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Book review: Eternal Hope by Emil Brunner, translated by Harold Knight

12 January 2024

Emil Brunner’s vision was not individualistic, Natalie Watson finds

THE German theologian Jürgen Moltmann is widely credited with the rediscovery of hope as a fundamental theme of Christian theology, and the impact of his 1964 Theology of Hope (English translation, SCM Press, 1967) on theologians in Germany and beyond cannot be underestimated.

Yet, it is perhaps less well remembered that ten years before the publication of Moltmann’s seminal work, the General Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Evanston, Illinois, had gathered under the theme “Christ — Hope of the World”, and it is in preparation for this event that the Swiss Reformed theologian Emil Brunner wrote and had published what was originally intended as the final section of the third volume of his Dogmatics. For Brunner, there was a different, more personal, horizon against which he was compelled and challenged to reflect on the theme of hope and eternal life: the tragic death of his son in a railway accident. One could think, in comparison, of Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Lament for a Son or John de Gruchy’s Led in Mystery.

In this relatively short but dense work of Reformed theology, Brunner identifies the Christian hope as something that is significant not just for individuals, but, essentially and more importantly, for humanity as a whole. As is perhaps typical for a work of “dogmatics”, Brunner tells us relatively little about his own context or even that of the world in which his theological reflection takes place, though it is clearly there in the background: Marxism with its own form of eschatology, dictatorships and the disillusionment that follows their demise, and even the possibility of destruction through nuclear weapons.

Vernon SproxtonEmil Brunner

But Brunner sticks closely to his exploration of scripture on the subject and his search for the message that the Church needs to proclaim: “We must listen to the voice which speaks of world judgement as to the voice of God Himself, in order that we may fear Him; we must listen to the voice of God Himself, in order that we may love Him.”

For the theologian in the Reformed tradition, the language of mystery is perhaps less accessible, but, none the less: “We know nothing of the how, we know only the fact, and its implications: that it will be the end of history in the Kingdom of God, the judgement and the perfecting of creation in the eternal world.”

The contemporary reader of this reissue of Brunner’s treatise might have been helped by an introduction to the work; and the unredacted translation in the exclusive language of its day, even where the original does not necessitate this, makes it somewhat difficult to read what may otherwise be a clarion call from a different age that was compelled to wrestle, as we do now, with living within the horizon of hope.

Dr Natalie K. Watson is a theologian, editor, and writer, living in Peterborough.

Eternal Hope
Emil Brunner
Harold Knight, translator
James Clarke & Co £22.50

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