Emil Brunner (theologian)

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Heinrich Emil Brunner (born December 23, 1889 in Winterthur ; † April 6, 1966 in Zurich ) was an Evangelical Reformed Swiss theologian . He was an early companion of Karl Barth and his dialectical theology . He was viewed by Barth as an opponent since 1932 because he was developing a new natural theology , which Barth resolutely rejected at the time.


Emil Brunner, who was influenced by Hermann Kutter as a teenager , studied Protestant theology at the universities of Zurich and Berlin . After ordination in 1912 he became vicar in Leutwil (Aargau) and in 1913 received his lic. theol. PhD. He then worked as a language teacher in Great Yarmouth and Leeds , but had to return to Switzerland because of the outbreak of World War I, where he initially did military service. After a first attempt at his habilitation had failed, Brunner became pastor in Obstalden GL in February 1916 . Like his friends Karl Barth and Eduard Thurneysen , he was initially a pioneer of the religious-social movement .

After continuing his studies at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York in 1919/20 , Brunner did his habilitation in 1921 at the Theological Faculty of the University of Zurich . After two years as a private lecturer, he was appointed Professor of Systematic and Practical Theology at the University of Zurich in 1924 as the successor to his father's friend Leonhard Ragaz . Here he worked beyond his retirement until his death, interrupted by guest lectureships at Princeton Theological Seminary (1938/39) and at the International Christian University in Tokyo (1953–1955). In 1942/43 he was the rector of the university.

Brunner was from 1917 until his death with the drawing teacher Margrit geb. Lauterburg (1895–1979), who later designed the bindings for Brunner's books and who also remained an important conversation partner for him. The couple had four sons, the eldest of whom, Hans Heinrich Brunner (1918–1987), also became a theologian.

He found his final resting place in the Rehalp cemetery .

Ecumenical and political engagement

Brunner has been associated with the World Christian Student Union since his studies and thus became a supporter of the ecumenical movement earlier than the other representatives of dialectical theology . He worked in the research commission of the Movement for Practical Christianity ( Life and Work ) from 1934 and was one of the dominant figures at the Oxford World Conference in 1937. He also gave a lecture at the inaugural meeting of the World Council of Churches (WCC) in 1948, felt But then he was booted out by the supporters of Barth and withdrew. From 1949 he worked as the theological advisor to the YMCA .

From 1932 to Brunner was an avid supporter of the Oxford Group movement , but turned away because their founder and leader Frank Buchman to Nazism supported. Brunner, on the other hand, saw himself as an opponent of all kinds of totalitarianism and was involved in “spiritual national defense” . After 1945 this led to a conservative turn, because he now mainly emphasized anti-communism . Brunner's social-ethical draft Gerechtigkeit (see below), based on natural law and brought into the program discussions by his student Eugen Gerstenmaier , was an important prerequisite for the foundation of the CDU as a party made up of Catholics and Protestants.


Co-founder of Dialectical Theology

Brunner, who had already written one of the first reviews of Barth's letter to the Romans in 1919 , showed himself to be an independent representative of dialectical theology in his habilitation thesis Experience, Knowledge and Belief . From 1923 on he was one of the regular authors of the magazine Zwischen der Zeiten . The monograph Die Mystik und das Wort , published in 1924, deals with the anthropocentric theology of Friedrich Schleiermacher and thus served to distinguish dialectical theology. The monograph The Mediator (1927), dedicated to Christology, was also still entirely characterized by the emphasis on the power of sin.

The controversy with Karl Barth

Soon, however, Brunner developed these approaches further independently - partly against Barth's views. In his essay, The Other Task of Theology , he emphasized that in addition to its dogmatic task (understanding “inward”), theology also had an “eristic” task (understanding “outward” in conversations with doubters, unbelievers and those of different faith). It is intended to “show how through the Word of God human reason is partly revealed as a source of hostile error, partly fulfilled in its own incomplete search.” This brought him to the question of the 'connecting point' as a problem of theology (following to Johannes Calvin ) to draft the program of a new theologia naturalis . To this end, he made a distinction between material and formal images of God . While the former has been completely lost through sin, the latter has been preserved, because even as a sinner, man bears traits of his humanity: these include reason, word power, formal personality, his self-image as a person, thus a certain (general religious) knowledge of God, the knowledge of a divine law and the conscience, which, however, manifests itself as a bad conscience. Although the formal image of God opens a connection to God, but is for God, if he wants to reveal a point of contact for his words and actions. In the commandment and the regulations (1932), he built this approach from an ethics, on the one hand is strictly personalistic and emphasizes the responsibility of the human being towards his neighbor, but on the other hand also sees him placed in divine "orders of creation and preservation" such as marriage, the state, culture and economy.

