In the Footsteps of a Giant – A Brief Theological Introduction to Hans Urs von Balthasar

Hans Urs von Balthasar

In today’s post, I hope to allow you to encounter a figure of tremendous importance to Catholic theology, as well as my personal faith: Hans Urs von Balthasar. Born on August 12th, 1905, Balthasar is widely regarded as one of the most (if not the most) important Catholic thinkers of the 20th century. He was a close friend of no less than the likes of Henri de Lubac and Joseph Ratzinger. Balthasar passed away mere days prior to his being made a cardinal by Pope John Paul II. He died on June 26th, 1988. My account of his biographical details will end here, as my aim is to present an overture of his theology.

Before really beginning what I have to say about Balthasar, I’d like to direct the reader to an excellent article in Front Porch Republic, authored by Rodney Howsare in 2013 ( There are several articles and suggestions linked in that article that merit investigation. Howsare also authored a tremendous book on Balthasar’s thought, Balthasar: A Guide for the Perplexed (available at a fair price on Amazon, and highly recommended).

For those who, after reading what follows, would like to encounter Balthasar in a deeper way, I’d recommend that you read the following titles first, to start: Love Alone is Credible, (a condensation of the seven volumes of The Glory of the Lord), then Engagement with God (a condensation of the five volumes of Theodrama), and then finally the deceptively slim Epilogue to his Theologic. 

There is also the academic journal Communio: International Catholic Review, founded by Balthasar, Ratzinger, and others in the years after the Second Vatican Council. This confederation of journals, which has a North American edition based out of Washington, DC, regularly carries articles on philosophy, the arts, and the relationship between Catholicism and American culture (speaking specifically of the English language edition). Emphasis is placed on exploring the meaning of John Paul II’s call for a “new evangelization.” Indeed, in every issue of Communio an effort is made to reestablish the bond between worship and thought, the loosening of which lies at the heart of so many contemporary problems.


Hans Urs von Balthasar

To remind man what constitutes his final end is not to tell him something that substantially fails to interest him. . . . It is rather to illuminate the total meaning of his being by helping him to find and then to interpret the inscription written into his heart by his Creator. – Henri de Lubac

At the center of the Church, and therefore at the heart of the world, is Jesus Christ. Indeed, Christ is the world’s heart, its meaning, its fulfillment. In Christ, all of creation is recapitulated. He is the head of creation, the New Adam, temporally novel but ontologically eternal. Hans Urs von Balthasar read all of creation through the letter of the incarnate Word, Jesus Christ.

When approaching the question of Jesus Christ and the meaning of Scripture, it can be said that Balthasar’s method of approach is thoroughly Christocentric. Balthasar sees a resurgence, after the Second Vatican Council, of a dualism between nature and grace in the work among academic theologians, specifically so in their effort to craft a theologically “neutral” method of reading the Scriptures. Ultimately, it would seem that Balthasar believes these sorts of efforts to be “neutral” are, in fact, never simply neutral. Likewise, Balthasar follows Henri de Lubac in holding that the only legitimate way to read Scripture is to hold the Old and New Testaments together, with the Old being radically fulfilled by the New.

Key here, and certainly related to our previous comment about Christ being ontologically eternal yet temporally novel, is the text from the Book of Revelation 13:8 which speaks of the “the Lamb that was slaughtered from the foundation of the world.” For Balthasar, there is no way to understand intelligibly the Old Testament without seeing Christ as its fulfillment and recapitulation; the Old Testament ends in a disparate cacophony, yet Christ comes and fulfills Israel’s ultimate desires, taking them up into a beautiful, unexpected symphony. As Marc Cardinal Ouellet says, “Christ, offered in sacrifice, wishes to be eaten and drunk“:

This makes the mouth that consumes him an essential part of the sacrifice of the Lord. He does not act in the Cenacle as the soloist before an auditorium that listens to him, as an actor on stage before onlookers in theater seats. He always acts in such a way that he draws those who belong to him into his act.[1] 

