NOTES on Emil Brunner (1889-1966): Situationalist Ethics


Emil Brunner (1889-1966) was strongly against legalism. He believed that legalism boxes God in. For example, according to the Old Testament, the Jews are God’s chosen people. A person who was a legalist before the New Testament was written could tell Jesus, “I’m very sorry to see you hanging around Gentiles. Don’t you know that only the Jews are God’s chosen people? It says it right here in the Torah.”

In addition, legalism can blind us to the needs of others. For example, we are supposed to tithe, which many people believe means to give 10% of your income to charity. But let’s say that a huge natural disaster occurs in your area and that much money is needed to help people. A person who is a legalist could say, “I’ve already done my share. The Bible says 10%, and I’ve given my 10%, and there’s no way I’m giving the 30% I could afford this month.”

Furthermore, legalism can violate our sense of freedom and autonomy. We believe that we can know right from wrong (although in some cases it can be difficult), and we believe that we are free to act. However, legalism can make morality very mechanical. For example, charity can be reduced to simply giving 10% of your income to the poor with no need to decide if you should give more money one particular month.

We see several examples of legalism in the New Testament. For example, some people criticized Jesus for healing sick and crippled people on the Sabbath. However, Jesus believed that healing a sick or crippled person was much more important than obeying the rule that says that you should not work on the Sabbath.

Brunner, like Paley, believed that what is right is that which is in conformity to the will of God. However, Brunner did not believe in natural theology (using the Light of Nature to determine God’s will), although he did believe in revelation. However, Brunner believes that the Bible contains mistakes. According to Brunner, the Bible is witness (stories, testimonies) from people who have heard God in the past. Thus, the Bible is not an infallible book and it is not a bunch of rules that each of us must follow.

Brunner believed that God reveals Himself as a Person. We discover the will of God in what Brunner referred to as the Divine-Human Encounter. In this encounter, God reveals Himself as Free Sovereign Love. It’s important to realize that, although God does not provide specific rules for us to follow, nevertheless, God does not remain silent. Instead, Brunner’s ethic provides preparation for hearing the divine command.

According to Brunner, when we ask What ought I to do?, we are really asking two questions:

1) What is Free Sovereign Love beckoning me to do?, and

2) Is that consistent with God as Redeemer and God as Creator?

Brunner’s situationalist ethics does have some problems. Brunner would have us assess the situation and determine what is the right thing to do in that situation. However, that takes time and in many emergency situations one does not have time to sit down and figure out what God is willing for us to do in that situation. It seems that if we could work out some rules ahead of time, they would help us decide what to do in emergency situations.

Brunner also seems to be on the slippery slope to emotionalism and subjectivism. “Emotionalism” means being ruled by your emotions. It would be very easy to feel strongly about something and think that God is speaking to you, when really you are being ruled by your emotions.

In addition, there is the problem of knowing who is right when people conflict. Two people may both claim to know the will of God, but their interpretations conflict. In such a case, the result may be subjectivism.

Without rules, would people’s intuitions about what God wills for us to do vary widely? This seems likely. Once again, it would be helpful if our reason were able to work out some rules that are based on past human-divine encounters. These rules could be looked at periodically to see that they are fair, and they could be changed if any changes seem necessary.

Note: For more information, see Emil Brunner’s book The Divine Imperative, translated by Olive Wyon. Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press, 1947.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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