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Emil Brunner: A Reappraisal

ISBN: 978-0-470-67055-2
260 pages
February 2014, Wiley-Blackwell
Emil Brunner: A Reappraisal (047067055X) cover image


In Emil Brunner: A Reappraisal, renowned theologian Alister E. McGrath presents a comprehensive intellectual history of Emil Brunner, the highly influential Swiss theologian who was instrumental in shaping modern Protestant theology. 

  • Explores Brunner’s theological development and offers a critical engagement of his theology
  • Examines the role that Brunner played in shaping the characteristics of dialectical theology
  • Reveals the complex and shifting personal and professional relationship between Brunner and Barth
  • Delves into the reasons for Brunner’s contemporary neglect in theological scholarship
  • Represents the only book-length study of Brunner’s works and significance in the English language
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Table of Contents

Preface ix

A Note on Translations and Editions xiii

1 Emil Brunner: The Origins of a Theological Mind, 1914–1924 1

Theological Studies at Zurich 2

Pastoral Ministry and Contacts in England 4

The Swiss Crisis of Identity, 1914–1919 6

Brunner and Dialectical Theology: The Origins of an Ambivalent Relationship 9

Brunner in America, 1919–1920 12

Brunner, Barth, and Thurneysen: Continuing Debate 13

The Quest for Recognition: Erlebnis, Erkenntnis und Glaube (1921–2) 16

Brunner and American Psychology of Religion 18

The Limits of Humanity: Reflections on Revelation and Reason (1922) 22

The Critique of Schleiermacher: Die Mystik und das Wort (1924) 25

Part I The Making of a Dialectical Theologian 29

2 Brunner’s Theology of Crisis: Critique and Construction, 1924–1929 31

The 1925 Inaugural Lecture at Zurich: Revelation and Theology 32

Reason and Theology: An Ecclesial Engagement (1927) 34

The Mediator: A Manifesto for Dialectical Theology (1927) 39

The Trinity: Dogma, not Kerygma 50

The American Reception of the “Theology of Crisis” (1928) 54

3 Reflections on the Tasks of Theology, 1929–1933 61

Crisis: The Rise of Ideology in Western Europe, 1920–1935 62

Brunner’s Challenge to Ideology: The “Other Task of Theology” (1929) 66

Presenting Dialectical Theology in Britain: The Word and the World (1931) 74

A Theological Ethics: The Divine Imperative (1932) 78

A Problematic Liaison: Brunner and the Oxford Group 85

The Work of the Holy Spirit:

The Copenhagen Lectures (1934) 87

4 Natural Theology? The Barth–Brunner Debate of 1934 90

Natural Theology: A Contested Notion 94

Karl Barth’s Views on Natural Theology, 1918–1933 101

A Game-Changer: The Nazi Power Grab of 1933 105

Brunner’s Public Criticism of Barth: Nature and Grace (1934) 113

Brunner’s Later Views on Natural Theology: Revelation and Reason (1941) 121

Barth’s Response: No! (1934) 127

5 Brunner’s Theological Anthropology: Man in Revolt (1937) 133

The Need for a Theological Anthropology 134

The Impossibility of an “Objective” Anthropology 136

The Dependence of Humanity on God 140

The “Contradiction” within Humanity 142

The Image of God and Human Identity 145

Humanity and Evolution: The Limits of Darwinism 148

6 Objectivity and Subjectivity in Theology: Truth as Encounter (1937) 154

Object and Subject in Theology:

The Context to Brunner’s Thought 155

Objectivity and Subjectivity: Brunner’s Criticism of Existing Paradigms 161

Overcoming the Object-Subject Impasse: Brunner’s Strategy 166

The Implications of Brunner’s Notion of “Truth as Encounter” 169

America: The Call to Princeton

Theological Seminary, 1937–1939 172

Part II Consolidation: Brunner’s Vision for Post-War Theological Reconstruction 179

7 Brunner’s Vision for the Christian Community: The Church, State, and Culture 181

The Ideological Origins of Totalitarianism 182

An Antidote to Totalitarianism: The Renewal of Natural Law 185

The Need for Theological Reconstruction: Revelation and Reason (1941) 190

The Christian State: A Modest Theological Proposal 195

Rediscovering the Church as Community: Brunner’s Ecclesiology 199

8 Teacher and Preacher: Brunner as a Public Intellectual 205

Rector of the University of Zurich, 1942–1943 206 The Catechist: Our Faith (1935) 207

The Fraumünster Sermons: Brunner as Preacher 210

The Public Lecturer: The Scandal of Christianity 214

Theological Education: Brunner’s Dogmatics 218

Tokyo: Brunner’s Engagement with Asia 221

Final Illness and Death 223

9 Legacy: The Contemporary Significance of Emil Brunner’s Theology 225

The Reformed Tradition: A Richer Range of Possibilities 228

A Theology of Nature: The Basis of Natural Law, Theology, and Science 229

Cultural Engagement: The Theological Foundations of Apologetics 231

Personalism: The Defence of Relational Identity 232

The Trinity: A Plea for Theological Modesty 234

Conclusion 237

Works by Emil Brunner Cited in This Study 239

Index 242

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Author Information

Alister E. McGrath is Professor of Theology, Ministry and Education at King’s College London, UK, and head of its Centre for Theology, Religion, and Culture. One of the world’s leading theologians, McGrath is the author of some of the most widely used textbooks on theology, including Christian Theology: An Introduction (2010) and Historical Theology (2012).

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“McGrath has written an excellent account of Brunner's theology that should, if history be kind, spark a renewed interest and consideration of Brunner as a significant theologian for the 21st century.”  (Freedom in Orthodoxy, 1 February 2014)

“McGrath’s consummate skills as both a theologian and an historian are masterfully at work in this penetrating and highly illuminating study arguing for the importance and continuing vital relevance to current theological and cultural debates of one of the 20th century’s largely forgotten major theological voices. Exhibiting the same sagacious understanding, balanced discernment and astute critical insight that we have come to admire and value so highly in McGrath, this intensively researched and captivating book brings together for the first time an enormous wealth of original source material yielding important new insights and contexts for a compelling reassessment and reappropriation of Brunner’s legacy. The book as such will serve not only as an inspired catalyst for renewed attention to Brunner but also as an indispensable resource base for further research, whether on Brunner himself or on the doctrinal and cultural issues that animated him and to which he continues to contribute so richly and relevantly.” Paul Janz, King’s College London

“Professor McGrath offers us a brilliant reassessment of a theologian who has for long languished in the shadow of Karl Barth. It needs no less than an author with the wide-ranging skills of a theologian, intellectual historian and expert in the interface between science and religion to bring to light the neglected contribution of Emil Brunner to the theology of the twentieth century. Brunner's comprehensive vision for doctrine, theology of nature, missiology, ethics, practical theology and apologetics is exposed by an author who has himself produced formative work in all these areas. Neither simply a biography nor a mere introduction to Brunner's theology, this deeply-researched and engaging study traces the emergence of Brunner's thought in its cultural context, recognizes its flaws and yet recovers a challenge for the involvement of theology in the culture of our present time.” Paul S. Fiddes, University of Oxford

“McGrath’s meticulously researched and lucid exposition and assessment of Emil Brunner’s legacy is a landmark publishing event not only for the better understanding of modern Reformed theology but also of twentieth-century theology at large.” Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, Fuller Theological Seminary and University of Helsinki

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