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Because I did my doctoral dissertation with Karl Barth at the University of Basel in Switzerland, it might seem strange that I had an even closer relationship with his Swiss Reformed contemporary in Zurich, Emil Brunner. (Once friendly, the two had a major falling out in the mid-1930s after Barth famously said “nein” to Brunner’s essay “Nature and Grace.”) I had a very good relationship with Barth, who was an exceptionally kind and helpful doctoral adviser, but my relationship with Brunner was even closer and more longstanding.

When my wife, Etta, and I arrived in Japan as missionaries of the Reformed Church in America in the summer of 1953, I was thrilled to learn that Brunner was to be the first visiting professor of Christianity and ethics at the recently established International Christian University in Tokyo.

Word got out that in addition to his courses for students, Brunner was going to give a series of weekly lectures for the public at the university. Brunner titled the series “Christianity and Existentialism” because he was aware that Japanese students in the postwar period were reading nihilistic existentialists such as Sartre and Camus, which prompted some to commit suicide. I attended these lectures, and I can still recall my excitement about hearing a world-famous theologian whose books I had read as a college and seminary student.


Approximately 100 people attended the lectures: Japanese pastors and students, as well as many missionaries. The lectures were first given in English and then translated sentence by sentence into Japanese. At the conclusion of the lectures, which were presented over the course of three months, it was announced that Brunner would offer a seminar limited to 20 people. Somehow I got into that small seminar group. Then at the end of that time, Brunner invited five of us to meet monthly in his home on the ICU campus. These were delightful and stimulating sessions and marked the beginning of a special friendship.

That friendship was further enhanced the next year. Brunner was repeating the “Christianity and Existentialism” series at Tokyo University during the spring semester. One evening the Brunners were having dinner in downtown Tokyo, and during the meal someone stole Brunner’s briefcase out of his car. He was distraught because the case contained the whole set of his lectures.

Another missionary told Brunner that I took very good notes and that occasionally people borrowed my notes when they missed sessions. So at about 8 p.m. our doorbell rang, and there were Emil Brunner and his wife, Margrit. When I invited them in, they had to duck under a line of diapers drying by our only source of heat – a space heater in the living room. Etta was in bed expecting our second child. (She had almost lost the baby because of complications and had to remain in bed for the last months of her pregnancy.) She called out from the bedroom, wondering who our guests were. I explained the situation to the Brunners, and Margrit Brunner insisted that she see Etta. From that time on Margrit felt a special concern and affection for Etta. Emil Brunner used my lecture notes for the rest of the semester at Tokyo University – and a special bond was established between our families.

When I wrote Brunner that I was going to study with Barth, his immediate response was not joy but disappointment.

Another time, Brunner was the featured speaker at the annual Kyodan missionary conference. For light entertainment, I organized a barbershop quartet. We sang two standard pieces – “Coney Island Baby” and a version of Duke Ellington’s “Mood Indigo.” I was afraid Brunner might be put off by such music, but, to the contrary, he was delighted.

The next year, after our daughter was born, the Brunners came to our humble metal prefab residence for dinner. One of my choice photographs is of the Brunners and Etta in our living-dining room in April 1955 with Emil Brunner holding our 2-year-old son and Margrit Brunner holding our 9-month-old daughter. The next month we moved to Fukuoka, on the island of Kyushu, and shortly thereafter the Brunners returned to Switzerland. That was the end of our personal contacts in Japan with the Brunners, but two years later we had another son, whom we named Judson Brunner Hesselink – a sign of our affection for the Brunner family.


Before we went to Japan our mission executives had decided it would be good for me to complete a doctorate during our first furlough in order to enhance my effectiveness working with students and possibly position me to teach at a university in Japan. I began exploring the possibility of getting a Ph.D. with Brunner. He was amenable, but there was a major problem: He had retired from Zurich University, and a successor had already been appointed. Brunner and I explored the possibility of getting the degree from ICU or Tokyo University, but this proved impossible.

He admonished me not to become so involved in my studies that I would neglect my family.

