Barth–Brunner Revisited 7 (final)

In this final post of this series, I simply want to make some concluding comments. Thanks for the feedback/thoughts I’ve received, particularly from Chris TerryNelson who looks after the Karl Barth Society website.
So here goes the final post in this series:

The long-lasting debate between Brunner and Barth, enmeshed in the broader and more fundamental issues of grace and nature, Gospel and law, and love and wrath, reveals that we are left with either an immanent-structural or a transcendent-relational understanding of what it means to be a human person. The choice, therefore, is between a rational-Unitarian or a Christological-Trinitarian understanding of human personhood. I consider that human personhood, both theologically and existentially, makes no sense apart from the Triune God in whose Image we are made.

With Brunner, I maintain that there is a moral element to the imago Dei, for since the Fall, as before, the imago lives in the demand of the Law. For although no-one has kept the Law (Rom. 3:23), God’s redemptive purposes remain unthwarted and unfrustrated (Jn. 3:16). However, there is no redemption outside Jesus Christ. In Him, every demand of the Law is met, and in Him the imago Dei is again a fulfilled reality. Barth was right to interpret Genesis 1:26 in terms of Christ. The imago Dei is the imago Christi (2 Cor. 4:4; Col. 1:15) and the imago Christi is an imago Dei mediated through the person of Christ. Barth states,

He was man as we are. His condition was no different from ours. He took our flesh, the nature of man as he comes from the fall … His sinlessness was not therefore His condition. It was the act of His being in which He defeated temptation in His condition which is ours, in the flesh … He emptied Himself … placing Himself in the series of men who rebelled against God in their delusion … In so doing, in His own person, He reversed the fall in their place and for their sake.

In Him, God draws near to fallen humanity freely offering the restoration of that relationship of obedience and service that is simultaneously the demand of the Law and the essence of the imago Dei. In Christ we are offered that which we can never achieve – the reversal of the Fall! The question of the imago Dei, therefore, can only be satisfactorily answered when it is brought into the theological arena of the doctrine of justification by faith (Phil. 3:9; cf. Rom. 3:22; 4:11; 9:30; 10:3, 10; 2 Cor. 5:21). Because of this righteousness, which has its origin in the righteous act of Christ, and comes to the believer as a gift (Rom. 5:17-19), those in Christ are justified. They become, always by grace, ‘new creatures’ (2 Cor. 5:17) and this ‘new man’ is one who is ‘after the image of him that created him’ (Col. 3:10). Hence, justification by faith and restoration of the imago are correlative terms. As T. F. Torrance affirms,

It is in Christ that we can really see that the original purpose of the works of God in creation is to reflect and image his glory … It is only in Jesus Christ, who is both the image and the reality of God, that we can think and speak of God in such a realist way that our human forms are not an empty shell but are filled from above with the Truth of God.

This means that the imago Dei is never an inherent possession, capacity or potentiality of the human creature but rather is always the gift of God through the Holy Spirit.

The issue revolves around the question of whether or not fallen humanity, dead in its sins, has a capacity for revelation and redemption; not in the material sense that we have anything other than our sinful and fallen life to bring to God, or indeed our rebellion and repeated attempts to put God to death – not, therefore, the capacity which the acorn has to become an oak, but rather, as Hart puts it, ‘the capacity which a gnarled and twisted piece of timber has to become – only through the creative fashioning skills of the woodworker or artist – something beautiful and pleasing to the eye’.

I consider that Barth, notwithstanding his strong denials, cannot, as long as he adheres to a doctrine of Incarnation or to the belief that God has revealed Himself to humans, avoid positing a point of contact in this second, carefully qualified, sense. The Holy Spirit may well be the ‘subjective possibility’ or ‘condition of revelation’; but He comes, as such, to fallen humanity who, while dead in their trespasses and sins, nonetheless are capable of being acted upon by Him in this redemptive and creative manner. This makes no claim for any inherent ability in the human creature to respond to God (it is the ‘Yes’ of the Man Jesus who vicariously responds for us). However, I consider that whatever Brunner thought of it, the distinction between a formal and a material imago Dei in fallen humanity, providing there is no split in the imago, is one which not only provides a very useful framework for discussion, but is something which Barth himself cannot ultimately avoid, although he never addresses it satisfactorily. And so the imago Dei in the human creature, although distorted, remains a ‘point of contact’ not because of our innate disposition but because of the Incarnation of the Word.

Humanity has certainly taken its inheritance, wished the Father dead, broken horizontal ties with sisters and brothers, and run away from home. But the imago Dei is not dead, however distorted, perverted and existentially, although never ontologically, uprooted from its Source. The imago Dei is a sinner. The imago Dei is a sinner. The imago Dei has robbed God. As Barth says, in the Fall, God is ‘deserted and denied by men; He suffers and is robbed. Sin is robbing God of what He is’. Also, as Brunner helpfully reminds us, ‘It is as a whole that a person commits sin; this is not due to some part of the personality. I am a sinner, not this or that aspect of my nature’. Sin, furthermore, has brought contradiction into the being of the human person: ‘not simply “something contradictory” in man, but … a contradiction of the whole man against the whole man, a division within man himself’.

Although sin is a devastating problem for humanity, and so for the creation (because humanity functions as creation’s priest), it is death that is the greatest dilemma. Yes, sin infects the human race. Yes, sin makes our goggles dirty so that we can’t see clearly, and yes, it makes our ears full of wax so that we can’t hear clearly, and even mishear, but death is humanity’s antithesis because it ‘makes clear the relationship of man to God – the negative, broken relationship under judgement’.

The divine warning to ‘the man’ was not, ‘for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely become a sinner’, but, ‘in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die’ (Gen. 2:17). Even if sin is forgiven, the forgiveness remains null and void apart from resurrection (1 Cor. 15:17). It is nothing short of resurrection from the dead, resurrection in the man Jesus and His own triumph over death, which restores the imago Dei into life, and that ever in Christ. This is the great ex nihilo which refuses to allow the human creature to be nothing more than a sinner. While sin leaves no part of human nature uncorrupted, the ex nihilo protects human nature from becoming inhuman nature. This is because the essential nature of being human remains under the determination of God, not of sin. The dignity of the human creature cannot be relinquished or destroyed, thanks to the presence of God through which human persons continue to witness to Him even in their ‘condition of darkness and estrangement from the Source of [their] life.’ Before the new creation is consummated, opposition remains, but grace wins – that grace which lays the axe at the root of the whole of human existence and slays us so that we might be made alive! Anderson reasons this is because ‘even the disorder of human being through sin does not destroy the covenant basis on which the human exists. Indeed, the covenant becomes even more explicit as the gracious provision by which human life is supported’.

The only validity and hope of the imago Dei’s ontological existence and telos lies in God. So we live, with veiled faces, in faith, hope and love, and in the process we experience what it means to be human. We live, here and now, in the completed work-in-progress of the Cross–Resurrection experiencing ourselves as accepted and whole. Ultimately, the concept of the imago Dei is an eschatological one. It is our God-given destiny, and as such the implications for our understanding of ethics, relationships, and the church, indeed all of life, are enormous.

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