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Part II. Reason and Faith: The Lutheran Succession

Chapter VII: Reason and Revelation for Emil Brunner


1 The last half-century in theology has been remarkable for its reversal of expectations, its sudden turning of a tide that had seemed irreversible. For centuries liberal theology had been slowly gaining ground. It recognised that the dominance of science was the chief intellectual fact of the modern world, and that if theology too was to be a science, it must accommodate itself to this fact. And it was a science, the liberals insisted. It was a rational discipline which should not only adjust itself to the advances of science generally but should borrow and use for its own purposes the intellectual methods that had proved so successful in other fields. Kierkegaard, a century before, had protested the use of these methods in theology, but Kierkegaard's was a voice in the wilderness whose very echoes had died away. The alternative before Western Protestantism seemed clear: it could cling to the Lutheran tradition with its opposition of faith to reason, refuse to accommodate itself to the demands of secular knowledge, and slowly die of maladjustment to the modern world. Or it could appropriate to its own use the methods of secular research, join the march of science, and look forward to some share in its triumphs. Many liberals had misgivings, to be sure. Might not the old faith be engulfed and lost in the rising tide of rationalism? Still, to oppose oneself stubbornly to that tide was to take the hopeless line of a theological Canute. If theology had a future at all, it surely lay with liberalism.

Then a strange thing happened. A new generation of able theologians appeared who, instead of marching forward under the liberal banner, left the ranks and repudiated the movement as essentially a mistake. They did not act in ignorance of liberalism: they had been brought up under its wing; several of them had been students of Adolf Harnack. But they came to think that the tendency of liberalism was not toward the better grounding of the Christian faith but toward its disintegration, and that the faith must at all costs be preserved. Emil Brunner, Karl Barth, Friedrich Gogarten, Rudolf Bultmann, Anders Nygren, Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr—all were men of strong individuality who went their own ways, but in this at least they agreed, that the Christian faith was not a product of man's culture but a gift from beyond his horizon, that man cannot fit revelation into the rickety crates of human faculty, and that it is impious for him to try. What is important is that God came to man, not that man should grope his way in darkness up a stairway that ended in mid-air. ‘I look up, and put myself in the attitude of reception,’ Emerson once said, ‘but from some alien energy the visions come.’ That is the right attitude. The business of theology is not to examine our epistemological apparatus in the hope of finding cracks and crevices through which light might filter in from a supernatural source, but boldly to affirm that we stand in the blaze of such a light, and let the philosophers make of it what they will. It was a stunning reversal of attitude: a worm had not only turned but boldly taken the offensive. Harnack, contemplating the phenomenon of Karl Barth, said he would not have thought it possible that in the course of his lifetime a theology would emerge which was incomprehensible to him because of the lack of any organ through which he could tune in to it.

The new view was variously called ‘dialectical theology’, ‘the theology of crisis’, and ‘neo-orthodoxy’. None was a good name for it, but ‘neo-orthodoxy’ did point to an important fact about it, since it was essentially a return to Martin Luther. As Wilhelm Pauck has said:

‘There are large passages in Barth's Dogmatics which are nothing other than reverberations of Luther's faith. Brunner calls upon Luther again and again as his chief ally, especially insofar as he understands the Christian faith and life as a personal encounter with the gospel of the forgiveness of faith. Bultmann's existentialism is Lutheran through and through. Niebuhr's basic teaching is nothing but a modern version of Luther's view of men as simul iustus ac peccator. And it is characteristic even of Tillich that the most powerful and persuasive passages of his book The Courage to Be are directly inspired by Martin Luther.’1

2 Of the leaders of this theology, the two that stand most directly in the Lutheran line are Brunner and Barth. To many laymen they are all but indistinguishable, a pair of theological twins. Both came from German Switzerland; both served their apprenticeships as pastors in Swiss villages; both held chairs of theology in Swiss universities, Barth in Basel, Brunner in Zurich; both wrote voluminous works on Dogmatik, Brunner in three volumes, Barth in about fourteen; both courageously denounced the Nazis; both were Gifford lecturers in Scotland; both, after an early exposure to liberal teaching, became leaders in the reaction against it. It is true that there were differences which to the two men themselves seemed considerable. Brunner was more interested than Barth in ethics and social movements. Brunner was a steadfast opponent of communism, while Barth, to the indignation of political thinkers like Reinhold Niebuhr, was strangely complaisant toward it. Brunner was a world traveller who lectured in many countries of Europe, besides America, Korea, India and Pakistan, and spent two missionary years in Japan, while Barth remained for the most part in his study. As one might expect from this record, Brunner communicates better. Though often obscure underneath, he commands a style that is crisp and easy, while Barth writes in the tradition of Teutonic philosophy, with (to fall into its style) ponderous and crepuscular prolixity. In the thirties there was a brief flare-up between the two when Brunner published a pamphlet on Nature and Grace, in which he argued that man's knowing faculties had not been so completely corrupted by the fall as to prevent their gaining some slight glimpse of the nature of Deity; to which Barth replied in a thunderous essay entitled Nein!, virtually excommunicating his colleague for so gross a compromise with Catholicism and rationalism. To the layman the difference as compared to the common ground seemed miniscule.

In this chapter on Brunner and the one that follows on Barth, most of what is said, either in exposition or in criticism, will apply to either man. But the emphasis will be different, corresponding to their major interests, Brunner's in ethics, Barth's in the kind of knowledge that is possible of Deity.

Ethics, for Brunner, is inseparable from theology. This position is not unknown to textbooks on ethics; it was held, for example, by William Paley, who defined rightness of conduct as conformity with the will of God. But Paley thought that the will of God could be ascertained by reason, either from nature or through a rational interpretation of Scripture. Brunner's ethics is more deeply embedded in theology. He holds that the natural man can neither know good nor do it, that genuine goodness can be achieved only through a descent of divine grace. This plainly calls for exploration. We shall understand Brunner's meaning better if we dwell for a little on his ideas of (1) the natural man, (2) faith, (3) the sort of guidance provided by faith, and (4) the relation between revealed and natural knowledge.


3(1) For Brunner human nature, like much else in the world, is a paradox. His view of it comes not from philosophy or psychology or anthropology but the epistles of St Paul. Man is a double creature, in the world but not of it. A great deal can be learned about him from the sciences; he has a body that obeys the laws of physics as fully as a boulder does, a digestive system that has been explored and explained by chemistry, ways of growing, ageing, and dying that are common to him with other biological organisms, ways of thinking and acting that are being illuminated in depth by psychology. To the scientist he is one kind of object among others, highly complex, to be sure, and not yet wholly understood, but quite obviously a product of nature, evolved from it, continuous with it, and part of it.

This, Brunner holds, is half the story, but not the whole. For besides being an object, man is a subject—a subject that is not itself a part of nature and is beyond scientific grasp or understanding. He is a self, a free agent, who can look before and after, accept responsibility for his decisions, and feel guilt about them. Such a self is not an object or thing among other things, nor are its decisions predictable by the fullest knowledge of psychology. So far the theory is not unique, for other thinkers—Kant, for example—have held similar views of the self. But Brunner is notable for his insistence that it can be understood only through a Pauline type of theology. We must ‘start from the centre, from the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, and ask ourselves in what light man is there revealed. Then we may go on to the various anthropological utterances of the Old and New Testaments, interpreting them in the light of this central knowledge.…’2 This ‘central knowledge’ is gained only through revelation, a revelation that was made first in Christ but may be renewed through grace in chosen individual souls. Only by means of this revelation, and never by scientific or other inquiry, do we know what we really are, namely immortal spirits made by God and responsible to him; ‘it is one and the same thing to know of the holy, loving God, and of this human nature of mine as it is moulded by its Creator.’3

Now this spiritual part of us has itself two parts. We are informed in Scripture that God created us in his own image. But it would be impious to say that sinful man with all his imperfections on his head is the image or replica of God. There must, then, be two sides to the image, one of which reflects its Creator, and the other not; these two Brunner describes as the formal and the material image. The formal image, which retains traces of the nature of its maker, is very much of an abstraction; it is our capacity for thought, speech, and responsible decision. ‘This formal structure of man's being… is identical with his humanity… and only disappears where humanity itself disappears, at the frontiers of idiocy or insanity.’4 Being the point where human nature is likest God's, it supplies a ‘point of contact’ which makes it possible for the maker to communicate with us. If man were like the beasts of the field, there would be nothing in his nature that could respond to the demands for obedience from above.

The material image, as distinct from the formal, is the concrete self that we have built up through the use of our freedom. This image would reflect its Creator only if man had used his freedom as he was meant to use it, and this use is really made only when one can say with the apostle, ‘not I, but Christ who liveth in me’. The Christian is the man who can use ‘I’ with this transmuted meaning. And the new material self, according to Brunner, is the true fulfilment of the formal self. It was over this point that the stormy controversy of the thirties developed between Brunner and Barth. Barth refused to recognise the formal-material distinction. He held that man is in no sense or degree an image of God, who is wholly other; by his sin, man lost all remnants of the image in which he was created. If God now chooses to grant his grace, he needs no ‘point of contact’ through which to work his will on us, and the new man he creates is not a fulfilment of the old but a new, divinely created, discontinuous replacement of the old. This question whether it is a replacement or a fulfilment we shall leave to the theologians. What is more important for our purpose is that Barth and Brunner are in agreement on the concrete condition of man, which determines his status in God's eyes. He is utterly sinful—corrupted, alienated and lost; there is no health in him.

4 How has this unhappy state of things come about? Barth and Brunner attribute it to the fall of man, an event not known to us through history but revealed to us in Scripture. Neither theologian is a fundamentalist in the sense of accepting the story of Genesis as literally true; like Luther, they rely chiefly on St Paul. And the revelation that comes through St Paul tells us that man was not always so corrupt, that at the time of his creation he was a being of perfect purity, without a trace of evil impulse or desire. Nevertheless, when tempted, he chose evil rather than good. That a person wholly pure should thus choose evil is admitted to be a paradox, but then man's state, as presented to us in revelation, swarms with paradoxes, and to boggle at them shows that one is putting reason above revealed truth. Man's first sin alienated him from God, and since ‘his relation to God is identical with his essence,’5 the infection spread through all his thoughts, feelings, and acts. And not only this; all his progeny became infected also; ‘hostility to God now forms part of the very nature of man’.6 Why one man should be regarded as sinful because some other man has sinned is admitted to be a further mystery. How a God who would condemn one man for the sins of another could also be a God of pure love is again a mystery. But the mind that has got past the initial difficulty of accepting one paradox will find little added difficulty in accepting many.

