Balthasar and Protestantism

January 25, 2016

Hans Urs von Balthasar

“One does not pray to the kerygma.”

— Hans Urs von Balthasar

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For quite some time, I have slowly adopted a rather Balthasarian frame of mind. To the extent that I am critical of Barth’s lingering dialectical quirks, the seeds were planted by reading Balthasar. I am fully aware that this puts me well on the margins among the younger generation of students of Barth, who like their Barth to be as dialectical and radical and actualist as possible.

But this post is not about Barth. It’s about Balthasar. From what I have observed over the years, it seems that many people — both Catholic and Protestant — perceive Balthasar to be rather favorable toward Protestantism or, as some Thomists have complained, too influenced by Protestant theology, especially Barth’s. Alongside this perception is the assumption that Balthasar, as a representative figure of la nouvelle théologie, must not be much influenced by medieval scholasticism and Latin theology in general, given the movement’s recovery of the early fathers and especially the Greek fathers.

This is all wrong or, at least, highly misleading with partial truths. In fact, Balthasar was very critical of Protestant theology, and Thomas Aquinas is a frequent guest in his writings. Yes, Balthasar was a student of Barth’s theology, but he was also a profound student of many theologians: Irenaeus, Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Maximus the Confessor, Augustine, Anselm, BonaventureDante, John of the Cross, Pascal, Hamann, and more. We cannot say that Balthasar is a “Barthian Catholic.” His mind was too wide and too perspicacious and too universal for such a narrow designation, based upon one (albeit important) influence in his theology. If there was ever a theologian who deserved the title of simply “Catholic” (=universal), it is Balthasar.

Moreover, to say that Balthasar was a Barthian is to forget his criticisms of Barth and Protestant theology as a whole — especially the dialectical movement, which Balthasar sees as embodying and extending, logically and radically, the basic errors of Protestantism. This is, at least, how I interpret him, but it is difficult to get a straightforward account of Protestantism from Balthasar. This is because, not least of all, his criticisms are spread across his many writings and often appear in unexpected places. His prose is, often enough, terribly impenetrable, so that’s another problem.

Let us look at Balthasar’s Explorations in Theology, the third volume in particular. The chapter is called, “Two Modes of Faith.”

“Two Modes of Faith”

If you want an introduction — albeit a very dense and difficult introduction — to Balthasar’s basic criticism of Protestant theology, especially its development into the modern period, then this essay is a good place to start. The “two modes of faith” are those of Martin Luther and Ignatius of Loyola. To briefly summarize, the two modes are similar insofar as both are intensely concerned to ground one’s existence in Christ and the Cross, but they quickly move “in contrary directions,” since for Luther, “everything lies in the Word that promises me salvation and that I allow in faith to be true in me.” Whereas for Ignatius, “everything lies in the call that introduces me into the following of Jesus’ way (of the Cross)” (Explorations in Theology, III, 89).

As a result, the historical person of Christ is central for Ignatius, whereas in Lutheran theology, and beginning in Luther himself, the word and the person start to separate. It is the message, the kerygma received in faith, that is absolute. The pro me of the word is alone decisive. This finally culminates in the dialectical and existential Lutheran theologians of the 20th century (Herrmann, Gogarten, Bultmann, et al.), where the kerygma and faith are alone absolute.

Here is Balthasar’s account, with footnotes in brackets:

In Luther, the pro me (the origin for today) becomes so exclusively important that, in an extreme case, the origin “in itself” could disappear. Kierkegaard’s fine perception has noticed this:

“In one sermon, Luther rages most vehemently against the faith that holds to the person rather than holding to the Word; the true faith holds to the Word, irrespective of who the person is. This is fine in the relationship between man and man. But for the rest, Christianity is abolished by this theory.” [Tagebücher (Haecker), 4th ed. (1953), 436]

