Science in Christian Perspective



Brune s Doctrine of the Origin and Unity of the Race*


Professor of Church History, Gordon Divinity School, Boston, Mass.

From: JASA 4 (June 1952): 7-10.
*Paper Presented at the Sixth Annual Convention of the American Scientific Affiliation. New York, August, 1951.

The traditional Christian doctrine of human origins is that the race of mankind descended from a single human pair, named Adam and Eve, who were created by a special act of God, about 4000 B.C. somewhere in the land of Mesopotamia. The evidence which science has marshaled against this tradition cannot be dislodged by a dogmatic reaffirmation of its truth. It is common knowledge that we need not simply a reaffirmation, but a reconstruction of the tradition, one which on the one hand will deliver us from the extremities of religious liberalism, without, on the other, involving us in scientific obscurantism. Whatever else we may have in common with the Neo-orthodox thinker, we share with him this need, and therefore do well to think upon his proposed solution.

Chief spokesman for Neo-supernaturalism. on this score is Emil Brunner and it is with his docterine of racial origins that we shall concern ourselves in this paper. Whatever dubious mental baggage Brunner may have brought with him on the journey back from Schleiermacher to Paul and the Reformers, of one thing he is solidly convinced, and that is that there can be no reproachment between Christianity and any form of evolution (whether it be that of materialism or idealism) which slurs over the basic distinction between man and the animals. The highest animal shows no capacity for ideas, for transcending the given experience through the unconditional, the normative, the perfect. He never investigates truth for truth's sake, creates beauty for beauty's sake, or demands justice for justice's sake.l. Here is a dimensional divide. Concepts are different from associations of sensations.

The conditioning influence of millenia could never metamorphosize biological impulses, urges, and drives into logical and ethical norms. The higher and lower of the humanistic evolutionist is simply a facon de parler. All that is left on such a basis is biological differentiation.2 Over against such an evolutionism, Protestant Fundamentalism, with all its bizarreness is absolutely right, with its insistence upon the Biblical teaching of man's creation in the divine image by a special act of God.3

The trouble with Orthodoxy is that it has regarded the historical form of the creation narrative as essential to the doctrine as such. Such "Don Quiexotish" conservatism has led to the apologetical impass which has so discredited the church in the eyes of science.

Attempts to identify the Adam of Paradise with the progenitor of the Neanderthal man or any other specimen of the paleontologists yields an impossible bastard figure which can only alienate the scientifically informed.4 The shattered Adamic tradition which dominated European thought for 1500 years has lost its power over the modern mind.5 Complicated and complex as the family tree of honlo sapiens may be, the emergence of man on the physical side from the ranks of the animal kingdom in a remote antiquity has long since passed beyond the stage of plausible hypothesis to full-fledged scientific knowledge with which every integrious theology must reckon just as much as with the doctrines of Copernicus, Kepler and Newton.6 To be sure, the missing link is still missing and it is, according to Brunner, in the highest degree improbable, that the complicated organic substance which consti. tutes the physical base of life can ever be reduced to a fortuitous combination of inorganic molecules.7 There are breaks in, evolutionary development which point to the mystery lying behind the process. But the recognition of such does not alter the fact that he who thinks in terms of vast epochs of time in which there was a gradual progressing from the simple to the complex, has an evolutionary mentality which is quite foreign to the mind of antiquity that produced the Genesis narrative.

He who recognizes that there was once a universe, in which no planet earth existed, an earth, on which there once existed types of plants and animals of another sort than those of today, a time in which there were mammals, but as yet no man, recognizes thereby the "doctrine of evolution."8

Not only is the antiquity of man inconsonate with a literalistic view of the Old Testament tradition, but so also is his heterogeneity. The race concept must be employed with care in view of the complexity of racial instincts which do not always parallel blood relationship (as in the case of the Jews and Arabs), and the obscurity which shrouds the origin of present racial types.9 Brunner is not dogmatic, but in his most recent utterances he inclines toward polygenism in the light of present day paleontology.10. By this time it is apparent that Brunner's reconstruction of the tradition will take more radical lines than that of the "old apologetic" which interprets the "days" of creation as scientific ages and stretches the genealogies of Genesis across the six digits of geological time.