The depth of corruption of the natural man can hardly be overstated. His wickedness shows itself not merely in the occasional flights of vice which we can all see to be sure, for ‘sin is not a dark spot somewhere but is the total character of our personal existence, the character of all our personal acts’.7 Even when man wills what he takes to be good, he is always deluded, for no end of the natural man is really good, and in seeking such deceitful ends his will is always evil. If he takes moral satisfaction in attaining them, that is apparently the worst sin of all. Brunner speaks of ‘the sin par excellence, the desire of man to live his own life in his own way, apart from God’.8 This attempt on men's part to be something of themselves is the blight of non-religious morality. In their struggle with evil, they fail to recognise ‘the main factor, the human will, as it is: sin-bound and egoistic. They are blind to the real enemy who must be fought. Nay, this failure to recognize the enemy is the real enemy, the fontal source of evil in the world: from it flow self-reliance, self-confidence, the illusion of freedom and good-will upon which all idealism is based—the inability to realize the helpless condition of man.’9 If this condition of deep depravity is not clear to us, that is because the depravity has destroyed our power to see ourselves as we are. With the eye of faith we could recover this sight, and what we should see would appal us. Most of us think, for example, that if we have not committed adultery we have obeyed at least the seventh commandment. The person who sees with the eye of faith, however, sees that this is not so; ‘he knows, since he understands this commandment in a radical way, that he is an adulterer, and that in his honourable civil state of marriage he stands before God as a sinner who can only exist because of the forgiveness of God’.10 The practice of religion itself by the man to whom grace has not yet been dispensed is sinful: ‘Even in your religion, in so far as it is your experience, you do not cease to be sinner and liar.’11

5 It might be thought that if man is doomed to sin by the very nature he was born with, he could not be blamed for it as his ancestors were who elected it freely. This appears to be a humanitarian illusion. Man ‘remains a responsible person, in spite of the fact that through sin the true personality, the state of freedom in dependence, has been destroyed, so that his freedom has become alienation and his connexion bondage.’12 He cannot help his wickedness, but he is none the less responsible, guilty, and condemned because of it. This is another paradox or contradiction. But it is revealed to us by one who we are assured is a God of love and we must therefore accept it.

‘With all his striving man will never attain. This is the tragedy of the ethics of self-righteousness.’13 All men are sunk in the same slough, and for anyone to try to make himself better than others is, if possible, to make himself worse; Brunner speaks of ‘the worst enemy of true community, the Pharisaism of “wishing to be better”.…’14 He admits, indeed, that the divine command requires that we should do as well as we can the duties of our station, and from this point of view ‘the relative distinctions between “better” and “worse” become extremely important’. But it is hard to see why this should be so, since from the truer point of view of faith ‘the difference between “above” and “below” loses all significance’.15 Nor is there any hope for mankind through evolution or moral progress. There is really no such thing, whether this means the self-improvement of the individual or that of the race. Religious persons have sometimes claimed, it is true, to find in the Bible the record of such an advance among the Hebrews, fostered by prophets who were ‘religious geniuses’. This Brunner regards as a dangerous distortion of Scripture; ‘there is no question of development or evolution’; it is rather a matter of ‘ingression, a breaking into the world of something beyond, something foreign and transcendent. It is not a continuous growth on the horizontal plane of history but a vertical disruption of the historical process by forces interposed from beneath or above.…’16 And just as man, by his own efforts, has achieved no genuine moral progress in the past, so he can hope to achieve none in the future, and it is idle to try; one will end by falling into the ‘hopeless resignation of the reformer’.17 Brunner would presumably say with Yeats that saints and drunkards are never Whigs. Many interpreters have thought of the gospel as a programme for gradually introducing the Kingdom of God by the purification of man's ideals and the deepening of his loyalty to them. This, says Brunner, is a perversion of New Testament teaching; ‘the teaching of the gospel and the theory of progress are irreconcilable opposites’.18 ‘The New Testament does not expect that things on earth are changing more and more for the good. The opposite is true; the last times shall be the most terrible.… No such evolution is hoped for; indeed, the directly opposite prospect is held out, namely, that the forces of evil must increase until the last day… neither sin nor death can be overcome step by step.… It is this conception of totality that makes it impossible for the writers of the New Testament and for anyone who sees this totality to believe in evolution.’19

6 Once we have seen the futility of the effort to make ourselves better, our natural state, as Kierkegaard held, is despair. The more earnest and anxious we are about moral matters, the deeper and more inevitable this despair becomes. We try to walk outwardly in accord with all the commandments; it is of no avail; outward observance will not remove the rottenness at the core. ‘Hence all this kind of morality, whether it takes a secular or religious form, carries with it a bad conscience, as a sign of its deceitful character.’20 So we attempt through meditation and religious exercises to purify our inward thought, feeling, and will. Still to no avail. However far we go, conscience dogs us with its accusing finger. Conscience for Brunner is not a protest against this or that yielding to temptation; it is ‘something far more sinister’, the voice of our whole lost, restless, unhappy nature, welling up ‘like the inarticulate groaning of a prisoner in his dungeon’.21 It is not to be quieted, therefore, by occasional convulsive efforts at amendment. Nor can it give us any reliable guidance. It prompts us to go on groping, ‘but it so distorts the way back to God that the soul can see nothing clearly’.22 Thus we are without hope altogether. There is no therapeutic within the range of man's fallen faculties that can purge his cancerous corruption. All the roads he can take converge upon defeat. The road of obedience to the moral law, the road of inward purification, the road of more conscientious Refinement and intensified devotion all lead to despair. Nor is it the despair of mere discouragement or depression. It is the rayless, black despair of the man who stands guilty and condemned before a judge of infinite power, without a word he can say in his defence and unable to lift a finger to avert his doom.


7(2) Here enters the second main element in Brunner's teaching, his doctrine of faith. Faith is our way of escape. So far as we ourselves are concerned, there is no way. But though there is no road from man to God, there is a road from God to man, and God has seen fit to make man's extremity his own opportunity. A release that could never be won or merited is made available by direct dispensation from on high. ‘Man assumes that he can help himself by means of his philosophy or his religion. The Gospel is the end of these efforts.’23 ‘The new birth’ is not a growth nor is it an acquisition of one fresh power after another, but a sudden and total release of the soul as a whole from darkness into light, effected by a deliverer from outside. If a man bears in mind that ‘autonomy is equivalent to sin’,24 that ‘faith is through and through heteronomous’,25 and that ‘He who relies on himself is a dreamer of dreams’,26 he will be more ready for that complete surrender which must precede being born anew. Such a man ‘looks to God for all his help’.

The transmutation that takes place at this new birth is indescribable to anyone who has not undergone it. It is not in the ordinary sense an experience. It is the creation of a new self which appears in the midst of the old one, and its arrival is so discontinuous with all that precedes it that it is both unpredictable before it comes and inexplicable afterward. It is ‘the Ego's independence of all its inner conditions’. ‘In faith man becomes certain that he has his self not in himself, but in God's Word. That is the reason why faith cannot be understood psychologically: it is the speaking of the Holy Spirit in the psyche (the soul), therefore it is not itself psychic.’27 Though Brunner does not profess to convey what the new self is or sees, he is emphatic about this discontinuity with what goes on in the natural man.

‘Faith is neither a psychological function nor a combination of such functions; it is the life-utterance of the total self in its unanalysable unity.’28

This transformation of man at the centre, indescribable as it is, suffuses or irradiates his entire nature; Brunner uses the striking figure of a wheel with many spokes but with a hollow at the centre of its hub. All man's thoughts, feelings, and actions acquire a new quality. His belief has a new certainty, which is not arrived at through evidence; ‘In the act of believing you do nothing, you merely get something.’29 His old feeling for mankind is supplanted by a new love. This again is quite different from the merely natural love of David for Jonathan or Darby for Joan: ‘Love in the sense in which the New Testament uses the word, is not a human possibility at all, but it is exclusively possible to God,’30 who in some sense takes possession of us at the rebirth and manifests this love through us. Similarly our moral will is radically though inexplicably transformed.

‘The “Good” which issues from effort is, for that very reason, not really good; the Good must descend from above, not be striven for from below, otherwise it lacks genuineness and depth.’31 ‘For before the Good can be done the agent must be good. But the only Doer of good deeds is God. Man, therefore, can only do good deeds in so far as God does them in him.…’32

8 This insistence that in the new birth God is the agent and man a relatively passive vessel raises an obvious question. If the initiative must come so completely from the divine side, what can man do to secure the boon? It is his one hope: he must secure it if he can; is there nothing he can do himself to bring it about? We have seen that the answer is No. To be sure, ‘Good will is identical with the surrender of self-will,’ but this, it is instantly added, is ‘an act of which we are not capable, but which is done by God for us and in us, and which we accept in faith as having been done’.33 ‘Without any complementary human effort man receives, purely as a gift, that justification which he seeks in vain to attain for himself.’34 This seems decisive. But the contrary answer is also given. Man can do something to secure his release. Brunner writes that ‘what is got or begotten is the decision of the will of man for God, the one and only act in which man is really free and which is wholly his own.’35 ‘In this act of God which is unthinkable without a responsive act of man, that is, in this responsibility, man has his being.’ ‘Faith does not consist simply in passive acceptance; it always means, at the same time, an act of “pulling oneself together”.…’36 The conclusion would seem to be that in this encounter man is wholly a recipient though he is also an agent, that he is completely determined yet also free, that he cannot surrender his own will, though he is intensely guilty if he does not, that the gift of grace is unconditional but that it is also conditioned on our readiness to receive it. How does Brunner remove this paradox, or nest of paradoxes? The answer is that he does not attempt to remove it. That it is there he freely recognises. But ‘To attempt to resolve it into something which we could conceive with our minds would mean turning the personal into the impersonal.’ ‘We have no right to attempt to remove this final paradox.’37


9(3) Assuming now that faith has been granted, what way of life does it prescribe? How do one's duties after the new birth differ from what they were before?

Outwardly they may remain largely the same. We are all members, for example, of many ‘natural orders’; members of a particular sex, citizens of a particular community, parents or children, grocers, farmers, or teachers. We do not cease to be members of these orders when our inward life is transformed; and it will be part of our new ‘calling’ to go on with such duties of our station as are appointed by our work, our age, our means, and our powers. Divine law prescribes these duties for regenerate and unregenerate alike. But on the inward side, duty is an entirely different thing in the two cases. Acts that are outwardly the same, when done by the regenerate, spring from a new source; the inward man has been made over. Indeed in a sense it is not he who is willing and acting at all; ‘the miracle of faith happens only where Jesus Christ is no more object of my knowledge, but He Himself has become subject within me.’38 And within this new subject the spring of action is love. ‘The ethical impulse is now no longer that of self-respect, but of love.’39 Love is ‘the way of life of those who have been born again.…’40 It is henceforth love that appoints all one does.

