(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Emil Brunner defines the nature of revelation as a historical encounter. Revelation refers to the mystery of the sovereign God freely and uniquely manifesting himself as the eternal within historical time. Thus revelation is an objective encounter. However, it is also subjective, because revelation must reach its goal through acknowledgment by humans, who are the only beings created with capacity to receive the word of God and who are held responsible to respond and obey. As an “I-Thou” encounter, it is distinctively personal, despite the disparity between the eternal and the temporal. Because God is preeminently a person, we are made persons.

According to Brunner, revelation occurs mainly in the realm of history, through the promise of the Old Covenant, which through Jesus Christ reaches its climax. Jesus did not just “discover” or “convey” revelation, but is himself the word and presence of God. With that foundation established, Brunner can then look backward and forward for witnesses to this historical revelation. In every age, for example, Brunner finds a general revelation in creation, the world of nature. The natural world is not enough to bring salvation, which only Christ can do, but it does hint at God’s majesty and, more important, establishes human culpability when people invariably revolt against their Creator. (This meager provision for a natural theology prompted Karl Barth’s famous denunciation of Brunner.) To a secondary degree, revelation happens also in historical witnesses to the Word by the church, the Holy Spirit, and the human words of Scripture. However, every avenue to God remains dominated by Christ for Brunner.

What then about the truthfulness of this claim to revelation? Here Brunner defends the validity of human rationality. He argues that human are capable of using and understanding language and thus are able to receive the Word. Reason is a second mode of knowledge and, so long as it observes its proper boundaries, has no inherent conflict with revelation. Together they constitute two conceptions of truth, because humanity, even as grievously fallen sinner, has not been stripped...

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(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Hart, John W. Karl Barth Versus Emil Brunner: The Formation and Dissolution of a Theological Alliance, 1916-1936. New York: Peter Lang, 2001. Close examination of the controversy for which Brunner in later generations is best remembered.

Humphrey, J. Edward. Emil Brunner. Waco, Tex.: Word Books, 1976. For general audiences the best introduction to Brunner’s thought. Sympathetic, fair, with brief biography, selected bibliography.

Kegley, Charles W., and Robert W. Bretall, eds. The Theology of Emil Brunner. Vol. 3 in The Library of Living Theology. New York: Macmillan, 1962. Definitive collection of essays by seventeen scholars on Brunner’s thought and influence, with a reply by Brunner and an autobiography.

Lovin, Robin. Christian Faith and Public Choices: The Social Ethics of Barth, Brunner, and Bonhoeffer. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984. A significant work on social ethics that positions Brunner’s thought with two other theological giants of his time.

McKim, Mark G. Emil Brunner: A Bibliography. ATLA Bibliographies 40. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 1996. Excellent brief introduction to Brunner’s life and thought, followed by an exhaustive bibliography of everything Brunner ever wrote, edited, coauthored, or reviewed; secondary sources listed.