations. - John Cobb & Farhan A. Shah
If you board the wrong train it is of no use running along the corridors of the train in the other direction. - Dietrich Bonhoeffer
God's justice is restorative rather than punitive; His discipline is merciful rather than punishing; His power is made perfect in weakness; and His grace is sufficient for all. – anon
Our little [biblical] systems have their day; they have their day and cease to be. They are but broken lights of Thee, and Thou, O God art more than they. - Alfred Lord Tennyson
We can’t control God; God is uncontrollable. God can’t control us; God’s love is uncontrolling! - Thomas Jay Oord
Life in perspective but always in process... as we are relational beings in process to one another so life events are in process in relation to each event... as God is to Self, is to world, is to us... like Father, like sons and daughters, like events... life in process yet always in perspective. - R.E. Slater

Friday, April 18, 2014

Introduction to Emil Brunner, Part 1 ( + Famous Sayings by Brunner)

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

by Roger Olson
April 15, 2014

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.

Brunner Liberates Theology

Many, many young evangelicals 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 [was] 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.

Professor Emil Brunner
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.

Brunner and Barth's "Middle Way"

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 Debates: Brunner v. Barth v. Brunner

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-nd-woof of British and American “middle way” theology and even into evangelical theology.

Emil Brunner and Karl Barth
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.)


The Importance of Brunner's Theology

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) [sic, Rebirth].

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 [Emil] Brunner what I did not find in [Dwight] 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….

* * * * * * * * * * *

Some Emil Brunner Sayings
(from Dogmatics, Vol. I)

by Roger Olson
April 16, 2014
These quotes are from Dogmatics I:
The Christian Doctrine of God (London: Lutterworth, 1949)

“The Dogmatic Theologian who does not find that his work drives him to pray frequently and urgently from his heart: ‘God be merciful to me a sinner,’ is scarcely fit for his job.” (85)

“Dogmatics does not consist in constructing a system of Biblical statements, but it is reflection upon revelation, on the basis of the religious evidence of the Bible.” (256)

“No speech, no word, is adequate to the mystery of God as person.” (16)

“Revelation is…never the mere communication of knowledge, but it is a life-giving and a life-renewing communion.” (20)

“In all the various forms of revelation, there is one meaning: Emmanuel, God with us.” (20)

“Revelation and faith now mean a personal encounter, personal communion.” (26)

“The revelation in Christ is not completed with the Life, Death and Resurrection of Jesus: it only attains its goal when it becomes actually manifest; that is, when a man or woman knows Jesus to be the Christ.” (29)

“The witness of the Spirit is not the whole work of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit is not only the One who witnesses and speaks, He is also the God who pours out vitality and creates new life.” (31)

“To be united with Christ through the Holy Spirit means: to be directly united with Him. Here there is no difference between an ordinary Christian of our own day and an Apostle. … The fact of our redemption—the history of salvation—is transmitted by the proclamation of facts, that is, by the testimony of the Apostles under the guidance and inspiration of the Holy Spirit.” (33)

“We do not believe in Jesus Christ because we first of all believe in the story and the teaching of the Apostles, but by means of the testimony of their narrative and their teaching we believe, as they do, and in a similar spirit of freedom. Faith in Jesus Christ is not based upon a previous faith in the Bible, but it is based solely upon the witness of the Holy Spirit.” (33-34)

“The Scriptures are the absolute authority, in so far as in them the revelation, Jesus Christ Himself, is supreme. But the doctrine of Scripture as such, although it is the absolute basis of our Christian doctrine, is only in a conditional sense the norm of the same. Critical reflection on the adequateness, or inadequateness, of the Biblical testimony for the revelation to which it bears witness, is not eliminated; we still have to face it; a final resort to a single Scriptural passage is impossible for us. Hence in each instance all Christian doctrine is, and remains, a venture of faith.” (49)

“Revelation cannot be summed up in a system, not even a dialectical one. … Dogmatics as a system, even when it intends to be a system of revelation, is the disguised dominion of the rational element over faith.” (72)

“Above all the teaching of the Church, even above all dogma or doctrinal confession, stands Holy Scripture.” (80-81)

“To believe in Jesus Christ and to be of the elect is one and the same thing, just as not to believe in Jesus Christ and not to be of the elect is the same thing.” (320)

“The Bible does not contain the doctrine of double predestination, although a few isolated passages seem to come close to it.” (326)

“The Ninth chapter of the Epistle to the Romans [does not] deal with the salvation and damnation of the individual, but with the destiny of Israel.” (328)

“Paul wishes to show [in Romans 9] that God chooses the instruments of His redemptive action, the bearers of the history of the Covenant, as He wills. The theme of this passage is not the doctrine of predestination, but the sovereign operation of God in History, who has been pleased to revealed Himself at one particular point in History, in Israel.” (329)

“If God is the One who, before He created the world, conceived the plan of creating two kinds of human beings…namely, those who are destined for eternal life—the minority—and the rest—the majority—for everlasting destruction, then it is impossible truly to worship this God as the God of love, even if this be commanded us a thousand times.” (331)

“In point of fact, it is impossible to say of the God whom the Biblical revelation shows us, that He is the author of Evil. But Calvin tries in vain to eliminate this conclusion from his doctrine of predestination. Here, too, his argument simply ends in saying: ‘You must not draw this conclusion!’—an exhortation which cannot be obeyed by anyone who thinks.” (332)

“Love is not a ‘quality’ of God, but is His Nature….” (188)

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