The imago Dei and Human Nature

This is a Barth v. Brunner post, but hopefully a reasonably enlightened one. I've been trying to answer Brunner as a Barthian but without Barth's direct help, especially in the natural theology dispute. Why? Because I think Barth misses important tricks. Not in the end, necessarily, because he develops better answers—but definitely up front, in his responses to Brunner.

Brunner is walking as middle a way as he can between scholastic orthodoxy and Barth, working against Schleiermacher as he understands him, using Barth for major direction and scholastic work for detail. But Barth looks at him less as a friend and equal, and more as a quixotically enthusiastic younger colleague who regularly takes his ideas and runs off to attack perceived enemies, on the one hand, and combine them with misunderstandings, on the other. This results in Barth being concerned to be understood, more than to understand.

A key part of the problem between Barth and Brunner—and one that will continue to develop out into their later works—is the relation between human nature and the imago Dei. It's been suggested that there's a useful distinction between material and relational views of the imago Dei to be made here, but I think that's not the optimal way to go about the problem. You see, it isn't just the imago Dei, but also human nature—and you can't assume these two things are either synonymous or connected up in the same ways in both systems.

"Image" Informed by (our knowledge of) Human Nature

For Brunner, to the extent that I understand him yet, human nature and the imago Dei are very closely connected. To speak of the imago Dei is to use a cipher for "what makes us human," and/or "what separates us from the animals." In "Nature and Grace," he suggests that the nature of the image of God is twofold, in two different ways. He talks about the image from God's side, and the image from our side; and he talks about the image as form vs. matter. The role of sin forces these distinctions. And so, for Brunner, the image of God is formal, imposed upon deficient material. Sin is a material failure of the creature. The image is therefore something that can be said to be "lost" because as actual human beings we have failed to be so informed by it.

But the image of God is not something that can actually be lost, because it is not ours to lose. If we speak of the image of God as "lost" from our side, in that we do not hold the shape given us, we must still speak of it as a reality from God's side. The Creator shapes and preserves us as the creatures we are, and that reality cannot be undone. We may fail to be the kinds of creatures we were made to be—but we do not cease to have been made that way, and therefore we do not actually cease to be those creatures. Our nature as creatures, for Brunner, is defined in the act of creation.

And if the imago Dei remains an objective reality, and if it is central to what it means to be human, central to our nature as human creatures, and if it is formal rather than material, we may identify it in spite of our deficiencies with respect to it. And Brunner does so! He calls it rationality, culture, art, the "best" formal aspects of human existence. Where did he get this content for the image of God? why, from culture itself! (Certainly not from scripture!) The church has always been willing to use our demonstrable nature as the content of our created nature, and the Protestant reformers were no exception. Neither, of course, were most of the theologians of the Enlightenment, especially as they fixated on "what separates Man from the animals."

Creation Without the Creation Stories

It doesn't help matters that Brunner is loath to let Hebrew scriptures dictate Christian doctrines. Barth, in order to determine what the imago Dei means for human nature, will go through a detailed exposition of both creation narratives in Genesis 1-3. (It will take him an entire part-volume of the Church Dogmatics to do justice to these stories, which is fair, because it took Augustine several volumes himself.) And Brunner castigates him for it! A Christian doctrine of creation must be had by reference to Christ. And, of course, most of the NT texts lack the detail of the OT texts—a fact which lets Brunner pay lip service to the OT, knock its antiquated worldviews, and then move beyond them to empirical observation and modern philosophical cosmology and anthropology. Baptizing science under the traditional Christian interpretations of the Biblical creation, rather than providing deep exegesis of the texts themselves in order to find something unique that they say over against culture.

And so, for Brunner, the imago Dei is the crown of human existence at the apex of the hierarchically ordered creation, representing both "the maximum of freedom in ... the visible creation" and "a maximum of parabolic similarity [to God], which exists in spite of the absolute dissimilarity between creaturely being and the Being of God." (Dogmatics II, 22) Our speech and our personhood are analogous, though infinitely subordinate, to God's Word and existence as Person. While the analogia entis tells us nothing about God, surely in the security of the revealed knowledge of God it tells us that we may use what we already know of Man from Creation ... right? All of the equivocal human terms with which scripture speaks of God are therefore really terms for our likeness to God.

