Hans Urs von Balthasar, a Swiss theologian, is widely considered one of the greatest theologians of the twentieth century. He wrote over 60 works of theology, spirituality and philosophy, including his great trilogy: the 7 volume work The Glory of the Lord, the five volume work Theo-Drama, and the three volume work Theo-Logic. His most famous individual works include Prayer, Heart of the World, Mysterium Paschale and Cosmic Liturgy. “Just as Love Alone Is Credible captures the essence of the seven-volume The Glory of the Lord, so does Engagement with God explain his five-volume Theo-Drama. But in Engagement with God von Balthasar does more: by setting his account of the drama of Christian discipleship against the anti-Christian ideologies of the 1960s von Balthasar brings his theology to bear on the highest cost of discipleship — martyrdom — by seeing the martyr as the mirror of God’s own involvement in the human race through his own martyred Son. One can hardly read a more sober, and yet exhilarating, account of what it means to live committed to God’s own commitment to the world.
Jesus as God’s Involvement
The Old Covenant afforded us a superlatively clear picture of the God who chooses freely and of man, chosen that he might be free. It showed us their meeting and engaging with one another in a relationship of grace and obedience, of love given and love returned; and that this return of love determines the whole man in his religious, ethical, devotional, and secular existence. If we look now at the New Testament and say that the divine involvement reaches its consummation in the man, Jesus of Nazareth, does not then the whole scheme we have just outlined threaten to concertina?
For in Jesus of Nazareth, God’s word to us becomes simultaneously man’s response to him, the God who chooses becomes mingled with man who is the object of this choice, and it is reasonable to fear that the ordered relationship of distance and proximity between God and man might become confused, that God might finally become totally absorbed in manhood and that man might then be able to consider himself endowed with the dignity of Godhood. It is a foolhardy risk that God takes in allowing his Word to “be made man” in Jesus, and it is because God is prepared to risk even the cross and the state of God-abandonment that Paul can speak of “the foolishness of God”.
The fact that Jesus is the ultimate expression of the divine involvement is evident in a doctrine, central to primitive and, indeed, pre-Pauline Christianity and summed up in the phrase pro nobis — “on our behalf”. “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all” [sharing our lost condition] (Romans 8:32).
And the Son is not content to submit passively or unwillingly, for he takes on the Father’s attitude of self-giving. “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, [and] … he was buried” (1Corinthians 15:3-4); “the Son of God … loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). The Son’s devotion expressed the Father’s condescension, which proves his overflowing love for the world (see John 3:16). One can next see this gesture simply as a radical expression of God’s action in choosing that we saw in the Old Testament.
Then this choosing was basically the means by which Israel was liberated from the “slavery of Egypt”, and through which she became for the first time a real people. A people, however, possesses at least an element of freedom and autonomy; and by declaring Israel to be his own peculiar possession, God thus in advance liberates her from all other rulers, whether they be the kings of this world or angelic powers (see Deuteronomy 32:8).
And in proportion as Israel denied the fact that she was God’s own possession, so she forfeited this at the expense of her unique kind of freedom and became subject to some foreign power, suffering even the exile to Babylon and later in her history, subjection to Hellenistic princes and Roman emperors. God’s final involvement in Jesus, however, results in effecting in man that final freedom which is described by both Paul (see Galatians 5:2) and John (see John 8:32).
This is freedom not only from political oppression, but from every kind of cosmic power: from fate, from the compelling lure of sin, from a state of estrangement from God, from the instinctive urge toward self-defense, aggression, and murder, from dissipation among all that is vain and futile, and finally from death itself. The effective working of all these forces is thereby crippled, rendered impotent, and destroyed (see 1 Corinthians 15:24-26).
This, however, is only possible because these forces are conquered not from outside or from above, but from within by the process of God’s “self-emptying” in the person of his Son, by his becoming obedient “even unto death”, and (as the sign of Jonah prefigures) by his descending into the depths of the abyss, in order that man may not be left with any anti-divine experience that God himself has not undergone, which he might count as peculiarly his own and use as a means of “getting back” at his Maker.
It is necessary that all cosmic forces should be completely disarmed by God himself, in order that he may bring man, now liberated, back home to the open spaces of the divine freedom. Had Jesus in fact been merely a man, he would never have been able to have been himself the very embodiment of God’s mighty act of liberation.
The fact that those freed by the divine action still live in the world does not mean that they belong to the world, as though possessed by the world and incorporated into its structure. They are indeed in themselves finite individuals, but are no longer in slavery for — through the process of dying and rising with Christ — they have broken through into the infinity and freedom of God himself. “
But if Christ is in you, although your bodies are dead because of sin, your spirits are alive because of righteousness” (Romans 8:10). In these words Paul describes the essential freedom of the Christian, in the middle of his continuing solidarity with humanity that has fallen prey to death. For as Christ of his free love yielded himself willingly to be bound under obedience to fate, death, and dereliction, thereby breaking their compelling hold, so the Christian preserves a deep and inward freedom while continuing to live among these earthly powers and ordinances (see Matthew 1.7:26; Galatians 4:5; 2 Peter 2:16).
