A New Apologetics: An Analysis and Appraisal of the Eristic Theology of Emil Brunner
PAUL G. SCHROTEHBOER
Kok, Kampen, 1955. 222 pp.
The Christian is called always to be ready to “give an answer for the hope that is within him.” Not only is this true, but some Christians ought surely to be concerned with the science of giving an answer, that the answer may be given in a God-pleasing and God-honoring way. It is fortunate that Dr. Schrotenboer has taken upon himself a part of this difficult task, in analyzing the apologetics of Emil Brunner, the more so since the dialectical theology has been speaking with a powerful voice and, like Ritschlianism in its day, has been quickly dominating the major theological schools.
After an introduction, in which he briefly contrasts the traditional and the modern apologetics, Schrotenboer proceeds to a statement in full of Brunner’s position. The first three major chapters are largely foundational in nature. Schrotenboer deals first of all with eristics and dialectical theology, then with the doctrine of man, and then with encyclopedia, or the relation of this apologetics to science and philosophy. The next chapters are more directly expository. They deal with the delineation of eristics and with the description of eristics in action. The final chapter is a critical evaluation.
Brunner claims that there is an apologetic method which corresponds to the dialectical theology (p. 19), namely, what he calls “eristics,” from eridzein, to dispute (p. 11). This method, Brunner warns, is not that of apologetics in the traditional sense of the word. Traditional apologetics was the defense of a body of truth, a repertory of sound doctrine, given once and for all to the church, a treasury which the church possessed objectively and to which it could turn at any time to ascertain the will of God. Brunner attacks this view of apologetics. He will have nothing to do with the defense of a body of so-called sound doctrine. His method is supposed to be existential. It works on the background of the existentialistic, dialectical theology. Brunner claims that the truth of the Christian faith is found only in personal decision, in existential commitment, and that Christian truth consists in this personal commitment, not in the acceptance of certain propositional truths that are valid apart from the personal commitment itself. The latter view, Brunner thinks, is intellectualistic and rationalistic. Instead, the truth of the Christian faith is existential, being a personal encounter or correspondence between an “1” and a “thou,” namely between Christ and the believer. Christian truth is personal; it has its being only in this encounter.
The eristic apologetic method fits in with this personalistic theology. It does not seek to prove a set of doctrines. We can prove only what is rational and dead, while Christian faith is personal and living. Eristics wants to confront man in his personal self-interpretation (pp.15ff., 129) and to place him before a personal decision, to decide for Christ in whom alone he can have truth and be truly himself. The method of eristics must be indirect (p. 15), bringing one to the brink of decision. It cannot make one decide, and it cannot show one the truth of the Christian religion apart from his own experience, which he can have only by commitment in faith. The method must be indirect, casting down human strongholds and thus leaving one with no ground on which to stand except that which he can receive from beyond himself (p. 126).
This theological and apologetical method can be called eristic, existential, dialectical, personalistic, and irrational. These are all major terms that Schrotenboer expounds. As be indicates, Brunner claims that his entire theology is built around the dialectic (unity or identity of opposites) of law and gospel (p. 20). This antithesis runs parallel with a number of others: law and gospel, rational and irrational, impersonal (I-it) and personal (I-thou) relations, and nature and freedom. In terms of these contrasts we find Brunner developing a personalistic theology and apologetics.
We can see the effects of this personalism as we take a couple of Schrotenboer’s examples and present them in our own words.
It is characteristic of Brunner’s personalism that reason and law are placed on the side of the world and are depreciated, while the gospel and freedom are placed on the side of the heavenly and are exalted. Much like the dispensationalists Brunner makes a very sharp distinction between the old dispensation as that of law (the earthly) and the new dispensation as that of the gospel and freedom ( the heavenly). In Brunner this contrast takes on some interesting traits. The Reformed believer says glibly, but nevertheless Biblically, that sin is any want of conformity unto or transgression of the law of God. But in terms of his opposition between the personal and the impersonal, which corresponds to the opposition between freedom and law, Brunner says that sin is not the transgression of law but is the choice of law instead of the freedom of personal encounter (pp. 21ff., 192). As Schotenboer points out, this question is not uncomplicated; but the main fact of the reinterpretation of the doctrine remains. We are reminded of the statement in the Scofield Bible, that at Sinai Israel rashly gave up grace for law. Brunner’s personalism leads him to a disqualification of law that is hardly in line with the thought of Calvin nor with the position of the Scriptures.
