“It is not the pursuit of pleasure and the aversion for effort which causes sin, but fear of God. We know that we cannot see him face to face without dying and we do not want to die. We know that sin preserves us very effectively from seeing him face to face: pleasure and pain merely provide us with the slight indispensable impetus towards sin, and above all the pretext or alibi which is still more indispensable. …It is not the flesh which keeps us away from God; the flesh is the veil we place before us to shield us from him.”
Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace
This quote from Simone Weil came to mind upon reading von Balthasar’s “Theology and Sanctity” (from Word and Redemption) as perhaps a way to consider his account of the cleavage between theology, namely dogmatics as the explication of revealed truth, and sanctity – a mark of Christian thought in the wake of the advances made by the medieval scholastics. In short, the mystics and spiritual writers do one thing – detail the work of God at individual, mental states of their personal journey – while the theologians do another thing – discern the truth and coherence of God’s work in scripture and the Church. Contrasted to this are those, from the prophets to the scholastics, for whom truth is the “unity of knowledge and action” (p. 59), which is to say that truth is not concerned with man as isolated, cerebral, analytic but as governed by reason, yes, but also by the will and the heart. The latter, especially as it deals with the “affections” of love, happiness, sorrow, et cetera (von Hildebrand, The Heart), is particularly associated with spiritual writers, yet von Balthasar sees, in the premodern era, this intimate work of God as serving the deliverance and explication of revelation. It is not that the reason is blinded and prejudiced by these other movements of our mental faculties, but that it is illuminated thereby and, indeed, preserved from the vanities and prejudices of the isolated reason.
What is this vanity? If Simone Weil is to be our teacher, it is the desire to be independent, self-constituting creatures – in other words, to be God; and the more consistent among such persons will deny God in order that one’s illusions of self-sufficiency can take course (and it matters not that this self-sufficiency is so often translated into a humanity-sufficiency, a materialist collectivism working on the same principles). This is why we fear God; it is the fear of seeing ourselves truly, as creatures and what that entails, not least what it means for the service of others who are just as “entitled” to the goods which we use to sustain the illusion: “All of a man’s treasure is simply the whole universe seen with himself as its centre. Men only love riches, power and social consideration because they reinforce the faculty of thought in the first person” (Weil, Intimations of Christianity among the Ancient Greeks).
In turning back to von Balthasar’s concerns, we can understand how the reason likewise “preserves us very effectively” (Weil). An anthropology, as in the one which developed after the medievals, which defines man as primarily a reasoning creature who properly acts only upon a strictly defined reason, for its seemingly greater security at right conclusions, will thereby privilege the man who desires his own self-constitution, since here it is the reason alone which is to be cultivated and not the will or heart. In the theological world, this takes form in the prejudice that we can deal with God in our theological systems without dealing with him in our lives. In von Balthasar’s discussion, it is the error of thinking we – dogmatic theologians – can concern ourselves with the verum without the bonum and leave the bonum for others to deal with. What is the solution? Von Balthasar does not work out, at least not in this essay, a developed anthropology along the lines of, e.g., Catholic theorists of “personalism,” which would develop my above points on the place of the will and heart; instead, he finds the needed unity between theology and sanctity in the center of all properly Christian thinking – Jesus Christ. Here, all of our thought is to serve Christ because our thought, our very selves, is constituted by Christ for those who have faith.
Christ, as true God and true man, is the revealing of humanity redeemed and, as such, united in service, devotion to God and the revealing of this God. Moreover, the task of the theologian is not simply to point to this man, Jesus Christ, and expound; rather, the theologian is to live this incarnating of the Truth that is fully given in Christ: “From the standpoint of revelation, there is simply no real truth which does not have to be incarnated in an act or in some action, so that the incarnation of Christ is the criterion of all real truth….” (p. 50). The important point here being, as he develops later in the essay, that while Christ is the fullness of this revelation and the criterion for judgment, it does not end with him but extends to the whole Church in “the constant repetition of the theological existence of the Lord in the life of his faithful and saints” (80). In other words, and to tie it in with my previous points, any real appropriation of the truth of man vis-à-vis God affects the entirety of his person – the reason and the will; it is not otherwise because Christ has revealed what it is to be a man taken entirely by truth in his perfect obedience to the Father, revealing man’s true relation to God (i.e., no illusions), and for those who are to receive this truth is to likewise subject oneself to the Father.
We cannot pursue dogmatics without this standard [Holy Scripture] being kept in sight. We must always be putting the question, ‘What is the evidence?’ Not the evidence of my thoughts, or my heart, but the evidence of the apostles and prophets, as the evidence of God’s self-evidence.
-Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline
Jesus Christ is not a “principle” or a “program” but a man of flesh and blood….Jesus does not merely announce a true doctrine as prophets or wisdom teachers did. In his very existence he is Truth revealed by God. His birth is already truth: the Word of God becomes “flesh” and dwells among mankind….These are not mere materially expressed symbols of God’s attitude toward the world; they are his very attitude, which is no mere feeling but purpose, action and commitment.
-Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Office of Peter
The purpose of this short sketch is to relate Barth and von Balthasar to Professor John Webster’s introduction to The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology, which briefly covers the history of the discipline and the varieties in task, form, and organization involved. The two above quotes speak especially to the task and form of a dogmatics, as it is oriented to the person of Jesus Christ and his mission as the embodiment of his person. In a way, the quotes could be interchanged, said by each other, with, of course, von Balthasar closer relating the normative witness of the scriptural authors to an authority abiding in the Church. Still, the dogmatic task as a positive science grounded in that which is anterior takes its form, here, in the covenantal work of a God who speaks his Mercy (and Justice) in Jesus Christ. Webster’s introduction articulates two orientations, not to be too strictly demarcated, found in systematic theologies: the “dogmatic-analytic,” which concerns the inner-logical expounding of Christian doctrine, and the “apologetic-hermeneutical,” which concerns its relation to other disciplines and societal thought forms in general (p. 7). Barth seems clearly to fall under the former category in his concerns (and confidence in the self-evidencing and sufficiency of Jesus Christ), as I would say does von Balthasar as regards priority but expressed with his own confidence in Christ’s (or the Triune God’s) redemptive effects in the world, especially in the lives of the Saints. Neither is want to constrict the doctrines of the faith to currents of contemporary thought, as done with idealism, existentialism, and, more recently, post-structuralism. The problematic here being that the normative or regulatory, to put it mildly, function inherent in God’s revelation is lost or highly relativized, and following upon this is the more fundamental concern that Jesus Christ in his reality, as the Word of God yet “a man of flesh and blood,” is morphed into an idea, a symbol of notional effect.
This move towards the priority of thought-schemes relates to Webster’s other two categories based upon the way theologians consider doctrinal concepts to relate to Christian reality claims. The first are those who take the reality claims to be “‘symbolic,’ non-final though not, of course, unnecessary expressions of something anterior.” While the second group judges the reality claims to be “irreducible; they are not expressive, and cannot be translated without serious loss, since their content lies on their surface rather than residing behind or beneath them” (p. 10). Barth and von Balthasar would largely be aligned with the latter group, with those who consider decisive world-historical actions of God to involve the very content from which dogmatic statements derive. The former group, those who rework Christian reality claims into notions of, e.g., Ground-of-Being or Omega Point, considered to be more expressive of God’s relation to man and his purpose, consider the task of dogmatics to be more about deriving truth from the revelation of Christ instead of therein; thus, a prior intellectual account of man’s state vis-à-vis God, or reality in general, works as a controlling hermeneutic to which scriptural and creedal claims are subject. To a degree, this may very well be unavoidable, but the so-called “realist” alternative is averse to creating a “principle” (von B.) out of the Christ-event which neatly maps onto man’s consideration of himself. By saying that the birth, life, death, descent, and resurrection of Christ are the attitudes of God to the world, not “materially expressed symbols,” von Balthasar is locating God’s judgment (God’s consideration of man) in these very events as they reveal our abiding in sin and error at the cost of the Son’s sacrifice wherein humanity is redeemed – a redemption effected by the Spirit in the Church. Herein is the creedal confession of true God and true man; not a God apart from this man and thus not men apart from this God. The alternative is to “sin against the homoousian” (T. Torrance) and structure an intelligibility within reality invariably apart from the Incarnation which, through the Death-Resurrection, is the very securing of material reality and the event-principle for avoiding the errors of gnosticism or hyper-apophatic materialism.
Difficulties remain, however, for the realist position. The “evidence of God’s self-evidencing” (Barth) is given by the attestations of men who are fallible and thus not the absolute to which all is subject. How to get “behind” this witness to the absolute (Jesus Christ) is the problem, which the “historical Jesus” quest has revealed as bearing innumerable difficulties, therefore, seeming to legitimize the contention that all we have is that which is the symbolic expressions of men which in their fallibility can rightly be considered as non-final – epiphenomenal of who knows what and thus of our own determining (e.g., reconstruction of the NT according to existential address and anti-“mythological” presuppositions). How a dogmatician can best go about arguing otherwise is beyond the scope of this short sketch (and my competence); but, in addition to a metaphysics of God’s free action in his creation, a popular, and legitimate, method is an exegesis that reveals the unlikelihood of the NT texts, given their second temple Greco-Roman context and appropriation/dialogue with the OT, arising from any other account than the realist one of classical orthodoxy; however, this method is limited in that Christ cannot ultimately be accounted for as if given by historical processes, thus requiring, for the believer, the witness of the Spirit and the gift of faith.