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)

St. Mary Major Basilica, Rome

St. Mary Major Basilica, Rome

Systematic theology is the stock-in-trade of the Reformed tradition. But, believe it or not, other Christians have done it too, often with impressive results. Last week, I provided a guide to the Reformed dogmatic works that I admire the most. Now I will do the same for some other traditions. I will limit myself to theologians from the last two centuries.

As you will see, I am biased toward Roman Catholic theology. In fact, I find myself recommending Catholic theologians far more often than I do Protestant theologians, especially when I am discoursing with fellow Protestants.

Baptist

The Christian Religion In Its Doctrinal Expression, E. Y. (Edgar Young) Mullins. Originally published in 1917, this is the masterpiece of the great Southern Baptist leader. Mullins was the president of the Baptist World Alliance, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, and professor of theology at Southern Seminary in Louisville. He led the campaign that revitalized the SBC and gave it a renewed missionary zeal, both domestic and foreign. This resulted in the explosive growth of the SBC in the 20th century. As if those accomplishments were not enough, he was also an impressive theologian. He anticipates the work of Emil Brunner in significant ways, though Mullins was more conservative. However, he has recently been criticized, by some SBC leaders, as being too influenced by German theology. Judge for yourself. I admire him. As an alternative to Amazon, you can purchase from the publisher or read online.

Note: Mullins is sometimes classified as a Reformed theologian, and there is a good case for doing so — especially if we include moderate Calvinism and neo-orthodox expressions.

Lutheran

The Evangelical Faith, Helmut Thielicke. I have not read as much Thielicke as I would like. But whenever I have dipped into The Evangelical Faith or his sermons, I have been impressed and edified. But thanks to the behemoth dominance of Barth over the century, Thielicke is not resourced today as much as he should. Hopefully, that will be corrected. His instincts are orthodox and moderate conservative, and with all of the intellectual integrity you expect from a German theologian. In contrast to Barth, Thielicke gave space to a chastened natural anthropology.

A System of Christian Doctrine, Isaak A. Dorner. Dorner’s influence was eclipsed by Albrecht Ritschl and the Ritschlians in the late 19th century. This is a shame, because Dorner is the superior dogmatician. Unfortunately, we now live in a time when the (often exasperating) technical skill of advanced German theology is too much for the average student of theology today. The mainline Protestant churches have largely abandoned systematic theology, unless it can serve their social constructivist ends. Evangelicals will find Dorner either too difficult or too suspicious, especially as a German with some Schleiermacher influence. As a result of all of this, I do not see a Dorner renaissance anytime soon, but he surely deserves it.

Systematic Theology, Wolfhart Pannenberg. Pannenberg died last year. As Fred Sanders wrote for CT, he left “a strange legacy.” At Aberdeen, I read most of volume two. Since then, I have not returned to his works, though I probably should — especially now that I am very critical of Barth’s early dialectical approach to history. It is this criticism upon which Pannenberg launched his distinguished career. For many in my neck of the woods (theologically-speaking), Pannenberg is criticized for being too Hegelian and too process oriented — more so for Robert Jenson’s Systematic Theology, which is often compared to Pannenberg’s.

Roman Catholic

The Glory of the Lord (seven volumes), Theo-Drama (five volumes), Theo-Logic (three volumes), and Epilogue, Hans Urs von Balthasar. This is the sixteen-volume summa of Hans Urs von Balthasar, the most important Catholic theologian of the twentieth century. It is hard to describe what Bathasar is doing here. It is not a traditional dogmatics — so it is not, like Barth’s CD, organized by the standard loci. Rather, Balthasar’s “trilogy” is organized by the three “transcendentals,” often associated with Plato: Beauty, Goodness, and Truth. Significantly, this was also the organizing method for Kant’s “trilogy,” except that Balthasar intentionally reversed Kant’s order, which began with Truth. Moreover, Balthasar gave greater weight, at least in terms of size, to Beauty, then Goodness, and then least of all, Truth or Logic. Balthasar’s “trilogy” is a combination of philosophy, dogmatics, exegesis, literary criticism, and much else — basically everything that is “catholic” (=universal). Balthasar is the Catholic par excellence.

