The stroke suffered recently by Emil Brunner as he returned to his native Switzerland after two brief but strenuous years of teaching in Japan cannot but leave one with a sense of regret and loss. How much, in God’s providence, he may yet have to say to us we cannot know; but though there be little more, the bequest of his pen to our generation will challenge every serious theological mind for years to come. In this limited article we assay a large task, namely, to discuss his view of Scripture. Brunner himself once remarked, epigrammatically, “The fate of the Bible is the fate of Christianity.” Because this is true, it may also be said that the fate of the Bible in Brunner’s theology is the fate of his theology.

Acceptance Of Critical Views

Let us begin by observing (what is well known) that Brunner accepts many results of the so-called higher criticism of the Bible. That the creation and fall narratives, in fact the pre-Abrahamic history in general, are a late priestly production; that when all is said and done, the Wellhausian order of “prophets then law” has remained victorious; that the latter half of Isaiah is postexilic; that the Lukan account of a census and the Matthaean story of the Magi are legendary; that the resurrection narratives are conflicting; that John is not a historical source; and that the Pastorals are late—all this is for Brunner the common property of educated minds, just as much as Copernican astronomy and Newtonian physics. The Bible “is full of errors, contradictions, erroneous opinions concerning human, natural, historical situations. It contains many contradictions in the report about Jesus’ life; it is overgrown with legendary material even in the New Testament” (Religionsphilosophie, pp. 77 f.). Hence the orthodox view of the Scripture, which conceives the Bible as a book of infallible, self-consistent propositions, is impossible for anyone who knows anything.

It is probably true that Brunner’s liberal theological background, especially in the early years, served to underscore this phase of the problem in his thinking beyond due proportions. But every serious student of the literature knows that biblical criticism has raised questions that cannot be exorcised by the simple denial of their existence. Hence, though Brunner’s concessions to criticism seem to many of us intolerably cordial, our position is such that we are constrained to read on. If Brunner is convinced that we can no longer regard the Bible as an infallible norm of faith and practice—and he is—what place does he give it in our present-day thought about God and His self-disclosure to man?

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Revelation Versus Doctrine

To answer this question we must pause a moment on the larger subject of revelation. Revelation, for Brunner, is God’s breaking into time in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus is himself the Word. “Revelation is Jesus Christ himself, not a doctrine about Jesus Christ” (Die christliche Lehre von Gott, p. 63). This revelation is completed in the response of faith on the part of the individual as he is confronted by God in Christ. The proper “echo” of the divine Word in the human heart is revelation consummated. It is “personal correspondence.” Thus the truth of revelation moves in a different sphere from that of reason. It is “thou-truth” (Du-Wahrheit), not “it-truth” (Es-Wahrheit). There is, as Brunner says, an “abyss” which separates “the human word and God’s Word, human-rational and divine-spiritual understanding” (Offenbarung und Vernunft, p. 415). Revelation then moves in the realm of personal encounter, of confession. “Verily thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God!” Every genuine testimony about Christ must arise out of such a personal encounter of him. The rise of “it-truth” from “thou-truth,” or, to speak theologically, the rise of doctrine, such as we have in the Bible, from revelation occurred when the Apostles turned from the God who addressed them to the men whom they addressed.

The first prerequisite, therefore, for the rise of the witness of doctrine, is the stepping out of the thou-relationship to God, a turning of the face, as it were, away from God and toward the world. In doctrine man speaks no more in the thou-form to God, as in the original confession of faith—but he speaks now in the it-form about God. Doctrine is no more the spontaneous personal answer of prayer to God’s word, but even in its simplest form already, reflective speech about God. Stepping out of the dimension of personal meeting into the impersonal realm of reflection, is the presupposition of all doctrine. God is now no more the one who speaks, but the one who is spoken about; no more is God the one who is addressed, but a man or a plurality of men [Die christliche Lehre von Gott, p. 44],

