Systematic Theology Article

My Son, Emil Brunner and Subjectivism vs Objectivism

Today we were eating lunch and out of nothing one of my sons asked the following question: “Dad, how can I believe, if I cannot proof that God exists? I want to believe, but I cannot believe when I don’t have proof.” First of all I was a proud father: My son asks really good questions! Then we engaged in a discussion on the age-old big questions of philosophy and theology – in a way that he could understand it.

What was fascinating to me, was the fact, that my 9 year old son opened up a Pandora’s box that lies at the bottom of my dissertation. I believe that Emil Brunner did a fabulous job in tackling those questions and making them fruitful for his theological core concept as outlined in “truth as encounter”. It is the tension between objectivism and subjectivism. Brunner explains the major part of church history along the lines of this tension. Oversimplified one could define it like this: Objectivism as believing the right things. Subjectivism as experiencing the right things. Objective truth vs. subjective experience. Although Brunner does not use the picture of a see-saw it helps to understand what he means. Church history was and is a see-sawing between those two poles.1

What is Brunner’s solution? Normally one tries to create a balance between both of the poles. The problem is, Brunner states, that this is impossible. Although there are objective and subjective parts involved, many have tried and all have failed to create this balance. According to Brunner the problem is, that the truth is not found in A, not found in B, nor is it found in a mixture of the two. The truth is found in C.2 Something that is connected, but at the same time is totally different. It is not about “things” but about persons. It is about the encounter between God and humans. It is about an I-thou-relationship. For Brunner the solution is C. He calls it personal correspondence. Yes, there is an objective part, because it matters for a real encounter that I encounter the real God. The only possibility to have access to this real God is through his historical self-revelation in Jesus, the Christ (yes, there are objective facts involved). Yes, there is a subjective part, because it involves me. There is an experiential side, but this experience is grounded in a true other, God himself. Faith then means, that I come with all my questions and insecurities to this Jesus of Nazareth, trust him, give myself to him. The only security I have lies there. In short: it is about relationship. With this, “things” fall into their proper place.

So, what was going on with my 9year old? We had an intellectually very stimulating discussion and in retrospect I see how Emil Brunner contributed to it. It was awesome. I tried to explain out of a relational perspective – and did not miss the mark. Afterwards his and my brain was fried. Then we sat down together and invited God to show us more and more of himself and to keep us close to him – with all of our remaining questions.


  1. Brunner, Emil. Wahrheit als Begegnung. [2. erw. Aufl.]. Zürich: Zwingli-Verl., 1963. (pp. 72)
  2. Brunner, Emil. Wahrheit als Begegnung. (pp. 86)

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