Barth–Brunner Revisited 2

In this post (part 2 of 7) I outline Brunner’s main position. Remember that this series of posts is not concerned with every aspect of the famous debate, but rather is specific to exploring the questions concerning the post-fall imago dei.

What does Brunner say?

Regarding the Fall, Brunner accuses Barth of asserting that the imago Dei was completely obliterated through sin. He paraphrases Barth thus:

Since man is a sinner who can be saved only by grace, the image of God in which he was created is obliterated entirely, i.e. without remnant. Man’s rational nature, his capacity for culture and his humanity, none of which can be denied, contain no traces or remnants whatever of that lost image of God.

Brunner responds by drawing a distinction between the formal image, or humanum, and the material image. The formal aspect is that which distinguishes human beings from animals and the inanimate creation. Keeping with the Augustinian, Thomistic and Reformed traditions, Brunner argues that the human creature is a rational, responsible creature, and that this special status, which includes ‘his reason, his conscience, his capacity for receiving and giving rational discourse – his capacity for the Word’ is ‘not only not abolished by sin; rather it is the presupposition of the ability to sin and continues within the state of sin’. Hence, the human creature is the only animal that can be guilty of sin. More importantly, it is this formal aspect that is capable not only of horizontal communication, but also of being addressed by God. Brunner writes, ‘The Word of God does not have to create man’s capacity for words. He has never lost it, it is the presupposition of his ability to hear the Word of God’.

By the formal aspect, Brunner means the human creature’s capacity and responsibility to respond to God’s love, to give an answer to God, even a negative answer, even if the answer is ‘I do not know any Creator, and I will not obey any God’. This formal aspect extends to the vulnerable horizontal relationships that human beings enjoy. The imago Dei in this formal sense, Brunner argues, cannot be lost. One cannot lose the formal image without ceasing to be a human being, ‘even when he sins he cannot lose it’.

He grants that this aspect of the imago Dei is also taught in 1 Corinthians 11:7 and James 3:9. What matters to the New Testament writers, however, is that men and women should give the kind of response the Creator intends, the kind of response that honours and glorifies God, the response of reverent and grateful love – a response that is to be given not just in words but by one’s entire life. This proper response, which consists of love for God and love for the neighbour, is what Brunner refers to as the material aspect of the imago Dei.

The New Testament reveals that human beings have not been giving this right response to God; we have been giving the wrong answer, seeking ourselves instead of seeking God, glorifying ourselves and other gods instead of giving glory to God. Seeking to be as God, they who were already like God sought to abdicate from their creaturely, filial and subject categories. In doing this the primal couple denied their essential being. Men and women now live in contradiction, not only to God’s will, but also to their own ontology.

It is in this sense (the material aspect), Brunner argues, that men and women have ceased to be bearers of the imago Dei – wholly, and not partially. The human person is a sinner. There is nothing in him/her that is not defiled by sin. With Barth, Brunner concurs that the iustitia originalis (original righteousness) ‘has been lost and with it the possibility of doing or even of willing to do that which is good in the sight of God’. Consequently, ‘free will has been lost’. The human creature has become an ‘anti-personal person; for the truly personal is existence in love, the submission of the self to the will of God and therefore an entering into communion with one’s fellow creature because one enjoys communion with God’. While the ‘quod of personality,’ comprising the ‘humanum of every man,’ persists intact, ‘the quid of personality,’ the ‘personal content of the person,’ is ‘negativised through sin’. Hence, the human person is in no way predisposed towards grace, but hostile to it. Brunner writes,

We do not cease to be addressed by the Word of God even where in our decision we turn away from God in our wills … Through sin the voice of God to us is not silenced, but he speaks to us in another fashion than he wills to speak to us in his true revelation. He has inclined himself towards us, but we have turned away from him; his speech to us, because of our unwillingness to hear, is indistinct and distorted and brings disaster upon us. He is revealed to us in such a fashion, that at the same time he is concealed from us. So our personal existence is not thereby annihilated, the imago dei is not destroyed, we have not become inhuman, our humanity has been perverted, and that not merely in part, but altogether. We have not become beasts or even things through sin, we have remained personal beings, but in such a manner that we have lost our true personal being and have received in exchange a false mode of personal existence. That is, we are sinners.

