We continue exploring the theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar with Fr. Aidan Nichols. See previous post, Balthasar and the Beautiful 1 for full intro.
The Relation Of Apologetics To Dogmatics
One important corollary of Balthasar’s estimate of the respective roles of the subjective and objective evidence for Christian revelation is a shift — for those inclined to accept his approach – in the relation of apologetics to dogmatic theology. These are two of the most important branches of Christian thought, so this is no bagatelle. Through his theological aesthetics, Balthasar seeks to modify the currently understood picture of apologetics by presenting apologetics as incipient dogmatics. For Balthasar, investigating the motives of credibility — the ways in which revelation commends itself to us on the ordinary rational level – is constantly on the point of trembling into loving prostration before the figure of the Word incarnate.
Here a bit of background may be useful. There were Christian apologists from the first generations of the Church after the apostles. But the first Catholic theologian to treat the issue of apologetics in a fully systematic fashion is usually reckoned to be the thirteenth-century German Dominican St Albert the Great. His `antecedents of the act of faith’, antecedentia fidei, include the most important theses of what we now call fundamental theology.
They concern especially the metaphysical presuppositions of divine revelation, the fact of such divine revelation in Christ, and the character of Scripture as the witness to that revelation. One question Albert did not settle clearly was the relation of these `antecedents’ to the certainty aspect of faith. The problem of the kind of certainty produced by apologetic argumentation and its relation to the free and supernatural character of the act of faith was one that long troubled the Schoolmen.
Some masters of the early High Scholastic period — such as William of Auxerre, William of Auvergne, and Philip the Chancellor — admitted two sorts of faith. The motives of credibility were said to produce `intellectual faith’ (other terms were also in use), which, said these thinkers, should be distinguished from faith in the full theological sense of the word.
Merely intellectual faith, precisely because it rested on the rational force of arguments, had neither the religious nor the moral value of the virtue of theological faith — properly Christian faith — in the strict sense. That virtue is virtuous precisely because it has the character of an unconditional response to God as the `First Truth’, Prima Veritas, made possible by sharing in a more than natural light — by sharing a light, in fact, that is the light of supernatural faith proper, called by the Scholastics the lumen fidei.
It is noteworthy that both Albert and Thomas are disinclined to give what the cathedral masters called `intellectual faith’ or some synonym thereof the title of `faith’ at all. The motives of credibility — such considerations as the Savior’s miracles and his fulfillment of prophecy, the sublimity of his teaching and his ethical perfection — may make people certain in some kind of adhering to the bearer of revelation (such adhering was sometimes known as certitude adhaesionis, `certainty of adhesion’). But this is not as yet the recognition of Jesus Christ as the very Word of the Father.
Over against, in particular, early Deist thinkers, Catholic writers from the sixteenth century onwards stressed the importance of the rational motives of credibility. Though in the later part of that century, owing to the challenge of Protestantism, a section `on the Church’, de Ecclesia, was customarily added to Catholic treatises on apologetics, the main content of Catholic apologetics for divine revelation did not differ greatly from that treated by their Protestant counterparts.
The classic Catholic representatives of this stream undertook to prove the principles of both natural and revealed religion, moving through an account of natural theology and natural law to treatment of the possibility, utility and necessity of supernatural revelation, and the features of miracle and fulfilled prophecy which (especially) enable one to recognize a divine mission in act, the whole thing ending up with a discussion of the claims of the Church and the principles of Catholic faith. From the mid-eighteenth century on, this structure remains largely constant up until the manuals in use in the 1920s and beyond.13
This was so even if in another way these treatises were always being modified, pouring into the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century mould discussions with such thinkers as Kant, Hegel, Schelling, Darwin, the history-of-religions school of empirical scholarship, Liberal Protestantism and Modernism. But by the time Balthasar was setting out to begin his lifelong study of Christian thought, in the 1920s and 1930s, some Catholic philosophers and theologians were declaring a degree of dissatisfaction with the entire approach.
Why might that be? The main criticism, and one Balthasar largely shared, was that such treatises claimed to establish the fact of divine revelation without ever envisaging the meaning of its content. Painting with broad brush-strokes: in these works the relation of supernatural truth to human realities was not manifest. And while that relation wholly exceeds what human beings could ever expect, so Balthasar would want to add, the wonderful character of that excess was not brought home.
