Barth–Brunner Revisited – On the Post-Fall Imago Dei

The Barth-Brunner debate on natural theology continues to be as important as ever. In my next series of posts I propose to explore the questions that Barth and Brunner raise on the context of the post-fall imago dei. For those who may be unfamiliar with the context of the debate, read on. For those already familiar with the context, be sure to check out the next few posts.

In his 1934 debate with Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, although grateful for Barth’s recovering of a fresh vision of the Word of God in the midst of a prevailing liberalism in Protestantism, argued that Barth had gone too far in his rejection of natural theology. Although he basically wanted to show that there was little substantial difference between their points of view, Brunner specifically noted six points where he believed that Barth had overstated his case and which, if seen correctly, would provide a path whereby a genuine natural theology could be developed. Brunner argued that what was at stake here was an end to a Christian approach to ethics and education, and a point of contact with those who are yet to know Christ. Barth’s reply: ‘Nein!’

The six points discussed were: (i) the imago Dei; (ii) general revelation; (iii) preserving grace; (iv) divine ordinances, such as marriage; (v) point of contact; and (vi) grace as the abolisher or perfecter of nature. This series of posts will explore the first point; briefly outlining the positions taken by Brunner and Barth, and then critiquing their particular strengths and limitations in an effort to open up a discussion concerning the imago Dei, and specifically to what extent it has, if at all, been affected by the Fall.

Moltmann poses the dilemma that I hope to explore in my next few posts:

If the likeness to God is ‘lost’ through sin, then humanity as such is lost at the same time; for it is in order to be the image of God that human beings are created. So is a sinner no longer a human being? But then what happens to his responsibility, which is the reason why he is culpable, and is called to account for his sins? On the other hand, if sin merely clouds and obscures a person’s likeness to God, how can a human being ‘be’ a sinner, and acknowledge himself as such? For in this case he remains essentially, and at the core of his being, good. He has simply made mistakes and has merely committed this or that particular sin. So how can he be condemned in the divine judgement?

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