Imago Dei

Barth-Brunner Revisited: On the Post-Fall Imago Dei – A Series

Barth-BrunnerThe Barth-Brunner debate on natural theology continues to be as important as ever. Here is a series that I posted a while back in which I returned to the famous Barth-Brunner debate of 1934 in order to explore what it might mean to speak of the Imago Dei post-fall:

Barth-Brunner Revisited 1

Barth-Brunner Revisited 2

Barth-Brunner Revisited 3

Barth-Brunner Revisited 4

Barth-Brunner Revisited 5

Barth-Brunner Revisited 6

Barth-Brunner Revisited 7

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.

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 5

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.

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.

Barth–Brunner Revisited 3

Strengths in Brunner’s position

There are a number of strengths in Brunner’s position that I will seek to outline here:

1. Brunner seeks to take the Biblical strand of natural revelation seriously whilst trying to maintain Christ as the prius revelation of God. He states that the real question is not whether there are two kinds or levels of revelation, for they are both sourced entirely in the Triune God, but rather how do the two that do exist (in creation and in Jesus Christ) relate.

2. Brunner maintains that humanity has responsibility before God for the state it is in. His structural concept of the person as responsibility assumes qualitative content when he explains the role of the human conscience, even in sinful humanity, ‘the “ought” or categorical imperative which stands over us, no matter how imperfectly we perceive it, or how much we rebel against it’. It is this truth, Brunner argues, that determines humanity as sinful. Conscience is ‘consciousness of responsibility’ in the form of self-accusation, or knowledge of sin. To know one’s sin is to know the law as divinely given. Conscience, then, entails a person’s being addressed by God’s Word. This is how the human person is capable of knowing their sin, and so is capable of understanding the divine message of grace. He states,

It will not do to kill the dialectic of this knowledge of sin by saying that knowledge of sin comes only by the grace of God. This statement is as true as the other, that the grace of God is comprehensible only to him who already knows about sin … A man without conscience cannot be struck by the call “Repent ye and believe the Gospel”.

The law/Gospel dialectic requires the distinction between ‘partial’ and ‘real’ knowledge of God’s will and of human sin. Of both law and sin it must be said, ‘Natural man knows them and yet does not know them. If he did not know them, he would not be human: if he really knew them, he would not be a sinner’. Therefore, in Brunner’s epistemological dialectic, grace is both the completion and the negation of nature. This is a significant strength in his philosophical anthropology.

3. Brunner locates evidence for the post-Fall imago Dei in the fact that the human being addressed by God can answer Him, or not answer Him. He writes,

[Man] is not only created through the Word of the creator, but for the Word of the creator as one who can hear, one who can be – nay, who is addressed. Man has spirit only in that he is addressed by God. It is upon this that the image of God in man rests, that he is so created by the creative Word of God, that he can hear this creative Word, and answer it … Through his relationship to God, through his being addressed by God and his obligation to answer, his responsibility, man is free. This is his creation in God’s image, that he can answer God – or not answer.

It is this ability of the human creature to be responsive that not only distinguishes her or him from all other earthly creatures but, more importantly, mirrors the intra-Trinitarian relationships as they exist as perichoretic mutuality.

4. Brunner, as does Barth, stresses the communal nature of the imago Dei, of persons-in-community expressing their ‘existence-for-love’ by actual ‘existence-in-love’. While Brunner considers it important that God made us with the capacity to know and love Him (i.e. the formal image), the heart of the concept of the imago Dei is concerned with our relationship with God in which we express real longing for, trust in, response to, and a desire to know and love Him (i.e. the material image).

If we were to ask Brunner where the imago Dei is found, he would strongly reject, as does Barth, the medieval scholastic notion that the image is found primarily in human reason. For him the imago Dei is found primarily in relationship to God, responsibility to God, and the possibility of fellowship with God. Reason is not ignored altogether, but is found in the fulfilling of the human creature’s true function: perichoretic koinonia with God, a ‘grateful, responsive love’.

