Revelation and Reason Summary
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 of the formal structures of reasoning, but only of the material contents originally illumining Adam’s mind. However, reason yields a very different type of truth than does revelation. Rational knowledge always is impersonal, best suited to the timeless world of physical objects. Because reason reinforces isolation of the human self by holding the created realm at a distance, it cannot comprehend genuine love or self-impartation. Revelation, by contrast, is the truth that “happens” as one encounters the divine, so it is life giving, quintessentially personal, and beyond rational categorizing, and must be received through a surrender of one’s will.
If reason and revelation are so distinct, can they cooperate enough to generate a “Christian philosophy”? Brunner answers affirmatively and says that the entire range of human culture constitutes a middle ground between the extremes of formal logic and theology. On this vast continuum of everyday problems and issues, rationality and faith necessarily collaborate—but in each instance proportionate to the degree that wholeness and personhood are involved. Brunner calls this guiding principle his “law of the closeness of relation.” That is, “The nearer anything lies to that center of existence where we are concerned with the whole, that is, with man’s relation to God and the being of the person, the greater is the disturbance of rational knowledge by sin; the farther away anything lies from this center, the less is the disturbance felt, and the less difference is there between knowing as a believer or as an unbeliever.” This determines the proper epistemological mix of faith and reason.
Consequently Christians are freed to pursue or critique secular themes and to help build a humane society, but with the proviso that the more any topic deals with the...
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