All efforts, for Balthasar, to find a “common ground” on which to base an understanding of Scripture will end in vain if Jesus Christ is not that common ground. The search for neutrality as the highest good is symptomatic of a deeper dualism that sees competition where in fact there is profound interpenetration: grace and nature, natural and supernatural, God and the World, and human and divinity. That is, to search for a method by which to read Scripture in a purely natural manner – apart from the truths explicitly revealed in Christ – is to stack the deck from the start, so to speak, against something like an organic unity-in-difference, complementarity, or asymmetrical reciprocity between the natural and the supernatural. To seek to read Scripture “neutrally” is to preclude from the outset the very possibility that the form and content of the words of Scripture, written by human beings, could be divinely inspired, could really be the Word of God. If Scripture really is the Word of God, then to speak of error in the Scriptures is to speak of errors in Christ. There is a profound analogy here between the inerrancy of Scripture and the purity of Christ. The notion that one can simply look at the world or, in our case, the biblical texts, and bring in the revelation of Christ at the end of the examination as a sort of add-on, is actually a rejection of the nature of reality.

For Balthasar, it is of paramount importance for one to acknowledge that everything is created “in Christ Jesus,” and as such, there can really be no such thing as “pure nature,” a nature to be understood apart from the Word. Therefore, when Balthasar constructs his theological aesthetic, Christ is again at the center, for he is the incarnation of Beauty; he is the Truth, and so he appeals to our intellect, and he is the Good, and so he is the object of our volition. In the Incarnation, he is the union of the True and the Good in a universal subject of paradigmatic aesthetic appeal. He is Glory.

This is all to say simply that Balthasar reads the Scriptures by way of a theological aesthetic, and this reading of Scripture manifests with several ür-principles, evident especially in biblical exegesis.

The first of these is that, in terms of epistemology, contemplation and receptivity on the part of the subject are prior to action and manipulation of the object. This holds universally for all subjects and every action everywhere; much more could be said on this, especially as it pertains to the relationship between philosophy and theology. As such, it is inbuilt into the very structure of human knowing (and divine knowing!) that receptivity is prior, and this receptive priority admits that the object of contemplation always reveals, in a sense, more than it is, especially in the sense that the object’s self-revelation entails within it the knower’s possibility of understanding; it is as if the object’s self-revelation gives to the subject the very gift and possibility of receptivity. That is, the subject’s very openness to the object is first given to it by the object. The subject, then, in perceiving and knowing, cannot help but already be doing this as a loving response to a gift first given from without.

A second aesthetic principle that Balthasar applies to biblical exegesis is simply that any whole is greater than the sum of its constitutive parts, and, in this way, the Bible is to be read as one organic whole (Gestalt), and not dissected as a dead-letter piece of literature. The unity of the Bible reveals more than merely a book; it reveals God.

Related to the previous characteristic, Balthasar holds that, even in instances where there is a sort-of reduction of an object for the purposes of precision, this reduction can never simply excoriate something like a spiritual meaning from the object (or Biblical text), or the nature of the subject’s having been created in Christ Jesus.

Fourthly, just as an artist in their work can better capture the essence of a painted object than any photograph will ever do, so too the eyes of faith – the “faith-based” perspective of the Biblical writers – can most definitely better capture the deepest meaning of what occurred 2000 years ago in Palestine than can any scientistic (not a typo)/historicist reading of the Biblical text.

A last principle embraced by Balthasar amounts to a contradiction of a sort of historicist reading of the Bible wherein Christ is simply in keeping with the trajectory of Israel’s history. Rather, just as Shakespeare’s style was similar to those before him, yet his contribution to the world was something genuinely novel (and therefore not simply continuous), so too is Christ’s life and revelation in continuity with the Old Testament’s promises precisely as its new and ever-greater fulfillment; revelation in Christ, when compared to the revelation in the Old Testament, is to be seen as continuity-in-difference (cf. The Fourth Lateran Council’s teaching on the importance of analogy for all discourse, but especially theology: maior dissimilitudino).