When Barth attacked Brunner with sharp words in Kirchliche Dogmatik I / 1 in 1932, Brunner responded with nature and grace in 1934 . To the conversation with Karl Barth . He criticized the fact that Barth - against the Romans (Chapter 1) and the Reformation tradition - denies any natural revelation and thus also the divine "grace of creation and maintenance". However, no Christian ethics can be based on Barth's “actualism” of Revelation. In the same year Barth replied with the little book No! Answer to Emil Brunner and terminated Brunner the road cooperative.

Further theological focuses

Our faith

After turning to anthropology and ethics, Brunner wrote monographs on almost all main topics of systematic theology and summarized his theology in a three-volume dogmatics 1946-60 . His most widespread work was the book Our Faith (1935), written for laypeople and translated into sixteen languages . It deals with central questions of Christian instruction, e.g. B. "Is there a God?", "Is the Bible God's Word?" and "The Mystery of God". For Brunner, God does not exist in the sense that there are other things in the world, because God is not a thing among others, but rather the condition and the enabling of the world. It is therefore also not a recognizable object of knowledge. "Reason, conscience, nature with its miracles tell us that there is a God. But they do not tell us who God is. God himself tells us that in his revelation." So we depend on the Bible through which God speaks to us. The "Word made flesh" is Christ who says what God wills. This divine will is unconditional, as evidenced by its holiness and wrath. The unconditional will of God is ultimately his will to love. The supposedly paradoxical holding together of the angry and loving sides of God is necessary because God is a mystery.

The commandment and the regulations

After the ethics The Commandment and the Orders , the next fundamental work was devoted to anthropology. In Man in Contradiction (1937), Brunner summarized his doctrine of man's likeness to God (see above) in conversation with the philosophical and theological tradition.

Truth as encounter

The title of the Olaus Petri lectures published in 1938 as a book, Truth as Encounter , summarizes Brunner's theology well. He criticizes an understanding of truth in the Christian faith, which is based on Greek philosophy. It is about exclusive, "objective" (as opposed to "subjective") truths that one believes can be deduced from the revelation. Brunner would like to overcome such a contradiction between objectivism and subjectivism. He is interested in a personal encounter and relationship between people and God. In contrast to Barth, the weights between God and man are mutually distributed here, because God wants to relate to man, he does not want to rule over him only. Brunner speaks of a correspondence, a correspondence. The belief of the person (called by Brunner: Pistis) is then the initiative that the person can bring. Brunner would like to end the predominance of the objective in church history in favor of a human-God relationship, which is not understood as striving for objective truths or the belief that dogmas given by the church are true. He is not interested in a description of what happens in faith between the poles of object and subject, truth and personal belief. Truth only occurs in the relationship between God and man.

Revelation and reason

This approach also determines his book Revelation and Reason. The Doctrine of the Christian Knowledge of Faith (1941), one of the few recent monographs on the subject of Revelation . Against the classical Protestant doctrine of the verbal inspiration of the Bible, Brunner set an understanding of revelation as a personal encounter between God and man. Because revelation is not a communication of doctrine but history, historical revelation (in contrast to the original or creation revelation) continues after the middle of the revelation history in Jesus Christ in the testimony of Holy Scripture and the Church.


With the book Justice. A doctrine of the basic laws of the social order (1943) took on Brunner the distinction between personal ethics and factual ethics from The Commandment and the Ordinances . The law of righteousness, which arises from God's will to order, is assigned to the divine commandment of love. For Brunner, this is the relative right of a doctrine of natural law , even if he rejects the concept of natural law. The connection between the duties and rights of the individual and the community is intended to ensure a balance between individualism and collectivism (totalitarianism), which Brunner sees as the main dangers of the time. The concrete ethical statements recommend a federal and functionally structured structure for post-war Europe, which recognizes the freedoms of property, work and education. In his skepticism towards capitalism Brunner shows himself to be influenced by ordoliberalism , from which he was also received (largely neoliberal or natural law).

The Church's Misunderstanding

Brunner's manifesto The Misunderstanding of the Church (1951), in which he categorically differentiated the ekklesia of the New Testament from the church as an organization , also received great attention . Although he did not reject the popular churches , he urged that the ecclesiastical institutions, instead of identifying with them, should at best serve the development of the Ekklesia as “Christ community in faith and brotherhood in love” and should not inhibit it. This is why Brunner was particularly interested in the Mukyōkai movement in Japan.

Honors and reception

Brunner has received honorary doctorates from several universities , including a. from the University of Münster , the University of Edinburgh (1931), Princeton University (1946), the Union Theological Seminary (1947) and the International Christian University in Tokyo (1966). In 1960 he received the Great Federal Cross of Merit .

At Uppsala University he gave the Olaus Petri Lectures in 1937 , and the Gifford Lectures at the University of St Andrews in 1947/48 .

His portrait bust, created by Werner Friedrich Kunz , is in the auditorium of the University of Zurich .