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On The Rim Of Revelation

Now the Bible, according to Brunner, is the fixation of this faith-confessing, faith-creating testimony of the Apostles. This viva vox of the Apostles stands in closer relationship to the Word of God than does the Bible, but the Scriptural fixation of this living testimony, which was necessary to preserve it from being completely altered and thereby lost in the moving stream of historical tradition, participates in the authority of that revelation. It is, so to speak, the rim, the border of that unique revelational event of which it bears record. It is this participation in the once-for-all character of revelation as a unique historical event which gives the written documents superiority over the subsequent oral tradition and which grounds the idea of a canon. “We have the word of revelation as something unique and finished, therefore, as canon” (Der Protestantismus der Gegenwart, p. 254). The once-for-all spoken word of revelation meets us as a Perfectum praeteritum in the Scripture, which is therefore the norm of revealed truth.

Words About The Word

Strictly speaking, then, the Bible is not the Word of God in the unqualified sense of Orthodoxy, but rather a word about the Word, a record of the Apostolic witness to the Word, which participates in the authority of that witness. Since Jesus is himself the Word, it is idolatry to regard the Bible as the Word of God in the orthodox sense. When all is said and done, however it may differ from other human formulations of revealed truth, the Bible cannot be the ground of Christian faith, but only its means. I do not believe that Jesus is the Christ because I believe the Bible. The order is exactly the reverse in Brunner’s way of thinking. “Because I believe in Christ, I believe the Scripture” (Offenbarung und Vernunft, p. 166). Nor does it help any to say that I believe Jesus is the Christ because an Apostle says so. It is all the same. Were not the Apostles men? Could they not err? Indeed they could and they did. Their testimony, as we have it preserved in Scripture, is, to be sure, “inspired by the Spirit of God, but it is at the same time a human word, and therefore laden with the frailty and incompleteness of all that is human” (Die christliche Lehre von Gott, p. 40). However, true faith is not shaken by this fact, but, recognizing that revelation is broken in the human medium, it reaches beyond the contradictory perspectives of the Scriptures to that One to whom they all point, Jesus.

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The Temporary And Permanent

Hence, Brunner declares, it is our task to distinguish between that which is binding and valid and that which is temporal and human in the Bible. Only we must not fall into the error of liberalism by failing to perceive that our norm and criterion in fulfilling this task can be no other than the Scripture itself. “Only by means of the doctrine of the Apostles can the apostolic doctrine be criticized.” This apparently circular reasoning is really so only for “a legal-orthodox mentality” (Die christliche Lehre von Gott, p. 55). Though the astronomic-cosmological, the geographical, ethnographical and historical pronouncements of the Bible are not, as such, binding upon us, yet this does not mean, as the liberals assume, that we may lop off Genesis 1 through 12 and go about our business. No portion of the Bible is more laden with revelation than the lapidary opening chapters of the Genesis narrative. We do not receive revelation save through the whole Bible, by which Brunner means not simply all portions of the Bible, but all the content of all the Bible, including its antique cosmology and early chronology. The world view of the writers of Scripture is the alphabet in which the witness of revelation was given. Only we should not confuse the alphabet with the witness itself. We must differentiate between them even though we cannot sever them. Hence Brunner can say that we are bound even to the very words of Scripture, for the words of the Bible are not only signs of the thing, but the thing itself. “We have no power in any sense or respect over the words of Scripture, not even then when the need of the church may lie close to requiring such” (Natur und Gnade, zweite Auflage, Vorwort).

