The third in a series from a chapter in Fr. Nichol’s introduction to the Hans Ur von Balthazar’s Aesthetics, The Word Has Been Abroad.
Despite all that has been said so far about the hiddenness which hangs about the revelatory form, the dialectic of revelation and concealment is basically resolved in favor of revelation, for the hiddenness is now not the non-appearing depth of the being revealed, but the overwhelmingness of its totally open disclosure.
God’s incomprehensibility is now no longer a mere deficiency in knowledge but the positive manner in which God determines the knowledge of faith: this is the overpowering and overwhelming inconceivability of the fact that God has loved us so much that he surrendered his only Son for us, the fact that the God of plenitude has poured himself out, not only into creation, but emptied himself into the modalities of an existence determined by sin, corrupted by death and alienated from God. This [alone] is the concealment that appears in his self-revelation.
[Glory of the Lord I, p. 461]
Jesus Christ Himself As Centre Of The Form
Which seems a good point at which to move onto Christ as the centre or mid-point of the revelatory form. Here Balthasar discusses such themes as the plausibility of the Christ-form, its measure and quality, power and uniqueness, and how its rejection or misapprehension can be explained theologically. Essentially, this section of the theological aesthetics is Balthasar’s engagement with other, conflicting Christologies; it contains some of his sharpest writing in this otherwise serene if passionate work, and notably his most acerbic remarks about the contemporary critical study of the Gospels.
For Balthasar Christ is the centre of the form of revelation: that is, he alone makes the total form of supernatural revelation coherent and comprehensible. The plausibility of Christianity stands or falls with Jesus Christ. To support such an edifice the foundation must be indestructibly solid: it cannot deal in mere probabilities, or in subjective evidence alone.
Despite the richness of his doctrine of the subjective evidence for revelation, here Balthazar is firm. The subjective conditions for the possibility of seeing an object for what it is must not be allowed to intrude on the description of that object’s intrinsic authority — in Balthazar’s terms the constitution of its ‘objective evidence’.
Even the scholastic axiom that ‘whatever is received is received according to the mode of the receiver’ is to be brushed aside in this context along with those of its modern variants which would have it that the object in question requires a categorical or existential prior understanding, some idea or some felt human need to which it can correspond. For, in a most important programmatic statement:
if Christ is what he claims to be, then he cannot be so dependent on subjective conditions as to be hindered by them from making himself wholly understandable to man nor, contrariwise, can man, without his grace, supply the sufficient conditions of receiving him with full understanding.”
[Glory of the Lord I, p. 465]
Here hermeneutics, whether cultural or philosophical, are sent packing, on the grounds that One who is both God and man cannot but draw what is universally valid in human life and thought to himself. Balthazar’s aesthetic Christology will consist in bringing out the form and content of Christ’s revelation as the New Testament presents it.
In the last analysis, Christ is the all-important form because he is the all-sufficient content, the only Son of the Father. The aim will be, first, to show the interior rightness and intrinsic power of this form — as we might ascribe that to a sovereign work of art or a mathematical formula of extraordinary precision as well is beauty, and secondly, to point up its power to transform all existence by its light.
Balthazar’s essential objection to much modern Gospel study is that by, for instance, bracketing the Trinitarian dimension of the unfolding form of the Redeemer, or its issue in the bodily resurrection, or by decomposing that form into, on the one hand, a Jesus of history and, on the other, a Christ of faith, it renders the rest of the New Testament – beyond the Gospels — unintelligible. As he remarks, each element is ‘plausible only within the wholeness of the image’. [Glory of the Lord I, p. 467]
And here, so as not to anticipate excessively the fuller Christological exposition of the final volume of Herrlichkeit, I shall simply sketch some of the aspects of the Christ-form which Balthasar regards as foundational. Under ‘measure and form’, for instance, he deals with the perfect concordance between Christ’s mission and his existence, something which is, he shows, not merely a Johannine theologoumenon but a given of the Synoptic tradition for which Jesus identified his existence with his divine mandate — which explains why without hesitation he could throw that existence onto the weighing-scales of history.
