Commending the theological project of Hans Urs von Balthasar A reblog of a First Things article I liked. Edward T. Oakes, S.J., is professor of systematic theology at the University of St. Mary of the Lake, the seminary for the Archdiocese of Chicago. A longer version of this article appears in The Routledge Companion to Modern Christian Thought.
The Concept Of “Trinitarian Inversion”
Ever since Nicaea, it has been received orthodox doctrine that the persons of the Trinity share equally in the divinity. Arius was wrong: No ranking of persons is permitted. Yet Jesus frankly avers that “the Father is greater than I,” and Mark describes Jesus as being driven into the desert by the Spirit. Although the terminology of immanent and economic Trinity comes from the nineteenth century, the distinction goes back to the patristic distinction between “theology” (God considered “in himself”) and “economy” (the Trinity acting in salvation history).
Drawing on this distinction, Balthasar concludes: “Whereas in the immanent Trinity the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son (or through the Son), [in the economy] the Son becomes man through the Spirit and is led by this same Spirit in his mission. As the one who placed himself under the will of the Father in his act of self-emptying, he lets the Spirit, made available by the Father (and who also proceeds from the Father), have power over him as a ‘rule’ of the Father’s will.”
The Son “does this in order to permit this Spirit resting upon him in all fullness to stream out from himself at the end of his mission in death and resurrection (and Eucharist). And the direction of this outpouring goes both to the Father (‘into your hands . . .’) as well as to the Church and world (‘and so he breathed on them’).”
While this perspective is entirely traditional, Balthasar insists that theology has still not grasped its full implications. He tends to look askance at past approaches to Trinitarian theology, which began with treatments of God’s oneness (de Deo uno) and only later took up the specifics of Trinitarian relations (de Deo trino). For him that approach can make it seem as if God’s Trinitarian identity is something secondary, or even something that feels true only for Christians. It is at best misleading, for example, to say that God is love only because God first exists. Rather, the divine persons exist as love; they do not love because they happen to exist. In traditional terminology, Trinitarian relations are subsistent relations.
Of course theo-drama is not merely a matter of God’s Yes to the plight of sinful humanity. Human beings must also respond with their own personal Yes or No — which is often a resounding No to God’s irrevocable Yes. But there is at least one example of a human being born into the drama of salvation who spoke her own total Yes to the Incarnation: the mother of Jesus. This leads to the next important motif in Balthasar’s vast work: his theology of Mary, whom the (Protestant) poet William Wordsworth called “our tainted nature’s solitary boast,” a woman not “the least shade of thought to sin allied.”
Traditionally, the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception spoke of Mary as being free from any “stain” of sin (macula being the Latin word for blot or stain), which links it, at least by implication, with Old Testament purity laws. But Balthasar sees the doctrine more in terms of an unmerited prior grace, that is, of God’s radical inbreaking into salvation history via a totally human Yes to his prior divine Yes:
Somewhere on earth there must ring out, in response to his word, not a half answer but a whole one, not a vague answer but an exact one. . . By the power of heaven, the earth must accept the arrival of grace so that it can really come to earth and carry out its work of liberation . . . [via] a word of consent [that] can only be given to earth from heaven’s treasure house of love.
Although this doctrine is rejected by Protestants, Balthasar’s approach dovetails quite nicely with the Reformation stress on sola gratia: salvation by grace alone. One can hardly “merit” grace, after all, until one first exists; but Mary received this special grace, by definition, at her conception.
Furthermore, far from denying Christ’s unique and irreplaceable role in effecting salvation, this doctrine, properly interpreted, relies on it:
“God’s action in reconciling the world to himself in the Cross of Christ is exclusively his initiative: There is no original ‘collaboration’ between God and the creature,” Balthasar insists. But the creature’s “femininity” possesses an original, God-given, active fruitfulness; it was essential, therefore, if God’s Word willed to become incarnate in the womb of a woman, to elicit the latter’s agreement and obedient consent. . . . But where did the grace that made this consent possible come from — a consent that is adequate and therefore genuinely unlimited — if not from the work of reconciliation itself, that is, from the Cross? (And of course the Cross is rendered possible only through Mary’s consent.)
This he describes as “a circle — in which the effect is the cause of the cause,” one that required centuries of reflection before it could be articulated in the dogma of the Immaculate Conception.
