Systematic Theology Philosophy Basics Book

Review: Truth as Encounter

Conclusion: Brunner’s Truth as Encounter with its leitmotif of relationship should be rediscovered by theology and the church.

Admittedly, this is a very old book. It does not look very attractive. It’s author is not as widely read anymore. However, I believe that this book is of utmost importance expecially for our times; even more so than it was at the time of Emil Brunner.1 First some introduction:

Wahrheit als Begegnung was the German original and the one I read primarily. It was released as a printed version of the Olaus Petri Lectures Brunner delivered 1937 in Uppsala, Sweden. 1943 the English translation was published under the title The Divine-Human Encounter. Although this title rendered the relational dimension of Brunner’s content well, Brunner himself repeatedly mentioned that he was unhappy with it because the central aspect of truth was lacking. 1963 a second, enlarged edition of Wahrheit als Begegnung was released because Brunner wanted to clarify that he had only tackled the theological questions in the first edition and not some philosophical or epistemological viewpoints in general. The first part of this second edition was titled The Christian understanding of truth in relation to the philosophico-scientific understanding, adding another 50 pages to the original text. One year later, 1964, the English translation of this second edition came with a new title: Truth as Encounter.

Almost all the scholars are in agreement that Truth as Encounter is the centrepiece of Emil Brunner’s theology. Indeed, it could be described as the hinge that connects his earlier thought with his later. Alister McGrath calls this relational conception ‘a Leitmotif of Brunner’s later thought, tending to be amplified rather than modified.’ I propose that it is not possible to understand Brunner’s work and theology without understanding this book. It is not only ‘Brunner in a nuce’ but also a dogmatics in a nuce and its 200+ pages are truly something that can be done. Although the read is not an easy one, especially not for non-theologians, Brunner’s writing style is accessible while being dense. Much could be said about Brunner, the context of this book and his relationship with Karl Barth.2 However, this book can be easily read and understood without all of this.3


PART ONE is the already mentioned introduction that was added later where Brunner tackles the philosophical implications of his conception of truth as encounter. In the original version he focused explicitly on the theological dimension of it all and tried to avoid any suspicion of being dependent on any philosophical presupposition.

PART TWO then faces the question of truth:

  1. Objectivism and Subjectivism in the History of Christendom
  2. The Biblical Understanding of Truth
  3. The Biblical Conception of Truth and Faith in Justification
  4. The Biblical Understanding of Truth and Doctrine
  5. The Biblical Understanding of Truth and Doctrine (Part II)
  6. The Biblical Understanding of Truth and the Church

Content: The 3. Way

Brunner postulates: The biblical understanding of truth cannot be grasped by the object-subject contradiction, but is distorted by it. Brunner makes clear that all throughout church history people were drawn to either subjectivism or objectivism. In explicit words he examines that those tendencies were endangering the church and the faith time and again: Objectivism as a human attempt to control the objective, that cannot be controlled, with ‘a system of human securities’ and belief systems. In subjectivism, on the other hand, often a reaction to objectivism, the experience of the individual takes centre stage. Brunner paints a picture of a see-saw: on the objectivistic side he puts classic Catholicism, Orthodoxy in general and reformed Orthodoxy in particular and the so called Neo-Orthodoxy with Barth as its prime proponent. On the subjectivistic side Brunner perceives Mysticism, enthusiastic streams, Schleiermacher, Bultmann and Pietism. Brunner, on the other hand, calls for a biblical faith that is beyond Pietism and Orthodoxy and does not view the biblical message through this foreign conception of objectivism and subjectivism. There has to be a third way, not a via media, but rather one that is distinct from the other two, and not simply the assertion that the truth is found in the middle between the two. This third way is the I-You relationship between God and humans as subjects. In this relationship the categories of objective and subjective concerning truth are meaningless since God is not an object one believes in, but a subject, a person, who gives himself and the human response of trust is something entirely different than subjectivism since it involves the whole person. In short: it is not an I-it relationship but an I-You relationship.

Brunner then explicates this third way concerning some dogmatic topics like faith, sin, etc, shows what this means for the task of theology and the theologian and also briefly sketches how this affects the church.

Why for Us?

Brunner believed that with Truth as Encounter only a few had ‘recognized that something like a breakthrough had happened, which assessed, would bring a radical change to the whole of the theological and ecclesiastical enterprise.’ I believe he was right and that his vision has not yet been realised even received the reception or attention it deserved. This is one of the reasons I am basing my dissertation that I am currently writing heavily on Brunner. Brunner, and especially truth as encounter, could be a prophetic voice in many of the current tensions. I believe that this third way of relationship and a relational understanding of theology, even better, a theology of relationship could ‘solve’ many of the tensions we have in Christianity and theology. I believe that truth as encounter would work against the current tendency to focus on extreme positions or poles that are seemingly unbridgeable. This very nuanced, relational approach that is a third (!) way and not just a middle way would be a much needed perspective for tensions like:
conservative – liberal
– transcendence – immanence
– objectivism – subjectivism (obviously)

… and many of the topics connected with postmodernism.

  1. The downside is that this book usually must be found and bought in an antiquarian bookstore or has to be found online
  2. A good introduction gives, Alister McGrath, Emil Brunner – A Reappraisal.
  3. For more about Brunner check this site (mostly German):

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