And just as surely—and as the foundation for the category—we may use what we already know of the ordered world, since as Brunner says, "God is a God of order, not of disorder; He works according to law and not in an arbitrary manner." (25) We do this all the time, when we permit ourselves to be open to scientific knowledge of how the physical world around us actually functions—and rather than contradict the empirical, we baptize it as understanding of the inner workings of God's creation. But in so doing, Brunner has devised a universe that is coherent and deterministic right up until the point of sin's effect on the human will. He keeps sin isolated from the workings of the universe; it is a sort of moral defect of limited scope, affecting what humans choose to do, but not how the cosmos is ordered. And that order includes the design of our sexual biology—and of the sex act itself—for "monogamous permanent marriage." While one may ask whether everything we see in culture is an expression of created order, one may not doubt that there are in fact expressions of created order hard-coded into culture—however corrupted by sin their practice may be. And while our practice of natural law, too, may be corrupted by sin, abusus non tollit usum, and grace likewise perfects nature rather than destroying it.

Natural Knowledge, Natural Law

It's appalling to me to watch Brunner's progression from the reliable natural knowledge of all non-moral facts to the reliable natural knowledge of certain moral facts (if not all of them). It was appalling to Barth, too. But it wasn't new; this is a very old idea in Protestant circles, stretching back beyond its use by the Reformers. And it's one with an equally appalling currency in the US. This idea simply will not die. Human nature as we understand it becomes the basis for and content of creation and the imago Dei. To the extent that the orders of creation are subject to sin, we even declare that there are orders of preservation by which God is responsible for the continuation of such manifestly good order in the world. God sees to the universe ticking merrily along in spite of our interference, working constantly in the background to right all the vases we tip over, straighten the pictures we knock off-kilter, and generally tidy up after us—all the while teaching us how to be good, if only we would pay attention to the way things are supposed to be.

This view of sin is too small. The effect of sin is apparently negligible until it comes to the "inner life" of humanity. No serious objective effect, except on our perception—and even then, no significant effect on our perception until one gets deep into the subjective. The peak of sin's corruption of our natural knowledge is when it comes to our knowledge of God. Fair play to Brunner—and the Catholics don't understand why he refuses to go here, because it makes sense to them—he refuses to suggest that anything overcomes this point. Brunner maintains that there is no knowledge of God from the general revelation in creation, or at the very least no way for us to reach that knowledge of God from nature. But he does maintain that there is general revelation in creation, and he grounds this rather heavily on Paul's (actually rather insincere) statement in Romans 1:18-32 that the gentiles had it and turned away from it in sin.

The thing is, Brunner has a point. He's trying to be a perfectly reasonable Modern. And so there's just no way he'll accept a view of sin strong enough to imply any deep addling of our brains. If sin were that strong, he reasons, none of us would be able to figure anything out. There would be no philosophy—no mathematics, no sciences or consistent and repeatable explorations of knowledge of any sort—and theology and ethics would fare no better. As an epistemological problem, sin cannot imply our inability to know things, period, because we're really rather good at figuring most things out. Have been for ages. Get better at it all the time. Sin also can't imply that we as humans don't correspond to the world around us, because we obviously do. The obvious answer is that the epistemological effect of sin is bound up in the squirrely irrational bits, all the hard-to-define-adequately psychological, sociological, and relational problems. The problem, in other words, must be with our subjectivity. And, of course, nothing else seems to suffer from this problem. The world actually works rather well without us. Rather like a grand clockwork machine, not itself rational, but rationally ordered—and someday we'll figure out all the parts precisely enough.