‘It is love which does not steal, does not kill, does not lie, does not commit adultery, but does its best for its neighbour.’41 ‘Love is not only the fulfilment of the law, but also its end, and thus the end of all ethics.’42

Once this love is achieved, or rather is vouchsafed, some most important consequences follow. Most of the struggle and all the self-reproach that belonged to the regime of duty are now done away. Obedience given from love is unconstrained. If his faith is complete, the new man finds himself equal to all occasions. ‘God is—as it were—always behind him, not in front of him as the legalist believes. This it is which constitutes the joy and the peace of the new state of life.’43 Again, the man of faith is free. He has been bound by a sense of obligation, bound by his own selfishness, bound by natural law. Now he breaks through them all. ‘To be free means to be that for which God created us,’44 namely for complete absorption into his own purpose and use as instruments of his will. Once more, since we are acting freely, what we shall do cannot be anticipated. This does not mean merely that psychological law is repeatedly and miraculously suspended, though as a matter of fact that is true. It means also that the agent is no longer acting under the direction of rule or law. ‘Love is “occasionalist”’;45 ‘the will of God cannot be summed up under any principle.…’46 Man's ‘obedience is rendered not to a law or a principle which can be known beforehand, but only to the free, sovereign will of God. The Good consists in always doing what God wills at any particular moment.’47

But how are we to know what God wills? John Stuart Mill, in a well known passage, says that the Christian need not object to utilitarianism, since if God exists we may be sure that he wills the happiness of his creatures, and this is precisely what the utilitarian wills. Brunner undercuts this argument. Mill was assuming that what was self-evidently good to us must be likewise so to God, and this Brunner denies. We cannot argue to what God wills from anything that we value as natural men. ‘… God's standards are very different from ours.’48 ‘The ways of God are quite different from the ways which we can construct by means of our own moral reason.’49 ‘There are no Ends, Ideas, Goods, Values, no abstract entities, neither Culture, nor the State, nor “sphere of Spirit” to which the human personal life can be subordinated.’50 ‘Hence there are no “intrinsic values”.’51 In the view of many religious moralists, Thomas Aquinas for example, acts are not right because God wills them; He wills them because, like ourselves, he sees that they are right objectively. Brunner apparently rejects this view. ‘The Good is simply what God wills that we should do, not that which we would do on the basis of a principle of love.’52 ‘There is no Good save to obey God, and there is no evil save in disobedience to God. The End, “to serve God,” makes everything holy, and the lack of this End makes everything unholy.’53 ‘Only religious ethics is really ethical,’54 and the duties of the religious man all resolve themselves into one: ‘There is nothing in the whole wide world which we are bound to do save this: to glorify God, and this means: to believe.’55

Does this still seem too exalted and general an answer to the question how one goes about it in a specific case, to discover what to do? Let us press Brunner a little further. He insists that ‘“duties” as such do not exist,’ and that law, civil, moral, or customary, ‘never tells me what the will of God is’. To which it is natural to reply: But we do seem at times to have obligations that conflict, and if there is no sort of rule to give us guidance, just how does the new man go about it to resolve such conflicts? He answers: ‘In a situation of this kind I must proceed as follows: with the help of my “schedule of duties” and in the light of the various claims which clamour for my attention and constantly overlap—all of them apparently justifiable and necessary—in the spirit of faith (and this means, too, in view of the actual situation) I must listen to the Divine Command in order that I may be able to do what I am really bidden to do, that is, my real duty. Then, however, I shall find that one thing and one only is really commanded, is really my duty, and that the “conflict of duties” is only apparent, and does not really exist at all.’56

Practically minded readers are likely to grow impatient here. They ask Brunner how to find what they ought to do, and he answers that if they put their reliance on an unpredictable, non-rational, and unearthly guidance, they will be told what to do. Still, this is not quite fair to him. What they are asking of him is some principle by which competing claims can be adjudicated and competing values appraised. But this assumes that there is such a principle, and he has expressly said that there is not. He is not saying, of course, that claims and values are to be ignored. They are a part, and an indispensable part, of the data for the decision. Indeed, he would insist that it is only in a Christian ethics that all the relevant data ever do come into the picture, for here alone we take account, not merely of the claim of the claimant, but of the whole concrete man. The data for an ethics of principle consist of abstractions. The data for an ethics of love consist of persons. The only possible rule, therefore, is to contemplate the persons affected by any proposed act and then do what love, divinely granted, prompts one to do. What it prompts may seem irrational and queer; that cannot be helped. We may do it, nevertheless, in the confidence that it is right. For in acting from love we have done the will of God, and doing the will of God is what right means.

‘God takes over all responsibility for our action… if we, on our part, will only do here and now that which the present situation demands from one who loves God and his neighbour.’57


10(4) It will now be evident why Brunner calls his ethics ‘theological’ (the subtitle of The Divine Imperative in German is Entwurf einer protestantisch-theologischen Ethik). All the main points we have considered—that natural man is fallen and corrupt, that faith is a transformation divinely effected, that such faith, acting through love, appoints man's duties—these are all theological assertions. And the question that many persons will now want to put to Brunner is, How do you make these assertions out? You say that everything depends on them, but, so far, you have assumed that minds in the right state will accept them without question. How are you going to validate them to those who have not attained the right state and find them hard to believe? Assertions put forward as true usually admit of rational support. What support of this kind can you offer?

To this Brunner would reply: You are speaking like a rationalist, and to be a rationalist in these matters is to beg the question. You are assuming that if we are to know we must know rationally. And that is false. Not only is there knowledge other than that of reason, but this other knowledge is far better than anything reason can give us. The truths of which we have been speaking are examples of this other and higher knowledge. To offer a rational defence for them would betray a fundamental confusion.

We must try to see how these types of knowledge differ. Rational knowledge is achieved by an activity of our own minds. Whether we are interpreting sense-impressions, grasping the self-evident, or following the track of inference, to know rationally is to think. But to know what is revealed is not to think. Revelation is given; it is as truly presented to us from the outside, as unconnected with any grounds that may have been in our minds before, as truly unsummoned by any premises, as the sensations that are forced upon us by the outer world. Further, just as the two kinds of knowledge differ in their mode of attainment, so do they differ in the character of what is known. Rational knowledge is always of the impersonal. This is obviously true of science. Brunner thinks it also true of history and even of our knowledge of each other. I may hear sounds which I call the sounds of your voice and see motions which I say are the movements of your body, but these sense-data of mine are not you. Do such poor tags and oddments represent my closest approach to another self? Yes, if it must depend on merely rational knowledge. Fortunately, says Brunner, we do not have to depend on that alone. A second sight is open to us, by which we can look right across the ‘salt estranging sea’ of this isolationist rationalism. This comes to us first as a knowledge of God. When God reveals himself to us, it is not as a system of propositions, but as an I to a Thou. He ‘imparts Himself to me’, he says ‘I am the Truth and the Life’; and ‘This truth,’ says Brunner, ‘is personal encounter’.58 The critic may protest that this identifies the new knowledge with the new life generally, and makes knowledge indistinguishable from a variety of other things, such as (a) faith, (b) the descent of the divine into one's own mind, (c) the act of personal decision and surrender, and (d) the awakening of the new love. So far as I can see, Brunner would calmly accept this general merger. Regeneration is a total affair. The new vision a man acquires is so blended with the new faith, love, and moral will that the lines between them are lost. His faith in God is his love for him and his acceptance of him, and in these very things lies the knowledge of him also.


11 How are the two kinds of knowledge related? Brunner's answer in brief is this: Each has its own sphere, and so long as it keeps in that sphere, it is consistent with the other and supplements it. Unfortunately each has sought to invade the sphere of the other. When they have done so, we have had theology ignorantly obstructing science, or, more commonly, science and philosophy smashing what they ignorantly take to be idols. These points must be drawn out a little.

As to the separateness of the two spheres, Brunner is most emphatic. ‘Revealed knowledge is poles apart from rational knowledge. These two forms of knowledge are as far from each other as heaven is from earth.’59 The province of rational knowledge is the world. Most philosophers and scientists would accept this, and add, ‘After all, what else is there to know?’ To which Brunner would answer, God remains. God is other than the world and transcends it; and it is the nature and relations of God that form the province of revealed knowledge. ‘The Living God is not known through thought, nor through conclusions drawn from the structure of the universe, nor through profound meditation on the nature of Spirit; He is known through revelation alone.’60 If those who pursue the two kinds of knowledge—and that should include us all—would only keep them firmly in their appointed spheres, there would be no trouble; ‘good fences make good neighbours’. But what we have actually had, century after century, is an endless, needless clamour and din of conflict between religion and science. How has this come about?

It has come about because of confusion on the one side and arrogance on the other. The confusion is on the side of theology. The faith that was taught in the New Testament Brunner believes to be precisely the faith he is expounding; it has nothing to do with intellectual belief; it is non-rational trust, love, and obedience given to a divine person, and made possible by a divine unsealing of one's eyes. Early in Christian history this view became confounded with another. Partly through the influence of the Greeks, with their sharp stress on the intellect, partly through the insistence of the Catholic church on the acceptance of a creed, faith came to mean belief in doctrine. This, says Brunner, is ‘the greatest tragedy in Church history’.61 It started Christendom down a path of division and confusion two thousand years long, a path from which even the clear call of Luther could not bring it back into the highway. It has made of revelation, not a personal encounter renewable indefinitely, but the proffering from on high of a body of abstract, infallible doctrine to which men must subscribe, no matter what the evidence.

So for centuries feckless theologians have been rushing in where scientists themselves hardly dared to tread. They have launched irresponsible invasions of scientific ground, and tried to lay down the law to the laboratory and the observatory. Of course the result was ignominious rout. When they proclaimed that the earth was the physical centre of things, they were proved wrong by Copernicus and Galileo. When they insisted, through Vice-Chancellor Lightfoot of Cambridge, that the world was created on Friday 23 October 4004 BC at 9 a.m., science had only to point to certain stars from which the light must have started before the universe, on this theory, had begun to be. Having denounced evolution, they were shortly presented with cratefulls of half-human fossils hundreds of thousands of years old, and pterodactyls and archaeopteryxes a hundred million years old. Then, having retired in disorder along the whole scientific front, they had to retreat again from their inner lines of historical and Biblical criticism. They are now everywhere on the defensive, so that one could almost apply to them generally the ironic description of fundamentalists as ‘besieged Christians trying to dictate the terms of surrender to science’.

All this, says Brunner, was needless. It all sprang from the original blunder of thinking that revelation had something to do with intellectual belief. That made conflict with science inevitable. In virtue of the line they have taken, theologians only show themselves disingenuous when they try to deny this conflict. ‘It is both ridiculous and disgraceful,’ Brunner writes, ‘when the theological apologetic which for two hundred years fought against Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, and Newton, in the name of the Bible, now that the matter has been decided against it, maintains that there is no conflict at all. There is no doubt that there is one.…’62 In this conflict he himself, theological conservative as he supposedly is, stands firmly with science. He is ready, for example, to reject the Virgin birth and to support ‘the higher criticism’ in its exposure of myth, inaccuracy, and contradiction in the texts of both Old and New Testaments. He would say that theologians who try to extract science from revelation deserve what they generally get.

