Revelation is the concept around which Brunner centres his
thinking. If Karl Barth emphasised the primacy of faith over intellect,
Brunner excluded man's capacity to reason from any connection with
He was only 15 when in 1914 he wrote Symbolism in Religious
Knowledge, a discussion of the German philosopher, Edmund Husserl. By
1924 he had evolved his ideas on revelation. In Die Mystik und das Wort
he criticised Schleiermacher for supposing that Christianity might be one
of a group of religions which could be more or less equated with each
other. Brunner proposed that neither natural theology nor personal
experience are adequate for true knowledge. Only revelation from God can
provide that and Christianity is the perfect revelation - in which case
Schleiermacher is wrong.
Revelation means rather the emergence of the eternal basis of all
phenomena into consciousness, the perception of something which was always
true ... hence in this connection both revelation and religion are spoken
of in the singular. (The Mediator)
Brunner was educated in Switzerland. His army service in the Great
European War (1914-18) gave him experience which he later used as a
pastor. He became Professor of Theology at Zurich and lectured widely
around the world. Brunner was later heavily involved in the work of the
World Council of Churches. He also had a short spell supporting the Moral
Brunner, like Barth, is known today as one who thought of revelation as
"dialectical". That is, following Hegel, revelation is a process of change
in which humans pass over into and are preserved by their opposite. A
point of view, a philosophy, an ideology (thesis) are each
inevitably engaged most starkly with their opposite (antithesis). That's
the nature of how things work in our world. The engagement is dialectical
- one in which there is a sort of argument back and forth. What happens as
a result of this process is that neither extreme turns out to be correct.
An amalgam or a third option is gradually adopted (synthesis). So in
science an hypothesis may be opposed by another hypothesis. But when all
the evidence is gathered and the experiments done, what usually comes out
is not one or the other but a theory which turns out to be a third option.
This device diminishes and perhaps even gets rid of problems of
contradiction which revelation normally poses. If, for example, God is
good, how is it that he allows evil and the consequent suffering and
damnation of people he's supposed to love and value? Brunner would answer
that we are able to escape this contradiction if we choose what the
intellect can't give us - namely, the absolute certainty which revealed
truth potentially gives us. In more contemporary terms, his point might be
expressed by the idea of polarity. God as the absolute good can occupy a
dimension of goodness at the other pole of which is evil mankind. The
difference is that there is no dialectic in the Hegelian sense, because
God's polarity is the right one.
Karl Barth thought this was mistaken. He held that people are unable to
"choose" revelation in this way. Salvation from sin for Barth was
something given by God to a person of faith, freely and without strings
attached, something to be grasped or entered into but not chosen from
Although, said Brunner, people are able to respond to revelation, they
do so not to a set of propositions but to the generous act of a personal
God. In harmony with Martin Buber, Brunner perceived this response as an
"I-Thou" encounter, an encounter between persons.
Brunner's ethics and social philosophy were set out in The Divine
Imperative (1932) and Man in Revolt (1937). He proposed,
following Luther, that there are natural social orders in creation. These
are not derived from God's revelation of truth but have always been there
as part of the natural order.
How then are we to know which of a large number of social orders -
from autocracy to democracy, for example - are the right ones? Those which
have been "authorised" by the Bible, answered Brunner. So, for example, we
know that monogamy is better than polygamy or adultery because the former
has been blessed by Jesus. Similarly, we know that the State has authority
over the individual and over its constituent groups because Jesus said
"Give to Caesar what is Caesar's". These are both examples of the clarity
given us by revelation. So, for example, Brunner would not have found the
idea of situation ethics appealing because it proposes that the situation,
not revealed morality, dictates how best love is to be applied in life.
In short, social order has the function not of promoting good but of
restraining sin. Brunner apparently perceives the Fall as resulting in
original sin. People are essentially sub-human after the Fall - they
become what Brunner calls "derivative" persons. God is the "original"
person (shades of Plato) whose nature humanity in the persons of Adam and
Eve shared before the Fall. Derivative persons cannot, he thought, fully
comprehend their lost personhood.
