Appraising Emil Brunner Before Reappraising Him

I don’t read and review books for a living.  Rather, I live to read and review books.  Someday, I may drop the habit for something less strenuous, like maybe camel training or swimming with sharks.  But for now, this is what I do.

I was excited to receive a copy of Emil Brunner: A Reappraisal by Alister McGrath a few months back.  It was the author McGrath, rather than the subject Brunner that drew me to the book.  McGrath has written dozens upon dozens of books on theological and biographical subjects.  He can, as in the case of this book, write for a more specialized audience (me being an exception) or for a broader Christian audience.  His recent biography of C. S. Lewis is a case of his more popular writings.  While C. S. Lewis: A Life is written for all types of readers and fans, McGrath also did a follow-up work titled The Intellectual World of C. S. Lewiswhich is more expensive and devoted to the unfolding development of Lewis’ ideas.  (The multi-faceted Lewis was both a scholar of the highest order and a popular novelist and apologist.)  As if that wasn’t enough, McGrath also did a fun looking volume titled If I Had Lunch With C. S. Lewis.  [Reader take note:  I do not own these latter two volumes.  It is currently ranked as a problem in my life, but could be elevated to a crisis at any time.]


I have also enjoyed other volumes by McGrath, including The Twlilight of Atheism and Christianity’s Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution from the 16th Century to the Twenty-First Century.  I also have his biography of John Calvin and his book titled Heretics.  (And for any mean-spirited readers, they are not on the same subject.)

Needless to say, if you look at the range of McGrath’s writings, my paltry collection is the tip of the ice berg.  I am sure that there are things that McGrath believes or has written that should cause us all to gasp.  I know Iain Murray has some reservations about him, and I highly respect Murray.  But I never assume that McGrath is adding volumes on to the canon of orthodoxy.  I do believe he is a very productive and faithful servant of God.

Concerning Emil Brunner:  I was not able to read this book as a re-appraisal of Brunner.  I knew too little about him, so it was an appraisal.

Brunner existed in a foggy bit of theological European history in my mind.  He was Germanic and his name started with a B.  So, there was Barth, Brunner, and Bultmann.  You could add Bonhoeffer to the list, but Dietrich emerged from the pack with such books as Cost of Discipleship and Life Together.  German theology ranged from the arcane, like Keil and Delitzsche, to the insane, like Strauss and Feuerbach.  The German higher critics scaled the heights of academic acumen and brilliance, but shed orthodoxy to make the climb possible.  Aspiring American theologians crossed the great pond to study theology in the German universities.  German academia ruled the world in a way that the Third Reich never came close to equalling.  Sad to say, many believing students of theology returned to the American theological scene much better grounded in German language and thought, but spiritually blinded in heart and mind.  In turn, their contagion spread to American churches and seminaries.

J. Gresham Machen was an exception in that he survived his German pilgrimage, as did his mentor Benjamin B. Warfield.  Their students and followers, including such men as Cornelius Van Til and Gordon Clark, waged war against the bad aspects of German theology.

I have told this story in simple form and really didn’t understand it much more than what is stated above.  A few years back, I read Eric Metaxas’ enjoyable biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  I love the Bonhoeffer life story (tragic as it is) and enjoyed the book, but felt extremely uncomfortable with it.  Then I read historian Richard Weikhart’s critique of the book.  Basically, Metaxas cast Bonhoeffer as an American evangelical.  The murky depths of German theology was made to be like the clear–shallow–waters of American evangelical theology.

Others have made similar mistakes when they assume that German theological scholars were all bad guys  (or heretics, if you prefer).  Bonhoeffer wrote some good books, but some things that are questionable, to say the least.  Barth held some unorthodox views.  I would not want a Barthian as a pastor, but would not rule out reading or hearing from one.  On some matters, Barth was very good.  In the overall context of the theological liberals of Barth’s time, he was a knight in shining armor.

Bultmann is still off limits for my theology.  If McGrath writes a book titled Rudolph Bultmann: A Reappraisal, I would give it a hearing, but until then, I am still wary of him.

Brunner, however, was just a “B” name German (actually he was from Switzerland) linked in time and place with the others.

This book was an incredible eye-opener for me.  Brunner was a theologian of some depth, and some of the issues on which he and Barth sparred are still lost to me.  He held some wrong views on matters, and were he and I having lunch together, I would feel compelled to tell him so.  But he was a solid believer on the essentials.  He wrote and spoke orthodox truth.  He rightly recognized the evils of Naziism (which was next door to him) and Communism.  He understood that Christianity should impact culture.  He valued preaching and church life.  He loved and proclaimed Jesus Christ.

I will try to follow this post with some details from McGrath and Brunner.  I did read a book titled Our Faith by Brunner so that I could build upon this intellectual biography.  The book is a bit high priced, so I hope it comes out in paperback.  It is a worthy read.  It is one of the best books I have read this year.

Brunner, left, and Karl Barth, right. They sometimes had cordial scholarly exchanges, but sometimes were at loggerheads with each other. When Barth learned that Brunner was dying, he wrote a very kind note to him.


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