Dominic ROBINSON. Understanding the “Imago Dei”: the thought of Barth, von Balthasar and Moltmann. Surrey, England: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2011. pp. 175. $99.95 pb. ISBN 978-0-7546-6770-4.
Reviewed by Reviewed by Patricia SHARBAUGH, St. Vincent College, Latrobe, PA 15650

Affirming the dignity of the human person is a pressing need in contemporary society. The doctrine of Imago Dei, with its underlying focus on Christ’s presence shining through humanity, provides the roots from which such needed affirmation can grow. In Understanding the “Imago Dei” the thought of Barth, von Balthasar and Moltmann, Dominic Robinson explores the doctrine of Imago Dei in the writings of three significant twentieth century theologians. His focus on Barth, Balthasar, and Moltmann results in an ecumenically inspired discussion of the doctrine that engages contemporary themes and tensions and ultimately points toward a renewed Christocentric understanding of the human person.

Robinson begins his book with a succinct but insightful historical analysis of major strands of thought about the “imago Dei.” This not only lays an important foundation for his discussion of the doctrine in the writings of Barth, Balthasar, and Moltmann but also uncovers the issues and tensions that arise in theological reflection on what it means for human beings to be created in God’s image. Robinson points to the fundamental narrative of the Genesis creation stories as the source for all later theological reflection on the “imago Dei.” He then explores this reflection in the work of Augustine, Iranaeus, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and the ecumenical councils of Trent and Vatican II. By tracing this theological reflection through history, Robinson is able to highlight the major theological tensions that emerge. The major tensions that emerge revolve around the issue of how severely the “imago Dei” is damaged in the fall and in light of that damage, whether or not human beings are passive recipients of justification in Christ or actively participate in their return to God. As reflection upon the doctrine of Imago Dei continues through history, a seam develops between theologians in the Reformed Tradition and those in the Roman Catholic Tradition. While theologians from both traditions emphasize the necessity of Jesus Christ to restore the “imago Dei” in human beings, theologians of the Reformed Tradition emphasize the passive acceptance of Jesus Christ’s once-for-all restoration while theologians of the Roman Catholic Tradition continue to emphasize active participation involving putting to death what is earthly and living a life of virtue.

After tracing the major strands of theological reflection on the doctrine of Iimago Dei and uncovering the tensions that emerge in that discussion, Robinson provides a critical analysis of the thought of Barth, Balthasar, and Moltmann. In this critical analysis, Robinson is attentive to the strengths and weaknesses of each theologian. He credits Barth with renewing an essential Christocentric emphasis in theological understanding of the “imago Dei.” He notes that while Barth’s theological system has the potential to express the active participation of human beings, ultimately he is unable to escape the Reformed Tradition’s emphasis on the human being’s passive acceptance of Christ’s justification. According to Robinson, Barth’s theology influences von Balthasar to retain a Christocentric emphasis in his understanding of the “imago Dei.” Von Balthasar’s theological categories of drama and aesthetics inspire a vocational model that allows him to move beyond Barth in clearly articulating the significance of human participation in the drama. Robinson’s assessment of Moltmann’s thought acknowledges that Moltmann, like Barth and Balthasar, retains a Christocentric emphasis and aims at expressing the needed active participation of human beings. According to Robinson however, Moltmann’s quest for a relational model leads him to emphasize God’s immersion in the suffering of the world. This emphasis combined with a lack of attention to sin and evil, leads to an inadequate vision of God that fails to maintain the otherness of God. In Moltmann’s vision, God is relational but loses the transformative power necessary to be the universal answer for human beings.

This book makes a valuable contribution to contemporary discussions of the “imago Dei.” It provides a thorough historical, analytical, and critical engagement of the thought of three important twentieth century theologians in regard to this doctrine. As human beings in today’s world struggle for meaning, purpose, and a sense of their true dignity, the doctrine of Imago Dei is not only relevant but vital and life giving. Robinson’s book highlights the value of understanding that true human dignity comes from Christ as both gift and vocation calling us to responsibility for the dignity of all human beings in the world.

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