Strengths in Brunner’s position
There are a number of strengths in Brunner’s position that I will seek to outline here:
1. Brunner seeks to take the Biblical strand of natural revelation seriously whilst trying to maintain Christ as the prius revelation of God. He states that the real question is not whether there are two kinds or levels of revelation, for they are both sourced entirely in the Triune God, but rather how do the two that do exist (in creation and in Jesus Christ) relate.
2. Brunner maintains that humanity has responsibility before God for the state it is in. His structural concept of the person as responsibility assumes qualitative content when he explains the role of the human conscience, even in sinful humanity, ‘the “ought” or categorical imperative which stands over us, no matter how imperfectly we perceive it, or how much we rebel against it’. It is this truth, Brunner argues, that determines humanity as sinful. Conscience is ‘consciousness of responsibility’ in the form of self-accusation, or knowledge of sin. To know one’s sin is to know the law as divinely given. Conscience, then, entails a person’s being addressed by God’s Word. This is how the human person is capable of knowing their sin, and so is capable of understanding the divine message of grace. He states,
It will not do to kill the dialectic of this knowledge of sin by saying that knowledge of sin comes only by the grace of God. This statement is as true as the other, that the grace of God is comprehensible only to him who already knows about sin … A man without conscience cannot be struck by the call “Repent ye and believe the Gospel”.
The law/Gospel dialectic requires the distinction between ‘partial’ and ‘real’ knowledge of God’s will and of human sin. Of both law and sin it must be said, ‘Natural man knows them and yet does not know them. If he did not know them, he would not be human: if he really knew them, he would not be a sinner’. Therefore, in Brunner’s epistemological dialectic, grace is both the completion and the negation of nature. This is a significant strength in his philosophical anthropology.
3. Brunner locates evidence for the post-Fall imago Dei in the fact that the human being addressed by God can answer Him, or not answer Him. He writes,
[Man] is not only created through the Word of the creator, but for the Word of the creator as one who can hear, one who can be – nay, who is addressed. Man has spirit only in that he is addressed by God. It is upon this that the image of God in man rests, that he is so created by the creative Word of God, that he can hear this creative Word, and answer it … Through his relationship to God, through his being addressed by God and his obligation to answer, his responsibility, man is free. This is his creation in God’s image, that he can answer God – or not answer.
It is this ability of the human creature to be responsive that not only distinguishes her or him from all other earthly creatures but, more importantly, mirrors the intra-Trinitarian relationships as they exist as perichoretic mutuality.
4. Brunner, as does Barth, stresses the communal nature of the imago Dei, of persons-in-community expressing their ‘existence-for-love’ by actual ‘existence-in-love’. While Brunner considers it important that God made us with the capacity to know and love Him (i.e. the formal image), the heart of the concept of the imago Dei is concerned with our relationship with God in which we express real longing for, trust in, response to, and a desire to know and love Him (i.e. the material image).
If we were to ask Brunner where the imago Dei is found, he would strongly reject, as does Barth, the medieval scholastic notion that the image is found primarily in human reason. For him the imago Dei is found primarily in relationship to God, responsibility to God, and the possibility of fellowship with God. Reason is not ignored altogether, but is found in the fulfilling of the human creature’s true function: perichoretic koinonia with God, a ‘grateful, responsive love’.
Love, therefore, is central to Brunner’s understanding of the imago’s raison d’être: God loves us and desires us to love Him. God does not wish from us the response of an automaton or of an animal; He desires the response of a free person, since only such a person can truly love Him.
Brunner maintains that originally human creatures possessed this freedom, not a freedom to do anything they pleased, but a restricted freedom that was given in order that they might respond in love to God, so that through this response God might be praised and glorified. In fact, it is at this point that he introduces the formal and material distinction within the imago Dei:
Thus it is part of the divinely created nature of man that it should have both a formal and a material aspect. The fact that man must respond, that he is responsible, is fixed; no amount of human freedom, nor of the sinful misuse of freedom, can alter this fact. Man is, and remains, responsible, whatever his personal attitude to his Creator may be. He may deny his responsibility, and he may misuse his freedom, but he cannot get rid of his responsibility. Responsibility is part of the unchangeable structure of man’s being.
The central message of the New Testament is how this lost imago Dei is being restored in and through Jesus Christ. This restoration of the image is identified with the gift of God in Jesus Christ received by faith. In fact, ‘The whole work of Jesus Christ in reconciliation and redemption may be summed up in this central conception of the renewal and consummation of the Divine Image in man’. And since the imago Christi is the true imago Dei, the restoration of the image means existence in Christ – the Word made flesh:
Jesus Christ is the true Imago Dei, which man regains when through faith he is “in Jesus Christ.” Faith in Jesus is therefore the restauratio imaginis [restoration of the image], because he restores to us that existence in the Word of God which we had lost through sin. When man enters into the love of God revealed in Christ he becomes truly human. True human existence is existence in the love of God.
The idea of restoration in Christ is also one with two aspects. Christ Himself restores to us the fullness of the imago. But in no sense has it been lost for God – so He lives out in history that which was eternally true. He is for ever the image and likeness of God (by definition!) – but in so far as He lives this in history He restores this to us, or for us. The question then becomes, ‘to and for whom?’