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Emil Brunner

From 1889
 to 1966

"This inversion of the structure of the State which, instead of being built up from below, is organized from above, is the one great iniquity of our time, the iniquity which overshadows all others, and generates them of itself. The order of creation is turned upside down; what should be last is first, the expedient, the subsidiary, has become the main thing. The State, which should be only the bark on the life of the community, has become the tree itself."

Neo-orthodox theologian Emil Brunner was ordained in the Swiss Reformed Church and was professor of systematic theology at the University of Zurich, where he taught continuously, except for extensive lecture tours in the United States and in Asia. He, along with Karl Barth, sought to reaffirm the central themes of the Protestant Reformation over against the prevailing mood of liberal theology. Although, like Barth, he was drawn to religious socialism early in life, it began to look to him like a “beautiful illusion” after the horrors of World War I. Further, those horrors yielded fruits Brunner found more horrific yet: the modern, totalitarian, atheistic, and collectivist state. In response, he felt compelled to formulate a comprehensive system of Christian social ethics at once Reformed, biblical, and personalistic.

Brunner's social ethics takes as its “primary datum” the “individual human being” created in the image of God and “predestined for community.” From this datum, he vehemently criticizes the collectivist state as the “acme of injustice.” According to Brunner, collectivism's primary flaw is that it ignores the God-given individuality and dignity of the human person. Similarly, Brunner advances criticisms of the radical individualism posited by modern democratic theory, for it views community as merely instrumental to the desires of wholly self-sufficient individuals. While this conclusion differs from classical liberal political theory strictly defined, Brunner's insights into theological anthropology have considerable value for Christian social thinkers.

Brunner's social thought most resonates with classical liberalism in his understanding of the best regime, which he calls “federalism,” that is, “the state built up from below.” According to Brunner, God has ordained certain “orders of creation” that are part of God's preserving grace for organizing human life. These orders include human communities in the “economic, technical, purely social, and intellectual spheres.” Brunner is very explicit, however, that community is not tantamount to the state; indeed, such creational orders exist apart from and prior to the state. For example, the family is the “primal community” whose “rights take absolute precedence” over any other institution. Further, between the family and the state are a “host of intermediate links” each ordained by God for certain purposes, which the state is not to usurp but to preserve and to protect. Thus, the state is severely limited in its scope of legitimate authority.

Sources: Justice and the Social Order by Emil Brunner (Lutterworth Press, 1945), and Politics and Protestant Theology: An Interpretation of Tillich, Barth, Bonhoeffer, and Brunner by René de Visme Williamson (Louisiana State University Press, 1976).