Not A Final Norm

Yet along with such commitments, we find Brunner categorically affirming that even in matters of doctrine, not to mention science, the Bible is not a final norm. To put the matter pointedly in Brunner’s own words: “However, the norm of Scripture understood even in the sense of a norm of doctrine, is no absolute, but only a conditional one, conditioned by that which at the same time grounds it; namely, the revelation, Jesus Christ Himself” (Die christliche Lehre von Gott, p. 57). The Word of God can never be identified with the words of the Bible. A final recourse to a passage of Scripture is therefore an impossibility. Christian doctrine remains always, and in every case, a venture of faith (ibid., p. 58). How, then, do I know that the Christ to whom the Scripture testifies is indeed the Word of God? Brunner’s reply is that there is no revelation in itself. Revelation is address and response, “personal correspondence.” I believe in Christ for the same reason Peter did, whose eyes were opened to the truth by a special act of God’s Spirit. To be sure, this testimony of the Spirit is only by means of the apostolic witness as preserved in Scripture. But God’s Word is double; the happened-Word becomes the happening-Word in the moment in which God seals it to me as His Word. The Bible, in other words, becomes the Word of God to me in the moment of revelation when I become contemporaneous with Christ. In a single act of revelation there is created in me faith in the Christ and faith in the Scripture which testifies to him. The relativism attaching to the merely historical, which makes impossible final recourse to the Scripture as such, is overcome in the act of faith, whereby the historical becomes “an other than the historical … an organ of the revelation of the eternal God … The historical has become the eternal Word of God” (Die christliche Lehre von Schopfung und Erlosung, p. 307).

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Difficulties Facing Brunner

This in brief is Brunner’s attempted synthesis of the liberal-orthodox antithesis. Thus he would escape on the one hand the dilemma of the liberal, from whose fingers both tables of the Law have slipped, without committing himself to what he regards as a wooden Orthodoxy. There can be little doubt that he has achieved his end, after a fashion, for he is too orthodox for the liberal and too liberal for the orthodox. This is his privilege, and probably his intention, but would it be a pedantic irrelevance to ask him how he can reject the virgin birth of our Lord and at the same time be bound even to the words of the narrative as both sign and thing signified? We must, no doubt, grant him the liberty that we all take (even though we are not theologians of the paradox) of being a little inconsistent, but sometimes one is tempted to complain with Capulet to Juliet,

How now, how now, chop-logic!

What is this?

To be precise, Brunner insists that without an authoritative Bible, Christianity is lost (and as a Christian Brunner professedly bows before that authority), but at the same time he tells us that its authority is conditional only, that it is an authority freighted with human frailty. Is it not difficult to fit the pieces of this puzzle together?

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What is a conditional authority? Is it not one to which we can talk back? One which we may like or leave? Yet our Lord said that the Scripture cannot be broken (John 10:35). So far was he from asserting that final recourse to the Scripture is impossible that he rested his whole defense against the devil on “It is written.” If we are Christians, we ought not to be ashamed of Jesus in this respect, but rather to acknowledge that the Scripture, as the word of God written, is the keystone in the arch of our confession, the foundation on which our view of life rests, the theological axiom from which alone we derive our message to a race of dying men.

Finality That Wavers

If, as Brunner himself says, the fate of the Bible is the fate of Christianity, then to make the authority of the Bible conditional is to place a question mark after the absoluteness of Christianity. Brunner would probably answer that the Spirit of God uses the Bible (even as he would a sermon) though it be fallible, as a means of divine revelation in the crisis of faith. Now it is surely important that the Bible become the word of God to the individual; but is it not equally important that the Bible be the Word of God, for how can the Bible become what it is not? To be sure, it is no longer possible to conceive the Bible as dictated by the Holy Ghost, yet even Brunner admits that “the Word of God is there [in the prophets] in the form of revealed human words, not behind them …, but in a direct identity, in a complete correspondence of man’s word and God’s word” (Die christliche Lehre von Gott, p. 26). This, it would seem, is to concede a very basic point, for however untenable certain scholastic formulations of the doctrine of Scripture may have become, the essence of the orthodox position is that the Bible is the Word of God in the form of revealed human words. But if the Scripture is the word of God, then our task is not to get beyond Orthodoxy, but so to formulate our Orthodoxy, in the light of contemporary problems, that the Bible becomes to men in our world what we as preachers and theologians believe it really is, namely, the Word of God.

Paul K. Jewett spent a year abroad in graduate studies under Emil Brunner on a scholarship from Harvard Divinity School, where he received the Ph.D degree. His book on Brunner’s Concept of Revelation was along the lines of his doctoral dissertation. Jewett is now Professor of Systematic Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary.

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