Love, therefore, is central to Brunner’s understanding of the imago’s raison d’être: God loves us and desires us to love Him. God does not wish from us the response of an automaton or of an animal; He desires the response of a free person, since only such a person can truly love Him.

Brunner maintains that originally human creatures possessed this freedom, not a freedom to do anything they pleased, but a restricted freedom that was given in order that they might respond in love to God, so that through this response God might be praised and glorified. In fact, it is at this point that he introduces the formal and material distinction within the imago Dei:

Thus it is part of the divinely created nature of man that it should have both a formal and a material aspect. The fact that man must respond, that he is responsible, is fixed; no amount of human freedom, nor of the sinful misuse of freedom, can alter this fact. Man is, and remains, responsible, whatever his personal attitude to his Creator may be. He may deny his responsibility, and he may misuse his freedom, but he cannot get rid of his responsibility. Responsibility is part of the unchangeable structure of man’s being.

The central message of the New Testament is how this lost imago Dei is being restored in and through Jesus Christ. This restoration of the image is identified with the gift of God in Jesus Christ received by faith. In fact, ‘The whole work of Jesus Christ in reconciliation and redemption may be summed up in this central conception of the renewal and consummation of the Divine Image in man’. And since the imago Christi is the true imago Dei, the restoration of the image means existence in Christ – the Word made flesh:

Jesus Christ is the true Imago Dei, which man regains when through faith he is “in Jesus Christ.” Faith in Jesus is therefore the restauratio imaginis [restoration of the image], because he restores to us that existence in the Word of God which we had lost through sin. When man enters into the love of God revealed in Christ he becomes truly human. True human existence is existence in the love of God.

The idea of restoration in Christ is also one with two aspects. Christ Himself restores to us the fullness of the imago. But in no sense has it been lost for God – so He lives out in history that which was eternally true. He is for ever the image and likeness of God (by definition!) – but in so far as He lives this in history He restores this to us, or for us. The question then becomes, ‘to and for whom?’

Barth–Brunner Revisited 2

In this post (part 2 of 7) I outline Brunner’s main position. Remember that this series of posts is not concerned with every aspect of the famous debate, but rather is specific to exploring the questions concerning the post-fall imago dei.

What does Brunner say?

Regarding the Fall, Brunner accuses Barth of asserting that the imago Dei was completely obliterated through sin. He paraphrases Barth thus:

Since man is a sinner who can be saved only by grace, the image of God in which he was created is obliterated entirely, i.e. without remnant. Man’s rational nature, his capacity for culture and his humanity, none of which can be denied, contain no traces or remnants whatever of that lost image of God.

Brunner responds by drawing a distinction between the formal image, or humanum, and the material image. The formal aspect is that which distinguishes human beings from animals and the inanimate creation. Keeping with the Augustinian, Thomistic and Reformed traditions, Brunner argues that the human creature is a rational, responsible creature, and that this special status, which includes ‘his reason, his conscience, his capacity for receiving and giving rational discourse – his capacity for the Word’ is ‘not only not abolished by sin; rather it is the presupposition of the ability to sin and continues within the state of sin’. Hence, the human creature is the only animal that can be guilty of sin. More importantly, it is this formal aspect that is capable not only of horizontal communication, but also of being addressed by God. Brunner writes, ‘The Word of God does not have to create man’s capacity for words. He has never lost it, it is the presupposition of his ability to hear the Word of God’.

By the formal aspect, Brunner means the human creature’s capacity and responsibility to respond to God’s love, to give an answer to God, even a negative answer, even if the answer is ‘I do not know any Creator, and I will not obey any God’. This formal aspect extends to the vulnerable horizontal relationships that human beings enjoy. The imago Dei in this formal sense, Brunner argues, cannot be lost. One cannot lose the formal image without ceasing to be a human being, ‘even when he sins he cannot lose it’.

