Emil Brunner and Thomas Torrance on the Difference Between Christian Dogmatics and Apologetics

I just picked up Emil Brunner’s The Christian Doctrine of God, which is his volume one in a series of Christian Dogmatics he has written. While he and I won’t see eye to eye on everything, he’s somebody I can learn from; so expect to hear more from him if you read my blog.

As Brunner starts his Christian Dogmatics out, he of course gives explanation of what Dogmatics actually are. In his giving he offers some profound explication; profound, at least from my emilbrunnerperspective, because he explains what in fact Christian Dogmatics represent. His explanation resonates deeply with me, and should help you all to understand where I am coming from as well; i.e. when you read my blog you should know that I am really never attempting to engage in apologetics, but instead always in the work of Christian Dogmatics. Here is what Brunner writes in this regard:

The intellectual enterprise which bears the traditional title of “dogmatics” takes place within the Christian Church. It is this that distinguishes it from similar intellectual undertakings, especially within the sphere of philosophy, as that is usually understood. Our immediate concern is not to ask whether this particular undertaking is legitimate, useful, or necessary. The first thing we have to say about it is that it is closely connected with the existence of the Christian Church, and that it arises only in this sphere. We study dogmatics as members of the Church, with the consciousness that we have a commission from the Church, and a service to render to the Church, due to a compulsion which can only arise within the Church. Historically and actually, the Church exists before dogmatics. The fact that the Christian Faith and the Christian Church exist, precedes the existence, the possibility, and the necessity for dogmatics. Thus if dogmatics is anything at all, it is a function of the Church.

It cannot, however, be taken for granted that there is, or should be, a science of dogmatics within the Christian Church; but if we reverse the question, from the standpoint of dogmatics it is obvious that we would never dream of asking whether there ought to be a Church, or a Christian Faith, or whether the Christian Faith and the Christian Church have any right to exist at all, or whether they are either true or necessary? Where this question does arise—and in days like ours it must be raised—it is not the duty of dogmatics to given the answer. This is a question for apologetics or “eristics”. But dogmatics presupposes the Christian Faith and the Christian Church not only as a fact bu as the possibility of its own existence. From the standpoint of the Church, however, it is right to put the question of the possibility of, and the necessity for, dogmatics.[1]

Thomas F. Torrance briefly describes Christian Dogmatics this way:

Christian Dogmatics – the church’s orderly understanding of scripture and articulation of doctrine in the light of Christ and their coherence in him.[2]

What should be clear from Brunner’s longer explanation, and T.F. Torrance’s shorter one is that Christian Dogmatics is the work of Christians done within the community of the witness of the church of Jesus Christ; as it is pressed up against the reality of its Subject, the living God who is Triune—the ‘God who has spoken’ (Deus dixit).

I am afraid all too many have confused the work of apologetics or “eristics” with the work of Christian Dogmatics; and if they haven’t then they have unfortunately carried over the tools and methods used by apologists, and imported those into the work of Christian Dogmatics. The work of an apologist is largely the work of a philosopher; the work of a Christian Dogmatician is the work of a Christian thinker who self-consciously is working under the pressures of God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ. The Christian Dogmatician is not trying to “prove” God’s existence, so he/she can then talk about God; no. The Christian Dogmatician, by definition has already repented and come under the reality of the Christian God in Christ in and through the witness of the church. This is the work I am doing here at the blog; I engage in Christian dogmatic thinking.

One more point of clarification: I do not think a Christian apologist, in the work they do, actually “proves” the existence of the living God; what they do, if anything, is “prove” a god-concept. What the apologist or Christian philosopher should avoid is the conflation of their work with that of the Christian dogmatician; they are definitionally different. What has happened though, unfortunately, is that often this is exactly what happens; over-zealous Christian philosophers and apologists import the concept of god they have “proven” into Christian Dogmatics, and think they are the same God, they aren’t!

In regard to Brunner, one thing that you will notice in his definition of Christian Dogmatics is an emphasis on the Church; he offers a very ecclesiocentric approach to things. I fully appreciate his description of Christian Dogmatics, but I want to be more radical and less neo-orthodox than that; I think the reality that ought to ‘control’ Christian Dogmatics is not the church, but Jesus Christ as the rule. Barth and Brunner have a famous disagreement where Barth gives Brunner a loud Nein when it comes to the possibility of natural theology. Brunner affirms a qualified understanding of natural theology, while as we know Barth famously rejects it. I think we are already getting a bit of a whiff of this difference even early on in Brunner; his emphasis on the church, I think, is a corollary of his commitment to a qualified notion of a natural theology.

