Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Barth vs. Brunner

John W. Hart, pastor of Liberty Presbyterian Church in Delaware, Ohio, has provided a thorough and an eminently readable examination of the early thought of both Karl Barth and Emil Brunner in his book, Karl Barth vs. Emil Brunner: The Formation and Dissolution of a Theological Alliance, 1916-1936. The two influential theologians were allies in the development of the "dialectical theology" that supplanted "liberal theology" after World War I. Their partnership broke up in a very public dispute over the value of "natural theology" shortly before World War II.

Hart traces the thought of both Barth and Brunner before their alliance and demonstrates that the issues that ultimately divided them were present in their thinking from the beginning. Brunner was always put off by the "one-sidedness" of Barth's emphasis on election and God’s sovereignty. Barth never approved on Brunner's attempt to bring philosophy (– ultimately, Kantian ethics, Kierkegaardian existentialism and Ebnerian dialogicalism) "under one arch" with Reformation theology.

The book makes a unique contribution to an understanding Brunner's theology by discussing in-depth their different reactions to the Oxford Group Movement (OGM) . Barth was adamantly opposed pietistic revival movements like the OGM while Brunner’s thought always had a missionary impulse. His program of "eristics" (from the Greek word "to debate") -- a program that Barth belittled -- was designed to probe for the "point of contact" within man where an opening could be found for the Word. Brunner saw both dialectical theology and OGM as expressions of the same renewal movement within Christianity. Hart explains why the OGM movement meshed well with Brunner's program of eristics:
In essence, Brunner's eristics was a modernization of revivalism. In the revival pattern, the preacher spends considerable time upon the "bad news" (sin, judgment, hell), bringing people (on the "sinners' bench") to a "conviction of sin", in order that they would turn to Christ in faith. Brunner found the logic of evangelistic strategy impeccable, but its form had to be completely revised since modern people rejected the concepts of sin, judgment and hell. Therefore, Brunner updated it: the eristician (an intellectual) reasons (not preaches) with modern people about the weakness of their world-view by appealing to their feelings of existential despair and moral failure, in order that they would examine Christianity as an alternative and valid explanation of reality. This "updated revivalism" is precisely what appealed to Brunner in the Oxford Group Movement.
Hart also makes it clear that there is a broad divergence in the way that the two theologians made use of the thought of the Reformers:
In addition, their different appropriation of the Reformation partly explains why Barth and Brunner talked past each other in the natural theology debate. Barth wearied of Brunner's citations of Calvin, since Brunner missed "the intentions of Reformation theology." Brunner, for his part, was highly suspicious of Barth's claim that, in order to "adhere to the teaching of the Reformation" it was necessary to re-write "what Calvin wrote in those first chapters of the Institutes." Brunner was constantly exasperated with Barth’s historical argument because he assumed that Barth was using the Reformers in the same way as himself -- i.e., in a "Neo-Reformationist" manner – rather than Barth's free and radical manner.
Brunner's influence on theological thought has always been overshadowed by that of Barth. There is no point in denying that Barth is the more forceful and creative thinker of the two. Nevertheless, Hart's book could be helpful in restoring an appreciation of an interest in the thought of Emil Brunner. The book is also an excellent way for students of theology to penetrate the thought of Karl Barth.

Karl Barth Vs. Emil Brunner: The Formation and Dissolution of a Theological Alliance, 1916-1936 (Issues in Systematic Theology, Vol. 6)

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