BARTH ON THE IMAGO DEI
The reply given by Barth has the intention of undermining Brunner’s nature/grace dialectic. Barth does this by undermining Brunner’s distinction between the “formal” and “material” aspects of the imago Dei. He does this by pointing out Brunner’s dialectical usage of the distinction. He first concedes to Brunner that sinful man retains the personal structure of existence as subjectivity, responsibility, and decision. This is not a problem for Barth, since asserting a remnant of the “formal” image within the set of purely formal possibilities is like saying “Even as a sinner man is man and not a tortoise.”
Second, he concedes that we can consider the “formal” aspect as “the point of contact” for divine grace. But he stipulates that this concession should be allowed only if it does not make favorable humanity’s capacity for reception of divine revelation over against non-humanity’s capacity for reception. To make such a prejudgment would lead to the exclusion of non-human beings. It is here that Barth believes Brunner exceeds this stipulated use of the “formal” aspect, for he makes it the precondition for grace. For the “formal” aspect to occupy one side of the nature/grace dialectic, it has to be filled out with “material” content. This content is disguised in Brunner’s “formal” image from the beginning, according to Barth. This content is the natural knowledge of God. As Brunner has pointed out, this knowledge is available to sinful humanity in the contingent order of nature, in the historical experience of communities, and in the dictates and indictments of the conscience.
Barth argues that imperfect and incomplete knowledge of God is, nevertheless, real knowledge of God, and so is “not without relevance to salvation.” As Barth puts it:
"And if we really do know the true God from his creation without Christ and without the Holy Spirit – if this is so, how can it be said that the imago is materially “entirely lost,” that in matters of the proclamation of the Church Scripture is the only norm, and that man can do nothing towards his salvation? Shall we not have to ascribe to him the ability to prepare himself for the knowledge of God in Christ at least negatively? Shall we not ascribe to him the ability to prepare himself for the knowledge of God in Christ at least negatively?"
Barth is implying that this negative self-preparation is natural knowledge of humanity in failing to obey the created (and obvious) ordinances installed by God. Barth does not deny a natural knowledge of God’s will that preconditions one to receive divine grace, but instead objects that such knowledge comes through the created ordinances. He also points out that if man’s natural knowledge of God is the precondition of divine grace, what is the point of redemption? It seems that this apparently “formal” aspect actually exercises real limitation on grace by making grace potentially apprehensible to human reason.
In the case of preserving grace, Barth is willing to allow Brunner’s claim that human activity is used by the creator to carry out the work of grace, as long as Brunner is talking about the one grace in Jesus Christ. If this were the case, “human activity” would fall under the scope of the divine grace. But Brunner wants to separate “preserving grace” from the scope of Jesus Christ, according to Barth, and that Brunner’s limitation of grace by nature in this way betrays the most fundamental theological intention of the Reformation, by admitting “an entire sphere (one which is, as it were, preparatory to revelation in the proper sense) in which the Reformers’ principle of sola gratia cannot possibily be taken seriously.”
Barth believes that Brunner’s concept of “formal” has no anthropological significance without this material limitation. In other words, this “form” would not constitute essential human being and unique dignity unless it sheltered a material “capacity for revelation.” Barth puts a few challenging questions to Brunner:
"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 is asking whether Brunner’s formal possibilities of sinful human nature are not actual capacities that express humanity’s original relation to the “matter” of revelation, and thus prove necessary to divine grace. If this is the case, Barth asks about those who apparently lack these specific capacities. Barth is rejecting any formal understanding of the image of God that fails to be universally inclusive, thus excluding some “children of Adam” due to their apparent lack of the defined capacities for revelation. In order to avoid this implication of rejection (which the so called “German Christians” did not). [Footnote:See Robert McAfee Brown, Kairos: Three Prophetic Challenges to the Church, (Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1990). “Almost immediately after Hitler's seizure of power in 1933, Protestant Christians faced pressure to "aryanize" the Church, expel Jewish Christians from the ordained ministry and adopt the Nazi "Führer Principle" as the organizing principle of church government. In general, the churches succumbed to these pressures, and some Christians embraced them willingly. The pro-Nazi "German Christian" movement became a force in the church. They glorified Adolf Hitler as a "German prophet" and preached that racial consciousness was a source of revelation alongside the Bible. But many Christians in Germany—including Lutheran and Reformed, liberal and neo-orthodox—opposed the encroachment of Nazi ideology on the Church's proclamation. At Barmen, this emerging "Confessing Church" adopted a declaration drafted by Reformed theologian Karl Barth and Lutheran theologian Hans Asmussen, which expressly repudiated the claim that other powers apart from Christ could be sources of God's revelation. Not all Christians courageously resisted the regime, but many who did—like the Protestant pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Roman Catholic priest Bernhard Lichtenberg—were arrested and executed in concentration camps.”]