Balthasar’s provocation is that he implies that the denial of the dogma encourages a kind of Pelagian Mariology. For if Mary had been tainted by sin, there would have to be in her an element of struggle against sin, one born of her own natural powers, which would imply a blemish of works-righteousness in her assent. Not of course that the singular grace she received made her less free; for it has been the consistent doctrine of the Church (especially those most heavily influenced by St. Augustine) that the freedom to sin is no freedom at all. Mary’s Yes to God in her fiat is entirely free precisely because it is entirely a graced assent.
For that same reason, Mary can be called “Mother of the Church,” for the Church’s true identity must also include being the “spotless and pure bride” spoken of by St. Paul, a Church “without stain, wrinkle, or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.” Such does not currently obtain, of course, in the Church that Augustine called a corpus mixtum, but it is surely the Church that Christ intends and that was accordingly instantiated at the first moment of the earthly existence of his mother, who thereby becomes the Church’s truest identity.
Christ’s Church must also, of course — even in her empirical reality and despite her ongoing sinfulness — reflect in herself somethingof that same holiness Paul speaks of. This holiness is “guaranteed,” so to speak, in the ecclesial structures established by Christ. According to Balthasar, Christian discipleship must live out and reflect Christ’s love, a love that went “to the end,” as John says. “Definitiveness is inherent in self-surrender,” Balthasar explains. “A self-surrender that is temporary is not a genuine self-surrender; at best it is but a preliminary, tentative, experimental stage — a prelude to genuine self-surrender.”
Such definitive commitment is reflected in the Church in two ways: the ordained ministry (the call to which entails a lifelong commitment) and a vowed life of following the evangelical counsels in a religious order or some similar foundation (like the so-called “secular institutes,” one of which Balthasar founded with the physician Adrienne von Speyr). The two states can overlap, of course, in the case of orders comprised mostly of priests, but the distinction between the two states of life is important and goes all the way back to the behavior of John and Peter at the tomb of Jesus on Easter Sunday.
“The priestly state,” writes Balthasar, “requires the closer following of Christ only indirectly by reason of the office it confers, whereas the evangelical state requires it directly by reason of the personal way of life it entails. . . . This latter state of life has its source wholly in the cross of Christ and is, therefore, solely his foundation. It is possible as a way of life only after Christ, its model, had walked the way of redemption.”
This does not in any way imply a lesser dignity to the lay state, as if the laity were some undifferentiated mass from which a few select chosen ones are called. (Before the Second Vatican Council, Catholics who entered a convent, monastery, or seminary were often said to have “entered religion” or “entered the Church,” a usage that has fortunately fallen by the wayside.) For laypeople, too, know a life of the vowed state, in marriage, which Paul explicitly likens to the marriage of Christ to his bride, the Church. Vows, in other words, are an essential aspect of Christian discipleship. Balthasar sees that true love wants to pledge itself to lifelong commitment: “We do not have to urge love to action, but rather to restrain it.” And this will be true no matter what the state of life might be in which the Christian lives: lay, religious, or priestly.
Rejection of the call to commitment is of course always possible, and Balthasar can be quite unsparing when he portrays the consequences of a call rejected: unfilial children, quiet desperation in one’s profession, ceaseless carping at the flaws in the Church, and so forth. But behind these refusals, there lurks a deeper rejection at work in history: the one that rejects out of hand Christ’s claim to absolute singularity, which brings up the final motif, his eschatology and his idea of the “crescendoing No.”
Balthasar has often been accused of Origenism because of his radical insistence that all rebellion against God has already been anticipated, expiated, and absorbed by God’s all-trumping love in the fires of Christ’s descent into hell on Holy Saturday. Such an accusation, however, can be sustained only by ignoring important texts in his corpus that argue the contrary. True, he has no patience with any doctrine of limited atonement or double predestination, an impatience that emerged most clearly in his influential book on Karl Barth, who famously held that the one who was truly predestined and reprobated was Christ on the cross.
