Emil Brunner on the Incarnation

On the occasion of the 129th anniversary of Swiss Reformed theologian Emil Brunner (1889–1966)—especially so close to Christmas—we thought it would be fitting to share an excerpt from the book on Brunner from Hendrickson’s Makers of the Modern Theological Mind series by J. Edward Humphrey (1918–1999), who studied under Brunner in the 1940s.

The Incarnation of Christ 

The biblical understanding of the self-revealing God sets him apart from every idea of deity arising from the side of man, whether of abstract thought, of mysticism, or of ethical idealism. For each of the latter forms of thought, God is conceived of in rigid terms of static truth; he is absolutely unmoved. The self-revealed God of biblical faith, however, is the God who, though unchanging, is nevertheless living, dynamic, and eternally loving—which is to say, he is in himself eternally in motion. In himself, he is love. The love of the Father for the Son, and that of the Son for the Father is eternal. In that same dynamic love, the world was created. And likewise, in that love God comes to the world for the purpose of redemption. That God comes is the ever-recurring theme of the Bible; but it is uniquely a biblical message.24

Brunner sees, however, that the coming of God may be understood only in the light of the reality of the gulf which separates God and man because of sin. He finds that sin and therefore separation are taken seriously only in biblical thought. And only here is it seen that the gulf of separation can be bridged by God alone. The self-movement of God to that end is the whole point of the Christian revelation. At the same time, that movement points up the fact that God and his initiative are absolutely central to salvation. And above all, it makes unmistakably clear the fact of the absolute sovereignty and glory of God and his will to bring light and life to the whole creation.

As already indicated, the coming of God in revelation and his coming in atonement and redemption are inseparable. This means that the knowledge of God and communion with God are also inseparable. Taken together, these facts indicate the important truth that the gulf between God and man is personal rather than physical and that the bridging of that gulf may occur only in a personal manner. Hence, God has willed to come to us in the only personal guise which we could receive—that of lowly human existence. In that self-emptied form, God really comes to us, meets us where we are and in so doing unmasks us, even as he unveils to us something of his own nature and will. Only in this context does Brunner speak of Christian faith, which for him is simply the attitude of humble personal reception, in utter abandonment of every self-contrived “way” to God. This means that faith (in contradistinction to every form of “religion”) belongs to that range of exclusively biblical ideas which are expressed in such terminology as personal God, creator God, Word of God, coming of God, and revelation. Such faith exists only where there is the reception of the God who has come to us, namely, the Mediator.25

The revelation of God in Christ, according to Brunner, confronts man for the first time with that which is at once absolutely unique and absolutely decisive. Although it comes to man as a temporal event, it is eternal; and for this reason, it is absolutely decisive. Uniqueness has no place in a consideration of the natural order; at the very best, it is here considered as nonessential. And even in history as such, it has only relative meaning. Only the eternal element breaking into history can be absolutely unique, for it is at once the fulfillment and the abrogation, the end of history. The Word which comprises revelation is that Word which speaks of the beginning before all history and of the end (in the sense of purpose) which lies beyond all history. It is this eternal Word which breaks into history and gives meaning to decision. But the very fact that this unique event has occurred means that all of history has become problematical, that it lies under both the possibility and the necessity of decision.

This breaking-in of the eternal as an event in history is the proper concern of faith. Faith knows that it is anchored to that which transcends history because it is centered in the Mediator and therefore in the eternal self-movement of God. In fact, faith begins at the very point where historical perception reaches its outer limit. It understands revelation in terms of that incomprehensible movement of the living God which is manifest in the God-Man—Jesus, who is the Christ.26

Brunner now brings his argument to focus upon “the fact of the incarnation,” which he describes as the “central truth of the Christian faith.” The incarnation is seen as genuine, which means above all that the Son of God did in fact take upon himself our humanity in its fullness. But just at this crucial point, there was to arise a vigorous renewal of that fundamentally false assumption of the possibility of the self-ascent of man to God. It is propounded in the various forms of adoptionism which were to appear again and again in the history of Christianity. For Brunner, the essence of the Christian faith is retained or lost at this very point: that is, whether redemption is to be understood in terms of a descending self-movement on the part of God, and initiated by him, or of an ascending movement initiated and achieved from the side of man. No aspect of the Christian faith requires more clarity of insight and unfailing conviction than that which is involved at this point.27

What does it mean that the Son of God, the divine Logos, assumed human nature? How may we ascribe to him full and genuine humanity without losing the reality of the mystery of his being? This was the problem with which the patristic theologians of the fourth and fifth centuries wrestled. And it has proven to be one of the most difficult to hold in clear perspective. Brunner holds that it was just this human nature which he assumed. Behind human nature, even in our own case, and incomparably more so in his, is the mystery of personality. One has human nature; but he is a person. What Christ assumed was human nature, not human personality. This means that what he assumed was the genuine possibility of temptation and sin, but not that personality which is already corrupted by original sin. This, of course, points up the truth that sin is always a personal act, and never a fact of nature. The author of the Book of Hebrews states this truth in unforgettable language when he asserts that Jesus is not one who “cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but one that hath been in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15). The mystery of human personality is sin, but the mystery of the personality of Christ is divine authority.28

