I'm writing a bit on Karl Barth and Emil Brunner in my dissertation right now and saw Douglas Campbell referring to the two theologians in passing in the comments of a post entitled Douglas Campbell’s “Rereading” of Paul at Larry Hurtado's blog about Pauline soteriology. I just thought I would add some theological reflection to their exegetical discussion there. Hurtado and Campbell debate in the comments some of the features of Campbell's big book The Deliverance of God (which I have referred to in the past).
Campbell writes,"And it may be that Paul and his opponent agree on quite a bit in Rom 1 in any case (I think they do); but Paul doesn’t want to put this material up front, so to speak. And that’s a critical difference–as big as the difference between Barth and Brunner, or between Athanasius and Arius."
Here's my comment: Barth and Brunner are indeed interesting to compare because they are indeed so close on so many matters. John W. Hart writes in his conclusion of his book on Barth and Brunner,
"It is the thesis of this book that Barth and Brunner represent fundamentally different ways of doing theology. This thesis is maintained despite the fact that, viewed within the context of the history of theology, it would be difficult to find any theologian closer to Barth than Brunner, or closer to Brunner than Barth” John W. Hart, Karl Barth vs. Emil Brunner: The Formation and Dissolution of a Theological Alliance, 1916-1936 (New York: Peter Lang, 2001), 218.
Brunner's zeal to be missionally, ethically, and philosophically relevant to the world and Holy Spirit-led worries Barth. Brunner was interested in what was contemporary: he loved the parachurch Oxford Group Movement and was deeply concerned about communism and thought personalism was extremely insightful (Emil Brunner, “Toward a Missionary Theology,” Christian Century 66, no. 27 (1949): 817-818). Barth’s famous angry “Nein!” to Brunner was explicitly about natural theology but in particular about the warm reception Brunner’s “point of contact” theology was getting from German-Christian (Nazi) theologians (Emil Brunner and Karl Barth, Natural Theology: Comprising “Nature and Grace” by Professor Dr. Emil Brunner and the Reply “No!” by Dr. Karl Barth (Eugene, Or.: Wipf and Stock Publishers, (1956) 2002), 67.). My project deals with Barth’s ecclesiology. Barth's ecclesiology is quite similar to Brunner’s at first glance. They were both Swiss Reformed church theologians–advocates of the importance of the local church and decried Roman Catholic “clericalism.” But again Barth felt that Brunner’s “being led by the Spirit” was naive and foolish–that thinking about such practical matters as church and mission demanded far more discipline.
Here is the contours of the Brunner-Barth debate regarding Pauline soteriology: Hart reports, “Brunner argues that his understanding of Law-Gospel is truly Pauline and Calvinist–the Law is the tutor from the Gospel (‘this point-of-connection (Beziehungspunkt) [cannot be] surrendered’) and only subsequent to faith does one correctly see the Gospel in the Law” (Hart, Karl Barth vs. Emil Brunner, p.79). Whereas, Barth says “Brunner’s opposition between Law and Gospel is too harshly Kantian: ‘Is not the Law also revelation, not only punishment and opposition?’ (Hart, Karl Barth vs. Emil Brunner, p.78).
I hear Campbell arguing for the Barthian side–questioning whether the ostensible Romans 1-3 presentation is the normative definitive ordering of all gospel presentation: presentation of Law then conviction of sin then experience of faith. The Oxford Group Movement, which Brunner loved, used this approach: testimonies of how people were gripped by sin then were changed by faith in the work of Christ (Hart, Karl Barth vs. Emil Brunner, p.178). Barth and Campbell want to hold together more closely Jesus’s person and work so that Jesus’ life (as depicted in the Gospels and alluded to in Paul and elsewhere) matters. For Campbell the Jesus story contains Pneumatological, Participatory, Martyrological, and Eschatological components (“PPME”). Barth says that Jesus Christ is the Lord as Servant (IV/1) and the Servant as Lord (IV/2).
The problem with Brunner and those who place all this emphasis on the Law and Sin, says Barth, is that his framework gives humanity too much credit and relegates God to some minor bit player who gets brought in when there is a problem. God is just the cleaner-upper-guy, Mr. Fix-it, the Stain-Master, the Spot-Remover. What is interesting, thinks Brunner, is philosophical trends like personalism, new initiatives like the Oxford Group Movement, and political developments like communism; the church and theology must catch up to what is going on and try to fix it. Barth and Campbell think that what the Triune God is up to is more interesting, more definitive. The question is whether human beings will “correspond” (Barth), “participate” (Campbell) with God. I’m grateful for the work of the New Testament scholars doing the difficult exegetical work to see whether Barth and Campbell over-read this emphasis into the texts but I think these are at least some of the theological issues at stake.