Still, it is not theology, Brunner thinks, that has been chiefly at fault in this dreary conflict, nor the sort of natural science that knows its bounds. The real villain of the tragi-comedy is a temper of mind that has unhappily come to dominate both science and philosophy, the spirit of rationalism. This is the sort of temper in which Benjamin Jowett, according to undergraduate doggerel, allowed that he was the Master of Balliol College and that what he knew not was not knowledge. It is a rationality whose success has gone to its head and now appears as intellectualism. It thinks that because methods of rational explanation have been applied with such effect to the natural world, they supply the means and the standard for knowing the supernatural also. Now the attempt to know the transcendent with methods suitable only to nature is bound to fail. ‘Reason is not given us to know God, but to know the world.’63The theological problem as well as the Church problem is this—to deliver modern man and the modernized Church and theology from the illegitimate self-sufficiency of reason and the spirit of autonomy.’64 In revelation ‘God gives the world something absolutely new and at the same time final from outside of all that is historical, ideal, and human; something therefore which cannot be verified, pronounced upon, or pigeon-holed, but only believed.…’65 Not only is the attempt to possess the supernatural by reason a mistake; it is sin, and apparently the fundamental sin. ‘This autonomy of man, this attempt of the Ego to understand itself out of itself, is the lie concerning man which we call sin.’ ‘Autonomy is equivalent to sin.’66


12 Why is it that reason fares so badly in its attempt to understand what is revealed? Is it merely because the supernatural, though fully rational, cannot be mapped with the feeble powers we now bring to the undertaking? This, as we have seen, is the line taken by Catholic apologists. True faith and morals, they say, have nothing to fear from reason, for they are completely in accord with it, and if reason seems at times to be at odds with them, that is only because it has become confused as to what its own standards demand. To the rationalist this defence is exasperating. He points out in alleged revelation what appear to be flat contradictions, and is smilingly told that the church believes in reason as much as he does, that since these things are revealed they must be true and reasonable, whether they seem to be or not, and that if he cannot see this, what that shows is not that the church belittles reason but that he does not know what reason is. This theory does at least lip service to reason. It never explains the failure of thought to penetrate to the mysteries by saying that in these mysteries there is something hopelessly and forever irrational. Faith is wholly rational in the end. Man is but imperfectly rational. The difference, however great, remains one of degree. Is this also what Brunner holds?

Clearly not. With him the conflict is irreconcilable; the chasm is beyond bridging by any extension of reason. To be sure, he sometimes denies this, or seems to, and many of his followers are eager to deny it for him. ‘The truth of revelation,’ he writes, ‘is not in opposition to any truth of reason, nor to any fact that has been discovered by the use of reason. Genuine truths of faith are never in conflict with logic or with the sciences; they conflict only with the rationalistic or positivistic metaphysics, that is, with a reason that arrogates to itself the right to define the whole range of truth from the standpoint of man.’67 But this last clause is vague. What is this that distinguishes the arrogance that must be rejected from the responsible use of reason that is approved? If ‘to define the whole range of truth from the standpoint of man’ means to claim that we can achieve all truth with our present powers, we may agree that this is an arrogance which is properly rebuffed. But is reason also to be rejected if it insists on adhering, wherever it goes, to its own standard? If we begin with the facts of experience, interpret these as logic requires, and reject what is incoherent with the system of thought thus formed, is that also to be put down as arrogance?

This is the ultimate issue, and when he is brought face to face with it, Brunner does not mince his words. Reason is utterly without right to appeal to its own standards in dealing with the supernatural; these standards do not apply there; what is false and self-contradictory to reason may nevertheless be true for faith. ‘Of the truth of God it must ever be said, since it is God's truth, that it is foolishness unto human reason.…’68 ‘God, therefore, can reveal himself only as One who is in contradiction to the present world and breaks through its immanent order or law,’69 and what we gain when he thus breaks through is ‘the one paradoxical non-rational message of the living God.…’70 ‘Paradox is the essence of the Gospel’;71 ‘Biblical and natural theology will never agree; they are bitterly and fundamentally opposed.’72 Indeed Biblical theology does not wholly agree with itself, ‘For at some points the variety of the Apostolic doctrine, regarded purely from the theological and intellectual point of view, is an irreconcilable contradiction.’73 We must believe it, notwithstanding, since the intellectual point of view is not to be carried into these regions, and ‘doubt is a form of sin’.74 In laying hold of the truths of faith, the philosophers who believe in reason and follow it are no better off than the sceptics: ‘From the Christian point of view Freud, or, if you like, Hume, has just as much relative justification as Plato or Aristotle.’75 All this applies equally to Christian ethics. In speaking of secular ethics Brunner says that ‘the universal validity and universal intelligibility or rationality of its principle… must be absolutely rejected by the Christian ethic.’76 ‘The rationalism of the philosophical ethic can never be combined with the recognition of a divine self-revelation.’77 Such statements, which could be many times multiplied from Brunner's writings, make it clear that what he objects to is not the tendency of philosophers to dash out on occasional sorties beyond what the evidence warrants, but the attempt of reason as such to apply standards of coherence and intelligibility to the content of revelation. Here Barth is more uncompromising still.


13 We have concerned ourselves primarily with Brunner's ethics. But we have also had to consider his view of the relation of reason and revelation because his ethics depends upon it and one must take account of it in any appraisal of the ethics. Yet how is any rational estimate to be made of it? We seem to be faced with a simple dilemma. Either we have been granted the revelation that is central in Brunner's thought or we have not. If we have, no argument is necessary, for we possess the truth already. If we have not, no argument is possible, for we cannot understand what is being said to us, let alone pass judgement upon it. The neo-orthodox theologian appears to have ensconced himself upon his summit beyond the range of any artillery that the rationalist may bring to bear on him. He has seen—simply, securely, and finally—that he has the truth about God in his relation to man, and any argument against him will only beg the question. For it will assume the validity of the rationalist logic, and that validity he denies.

Now some of us must admit that we have never had the overpowering visitation that for Brunner brings the solution to all these problems. If the gift he has received is the pearl of great price that he says it is, we all need it desperately, and it would be foolish as well as wicked to turn our backs on it. What are we to do? He insists that we cannot gain it by any efforts of our own, for it is vouchsafed only through the inscrutable operations of grace. The conclusion would seem to be that each of us should go his own road, with a hope akin to despair that a Deity whose ways are not our ways should note us and take pity on us. Reason and desire may protest over their helplessness, but in ultimate matters they have no standing.

I own that I am not content. It is probably the moral rather than the intellectual complexion of Brunner's world that most gives me pause. Many philosophers have held that nature is neutral to our values; many have held that these values are transcended but not wholly lost in an Absolute. But the view that the ruler of the universe holds before our eyes a pearl of incomparable price, tells us that we shall be condemned everlastingly if we do not secure it, and adds that there is nothing we can do to secure it, that he grants or withholds it for no discoverable reasons, that he chooses to give it to the few and withhold it from the many, and yet that all are bound to acclaim his justice and goodness as perfect—this view is so repellent in its conception of Deity and so melancholy as to the hopes of mankind that one can accept it only if one has to. Does one have to?

14 I do not think so. I do not think that even the neat logical dilemma in which the position was stated a moment ago will stand inspection. We are told that if we are in receipt of revelation no criticism of it will be needful, and that if we are not, none is possible. We deny the second horn. Criticism is possible. It is possible because the reason which Brunner tries to exclude from the province of revelation is there in spite of him, and where reason is being employed, its standards are being admitted as relevant, willy nilly. We have found this half-conscious intrusion of reason already in Luther and Kierkegaard; it is beginning to appear inevitable, and we shall see it again in Barth. Brunner of course denies that the kind of beatific vision granted to the man of faith is expressible in conceptual terms or bound by logical rules. Does he therefore refrain from discussing it in these terms or employing this logic in doing so?

Look at any of his books for the answer. All of them have this vision at their centre. He says in his striking simile that life is like a wheel whose spokes all radiate from a certain centre, but that where the hub should be there is for the natural man a blank and a mystery. But on his own showing, the hub is neither a blank nor altogether a mystery. It is filled with manifold attributes—love, mercy, justice, truth, forgiveness, repentance, happiness, submission, aspiration, and many more. Sometimes, to be sure, in accordance with his doctrine that the divine nature is unintelligible, he tells us that these attributes are indistinguishable from each other, that in God love, justice, and truth are all the same. But he does not adhere to this. If any inferences are made as to God's love, justice, or truth, those terms must bear distinguishable meanings, and those meanings must be within measurable distance from their standard meanings. We do not find Brunner arguing that it is the special characteristic of God's love to send men to eternal perdition, or of his forgiveness to make two and two equal four. In explaining revealed truth as it presented itself to Paul, or as it appears obscurely in the Old Testament, or more explicitly in the Sermon on the Mount, Brunner brings to bear his rich endowment for discrimination, generalisation, analysis, and inference. If these powers are being legitimately applied, if the concepts and connections he points to are there to be pointed out, then the web of relations that Brunner disclaims as irrelevant to revealed truth must be present in it after all.

Furthermore, how can one maintain consistently that the laws of logic are valid in chemistry or biology and invalid in the central area of human life? The laws of identity and contradiction, of excluded middle and sufficient reason, the law of causality, the principles of probability and inductive reasoning, are not put forward as sometimes valid and sometimes not, as holding in physics but not in anthropology; they are accepted as holding alike in all fields or in none. If an event were known to have no cause at all, or to vary regularly with some other event without any causal connection between them, the discovery would not be an oddity merely but the violation of a principle of reasoning accepted as valid irrespective of the field of its application. If such a principle is found invalid anywhere, doubt is inevitably aroused about its validity everywhere.


15 Brunner was disturbed by such criticism. He disliked being regarded as an enemy of reason, and sometimes when science seemed to conflict with theology, as in the case of the Virgin birth, he was found on the scientific side. How was he to reconcile the validity of natural reason in one province with its invalidity in another?

At times he made the difference a matter of degree. This is the meaning of his ‘law of contiguity’: ‘inasmuch as an assertion of reason approaches the center it loses its validity, and the assertion of faith steps into its place.’78 Or, put a little more fully:

‘The nearer anything lies to that center of existence where we are concerned with the whole, that is, with man's relation to God and the being of the person, the greater is the disturbance of rational knowledge by sin; the farther away anything lies from this center, the less is the disturbance felt, and the less difference is there between knowing as a believer or as an unbeliever.’79

Physics and astronomy, being remote from the personal centre, are common ground for the man of science and the man of faith, but as the centre is approached, the methods of reason are less and less applicable, and the man of faith must take over. We can agree with Brunner that the methods of mechanistic science require supplementation as one moves up the ladder of being from matter to life and mind; new concepts must be added; purposive causation, for example, is as essential in human conduct as it is superfluous among sticks and stones. But this introduction of new concepts is not an abandonment of reason; it is a requirement of reason for the understanding of new types of behaviour. It is otherwise with the ‘law of contiguity’, which requires the abjuring of reason as one approaches the central fact.

