Anyone who tries to evaluate the theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar faces not only the sheer size of his work and his vast erudition but his great subtlety. To add to these difficulties, what he says in one book or passage he will often balance and qualify later on, even in the same book, and he expressed hostility to—or at least wariness toward—any attempt to systematize Christian revelation, so much so that he is often accused of being too daring in his speculations, of “flamboyance” and taking a “God’s-eye view” of things. Despite his undoubted speculative flair and genuine elusiveness, one can still discern certain patterns in his thought (“pattern” was a key word in his work, borrowed from Goethe and Gestalt psychology). From those patterns one may detect something that in other theologians would be called a method.
He is most famous for his fifteen-volume theological trilogy, The Glory of the Lord (on theological aesthetics, in seven volumes), Theo-Drama (on the drama of salvation, in five), and Theo-Logic (theology proper, in three). Each part attempts to transpose the entirety of Christian theology into one of the three “Platonic transcendentals,” the beautiful, the good, and the true. (They are called “transcendental” because they transcend the particularities of each individual being: In other words, the quality of beauty or truth is something greater than a beautiful painting or a true statement.)
The order of the trilogy is crucial, he insisted. One must first perceive Christian revelation as beautiful and only then would one’s soul be prompted to follow Christ in a dramatic life of Christian discipleship. Finally, once inside that life of obedience to Christ, one comes to see how and why Christianity is true. If one starts with the question of the truth of Christian revelation, one must engage in apologetic arguments. But for Balthasar, argument just gets in the way of the contemplative gaze necessary for the first movement of perception. The spark of delight moves us to seek God.
Theology done in the reverse order can reinforce rather than overcome impediments to faith. Today’s rampant secularization is due, at least in part, to modernity’s habit of looking at things through the wrong end of the telescope. Influenced by Descartes and Kant, most theology in modernity has started with questions of truth (like apologetics and the justification for theological claims) and then set forth the ethical obligations incumbent upon the Christian, with aesthetics treated, when it was treated at all, as a mere embellishment. This approach proved to be sterile. Balthasar sees a role for apologetics but argues that unless the theologian is first enraptured by revelation his arguments will ring hollow. In other words, the order must be: contemplative, kerygmatic, dialogic.
An example drawn from a preacher’s homily preparation can explain what Balthasar means. The preacher first meditates earlier in the week on the passages from Scripture assigned for that Sunday. After this contemplative moment, in which the preacher (one hopes) is absorbed in the beauty of revelation, there comes the time for preaching, which elicits from the congregation an inherently dramatic response, either Yes or No, requiring from the preacher his own response to their possible objections (here is where apologetics has its role to play). St. Paul serves as a model here. First enraptured by his encounter with Christ and taken up into the third heaven, he launches on a life of evangelization, proclaiming the resurrection of Christ, at which point those who subscribe to other philosophies and worldviews “began to dispute with him.” For Balthasar, apologetics must come last: Only after one has gazed on revelation and responded by saying “yes” to the proclamation can real apologetics begin.
Inside the depths of his great theological trilogy, other patterns and consistent motifs also begin to emerge—above all, Balthasar’s resolute Christocentrism, his insistence on the priority of Christ as Savior over against any other founder of a world religion or philosophy. Like his friend Joseph Ratzinger, he resolutely opposed any attempt to relativize the claim of Christ to be the way to salvation. Thus, although he spent little time working out the implications of his theology for interreligious dialogue, he emphatically insists that Jesus Christ cannot be subsumed into some wider, overarching category like “founder of a world religion.” Jesus is unique, descriptively considered, especially in his claim to be “the way, the truth, and the life.” Other founders of a religion or a philosophy have only claimed to be a way to the truth, not the very embodiment of truth itself. Buddhism is particularly insistent on this point: “The finger that points to the moon is not the moon,” goes a traditional koan (a kind of mantra used for focusing meditation).
But what does it mean for someone to claim not just to be the way to the truth but to be the truth? Taken at first glance, the claim seems preposterous. How can one human being, born in history and destined to die a few decades later, claim to be the Logos through whom the universe was created? How could anyone be so presumptuous as to say, “Before Abraham was, I am”? In what other religion are such bizarre claims made by and of its founder?
