Love & Justice (2) – Brunner, “The Divine Imperative”

by Travis Pickell

In The Divine Imperative Emil Brunner describes the relationship between the demands of agape and those of justice (i.e. the “orders”) in, what Paul Ramsey calls, characteristically “dualistic” terms.[1] There are, according to Brunner, within existence as we know it, certain “created orders” (e.g. community, family, state, etc.) that form the presupposition for our daily lives as human beings. We experience these created orders as  “given,” and this, I believe, in two ways.

First they are “given” in that they precede us and are not consciously created by us; they are a natural product of human reason ordering human relations. In this first sense they are distinguished by Brunner as a separate realm from the realm of faith. They are the realm of “office,” as opposed to the realm of the “personal.” The former is the realm of justice, the latter the realm of love. But the former exists for the sake of the latter, which is its telos. Were it not for the natural orders of creation, which prevent human society from devolving into chaos, there would be no opportunity to show love to our neighbors: there is no love in the state of nature. But the “orders of creation” are also given to us by God, as part of his preservation of creation. While deeply tainted by sin, the orders of creation serve God’s purposes.

How are we to understand these orders of creation? At times it seems as if Brunner is advocating a fundamentally conservative view towards whatever social institutions happen to exist—so long as order is upheld, we must “first affirm” God’s providence through them. Such a view seems to leave itself open the worst type of conservatism and quietism—a perfect storm of Lutheran “two spheres” and Catholic “natural law” at their worst. This is the aspect of Brunner’s theology that provoked Karl Barth’s famous “Nein!” Of course, Brunner is too good of a theologian to advocate this strong of a view of the orders of creation without simultaneously stressing the challenge that the gospel presents to the existing orders. Nevertheless, Brunner does say that the Christian’s first attitude toward the orders is affirmation, which can only be tempered later by protest and reform.

One problem with the “two-sphere” view that separates the “official” realm from the “personal” realm is that it undercuts the second move in the dialectic that Brunner is trying to uphold between affirmation and protest. Because the “orders” form the “vessel,” or institutional structure of society, which can only be “filled” with the content of love, it becomes very difficult to push against institutional norms that are fundamentally un-loving. One sees this, especially, in Brunner’s discussion of “Reasons of State” (Staatraison). Because the “official” realm is governed by human reason, and not by love, the state has its own “autonomy” that “cannot be governed and ought not be governed in accordance with the law of love” (462). While Brunner does not see this autonomy as absolute, it is difficult to see in what way love could possible set limits on the “reasons of state.” The state needs power to preserve order, but power comes (only?) through unjust means. According to Brunner, it is “for love’s sake” that men enter the realm of the state to preserve order, but how can one do something fundamentally unloving for loves sake? This paradox, I believe, comes close to irresolvable contradiction.

There may be a better way to think about the “orders of creation” that is also present in Brunner’s thought. In the Divine Imperative Brunner discusses the internal meaning and telos of the orders of creation. According to Brunner, the “orders of creation” exist ultimately for the sake of love. Through the lens of faith, the believer can come to see the orders as secular parables of the true community of agape. What they reveal to us is God’s intention to have us exist in mutual interdependence with one another, and therefore for one another. This more minimalist picture allows the orders to play a positive role, but not one that is entirely determined and regulated by autonomous reason. There is no autonomy to the orders as a separate sphere. Rather, the orders are seen as sinfully tainted attempts to order human relations in a just and loving manner. Insofar as they do so, they point forward to a fuller and deeper picture of human sociality—both with other humans and with God. Within this schema, however, they can and should be tempered by the Christian love ethic, which could work, in some sense, like leaven works through dough (Matthew 13:33).


[1] Ramsey, Nine Modern Moralists, 182.

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