Brunner states that God cannot be objectified or conceived of as an object (even the supreme object) within finite time and space but is utterly transcendent, beyond the reach of human discovery. In his great love for his creation, however, God has chosen to communicate himself through the Word. This entails a merciful condescension and self-impartation to mortals in terms that they can understand. Divine sovereignty over the cosmos exists at the same time as God’s tender compassion toward humankind, and therein is exhibited the primordial self-definition of God as person. God’s self-giving toward his beloved creation extends partially to the world’s religions, but preeminently to Israel’s history, culminating in Christ, the Word in flesh.
Unlike other mortal life-forms, humanity is distinctively capable of hearing and obeying the word of God. This human capacity for language, including syntax and the formal structures of reason, has been distorted but not erased through humanity’s alienation from God, the Fall. It is only the material content of the image of God that has been devastated. The controversy notable in Brunner’s later life arose from this modest defense of a residual general revelation and natural theology.
The doctrine of human nature focuses on the will (as Saint Augustine taught), so our humanity is exemplified by the decision whether to attend to and obey the Word. Thus we show ourselves to be persons in this “I-Thou” encounter, responding to and partially reflecting the Creator’s personhood. Imago Dei (the image of God) is the traditional phrase for our kinship to God’s personhood. This includes Logos rationality and language ability, but even more important is humanity’s ability to form relationships. Here Brunner shows his indebtedness to Søren Kierkegaard’s existentialism by focusing on individual decision and also to the religious socialist movement in the early twentieth century by highlighting the horizontal dimension, our solidarity with fellow humans and with society.
Thus there are two modes of human knowledge, reason and revelation, which need not be antithetical so long as each takes its proper role. Brunner thereby attempts to preserve the Reformation heritage of Christocentrism and revealed grace but also has a pastoral concern for the church’s ability to influence the surrounding culture.