The cue to the maze according to Brunner is the recognition of the fundamental difference between the pronouncements of faith and the knowledge of science. Faith believes, on the authority of God's word, that man is created in the divine image. That is to say, the fact of man's creation is not the conclusion of a rational process, nor something one discovers in a laboratory. It is rather a matter of revelation. One must keep the distinction between faith and scientific knowledge ever in mind. To be sure, the natural basis of human life, which is the lawful subject of scientific investigation, is a part of the creation of man in the larger sense.11 God created man, out of the dust of the ground. Faith, however, should not attempt to pronounce upon the when and how of this process. To one who has grasped the essential difference between faith and scientific knowledge the attempt to identify the creation of man, in the proper sense of the word, with a chronological Point in the empirical process, is like trying to see God in a telescope or find the spirit of man in the brain. Of course, the mind, or spirit, is somehow connected with and has its physical basis in the brain, but phrenological knowledge is not the concern of faith. In deed and truth, the Holy Spirit does not guar. antee for us any world facts, whether historical or cosmological. The testi moniurn spiritus sanctl is strictly limited to its own sphere. The Spirit testifies to us the Father and the Son, but not this and that.12

The question of man's origins in the theological sense is as distinct from the matter of empirical beginnings as is the chemistry of colors from the beauty of art, though we cannot have one without the other.13 So it is also with the question of racial unity. So far as it is a matter of empirical factuality, we must await the results of scientific investigation. On the other hand, the theological unity of the race, if we might so speak, which is an absolutely fundamental dogma of our Christian faith, is that all men are per definitionem created in and to the divine image. A man who did not bear this image would not be a man, no matter what his empirical origins.14 By the same token, he who is in the image of God, is a man, whether he be Caucasian, Mongolian or Negro. When we realize that the creation of man transcends temporal categories, our faith in that cardinal doctrine will not be shaken by the loss of the historical form in which it was traditionally cast. Said Brunner in a lecture to an American audience:

As regards science, the fact that the Bible message is embedded in the world-view of antiquity, not in ours, is of no more significance for the meaning of that message to us, than is the difference between Shakespeare bound in paper and in leather, for my enjoyment of the poet. Whenever, therefore, there emerges a conflict between faith and reason, it is only an apparent conflict which stems from a failure either on the part of theologians or scientists to observe the proper boundaries between the two.15

In recognizing that the scientific pronouncements of Scripture are not binding upon us as such, we do not thereby reject the teachings of the writers of Scriptures, much less condemn them. The antique scientific form in which the Genesis narrative of creation is cast is the alphabet of revelation..

The Mosaic account reports, therefore, concerning creation, with the use of modes of representation, which, without ceasing to be vessels of divine revelation, are at the same time of such a sort, that they stand in opposition to an up to date scientific view of the world, so far as their cosmological content is concerned.16

It is impossible, according to Brunner, to give expression to religious truth without this involvement in the world view of one's age, since the concepts which the children of light have at their disposal are necessarily time conditioned. No doubt Paul when he spoke of heaven and the heavenly places, of being caught up into the third heaven, thought in terms of the three story world structure of Babylonian cosmology, as did everyone in his day. But does the abandonment of antique cosmology mean that I can no longer believe in heaven? On the contrary, affirms Brunner:

Just as it is vital to me that a heaven exists-the heaven of which Paul speaks, in spite of the fact that he always, whenever he speaks of it, also speaks of that one, which does not exist, i.e., the Babylonian glass-bell, so also it is vital to me from the standpoint of faith and dogma, that creation and the fall really happened, in spite of the fact that I know that they did not so happen (as to time, place) as Genesis 3, Paul, and the Reformers supposed.17