This mighty and quite unexpected act of God, who involved himself for the sake of mankind to the extent of his Word being made man and Jesus dying and being raised from the dead, signifies man’s vocation to become what in truth he really is. He is called thereby to realize his own freedom, for man (in the final analysis) is simply what he chooses to be. For as Israel was “no people” before being called and liberated from Egypt (she was “no people” 1 Peter 2:10, and as though she was a thing that did not exist — see Romans 4:17) and only constituted a living entity in the eyes of God after being called by him — so too the Christian, in his personal as in his social life, is not truly himself until he is within God’s involvement in Jesus, by which he is rescued from his state of alienation where his “understanding lay darkened”, and, being delivered from the “power of darkness”, is brought into the clear light of self-knowledge that reveals to him his true identity, shows him his true vocation, and enlightens him as to the real meaning of his existence.
God’s involvement of himself “on our behalf”, therefore, does not consist of his making some external pronouncement of forgiveness (to use a forensic image) of which we are either unaware or only subsequently find applied to us (for so many would understand the process of justification). God’s action impinges on us at a much deeper level, at the very heart of our being. For the grace of God is fundamentally a call; it is being enlisted in God’s service; it is being commissioned with a special task; and through all this there is bestowed upon us a unique personal dignity in the eyes of God. We have yet to explain how this is so.
Suffice to say here that our being chosen by God means (in a negative sense) being rescued from the clutches of the powers of this world and (in a positive sense) being appointed to a service, unique as it is personal, and being endowed with a spark of God’s own uniqueness. Thereby, God enlists us as the agents of his activity in the world, takes us for his own, and gives us “a new name … which no one knows except him who receives it” (Revelations 2:17). For in proportion as God makes us free in ourselves, so we are correspondingly free and at his disposal for his activity in the world. St. Paul sees the Christian’s freedom and his service in God’s free work as two sides of the same coin (see Romans 6:15-23). And it is in the living out of this paradox of freedom and service that man comes to be most truly himself.
Under the Old Covenant Israel was the elect of God, chosen, however, not as a mere anonymous collection of people but given personal quality through its great representatives, in whose persons God looked upon the people as a whole, and whose duty it was to represent the people to God. Under the New Covenant, the individual/community tension is alleviated in two ways.
To begin with, the many representatives of the people of old were all forerunners of the one, final, and effective representative of men to God. For Jesus Himself is the elect of God; it is he who was promised, it is he who is Messiah, the anointed One, the Christ. Alone and unique, he is both Son of God and Son of Man; on both counts, his dignity and the task he is commissioned to fulfill are of universal significance, concerned with not just one people, but with all mankind. All men indeed live under the dominion of the powers of this world and are subject to death; but Jesus suffers in his own person our common bondage and fallenness and therefore represents all men to God.
Henceforward each individual is looked upon by his heavenly Father in the light of the redeeming work of the Son. And it is precisely on account of this that the whole of humanity, seen by God in the Son, constitutes a unit. In Christ men find a common destiny; in him they constitute a new and universal Israel whose common bond is the Son’s destiny that is decisive for every man.
We have, however, by no means exhausted this theme. In the Son’s work, we see the Father’s involvement of himself in love (see John 3:16; Romans 8:32) and the Son never ceases to remind us that he and his Father share in a common task, which itself is the revelation par excellence that the Godhead in fact is a community of Persons. It remains a unity no less when the distinction is made between the Father (who sends) and the Son (who is sent), a unity so absolute, however, that this unity in itself constitutes a third focus in the Godhead, namely, the Spirit, who comes at the very moment that the Son departs (see John 16:7), who is the Spirit of the Father (see Romans 8:11) as he is the Spirit of the Son (see Romans 8:9), whom the Father sends in the name of the Son (see John 14:26), and whom the Son sends from the Father (see John 15:26).
It is in this sense that the involvement of this unique, free, and personal God is at the same time the involvement of the community of Persons that constitutes the divine society, and if we look at the structures of their involvement, we shall see that, in the realm of the Absolute, the principles of individuality and community are at work together simultaneously, so that the Person makes demands and imposes conditions on the community, and the community does likewise in respect of the Persons. For only in this sense can God in fact be “Love”, without reference to any object of his love in this world.
In the Godhead, therefore, individuality and community have a common origin, for here there exists so intimate a community that the Persons coinhere perfectly in one another; they constitute in fact a communion of the purest kind and are only distinct in order that the one may live for the sake of the other. Thus here the principle of individuality — the inviolable prerequisite for any full communion — totally excludes any idea of what we in a world of finite beings would call “private”.