Fr. Barron introduces Balthasar

May 25, 2014

In a recent two-part video series, Fr. Robert Barron introduces the life and theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-1988), the most creative, ambitious, and wide-ranging Catholic theologian in the modern period. Balthasar was beloved by Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, but he is a controversial figure among many Catholic theologians (see Karen Kilby). Fr. Barron does a splendid job introducing Balthasar and commending his works:

In the second part, Fr. Barron focuses more on the particulars of Balthasar’s theology:

For the uninitiated, let me reiterate Fr. Barron’s reference to Balthasar’s “trilogy.” This is the informal name given to Balthasar’s dogmatics, structured around the three “transcendentals” (usually associated with Platonism) of truth, goodness, and beauty. These “properties of being” are convertible, one into the other, such that wherever truth is found, so is goodness and beauty. Wherever goodness is found, so is truth and beauty. Wherever beauty is found, so is goodness and truth. The ordering given by Kant in his threefold Critique is truth (reason), goodness (ethics), and beauty (aesthetic judgment). Balthasar reverses the ordering to beauty, goodness, and truth:

The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics in 7 volumes

Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory in 5 volumes

Theo-Logic in 3 volumes, plus an Epilogue

As you can see, not only did Balthasar reverse Kant’s ordering, but he also gives greater volume to the first transcendental of beauty, then goodness, and then reason. There are some very good surveys of Balthasar’s theology, including Stephen Wigley’s Balthasar’s Trilogy (T&T Clark, 2010) and Rodney Howsar’s Balthasar: A Guide for the Perplexed (T&T Clark, 2009).

4 Responses to “Fr. Barron introduces Balthasar”

  1. Ben S. said

    I have been a long time reader, but this is my first comment.

    I was wondering if you would comment on von Balthasar’s legacy in our contemporary theological world? I see his name pop up everywhere, especially in connection with Barth, John Paul II, and Cardinal Ratzinger, yet he seems overlooked as far as treatments (I am thinking mostly on a popular-level) of his ideas go. As a Protestant layman, I find him fascinating. Is it the “Barth syndrome”? Namely, “15 volumes?! Where is one to even begin?”

    Just curious. Big fan of the blog!

    • Kevin Davis said

      Thanks, Ben. That is an interesting question. There is very little at the popular-level that communicates the ideas of Catholic theologians in general. Protestants, especially the Reformed, are far more oriented toward doctrinal and confessional theology at all levels, and there is a rather massive industry of publishing houses that produce Protestant doctrinal theology. There is very little by comparison on the Catholic side, with the sole exception of Ignatius Press. But even Ignatius Press does relatively little doctrinal theology at the popular level in comparison with Eerdmans, Zondervan, IVP, Crossway, etc., on the Protestant side. So, that is one reason, as far as I can tell.

      Another reason is that Balthasar is such a difficult theologian to read, unless you are trained in theology — yeah, 15 very demanding volumes! And, once again, the number of Catholic academics who write doctrinal theology for lay audiences is few — very few. Fr. Robert Barron is an exception. His ministry, Word on Fire, is an evangelical-style Catholic ministry, communicating serious Catholic doctrine to a broad audience. And Barron is basically a Balthasarian. There is also Stratford Caldecott who writes for broad audiences and is influenced by Balthasar, but he is also a rarity.

      There is also the factor that Balthasar is not uniformly beloved in Catholic circles. He is too liberal for the neo-Thomists and too conservative for the feminists/liberationists. This is actually similar to Barth: too liberal for many evangelicals and too conservative for many feminist-contextual progressives. Barth can nonetheless benefit from the aforementioned zeal among Protestants to communicate doctrine at all levels, including the many enthusiastic fans of Barth like myself. This evangelizing spirit is far less common on the Catholic side. Case in point: my blog has probably done more to promote Balthasar than almost any other Catholic blog, and I’m an evangelical Protestant!

      Balthasar did write some smaller volumes that are more accessible than his Trilogy. I often recommend that people start with Love Alone is Credible.

  2. […] video series, Catholicism, is an impressive work. I have posted videos from Fr. Barron before: his videos on Balthasar and a video from his Priest, Prophet, King series. Now, for your viewing pleasure, here is episode […]

  3. […] from Father Robert Barron. I was not disappointed. I have previously praised Fr. Barron — here and here and […]

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