Symbolism, Johann Adam Möhler. This is a Catholic rebuttal of Protestantism, focusing on soteriology but much more extensive (as any good systematic work is). Möhler is one of the greatest Catholic theologians of the 19th century, ranked alongside Newman, though Möhler is more of the technical, systematic theologian. Both had a very strong influence on the Nouvelle Théologie of the 20th century. Möhler taught at Tübingen and Munich. I read Symbolism about 10 years ago, though I was not capable then of fully grasping it. I need to revisit it, as with many books I have read.

An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, John Henry Newman. Without this book or something much like it, Vatican II is inconceivable. In terms of influence, Newman was the most important Catholic theologian since St. Thomas Aquinas. As a man of the 19th century, Newman knew that doctrine did not “fall from the sky,” so to speak. Rather, it “came to be” through historical processes. Far from being an assault upon Catholic doctrine, Newman made this the greatest explanatory apologetic of Catholic theological development. Every “living” thing must adapt or develop according to its essential governing principles or life-source. As a result, Rome’s perceived novelties and orthodox intransigence are harmonized and given a coherence for the faithful Catholic — to this day.

Foundations of Christian Faith, Karl Rahner. Rahner remains an elusive figure for me. As a good Barthian (and Balthasarian), I obviously cannot agree with his doctrine of the knowledge of God — as transcendental openness to being. This is an attractive option, especially in the face of religious pluralism today, but it is theologically problematic, to say the least. However, Rahner is also a rather (it seems to me) orthodox Roman Catholic, who often defers to the tradition and uses his full intellectual heft to give it a rational explication. This is true, for example, for the recent Marian dogmas. And, as far as I know, Rahner never went as far as Hans Küng in rejecting the dogmatic authority of the Petrine office. Foundations of Christian Faith is the closest thing to a summary of Rahner’s theology, but most of his work was published in the massive multi-volume series, Theological Investigations.

The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy and The Christian Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, Etienne Gilson. These are just two of Gilson’s many works. Technically, Gilson was a historical theologian, not a dogmatic theologian, but the importance of his work for dogmatic theology is too significant to not include here. Gilson advocated for the legitimacy of a uniquely “Christian philosophy,” especially as it emerged in the medieval period. As a result, Aquinas should not be casually dismissed or lumped with the Enlightenment philosophers and theologians, who worked with different presuppositions. I am not expert enough in Gilson (or Thomas) to know whether this holds, but it cannot be ignored.

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What about other traditions? 

If you would like to advocate for a particular Methodist or Pentecostal theologian, be my guest — so long as it is a systematic theologian. As I look over at my bookshelves, I do not have a single Methodist or Pentecostal systematic theology.

The Anglicans do have systematic theologians, though they have typically been Reformed, at least broadly speaking — as with Richard Hooker under Queen Elizabeth and John Webster today.

Eastern Orthodoxy?! Yes, I am grossly ignorant of Orthodoxy’s contributions to contemporary ST, though I have been told that ST is a “Western” thing. Anyway, I have heard good things about Dumitru Staniloae’s multi-volume Orthodox Dogmatic Theology.

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Image: St. Mary Major Basilica in Rome. Photograph is mine.

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).

HUvBalthasar

Balthasar

I am still thoroughly enjoying D. Stephen Long’s book, Saving Karl Barth. He is illuminating the central questions with which I have been wrestling for the roughly ten years that I have been studying theology. And he manages to do this with admirable clarity.

As with the previous post on the book, I will provide a relatively self-contained excerpt, though it should be remembered that this is part of a much larger discussion. This is from the chapter on the doctrine of God (ch. 4), where Long again revisits both “Thomist Ressourcement” of recent years and another extensive critique of McCormack’s post-metaphysics, following from the third chapter. I was very tempted to provide something from Long’s engagement with McCormack’s work, but it would require too many extensive quotations to do it justice. But on a related front, here is Long’s summary explication of Balthasar’s “Chalcedonian analogy of being”:

Balthasar never rejected the duplex ordo of Vatican I, nor did he argue that metaphysics conditions revelation in Garrigou-Lagrange’s strong sense. He defended metaphysics and natural theology on Barthian grounds. For Balthasar, Vatican I’s twofold order of knowledge takes Christ’s two natures as its starting point. Metaphysics does not condition theology, as if human nature could condition God. In fact, if human nature conditions God, the neoscholastic position does not significantly differ from a radical Barthianism where Jesus Christ elects God. Both positions differ from the logic found at Chalcedon, in which the two natures come together into a unity without God ceasing to be God or creature ceasing to be creature, but in such a way that God conditions creatures without creatures conditioning God. The doctrine of the an- and enhypostaton affirms the nonreciprocity between God and creatures. The man Jesus has a human nature without a human hypostasis; his hypostasis is in the Second Person of the Trinity, which is why for Aquinas and Barth any analogy between God and creatures cannot be reversed. The analogia entis tells us how creaturely being depends upon God without in any sense affirming God’s being depends on creatures.

Chalcedon presupposes intelligibility to both human and divine natures. They remain unconfused even when in Christ a single subject acts in both natures, but this single acting subject, who acts in two natures, requires that “nature” is understood as a theological concept, as Balthasar taught. Philosophy offered nothing like a single acting subject in two natures with one hypostasis; revelation required it. It is a theological concept, however, that then marks out a space for metaphysics. It also shows a “limit” to nature, which Balthasar also taught. We know nature by abstracting from what we do know about God and reminding ourselves that God is not a creature. Balthasar stated, “The theological concept of nature, which can be obtained only by the way of abstraction, is primarily a negative, limiting conception.” This does not make it a “vacuole.” There is a limit that distinguishes nature from grace; neither is collapsed into each other. The decisive question is how firmly this limit can be drawn, as if we can say everything on this side is nature and everything on the other is grace. Balthasar simply refuses to draw such a line.

For Balthasar, “everyday reason” thinks it can draw the limit precisely, but the more it tries, the “more difficult” the task. What constitutes something “natural” over and against the “supernatural” often eludes us because God’s creation is “always already graced.” But a limit is acknowledged. Grace is not nature, nor is nature grace. Liberal Protestantism collapsed grace into nature where affirming nature (or culture) was affirming grace. Barth saw the consequences of this collapse in all its horror in Germany in the 1930’s. Balthasar feared another version of it occurred after Vatican II among Catholics (without the horrifying consequences of the German Christians but also without the capacity to be critical of culture or nature rather than always blessing it). At its worst, Barth’s early reaction to liberal Protestantism reversed the polarities, evacuating nature and turning it into grace. The only agent was God’s electing grace. Take for instance Keith Johnson’s interpretation of Barth’s opposition to the analogie entis. He writes, “For Barth, there simply is no natural capacity for faith, nor is there any inherent capability to hear and understand God’s revelation.” The only agent is God. Here is a strong rejection of any language in which metaphysics conditions revelation. Instead, for this postmetaphysical interpretation, any such natural capacity “is given to the human anew and afresh in each moment in the event of God’s self-revelation.” Balthasar thought otherwise. Citing Barth, he wrote, “faith awakens ‘man to an action that is proper to him. This action not only lies within the scope of created nature, it actuallly corresponds to the highest natural determination of his creatureliness’ (understood once more in the concrete Augustinian sense.) The model for how the act of faith relates to human nature is the Incarnation.” That faith is not an “inherent capacity” for faith is not true of these traditions. If there is no natural capacity, then the only acting subject is God, and the unity of divinity and humanity in Christ cannot be communicated. Human creatures are redeemed by evacuation of their creatureliness and not by a creaturely participation in divinity.

[Saving Karl Barth, pp. 159-161. Long is quoting from Balthasar’s The Theology of Karl Barth, sometimes translating from the German edition. The Keith Johnson quote is from Karl Barth and the Analogia Entis, p. 168.]

It should be noted that Long is careful to distinguish where Balthasar goes further than Barth and challenges Barth, which will presumably become more pronounced in the following chapters on ethics and the church.