Brunner must “stick to [his] statement that man is (‘materially’) ‘a sinner through and through,’ with the consequence that the ‘formal factor’ cannot be anything like a remainder of some original righteousness, an openness and readiness for God.” O’Donovan summarizes the point nicely:
"Only by surrendering its hidden revelational content can Brunner’s ‘formal factor’ perform its modest but legitimate service of indicating the universal being of sinful mankind. But in thus limiting itself, the concept forfeits its anthropological weight as an expression of man’s unique, inalienable dignity. The functional deflation of the ‘formal factor’ signals the collapse of the nature/grace dialectic in its epistemological and ontological aspects. No longer can the persisting structure of sinful human subjectivity, conceived as responsibility, constitute the necessary condition or ‘point of contact’ for God’s gracious self-revelation to man."
“If,” Barth says, “nevertheless there is an encounter and communion between God and man, then God himself must have created for it conditions which are not in the least supplied (not even ‘somehow,’ not even ‘to some extent’!) by the existence of the formal factor.” Only the material aspect of the imago Dei can occupy the human side of the “point of contact” between God and humanity. Here Barth shows us that this side, which sin has effectively barred us from occupying, is where Jesus Christ now stands in our place. Barth argues against Brunner’s anthropologically immanent understanding of the “point of contact” in the opening volume of Church Dogmatics:
"No matter how it may be with his humanity and personality, man has completely lost the capacity for God. Hence we fail to see how there comes into view here any common basis of discussion for philosophical and theological anthropology, any occasion for the common exhibition of at least the possibility of enquiring about God. The image of God in man which we must speak here and which forms the real point of contact for God’s Word is the rectitude which through Christ is raised up from real death and thus restored or created anew, and which is real as man’s possibility for the Word of God. The reconciliation of man with God in Christ also includes, or already begins with, the restitution of the lost point of contact. Hence this point of contact is not real outside faith; it is real only in faith. In faith man is created by the Word of God for the Word of God, existing in the Word of God and not in himself, not in virtue of his humanity and personality, not even on the basis of creation, for that which by creation was possible for man in relation to God has been lost by the fall. Hence one can only speak theologically and not both theologically and also philosophically of this point of contact, as of all else that is real in faith, i.e., through the grace of reconciliation" (Church Dogmatics, I/1, pp. 238-239).
For Barth, divine grace is not content with having a degree of priority over nature. Instead, it has total priority. Divine grace acts in the humanly impossible, in a redemptive miracle of faith. Barth does not differ with Brunner in this respect, when Brunner says: “Through faith the new person is constituted [in such a way that] the subject, . . . the fact of self-consciousness, is not destroyed.” Barth believes in the continuing identity of the person before and after faith, as Brunner also intends. Yet this continuing identity is not the functional “point of contact” for human apprehension of divine revelation as Brunner believes. Brunner may appeal to Gal. 2:20 (“Nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ lives in me.”) as evidence for the continuity of personal identity in faith. However, Barth objects that this appeal stubbornly ignores St. Paul’s primary emphasis on discontinuity, “or rather [with] the divine miracle of the continuity of his existence without and with Christ.”
"Moreover the text does not go on to say something that would have to say if Brunner could fitting quote it in his support. It does not say that though St. Paul is crucified with Christ, but that nevertheless, together with his “formal personality,” some general knowledge of God derived from his conscience or from the ordinances of creation, recognizable in the world, accompanied or even led him into that new life which he can but try to explain by the inexplicable expression: “Christ liveth in me.” Does he live the life which he lives “in the flesh,” the first life, crucified with Christ, in any way but “the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me”? Is the change in the human situation through the revelation of God, of which I Corinthians ii and Galatians ii speak, really a reparatio, a restoration in the sense in which Brunner employs it: “It is not possible to repair what no longer exists. But it is possible to repair a new thing in such a way that one has to say this has become quite new”? . . . I must confess that I am quite flabbergasted by this sentence. Had one not better at this point break off the discussion as hopeless? Or should one hope for an angel from heaven who would call to Brunner through a silver trumpet of enormous dimensions that 2 Corinthians v, 17, is not a mere phrase, which might just as well be applied to a motor-car that has come to grief and been successfully “repaired”?"
While Barth’s opposition to Brunner’s concept of the imago Dei successfully shows the problems with Brunner’s anthropology, it does not positively resolve the problem of theologically conceptualizing human being. However, we notice that his insistence on faith as the “point of contact” for divine revelation suggests a relational and Christological concept of human being. Furthermore, his concession of giving the formal aspect a legitimate role in representing the continual being in sin and faith leaves room for the possibility of a concept of human being as “subjectivity,” “personality,” and “responsibility.”
[Footnote: O’Donovan, Joan E. “Man in the Image of God: The Disagreement Between Barth and Brunner Reconsidered,” The Scottish Journal of Theology, 39 (1986). O’Donovan is concerned with the Imago Dei for its ethical implications. She is correct, I believe, in seeing the Imago Dei as the foundation on which Brunner’s other counter-theses rest. Barth treats this as the jugular of the argument which he strategically attacks first.]