More than that, we all reject true personhood by our desire for
individual autonomy, which can be equated with the first rebellion (the
Fall) against God. Mankind in groups is equally sub-human. The
Totalitarian State is the incarnation of depersonalisation. In this sense,
Brunner was in direct opposition to the incoming tide of what is generally
termed "humanism" by those who seek to preserve the inherent sinfulness
and corruption of human nature. He would have been unable to affirm, as
does the humanist, that human nature is created as it is. It is neither
perfect nor corrupt. It is just what it is - the result of a long process
of evolution, genetic coding and cultural forces.
This is not to say that humans don't sin, nor that the consequences of
that sin don't percolate from generation to generation. But it is to say
that a much smaller part of each of us can be termed sinful, and in a very
different way, than traditional Christianity teaches. Brunner would hold
that we need revelation precisely because if we didn't have it, we might
not know (perhaps could not know) right from wrong as we should.
Brunner attempts to balance this rather gloomy and negative perception
of human nature by his vision of Jesus Christ. The life, death and
resurrection of Jesus, he says, is the personification of God. Only the
perfect love which Jesus has demonstrated can break through the rebellious
self-will which infects us all. Jesus is the perfect, final and only
revelation of the person of God and it is to him that we must turn for
renewal. Jesus is the perfect model or archetype for us all. He is the
first of type upon which all of the same type should model themselves.
Revelation is thus "general" in the sense that God is always revealing
the divine nature to us, even through primitive people and their
religions. It is more importantly "particular" in the sense that Jesus is
a once and for all revelation, a timeless and decisive revelation. Our
vision of the original God is perverted by sin and so we can have genuine
knowledge only through Jesus as the Christian revelation. Brunner wrote:
Revelation is therefore fundamentally different from all other forms of
knowledge, because it is not knowledge of something but the meeting of the
Unconditioned with the conditioned subject.
What Christians give to society is really a sort of by-product because
of the great distance between Christianity and any type of civilisation.
Similarly, Christianity is distanced qualitatively from all other
religions. Another way of putting this would be to say that the only true
civilisation is a Christian one, built solely upon the vision of Jesus in
the Bible. It therefore doesn't matter, for example, that we don't have as
much information about Jesus as a normal biography would today require.
What we have is enough because it is, to all intents and purposes,
True knowledge is typified by the title of his book, Truth as
Encounter. We can only know God by encountering divinity in a personal
way. "The Lordship and love of God can be communicated in no other way
than by God's self-giving," he wrote. Revelation is directed precisely
towards this goal - the establishment of a personal relationship between
the God who reveals, and humanity which receives the revelation:
Through God alone can God be known. This is not a specifically
Christian principle; on the contrary, it is the principle common to all
religion and indeed, to the philosophy of religion as a whole.
It follows that truth is not something we discover. Neither does it
consist of propositions and ideas which are disclosed to us. It is
something which happens in space/time - that is, it is historical
in the same sense that any historical event is part of the complex web of
events. Similarly the "content" of revelation isn't a philosophy but a
person. Just as we don't primarily know facts about a personal
relationship but experience it as a sort of gestalt, so also we
don't know about Jesus but encounter him as a person in history in
our own lives.
Whereas Barth proposed that reason can take one only so far along the
path of knowledge, after which the "eye of faith" takes over, Brunner sets
the human intellect aside completely. God cannot be represented by words,
propositions or mental constructs. Philosophy is ultimately useless as a
means of true knowledge. In Barth's model, human rationality is corrected
by faith. In Brunner's,
... in the case of the idea of God, it is not merely a matter of
correction but of a complete substitution of the one for the other.