Moreover, as the identity between the divine demand and the human fulfillment he is the measure, the norm of right relations, first with God and then, since God wills it so, with neighbor: thus the Pauline identification of Jesus as the ‘righteousness of God’ is but the re-expression of the Synoptic testimony of how he claimed for himself an authoritative power, manifest according to his hearers in his words, and sovereignly communicated to his followers.
Punning on the German words for ‘to tune’ and ‘to be in tune’ as well as for a ‘pitch’ of music or of mood, and hence in the latter case, for ‘disposition’, as well as ‘harmony’ and ‘concordance’ — here Balthasar’s study of the Swiss Romantic theologian Gugler has stood him in good stead, he draws the theologically aesthetic conclusion that, by transference into the kingdom of the Word’s marvelous light ‘we already participate in the sphere where things are fundamentally right and attuned and where, therefore, if we so will it, things can be similarly right for us as well’. And, reverting to the language of measure, while addressing the issue of Jesus and his community, he writes:
With the appearance of Christ, the Church is already posited: that is to say, his appearance is the measure which God applies to the world, the measure God has already communicated to the world, bestowed on the world, as a measure of grace and not of judgment, as a freely conferred measure which no one can arrogate to himself but which is given in such a way that anyone so desiring can take it to himself.
[Glory of the Lord I, p. 478]
According to Balthasar anyone with an ‘eye for quality’ can see the difference in this phenomenon as it unfolds. He notes, with Pascal, how the evidential power of this form does no violence to personal freedom and decision: since love is its content, it cannot impose but only testify to its own authenticity – this is where Balthasar locates the Marcan messianic secret and the Johannine hidden glory. He records the inner harmony of the form: no mistake in its construction or proportions is discernible.
The interrelatedness of the different aspects is such that, while each aspect, taken in isolation, could be considered questionable, nonetheless the balance that dominates the whole does not allow the definitive elimination of any one aspect
[Glory of the Lord I, p. 486]
This interdependence of aspects of the Four Gospels as, in their convergent totality, they left the hands of their final redactors, though frequently denied by historical-critical exegesis, accounts for the fascination of the Christ-form not only to ecclesial contemplation but also to academic exegesis itself which — Balthasar cunningly remarks — cannot turn away from its object even as it fiercely disputes it.
The complexity of this form does not, however, overthrow its unity, though Christ’s particular kind of unity requires a glance that traces a course back into the very mystery of God’, since he is both himself and another — the divine being. In the mystery of divine freedom, as in that of art, a supreme freedom can coincide with a perfect obedience or necessity. An aria by Mozart could hardly be other than it is, yet it has all of Schiller’s definition of beauty as erscheinende Freiheit, ‘freedom appearing’.
Balthasar links such ‘necessary freedom’ to what he terms the effortlessness of Jesus’ self-representation, his simplicity. It is a simplicity sought for by all the religions of Asia but never found by them since — disastrously — they seek it in technique as well as — fatally — aiming at God through bypassing man. In contrast, Christ’s simplicity is a lived sharing in the divine simplicity, from a centre (Balthasar is referring to the hypostatic union) where the duality of God and man is bridged and God’s Word has become indistinguishable from its human expression.
All of this makes the form of Christ both inherently powerful and unique. We sometimes note of a great work of art its power to touch and even alter the lives of those who come into contact with it. Such power, duanamis, Paul ascribes to Christ not only in his resurrection but also — already — in his cross. Taken by itself, the image of Christ would remain merely two-dimensional.