He grants that this aspect of the imago Dei is also taught in 1 Corinthians 11:7 and James 3:9. What matters to the New Testament writers, however, is that men and women should give the kind of response the Creator intends, the kind of response that honours and glorifies God, the response of reverent and grateful love – a response that is to be given not just in words but by one’s entire life. This proper response, which consists of love for God and love for the neighbour, is what Brunner refers to as the material aspect of the imago Dei.

The New Testament reveals that human beings have not been giving this right response to God; we have been giving the wrong answer, seeking ourselves instead of seeking God, glorifying ourselves and other gods instead of giving glory to God. Seeking to be as God, they who were already like God sought to abdicate from their creaturely, filial and subject categories. In doing this the primal couple denied their essential being. Men and women now live in contradiction, not only to God’s will, but also to their own ontology.

It is in this sense (the material aspect), Brunner argues, that men and women have ceased to be bearers of the imago Dei – wholly, and not partially. The human person is a sinner. There is nothing in him/her that is not defiled by sin. With Barth, Brunner concurs that the iustitia originalis (original righteousness) ‘has been lost and with it the possibility of doing or even of willing to do that which is good in the sight of God’. Consequently, ‘free will has been lost’. The human creature has become an ‘anti-personal person; for the truly personal is existence in love, the submission of the self to the will of God and therefore an entering into communion with one’s fellow creature because one enjoys communion with God’. While the ‘quod of personality,’ comprising the ‘humanum of every man,’ persists intact, ‘the quid of personality,’ the ‘personal content of the person,’ is ‘negativised through sin’. Hence, the human person is in no way predisposed towards grace, but hostile to it. Brunner writes,

We do not cease to be addressed by the Word of God even where in our decision we turn away from God in our wills … Through sin the voice of God to us is not silenced, but he speaks to us in another fashion than he wills to speak to us in his true revelation. He has inclined himself towards us, but we have turned away from him; his speech to us, because of our unwillingness to hear, is indistinct and distorted and brings disaster upon us. He is revealed to us in such a fashion, that at the same time he is concealed from us. So our personal existence is not thereby annihilated, the imago dei is not destroyed, we have not become inhuman, our humanity has been perverted, and that not merely in part, but altogether. We have not become beasts or even things through sin, we have remained personal beings, but in such a manner that we have lost our true personal being and have received in exchange a false mode of personal existence. That is, we are sinners.

Brunner insists that it is important for us to maintain the distinction between these two aspects of the image – the formal and the material:

It is evident that our thought will become terribly muddled if the two ideas of the Imago Dei – the “formal” and “structural” one of the Old Testament, and the “material” one of the New Testament – are either confused with one another or treated as identical. The result will be: either that we must deny that the sinner possesses the quality of humanity at all; or, that which makes him a human being must be severed from the Imago Dei; or, the loss of the Imago in the material sense must be regarded merely as an obscuring or a partial corruption of the Imago, which lessens the heinousness of sin. All these three false solutions disappear, once the distinction is rightly made.

How, then, are these two aspects of the image related? As we have seen, the material image has been lost due to sin and must be restored through the redemptive process. The formal image, however, has not been lost. Human beings continue to be responsible beings who ought to give the right answer to God and to each other. When human beings “revolt” against God, therefore, they still stand before God ─ but in the wrong way. He states,

Man’s relation with God, which determines his whole being, has not been destroyed by sin, but it has been perverted. Man does not cease to be the being who is responsible to God, but his responsibility has been altered from a state of being-in-love to a state of being-under-the-Iaw, a life under the wrath of God.

Brunner goes on to make a rather puzzling statement: ‘From the side of God, therefore, this distinction between the “formal” and the “material” does not exist; it is not legally valid. But it does exist – wrongly.’ What Brunner means, I presume, is that God did not intend that the image should be split into these two aspects. God intended the image to remain unitary, but sin has split it. If and when the image becomes totally renewed, it will be unitary once again. Another possibility is that, by divine election, God does not accept this split. God sees humanity always as it is in Christ. To live otherwise is then to live apart from God’s intention. This again calls into question the effectiveness of the formal/material distinction

Herein lies Brunner’s foundation for a natural theology, for human beings remain responsible before God, even as they “revolt” against that responsibility, thereby incurring judgement. But, with Barth we ask, ‘What does this really prove?’ That humanity’s undestroyed formal likeness to God provides the objective possibility of natural revelation is not the issue, unless Brunner also intends to affirm that the human creature actually has some revelation of God already in him or her ontologically, which he stops short of saying.