16 Consider what the ‘law’ would imply for the science of psychology. Here we are dealing with the behaviour of persons. If a person is without religion, or has only a non-Christian religion, no incursions from the supernatural may be expected to interrupt the even tenor of his way, and his behaviour will be a fit subject for psychological study. But suppose he is a Christian in Brunner's sense. Then whenever his true self is engaged in thinking, feeling, or willing, his behaviour will be beyond the range of such study. For the psychologist, his behaviour will issue out of nothing; to inquire as to its cause or its motive, its moral character, or its consistency with his other decisions will be asking illegitimate questions. To be sure, there is much in the man's behaviour that will still be explicable psychologically; it seems unlikely that his choice of Quaker oats for breakfast or a brown tie to go with his brown suit calls for a transcendental explanation. But one may be mistaken even here. Thinkers in the Kierkegaardian tradition insist that in becoming a Christian the whole man is replaced by a new one, inaccessible to the secular mind, and hence that acts outwardly the same as before issue from an entirely different source.

I cannot accept this kind of transcendentalism. In criticising it, I wish to make clear, however, that I am not doing so from the point of view of a reductionist or behaviouristic psychology. It ill becomes anyone who rejects fundamentalism in religion to accept a fundamentalism in science which denies the most important fact in the world, namely consciousness, because it cannot fit this fact into its preconceived notions of scientific method. But the acceptance of consciousness is one thing; the acceptance in man of a core of impenetrable irrationality is another. For neo-orthodox theology, it is not only God who is a ‘wholly other’; it is also man himself when he enters into the Christian status. His old self is replaced by a new one; this new one is no part of the natural and rational order in which he has been living, and it is impious to study it as if it were. Its descent into a human mind is inexplicable; its nature is inexplicable; it works through the natural man not by intelligible law but by recurrent miracle. We shall not try to work out in detail the plight in which this would leave the study of human nature, but the general difficulty is clear. If the new self takes over completely, any rational understanding of its behaviour is admitted to be impossible. If the replacement is partial, if habits already acquired can be explained, but fresh decisions spring from the new non-natural self, what part of my action in reading this morning's editorial in The Times, or in inviting John and Mary to come for the week-end, has an intelligible cause or reason, and what has not? Again the question seems unanswerable. Human nature becomes an immense twisted cable in which continuous strands of causation are joined with strands that terminate abruptly in miracle.

The neo-orthodox theologian may reply: ‘You do not refute a doctrine by showing its inconvenience, however enormous.’ True. But this is not a matter of inconvenience merely. It is a matter of conflict between what theology tells us and what science tells us. There are numerous sciences dealing with man. There is psychology, with its many subdivisions of psychoanalysis, psychiatry, group psychology, the psychology of religion, of motivation, of adolescence (which Starbuck showed so significant for religion); there is sociology, with such specialised departments as criminology and the sociology of religion; there is anthropology, with its studies of racial, cultural, and sex differences; and of course many more. The investigators in these fields have not carried on their inquiries under the assumption that some members of the race are a race apart, only partly human, and presenting an impenetrable wall to their research. They have never stumbled on this wall and are unaware of its existence. Yet they have produced illuminating results about men of different religions and men with none. Are these researchers into human nature now to be told that their studies, legitimate enough for the mass of mankind, are illegitimate for the Christian minority? Would they not reply with some justice that if an alleged wall has been invisible everywhere along the extended front of their researches, this raises a fair presumption that the wall is a myth?


17 Consider, again, what this theology entails for history. History consists for the most part of a record of human behaviour with a running attempt at explanation through cause and effect. Suppose the historian accepts the neo-orthodox account of man. All will be well so long as he confines himself to the record of non-Christian peoples; he will not differ greatly from the secular historian in his account of Pericles or Caesar, or in his explanation of the French, the Russian, or the Chinese revolution. In none of these, probably, will his lines of causation be cut off at critical points by non-natural interventions. But what will he do with St Francis? Francis was a Roman Catholic whose mind was infected with Romanist error; did this, or did it not, affect his receipt of grace? The question would have to be settled before any attempt was made to explain the phenomenon of Francis. For if he was really in a state of grace, no historical explanation of him is possible; the self from which his actions issued was a vertical ingression into the historical order from a realm outside it and unintelligible to it, and at the point of such an ingression history must stop. Or what of George Fox? Macaulay deals with him in a few severe pages, explaining his convictions and actions as the joint product of abysmal ignorance and an abnormality approaching madness. Was he right? That depends on whether Fox had true faith or not. If he did not, Macaulay's account will retain a high verisimilitude. If he did, no human account, Macaulay's or any other, can possibly be correct. For Fox then represented an abrupt discontinuity in the human order of things, in which, as we trace the line of causation backward, it runs up into the empyrean where no human eye can follow it. Fox was expressing and enacting a Deity lodged within him, whose ways are not as our ways.

Or suppose the historian comes to the Reformation. Among the outstanding causes of the Reformation, by universal agreement, was Martin Luther. Very well, what were the forces that produced Luther? Professor Erikson, in Young Man Luther, links his struggle against the Pope with his early struggles against the authority of his father. James Anthony Froude gives an account of him that differs greatly in its respect for the man from that of Catholic critics, but all agree in dealing with him as if he were a historically explicable figure. A neo-orthodox theologian could not accept these views. If there was any one man, he would say, in the history of Christendom who could claim to be a man of faith and a recipient of grace, it was Martin Luther. His decisions and actions must therefore have sprung from a source inaccessible alike to psychology and to secular history. When he nailed the theses to the church door, when he derided Tetzel, when he defied the Pope, these were presumably actions unaccountable by anything in his human past, because they issued not from the man Luther but from the transformed and transcendental Luther planted within the same human form. This is a startling way to account—or not to account—for the Reformation. Its root cause is now an inexplicable bolt from the blue, establishing in Luther the supernatural self from which his later actions sprang. The theory has, of course, some difficulties of detail. Not all of Luther's decisions look to the secular eye like acts of indwelling divinity. His advice to certain parents to throw their son into the river because a demon possessed him, and to the German princes to settle the peasants’ war by slaughtering the peasants, seem to require a discrimination between those acts that were wholly due to the indwelling spirit and those that were a mixed product of divinity and human caprice. And how is this distinction to be made? We are told that acts done from the spirit may look exactly like those done from natural causes. The recognition, then, of what acts of Luther, or what portions of those acts, were done by Luther the vessel of grace and what by Luther the natural man cannot be made by any human discernment, but only by sympathetic intuition on the part of a historian who, himself in a state of grace, can recognise grace in others. It is not easy to think at the moment of any history of the Reformation that would qualify under these requirements.


18 Brunner's efforts to show how his two realms are related fall short so uniformly that one suspects he is attempting an insoluble problem. Sometimes he begins with points of identity between the two realms, but it soon transpires that those identities are really differences masked by identical names. Sometimes he begins with the differences, but then the differences prove so great that the chasm between them is unbridgeable. It will be worth while to look at examples of each approach.

Brunner holds that the supernatural man, like the natural man, is an agent in the human scene; he acts causally with important results to himself and others. Now when a cause acts in the natural order, it produces the effect it does in virtue of having properties of one kind rather than another; a bullet penetrates because of its mass and velocity; a helium balloon rises in air because it is lighter than air. But the divinity that acts in man has no distinguishable properties; to find them within it is the specious work of the analytic intellect, which cannot operate in this area. When the spiritual self acts, it acts as a whole, the same cause producing a wide variety of effects; and any attempt to connect the effects differentially with parts or aspects of the cause is misguided. That implies that there is and can be no causal law governing the process, which implies, again, that the ‘causality’ alleged as common to the two realms must mean very different things.

Or consider this: ‘Revelation and reason possess one common element: they both claim truth’; and ‘we would reject the very notion of a double truth.…’80 Brunner is here denying that anything true for revelation can be false for reason, and vice versa. But he achieves this peace between the two realms only by making ‘truth’ mean utterly different things. Truth in ordinary discourse means a relation between proposition and fact, a relation most commonly conceived as coherence or correspondence. This is not what it means in Brunner's non-natural realm. In the spiritual or supernatural province of man's mind, everything is blended with everything else, and hence truth becomes the same as encounter, existence, faith, and love; it is something incapable of analysis or even discussion.

‘… I understand encounter only as the truth which comes to us in faith in the self-communication of God. This truth creates a knowledge which rises above the subject-object distinction. We cannot make it an object of epistemological discussion, except by referring it back to its own source, God's self-communication.’81

It is safe to say that a ‘truth’ that cannot be made the object of epistemological discussion is not the truth that has embroiled philosophers in discussion for the past twenty centuries. There seems to be nothing in common between the two ‘truths’ but the name.

Usually, however, when Brunner discusses the two realms, he stresses the difference rather than the likeness between them. ‘In the person of Jesus God tells us what no man can know, what is in no kind of continuity with our human ideas, no, not even with the best and highest we possess.’82 But if the supernatural realm really has ‘no kind of continuity with our human ideas,’ how is ‘encounter’ with it possible? We are told that our supreme duty is to believe, and also that if we are ordinary human beings, what we are to believe will be unintelligible to us. Is the demand for such a belief a practicable one? We are to give complete obedience to the divine will; but to men in our status, the divine will is and must be a closed book. We are to accept as true something that we are also told cannot be verified as true, and to pronounce absolutely certain something that cannot be pronounced upon at all. We do not get nearer to God as our philosophic insight deepens; indeed Brunner says that as we approach the divine, intelligence is more and more misleading. We do not approximate the goodness demanded of us by Deity as we rise in the ladder of human goodness, for the ladder of human goodness does not connect, even at its top, with the lowest rungs of the divine goodness. It would seem as if Brunner, in stressing the breadth of the chasm between man and God had made it unintelligible how either could reach the other.

19 That precisely is what he has done. God does come to man and dwell in man, but only by a continuing miracle which it is futile to attempt to understand. Eternity breaks into time; that is a contradiction, but it happens. Omniscience is embodied in a growing mind; that is a contradiction, but it happened, and we must believe it. Common sense tells us that our discernment of what is true and right depends on our level of intelligence and moral sensitivity; but the insight of faith plays free of natural capacities. ‘Faith cannot be understood psychologically: it is the speaking of the Holy Spirit in the psyche (the soul), therefore it is not itself psychic.’83 Can we do anything to lift ourselves into faith? With his unshakable serenity, Brunner provides contradictory answers. In gaining faith, ‘what is got or begotten is the decision of the will of man for God, the one and only act in which man is really free and which is wholly his own’.84 That sounds unequivocal. But it should be remembered that the man who is to make this decision is the natural man whom the decision will release from his chains; and we are expressly told that the natural man cannot make such a decision; he is too far gone in corruption. Hence the man who decides must be the spiritual man. But this implies that in order to make the decision by which one becomes a spiritual man one must be a spiritual man already. This is not very helpful. Is there anything the natural man can do to facilitate his escape to the higher status? Can he better his case by watching or praying, by self-instruction or discipline? Brunner answers No; he can do nothing. If the new self is achieved, it is due altogether to an inscrutable descent of grace. On this matter ‘religion’, with which Brunner contrasts his own type of faith, has generally been mistaken.

