Brunner’s Truth as Encounter

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The entire works attempts to steer a middle course between objectivism (represented by Barth and conservatives who substitute belief in doctrine over Christian faith) and subjectivism (represented by Bultmann and Schleiermacher). He believes Barth over-reacted against the subjectivism of Schleiermacher’s theology and subjected faith to God’s self-revelation. According to Brunner “in Barth the correlation between God and faith is broken” (45). Furthermore, Barth relegated faith to the end of Dogmatics, which betrays the fact that Barth denigrated the important role faith plays in Christian life. We also need to resist the Bultmannian temptation to collapse theology into anthropology. It’s Bultmann’s mistake to simply equate faith in Christ’s resurrection with a new self-understanding. In Brunner’s theological system God’s revelation is always to man. However it’s God who initiates this self-communication. God comes first, man second. Bultmann reduces “faith to understanding brings about a transformation that reduces faith to something merely individual, something merely subjective” (47).

His major arugment is that a legitimate understanding of Christian truth must displace the subject-object antithesis pervasive in the Western tradition. The objective side falters by making truth graspable and static whereas true Biblical revelation is always personal and dynamic, an encounter. Following Kierkegaard, the problem with subjectivism its mistakes is thinking that truth comes from the inside. On the contrary, Christian faith for Kierkegaard is always an event that comes from the outside. Of course the truth event is none other than the “incarnation of the divine Word in Jesus Christ, which an only be perceived in the act of faith” (18).

Later on Brunner claims that in “faith man possesses no truth except God’s and his possession is not of the kind whereby one ordinarily possesses a truth, but personal fellowship” (108). Another problem with objectivism (i.e. orthodoxy) is that it reduces revelation to something when in reality God’s self-revelation is in fact a self-disclosure, a personal revelation. God’s revelation can never be grasped and tamed but rather is a dynamic revelation. Orthodoxy also faltered by equating the Word of God with doctrine. God’s revelation is always a personal self-communication in love. If Christian revelation is reduced to knowledge about X then too often this hardens into a loveless abstract truth void of God. Brunner seems to be basing this theology heavily on Buber’s I-Thou encounter. Orthodoxy fails because it reduces the I (i.e. God) to an It which merely discloses knowledge about God and not God Herself.

Here’s where I think his position starts to break down. He writes, “faith, in other words, is in the final analysis not faith in something – something true, a doctrine, it is not “thinking something,” but personal encounter, trust, obedience, and love” (133). Although he recognizes we can’t merely have faith in this event but in something about the event, yet he wants to prioritize this personal fellowship. He also critiques the early church fathers for being too obsessed with doctrinal debates when they should have been focused on proclaiming that Jesus is Lord. Finally, Brunner laments that orthodox theology has been dominated by Greek philosophy and timeless substance (noun) rather than the actualistic (verb) language of the Bible. Jesus is God’s act, and Brunner believes we need to have a greater focus on Christ’s work. Again, this is a helpful point, but Brunner fails to deliver the goods. Brunner never goes on to discuss the works of Christ and the ethical imperative he commands of believers. In fact, he completely neglects the actual sociopolitical message of Jesus’ ministry and collapses the Kingdom into God’s love for fellowship with humanity. Recall that Barth placed ethics in the Doctrine of God (II/2) right after the discussion of the election of God. Barth had no desire to neglect the importance of ethics for the Christian life. Yet Brunner’s treatment fails to address the actual historical nature of Jesus’ ministry. He makes a common move made by many theologians: Jesus’ love is for all of humanity. Love is the central ethic not justice. (Side note: there should be a moratorium on theologians using the word love. It seldom communicates anything meaningful. As Hauerwas said it tends to be sentimental bullshit). But this does injustice to Jesus’ particular solidarity with the oppressed, poor, and weak. Also, Brunner’s emphasis on the personal God seems to lead to an overly individualistic concept of faith (perhaps not surprising since Kierkegaard is one of his heroes). For Brunner what matters most is the individual’s personal relationship with God, but what about the individual’s sociopolitical responsibility to his neighbor?

One more question for Barthian scholars. Brunner claims that a “thing happened quite imperceptibly through a change of emphasis in the [Barth’s] understanding of faith. It began with the adoption of the ancient Catholic doctrine natus ex Maria Virgine” (42). “It was this doctrine summarized in the Creed, which Karl Barth from 1924 onward expounded in his CD as the subject of belief. This change showed itself in three symptoms” (43).

1) His stricter fidelity to the orthodox/Reformed teachers of the 17th century

2) This forced him to develop fine-tuned distinctions which resulted in the bloated CD

3) He moved further away from a dynamic understanding of faith in the Word of God and not doctrine. This led Barth to develop a new orthodoxy that downplayed his early Kierkegaardian motifs. In fact Brunner claims that hope is all but absent from Barth’s CD

Anyone have any thoughts about this? Is this valid? I’m less interested in supposed symptoms and more in the historical influence the doctrine of natus ex Maria Virgine had on Barth’s theological development.

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