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.

Barth–Brunner Revisited 4

In this post, I will seek to faithfully outline Barth’s position in the debate.

What does Barth say?

Because Barth insists that theology has fundamentally to do with God’s revelation rather than human ‘speculation’ or philosophy, his interpretation of the Fall is that our being has been so corrupted that it becomes impossible for us to discover anything about God through our own efforts. If we have any knowledge of God, it comes from God’s self-revelation to us.

Barth strongly repudiates Brunner’s splitting the imago Dei into formal and material categories, arguing that ultimately this makes grace unnecessary. Furthermore, he suspects that Brunner confuses the categories, slipping in a degree of material under the formal. He argues that doing this opens up the possibility, indeed the actuality, of knowledge of God obtained prior to and independently of Christ or the Spirit, thus endangering ‘the ultimate truth that must be guarded and defended in the Evangelical Church’. So the crucial issue is whether God’s work as Creator-Revealer is utterly negated by sin.

Barth admits that a formal imago Dei which is not destroyed by sin remains in humanity ‘even as a sinner man is man and not a tortoise’. But what, he asks, has this to do with any supposed capacity in the human creature for revelation or any natural receptivity for the divine Word, as long as it remains purely formal, and does not trespass into the sphere of the material? Barth says,

If a man had just been saved from drowning by a competent swimmer, would it not be very unsuitable if he proclaimed the fact that he was a man and not a lump of lead as his ‘capacity for being saved’? Unless he could claim to have helped the man who saved him by a few strokes or the like!

The issue here is that of creatio ex nihilo, which, for Barth, is about grace – ‘divine impatience, discontent, dissatisfaction’. To expound on this, he draws on what for him is the chief significance of the doctrine of the virgin conception. Mary’s words to the angel, ‘How will this be, since I do not know a man?’ (Lk. 1:34) constitute the question that all humanity faces in the vicarious and propitiatory work of Christ.

The speaking of creation into being from nothingness, the bringing forth of Israel from Sarah’s barren womb, the Word becoming flesh through the virgin conception, and the resurrection of life from the dead all show decisively God’s capacity to achieve His purposes in that which, by nature, or by its own efforts, has no capacity to realise the same ends. As Hart explains, for Barth it is simply a fact that:

Human beings, sinful and fallen, have no ‘capacity’ in and of themselves, for God, no natural predisposition to hear and receive his Word. Again, the Spirit of God must come and create (ex nihilo in this respect) precisely such a capacity. Faith is a gift of the very God towards whom it is directed. In this respect, the attempt to secure some ‘point of contact’ in humanity for God is parallel to the doctrine of the immaculate conception: it assumes that wherever God and humanity come into close contact there must be some prepared ground, some fertile soil, some openness to and aptitude for God’s purposes: as if Mary’s obedient response were the result of some inherent immunity to the sin which blights the rest of us, rather than a result of the working of God’s Spirit.

Barth wants to affirm not only humanity’s creatureliness, but also that God does not will evil. He does not will sin or the Fall. He emphatically rejects the notion that in creating the man and woman, God also created the possibility of the Fall, the possibility of them sinning, of choosing between good and evil, the possibility of the liberum arbitrium. The ‘probationary’ command to the primal couple in Genesis gives the human creature room in which to be free.

For Barth, everything turns on this: the freedom that is given to humanity is not freedom of choice between obedience and disobedience. Precisely that freedom is denied us. Freedom is not a neutral place between obedience and disobedience, between left and right, between good and evil. The command of Genesis is not a temptation to, or a testing of, the couple. When God gives human beings freedom He gives them freedom exclusively for the purpose of being truly obedient.

And yet, in the same connection Barth states that human beings, in this respect, are not invulnerable, and so sin, although unlawful, irrational and without ontological being, has become reality, horrible reality. The choice that human beings made was irrational, it was the impossible possibility of sin, it is the ‘absurd ability’ of the human creature to surrender to the influence of the ‘chaos-beast’ of Genesis 3. Hence, this impossibility is possible. This is the nature of the freedom. So the question is not whether God wills sin but whether He wills the freedom that can lead to sin. However, as Barth rightly maintains, sin, having no creative force, can never constitute a new person. The sinful human being still belongs to God, not to Satan, nor to themselves, or to anyone else. Therefore, the freedom to sin does not ever negate God’s ultimate will to partnership. So the freedom is genuine, but not complete freedom to reject any relationship with God. It is moral freedom rather than ontological freedom.

