Barth–Brunner Revisited 6

In this 6th (and second last post) in this series, I will seek to outline what I consider to be the main…

Limitations in Brunner’s and Barth’s positions

Although I appreciate the rich contributions that Brunner and Barth make in our search into the nature of the imago Dei, I hesitate to embrace some of their assertions:

1. Brunner concedes that it is a ‘very difficult theological task’ to formulate the ‘distinction between the nature of man in accordance with Creation and as sinner, and the idea which this involves of the Fall of Man, without using the thought-form of an historical “Adam in Paradise” and of the Primitive State’. He and Barth deny the historical Fall, which does two things. First, it means that they don’t have to deal with the question of iustitia originalis. Brunner argues that this is an eschatological, rather than historical, concept. And second, it repudiates Pauline teaching about the first Adam, and so raises serious doubts about the historicity of the second Adam, while leaving the issues of creation and fall ‘without historical moorings’. In Romans 5:12–21 Paul contrasts the condemnation we receive through the Fall of the first Adam with the righteousness we receive through the obedience of the second Adam. If, however, the first Adam was merely figurative or symbolic, how can we be certain that the second Adam, to whom Paul refers in the same passage, is not also figurative or symbolic? If the first head never existed, what becomes of Paul’s argument? With Käsemann, I would want to affirm that,

Adam is for [Paul] a historic personage and not just the mythological personification of every human being. Typology fundamentally presupposes history. The world and history of the first Adam stand over against those of the last, and are overcome by the latter.

Barth is so committed to his position that one wonders if the Fall really makes any difference at all in the human creature’s ability to receive revelation from God. Because of his perspective on redemption as the sustaining and keeping work of God, the distinction between pre-Fall and post-Fall plays no role in his theology. There are strengths and weaknesses here. To deny Barth what he wants to affirm here would be to return to a concept of the creation independent of and preceding the ‘needy’ creature who must be kept against the threat of chaos. It would mean that the Fall comes to stand as an independent and unconnected incident in history. And further, it would highlight God’s reaction to sin over His faithfulness in spite of sin. However, I believe that Brunner and Barth can do no justice to the distinction between creation and sin at all, unless they first accept the idea of creation and the Fall in the historical sense of the terms. But they do not do so. This does not mean, however, that they do not take seriously the theological truth of the Fall, and so humanity’s present sinfulness. Quite the opposite! Furthermore, they both want to maintain that human beings today are not in the same state or condition they once were, but neither of them is very clear about how and when that changed.

So, far from being the first great tragedy in the Bible’s meta-narrative, the Fall becomes necessary, and evil is simply a transition in the dialectical process. The prodigal’s journey to the far country is ‘a necessary dialectical detour on the way home … We arrive at the synthesis by way of the antithesis’.

2. Brunner insists that the imago Dei in the formal sense has been retained despite human sinfulness: we still remain beings answerable to God, even when we give God the wrong answer. My concern here is that for Brunner the formal image has content: freedom, reason, conscience, and language. Is it then correct to say that this formal image has been completely retained? Has it been retained in its full integrity? Has not sin also affected this formal image, in the sense that human reason, conscience, and freedom have also been corrupted and perverted by sin?

Further, while Brunner, after Irenaeus, John of Damascus and Aquinas, tries to contend with the aspect of being both human and sinner simultaneously through his distinction of the formal and material image, and in as much as he goes further than the scholastic tradition by introducing categories of reason and responsibility in actual horizontal relationships, in effect he splits the imago Dei into two in an effort to counter the conclusion that the human creature is entirely the imago Dei or entirely a sinner simultaneously.

Barth on the other hand, though critical of Brunner’s split, seems to fall into the same trap. He wants to maintain that the imago Dei has been lost in the human creature to the extent that he/she is unable to hear and respond positively to divine revelation, while affirming that some semblance of the image remains in the male–female duality, and yet he wants to say that human beings are a copy of the prototype – Christ. Yet when he comes to describe the nature of the imago Christi, he splits Christ’s essence into a formal ‘inner sphere’ and a material ‘outer sphere’.

Barth’s anthropology, like many other aspects of his theology, is difficult to identify. On Barth’s basis, human beings have not lost the imago Dei because they have never possessed it. Barth begins with the Man Jesus. Only in communion with Jesus can people be made in the image of God. This is attractive because it seems to support the New Testament’s testimony. However, Barth goes further than the biblical testimony goes. Certainly, those in Christ are being renewed after the image of their Creator (Col. 3:10). However, we must also maintain that the primal couple were made in the imago Dei. God did not create them as neutral beings with only the capacity to be His image. This is the basis of the biblical idea of grace in Christ.