Only the power which the New Testament goes on to identify as ‘Holy Spirit’ gives that image plasticity and vitality so that it can form, transform, the lives of believers. Even if it is only in the Spirit of the resurrection and Pentecost that Jesus becomes Lord, as the Spirit bestows on form and on the gospel an interior vitality — the intrinsic power these need if they are to impress themselves (whether on the individual disciple in justification or on the apostolic preaching itself), nonetheless this same Spirit proceeds from Christ.
He is the dynamism which Christ radiates. Included in the objective evidence for revelatory form is, therefore, the existence of the Christian saints, for their enthusiasm — and here Balthasar distances himself from Ronald Knox’s pejorative use of that term in the history of spirituality — constitutes a precise response to the precision of the image of Jesus drawn by the Spirit.
But this form is not only powerful. It is also unique. Jesus escapes classification by any typology known to comparative religion, religious phenomenology or cultural anthropology. He differs from other religious founders who proposed to reveal a way by declaring himself to be the way, identifying himself with the ‘myth’ of the sacrificed but fructifying grain which he preaches. Whereas they underwent experiences of conversion, enlightenment, rapture, his teaching is identified with his entire existence. He achieves no divine apotheosis through the successful crowning of a human drama, but the drama of his human dissolution becomes the revelation of divine love.
In contrast to the other schemes of salvation on offer, he neither negates the being of the world for the sake of divine being nor restores some divine primordial principle of worldly being now obscured; instead he negates the decadent mode of the world’s existence in its alienation from God, lifting it up through the exercise of his sacrificial charity — thus simultaneously recognizing both the foundational goodness of created being and its radical need of redemption.
In disclosing the mystery of the Trinity, and its indissoluble yet unconfused union with humanity in his own person, he also solves the central problem of religious metaphysics, that problem of the One and the Many which has defeated all other religions, constrained as they are to remain midway between the One and the Many, as with Islam, or to abolish the Many for the sake of One, as in Asiatic mysticism, or to incorporate the One into the Many as in polytheism and pantheism.
At the same time, the Christ-form is not unique in such a fashion that it appears as a bolt from the blue, unrelated to all about it. On the contrary, it is related, through the Old Testament, to the treasury of natural religious forms found it human experience, related, then, to an overall order of which, however, it does not itself form part. Its uniqueness is all the more striking for being set within a general historical determinateness, and as Balthasar points out:
By fulfilling in himself Israel’s message of promise, Christ at the same time makes historical contact, through Israel, with mankind’s religious forms, and in this way, too, he fulfills not only Israel’s expectation but the longing of all peoples.
[Glory of the Lord I, p. 498]
His form relates to itself ‘as the ultimate centre the comparative uniqueness of all other forms and images of the world’, whatever their source.
By now enough has been said to indicate how the misapprehension – the mistaking — of this form is feasible. As Balthasar puts it; ‘A whole symphony cannot be recorded on a tape that is too short.’ The ‘shortness’ may lie in our not making sufficient space for God’s almightiness, the range of his possibilities. It may lie in a premature decision not to attend to certain of the Christ-form’s interdependent parts (for Balthasar, heresy is the ‘selective disjoining of parts’). Or it may lie in erecting a screen which foreshortens the image cast by the divine Glory, owing to some prior methodological, conceptual or historic-religious commitment, or any combination thereof.
And behind all of these things there lies the mystery of iniquity, the ‘darkness which does not see, recognize or receive the Light’. The tone of the preacher, never wholly silent in Balthasar’s theology, returns with peculiar vigour at the close of his account of the objective revelatory form when he delineates, in conclusion, the figure of the apostate.
Through and through he remains branded by the image he rejects: with terrible power this image leaves its imprint on his whole existence, which blazes brilliantly in the fire of denial. Wherever the fugitive may turn his glance he is met by the ‘eyes like flames of fire’, he hears the ‘voice like the roar of mighty waters’, he feels the ‘sharp two-edged sword from his mouth’, and he hides in vain from the ‘face like the sun blazing with full strength’. (Apocalypse. I:14ff.)
[Glory of the Lord I, p. 4524-525]