As our furlough approached, I began to consider other possibilities for my doctoral studies. There was no Reformed theologian in the United States who appealed to me, so I considered studying with G. C. Berkouwer, of the Free University in Amsterdam, although I knew no Dutch. Then, in the strange providence of God, an older Swiss missionary friend persuaded me to study with Barth. This missionary had studied in Basel and wrote Barth on my behalf. When I pointed out that I didn’t know German, he suggested I attend Basel alone for a semester and live in the Theologisches Alumneum, a venerable studentenheim for overseas graduate students operated by the famous New Testament scholar Oscar Cullmann and his sister. My friend wrote to Cullmann to see if there might be an opening in the fall of 1958. Within a month I had a positive response from both Cullmann and Barth, the latter saying that he liked my dissertation proposal (“Calvin’s Concept of the Law”) but that he couldn’t guarantee his health would hold out. (He was 71 at the time.) What was remarkable was that Barth had not even seen my college or university transcripts. These were sent to the Basel University office later. Things were obviously much simpler in those days.

When I wrote Brunner that I was going to study with Barth, his immediate response was not joy but disappointment. He wrote, “You will become a Barthian like all of those American students of his.” I replied, “You needn’t worry; I am too much of a Dutch Calvinist to be swayed by Barth or anyone else.” Then Brunner replied: “You are right. I am sorry I responded the way I did. I look forward to your coming to Basel so that we may reestablish our personal relationship.”

Our first term as missionaries ended in June, 1958. Etta and our children stayed with her parents in Pella, Iowa, and I sailed for Europe in September. Soon after I arrived in Basel, I visited the Brunners. It was a joyous reunion. Brunner had recovered fairly well from a stroke he had experienced coming back from Japan in 1955, so we were able to take walks together. I visited the Brunners at least one more time before my family rejoined me in the spring of 1959.


Word got out in Basel that I knew Brunner, so on several occasions I led friends to Zurich to visit him. On one occasion I took a group of students – mostly American – to visit Brunner, and we had a delightful evening together. Barth heard about it later, but as far as I could tell, it didn’t seem to bother him. He knew, of course, that I had been in Japan the same time the Brunners were there, but he wasn’t aware of my close relationship to Brunner.

We also visited the Brunners as a family several times. Brunner’s interest and concern for my family stays with me. He even admonished me not to become so involved in my studies that I would neglect my family.

It was during one of those latter visits that Margrit Brunner drew me aside and raised the possibility of the Brunners visiting the Barths during a future trip to visit us in Basel. She didn’t want her husband to know about the idea in case Barth was not agreeable to meeting with them. Fortunately, Barth was delighted at the prospect, so on the morning of November 19, 1960, I picked up the Brunners at the train station in Basel and took them to Barth’s home. Barth had urged that I be present during their visit (the wives were also present), which lasted almost two hours. The historic encounter went well. No theological issues were resolved; that was not the purpose of the meeting. But both men went away pleased at the outcome.

That was the last time Barth and Brunner saw each other. Six years later, when Brunner was nearing death, Barth sent a beautiful, moving note affirming Brunner, concluding, “The time I thought I should say no to him is long past, for we all live only by the fact that a great and merciful God speaks his gracious Yes to all of us.”

Our last visit with the Brunners was in May 1961, shortly before we left for Japan. The Brunners’ son Andreas and daughter-in-law Lisgi invited all of us – his parents and our family – to have dinner at their beautiful home overlooking the Lake of Zug. We have a lovely photo of all the children playing in a shallow pool while Judson Brunner Hesselink, at that point 4 years old, is sitting on Emil Brunner’s lap.

That was the last time I was to see Emil Brunner, for he died in the spring of 1966, shortly before our next furlough.

I didn’t agree with all of Brunner’s theology – and he knew that – but that never interfered with our personal relationship. Moreover, his impact on my life and theology was great. He constantly challenged me and enlarged my theological horizons.

Even more important was the affection and gratitude I felt for him, which deepened during the years we were together in Switzerland. And the feeling must have been mutual, as is indicated by the inscription he wrote to me in a new edition of his Dogmatics II in 1960: “To my dear ‘Son’ John Hesselink, in remembrance of grand days both in Japan and Zurich, and looking forward to his great service for Christ.”

I. John Hesselink is a former president and teacher of systematic theology at Western Theological Seminary.

Photo  of Emil Brunner, left, and Karl Barth courtesy of I. John Hesselink