At this point, Barth’s approach differs from that of Calvin and Bavinck. They approach the image of God in man via the renewal of that image through Christ (Man, p. 96). This renewal takes place in the context of “man’s fall through guilt” (Man, p. 97) as man enters into “communion with Christ” (Man, p. 98 “through faith” (Man, p. 101). This renewal “has nothing to do with a ‘natural’ state of affairs in the relation between God and man, but rather shows forth the wonder of the new birth … through which the life of the creature can once more exhibit God’s image” (Man, p. 102. Berkouwer places inverted commas round the word ‘natural’ to indicate that he is not implying that Barth teaches salvation by nature rather than by grace. He uses the word ‘natural’ to raise pointedly the question whether the way in which Barth emphasizes salvation by grace provides a proper perspective concerning the “through faith” (Ephesians 2: 8 context in which the divine salvation reaches man.).
Barth’s idea that this renewal has taken place in ‘mankind’ by virtue of the incarnation has led R Prenter to describe Barth’s position as “creation docetism” (The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth (TG), p. 25; source given by Berkouwer at p. 250, n. 68). While acknowledging Barth’s intention to emphasize the unbreakable unity of creation and reconciliation (TG, p. 250, emphasis original), Berkouwer recognizes the validity of Prenter’s criticism of Barth (TG, p. 250). Berkouwer is concerned that the decisiveness of history is not endangered (TG, p. 250).
Emphasizing “not the ontic qualities of man, but what he does with these qualities” (Man, p. 56, emphasis original), Berkouwer remarks critically that “Barth is concerned not only with a noetic problem … but also with an ontic problem” (Man, p. 96; see also TG, p. 54). He notes that Barth speaks of faith as an “objective, real, ontological inevitability for all, for every man” and of unbelief as “an objective, real ontological impossibility” (KD, Vol. IV, 1, p. 835; cited in TG, p.266, emphasis in Berkouwer).
Berkouwer observes that Barth’s notions of the ontological inevitability of faith and the ontological impossibility of unbelief are grounded Christologically in his view of God’s election (TG, Chapter IV, “The Triumph of Election”, pp. 89-122).
While objecting strongly to the concept of objectivity implicit in such conceptions, Berkouwer does not intend to lead theology towards a subjectivized understanding of divine grace. Rather, he seeks to understand objectivity and subjectivity not as polar opposites but as inter-related elements which are harmonized in a proper understanding of the relationship between grace and faith.
In his criticism of the ontic thinking undergirding Barth’s theology, Berkouwer commends Barth for his concentration on Jesus Christ which gives his theology a “triumphant and joyful character (which) did not arise from a superficially optimistic attitude to life” (TG, p. 212. This is borne out by Barth’s preference for the phrase, “Jesus is Victor” rather than the expression, “the triumph of grace”, CD, Vol. IV, 3, pp. 173-180).
Berkouwer, whose own theology is thoroughly Christocentric (Man, p. 107. The centrality of Christology in Berkouwer’s thought is observable throughout his “Studies in Dogmatics”. His theology is no less Christocentric than Barth’s, though he uses Christology differently from Barth.), suggests that Barth’s use of Christology has become highly speculative (TG, p. 222).
In his insistence that the significance of history must not be devalued (TG, pp. 250, 256. By questioning the capacity of Barth’s theology to ascribe decisive significance to history, Berkouwer does not “wish to accuse Barth of being guilty of subscribing to a consistently idealistic conception of history in which history serves only to illustrate an eternal idea” (TG, pp. 256-257, emphasis original), Berkouwer is not suggesting that human sin should be taken more seriously than divine grace (see also J Jocz, The Covenant: A Theology of Human Destiny, p. 217). Rather, he seeks to elucidate the precise nature of the relationship between divine grace and human sin.
Concerning divine grace, Berkouwer writes, “there can never be a question of too strongly accenting the grace of God. Rather the question is, how shall we lay the proper emphases and how can we most purely praise this grace. It is never the full accent but the wrong accent that obscures the gospel of God’s grace” (TG, p. 349, emphasis original).
He rejects both “an accentuation of the grace of God in such a manner that this grace hardly seems to be other than a deterministic casual system” and an interpretation which pleads “for human freedom and for the significance of human decisions only to end in synergism” (TG, p. 349).
Insisting that the Gospel comes to man in contexts of “calling and invitation, of proclamation and admonition”, Berkouwer maintains that “It is not possible to speak meaningfully about God’s grace in Jesus Christ outside of these contexts” (TG, p. 369).
Emphasizing that “This context is unable to function, however, when the gospel is overshadowed by an objective message about election which bears no vital relationship to the proclamation” (TG, pp. 369-370), he insists that “When we have a proper regard for Jesus Christ as He is revealed to us in Scripture, no conclusions are possible or warranted which are drawn outside of faith” (TG, p. 368. Berkouwer is concerned to emphasize the unbreakable bond between reality and relation (see Man, p. 35). It is the reality of God’s salvation that is known in the relation of faith. It is precisely in this relation that this reality is known.).