‘All religion, in the final analysis, bases salvation on an activity of man, either on his cognition, his cult, or his mystical meditations. All religion and philosophy—as Luther saw it clearly in his day—seek righteousness by works, by human self-assertion. Man assumes that he can help himself by means of his philosophy or his religion. The Gospel is the end of these efforts.’85

In sum, the freedom that Brunner began by asserting is an illusion. Natural man is not free to rise into the realm of faith, for his will is in total bondage to sin. If he does decide for faith, it is not he that has made the decision but a miraculously created divine self that has replaced his own; and if this replacement has occurred, it has occurred through a grant of grace with which he has had nothing to do. Why grace should be granted to so few is of course unintelligible, and when it comes, its coming is unintelligible.


20 The disparity Brunner finds between the two realms makes conflict between them in his opinion needless: ‘All conflicts between “faith and reason”,’ he says, ‘are sham conflicts.…’86 If theology confines itself to presenting and interpreting revelation, and natural reason to understanding its own world, neither will suffer from the intrusion or dictation of the other. (He also takes the opposite view: ‘Biblical and natural theology will never agree; they are utterly and fundamentally opposed.’87) If we ask him what the hands-off policy of theology toward philosophy means in practice, we receive a curious answer. His favourite philosophy is the critical philosophy of Kant, because Kant insisted that reason can operate only within the sphere of phenomena and exceeds its bounds when it attempts to know the reality beyond phenomena—a doctrine that accords happily with Brunner's own view. He gives it, therefore, the warrant of his approval and withholds his warrant from all others: ‘only the Christian can think truly critically, and truly realistically, and only the critical philosopher can be a Christian.’88 The argument thus comes to this: there can be no conflict between faith and philosophy because only that kind of philosophy which avoids conflict with faith is to be recognised as truly philosophy. Theology does not interfere with philosophy; it only reserves the right to say which are valid philosophies and which are not. Kant was a genuine philosopher because he held that God was unknowable by reason. Spinoza, Leibniz, Hegel, Bradley, and Royce, not being Christians in Brunner's sense, were so unable to ‘think truly critically and truly realistically’ that they supposed themselves to possess some rational knowledge of God and must, so far, have been incompetent philosophically.

Now of course there can be no objection to a theologian's preferring a philosopher who agrees with him to others who do not. But there are very obvious objections to his saying (a) that theology has no business to interfere with the work of reason, and (b) that since it speaks in the name of a higher truth, it can give its warrant to some philosophies and impose its veto on others. The objections to such a position are (1) that it is plainly inconsistent with itself, and (2) that it denies the autonomy of reason even within its own realm; it claims the right, on non-rational grounds, to prescribe what conclusions reason shall arrive at. It says to the philosopher: ‘You may go your own way and I will not interfere; only you must come out at the destination I set for you.’

21 There will be those who regard such criticism as unfair. ‘You object,’ they say, ‘to dictation by faith to reason; but are you not proposing a similar dictation by reason to faith? You hold that the authority of logic is absolute; Brunner holds that the authority of faith is absolute, and his authority seems as overwhelming to him as yours does to you. Neither authority can excommunicate the other without begging the question, since each, in supporting its case, must appeal to its own authority again. In such circumstances, is it not the fairest course to respect both sovereignties equally and draw boundaries in as conciliatory a way as we can? If “live and let live” has proved so useful a maxim in practice, why not try it also in theory?’

The answer is that what is feasible in practice is often not possible in theory. One may decline to press a practical claim because, though convinced of its justice, one can also see that more will be lost than gained by insisting on it; compromise is clearly possible and is demanded by prudence. But in a case like our present one, compromise is not possible. For what we are confronted with is two ultimately different standards for determining what is true, and we saw in dealing with Catholicism that where there are two such standards they are bound sooner or later to come into conflict. One of them will warrant as true something that the other will exclude as false; and there can be no compromise between the sides of a contradiction. That there is such contradiction Brunner has reluctantly to admit; and hence unless inquiry is abandoned a choice has to be made. The question before us is: Do these two authorities have equal claims upon us, or is there something in the conditions of the choice that gives one of the two greater strength?


22 To me it seems clear that the stronger claim lies with reason, and I will give two grounds for thinking so. It may be objected that I am begging the question even in offering such grounds. This is true. I am defending the appeal to reason by giving reasons for it, when the question at issue is whether reason in any form is ultimately valid. The first ground will supply the answer to this objection.

(1) The answer is that the acceptance of reason in the sense here relevant, namely the authority of logical law, is not a matter of option or opinion; it is the condition of any action or belief whatever. This is not true of faith. Brunner admits that most men are without it and that, however miserable their lot and prospect, they somehow manage without it. But without logic they could not take a step or make a remark. When they take a step, it is in reliance on their belief, implicit in their perception, that what is before them is solid ground, and that being solid ground excludes not being solid ground and being instead such stuff as dreams are made of. When Brunner denies the authority of logic in the sphere of revelation, his very denial takes its significance from the logic he is questioning; for unless this logic is valid, the denial of its validity would not exclude that validity, and he would be saying nothing. In short, conformity to logic is the indispensable condition of experience, the opposite of which is strictly unthinkable. In order to deny its claim, Brunner feels forced to say that the ‘experience’ of faith is not an experience at all, but a form of existence inconceivable to the natural man, alien to his ways of thought and action and vouchsafed to only a small fraction of the race. To say that the standards of such an existence have a claim upon us greater than those of the logic which forms the basis of human life is surely not plausible.

‘There you go again, ‘it may be said;’ “plausible” means reasonable, does it not? So you are moving in the old circle and defending reason by the appeal to reason.’ But the objection is pointless by now; indeed it is one more nail in the irrationalist coffin, for it is further evidence that the appeal to reason is beyond escape if one thinks at all. Any argument on the ultimate test of truth that was not circular in this sense would invalidate itself by its own canons. We conclude that when the natural man has to choose between two claims to truth, one admitted to be meaningless to him, the other the implicit basis of all his experience, one answer only is responsible. We cannot ask him to lay his reason, and with it his common sense, his science, and his philosophy, upon the altar of a God admitted to be ununknown and unknowable to him.

23(2) The second ground for granting priority to reason is that the very election of faith as an authority is, if the choice is responsible, itself an act of reason. We have been told, of course, that we do not elect to receive revelation; it elects us as its recipients if we are fortunate. But then there is no problem of choice at all; we stand and wait till the lightning strikes or passes us by. But suppose, as Brunner does, however inconsistently, that man has some choice in the matter; consider what he must choose from. He finds himself confronted by a plurality of proffered revelations. The one offered by the Lutheran tradition is an important one, but far from the only one; there are many others that present themselves with impressive guarantees for both present and future. The Roman revelation through the church is one such, and if we go a little further afield, the candidates are legion, from The Book of Mormon and Mrs Eddy's Science and Health to Zen and Yoga and the luxuriant visions unlocked by Oriental poppies and Mexican weeds. These are not all on a level, to be sure. But how does one know this? It is not very practicable to try all of them in succession, and even if it were, on what basis should the choice be made? Having exposed oneself to them, one would have to stand apart and view them comparatively, and by what standard would one prefer any one to any other? All one could do would be to review them by the light of common day, and conclude, for example, that Brunner's essentially Pauline illumination was richer and truer than that of Zen or Joseph Smith or Mrs Eddy. But when one speaks of one illumination as richer or truer than another, what could one mean except that it is judged so by standards implicit in the judging mind? And what could these be except the standards of that common reason which presides over all reflective choice? One could, of course, throw dice, or follow vagrant impulse, but I assume that a serious choice is called for. What one could not do is to make the non-rational decision called for by Brunner and Kierkegaard, for that decision is impossible to the natural man. He must, even in choosing between the revelations offered him, fall back on his own reason. What else could he possibly do?


24 We have been exploring some of the difficulties in getting Brunner's two realms together. But we may recall that his special achievement in his own eyes and those of others is in ethics, and we must now briefly consider this achievement.

The central idea of his ethics is ‘the divine imperative’. Right conduct consists in doing the will of God; obedience to this will is impossible to the natural man because he cannot grasp it, but is possible and even effortless for the new man who is the product of grace. The two selves, the natural man and the spiritual, are two thoroughly different egos, and just as there is a discontinuity between natural and spiritual knowledge, so there is discontinuity between natural and spiritual standards of goodness.

Much that might be said about this view has been said already. Readers will recall that it is essentially the position of Kierkegaard, with its puzzling double standard. Brunner's debt to Kierkegaard is explicitly avowed: ‘Today I, in contrast to Karl Barth, still profess allegiance to this great Christian thinker to whom present-day theology, Catholic no less than Protestant, owes more than to anyone since Martin Luther.’89 The picture drawn by Brunner of the Christian life, with all its actions proceeding from a centre consisting of love—the love of God and the love of man—is more attractive than that of Kierkegaard, in whom the milk of Christian kindness was soured, as it was for Swift, by a saeva indignatio toward all mankind. The temper of Brunner's morality is softer and gentler. The love he exalts to so high a place looks enough like simple human affection to make his picture of the good life in some degree sympathetic and intelligible.

He would receive such praise wryly. For whatever his temper and practice, his insistence in exposition is on the complete discontinuity between divine and human goodness. Man's goodness is so corrupt that even the attempt to better himself morally is put down as egotism. Man ‘can only do good deeds in so far as God does them in him.…’90 As for his own efforts, ‘sin is… the total character of our personal existence, the character of all our personal acts’.91 ‘Even in your religion, in so far as it is your experience, you do not cease to be sinner and liar.’92 Not only is natural man a sinner; his very ‘autonomy is equivalent to sin’ and his conscience is ‘deeply involved in sin’.93 ‘The rationalism of the philosophical ethic can never be combined with the recognition of a divine self-revelation,’94 since it must be prepared to be countermanded at any moment from on high. ‘The science of good conduct, of ethics, is only possible within that other science which speaks of the Divine act of revelation, that is, within dogmatics.’95 The characteristic terms of ethics, like ‘good’, ‘right’, ‘ought’, ‘value’, ‘love’, ‘aspiration’, have different meanings in the context of faith, so that the characteristic virtues of the natural man are themselves part of his corruption; Brunner can speak of ‘the Pharisaism of “wishing to be better”,’96 of aspiration as something that ceases for the Christian,97 and of the conception of value as useless in solving ethical problems.98 The goodness of the natural man at his highest is still evil if compared with the daily round of the man of faith.


25 This discontinuity of the two moral orders we considered and had to reject when we met it in Kierkegaard, and we must reject it as unequivocally now. One can no more dismiss man's natural sense of what is good and bad and still leave ethics standing than one can dismiss the laws of logic and leave human knowledge standing. Brunner is prepared, as Kierkegaard was, and according to the legend, Abraham was, to accept as a divine imperative a command that overrides his clearest rational insight into duty. What that implies is not only that such insights are untrustworthy but that the whole hierarchy of values bound up with them is untrustworthy. If the will of God is so alien to those values as to require the readiness to murder a son with no discernible good in sight, then between the divine standard and our own there is little or nothing in common; God's good may be our evil, and his evil our good. If pointless murder may be right, anything may be right, whatever reason or conscience says to the contrary.