On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of his death, a conference was held in Zurich on September 12, 2016 with the title Emil Brunner - a misunderstood pioneer . Among the speakers were Frank Jehle, Alister McGrath , Konrad Schmid, Ralph Kunz and others. Alister McGrath initiated the conference after he published a book on Brunner in 2014. In this and at the conference he praised his good dealings with the Reformed tradition, his theological approach to nature, his differentiated dealings with culture, his understanding of the church (community), his understanding of truth (encounter) and his reserved approach to the Trinity.

Fonts (selection)

  • The symbolic in religious knowledge. Contributions to a theory of religious knowledge . 1914
  • Experience, Knowledge and Faith 1921 (4th and 5th ed. 1953)
  • The Limits of Humanity (Habil.vorles. Zurich), 1922
  • The mysticism and the word. The contrast between the modern conception of religion and Christian belief, illustrated by Schleiermacher's theology . 1924 (1928²)
  • Reformation and Romanticism . 1925
  • Philosophy and revelation . 1925
  • The absoluteness of Jesus . 1926 (1934³)
  • The mediator. For reflection on faith in Christ . 1927 (4th edition 1947)
  • Philosophy of Religion Protestant Theology . 1927 (1948²)
  • God and man. 4 Investigations into Personal Being . 1930
  • The commandment and the regulations. Draft of a Protestant theological ethics. JCB Mohr, Tübingen 1932 (4th edition 1978).
  • My encounter with the Oxford group movement . 1933
  • Nature and grace. To the conversation with Karl Barth . 1934 (1935²)
  • About the renewal of the Church. A word to everyone who loves you . 1934
  • On the Jewish question . In: Neue Schweizer Rundschau, 28th year 1935, issue 7
  • Our faith. Christian teaching . 1935 (14th edition 1981)
  • From the work of the Holy Spirit . 1935
  • The churches, the group movement and the Church of Jesus Christ . 1936
  • Man in contradiction. The Christian doctrine of true and real man . 1937 (5th edition 1985)
  • Eros and love. About the meaning and mystery of our existence . 1937 (1952²)
  • Truth as encounter. 6 lectures on the Christian understanding of truth . 1938 (3rd edition 1984)
  • Seeds and fruit. 10 sermons on parables of Jesus . 1938 (1948²)
  • The question of power . 1938
  • Building blocks of spiritual life. Excerpts from the works of Emil Brunner . Edited by Ernst Hermann Müller-Schürich, 1939
  • I believe in the living God. Sermons on the early Christian creed . 1941 (1945²)
  • Revelation and reason. The doctrine of the Christian knowledge of faith . 1941 (2007²)
  • Justice. A doctrine of the basic laws of the social order . 1943 (4th edition 2002)
  • The Christian's Political Responsibility . 1944
  • Faith and Ethics 1945
  • Dogmatics I: The Christian doctrine of God . 1946 (4th edition 1972)
  • Dogmatics II: The Christian doctrine of creation and redemption . 1950 (3rd edition 1972)
  • Dogmatics III: The Christian doctrine of the church, of faith and of perfection . 1960 (2nd edition 1964)
  • The word of God and modern man (4 lectures) . 1947
  • Communism, capitalism and christianity . 1948
  • The letter to the Romans, translated and interpreted . 1948 (1956²)
  • Of eternal life . 1951²
  • The Church's Misunderstanding . 1951 (3rd edition 1988)
  • Fraumünster sermons . 1953 (1955²)
  • The eternal as future and present . 1953 (1965²)
  • The nuisance of Christianity. 5 lectures on the Christian faith . Edited by Hans Heinrich Brunner, 1957 (3rd edition 1988)
  • God and his rebel (excerpts from: The human being in contradiction), commented and ed. v. Ursula Berger-Gebhardt, 1958
  • Fraumünster sermons. NF . 1965.
  • Christianity and Culture . Single u. edit by Rudolf Wehrli. TVZ, Zurich 1979
  • An open word. Lectures and essays 1917-1962 . Set u. selected by Rudolf Wehrli. TVZ, Zurich 1981


Web links

Individual evidence

  1. Michael Klein: Eugen Gerstenmaier - The "chief ideologist" of the Union . In: Historisch-Politische Mitteilungen 13, 2006, pp. 247–256 ( PDF file )
  2. In: Between Times 7 (1929), pp. 255–276
  3. In: Between Times 10 (1932), pp. 505-532
  4. ^ Emil Brunner: Our faith . In: Wilfried Härle (Hrsg.): Basic texts of the newer Protestant theology . 2012, p. 169 .
  5. See Tim Petersen: Emil Brunner's social ethics and their neoliberal reception . Hamburg Institute of International Economics (HWWI) 2008 ( PDF file )
  6. Online resource
  7. ^ Frank Jehle : Emil Brunner - theologian in the 20th century. Theological Verlag Zürich, Zürich 2006, p. 383. ( online )
  8. http://www.glaubeundgesellschaft.ch/emilbrunner
  9. http://www.landeskirchenforum.ch/berichte/emil-brunner-tagung
  10. http://www.unifr.ch/theo/assets/files/SP2016/EmilBrunner_Flyer.pdf