But the recognition that the form of the creation narrative is no longer possible for us, carries with it the task for theology of forging a new alphabet for the doctrine which will make it meaningful in our modern world. In the accomplishment of this diffl cult task Brunner proposes a new theological -method, which is involved in his personalistic philosophic assumptions. In brief his thought is this. God is personal and the revelation of Himself to man, therefore, is a matter of truth in the form of personal encounter, in contrast to the truth of science which is non-personal, objective truth. This personal self-disclosure of God takes place supremely in Christ, a person, yea, the Person of God, whom we encounter in the crisis of faith. The Christian's belief in creation arises at the point where all faith does, where God meets him in Christ as the Lord, who because He is the Lord, is the creator. The knowledge of creation, then, is the knowledge of address, or, as Kierkegaard would say, it is existential knowledge, it is not the knowledge of reflection. "To encounter God as Lord, is to know oneself as creature."18 To grasp this fact is to realize that so far as Christian faith is concerned, "where it is a question of origins, it is not a matter of some Adam or other, who lived so many thousand years ago, but of myself."19 I am Adam. You are Adam. To know and confess with the Psalmist that God formed our inward parts, covering us in our mother's womb, that we are fearfully and wonderfully made, that is to have a Christian doctrine of human origins. Of course, this revelation of God in Christ is mediated to me through the apostolic witness as inscripturated in the New Testament. We save ourselves a great deal of trouble, therefore, if we bear in mind that the Old Testament revelation is not "the definitive form of the self revelation, of the Creator."20 The Old Testament witness, indispensable as it is, is only preliminary, The revelational data on which our doctrine of creation, therefore, must be primarily oriented is not Genesis 1, but John 1. "In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. All things were made by Him and without Him was not anything made that was made." Here there is no interest in a cosmogony.

In evaluating Brunner's attempt to reconstruct the tradition respecting the origin and unity of the race, we must recognize the penetration and originality of his position in many respects. Though our treatment has been far too brief to do him full justice, yet we have sketched the outline with sufficient comprehensiveness to ask a very pertinent question: That question is this. Has Brunner succeeded in retaining the content of the Christian doctrine of origins, without the Biblical form?

There are several considerations which compel a negative reply. For one thing, his insistence that a doctrine of human origins, oriented primarily in terms of the revelation of God in Christ, rather than in terms of the Genesis narrative, removes all ground for the sort of historisizing of the doctrine of creation which we have in the Augustinian tradition, is not well taken.+ It is true that Jesus nowhere refers to Adam by name, but He does refer to the days of Noah (Matt. 24:37-8; Luke 17:26-7), to the fate of Lot's wife (Luke 17:32) and other events of the Old Testament narrative, which are for Brunner as impossible scientifically as Adam in Paradise. In giving up the historicity of the tradition, Brunner is not merely abandoning certain defects in Augustinianism, or the antique alphabet of Old Testament revelation, but the authority of Jesus Himself, and history has shown that to question Jesus' infallibility is the first step toward questioning the significance of Jesus and the germaneness of His message for our age altogether.

Furthermore, if the historical form of the creation doctrine be abandoned, the same is true mutatis mutandis of the doctrine of the fall. But when the attempt is made to formulate the Christian doctrine of the fall without a historical form, the profound difficulties in Brunner's theological method are brought into sharp focus. Then man comes on the scene of history not only a creature, but a fallen one. Does not this divest the status integriatis, which is the logical prius of the fall, of all meaning? And how on such a view can I be held responsible for my sinfulness any more than my creaturehood? Furthermore, to existentialize the Adamic tradition, i.e., to say, I am Adam, you are Adam, rather than some homo primigenius who lived thousands of years ago, does violence to the Biblical parallelism between Adam and Christ. Brunner insists in many places that the historicity of Jesus in the most brutal sense of the word, is absolutely indispensable to the preservation of Biblical Christianity.22 He posits in this regard an absolute disjunction. Either we must settle for a Christianity of fact or a Christianity of timeless ideas, which is no Christianity. There is no tertium quid. The question is, how does one escape this either-or in the case of the first Adam? The impossibility of such an approach in the name of Biblical Christianity becomes more than obvious when one analyzes Paul's argument in Romans 5. Here Paul not only assumes the historicity of the first Adam, but his whole argument hangs upon it, since his purpose is to illustrate how we are justified on the basis of another man's righteousness (Jesus Christ) by appealing to the fact that we stand condemned by the transgression of our forefather Adam. "For as by the one man's disobedience, the many were made sinners," says Paul, "so by the obedience of the one shall the many be made righteous."23 To abandon the existence of the first Adam does not alter the form of Paul's argument, for the simple reason that there is no argument left to have a form.