All of the above is typified and crystallized in light of the experience of Christ’s disciples, whom were unable to preach about Christ’s true identity as Son of God until they had seen the Resurrection through eyes of faith. Further still, the above considerations of the Old Testament can be adequately summed up when considering the relationship of nature and grace (and especially Christ’s divinity and humanity). That is, since creation is in Christ, the natural order is made in and for the supernatural order. While the supernatural is, logically speaking, of a different kind (and not simply degree) than the natural, the natural is not for all of that simply destroyed when assumed up into the supernatural. Scripture says we will be given a new earth; See Rev: 21:1ff. In like manner, Christ’s revelation in the New Testament is different in kind from that of the Old Testament – Christ is the very revelation that he brings – and for all of this, the old covenant is not simply dissolved, but taken up into the new covenant as it was made to be, precisely as fulfillment of its (the old covenant’s) promises.

In Balthasar’s day, and certainly persisting into to our own, New Testament Christology, especially orthodox, Catholic Christology, faced some troubling challenges internally and externally. The most salient of these challenges was the assertion that the theology of Christ established by the Church was more groundless than it was credible. The objection is that the Church’s Christology was thought to be in rupture from the actual Jesus of history. This challenge is representative of a general sort-of either/or dichotomy, namely that Jesus either was just God or he was just a really good man. Balthasar, in response to this and other such dichotomies, hearkens back to the Council of Chalcedon in its teaching of the unconfused hypostasis of natures in Christ, and (more) importantly, Balthasar sees these sorts of dichotomies as arising from an inadequate reading of the Gospels, a sort of failure to pay consistent attention to what each of the evangelists actually had to say about Jesus. For example, though often thought to have the highest Christology among the Gospels, Balthasar points out that John’s Gospel does not neglect to point out that Christ’s disciples don’t understanding him in a very “high” way. The exchanges with Peter in John’s Gospel are especially revealing in this regard. Likewise in the Gospel of Mark, supposedly entailing a “low” Christology, we can see Jesus teaching with an unheard of authority, identifying himself as the “Son of Man,” familiar to all as the messianic, angelic figure from the Book of Daniel (Daniel 7:13).

Balthasar’s portrait of the New Testament Jesus is framed within the issues of death and Israel’s prohibition against graven images. Christ is the image God the Father provides of himself for the world, and, for Balthasar, the real moment of glory (revelation) of God the Father is the Son’s dereliction and death on the Cross. Though an affront to the eye – to human sight and reason – Balthasar holds that this graven image of God is revelatory of God’s very essence as kenotic (self-emptying or ec-static love). This kenosis of the Son reveals, too, the primacy of obedience (and receptivity) in the Godhead itself, and in this way, Balathasar brings something like a theology of the Cross and a theology of glory together into a coalescence (something he does very often with objects rendered disparate by modern thought). By the terms Balthasar provides, we can see that the image Christ offers in the New Testament of the Father’s love is different in kind than the images of God in the Old Testament, all the while remaining a dramatic fulfillment, continuation, of the very prohibition in the Old Testament of graven images. God reveals himself as graven, as kenotic, as obedient. In short, as Love. For all of this “fleshly” revelation, God is ever-still transcendent and mysterious; God is still hidden in Christ, in silence. In the same way, for Balthasar, Scripture is a simultaneous revelation and concealment of the Father.

By the very presence of something like a written Scripture – or a God-man who speaks human language – we can ascertain a definitive complementarity between God and the world, as opposed to a sort of competitive transcendence. This notion is key in order to understand the nature of finite and infinite freedom; God’s transcendence of the world is a decidedly non-competitive one. That is to say that God is so very and utterly other than the world that he is non-other (non-aliud, cf. Nicolas of Cusa) than the world; His transcendence coincides with immanence. On the level of the human, we can recognize the perennial problem that our freedom is directed to an end that we cannot attain on our own accord, and in a related fashion, that our freedom directs us to a determined end and is therefore, in some sense, not free. One cannot, truly, desire to be unhappiness (such thoughts are short-circuiting: desire itself is directed to the Good, hence the question of whether our freedom is really free). Balthasar’s claim in this regard is simply that finite (human) freedom is always and already directed towards infinite freedom.