With Althaus: “Not even the earthly person of Jesus…[is] the ultimate ground of faith, but (as Luther says), ‘The Word by itself must suffice for the heart.'” [Die Theologie Martin Luthers (1962), 53. Luther, WA 10, I I, 130, 14] In his harsh but indispensable book on Luther (Das Ich im Glauben bei Martin Luther [Styria, 1966]), Paul Hacker has shown the threatening danger of this one-sidedness as it runs through Luther’s chief works. On the one hand, one leaps over the centuries with a single jump in Bultmann: “The Christ kata sarka is of no interest to us; I do not know, nor do I wish to know, how things stood in Jesus’ heart” [Glauben und Verstehen, I (1933), 101]; on the other hand, if the event of Word and faith is the primordial event, then love must take the second place, must indeed take the place of the “works”, and once again Kierkegaard says about this:

“The conclusion of Luther’s sermon on 1 Corinthians 13, where he shows that faith is higher than love, is sophistic. Luther wishes always to explain love in fact only as love of one’s neighbor, as if it were not also a duty to love God. In fact, Luther has set faith in the place of love of God and has then called love the love of neighbor.” [Tagebücher (February 9, 1849), 359]

(Explorations in Theology, III, 89-90)

Balthasar then makes the contrast with Ignatius, for whom love directed toward the person of Christ is decisive and involves such concrete acts of obedience as “leaving all and following” (ibid., 91). Moreover, this mode of faith does greater justice to the whole witness of both testaments than “the sharp dialectic that Luther unfolds from the slender basis of the Letters to the Galatians and to the Romans” (ibid.).

A couple pages later, Balthasar continues with his account of Protestant, namely Lutheran, theology. This is a long excerpt. It was impossible for me to break it down and provide snippets without making it incoherent. Here it is:

A short look at the dramatic history of Protestant theology between Luther and Bultmann teaches us much, because it shows how Luther’s option, the outcome of his development away from the Catholic Church, works itself out and comes to dominate through the centuries. At first, the word of Scripture and the person of Christ remain closely bound together, even when Lutheran orthodoxy intensifies the significance of the word with its doctrine of verbal inspiration, while pietism takes a relationship of personal immediacy to the person. But when the Enlightenment refers polemically back to the historical Jesus against the dogmatic word of the Church, Jesus is de-dogmatized and is an inspired religious personality with whom (in the univocal character of the Pneuma) one can stand in a charismatic relationship (Lessing). Schleiermacher can indeed make dogmatics become the expression and function of the “pious consciousness” with the historical Jesus as the Analogatum princeps; but the dogmatic “word” that is arrived at in this way can just as well be dissolved again with Hegel by the historical dubiousness (“unhappy consciousness”) and elevated, as “open religion”, to be the objective expression of the intellect’s self-understanding. But theology reflects again and again on the incomparability of the historical event of Jesus; for Ritschl, it is the original sense of value that grasps the absolute significance, not of the being of Christ, but of his work as “benefit” for us. [Rechtfertigung und Versöhnung 3, 2d ed. (1883), 358ff.] For his pupil W. Hermann (the teacher of Karl Barth and of Bultmann), Jesus is through his mysterious inner life, his obvious unique sinlessness, the incarnate categorical imperative, in whom God comes near in a manner we can never equal, let alone surpass, and everything else in the Bible is at best relative to the event of my being encountered and overwhelmed by the revelatory quality of the person of Jesus. The dissociation adopted from Kant, Lotze and Ritschl between the (philosophical) ontological evaluation and the (existential) experience of value does indeed cast the strongest light in Herrmann on the overwhelming uniqueness of this person, but it does this radically within the horizon of the Lutheran pro me. When Herrmann, who was a vigorous foe of Catholicism, comes close to contact with the genuinely Catholic position, he nevertheless swerves aside (as a Kantian) at the last moment: it is not ultimately what Jesus was, but how he has an effect on me, that remains decisive. All one needs to do now to arrive at the Bultmannian position is to replace speculative agnosticism by historical-critical agnosticism; thus Bultmann’s position is not in the least absolutely dependent on the latter foundation. But Herrmann’s controversy with Martin Kähler is also significant: while Herrmann’s interest was with what was absolutely impressive in Jesus, no matter how the biblical mediation might be constituted, Kähler correctly resists the pseudo-objective project of the liberal history that brackets off faith in order to get back at an historical Jesus-in-himself behind the Scripture’s testimonies of faith; not, like Bultmann, because we can know nothing about him, but because we find what is absolutely impressive in his person precisely in the corpus of the testimonies of faith and nowhere else. It is here that “the personality that has become ripe for history lives”; its effectiveness is also its reality.

