Strengths in Barth’s position
There are a number of strengths in Barth’s position that I will seek to outline here:
1. Barth’s understanding of the imago Dei is a nourishing corrective to an overemphasis on the structure of human beings, particularly on rationality or reason as the essential aspect of the imago Dei. He does not think of the imago Dei only as a noun but also as a verb. Human beings are to image God by the way they live and the heart of the imago Dei is love, love for God and for others.
2. Barth considers both that humanity is created in the imago Dei, and that humanity is created as ‘a copy and not an original; a reflection and not a prototype’ of Christ. To argue that human creatures in themselves could be the imago Dei would be, for Barth, to establish a ‘point of contact’ which he rejects exists apart from Christ. Not the formal, but only the material imago Dei – the iustitia originalis with which Adam was created can occupy the anthropological place of the ‘point of contact’ in the divine–human communication. And this place, from which sinful humanity is irrevocably alienated, belongs to Jesus Christ alone. Barth had already opened up this issue in 1932 in his epistemological Prolegomena to Church Dogmatics:
Man’s capacity for God, however it may be with his humanity and personality, has really been lost … The image of God in man … which constitutes the real point of contact for the Word of God, is the one awakened through Christ from real death to life and so “restored”, the newly-created rectitudo now real as man’s possibility for the Word of God. This point of contact is, therefore, not real outside faith but only in faith.
3. Barth argues that the image is reflected in man–woman (‘I–Thou’) relationships that are created as a sign of the hope of the coming Son of Man who is the imago Dei.
4. Barth considers the doctrine of the imago Dei not only in light of Christ, but also in the context of the whole doctrine of creation and redemption. This is because it is impossible to understand the predicament in which men and women find themselves apart from the work of God in Christ.
5. Barth criticises Brunner’s concept of a formal image as theologically limiting. Barth asks,
Is the revelation of God some kind of ‘matter’ to which man stands in some original relation because as man he has or even is the ‘form’ which enables him to take responsibility and make decisions in relation to various kinds of ‘matter’? Surely all his rationality, responsibility and ability to make decisions might yet go hand in hand with complete impotency as regards this ‘matter’! And this impotency might be the tribulation and affliction of those who, as far as human reason can see, possess neither reason, responsibility nor ability to make decisions: new-born children and idiots. Are they not children of Adam? Has Christ not died for them?
Here Barth questions any formal understanding of the imago which is not universally inclusive because it is only by surrendering its hidden revelational content that Brunner’s formal factor can perform its modest but legitimate service of indicating the universal being of sinful humanity. This will be discussed in subsequent posts.