Emil Brunner (1889-1966): Theology of Revelation

Emil Brunner sees revelation as not contained in some objective and controllable text or system. To him revelation is the event of divine-human encounter.

3.1. The Meaning of Revelation

To Brunner, revelation always means that something, unusual and particular, is made known.[1]

3.1.1. Biblical revelation is the unexpected ‘disclosure’ of God in an unconditional form. One could not have expected along any rational line that God should love, and give his love to a sinner.[2] In revelation, one encounters God himself and not some set of abstract ideas.

3.1.2. Since revelation is not by human efforts but given by God, God becomes the Lord over the believer in revelation. Man cannot be called master of the revelation; he could never have known it. It is God who reveals; it is God who is Master.[3]

3.2. General Revelation and Natural Theology

According to Brunner, the teaching of general revelation very clearly given in the Bible. However, while the Bible teaches a general revelation, it does not teach ‘natural theology.’[4] The Bible denies the possibility of a theologia naturalis as the basis for a complementary theologia revelata.

3.2.1. The sinfully corrupt nature of man is unable to see God’s revelation in nature. In fact, man suppresses any such revelation and misinterprets it into the vanity of idolatry. Sin has a cognitive significance; it prevents the knowledge of God.

3.2.2. However, general revelation serves the purpose of indicting man. Only through it, says Brunner, can man be addressed as sinner.

3.2.3. Brunner says that man’s ‘natural knowledge of God’ as seen in religions, has been possible only because of the revelation in the creation; however, it is also seen in its distorted and idolatrous form because of the pervasive presence of sin.[5]

3.2.4. Only when the eyes of a sinner are opened by the particular historical Word of God is he able to see what God shows him in his revelation in creation. [6]

3.2.5. Man can study nature and know a great deal about it. Thus, the sciences are possible independently of the knowledge of God. However, when it comes to the knowledge of God, man is impaired by his sinful infection.[7]

3.3. The Word of God and the Bible

According to Brunner, the Bible must not be considered to be the objective Word of God. Such a view of Scripture is contrary to the spirit of grace. By assuming the Bible to be a collection of divine oracles, men considered themselves to be in possession of God’s Word.[8] Thus, men considered that the Bible as revelation was under man’s discretion of interpretation. This kind of a view regards revelation as a thing to be mastered and is bereft of an encounter with the Lord. This kind of a knowledge of things leaves no essential change in the knower since it is nothing different from natural knowledge. It leaves a man as solitary as ever.[9] But in revelation, since God makes himself known to the believer, the believer is no longer solitary, the knowledge of God creates community. The knowledge of revelation does not add to one’s knowledge; it transforms the person.[10] In the divine-encounter that constitutes revelation, God steps into the solitariness of the ‘Thou-less’ I as the Thou and brings man into a genuine I-Thou relationship.[11]

The Word of God, thus, is not the words of the Bible. The lifeless rigidity of the written word assumes an ‘objective immobility’ that is similar to the Mosaic ‘tables of stone’. The oral word is more closer to the Word of God than the written word. For the oral word, says Brunner, is ‘personal and mobile in character, controlled by the freedom of the Spirit.’ He continues that ‘the Lord Himself did not leave behind Him any written or dictated lines’ and ‘so far as the original twelve Apostles are concerned, it may be that we have no authentic writing of theirs.’[12] Brunner goes on to say that the Church of Christ was not based upon a written word, but upon an oral word. The dogma of the canon is not final and infallible; it is possible and right continually to re-examine it, test it, and revise it. Unless this is done the rigid lifelessness of traditionalism and bigotry that is both unscientific and impersonal could hamper even the progress of science.[13]

To Brunner, the doctrine of the divine infallibility of Scriptural texts is a clear parallel to the doctrine of the infallibility of the Pope.[14] It is, therefore, imperative that genuine Bible faith be accompanied by Biblical criticism. An orthodoxy that excludes Biblical criticism is only self-damaging.

3.4. The Word, the Proclamation, doctrine, and Faith

Brunner contends that the primary commission of the Church is not doctrine but proclamation.[15] Though proclamation must always have a doctrinal content, it is itself something other than doctrine. Proclamation is faith-awakening, faith-furthering, faith-wooing address. The proclamation of the Word of God is not the same as clarification of Biblical concepts or completeness of catechetical instruction, none of which may evoke faith. The proclamation that seeks to initiate faith is a form of the Word in human speech which is vastly different from the doctrinal presentation. It must be learnt again from those who have worked in the sphere of missions and classic evangelization. However, the Church will first be able to learn it when it has discerned as error the false identification of doctrine and the Word of God.

3.5. Critique

3.5.1. Brunner’s insistence on the separation of doctrine from the Word of God gives rise to some problems. Of course, doctrine is nothing but an interpretation of Scripture. The Bible is not a textbook on systematic theology. It is a Book of sacred history, songs, proverbs, letters, and prophecy and the Bible is an open book of God to man. However, the Word of God doesn’t just reveal God, but also something ‘about’ God – which constitutes doctrine. An undervaluing of doctrinal integrity can lead to doctrinal relativism. And such relativism is also furthered by the insistence that the Word of God is not equal to the text of Scripture.

3.5.2. Brunner’s acceptance of general revelation, yet rejection of natural theology, and connecting of human responsibility with general revelation doesn’t seem to be justified, since the failure to know God through general revelation, according to his theory, is not volitional but natural. However, if choice and will are not implied then responsibility also cannot also be implied.

3.5.3. Brunner’s equaling of the doctrine of Scriptural infallibility with the infallibility of the Pope forces a false connection. The testimony of Scriptural infallibility is derived from Christ himself (cf. Matthew 5: 18). But the doctrine of Papal infallibility is not derived from Christ.

[1] Emil Brunner, Revelation and Reason (tr. Olive Wyon; Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1946), pp. 23, 26
[2] Ibid, p. 29
[3] Ibid, p. 26
[4] Ibid, p. 65
[5] Ibid, p. 74
[6] Ibid, p. 76
[7] Emil Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of Creation and Redemption, Dogmatics: Vol. II (tr. Olive Wyon; Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1952), pp. 26-29
[8] Emil Brunner, The Divine-Human Encounter (tr. Amandus W. Loos; Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1943), p. 31
[9] Ibid, p. 88
[10] Brunner, Revelation and Reason, p. 27
[11] Brunner, The Divine-Human Encounter, p. 88
[12] Brunner, Revelation and Reason, p. 126
[13] Cf. Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of Creation and Redemption, p. 28
[14] Brunner, The Divine-Human Encounter, p. 172
[15] Ibid, p. 174

© Domenic Marbaniang, Theology of Revelation, 2006


Cynthia Wolfe said…
Thanks for this research in this area, I have been having a hard time understanding my books I have on this. I was searching for something reading friendly that could be understood. thanks and God Bless you. I am in my last two classes before I have a BA degree in Christian Studies, and this is a great help. Thanks

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