…”the reality with which faith deals is never any other than the reality of the word, and in no case whatsoever is it what is called an ‘objective’, ‘factual’ reality” (Gogarten). [Der historische Jesus und der kerygmatishe Christus, ed. H. Ristow and K. Matthiae (1960), 248]

Balthasar then closes this section of the essay with this response:

If Jesus is thus only in the word addressed to me, as the absolutum of the appeal (into which the Cross and the Resurrection have been absorbed), then I, as one encountered and affected by the word, am oriented to the word with the absolutum of my decision of faith. The evangelical event takes place in the convergence of these two absoluta. But since it is not possible for two absoluta to exist, they must ultimately coincide. But this means the abolition of the fundamental act of the biblical person, prayer. One does not pray to the kerygma. At best, one allows its innermost substance to coincide with one’s own innermost substance. And thus “faith” has also gone beyond fiducia and has arrived again in a most remarkable manner at the point from which it had turned away in horror; at “holding” propositions “to be true”, i.e., at an actualized Torah. [Thus also Althaus, criticizing Bultmann, Der historische Jesus und der kerygmatishe Christus, ed. H. Ristow and K. Matthiae (1960), 247]

That is a fascinating criticism. Balthasar is saying that this Protestant word-theology inevitably de-personalizes the faith-response in regard to its object, thereby collapsing into the pathos of the ego. That seems just about right, from my vantage point. I am sure that others, especially from within the dialectical camp, will have vigorous objections to Balthasar on all of this.

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Image: Hans Urs von Balthasar (source)

Billy Graham Crusades in India

Billy Graham in India

“…that all the adult heathen are lost is not the teaching of the Bible or of the Westminster Standards.”

— William G. T. Shedd

“That’s in God’s hands. I can’t be their judge. …My calling is to preach the love of God and the forgiveness of God and the fact that he does forgive us. That’s what the Cross is all about and what the Resurrection is all about. That’s the Gospel.”

— Billy Graham, interview with Larry King asking Graham about Mormons, Jews, Muslims, etc., and whether they are condemned

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This blog has been on break for the last couple of weeks, and I might continue the break for a little while longer. But I want to make a quick interruption, pertaining to a post from last month: “Calvinism and Salvation Outside the Church.”

In that post, I provided an excerpt from William G. T. Shedd (1820-1894) — a Presbyterian dogmatician of known excellence — on the vexing question of salvation outside the church. Can the electing grace of God reach the unevangelized, i.e., those who have not heard the gospel of Jesus Christ in its explicit, apostolic form? As is well known, the “exclusivist” answer is “No!,” apart perhaps from some extraordinary vision or dream of Christ in the unevangelized person. You can read this post from Kevin DeYoung for a clear presentation of this position.

Shedd’s Dogmatic Theology

As we saw, Shedd disagrees. In his Dogmatic Theology, he teaches that the “heathen” are capable of a “broken and contrite heart” under the ministration of the Holy Spirit: “It is certain that the Holy Ghost can produce, if he please, such a disposition and frame of mind in a pagan, without employing, as he commonly does, the written word” (vol. 2, p. 709). Not only does Shedd disagree with exclusivism — although, we should remember that “exclusivism” and “inclusivism” were coined later and are not without problems — he is also adamant that the Westminster Standards, and scholastic Calvinism as a whole, are also opposed to exclusivism.

The Westminster Confession of Faith, X.3, states: “Elect infants, dying in infancy, are regenerated, and saved by Christ, through the Spirit, who works when, and where, and how He pleases: so also are all other elect persons who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word” (emphasis mine). This is the clause in question. Who are those “incapable of being outwardly called”? In his Dogmatic Theology, Shedd refutes those who teach that this only pertains to “idiots and insane persons,” i.e., those mentally incapable.