Saving Karl Barth

I have been reading D. Stephen Long’s new release, Saving Karl Barth: Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Preoccupation. It is such a joy to read this book. So far — in the first two chapters — Long has given us a careful narrative overview of Balthasar’s journey into reading and presenting Barth, his struggles with suspicious fellow Catholics (and suspicious Protestants), and the precise distinctions involved in his analysis and appropriation of Barth, while remaining faithful to Vatican I’s duplex ordo: “Balthasar’s preoccupation, interpretation, and presentation of Barth’s work is much too broad, dynamic, and changing to be encapsulated in any single formula such as ‘from dialectic to analogy'” (37). The first half of the second chapter is a fascinating look at Balthasar’s early work on Barth, works not yet translated into English, leading up to his 1951 monograph on Barth. In the third chapter, he will look at the collapse of Balthasar’s interpretation of Barth among many Catholic and Protestant interpreters today, which includes Long’s evaluation and rejection of Bruce McCormack’s interpretation of Barth. The remaining chapters engage Balthasar and Barth through three dogmatic loci: the doctrine of God (ch. 4), ethics (ch. 5), and the church (ch. 6).

In this post, I will provide just one excerpt that should be of interest to those curious about the book (which should be everybody). Long is analyzing Balthasar’s 1944 essay, “Analogie und Dialektik”:

[Balthasar] did not dismiss dialectic but distinguished dialectic as method from dialectic as ontological contradiction. The latter was particularly found in Romans 2, which was a “demonic attempt to think contradiction through all the way to the end.” Once Barth thought it through, without “short-circuiting” or “evasion,” then it inevitably led to the “horizon of analogy” because dialectic as ontological contradiction is a dead end — literally. All it can do is deny and destroy creation; it is one more instance of German apocalypse. For this reason, dialectic alone cannot express well the basic form of Christianity, the incarnation. What Balthasar and Barth shared in common, a commitment to the incarnation as the form of theology, is also what caused their deepest disagreements. For Balthasar, Barth was never merely a dialectical thinker because he was always a Christocentric theologian. Even in the early period, analogy was tacitly necessary. The issue between Catholicism and Barth, and thus between Catholicism and Protestantism, did not really take the form of analogy versus dialectic. That was misleading. Both agreed, given the incarnation, “analogy” is the necessary form Christian theology must take. The real difference was whether the analogy is of being (entis) or of faith (fidei). This difference mattered. Balthasar named it “the last essential difference” between Catholicism and Protestantism. It had a “deadly seriousness” and was something much more than “idle theological bickering.”

Balthasar may have always heard analogy in Barth’s dialectic, but he also heard “identity” even in the “contradiction” of Romans 2, albeit “horribly distorted.” In other words, these stages were not progressive advances. They were failed attempts to express adequately the Christian form. As he had argued in the 1939 essay “Karl Barth and Catholicism,” so he argues here: Barth’s early work collapsed creaturely being into guilty and sinful being. Thus he lacked an adequate concept of nature. His anthropology did not take the form of the fall of a nature, but the nature of falleness. This left nothing for creatures to do but be negated. This was how dialectic as contradiction collapsed back into identity. If creation can only be negated, then it contributed nothing in the soteriological drama. God will be the lone actor. Balthasar acknowledged this is not what Barth sought to affirm, but it was the logical consequence of dialectic as contradiction if it were consistently carried through.

[Saving Karl Barth, pp. 53-54. Long is translating and quoting from “Analogie und Dialektik,” Divus Thomas 22 (1944), pp. 171-174.]

Long continues to explain precisely what this means, focusing on Balthasar’s distinction between “analogy of being” and “pure nature” (the latter is the real error, a late medieval and Baroque perversion of the former, according to Balthasar). As you can see, Long is able to distill and communicate clearly this rather complex material, which should make the volume accessible even for those students who are fairly new to these debates.

