A Capacity For Ambiguity?: The Barth - Brunner Debate Revisited -- By: Trevor Hart

Journal: Tyndale Bulletin
Volume: TYNBUL 44:2 (NA 1993)
Article: A Capacity For Ambiguity?: The Barth - Brunner Debate Revisited
Author: Trevor Hart

A Capacity For Ambiguity?:
The Barth - Brunner Debate Revisited

Trevor Hart


This essay seeks to reconsider the debate between Karl Barth and Emil Brunner concerning the relationship between the nature and grace. The first section considers the immediate political and social context for the debate in 1930s Germany, and suggests that only when this Sitz im Leben is taken into account can the urgent tone of Barth’s denunciation of Brunner be properly appreciated. Subsequent sections identify the key issues of dispute between the two, especially Brunner’s insistent differentiation between a ‘formal’ and ‘material’ image of God in humans, and his affirmation of the need for a ‘point of contact’ for grace in human nature as created and fallen. The essay concludes by exploring an ambiguity in the central term Offenbarungsmächtigkeit, and suggests that there is a way of interpreting this term which satisfies Barth’s theological concerns, and which he himself cannot avoid conceding the validity of.

The purpose of this paper is to consider again the very public disagreement between Karl Barth and Emil Brunner which reached its zenith in 1934, although it had murmured on for some considerable time beforehand and was continued with no small amount of enthusiasm long afterwards. The focus of this fierce disagreement was the question concerning the relation- ship between nature and grace, creation and redemption, state and church. The disagreement was remarkable not due simply to the passion and vigour with which Barth, at least, engaged in it, but because it had erupted between two men who hitherto had been viewed as theologically at one. An angry exchange between Barth and Harnack was perhaps unsurprising. But Barth and Brunner? Were they not from the same stable, and engaged in essentially similar theological projects? So it had seemed to many. And so, viewed from one perspective at least, it would continue to appear, even to Brunner himself as we shall see. But Barth insisted that the relationship between them was rather like that between two adjacent points on the circumference of a circle: looked at from one perspective as close as they could ever be; but from another, as far apart as possible. What I hope to do in this essay is to penetrate to the heart of the debate, to expose and examine the key issues, and

finally to pose some questions concerning the adequacy of Barth’s formulation of his case. The texts to which our attention will be directed are Emil Brunner’s essay ‘Nature and Grace: A Contribution to the Discussion with Karl Barth’, and Barth’s response ‘Nein! Answer to Emil Brunner’. Both pieces originally appeared in 1934 and were subsequently helpfully bound t...

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