3. Barth correctly rejects natural theology. His negative criticism of the idea that human beings exist independently of their relation to God proceeds from a positive foundation: his Christology. According to Barth, we participate in Jesus’ humanity. He does not participate in ours. That is the important starting point. But if we read such passages as Philippians 2 and Hebrews 2, we see that the reverse is also maintained. Scripture speaks from the point of the actual fallen estate of humanity. It then speaks of the astounding fact that the Word became flesh among sinners. Barth, on the contrary, formulates his doctrine in the opposite direction. This is a limitation in his position. He says that we receive our nature wholly from Jesus because he wants to maintain that humanity’s nature is what it is primarily because of the grace-relation that it sustains with God through Christ. The essence of a human being is to be exclusively seen in the light of the a priori triumph of grace. And since the imago Dei is expressed in this relationship of grace in Christ, it cannot be destroyed.

4. Although both Brunner and Barth correctly identify the imago Dei with both vertical and horizontal koinonia and perichoresis, the structuring of their prospective arguments in terms of Buber’s ‘I-Thou’ is problematic. This is especially so for Brunner who does not begin with God’s intra-Trinitarian relations from eternity but with the creativity of the divine Word ad extra. The possibility of Unitarianism here means, for Brunner, that the intra-Trinitarian covenant relationships in which the imago Dei is created to participate, are in a sense foreign, even to God.

5. Brunner’s abandonment of theological realism leads not only to a conceptual vagueness about human nature, but also forces him to make some shocking statements. For example,

Without a certain measure of intellectual gifts it is impossible to be human. Without that mind which at its zenith is called genius, man cannot even understand the fact that he is man, and he cannot make decisions in the sense of personality. The mind, as we have already said, is the basis of being person. One does not need to have a great mind to be a person who truly believes and loves; but if one has no mind – as an idiot – one cannot even believe. The presupposition for the understanding of the Word of God is understanding in general, the understanding of words, in the general, purely human sense. What that poor creature which, in the extreme case, so far as we know, has not a spark of intelligence means in the Family of God, we do not know; we only know that it is inaccessible to the message of the Word of God, thus that in this life it cannot become a believer, because it cannot understand human speech. It is, however, more than probable that even the most vacant idiot can be approached in some way or another by real love, and thus is not without a glimmer of personal being. In spite of this, such cases are extreme instances, whose significance we cannot understand.

Here Brunner unequivocally disqualifies as persons those who lack the spiritual structure of self-conscious subjectivity – ‘personality’. Such ‘idiots’ are not called in this life to the fulfilment of personal being, to faith in God’s Word; for they are entirely without the responsible being presupposed by faith, without ‘calling’. On this view, faith gives particular content to the neutral structure of subjectivity. But then Brunner equivocates: ‘that poor creature which … so far as we know, has not a spark of intelligence’ belongs, supposedly, to ‘the Family of God’. Is not the ‘Family of God’ a community of persons? Do the boundaries of this community extend, for Brunner, beyond persons to nonpersonal creatures that are the objects of personal care and affection, for example, household pets, and does the ‘idiot’ belong to the ‘Family of God’ in this sense? Brunner professes not to know the meaning of the ‘idiot’ in the ‘Family of God’, and his agnosticism most likely indicates a reluctance to place the ‘idiot’ beyond ‘person’. This finds expression in the conclusion of this passage: ‘it is … more than probable that even the most vacant idiot … is not without a glimmer of personal being’. Does this ‘glimmer of personal being’ qualify the ‘idiot’ as person?

Brunner also excludes the very young from this structure of humanness: ‘The specifically human element in man is not there from the very outset – in the infant or even in the embryo, in the fertilized ovum – but it develops in connection with and in a certain parallel to bodily and psycho-physical development’.

This view of Brunner’s produces obvious theological and ethical problems not only concerning infants and people with intellectual disabilities, but also those in a coma and those suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. If the actual capacities of which Brunner speaks are the indispensable evidence of true humanness, and if humanness is the necessary condition of grace, then Barth’s criticism of Brunner’s works-righteousness is undoubtedly justified.

6. Any view of the imago Dei as purely relational, and therefore purely formal (i.e. the capacity for confrontation and encounter), is an inadequate reproduction of the biblical data. Surely the imago Dei is more than a mere capacity. Are not Satan and the demons also beings in encounter with each other and with God? And who can tell if a horse is much different? It seems to me that what is significant is not just the capacity for encounter but the way in which, and in Whom, we encounter God and others. While I agree that the possibility of an ‘I-Thou’ relationship with God and others forms part of our likeness to God, that likeness must surely show itself in concrete actions and attitudes, and not just in a formal similarity of capacity.

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