On reading Balthasar

April 24, 2014

Balthasar_Herrlichkeit

I have begun to re-read the first volume of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Herrlichkeit, translated into English as The Glory of the Lord. Herrlichkeit means “glory” or “splendor.” It is the quality of “form” that radiates from being or existence. Balthasar chooses to begin his theological trilogy with this aesthetic quality (7 volumes), proceeded by goodness (5 volumes) and truth (3 volumes) — thereby reversing Kant’s ordering of his Critique series. I am excited to revisit Balthasar, who was a significant influence in my life during the mid-00’s when I first began to read theology, not counting my coursework in Religion/Philosophy as an undergraduate — a program with scarcely any theology at all. At that time, I was just beginning to read Barth on my own, beginning with Romans (which I rather disliked, exciting thought it was) and then Church Dogmatics I.1 (which “saved” Barth in my estimation, from his obvious beholdenness to existential obsessions with finitude). In the years since, I have read the majority of Barth’s CD, hopefully acquiring a pretty good facility with the material. I am certainly the most comfortable with expounding Barth than any other theologian.

Balthasar’s prose is magnificent but often a struggle, much more so than Barth. Newcomers will likely be astonished by me saying this, but I find that Barth is one of the clearest writers in the field. His mastery over prose is unparalleled, even if excessively prolix at times. I always get the sense that Barth says exactly what he wants to say, exactly how he wants to say it — with the greatest of ease. By contrast, I often get the sense that Balthasar is having a monologue with himself! He has so immersed himself within the whole breadth of Western metaphysics, alongside his mystical temperament, that he sometimes forgets he’s writing for an audience. But if you work your way through, the payoff is immeasurable. The awe with which Balthasar envisions reality will slowly but powerfully find its way into your own imagination.

It just so happens that I recently read Bultmann’s small volume, Jesus Christ and Mythology, marking the second work from Bultmann that I’ve read (the other being his NT theology). God willing, I will never read Bultmann again. I thoroughly dislike the man. I am afraid that if I were to express my thoughts, I would far exceed the boundaries of Christian charity. The contrast with Balthasar is like night and day — a rather apt image. At Bultmann’s best, he can attain a certain sublimity, but even that is rare. Beauty is wholly foreign to his theology. If that is the price of faithful authenticity, then I’ll pass.

In order to get a taste of Balthasar, here is one of my favorite passages toward the beginning of the volume:

Beauty is the last thing which the thinking intellect dares to approach, since only it dances as an uncontained splendour around the double constellation of the true and the good and their inseparable relation to one another. Beauty is the disinterested one, without which the ancient world refused to understand itself, a word which both imperceptibly and yet unmistakably has bid farewell to our new world, a world of interests, leaving it to its own avarice and sadness. No longer loved or fostered by religion, beauty is lifted from its face as a mask, and its absence exposes features on that face which threaten to become incomprehensible to man. We no longer dare to believe in beauty and we make of it a mere appearance in order the more easily to dispose of it. Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance. We can be sure that whoever sneers at her name as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past — whether he admits it or not — can no longer pray soon will no longer be able to love. The nineteenth century still held on with passionate frenzy to the fleeing garments of beauty, which are the contours of the ancient world as it dissolves: ‘Helena embraces Faust, her body vanishes, and only her robe and veil remain in his arms….Helena’s garments dissolve into clouds, enveloping Faust. He is raised on high and floats away with the cloud’ (Faust, II, Act 3). The world, formerly penetrated by God’s light, now becomes but an appearance and a dream — the Roman vision — and soon thereafter nothing but music. But where the cloud disperses, naked matter remains as an indigestible symbol of fear and anguish. Since nothing else remains, and yet something must be embraced, twentieth-century man is urged to enter this impossible marriage with matter, a union which finally spoils all man’s taste for love. But man cannot bear to live with the object of his impotence, that which remains permanently unmastered. He must either deny it or conceal it in the silence of death.

In a world without beauty — even if people cannot dispense with the word and constantly have it on the tip of their tongues in order to abuse it — in a world which is perhaps not wholly without beauty, but which can no longer see it or reckon with it: in such a world the good also loses its attractiveness, the self-evidence of why it must be carried out.

[The Glory of the Lord: Seeing the Form, trans. Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, T&T Clark / Ignatius Press: 1982, pp. 18-19]

Wow! You could spend an hour discussing the richness, the penetration, the magnificence of these sentences.

Saving Karl Barth

Among the new releases this year, I am most excited about D. Stephen Long’s Saving Karl Barth: Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Preoccupation (Fortress Press), which is scheduled to be released in a few weeks. Long is a professor of systematic theology at Marquette.

