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.