In Foundations (1948), the first part of his two-part Gifford Lecture series entitled Christianity and Civilization delivered at the University of St Andrews, Emil Brunner attempts to justify his conviction that only Christianity is capable of furnishing the basis of a civilization which can rightly be described as human. From the outset of his work, Brunner argues that the complexity of the problem of Christian civilization forces upon us a new kind of approach that seeks to examine foundational questions. Such foundational questions address and include the problems of truth, time, meaning, humankind in the universe, personality and humanity, justice, freedom and creativity, and also serve as the author’s outline in the first part of his work on Christianity and civilization.
Brunner begins his survey of foundational questions with the ‘problem’ of ‘being’, and he establishes that the Christian concept of God as the creator of the world and the world as his creation is neither that of naïve realism nor speculative idealism. Within such a conception, the author defines God as the primary original being and the world as a dependent secondary being. Having addressed ‘being’, the author next turns to truth and asserts that if the God is the primary reality, then the Word of God is the primary truth. Thus, truth is not to be found in the object or the subject, but beyond both. Truth, then, is God himself and his communication to man. If this is true, objectivism in its crudest form, materialism, is unmasked as idolatry. Subjectivism is idolatry as well, namely, the deification of the ego. Brunner further observes that from Plato onwards, we see knowledge of truth developing in a direction which isolates individuals instead of gathering them into communion. For the author, it is only in the Christian concept of truth that truth and communion are identical.
In addition to truth, Brunner purports time to be an essential factor, determining character and existence for the individual. In ancient Greek history, there was conflict between the eternal and the temporal world. In modern history, however, we have experienced the loss of the eternal. The temporal, the present moment, is what is real. For Brunner, the Christian understanding of time stands midway between reality being above and beyond—eternal—and solely in the present moment—temporal. God, who is eternal, is true reality and relates to temporal beings. Within such a framework, God has also set the beginning of time, and he will set the end. Furthermore, God intervenes within history and enters temporal life and appears in the shape of a historical person who performs once and for all the decisive act of all of history: the incarnation. The incarnation of the Word of God, then, is at once an insertion into time of and by the eternal God. Because of Christ’s work through the incarnation, Christians already live in eternity. The Christian idea of ultimate meaning, then, comes to humankind as divine gift, Logos, which is revealed in the Word, Christ. And, because that Word is the self-revealing God, meaning comes from transcendence, and the Gospel serves as interpretation of existence.
Having delineated humankind’s relationship to God, Brunner examines the place of humankind in the universe. Regarding the natural world, the author points out that on the primitive continuum, there is no demarcation between humankind and surrounding nature. Greek humanism disrupted this continuum because it raised humankind above the animal world. Christian humanism also places humankind about the animals, but it differs from Greek thought through its proclamation that humankind is created in the image of God. Thus, within Christian humanism, Brunner argues that an individual can be conscious of both his or her divinity and his or her humanity and hold a unique place in the universe.
As for humankind’s development, Brunner posits that the history of humankind began with collectivism, because primitive humans did not have individual personalities and therefore were generic beings. For the author, then, the rise of individual personality conceivably began in Greece with the myth of Prometheus, who emancipated individuals and enabled them to think independently. The Christian idea of personality, however, is correlative to communion, because Christians believe that God summons individual persons into communion with him. In turn, the love of God for persons makes them human and leads them into communion with humankind at large.
In the Christian conception of justice, Brunner further underscores the prominence of God’s love. In Christian thought, because God is love itself, justice is his will and is subordinate to love. In this Christian idea of justice, equality has supreme importance, and all persons are created equally by God in his image—but he has not created them all alike. As for the Christian idea of freedom, the author argues that, like justice, it too depends on God. Thus, divine authority comes first and freedom, which stems from divine authority and is only realized in relation to it, second.
Finally, Brunner completes his survey of foundational questions through attention to the interrelationship between culture and the creative powers of the human mind. According to the author, creativity is a gift of nature, and its interpretation and direction lies within freedom. Misuse of creative powers is possible and dangerous as illustrated by Prometheus and the Tower of Babel. Within the Christian understanding of creativity, though, creative powers are understood as gifts of God. In the attempt to emancipate culture from Christian faith, however, the principle of autonomy and totality in creativity, if taken up by and separated into specializations, can lead to all types of totalitarian spheres and different ‘isms’. Thus, creativity—like freedom, justice, truth, time and so forth—potentially proves vacuous and destructive if it is divorced from its Christian foundation and context.