This is not a religious exaltation of goodness, but in effect moral nihilism. We have seen that the natural man who is told these things is not able by any effort to achieve the faith that would make true goodness possible for him; he is assured that the reason and conscience which are his only available guides are blind leaders of the blind. He must believe that his faculties are so deeply perverted that his right may be really wrong, and his wrong, right. But then why try to be moral? Where all is rotten, and the very organ by which one might discern comparative rottenness is a broken reed, why accept anything as better than anything else? The natural conclusion from Brunner's two-tiered ethics is thus moral scepticism. You have (1) natural man whose morality is a sink of corruption, (2) a divine will that condemns that morality while withholding from men the only light by which they could correct it. Why should they not be moral agnostics?

If natural man has the courage of his own insights, the conclusion will be worse still, for then the inference appears irresistible that God must be evil rather than good. God made man free, with the knowledge, since he is omniscient, that man would misuse it to his perdition. This is not, in human reckoning, an expression of love. God has sentenced to condemnation millions of persons for the sins of others now dead. This is not, in human reckoning, an expression of justice. God has endowed these persons with a reason, conscience, and moral aspiration that have led them to hope and struggle for a truly good life, and has also assured them that their hope is vain and their struggle itself somehow sinful. Such action, if done by a human being, would be called inhuman. God chooses some persons, for no ascertainable reason, as recipients of a grace that gives them light, security, and peace, while denying it, again for no discoverable reason, to the great majority of mankind, including many who in the world's view are saints. By merely human reckoning this is unfair to the point of cruelty. These are the actions of a being to whom Brunner ascribes love and justice in perfection; and it is the imperatives of this being that are the ultimate directives of the moral of life. What is to be the attitude of the man who follows his own conscience and reason toward this sort of religious teaching? Surely he will be revolted or torn in two. For he is being asked to revere, worship, imitate, and obey a God whose morality, as explicitly set before him, is not above his human standard but below it.


26 It is obvious that Brunner's two spheres of morality are out of harmony with each other. As in the conflict between revelation and logic, one cannot accept both. One must ask, as before, whether either of the two claimants has a stronger initial title to respect.

By this time there will be no doubt what our answer must be. Just as common sense, science, and philosophy have a set of logical principles that are at work in all inference and proof and can be discarded only at the cost of total disaster to the life of thought, so in the moral life there is a set of values that lie behind all responsible choice and whose fall would carry morality as a whole down with them. We cannot attempt an inventory of them here, or examine our mode of knowing them, and fortunately it is unnecessary. We do somehow know that happiness is intrinsically better or more worth having than extreme misery, that wisdom is better than ignorance, that justice is better than injustice. These are assumptions implicit in our ordinary choices; our approvals and disapprovals turn on them, and their falsity would spread chaos through the moral life. We can of course deny them in words, but we cannot make ourselves accept as true what such words mean. If a man were to appear with a new ethic in which he proclaimed his right to torture another for his amusement, or recommended the death penalty for the wickedness of knowing the multiplication table, we should be less likely to regard him as a genius than as morally insane. This does not mean that our ordinary moral judgements are infallible; they are continually refined, clarified, and amended in the course of moral growth. But unless there were this accepted stock of common standards, life as we know it would be unlivable. It would be what it was in Hobbes's celebrated state of nature, ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’.

There is such a thing as moral sanity, and acceptance of the scale of values and the set of rules that make society possible is an essential part of it. Our moral judgements, like our scientific judgements, must, if valid, be consistent with each other, and they are knit together into a web whose parts are all interconnected. If it is wrong to inflict needless pain on another, then by the same principle it is wrong to take his purse, his house, or his reputation. Our moral world is thus a system, never fully integrated or complete, but providing the only ground we have for appraising the new and morally questionable. To ask a man to accept a proposal which would wreck that system is to ask him to pull his house about his ears, and unless he is ready for both inward and outward anarchy, he will find it impossible to take the proposal seriously. Mere moral sanity will forbid it.

27 Now it is this moral sanity that Brunner is challenging with his two-storied morality. Natural affection, the judgements of natural reason as to what is fair and unfair, the protests of natural conscience against cruelty or disloyalty, the obligation to improve one's mind or morals, these are all imperatives that from the transcendental point of view are ‘sinful’ and may at any moment be overridden by a command to disregard them, issued by an authority so incommensurable with the natural one that any attempt to appraise it, any attempt to assimilate it into a rational system of morals, anything indeed but total uncritical surrender is wrong and impious. I doubt whether Brunner or Kierkegaard or anyone else who accepts it can have thought out what this means. We have seen that if Abraham's readiness to kill his son is to be taken as evidence of a higher goodness, what is being renounced is not merely an isolated rule of paternal duty but human morality as a whole. To the ordinary man, such renunciation will be nonsense. Brunner agrees that it is nonsense, and serenely quotes Scripture for its being so: we can only expect that the word of God will be foolishness to human reason. But then human reason is all that natural man has to go by. If he looks at an imperative calmly and steadily, if the moral system that speaks through him—the system that he and the race have developed in their long slow groping toward rationality—pronounces that imperative to be wrong, if he realises that acceptance of it would wreck his moral world, and if nothing intelligible to him is offered in its place, then there is only one responsible course that he can take. He must decline obedience. To expect a kindly and reasonable man to rub his hands over sacred murder, as Kierkegaard does, or, as Brunner would have him do, make over a check for his life's accumulation of wisdom to an account labelled ‘foolishness’, is to invite him to give up also his moral sanity.


28 Furthermore, in minds where this sanity has less than secure control, the new morality is attended with genuine danger; a horse with no bridle may take its rider in any direction. Such a charge, it may be said, exaggerates the difference between natural and transcendental morals; ordinary morality would not be scattered to the winds, and ordinary life would only be changed for the better, in a regime dominated by Christian love. Try an experiment in idea. Imagine a society in which, by some turn of fortune's wheel, a man of Brunner's outlook were placed at the head of church and state and given dictatorial powers; would there be anything really disquieting in such a prospect? We may agree that if he were, like Brunner himself even by the standards he depreciates, a good and just man, he would be a vast improvement over other dictators one might mention. But the point is not so much what the divine imperatives might be in a mind like Brunner's, but what his theory would justify to minds less moulded than his own by reflective and civilised standards. These standards, he tells us, lose their control both de facto and de jure when the new sovereignty takes over; all causal lines from past habit, education, and reflection to the new command-centre are cut; hence no prediction on their basis is possible and no judgement they might pass on the new order is legitimate. Is there not ground for apprehension as to where such freedom from rational standards might lead?

‘He who has taken the inner fortress of your soul, i.e., your Ego,’ Brunner writes, ‘will not stop there but will take you with him to conquer the world. The eschatological substance of faith works itself out in supremely aggressive action in the world.’99 What form would this ‘aggressive action’ take? A dictator appears with the conviction of Luther that witches should be burned and rebellious peasants slaughtered, or with the firm conviction of another German leader of some influence as to ‘the final solution of the Jewish question’. What ground have we for protesting against the demands of such persons? We may object that their ‘intuitions’ are utterly unreasonable, but they reply that they are not under the judgement of reason and are acting from a higher source. What line would Brunner himself take regarding them? Presumably he would hold that his own illumination was clearly contrary to theirs, and hence that both directives could not be divine. He would, of course, be introducing into the super-rational realm those standards of rational consistency that are supposed to be there transcended. But let that pass. He would be making another admission more germane to our present purpose. He would be implying that two men, both in receipt of genuine grace, can firmly believe that they are receiving from a higher than rational source imperatives that are in fact contradictory of each other. I am not thinking so much of his difference with Hitler (a difference courageously pressed by Brunner), though how in theory one is to decide between two such disparate non-rational claims is not clear. But what about Luther? Luther believed, when he made his most important pronouncements, that he was speaking with divine direction, and he would presumably say this about the two judgements just reported. Brunner would add that if any man ever spoke from the inspiration of a genuine faith it was Martin Luther. But Brunner surely did not accept it as a divine imperative that all witches should be burned, or that rebellious peasants should be slaughtered. And if he did not, he would seem to be committed to one or other of two conclusions. One is that since God is not rational in our sense he may indeed have planted contrary insights in Luther and in himself. I think he would have drawn back from that, for all his insistence that God is not accountable to reason. And the alternative is to admit that even a genuine recipient of grace may be deceived as to whether an imperative that presents itself as divine is in truth divine.


29 Such an admission would have important consequences. For it is not only half-mad fanatics like Hitler who may be deceived in their non-rational intuitions, nor imperfectly Christian men of action like Cromwell, Stonewall Jackson, and Chinese Gordon, but men acclaimed as religious geniuses—men like Martin Luther, Francis of Assisi, and George Fox. Presumably when Luther prescribed his cruel remedies for witchcraft or devil-possession, when St Francis called on people in plague-ridden places to gather in church and pray, thereby spreading the disease more widely, and when Fox ‘spoke out’ against music, they felt confident that they were voicing a divine imperative—as confident as at other times when their judgement was more defensible. They thought they were being divinely led and they were not. In the light of such errors, it is plainly all-important to have a criterion by which divine imperatives can be distinguished from the promptings of ignorance, prejudice, and paranoia; and that necessary criterion is not here provided. It is not merely dervishes who lack it; everyone seems to lack it, once he has lost the compass of reason. Even the towering lighthouses of religious humanity lack it, men to whom divine openings have presented themselves with the most undoubted certainty and who have announced them with the calm authority of a ‘thus saith the Lord’.

30 The fact that such errors have occurred, and occurred frequently, in religious history is significant for our final estimate of Brunner's theology. For these errors have natural explanations, and if natural explanations can be found for convictions wholly indistinguishable, for those who make them, from convictions due to supernatural agency, then the suggestion is irresistible that these last convictions too may have natural explanations. Modern research has thrown a flood of light on the unconscious causes of conscious belief. Brunner insists, of course, that faith has no natural causes at all, though it has momentous natural effects. Its convictions, insights, and imperatives ‘fall as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath’. The man of faith is a Melchizedek, without human parentage and without roots in nature; his beliefs are not mental occurrences, nor his volitions human acts, nor his feelings, if he can be said to have them, experiences at all; he is a supernatural avatar, a light shining in darkness, which the darkness cannot comprehend, a mysterious meteor that darts down from remote and unknown regions to burn brilliantly for a time in the fetid atmosphere of earth.