Rejecting the common definitions of the imago Dei within the categories of reason, personality, responsibility, or iustitia originalis, Barth, like Brunner, argues for a predominantly relational understanding, preserving the truth that the imago Dei and being wholly dependent on God for everything are intimately related. He says,

That God will create man in His image implies that it is not man but God who is first a living Person as One who knows and wills and speaks. It was as such that He was the Creator, that He revealed Himself and acted in commencing time. Thus the creature in its totality was allied to this living, divine Person, being wholly referred to it for its existence and essence, its survival and sustenance.

Truly, it is in God that we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28). Barth says,

The fact that we are created in the likeness of God means that God has determined us to bear witness to His existence in our existence. But it does not mean that we possess and discover an attribute within ourselves on the basis of which we are on a level with God. When the serpent insinuated this to the first man, Adam missed his true determination and fell into sin. Because, therefore, we do not find in ourselves anything which resembles God, we cannot apprehend Him by ourselves.

Picking up the plurality in Genesis 1:26–27 (cf. 5:12), Barth argues that the imago Dei can best be seen as the relational or social nature of human life as God created us. He treats Genesis 1:27 as a commentary on 1:26, arguing that ‘co-humanity is itself the imago as humanity under the determination of the divine Word’.

Barth refers to the ‘episode of the fall’ as ‘an arresting and disturbing intervention’ between human creatures and their creation, an intervention which is accompanied by God’s wrath and judgment, turning His blessing into a curse. Human creatures who do ‘not accomplish or merit either [God’s] creation or his blessing’ have brought this perversion upon themselves, and are in no position to endure or to reverse it. It becomes clear, therefore, that humanity’s only hope is in God, for they are still blessed ‘in spite of the fact that the blessing has been turned into a curse’. However, the human creature, as female and male, retains the imago Dei. The image is ‘not overthrown by the episode of the fall, but remains even in face of the total contradiction between it and the being of man’. The hope in this for Barth is that human beings will then have reason to look for Another human being who is different from us, ‘but who for this reason will be real man for [us], in the image and likeness of God male and female in his place and on his behalf, namely, Jesus Christ and His community’. The tragedy, of course, is that ‘no one understands, no one seeks for God. All have turned aside, together they have gone wrong; no one does good, not even one’ (Rom. 3:11–12). No-one looks for this other Man!

Like Brunner, Barth rejects that the imago Dei is to be found in intellect or reason. He totally rejects the statement by Polanus, a sixteenth-century Aristotelian, who, after Aquinas, stated that a human being is ‘a being gifted with reason’ (animal ratione praeditum). Previous theologians, Barth maintains, ‘have ignored the definitive explanation given by the [Bible] text itself’ in their pursuit of understanding the imago Dei. Referring to Genesis 1:27 and 5:1, Barth says,

Could anything be more obvious than to conclude from this clear indication that the image and likeness of the being created by God signifies existence in confrontation, i.e., in this confrontation, in the juxtaposition and conjunction of man and man which is that of male and female.

This confrontational relationship is, for Barth, the imago Dei precisely because this same confrontational relationship exists between God and human beings. God is a being who confronts us and enters into an ‘I–Thou’ relationship with us. The fact that the human creature was created with the capacity for a similar relationship horizontally means therefore that he/she has been created in the image and likeness of God.

Therefore, for Barth, between God and the human creature there is no analogy of being (analogia entis) but only an analogy of relation (analogia relationis). God created human beings for covenantal fellowship with Himself and for fellowship with others. However, this existence can only be known and experienced in Jesus Christ, the real Man, the Man for God, and God’s covenant partner.