And, of course, we are of a piece with this universe. Our place may be at the top of the order, but that is simply our God-given place in the order of things. If it can be known, we can be known. God, not so much. And, of course, it's our job as theologians, aware of the reality of sin, to supply the humility necessary to the sciences in their pursuits of knowledge about the universe—but also to supply the humility necessary to the church in its proclamations on the basis of Bible and tradition. Like I said at the start, a middle way. Scholastic, but not blindly orthodox; scientific, but not blindly pagan.

But Wait, There's More ... a.k.a. "Oh, yeah: Jesus"

And yet there is a third sense of the imago Dei Brunner will develop, after all of these bits of accommodation to modernity. He will finally say that the image of God is Jesus Christ—that Jesus Christ is the true image of God, and that faith in him is the restoration of the image of God in us. In Christ we are hooked back up to the source of divine love, and we must remain looking to God in Christ in order to reflect that love rather than our twisted selves. Homo in se incurvatus est, and all that. And this sense of the image of God, unlike the others, isn't split by sin anymore than Jesus Christ himself was. Jesus is integral human personhood, responsible and responsive to God. He has the right attitude towards God, and the right alignment with God's purposes in creation.

There went the relation vs. substance issue, and that is why the imago Dei for Brunner is formal rather than material. If it were material, substantial, it would be something we always had in being human, a quality of humanity innate in us. It would not be something we could lose. As it is, as formal structure, it is something we can deviate from while still remaining human because of God's preserving work of grace. And it is at this point that Brunner side-steps from his discussion of formal structure in the "orders of creation" to discuss relationship to God as the formal structure of human existence. And it's small wonder he admits to not knowing how to reconcile the two. It's left to be understood that humanity, in right relationship with God, is likewise in right alignment with God's purposes in creation, and so lives a rightly-ordered life, and everything just ticks along perfectly, like clockwork. Such a person has therefore a perfectly-ordered personality, as well, all the irrational bits sorted neatly.

The alternative? Wrath, law, the bondage of the will, evil and death. Not, to be sure, for all creatures; Brunner refuses to allow that all of creation is fallen, claiming that such a statement implies that the world was not made by God, but by the Evil One—how dare you insinuate such a thing, you dualist heretic, you! No, the rest of creation—and even we ourselves—are upheld by God's continuing creation and ongoing work of preservation, a saving work that keeps the universe from sliding into nonexistence. And so, in the end, Brunner stands and falls on the ordered world as the creation of the ordered God, and on Jesus Christ as the salvation of the elect/faithful among sinful humanity. For Brunner, Christ becomes our salvation as a restoration to integrity as creatures, which occurs in our faith in him, because of his work in the threefold office of prophet (revelation), priest (atonement), and king (lordship). It is Christ who, through these functions, actively breaks the power of sin over us.


The problem here—the single, rock-bottom foundational problem—is that Brunner's doctrine of sin is too small. And since his doctrine of sin is too small, his doctrine of redemption is also too small. He has a very high view of the world in continuity with its creation by God, and of God's work in the world as the ongoing renewal and maintenance of its order and created nature. Sin, for Brunner, finally equates to the perversity of human behavior and its psychological underpinnings. The answer to sin comes, on the one hand, in what Luther called the opus alienum by which the God who creates and preserves also wrothfully punishes and destroys. And it comes, on the other, in Jesus Christ, the opus proprium in which God heals and restores. Obviously this isn't the Heidelberg Disputation, and I see no sign that for Brunner these are two sides of the same thing, God's merciful wrath against sin for the salvation of the creature. No law–gospel dialectic this far down. Being Reformed will do that; Brunner appears comfortable with the notion of partial election, and in his supersessionist assumption that the Jews who rejected Jesus are no better than the pagans, he lumps the elect under the opus proprium and the reprobate under the opus alienum with faith in Christ as the dividing line.

If sin is only a moral action problem, even one that affects social orders negatively, then it is possible to be right. If sin is not a systematic corruption of the world, and if God, by gracious preservation, has kept the world so ordered that it reflects His desires, then it is possible to know what is right. All sin adds, then, is error bars, a humble "plus or minus sigma" at the ends of those statements. Faith in Christ enables us to minimize those.