To this day, Balthasar’s The Theology of Karl Barth is among my favorite books and surely among the most influential books in my own theological development. There is no equivalent book on Barth which penetrates with such grace and clarity the depths of Barth’s dogmatic project. Balthasar asks the really important questions, from a Catholic framework that joyfully embraces the “yes” of God toward humanity, from the Incarnation and then outward embracing philosophy, literature, aesthetics, and ecclesiology. Barth is less comfortable with the second move. If Balthasar is correct, the only real option before us is either (1) Barth’s purified Protestantism or (2) the loving arms of Rome! I happen to agree. Yet, Balthasar is also drawing the former toward the latter, or perhaps the other way around.

As many of my readers are already aware, Balthasar’s thesis is that Barth makes a significant move toward (more catholic-friendly) analogy, once Barth sheds the last vestiges of his early existentialism. Once again, I agree — as did Barth. Bruce McCormack at Princeton Seminary, although highly appreciative of Balthasar, has challenged this reading in an important monograph, emphasizing the continuity of Barth’s early rejection of natural theology (especially the second edition of Romans) into his mature dogmatics, with its positive orientation in christology. This debate may be a matter of degree or emphasis. I have been more inclined, with Balthasar, to stress the importance of Barth’s turn toward “the humanity of God,” once he finally parts company with his dialectical colleagues and his own early formulations of a negative “capacity” within man (as found in Kierkegaard). Thus, I am rather content with Barth’s own reading of his development, even if his timetable is a bit off — on this point, see Keith Johnson’s insightful article, “A Reappraisal of Karl Barth’s Theological Development and his Dialogue with Catholicism,” in IJST 14:1 (January 2012).

There are nuances that I am not recounting, but hopefully that will intrigue new students of Barth to purchase Balthasar’s volume on Barth and then Long’s volume. I am open in my own appraisal of these issues, but I will be forever indebted to Balthasar for giving me the right questions.

Axel Haig - Burgos

Philip Nielsen has a nice article on Balthasar’s aesthetics:

“Depicting the Whole Christ: Hans Urs von Balthasar and Sacred Architecture”

Here are a couple of my favorite points:

For Balthasar, a Church totally devoid of images is not something that could concentrate the eyes of the congregation purely on Christ (as many Protestant and even some Catholic thinkers would assert), but is rather much more akin to a Gospel in which half the parables of Christ were removed.

And

…sacred art and architecture should avoid taking on merely human dimensions, seeking rather to preserve the “dissimilarity” between God and his creatures. Sacred architecture’s first duty is to create a sense of “spacing” between God and man. The church, but especially its sanctuary, must clearly depict a distance between God and his creatures. A church that looks like a living room makes an awareness of the difference between Creator and creature more difficult to perceive—it makes it an act of near heroic virtue. “Spacing” can be achieved first and foremost by scale, ornamentation, art, and architectural cues such as rails, screens, stairs, or curtains. All of these elements, insofar as they make the glory of God more clear to the participant, express true beauty. This beauty must lead to God, however, not simply to an aesthetic experience. “The awareness of inherent glory,” writes Balthasar, “gave inspiration to works of incomparable earthly beauty in the great tradition of the Church. But these works become suitable for today’s liturgy only if, in and beyond their beauty, those who take part are not merely moved to aesthetic sentiments but are able to encounter that glory of God.” [Balthasar, New Elucidations, 136.]

Nielsen is a Phd candidate in architecture at Texas A&M and previously studied theology and architecture at the graduate level at the University of Notre Dame.

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Image: Catedral de Burgos, by Axel Haig (1835-1921)

Here are a couple presentations by Dr. Karen Kilby (Nottingham) on the theological work of Hans Urs von Balthasar:

Click here for a list of all seven volumes of The Glory of the Lord and the rest of the trilogy (beauty, ethics, reason).

von Balthasar resource

May 16, 2009

HUvBalthasar

Here is a helpful collection of pretty much everything on the web ever written on/by Hans Urs von Balthasar:

http://hansursvonbalthasar.blogspot.com/

[HT: Phil]