Book Review: Understanding the “Imago Dei”

understandingimagodeiTitle: Understanding the “Imago Dei”: The Thought of Barth, von Balthasar, and Moltmann

Author: Dominic Robinson

Bibliographic info: 198 pp.

Publisher: Ashgate, 2011.

Buy the book at Amazon.

With thanks to Ashgate for the review copy.

This intriguing volume is based on the author’s doctoral dissertation submitted in 2007 at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. As the book title suggests, the author provides an examination of the imago Dei in three prominent twentieth-century theologians: Karl Barth, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and Jürgen Moltmann. The author chooses these three theologians because not only do each of them provide a useful contribution to the topic in modern theology, but by placing them in dialogue an authentic ecumenical discussion can take place. However, Robinson is not interested simply in how these theologians interpreted the doctrine of the imago Dei, he specifically wants to tackle how these theologians relate this concept to human dignity in the presence of God.

The opening chapter provides a historico-theological background which looks at the main strands in the history of thought on our creation in the imago Dei. The concept of the imago Dei is then placed in the context of the Reformation and postconciliar Catholic theology, and Robinson introduces the life, times, and theological systems (in general) of Barth, von Balthasar and Moltmann. Robinson holds that the Reformation, as seen particularly in the theologies of Luther and Calvin, presents a clear shift in our understanding of the imago Dei:

They moved the doctrine’s point of reference from asking the medieval philosophical and scientific questions about the nature of the human being per se and focused instead first and foremost on the sovereignty of God in whose image humanity is made and, in particular, on Christ, who has restored us to this image.

Further along Robinson provides a helpful summation of the theological discourse of the Reformation in relation to its significance for this study:

[W]e might say that the sixteenth-century theological world became something of a battleground between this Reformation emphasis on human passivity in the face of Christ’s once-and-for-all restoration of the divine image after the Fall and the Catholic emphasis on our active participation in a relationship with Christ as we worked to achieve our divine destiny in heaven.

The subsequent chapters are detailed examinations of the thought of Barth, von Balthasar, and Moltmann. In a nutshell, Robsinson sees Barth as “aim[ing] to develop a more relational model of ‘imago Dei’”, while Balthasar presents “a more vocational model, expressing ongoing relationship with Christ who calls us as disciples in the world”, and Moltmann “present[s] a model which tries to hold together the centrality of Christ and our response in engagement with God, our fellow humans, and the whole created world with which we share a common dignity.” The aspect that Robinson focuses upon in their views of the imago Dei is twofold: the divine descent of grace and our ascent to God. In a way, one could say that it plays on the Protestant and Catholic emphases on justification (as seen in Barth and Protestantism) and sanctification (as seen in von Balthasar and Catholicism).

Overall, I would say that Robinson has a positive evaluation of the models of Barth and von Balthasar in regards to the imago Dei (with a decidedly more favorable view of the latter’s view), but he seems to have more a critical view of Moltmann, saying that his view is lacking in a sufficient foundation in Christ as the ideal image of God. Furthermore, Moltmann’s accent on God’s solidarity with human suffering takes away from God’s transcendence, thus negatively impacting our perception of what the descending movement of God’s revelation in Christ really means.

What the author finds most constructive about von Balthasar’s doctrine of the imago Dei is how he incorporates the descending movement of God’s revelation in Christ with the ascending human response. In contrast, Robinson sees Barth as emphasizing the divine descent at the expense of the human ascent. Robinson’s main criticism of Barth is in regards to his interpretation of Augustine and his denunciation of natural theology (because it disallows the possibility of Barth’s theology possessing an adequate view of the human response to God). Additionally, Barth’s doctrine of the imago Dei “stops short of developing a theological anthropology which expresses in itself the dignity of each human person.” This is where von Balthasar comes in handy, for his interpretation of Augustine allows von Balthasar to say that the imago Dei isn’t utterly lost but is only damaged, thus von Balthasar provides the best attempt at bringing together the descent of God and our ascent to God.

A couple of small quibbles. The dialogue seems to pertain more to Barth and von Balthasar, with Moltmann being the third wheel who doesn’t fit as snugly into the study as the other two. Additionally, I think that a fruitful area for further exploration in regards to Moltmann’s emphasis of the divine descent (as it pertains to the imago Dei) would have been his thought on the kenosis of the Spirit.

All in all, however, Dominic Robinson has provided quite a constructive and interesting study on the imago Dei, discussing related issues such as the role that Christ plays in communicating authentic human identity to us, and the possibility of a free human response to God’s revelation in Christ. I have actually studied Barth, von Balthasar, and Moltmann (to various degrees), so naturally I quite enjoyed this comparative analysis of their thought. Plus, I am a big fan of ecumenical endeavors and this study is a great exercise in ecumenical thinking that opens up possibilities for a rejuvenated Christocentric anthropology.

4 responses

  1. So good to find you out there.. I am working on a novel, a modern day adaptation of the book of Job. It’s setting is the modern day mega church culture of Southern Calif, which is the bible belt of the west. Satan says to God, Obiedience brings Job blessing.. which is the message of pastor Reno Sparks in my book.. On one hand the book is a silly parody of the modern mega church culture, and also a theodicy that relies heavily on moltmann, pannenberg. Irenaeous, Origen. and Paul… there will be no punch out endings or pious speaches as in the book :’the Shack’.. i sent a chapter to J.P Moreland, who loved it, untill i mentioned he was in the book as B.J. Whirlwind.. oh well he is a good man and will survive, anyways the purpose of the novel is to reach the burned out, bruised and confused who could not call church.. their home.. also it is not a critisism of the church.. for that is pointless.. i would love to send you some excerpts and hear your feedback … because writing is a god awfull fishbowl.. take care!

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