Built onto the too-small doctrine of sin is a too-small distinction between God and the created world. His insistence on preservation of universal order as a work of God forces Brunner to steer just wide of pantheism, panentheism, and all of their friends, systems in which there is a true unity of God and the world. It ties God's activity perilously close to the world's activity. The world, after all, right down to the quantifiable facts of our existence, is maintained in order by God. If it is disordered, we see the effects of sin, but if it is ordered, we see the intention and work of God—as long as we look with eyes of faith. There are no sinful orders in Brunner's cosmos. Sin within institutions, sin corrupting good orders, sinful actions, but sin itself generates no systematic effects, no orders of its own. Nor do we. Order in society is not our work; it is formal compliance with divine intent, or it is preservation in spite of sin. The perversity of the will, for Brunner, does not seem to extend so far as to allow for human agency shaping the world systematically against God, or even in free directions that represent no divine intent.

There is, in short, no place for apocalyptic. Brunner leaves no room for full and true human opposition to God, manifest in the outworking of our wills upon the whole of creation around us. There is therefore no need for apocalypse, for revelation that is truly contradictory to what we see. Only for parables, to help us discern the truth around us more clearly. The prophet does not stand in radical opposition to the world—only to men in their actions, only to human beings in the wickedness of their sins. We are surely "Man in Revolt"—but we are not humanity in volitional control. Such sin, pervasive though he may acknowledge it to be, permanent though it may be as a human condition in the world, is simple to overcome in the end, and not truly total and inescapable. We can, in the end, remain what we are, and redemption comes to us precisely as what we understand ourselves to be in the best senses. Faith in Christ is our way out—but we are not compared with Christ, not impossibly different from him, not called to something truly and wholly other. No; faith in Christ is simply the way to ourselves.

I'm not sure I can think of a more scathing condemnation.


  1. Nicely done, Matt, though I have no idea how you manage to write such lengthy posts!

    I found your section entitled "Creation Without the Creation Stories" to be most stimulating.

    1. Thanks! It's simple, really, when one isn't employed in the classroom. ;) My life right now is a kind of "write or die" exercise.

      I had a professor in undergrad who claimed a Gerhard Forde quote: "All theologians are dogs; Lutherans are Dobermans." Large, smart, tenacious, and twitchy, putting it charitably. I'm not terribly twitchy, though. I'm more of a hound: slow, patient, tenacious, and loud when I think I've found something. I write such long posts because I've got no better way of tracking my quarry than to sniff every inch of ground along the way!

    2. The "Creation Without the Creation Stories" bit is the closest I've come to date in sympathizing with the problem.

      It infuriated me, a few years back, reading Barth's interpolations of NT texts into OT creation narratives for the sake of a Christian and Trinitarian doctrine. And yet, when it comes down to it, he really does justice to Genesis in ways few have. If it is a failure as science and history, for Barth that is still nothing against the text in its own terms. "Saga" allows him to read the mythos of the text functionally, against its context, and to see it subverting the materials on which it leans in order to tell a story about God.

      Brunner is so much closer to the science-and-religion problem. If you place scripture on a level playing field with science, scripture will lose every time, because that's not its game. And so Brunner, in "defense" of scripture, relies on tradition and science to update it. He trades out the pieces that don't work as cosmology—which is at least better than the ostrich asserting that they do indeed work, lah lah lah lah. But it's not actually a way of defending scripture. It's a way of defending systems built by abstraction from the interpretation of scripture.

      The only way I know of to defend scripture adequately is to let it be exactly what it is, in all the ways it appears to be so—rather than the things we have claimed about it. Scripture, to be adequately defended, must in many cases be defended against the tradition—and it must make no defense against science. And that's just so breathtakingly counterintuitive in the doctrine of creation!

    3. But what Brunner does so well, without trying, is put the question: how on earth do you find a way out of the problem with the doctrine of sin, when it's framed epistemologically?

  2. You should do an exegetical post on Romans 1.

    1. Couldn't hurt. I haven't touched that here for a while, and I never actually got around to publishing a paper on it.


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