Emil Brunner

Conference on the 50th anniversary of his death

After a few short welcoming speeches, Frank Jehle outlined the life and work of Emil Brunner. Jehle has published a biography on Brunner and drew on his broad knowledge to make Brunner’s life and work come alive. Emil Brunner was the son of a primary school teacher in Zurich. His theology was initially influenced by Hermann Kutter and Leonhard Ragaz. After the catastrophe of World War I, he sought to reimagine theology along with other young scholars who had been shaped by dialectical theology. His approach grew more and more distinct, especially in the way he taught and reflected on the Christian faith in dialogue with the needs and questions of society. Brunner always did theology in the context of philosophy and the sciences. Moreover, he did not want to lose touch with ordinary church-goers, and because of this, he preached regularly. He had many students, friends and admirers. Through his books and travels, he became known in all of Europe and beyond. He maintained contacts in the Anglo-Saxon world, and in Asia and became involved in the Oxford Movement, the ecumenical movement, the Life and Work Movement and the YMCA.


This biographical introduction to Emil Brunner was followed by a fascinating talk by Professor Alister McGrath. He argued that Emil Brunner needs to be re-read and re-discovered, and mentioned six ways in which Brunner’s thought remains stimulating and pioneering for theology today. One of these ways is Brunner’s understanding of truth as encounter, i.e. a dialogical understanding of truth. ‘In relating ourselves to God, we discover who we are and why there is meaning in our lives.’ Brunner moreover moved from focusing on the doctrine of God and Christology (which was the main emphasis of dialectical theology) to considering anthropology. He understood human identity to be relational; human beings exist within and through their relationship with God. McGrath showed how Brunner, in stating this, developed the thought of Martin Buber and Ferdinand Ebner. For Brunner, truth was ‘no objective statement, but something which transforms and captures me.’ McGrath showed appreciation for Brunner’s ‘theologically informed vision of human nature’, which allowed him to oppose the totalitarianisms of the 1930s. He held that God ensures the unique value of each person. This insight is of great importance in the face of the New Atheism, which conceives of human beings as a mere conglomerate of atoms and social forces.


The next talk was given by Konrad Schmid, Professor of Old Testament at the University of Zurich. He described all the obstacles Brunner faced before becoming a professor in Zurich in 1924, and the ensuing fierce dispute with his liberal colleagues in Old Testament on the question of original sin. Brunner’s objection was that his colleagues treated the Bible like any secular book. Instead, Brunner demanded that Old Testament studies ‘proceed from a position of faith, rather than merely from religious humanism.’ Schmid suggested that this dispute showed ‘two different ways of dealing with the Enlightenment.’


After the lunch break, seven workshops facilitated the discussion of selected texts by Emil Brunner. Each of the texts was placed in dialogue with contemporary challenges. Ralph Kunz and Walter Dürr summarized and commented on the discussions led in each of the workshops. In sum, the conference showed that Emil Brunner is still relevant and that it is well worth paying attention to his work.