Presumably the Gospel offers an intelligible message — something we are meant to understand, even if this `something’, by its grandeur, also stretches our powers to a point where only the gracious enhancement of our capacities can serve our turn. (Where the appropriate paradigm of knowledge is love, then understanding and mystery will develop together, in direct proportion to each other.)
But such was the emphasis on the proof of revelation by arguments external to itself that this intelligibility (even if it were an intelligibility with a depth of mystery to it) failed to make a proper appearance in justifying revelation’s claims. Hence the critical epithet ‘extrinsicist’ applied to these schemes: the supernatural order seemed to be externally added on to the natural as an autonomous supplement, rather than fully integrated with the natural and suitably interiorized there.
Where Catholic apologetics was concerned, the single most influential dissentient voice was the French philosopher and lay theologian Maurice Blondel. Without disputing that some place should be given to the considerations adduced in early modern apologetics, Blondel proposed to give the lion’s share, in any commendation of revealed religion, to an account of how the internal logic of the act of faith corresponds to the `logic’ of the highest kind of human activity we know: namely, when we set out to discern meaning — and (especially) the fullness of meaning — in human life at large.
It is not enough to adduce arguments to show the fact of divine attestation to Jesus. The mystery of Christ must be presented as throwing light on the whole human condition. The question is not so much to prove by miraculous facts the rights of Jesus as divine legate (though this is certainly not illegitimate, and can even be called necessary), but, in Balthasarian terms, to discern in the `figure’ of Jesus, his acts and destiny, a divine-human presence penetrating and transforming our sense of relation with God, with the world, with other persons and indeed with ourselves. In so doing, the Revealer, so we discern, confers on human history the weight of eternity.
Naturally enough, this cannot be done without treating the content of revelation from within, rather than simply the fact of revelation from without. What Balthasar is attempting in the Theological aesthetics coheres with much of this Blondelian programme, though his manner of pursuing its agenda is entirely is own. Certainly, Balthasar had no desire to replace an extrinsicist apologetics with an apologetics of natural immanence. As he wrote:
[T]he tradition never set the criterion for the truth of revelation in the centre of the pious human subject, it never measured the abyss of grace by the abyss of need or sin, it never judged the content of dogma according to its beneficial effects on human beings. The Spirit does not reveal himself,- he reveals the Father in the Son, who has become man. And the Son never allows himself to become re-absorbed in the human spirit …
How then does Balthasar proceed? His first step is to show that beauty is a possible vehicle for divine self-manifestation. As we have seen, considered ontologically, beauty is not just a property of all created things qua created. What appears in the beauty of created forms is the radiance of being, der Glanz des Seins. Beauty thus speaks of the meaning of that which transcends and yet inheres in all existents.
Secondly, Balthasar treats beauty as the vehicle of the actual revelation of God in Christ, a revelation made when the eternal manifests itself in a concrete, material form, breaking into this world, as beauty does, numinously (for beauty, in words Balthasar liked to quote from Rilke’s Duino Elegies, is the beginning of the terrible). In the case of revelation, this means the eternal breaking in with the glory that truly inheres in the form of Jesus Christ.
The epiphany of this form is not just sheerly overwhelming, however, for exploration of the career and fate of Jesus shows it is an intelligible history. This form is a narrative form, and the meaning of the story is divine love. Here the content and the form are one since both are wonderful. The content is as marvelously beautiful as is the form, and Balthasar’s explanation for this is that both content and form reflect love. Love shares the structure of beauty. It confronts us with the mystery of the otherness of some other and calls forth a corresponding wonder and admiration.
Thirdly and finally, Balthasar develops his theological aesthetics in two parts that are, however, strongly unified as well as distinct. And this two-in-one exposition spans the separate treatises of (early modern and modern) apologetics and dogmatics. This is so because Balthasar’s aesthetics is not only an epistemological investigation of the kind of `seeing’ involved in faith. It is also a doctrine of what he terms `ecstasy’. There is `ecstasy’, first, in the going out (in Greek, ek-stasis) of the Godhead in weakness into the world as the manifestation of the love that is interior to the divine glory.