Brunner insists that it is important for us to maintain the distinction between these two aspects of the image – the formal and the material:

It is evident that our thought will become terribly muddled if the two ideas of the Imago Dei – the “formal” and “structural” one of the Old Testament, and the “material” one of the New Testament – are either confused with one another or treated as identical. The result will be: either that we must deny that the sinner possesses the quality of humanity at all; or, that which makes him a human being must be severed from the Imago Dei; or, the loss of the Imago in the material sense must be regarded merely as an obscuring or a partial corruption of the Imago, which lessens the heinousness of sin. All these three false solutions disappear, once the distinction is rightly made.

How, then, are these two aspects of the image related? As we have seen, the material image has been lost due to sin and must be restored through the redemptive process. The formal image, however, has not been lost. Human beings continue to be responsible beings who ought to give the right answer to God and to each other. When human beings “revolt” against God, therefore, they still stand before God ─ but in the wrong way. He states,

Man’s relation with God, which determines his whole being, has not been destroyed by sin, but it has been perverted. Man does not cease to be the being who is responsible to God, but his responsibility has been altered from a state of being-in-love to a state of being-under-the-Iaw, a life under the wrath of God.

Brunner goes on to make a rather puzzling statement: ‘From the side of God, therefore, this distinction between the “formal” and the “material” does not exist; it is not legally valid. But it does exist – wrongly.’ What Brunner means, I presume, is that God did not intend that the image should be split into these two aspects. God intended the image to remain unitary, but sin has split it. If and when the image becomes totally renewed, it will be unitary once again. Another possibility is that, by divine election, God does not accept this split. God sees humanity always as it is in Christ. To live otherwise is then to live apart from God’s intention. This again calls into question the effectiveness of the formal/material distinction

Herein lies Brunner’s foundation for a natural theology, for human beings remain responsible before God, even as they “revolt” against that responsibility, thereby incurring judgement. But, with Barth we ask, ‘What does this really prove?’ That humanity’s undestroyed formal likeness to God provides the objective possibility of natural revelation is not the issue, unless Brunner also intends to affirm that the human creature actually has some revelation of God already in him or her ontologically, which he stops short of saying.

Brunner concedes that Barth is ‘thoroughly justified in his concern not to let the imago dei become a possession of man, but rather to let it be recognized as an act of God’s grace’. But Barth, he argues,

overlooks the possibility, that also the personalitas and humanitas of man, that which makes us men in distinction from the rest of the creation, rests upon God’s actual Word addressed to us, so that man, even in his sin, never stands beyond reach of this Word spoken to him by God, and therefore is never out of relationship with God.

In fact, it is only because the human creature has some kind of knowledge about God that he or she can be a sinner in the first place. ‘That man is a sinner, that he can sin, is itself the proof that the imago dei is not effaced.’

Brunner rightly notes that in the New Testament it is not Adam, but Christ, who is set forth as the true imago Dei (1 Cor. 15:45-49; 2 Cor. 4:4; Col. 1:15; Heb. 1:3):

We must gain a clear idea of the meaning of the Imago Dei by reflecting on what is said to us in Jesus Christ about our origin, and not by speculating upon the deeper meaning of that mysterious expression in the Creation narrative. It is not the Old Testament narrative as such, but its meaning fulfilled in Jesus Christ, which is the ‘Word of God’ in which alone we can understand ourselves.

Finally, in speaking of the human person in renewal, Brunner argues that the category of reparatio is a wholly reasonable one, as opposed to the notion of something old being totally replaced. The basis for this is the continuity of human personhood. In this, Brunner affirms the biblical themes of redemption, healing and restoration, things for which sinners have no ‘natural’ potential or predisposition, whilst, Brunner argues, they retain the capacity.

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