Brunner's Second Counter-Thesis
The second of Brunner’s counter-theses concerns the ability of humanity to see God the Creator in nature (His Creation). To further maintain the co-existing tension between nature and grace on the basis of the formal/material aspects of the imago Dei, Brunner decides to specify the formal aspect in terms of our spiritual abilities, such as the ability to recognize God in both the content of external nature as well as its activities in history; the moral abilities in conduct and judgment; and finally, the ability for self-knowledge of guilt.
Brunner believes that nature has the “imprint of God,” and that this acts a type of revelation:
"Wherever God does anything, he leaves the imprint of his nature upon what he does. Therefore the creation of the world is at the same time a revelation, a self-communication of God. This statement is not pagan but fundamentally Christian. But nowhere does the Bible give any justification for the view that through the sin of man this perceptibility of God in his works is destroyed, although it is adversely affected. Rather does it say this, that surprisingly enough sin makes man blind for what is visibly set before our eyes. The reason why men are without excuse is that they will not know the God who so clearly manifest himself to them."
Here, Brunner allows that this general revelation in nature is damaged, not destroyed, by sin. The question is to what degree this happens; whether the sinful consequence of blindness amounts to our epistemic destruction of God (Barth), or whether it leaves an epistemic residue of God (Brunner). The biblical exegesis that drives this aspect of the debate derives primarily from St. Paul’s epistle to the Romans, particularly 1:18-20:
"The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.
[Footnote: See Douglas A. Campbell, “Natural Theology in Paul? Reading Romans 1.19-20,” in The International Journal of Systematic Theology, Vol. 1 Issue 3, (November, 1999) pp. 231-53. Campbell offers a new way of reading this passage that undermines the traditional view of the passage that Brunner is working from. He begins his introduction: “Romans 1.19-20 has functioned within that sphere in turn as a locus classicus for the endorsement of general revelation and natural theology. And although made problematical by the criticisms of the traditional philosophical proofs for the existence of God, criticisms especially widely accepted since Kant, atheism has not completely overthrown the confidence of all scholars in these verses' possible philosophical defensibility. Neither, perhaps more importantly, has that scepticism blunted their apparent sense; only, for some, their apparent truth (although it is also arguable whether the verses imply full-fledged philosophical proofs). In addition, the apparent commitments of 1.19-20 are well known to those Protestant dogmaticians who may not endorse their basal dogmatic function because of their role in the famous spat between Brunner and Barth in 1934. Concerning this last debate, my own view was that Barth had the best of the theological argument and Brunner the best of the exegesis, leaving the somewhat unpalatable conclusion that Paul had demonstrated rather poor theological judgment in Romans 1.19-20 and its surrounding discussion. However, the difficulty of squaring that position with the apostle's incontestable theological brilliance elsewhere has always left me open to alternative construals of this text and its implications” (p. 231).]
For Brunner, the moral ability is chief among the qualities that make up the formal aspect, especially in its ability to know guilt. This moral ability is critical for Brunner as a response to God’s precepts given to humanity in the law. It is seen in his discussion of “conscience,” which he defines as “consciousness of responsibility.”
Men have not only responsibility but also a consciousness of it – which could be shown by a more detailed phenomenological analysis to be necessarily interconnected. Only because men somehow know the will of God are they able to sin . . . Responsibility of the sinner and knowledge of the will of God as the source of law (the knowledge also being derived from the law) are one and the same thing.
For Brunner, conscience depends on the address by God’s Word. It is only as humanity is addressed that it receives the capacity of knowing its sin, and so is capable of receiving the later address of God’s grace. Later on he adds:
"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."
Therefore, the necessity for human understanding of the divine grace is our dual knowledge of law as divine command and of our sin as its violation. To deny this dialectical presupposition is to deny human responsibility. The law/Gospel dialectic requires a distinction in degree of knowledge between “partial” and “real” knowledge of God’s law and of sin. Regarding both law and sin, Brunner says:
"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. This dichotomy is itself the essence of the state of sin. Without knowledge of God there can be no sin: sin is always “in the sight of God.” In sin there can be no knowledge of God, for the true knowledge of God is the abolition of sin. This dialectic must not be one-sidedly abolished. On the contrary it must be strongly insisted upon. For only in this dialectic does the responsibility of faith become clear. He who does not believe is himself guilty. He who believes knows that it is pure grace."
Thus, “in the epistemological dialectic grace is both the completion and negation of nature.”
When Brunner returns to the ontological dialectic of nature and grace, he reintroduces his structural understanding of the formal aspect without the qualities of recognition, morality, and conscience previously mentioned in the epistemological dialectic. The human being, in the repentance and faith influenced by the Holy Spirit, receives the original righteousness that was lost, and undergoes a recreation in the material image of God. Brunner notes that “the subject as such, the fact of self-consciousness, is not destroyed by the act of faith . . . and upon this depends the possibility of an imperative of faith . . .”