There is `ecstasy’, secondly, in the way the believer is seized by the divine glory in this revelation in Jesus Christ and is taken up thereby into a share in the life of God himself. Ecstasy, so understood, contains in principle all the main themes of dogmatics — the Trinity, Christology, the doctrines of justification and sanctification, as well as of the sacraments, the Church and eschatology, the Last Things. Faith is a response to the radiance of what St Thomas calls the bonum promissum, the beautifully ordered whole of salvation that is offered to us, exceeding any such `whole’ that exists within the world.”
So what we have here is a tendency to elide, without however ever completely denying, the distinction between apologetics and dogmatics just because Balthasar wants to elide, without however ever completely denying, the distinction between what the Schoolmen called `certainty of adhesion’ and the virtue of theological faith properly so called — the faith that, corresponded to in loving conversion, justifies and saves.
Balthasar can proceed in this direction because he doesn’t think that what explains the act of faith is simply rationally available materials plus an elevation of human judgment by supernatural light. In his view, there is not only God’s gracious supplying of more light with which to judge materials accessible to any reasonable person supplied with appropriate historical data about Jesus and arguments to back up those data. There is also, he maintains, a `light’ that shines forth from those materials themselves in their beautiful ordering in Jesus’ person, life and work.
The act of faith needs both kinds of light: light from within where God can affect my powers of knowing and willing internally, since as my Creator he is closer to me than I am to myself, and light from without — light striking one from Jesus Christ himself as a figure in history who is made palpable to me in the preaching and Liturgy of the Church. On the one hand, the glory of the divine self-emptying in Jesus Christ can be seen only by `eyes of faith’ when God has prepared me interiorly to be receptive to Christ. On the other hand, the `eyes of faith’ can only see when the light of faith falls on them from the divine form that Jesus is. What the eyes of faith see when this interplay of light works as it should is the opening of the divine heart in love, the self-disclosure of the Trinity.
Conclusion On Aesthetics
It is in the lives of saints and mystics that the inspired seeing which animates the Christian life in general and theological aesthetics in particular is most fully in act. Balthasar identifies its key as humility, which is the readiness to accept the gift of the divine love as it is, to appreciate the necessary and rightness of the form of the divine revelation as we are given it.
Much of Balthasar’s celebrated concern with the practice of holiness as precondition of fruitful theologizing belongs here; adoration and obedience follow from humility, and draw good theology in their train. Henri de Lubac once contrasted Balthasar’s theology with Hegel’s. Whereas Hegel called his own thought `speculative Good Friday’, de Lubac calls Balthasar’s a `contemplative Holy Saturday’.
Evidently, I note in passing, de Lubac was not `phased’ by Balthasar’s theology of the Descent into Hell which turns, of course, on the events of the first Holy Saturday: perhaps he realized that for Balthasar while the Descent is, unlike for most of Catholic tradition, the end-point of the mysteries of Christ’s humiliation, it is also, in keeping with Catholic tradition, the starting-point of the mysteries of hi exaltation.
The useful phrase `contemplative Holy Saturday’ in the wider meaning de Lubac intended for it, brings out the degree to which Balthasar’s material dogmatics are informed by his fundamental theological insight into the nature of faith a contemplative seeing, as well as the extent to which his theology centers on the self-emptying of the Son of God which reached full term in the Descent into Hell.
It also reminds us that the final volumes of the theological aesthetics consist in a reading of the Old and New Testament. Balthasar at the close of this massive work turns again to the Bible in the hope that, now we grasp what is at stake in theological aesthetics, we can read the Scriptures with new eyes. If we do so, we shall see how though the New Testament’s amazing consummation of the Old, the mystery of all creation, man included, received its definitive interpretation as the hidden presence of Absolute Love, to which, in its luminous, bountiful and exuberant character, beauty’s qualities of clarity, integrity and proportion, by analogy, belong.
See too how the recipients of God’s self-revelation — ourselves — receive thereby the call to make the divine visible in charity, the specifically Christian love of God and neighbor, the intended moral outcome of Balthasar’s entire work. These statements are not only conclusions drawn from his theological aesthetics. They are also anticipations of the message of his theological dramatics and theological logic as well.