Now the fact and frequency of error in these manifestations make it impossible to maintain plausibly the partition between the two realms. If Luther thought he was speaking with a divine accent in urging that witches be burnt and peasants slaughtered and the Pope branded as Antichrist, he was an honest but very human and mistaken man whose mistakes were explicable by the facts of his time, his place, and himself. He believed in witches because the people around him did, because his supreme authority, the Bible, underwrote that belief, because the evidence of hearsay and even of perception was twisted into conformity with his religious preconceptions in ways of which he was unaware but which are familiar to modern students of the workings of the mind. His violent views about peasants and the Pope may be understood in similar fashion. One cannot consistently take them as openings from on high, and they are plainly not rigorous deductions from impartially gathered evidence; it is far more plausible to take them as conclusions of an able, impulsive, self-confident, vehement mind that was enmeshed in the religious and political prejudices of the time, and buffeted about by personal fears, ambitions, and dislikes. No one can profess a complete understanding of Luther, but it is safe to say that a man who thought of his mind as an arena of incessant combat between God and the devil, and who would have rejected as impossible and impious any science of the mind, must have been moved by many factors of whose working he was unaware.

Now the question that must be put to Brunner is this: is it reasonable to believe that those elements of an alleged revelation that happen to be exposed as erroneous should admit of a natural explanation, while other elements qualitatively indiscernible from them should belong to a different order of being and remain wholly inexplicable? To any modern mind with a tincture of science, such a view is improbable. But that does not disprove it. Is there any empirical evidence that would help us to appraise it?


31 Brunner excludes such evidence as irrelevant by his denial that the revelation he proclaims has any empirical content; the knowledge, love, and happiness of the man of faith are not what these terms mean in ordinary usage, and the unity in which they appear in the new state of grace is beyond analysis or description. But this high hedge against trespassers does not prevent Brunner himself from speaking more or less freely about the content of the new state, and what he does say about it sounds very much like what has been said by other religious writers who were less averse to description. In James's Varieties of Religious Experience there are many accounts of the state of mind of the mystic and of the converted man that are strikingly like the state of faith as sketched by Brunner. And regarding mystical experiences Brunner argues that they are perfectly natural products of perfectly natural causes.

Some of the main characteristics of the mystic experience are its implicit claim to insight or knowledge, its passivity, its transcendence of ordinary ways of thinking, and its discontinuity with what went before, all of which are characteristics likewise of Brunner's state of faith. Mystics have often reported insights into the heart of things which came to them as absolutely certain. They have seen—or thought they saw—that God exists and is good, that evil is unreal, that the human spirit is deathless, that time is an illusion. These insights, far from being the conclusions of reflection or the achievements of effort, seemed rather to come as a munificent, uncovenanted bounty from above. The visions, when they do come, cannot be caught in words or concepts, the mystics tell us, though the conviction and exaltation they carry with them have glowed through many memorable pages of prose and verse. That such insights have sometimes been true we are not concerned to deny. Our question is only whether these experiences are discontinuous with the lives of those who have them, so that they are wholly inexplicable.

The evidence is against it. Consider one point only: the way in which mystical insights follow the teaching in which the mystics have been brought up. Evelyn Underhill writes that history

‘shows us, over and over again, the great mystics as faithful sons of the great religions.… Thus St Teresa interprets her ecstatic apprehension of the Godhead in strictly Catholic terms. Thus Boehme believed to the last that his explorations of eternity were consistent with the teachings of the Lutheran Church. Thus the Sufis were good Mohammedans, Philo and the Kabalists were orthodox Jews.’100

The insights of all these mystics came as self-authenticating and independent of prior teaching. Yet the Brahman mystics loyally report an impersonal, pantheistic Deity, while St Teresa and St Ignatius report that they have seen God to be three persons in one. It is hard to believe that this coincidence between their past teaching and what was revealed to them was merely an accident, or—since the insights were not consistent with each other—that an identical revelation was being offered in different forms. It is far more likely that their visions welled up out of the depths of their own minds, which had themselves been filled by the streams of their respective traditions. And if this is true, the illumination is not nearly so discontinuous with the rest of their life as it appeared to be. It is no coincidence that the man converted to Christianity in a Christian community should be aware in moments of exaltation of Christ as his redeemer while a man converted to Islam will have no such intimation.

Brunner sees that this line of thought, if applied to the illumination of faith, will tend to domesticate it within the sphere of the natural. How does he avoid this? He contends that in other faiths the state of religious exaltation is a natural phenomenon and therefore admits of the sort of explanation that psychologists might supply, while if a Christian reports in similar words what seems like a similar experience, it belongs to a different world. It is not really an experience at all; it cannot be accounted for by any past teaching, by any instruction in thought or discipline of feeling, or by anything whatever in the life or environment of the subject; it is a direct, inexplicable, errorless descent of divinity into the man's soul. Between the Christian's assurance in his convictions and that of every other worshipper there is an absolute difference in kind. Brunner writes that such an ‘uncompromising, absolute attitude toward the world religions is the natural and inevitable consequence of the Christian faith itself.’101 Christianity is not one of the religions of the world at all, if that means that it is a species of the same genus as the others; and accordingly Brunner often speaks of religion in surprisingly disparaging terms.

Such considerations do not prove Brunner wrong in making faith unassimilable to human experience or Christianity unassimilable to the religions of the world. But they surely raise a strong presumption against his view. When experiences which seem to mirror the state of faith at many important points are admitted to be continuous with the rest of life, how can one plausibly maintain that the faith state itself is absolutely discontinuous with it? Everywhere else, when confronted by similar phenomena, we look for similar causes. To be told that in this case it is a mistake not only to look for such causes but to look for causes at all, that faith is a state so remote from every other that no laws apply to it, no principles are to be extracted from it, no concepts are applicable to it, no analysis of it is possible, no grounds are needed for its truths, and no certainties can compare with its own ineffable ones—we can only say that all this runs so counter to the principles by which the rest of life is ordered as to be improbable in the extreme. Brunner does not, like Butler, accept probability as the guide of life, because he thinks that something infinitely superior to the reason that employs probability has been granted to some fortunate persons. Whether in fact they possess it seems on closer inspection to be itself a matter of probability. And unhappily the probability is not high. It looks increasingly as if reason, which in Brunner's picturesque universe figures only as a broken reed, may have to be reconceived as the head of the corner.

  • 1.

    Wilhelm Pauck in The Theology of Emil Brunner, ed. by C. W. Kegley (N.Y., Macmillan, 1962), 37.

  • 2.

    Dogmatik (Zurich, Zwingli-Verlag, 1956), II, 61–2.

  • 3.

    Ibid., 65.

  • 4.

    Ibid., 67.

  • 5.

    The Theology of Crisis, 60.

  • 6.

    The Divine Imperative (London, Lutterworth Press, 1937), 155.

  • 7.

    The Theology of Crisis, 101.

  • 8.

    Divine Imperative, 146.

  • 9.

    Theology of Crisis, 73.

  • 10.

    Divine Imperative, 150.

  • 11.

    The Word and the World (N.Y., Scribner's, 1931), 81.

  • 12.

    Divine Imperative, 155.

  • 13.

    Theology of Crisis, 78.

  • 14.

    Divine Imperative, 57.

  • 15.

    Ibid., 186, 185.

  • 16.

    Theology of Crisis, 104.

  • 17.

    Divine Imperative, 203.

  • 18.

    Theology of Crisis, 102.

  • 19.

    Ibid., 106, 107.

  • 20.

    Divine Imperative, 146.

  • 21.

    Ibid., 156, 157.

  • 22.

    Ibid., 158.

  • 23.

    Theology of Crisis, 61.

  • 24.

    The Word and the World, 71.

  • 25.

    Ibid., 66.

  • 26.

    Theology of Crisis, 65.

  • 27.

    The Word and the World, 74.

  • 28.

    Ibid., 72.

  • 29.

    Theology of Crisis, 83.

  • 30.

    Divine Imperative, 164.

  • 31.

    Ibid., 163.

  • 32.

    Ibid., 162.

  • 33.

    Theology of Crisis, 76.

  • 34.

    Divine Imperative, 76.

  • 35.

    Theology of Crisis, 83–4.

  • 36.

    Divine Imperative, 81.

  • 37.

    Ibid., 161.

  • 38.

    The Word and the World, 64.

  • 39.

    Divine Imperative, 79.

  • 40.

    Ibid., 176.

  • 41.

    Ibid., 134.

  • 42.

    Ibid., 79.

  • 43.

    Ibid., 78.

  • 44.


  • 45.

    Ibid., 134.

  • 46.

    Ibid., 83.

  • 47.


  • 48.

    Ibid., 287.

  • 49.

    Ibid., 192.

  • 50.

    Ibid., 191.

  • 51.

    Ibid., 194.

  • 52.

    Ibid., 117.

  • 53.

    Ibid., 196.

  • 54.

    Theology of Crisis, 71.

  • 55.

    Divine Imperative, 162.

  • 56.

    Ibid., 204.

  • 57.

    Ibid., 206.

  • 58.

    Revelation and Reason, 371.

  • 59.

    Ibid., 16.

  • 60.

    Ibid., 44.

  • 61.

    Ibid., 39.

  • 62.

    Ibid., 278.

  • 63.

    The Word and the World, 33.

  • 64.

    Ibid., 126.

  • 65.

    Ibid., 45.

  • 66.

    Ibid., 68, 71.

  • 67.

    Revelation and Reason, 213.

  • 68.

    Theology of Crisis, 44.

  • 69.

    Ibid., 33.

  • 70.

    The Word and the World, 95.

  • 71.

    Theology of Crisis, 65.

  • 72.

    Revelation and Reason, 61.

  • 73.

    Ibid., 290.

  • 74.

    Ibid., 206, 208.

  • 75.

    The Word and the World, 80.

  • 76.

    Divine Imperative, 88.

  • 77.

    Ibid., 46.

  • 78.

    The Theology of Emil Brunner, ed. by Kegley, 331.

  • 79.

    Revelation and Reason, 383. For further reflections on this point, see H. D. Lewis, Morals and Revelation, 42 ff.

  • 80.

    Revelation and Reason, 204.

  • 81.

    The Theology of Emil Brunner, 334.

  • 82.

    The Word and the World, 45.

  • 83.

    Ibid., 74.

  • 84.

    Theology of Crisis, 83–4.

  • 85.

    Ibid., 61.

  • 86.

    Revelation and Reason, 217.

  • 87.

    Ibid., 61.

  • 88.

    Ibid., 392.

  • 89.

    The Theology of Emil Brunner, 11.

  • 90.

    Divine Imperative, 162.

  • 91.

    Theology of Crisis, 101.

  • 92.

    The Word and the World, 81.

  • 93.

    Ibid., 71; Divine Imperative, 157.

  • 94.

    Divine Imperative, 46.

  • 95.

    Ibid., 84.

  • 96.

    Ibid., 57.

  • 97.

    Theology of Crisis, 78.

  • 98.

    Divine Imperative, 43.

  • 99.

    Theology of Crisis, 84.

  • 100.

    Mysticism (4th edn, London, Methucn, 1912), 115.

  • 101.

    Revelation and Reason, 220–1.

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