Shedd’s Calvinism: Pure & Mixed

In the year before his death, Shedd published Calvinism: Pure & Mixed, a strident defense of the Westminster Standards against those in the Presbyterian Church (Northern branch) who sought to modify the doctrine of election. It is far beyond the scope of this post to evaluate the merits, or demerits, of Shedd’s overall thesis. For our purposes, it is valuable because Shedd defends here, near the end of his life, the same position that he promulgated in his earlier systematic theology.

Shedd formulates the question in this way: “Does Scripture also furnish ground for the belief, that God also gathers some of his elect by an extraordinary method from among the unevangelized, and without the written word saves some adult heathen ‘by the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Ghost’?” (p. 59). He must first deal, once again, with the question of “idiots” and “maniacs” who are not capable of the outward call. Shedd is forceful. He believes it is “remarkable” and “incredible” to say that the confession is talking about the mentally incapable — because they are not “moral agents” and cannot therefore be “classed with the rest of mankind.” As he puts the matter:

It is utterly improbable that the Assembly took into account this very small number of individuals respecting whose destiny so little is known. …[They] are contrasted with ‘others not elected, who although they may be called by the ministry of the word never truly come to Christ’; that is to say, they are contrasted with rational and sane adults in evangelized regions. But idiots and maniacs could not be put into such a contrast. The ‘incapacity’ therefore must be that of circumstances, not of mental faculty. A man in the heart of unevangelized Africa is incapable of hearing the written word, in the sense that a man in New York is incapable of hearing the roar of London. [pp. 59-60]

So, the incapacity must be that of “circumstances.” And thus Shedd distinguishes “two classes” of those who are saved: the evangelized and the unevangelized. But he emphasizes their commonalities, namely the same operation of the Holy Spirit upon their hearts. In this way, he continues:

Consequently, the Confession, in this section, intends to teach that there are some unevangelized men who are ‘regenerated and saved by Christ through the Spirit’ without ‘the ministry of the written word’, and who differ in this respect from unevangelized men who are regenerated in connection with it. There are these two classes of regenerated persons among God’s elect. They are both alike in being born, ‘not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God’. They are both alike in respect to faith and repentance, because these are the natural and necessary effects of regeneration. Both alike feel and confess sin; and both alike hope in the Divine mercy, though the regenerate heathen has not yet had Christ presented to him. As this is the extraordinary work of the holy Spirit, little is said bearing upon it in Scripture. But something is said, God’s promise to Abraham was, that in him should ‘all the families of the earth be blessed’ (Gen 12:3). St. Paul teaches that ‘they are not all Israel which are of Israel’ (Rom 9:6); and that ‘they which are of faith, the same are the children of Abraham’ (Gal 3:7). Our Lord affirms that ‘many shall come from east and west, the north and the south, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven’ (Matt 8:11). Christ saw both penitence and faith in the unevangelized centurion, respecting whom he said, ‘I have not found so great faith no, not in Israel’ (Matt 8:5-10). The faith of the ‘woman of Cannan’, an alien and stranger to the Jewish people and covenant, was tested more severally than that of any person who came to him in the days of his flesh, and of it the gracious Redeemer exclaimed, ‘O woman, great is they faith!’.

…That this work is extensive, and the number of saved unevangelized adults is great, cannot be affirmed. But that all the adult heathen are lost is not the teaching of the Bible or of the Westminster Standards. [pp. 60-61]

And all God’s people say —

Amen.

He continues for a couple of pages more and cites Zanchius and Witsius (and the Second Helvetic Confession, once again) as witnesses to this common understanding among “the elder Calvinists,” as he likes to say.

Billy Graham Being His Awesome Self

And how is Billy Graham relevant to all of this? On a few occasions, Reverend Graham expressed his inclusivist beliefs or, at least, heavy leanings in that regard. He is definitely not a strict exclusivist, yet somehow he was motivated to preach the gospel to more people than anyone in human history. One such example is an interview he gave with Larry King on CNN:

I love, love, love Billy’s answer to that question. The person who uploaded the video did not, which is sad. The liberating love and unfettered freedom of God is something joyous. Praise God!

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Image: Billy Graham Crusades in India