[1] Emil Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of God (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1949), 3.

[2] T. F. Torrance, ed. Robert T. Walker, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ, Glossary.

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4 Responses to Emil Brunner and Thomas Torrance on the Difference Between Christian Dogmatics and Apologetics

  1. Kevin Davis says:

    Glad you are finally reading Brunner. I must disagree with your point about ecclesiocentrism. I can see how that might be an initial impression based upon that quote, but Brunner would affirm that “the reality that ought to ‘control’ Christian Dogmatics is not the church, but Jesus Christ as the rule.” You will see this as you further read along in this first volume of his dogmatics, but it is especially clear in the third volume on ecclesiology.

    In this quote, he is simply saying that dogmatics arises from the church, not from some general sphere available to all (philosophy). The existence of the church is the work of God and the space wherein all dogmatics must arise. But we must understand what Brunner means by “the church.” In his book, The Misunderstanding of the Church, and again in Dogmatics vol. 3, he emphasizes that the “church” in the original apostolic understanding means the assembly of those who have been gathered by the Holy Spirit. Brunner has a sharp polemical stance against Rome and other forms of High Church ecclesiologies, not surprising for someone who was very proud of his Swiss Reformed heritage. (Brunner had a bust of Zwingli outside of his office.) He even goes so far as to question the canonicity of the pastoral epistles, not merely because he thinks Paul didn’t write them but because he thinks the ecclesiology therein is sub-apostolic and proto-catholic. By proto-catholic, he means that the church started to acquire authority for itself. And that reminds me, Brunner also questioned the virginal conception of Christ because he thought it was non-apostolic and docetic. Because Christ alone was the rule for his dogmatics, Brunner could challenge longstanding church teaching. This is hardly the work of an ecclesiocentric theologian, at least not as “ecclesiocentric” is often understood. It must also be said that Brunner rejected, as Barth did, any sacramental understanding of the “sacraments,” including infant baptism — despite it’s longstanding practice in the church. Once again, that’s hardly characteristic of an “ecclesiocentric” theologian.

    I am not on board with Brunner here. I am far less Free Church than he is, and I am rather ecclesiocentric. And I don’t have much of a desire to be “radical.” But when it comes to Brunner, he is actually fairly radical, although surely not to the satisfaction of the postmetaphysical Barthians of course. And, for what it’s worth, I don’t find the “neo-orthodox” label to be of any real use anymore.


  2. Bobby Grow says:

    I’m still Free church, one more reason to like a Brunner. I of course am aware of Barth’s position on baptism, which is another reason I like Barth; glad Brunner is there as well. My impression of Brunner was actually informed by a comment David Congdon made about neo-orthodoxy and TFT juxtaposed with his radical Barth. I can see what you mean, and I too find no real usage for that language at this point; I was even thinking that as I used that in my post (i.e. asking myself what does this even mean anymore at this point?). Yeah, I’m not a fan of the postmetaphysical Barth; I like Hunsinger’s and Molnar’s read.

    I think an issue I’ll have with Brunner is his position on natural theology; we’ll see.


  3. Kevin Davis says:

    I think you’ll see a lot of affinity between yourself and Brunner because y’all both have a Free Church orientation. You’ll disagree with him on his more liberal attitude toward biblical criticism (as in my examples above) and some other matters I’m sure, but he’s a kindred spirit for you. And he’s fun to read. His writing is entirely unpretentious. As for natural theology, just bear in mind that Brunner’s position is incredibly modest and very far from any sort of full-blown natural theology. Brunner is constantly criticizing the influence of Greek/Hellenistic thought forms, opposing these to biblical categories. His anthropology does allow for a universal sense of responsibility by which everyone is without excuse (his interpretation of Rom. 1:18-20), and this is where Barth detects, rightly or wrongly, a form of natural theology.


  4. Bobby Grow says:

    Thanks for the insights, Kevin. I’d known that you had read Brunner with appreciation, and I thought it was time for me to see why. 🙂


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