Christ claims what Balthasar calls an absolute singularity. In attempting to come to terms with so startling and counterintuitive a claim, we are not without helpful analogies in daily life. What he calls relative singularities involve phenomena that manage to encompass more than just their own particular identities—instances, that is, where meaning gets focused. His primary examples are: falling in love (where the lover concentrates the meaning of his or her life onto the existence and reciprocal love of the beloved), death (which forces each individual to determine the meaning of the world inside the confines of one’s own brief life), and great works of art (which far transcend the era in which they came into existence and, in their greatness, continue to inspire new insights and interpretations).
He offers Shakespeare as an analogy for the effect of Jesus’ singularity:
For a moment the contemporary world is taken aback, then people begin to absorb the work and to speak in the newly minted language (hence such terms as the “age of Goethe” or “age of Shakespeare”) with a taken-for-granted ease as though they had invented it themselves. The unique word, however, makes itself comprehensible through its own self; and the greater a work of art, the more extensive the cultural sphere it dominates will be.
So far Balthasar has been using these relative singularities as a way of gaining conceptual access to Jesus’ claim to absolute singularity. To make that transition, one must enter directly into the claim itself and take it on its own terms. In doing so, one notices another pattern found in all four gospels but which is particularly vivid in the Gospel of John (the locus classicus for Balthasar’s Christology). This triadic pattern can be described either in narrative terms as ministry, cross, and resurrection, or in more abstract terms as provocation (the claim being inherently provocative, indeed absurd, to human reason), refutation (the people executing Jesus), and validation (God raising his Son from the dead).
In other words, Jesus had to die: “Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” Jesus’ claims about himself guarantee his execution. Moreover, that provocation and the opposition it elicited are by no means specific to Jesus’ time and place but are—precisely as a claim to absolute singularity—events that continue to reverberate in world history. “The Greek mind found it absurd that one of the products of the all-pervasive physis should equate itself with the generative matrix,” Balthasar writes. “Jewish thought found it even more incredible that a created man should predicate of himself the attributes proper to the Creator of the world and the Covenant Lord of Israel.”
This idea is still nonsense, to the modern evolutionary worldview. “On attempting to estimate the degree of provocation in such fantastic claims, we see clearly that any school of religious or philosophic thought must be surprised and further shocked by another statement in the same context: ‘They hated me without cause.’”
So extreme are these claims, and resistance to them so inevitable, that they can be made good, so to speak, only by God. It is not enough for Jesus’ claim to be antecedently true, as John 1:14 insists; it must also be made even more true in the event of the Resurrection, as Paul affirms in Romans when he writes that Christ “was established with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead.” Taking both sets of statements, Balthasar is able to explain how Jesus can be the one and only Savior of the human race (Acts 4:12) and yet also the atoning sacrifice for all sins and all sinners without exception (1 John 2:2), not just because of the claim itself or its validation in the Resurrection but above all because of Christ’s descent into hell. That is, this reality of Christ—singular in history yet infinite in the range of its effects—becomes true in the mystery of Holy Saturday, when Christ descended into the underworld “to preach to those spirits who disobeyed God long ago,” as 1 Peter puts it, launching a motif that became traditional in patristic theology and one that marks another key pattern in Balthasar’s theology:
Something equally crazy follows: All that Jesus is, his life and death taken together, manifests itself as the Absolute . . . . If the claim stands, the whole truth must also possess a ballast, an absolute counterweight that can be counterbalanced by nothing else; and because it is a question of truth, it must be able to show that it is so. The stone in the one pan of the scales must be so heavy that one can place in the other pan all the truth there is in the world, every religion, every philosophy, every complaint against God, without counterbalancing it. Only if that is true, is it worthwhile remaining a Christian today.
Christ must feel the fullest weight of sin and of death. The imagery is bold but also (despite claims to the contrary heard in some quarters) quite traditional. Thomas Aquinas, for example, says in his Exposition of the Apostles’ Creed that the first reason Christ descended into hell was “to suffer the entire punishment due to sin and thereby to atone all its guilt.” Balthasar’s own contribution to this theme comes in the way he explains how the Triune God can be involved in this event without jeopardizing the divine impassibility (the doctrine that God in himself does not suffer pain in the suffering of his Son), which brings us to the next important motif in his theology, his 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 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.
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.