Brunner concedes that Barth is ‘thoroughly justified in his concern not to let the imago dei become a possession of man, but rather to let it be recognized as an act of God’s grace’. But Barth, he argues,

overlooks the possibility, that also the personalitas and humanitas of man, that which makes us men in distinction from the rest of the creation, rests upon God’s actual Word addressed to us, so that man, even in his sin, never stands beyond reach of this Word spoken to him by God, and therefore is never out of relationship with God.

In fact, it is only because the human creature has some kind of knowledge about God that he or she can be a sinner in the first place. ‘That man is a sinner, that he can sin, is itself the proof that the imago dei is not effaced.’

Brunner rightly notes that in the New Testament it is not Adam, but Christ, who is set forth as the true imago Dei (1 Cor. 15:45-49; 2 Cor. 4:4; Col. 1:15; Heb. 1:3):

We must gain a clear idea of the meaning of the Imago Dei by reflecting on what is said to us in Jesus Christ about our origin, and not by speculating upon the deeper meaning of that mysterious expression in the Creation narrative. It is not the Old Testament narrative as such, but its meaning fulfilled in Jesus Christ, which is the ‘Word of God’ in which alone we can understand ourselves.

Finally, in speaking of the human person in renewal, Brunner argues that the category of reparatio is a wholly reasonable one, as opposed to the notion of something old being totally replaced. The basis for this is the continuity of human personhood. In this, Brunner affirms the biblical themes of redemption, healing and restoration, things for which sinners have no ‘natural’ potential or predisposition, whilst, Brunner argues, they retain the capacity.

Barth–Brunner Revisited – On the Post-Fall Imago Dei

The Barth-Brunner debate on natural theology continues to be as important as ever. In my next series of posts I propose to explore the questions that Barth and Brunner raise on the context of the post-fall imago dei. For those who may be unfamiliar with the context of the debate, read on. For those already familiar with the context, be sure to check out the next few posts.

In his 1934 debate with Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, although grateful for Barth’s recovering of a fresh vision of the Word of God in the midst of a prevailing liberalism in Protestantism, argued that Barth had gone too far in his rejection of natural theology. Although he basically wanted to show that there was little substantial difference between their points of view, Brunner specifically noted six points where he believed that Barth had overstated his case and which, if seen correctly, would provide a path whereby a genuine natural theology could be developed. Brunner argued that what was at stake here was an end to a Christian approach to ethics and education, and a point of contact with those who are yet to know Christ. Barth’s reply: ‘Nein!’

The six points discussed were: (i) the imago Dei; (ii) general revelation; (iii) preserving grace; (iv) divine ordinances, such as marriage; (v) point of contact; and (vi) grace as the abolisher or perfecter of nature. This series of posts will explore the first point; briefly outlining the positions taken by Brunner and Barth, and then critiquing their particular strengths and limitations in an effort to open up a discussion concerning the imago Dei, and specifically to what extent it has, if at all, been affected by the Fall.

Moltmann poses the dilemma that I hope to explore in my next few posts:

If the likeness to God is ‘lost’ through sin, then humanity as such is lost at the same time; for it is in order to be the image of God that human beings are created. So is a sinner no longer a human being? But then what happens to his responsibility, which is the reason why he is culpable, and is called to account for his sins? On the other hand, if sin merely clouds and obscures a person’s likeness to God, how can a human being ‘be’ a sinner, and acknowledge himself as such? For in this case he remains essentially, and at the core of his being, good. He has simply made mistakes and has merely committed this or that particular sin. So how can he be condemned in the divine judgement?