Balthasar also openly insists that revelation has not vouchsafed us any “information” about the final outcome of theo-drama. Contrary to Augustine’s views, one may not extrapolate from salvation history (Abel, not Cain; Jacob, not Esau; Israel, not the nations; Peter, not Judas) to any certain judgment about the ultimate fate of the human race. Here his hostility to “system” comes to special prominence. Moreover, the Church prays for the salvation of all mankind in her liturgy, which would be wrong to do if the outcome were already known. Therefore, we must hope for the salvation of all, even if that is the “hope against hope” Paul describes in Romans.
But hope is not the same thing as expectation. The Church, as the body of Christ and therefore as the continuation of his presence on earth, is bound to elicit opposition and persecution, which will not only continue but will build to a crescendo as history moves to its culmination in the Last Assizes:
“In making his provocative claim to have reconciled the world in God, Jesus never suggested that he was creating an earthly paradise. The kingdom of God will never be externally demonstrable (Luke 17:21); it grows, invisibly, perpendicular to world history, and the latter’s fruits are already in God’s barns.” Man tries to create the kingdom of God on earth, but the “power that resists the powerlessness of the Cross” will destroy itself, “for it bears the principle of self-annihilation within it by saying No to the claim of Christ.
And so we are brought to the following formulation, extravagant though it may seem: Mankind’s self-destruction is the only foreseeable end to the world, left to itself, and the only end it deserves, insofar as it prefers to hoard what is its own (power, mammon) rather than to gather with Christ. It has already decided its own fate.”
Far from being optimistic about the world, then, Balthasar is in fact ominously apocalyptic in his vision of the outcome of history. Once Christ enters human history, rejection of him entails an absolutizing of the relative. Death is staved off with a mania for pleasure, health clubs, and advanced medical technology (terminating, ironically enough, in physician-assisted suicide); falling in love becomes a substitute for loving God with one’s whole heart, soul, and mind (as when Juliet calls her Romeo “the god of my idolatry”); and devotion to art leads to the type of man Søren Kierkegaard described, trapped in the aesthetic sphere, so bored with life that he wakes up one day to find himself dead.
No wonder atheism has become so aggressive of late. “Human reason, in its secularizing role in world history,” Balthasar writes, “prevents those who reject Jesus’ provocation from returning to a ‘numinous’ worldview in which the divine and worldly commingle, unseparated.” This creates the conditions for what he calls “post-Christian atheism”:
For when nature is deprived of divinity, the presence of the Creator within it fades. To the observer who sees matters only in terms of the useful, God disappears into the background. This is a natural process, and to it corresponds the claim of Jesus to be “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6) — a claim that attracts to itself and concentrates all the religious aspirations of mankind.
Jesus’ declaration that “no one comes to the Father except by me” does not, Balthasar continues, “deny the ultimate salvation of all who do not know him and adhere to other religions; [but] he is saying that the latter religions do not mediate salvation: He alone does.” This affects the other religions themselves. When this teaching becomes “sufficiently well known to mankind, the other religions (those that still remain) are bound to acquire a certain anti-Christian slant. They will try to appropriate all the features of the religion of Jesus that seem to commend it to mankind.”
One great advantage I draw from reading Balthasar comes from the way his theology makes sense of the current situation. Every fair observer of the contemporary scene recognizes the fierce persecution Christians are now facing from two fronts: from aggressively secular societies of the former Christian lands and from countries with Muslim majorities. Even inside the world of Christian theology, relativizing the claims of Christ has now become the order of the day. Balthasar’s theology of the crescendoing No, in my opinion, best accounts for this dolorous situation. Furthermore, by insisting that the claims of and for Christ be taken on their own terms, freed from any mitigating ministrations by liberals inside and outside the precincts of the Church, he has given a solid theological basis for the New Evangelization.
Finally, I must also add his efforts to fuse Christian spirituality with the rigors of a dogmatic theology that can draw on the vast treasures of the Christian tradition. According to Balthasar, theology made a fateful split between devotional and dogmatic theology with the advent of universities in the high Middle Ages, when “school theology” (scholasticism) injected a new scientific rigor into theological method. While beneficial in many ways, this move to the university made theology arcane to the ordinary Christian, while so-called “spiritual” writers such as Thomas à Kempis poured scorn on a life of learning as detrimental to the devout life. Fortunately, in Balthasar rigor and devotion have been reunited. As Pascal says, “Pious scholars are rare.” But they do occasionally appear.
I predict that Hans Urs von Balthasar will continue to be read for as long as Christians draw sustenance from theology.