The Gifford Lectures were established in 1887 through the will of Lord Adam Gifford for the purpose of promoting natural theology. The lectures are given at several Scottish universities and are a high honor for the recipients. Of the over 170 Gifford lecturers, many are renown theologians and Biblical scholars, such as Alfred North Whitehead, Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, Jaroslav Pelikan, N. T. Wright, Albert Schweitzer, Rudolf Bultmann, and Jürgen Moltmann. Dr. Heinrich Emil Brunner (1889-1966), a Swiss Reformed theologian who advocated neo-orthodoxy theology, published his Gifford Lectures in Christianity and Civilisation (Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, NY, 1948 &1949).
Brunner’s first Gifford Lecture series was delivered at the University of St. Andrews (Scotland) in February and March 1947. The ten lectures were “to formulate and to justify my [Brunner’s] conviction that only Christianity is capable of furnishing the basis of a civilization which can rightly be described as human.” (page v). Although these lectures were delivered over 70 years ago, I found Brunner’s writings highly relevant to our current cultural issues, especially in a Western culture dominated by technology and declining Christian population. My hope is that Brunner’s word will give meaning, purpose, and hope to those who struggle to integrate our modern culture with faith.
Chapter I in Brunner’s first lecture series (The Foundations) is titled: The Problem of a Christian Civilisation. Brunner is writing shortly after WWII has ended and his views were shaped by Europe’s two most devastating wars. “A new epoch has begun, in which the scholar, the artist, the seer and the saint are replaced by the soldier, the engineer and the man of political power; an epoch which is no more capable of producing real culture, but merely an outward technical civilisation.” (page 1) He gives an overview of historical events during the prior two centuries that have undermined Christianity. “For more than a thousand years Western culture has been based on the Christian idea that man is created in the image of God. This central Biblical idea included both the eternal spiritual destiny of every individual and the destiny of mankind to form a free communion. With the Enlightenment, this idea, on which the whole structure of Western life was rested, began to be doubted. … This crisis at bottom is nothing but a consequence of the fact that the deepest foundation of this civilisation, the Christian faith, has been shaken in the consciousness of European and American nations, and in some parts of this world has been more than shaken, in fact shattered and even annihilated.” (page 2-4)
Brunner admits that the New Testament is not concerned with civilization but focuses primarily on the Kingdom of God. “This Gospel is concerned with man’s relation to God in its innermost mystery and with the relation to man in the most personal and intimate sense, without any reference to cultural values and social institutions.” (page 7) So how does Christianity integrate with civilization? Brunner proposes that civilization is determined by “three heads:”
“Civilisation is determined, first, by natural factors like formation of country, climate, possibilities of maintenance, within which, as a given frame, human life has to develop. … Secondly, by the physical and spiritual equipment of men within a given area, by their physical and spiritual forces, their vitality, their energy and their talent. These two complexes we can put together as that which is outwardly and inwardly given. … There is a third, … namely the spiritual presuppositions of a religious and ethical nature which, not in themselves cultural, we might call the culture-transcendent presuppositions of every culture. This third factor lies within the sphere of historical freedom, within that area which is open to the free self-decision of man. … This third factor then is the one within which the Christian faith, as distinguished from its alternatives, becomes relevant.” (pages 10-11)
Brunner seeks a balanced position as he is not following traditional Christian orthodoxy nor building a purely philosophical argument. He sides more with a practical analysis supported by the theoretical. “For we are not merely interested in general abstract possibilities of a Christian civilization, but in the possibility and the specific character of a Christian civilisation within this given historical world.” (page 12) After setting up his problem statement, Brunner examines nine foundational problems of civilizations, which my next blogs will examine.