Under the duress of these problems, Brunner concedes in the recently released second volume of his Dogmaties:

The view of a primeval historical state, in which man lived completely according to God's Creator will, until, through temptation from without, an evil will, a false striving after independence, arose in him and he "fell," whereby the paradisial state came to an end-this mythological, historicizing mode of representation, is indeed the almost unavoidable form in which, again and again, we clothe the antithesis between creation and sin, in spite of ourselves. . . "24

It would seem that Brunner has now come to the place in his thinking where he virtually admits we cannot preserve a Christian doctrine of origins apart from the historical form of the Biblical narrative. His own unwillingness, however, to accept this form, would seem to leave the problem where he took it up. He has not been successful in rising above the OrthodoxLiberal antithesis.

1. Cf. Der Mensch. im Widerspruch, Berlin: 1937, 434-5.

2. Cf. Christianity and Civiliwtion, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1948, Vol. 1, 82, 85.

3. Cf. Doginatik, Zurich: Zwingli-Verlag, 1951, Vol. TT, 59.

4. Brunner's actual words are, "ein unmoglicher Bastard beterogenster Anschauungen." Ibid., 58.

5. Der Mensek im Widerspruch, 112.

6. Dogmatik, IT, 94. Cf. Offenbarung und Vernunft, Zurich: Zwingli-Verlag, 1941, 276.

7. Dogmatik, vol. IT, 45. 

8. Ibid.,

9. Der Men-wh im Widerspruch, 340.

10. Dogmatik, vol. 11, 230.

11. Dos Gebot und die Ordnungem Tubingen: Vohr, 1932,

12. Offenbarung vnd Vernunft, 171.

13. Der Metwch im. Widerspruch, 79.

14. Idiots, who give no evidence of Geist, are, for Brunner, borderline cases. What place such pitiful creatures have in God's household, we cannot know. He suggests that even the idiot is a potential person, not wholly without a spark of human existence. Ibid., 351.

15. The Word and the World, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1931, 5.

16. Dogmatik, vol. 2, 35.

17. "Duplik," Kirchenbtatt fur die reformierte Schim.4m, Sept. 9, 1926, 141.

18. Dogmatik, vol. 2, 12.

19. Der Mensch im Wider8pruch, 78.

20. Dogmatik, vol. 2, 8.

21. Cf. Dogmatik, vol. 2, 88-9.

22. Cf. Offenbarang und Vernunft, 278.


24. Dogmatik, vol. 2, 88-9. Cf. to the same effect, Da8 Gebot und die Ordnungen, 586.

Dr. H. D. Holland: Mr. Jewett, you analyzed the crisis theology as I understand it and gave the objections to it. I wonder if you would summarize your own synthesis?

Dr. P. K. Jewett: Perhaps I could mention a thought of Brunner's whihh I have found very stimulating with regard to the problem of science and faith. For Brunner faith moves in the dimension of personal encounter, encounter, that is between God who is a person and man, who is a person. When God meets me in the person of Christ and I say yes to him, that is faith. Now Brunner suggests in several places, that all knowledge be oriented in terms of its proximity to this personal center of faith. He sometimes employs the geometric figure of concentric circles around a given point. The outermost circle would represent the purely formal sciences, such as logic and mathematics. Within this outer circle would fall the sciences of physics, chemistry, biology, history, sociology, psychology, etc., and in that order. The inmost circle would represent theology, which is the science concerned with God and his relationship to man.

This structure is, of course,, an ontological one. What is of interest in our discussion, is the epistemological inference which Brunner draws at this juncture. He argues that the harmony of faith and scientific knowledge is a matter of recognizing that the role which faith plays in our scientific conclusions is inversely proportional to the distance of the knowledge area concerned from the personal center. That is to say, our Christian faith does not affect our conclusions in logic and mathematics (unless we are talking about the metaphysics of logic or something of that sort). In history, and psychology, however, a man's religious faith does make a considerable difference in the conclusions which he makes as a historian or psychologist. And, of course, in theology there is virtually no agreement between Christians and non-Christians.

Of course, to work out this general principle in concrete cases, Drunner would admit is an ever unfinished task. Our scientific knowledge is constantly increasing and our understanding of faith deepening. Consequently, it is impossible to speak with finality on every issue in debate.

Brunner's existential emphasis, over against the formality of the state church system has its healthy side. We must experience redemption. We must meet Jesus Christ as a person, and have personal fellowship with Him.