SIMILARITIES AND DISIMILARITIES: BARTH AND BRUNNER ON THE IMAGO DEI
SIMILARITIES AND DISIMILARITIES:
BARTH AND BRUNNER ON THE IMAGO DEI
According to O’Donovan, Barth and Brunner agree that human beings are unique creatures due to the unique relationship that God has chosen to have in covenant with them. The imago Dei must describe the relational aspect of man in order to describe its uniqueness. They both realize that in order for the doctrine of the imago Dei to say anything about the relationship between God and humanity, it must identify with the Word of God. This identification exists between being created in the image of God and receiving one’s true being in that Word. It further instructs us into a sustained true being through grace. The imago Dei is thus the “life- and form- bestowing transcendent divine relationship in which man as man participates.”
Where Brunner and Barth differ is in their articulation of this relational aspect of humanity. Brunner believes that this relational being of humanity can be found in the human constitution as originally created by God. Barth opposes this and instead advocates a Christ-centered understanding of human being.
For Brunner, the formal aspect of the imago is a transcendental structure of human subjectivity. He understands a person to be an individual example of freedom, responsibility, and decision. As the personal identity has continuity in both the sinful nature and in the act of faith, so does this transcendental structure of human being. But this formal definition of a person becomes difficult for Brunner to sustain when he materially describes the formal aspect in terms of our various capacities to know God as He is in Himself, as well as His Word for us. As O’Donovan points out:
"His concept of person depends on this move to actuality for its ethical force, its power of communicating the uniqueness and superiority of human being. In this move as well resides the tension of law and Gospel, for these actual capacities of sinful man constitute, at one and the same time, his openness to God’s saving grace and the negative totality of his rebellious will."
Barth rejects Brunner’s idea that the concept of a formal image as transcendental subjectivity never arrives at the individual’s actual being, but instead only stops at his/her possible being. Barth can accept Brunner’s “understanding of person as individual being in its singular destiny established by God’s Word of election as long as God’s elective Word is His revealed Word in Jesus Christ and as long as the singular destiny established is actualized from its inception within the covenant of God’s gracious dealings.”
The continuity of personal identity, which transcends both sin and faith, is a neutral concept for Brunner that is entailed within in his transcendental structure. As such, humanity cannot have this structure, for there is nothing neutral in actual sinful humanity – there could never be! Instead, sinful humanity falls within the scope of faith whereby individuality is conformed to the redeeming Word of Christ. This conformity “is the being with which he was created and within which his unique destiny unfolds.” Thus the only exclusion that occurs is in the corruption and destruction of human being. Sin thus threatens humanity with “non-being,” “irrationality,” and “perdition.” The covenant of grace in the Incarnate Word of Jesus Christ safeguards the “actuality of each man” as promised, here and now. St. Paul testifies that Jesus Christ is the true “image of God, full and perfect, in whom there is no division of form and content.” The only uniqueness attributed to humanity is found in their participation within the humanity of Christ alone.
Barth further implies that his own Christ-centered understanding of human being is consistent with the Word of God’s election of humanity. Brunner’s transcendental structure abandons the theological and Christological realism that he wants to maintain. “Whereas [Barth’s] Christological formulation of person keeps the focus on God’s transcendent act, Brunner’s transcendental formulation shifts the focus to an immanent and abstract structure, losing sight of the covenantal foundation of human being.”
Finally, O’Donovan highlights the ethical consequence of this shift of focus:
"namely, a loss of universality in the application of the concept of person. Barth’s reply of 1934 draws out this consequence with passionate lucidity by pointing to those ‘children of Adam’ who, ‘as far as human reason can see, possess neither reason, responsibility nor ability to make decisions’, and so fall outside the category of self-determining subjectivity. His examples, ‘new-born children and idiots’, carry as timely evocations for us as for the German church of 1934. While his words then resonated in the abyss opened up by the German Christian Movement’s demand that the nation be protected against the unfit and inferior, so the same words now resonate in the abyss opened up by the demonstrated willingness of members of our society routinely to dispose of incompetent human life by technological means."