Another example is found in Brunner’s idea of revelation. We have already remarked that Brunner thinks of Christian truth as personal encounter and not as truth expressed in statements. The central Scriptural view is that faith is a personal encounter with Christ and is not belief in a body of sound doctrine once and for all delivered to the saints. Now, are we not interested in the personal? Is it not to the shame of the Reformed churches that there is so much external conformity and formalism and often so little personal warmth in faith? Do we not think of God’s covenant too mechanically, and do we not ignore ow responsibilities as covenant people? Is not Brunner merely calling us back to a personal walk with Jesus Christ? That might be our first impression; but looking at the matter a bit more closely we see that Brunner works with a particular idea of what the personal is, and that this idea causes him again to reinterpret the Christian message.
We can see the influence of this position in Brunner’s statements about sound doctrine. He claims that the Scriptures at their center view revelation as personal. The process of revelation and salvation is not according to a pattern like the following: revelation of doctrine, then apprehension, then personal response, and then redemption. (This is a scheme, Brunner would say, that would hold in the realm where subject and object are distinguished, that is, in the realm of nature, reason, law.) Rather the elements are intertwined in one overall experience: revelation—personal encounter—response—redemption. In this existential experience the givenness, the acceptance, and the resulting redemption are all moments of one unbreakable total experience. Revelation does not occur apart from its reception; revelation is saving revelation, etc. But this personalistic, existentialistic position brings Brunner to say that the entire exaltation of sound doctrine in the Scriptures, occurring in the pastoral epistles and elsewhere, is peripheral (Brunner, Offenbarung und Vernunft., p.8). Very early the Christian church began to fall into grievous error, the identification of revelation with revealed doctrine, and that error has crept in as a foreign element into the Scriptures.
After he has passed a large number of Brunner’s positions in review, Schrotenboer proceeds to evaluate in a summary fashion. Has Brunner succeeded in constructing a truly Biblical apologetics? That must be measured according to two standards: whether he has successfully challenged the unbeliever to make the transition to Christ, and whether that to which he calls the unbeliever is ready the citadel of Christianity (Schrotenboer, op cit, p. 177 ). As he considers various aspects of Brunner’s thought, Schrotenboer concludes that he seriously doubts that Brunner has passed these two tests successfully (p. 216). Instead of effectively challenging his time, Brunner has succumbed to its spirit at major points.
To illustrate, we take some of Schrotenboer’s points. With reference to the Scriptures, he observes that Christ appealed to the earlier written revelation of God, and that he saw no discrepancy between the incarnate and the written word. Schrotenboer claims that the written word must be an authoritative communication of truth or it cannot function even as a pointer to Christ (p. 181). The encounter between Christ and the believer is not hindered but instrumented by reliable propositional truth (p. 181). As for the law, Schrotenboer says that the encounter cannot be divorced from law. It is law that establishes the direction of the human act. Apart from law we cannot understand Christ’s work of meditation. He rightly observes that grace is meaningless apart from law (p. 186). Because of his view of law, Brunner has reinterpreted faith and forgiveness (pp. 188f.). Neither has he avoided reinterpreting the misery of man, because he has said that sin is the choice of law instead of freedom in love ( p. 192). But Schrotenboer can see no meaning in the fall, unless it is the breaking of the pre-Iapsarian command of God (p. 193). It is also very important to observe that Brunner claims that faith has nothing to do with empirical, space-time facts as such (p. 199ff.), a position he shares with Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich. But Schrotenboer rightly insists that the Bible relates faith to belief in the truth of empirical occurrences, non-personal as well as personal (p. 200). Reminiscent of Machen’s continual message is Schrotenboer’s statement that it is impossible to separate Christ as a person from his true doctrine about himself (p. 201). So Schrotenboer comes to this conclusion among others: “The declaration that faith does not have propositional truth, but only a person for its object, is an unsuccessful maneuver to make room for faith, for it itself precludes believing in the Scriptures in the way Christ did and Paul did. This is not the obviation of objections, but a step in the direction of the abandonment of Christianity…” (p. 214).
I believe that Schrotenboer has put it well when he says that we have no interest in detracting from the personalness of the encounter with Christ, but that the personalness of this encounter, when seen correctly, is not in antithesis to propositional truth, principles, law, etc. Schrotenboer’s analysis of the fundamental duality of law and gospel leads him to conclude that it is the seedbed for ruinous results for Brunner in his apologetics and in important articles of Christian faith.
In closing I would remark that the organization of Schrotenboer’s thesis has made for redundancy. I did not think that the argument progressed smoothly enough, though in such a deep study organization is tremendously difficult. Further, I noticed quite a few questionable or awkward usages and a good number of misspellings or second choice spellings. I had the impression that not all of the mistakes could be attributed to faults in the printer’s art. Schiedam
– ROBERT D. KNUDSEN
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