It is only because Jesus Himself is the imago Dei, and not merely a creaturely expression of it, that we can comprehend that all humanity in history, and that sinful humanity, exists under this determination of God. As a sinner, the human being is ‘under the determination of the imago in an even more penetrating and excruciating way’. The full propitiating judgment of the Father that Jesus experienced in His own humanity during His Palestinian ministry and at the Cross reveals this clearly. Gethsemane and Golgotha expose the depth to which humanity has fallen. There we see that only God’s passion, at infinite cost to Himself, can overturn the desperate plight of depraved humanity and restore humanity to a relationship with Himself which is the only way human beings are able to be fully human. Yet Golgotha also reveals the dignity and worth of the human creature, ‘the immeasurable worth, the infinite value, that God puts upon man in the price he has chosen to pay in order to share with him His own divine Life and Love’.

What then of the image in the Fall? Like Brunner, in his later writings Barth denies that the image has been wholly lost in the Fall. And like Brunner, Barth does not recognise a historical Fall from a condition of rectitude to a state of corruption. They both argue that the doctrine of the loss of the imago Dei is ‘understandable and necessary’ against the backdrop of the Reformation’s insistence that human beings are rectitude animae (upright humanity) or status integritatis (in a state of integrity). But Barth says that there is no concept of this in Genesis 1, and hence there could be no loss of the imago Dei after the Fall.

In fact, in his later writings Barth insisted that the imago could not have been lost at the Fall because the human creature had never possessed it in the first place:

The biblical saga knows nothing of an original ideal man either in Gen. 1, Gen. 2 or elsewhere. Hence it is not surprising that neither in the rest of the Old Testament nor the New is there any trace of the abrogation of this ideal state, or of a partial or complete destruction of the imago Dei. What man does not possess he can neither bequeath nor forfeit. And on the other hand the divine intention at the creation of man, and the consequent promise and pledge given with it, cannot be lost or subjected to partial or complete destruction.

Barth goes so far as to say,

The history of God’s fellowship and intercourse with man is not abrogated with the fall as the actualization of man’s rejection of this relationship. On the contrary, it really begins with the fall. For although it involves for man a complete reversal of the divine intention and therefore shame and judgement, it is at this point that God acknowledges His intention, addressing man as a Thou and making him responsible as an I, and that men themselves must stand and fall together as I and Thou, as man and woman.

It is hard to know what Barth means here by ‘the Fall’, but it is clear that he would not allow for any fellowship between God and humanity in a state of integrity. Perhaps Barth understands the imago Dei not as an entity, quality or characteristic to be lost, but as a relationship-as-destiny. If so, then the Fall is the interruption of this destiny/relationship and there is no sense in which we can ever speak of an original “perfect state”, as if all was complete.

When it comes to the issue of the renewal of the imago Dei, Barth does not give us a clear answer. Sometimes he seems to say that the imago Dei is susceptible to renewal. For example, in commenting on Colossians 3:10, he says,

This passage is important because it shows that for Paul “our” participation in the divine likeness of Christ does not rest on our decision and action but on a transformation which has happened to us, on God’s decision concerning us and therefore on Jesus Christ Himself who is the quickening Spirit.

Later on in his Church Dogmatics, he says,

The sanctification of man, his conversion to God, is, like his justification, a transformation, a new determination, which has taken place de jure for the world and therefore for all men. De facto, however, it is not known by all men, just as justification has not de facto been grasped and acknowledged and known and confessed by all men, but only by those who are awakened to faith.

Here Barth is saying that certain people grasp and acknowledge their sanctification by faith, and hence are subjectively changed and transformed. So, on the basis of statements of this sort, it would seem that there is a possibility that the imago Dei can be progressively transformed and thus become more ‘after the image of its Creator’ (Col. 3:10). Yet, in terms of Barth’s definition of the imago Dei, we must conclude that it is not really capable of renewal because it is defined in purely formal terms: the ability to exist in confrontation with God and others, the capacity of hearing God and fellow human creatures as a ‘Thou’ and responding as an ‘I’. But if this capacity is an ineradicable aspect of the imago Dei, it is difficult to see how it can be subject to improvement, renewal, or transformation.