Revelation dominates reason utterly. The God of philosophy is not the
revealed God because  this God is an entity inferred, by exploration
and reason, from nature, and  this makes God an object rather than a
person who must necessarily be encountered to be known
What is to be made of Brunner's idea of revelation as history,
something which happens in space and time? How can an historian identify a
revelatory event as distinct from every other non-revelatory event? For it
must be assumed that there are at least two classes of event, revelatory
and others, since if all history is revelation there is no point in
It seems to me that Brunner can only declare revelation as history if
he means by "history" something else than is normally meant by it. The
history of historians seeks to discover "what really happened". This
requires, by all accounts, that the search begins with a scepticism which
doubts the veracity of every version of the past except that which
is backed up by good evidence, in turn selected by good judgement. Every
piece of evidence is no good unless it is properly warranted as such. When
the historian's considered version of history is presented, it is
validated by consensus - a consensus of those who have examined the
evidence and in turn exercised their own judgement. In the entire process
of historical exploration, intellectual effort and integrity is at a
premium. Good history is sought out by reason. As one philosopher of
history (Van Austin Harvey) writes: "The morality of knowledge is not the
antithesis of faith but its expression."
In short, Brunner's version of "history" destroys history. And if
that's the case, then there is no point in discussing the contents of the
Bible in terms of historical discipline. The entire body of criticism must
be dismissed because it depends on exactly the same criteria for its
validity as does history. Although it's not easy to see it, Brunner is
forced into what's essentially a fundamentalist position about the Bible.
The dialectical theologians of the Barthian school hold that faith
extends beyond reason. Brunner says that faith negates reason. The
position which I think is presently evolving is, very briefly put, that
faith may reach further than reason but should never deny it. Reason may
extend to faith - but faith without reason ceases to be faith.
If revelation is historical in the sense that there are
revelation-events amongst other historical events, then it should be
possible for historians to sort out one from the other. To do so it must
be possible to posit those characteristics of revelatory history which
ordinary history does not possess, and vice versa. I know of no
such accomplishment. But if this is possible, then it's obvious to which
type humankind should pay attention. Revelation is, by definition,
impossible to refute.
Brunner's framework (intellectually argued, by the way, and hence, on
his own account, not of much use) does not examine this issue directly. He
assumes the answer lies in the doctrine of the Bible as God's "Word" or
The Scriptures bear witness to this unique character of the Christian
revelation - a revelation that can never be repeated.
If so, he must maintain that the Bible is inspired by God in the sense
that it has been written by God through the hands of men. If any human
intelligence is allowed in this inspiration, then Brunner's idea of
revelation falls away. It is also a profoundly circular argument. The
Bible, which is God's ultimate revelation to humanity, bears witness to
its own nature.
It's not clear in what sense Brunner means the word "personal" when he
says that revelation is a personal event. Nevertheless it seems to me that
he implies that persons are not objects about which data is to be
gathered, but entities which can only be revealed through encounter. Mere
information I have about you isn't much good, because only when we have
encountered each other can we truly know each other.
If this is true of God, it must be asked how we are to differentiate
between "knowing God" as Person and knowing "about God" as data. Brunner
must be using the word "person" in some specialised sense because personal
knowledge is normally an assembly of data - albeit profoundly complex -
about another person. We discover one another in relationship by gradually
gathering information about past behaviours which allow us to assess
present behaviours and sometimes to predict future behaviours. In other
words, each of us consists in a huge range of complex data which is to
some degree analysable. This is not to deny that we also simply experience
each other from time to time without thinking about it.
If we use the "person" metaphor about God (metaphor being the only way
we can "describe" the "totally Other"), in what ways precisely does it
differ from the normal meaning of "person"? Brunner doesn't make this
clear except to hold up Jesus as the nearest we'll get to knowing God.
But the problem doesn't go away simply by removing it a step from the
supernatural to the natural. Not only must one know Jesus in exactly the
same way one knows anyone (since he is fully human), but we must have
enough data to know him as a person - in the same way that individuals
know each other in an intimate relationship. It has for at least 100 years
now been acknowledged that we don't know enough to write a Biography of
Jesus Christ. If we had, would we and could we know Jesus at a truly
personal level even then? There are many biographies of President John
Kennedy of the United States. Do they allow any of us to know him
personally? I doubt it.