Brunner speaks of the incarnation as “the great miracle” of Christianity and is emphatic in his assertion that “it is absolutely objective.” Yet, he believes that it is the fact of the incarnation and not the how of it that is the proper concern of faith. He believes that the deeper meaning of the incarnation has been done a disservice by the traditional emphasis upon the virgin birth of Jesus. He believes that this emphasis has drawn attention away from the amazing fact of it in what has amounted to a rational attempt to explain in some measure the how of it. Apart from two brief passages (Matt. 1:18–25 and Luke 1:31–35), he finds that the New Testament shows no interest in this question. Brunner professes, however, that he has no particular interest in attacking the doctrine as such. He says: “We are . . . absolutely certain of the miracle of the divine fact.” And for him, that fact presents us with two realities. One is that “the Son of God assumed the whole of humanity”; the other is that this “divine miracle does not permit us to offer detailed explanations” of it. Brunner sees the traditional emphasis upon the virgin birth as another expression of that docetic tendency which has always attended Christological thought. For his part, Brunner prefers to “stand amazed” in the presence of this miracle, without attempting to explain it.29

The Significance of the God-Man 

The Christian faith insists equally upon the full deity and the full humanity of Christ. Brunner understands this to mean that the really decisive element in its message is that the eternal Word in fact became flesh. It is this which sets it apart from every thoroughgoing form of either transcendentalism or immanentalism. This is a self-revelation in that paradoxical form in which the glory of God is concealed in the very act of revealing. This is the mystery of the divine revelation. It is this concealed form of the revelation, however, which leaves room for genuine decision in faith. Direct and complete disclosure of himself by God would have meant one or the other of two things: either that he had undergone a metamorphosis after the fashion of a pagan miracle or that he had in truth unveiled to sinful man the fullness of his glory and majesty. The former would have been unworthy of him, while the latter would have exposed man immediately to the awesome and shattering power of judgment.30

But while this concealed form of the revelation makes room for faith, it is also open to misunderstanding. The substance of the Gospels may be seen as ordinary biography and therefore as historical in aim and character. In this case, they become mere reports of what happened on a human level, and when and where. From this point of view, the value of the Gospels is limited to historical interest and is subject to the degree of accuracy in reportage. Such a use of the Gospels, however, could only distort their true meaning and purpose and render them of little value for faith. On the other hand, there is always the danger that the humanity of Jesus shall be lost sight of altogether, in which case the Johannine Gospel would necessarily appear as docetic in character.

Aware of the problems involved for faith in these matters, the patristic theologians formulated the doctrine of the two natures: namely, that Jesus Christ is at once true God and true man. This formula, which was originally only a statement of faith concerning the unity of the divine and the human in Christ, was destined eventually to be transformed into a metaphysical theory, known in subsequent theology as the communicatio idiomatum (“the communication of properties”). Brunner sees this theory as an inordinate design to explain the mystery of the God-Man. It was essentially the view that the two natures, the divine and the human, were blended in one historical being. The doctrine of the two natures was thereby made the object of technical discussion and explanation in the same manner as any physical phenomenon. And this in turn meant an attempt to intellectualize faith.31

The divine person who meets us in the historical figure of the God-Man is visible only to the eyes of faith. Where he unveils himself, he is no longer seen as an historical personality, but as the eternal Son of God. The revelation itself is the mystery of this person, a mystery which is not removed but only intensified even where it is perceived as such by faith. And for Brunner, this means that there must be no attempt to explain the Messianic consciousness of Jesus.

God chose to meet us and to reveal himself within an actual human life on the plane of history—that is, in the person of Jesus. The question arises, therefore, as to how we shall regard the historical figure of the God-Man. Brunner insists that while the visible history of the life of Jesus is essential to the event of revelation, it is not to be understood as composing that event. The decisive element in that event is the eternal Word. And that Word is neither an idea nor a truth, but a personal reality. The New Testament itself showed little interest in many details which would have been essential to an historian’s biography of the man Jesus. But its total witness is to the end that men may recognize in this man the Christ.32

Notes: 24. Brunner, The Mediator, 285–91; 25. Ibid., 291–302; 26. Ibid., 303–15; 27. Ibid., 316; 28. Ibid., 318–20 (see also, Dogmatics II, 343–50); 29. Brunner, The Mediator, 320–27 (cf. Dogmatics II, 350–56); 30. Brunner, The Mediator, 328–37 (cf. Dogmatics II, 357–63); 31. Brunner, The Mediator, 338–45 (cf. Dogmatics II, 239–363; by “the communication of properties” is meant the transference of what belongs essentially to one nature in Christ to the other nature in him—as for example, the transference to his human nature that which belongs essentially to his divine nature); 32. Brunner, The Mediator, 345–76.


For more information about the Makers of the Modern Theological Mind series, visit our website.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.