Balthasar sees in the doctrine of creation that human freedom is a gift – already a supernatural grace by virtue of its origin in God’s act of creation – and as such, is from God who is Love. In this way, he can say that when supernatural grace serves to reorient a sinner, it reorients the sinner precisely back toward his natural end; likewise, a human being’s free consent to the will of God, which is infinite, is always the beginning of the fulfillment of human freedom. This is so because infinite freedom is revealed in Christ to be personal freedom, and so human consent to infinite freedom is, in a profound sense, consent to a personal relationship. Christ revealed that the culmination of human freedom is obedience to the Father’s will, and this was revealed precisely as both God and Man; human autonomy is preserved precisely and only in obedience to divine will. Again, with recourse to Christ’s self-sacrificial love, Balthasar will say that an analogous self-sacrifice occurs in the Trinity, and therefore that the meaning of human freedom is actualized by sacrificing it in obedience for an Other. Balthasar’s account of the drama of infinite and finite freedom serves to recapitulate the answers to questions that arise naturally and perennially in the realm of philosophy, and exemplify even further that revelation in Christ is the fulfillment of all natural longing(s) in a dramatically surprising way.

We must now move our consideration to the telos of Balthasar’s theological method, namely the Trinity and its relation to the Cross. The drama which takes place on the Cross at Calvary is key for understanding the drama that eternally plays out within the Trinity. Balthasar is not very hesitant to use nuptial or familial analogies when speaking of the Trinitarian exchanges; he does so to account for the genuine otherness and autonomy of creation, and also to make sense of how God has ability to deal with the humanum when it sins against Him. In Balthasar’s judgment, the Tradition would have done well to meditate more on the mysteries of nuptial union and childhood; as such, Balthasar understands that the positive receptivity (we are born extremely vulnerable, needing the constant care and teaching of others) located in the mystery of human childhood is a good thing, and that, as a good, it must have its foundation in the Trinity. That is, the human ability to receive and to give is a perfection not found in the same way in lower life forms, but rather is to be read as an analogue among living beings. In this way, giving and receiving are to be understood ultimately as perfections in God, which is to say that wealth and poverty both occur – as perfections – analogously in the Trinitarian life.

This understanding of Trinitarian analogy seems to be the culmination of the way in which Balthasar conceives of Jesus Christ as entailing the simultaneity of
 “from below” and “from above” approaches. Christ is glorified as God precisely in his obedient, incarnate lowliness. In meditating upon Christ’s lowliness, Balthasar sees both the original (purest, first in divine intention) meaning of human freedom, and, likewise, a revelation of Trinitarian nature; the revelation of the Trinity in Christ appears precisely in and through humanity, and not in and through events in Christ’s life that are simply extra-human or supernatural.

When considering the self-knowledge that Christ may have had about his nature as the Word, Balthasar is sure to maintain the genuine autonomy of human nature, and therefore argues that Christ’s self-understanding of his Word-ness, so to speak, would have occurred in a mode appropriate to human knowing (which, one would suspect, is not quite the fullness of divine omniscience). Therefore, and not simply in spite of this limitation but rather precisely in and through this limitation, the truest meanings of divinity and humanity are revealed in the flesh. Human limitations, therefore, are capable of – and ordered to – revealing God.

The above implies that dependence, especially exemplified in the childhood of Jesus, is a perfection of being, and further that our dependence upon the Virgin Mary is a perfection of our prayer. This childlike dependence of Jesus upon his earthly mother, which manifests as part of his mission as the Word of the Trinity, further reveals the personal mission of the Holy Spirit (notice here, as in the case of all human relationships, that individual identity as a person is revealed in the context of interpersonal relationships). Balthasar pays more attention to the role of the Spirit concomitant upon his commitment to viewing Christ as the concrete universal of Revelation. Though proceeding from the Father and the Son, in the temporal order and through the earthly life of Jesus we see that the Spirit leads the Son in and through the Son’s obedience to the Father’s will and the limitations entailed by taking on flesh. This taking on flesh performed by the Son, precisely as an act of self-emptying obedience, grants insight into what can only be an ontologically and eternally prior kenosis that occurs in the Trinitarian life. What is important to note here – and this is characteristic of Balthasar’s unique theological method – is that by intently focusing upon Christ’s personal mission as Son (a focus grounded in the profound scandal of the Incarnation), Balthasar is able to bring together two supposedly disparate things, namely the Jesus of history and the Church’s dogma about the Holy Trinity.

This focus upon Christ’s mission as Son leads Balthasar to further consider what it is to be a human being, and especially what it means to be a person. Hearkening back to a prior distinction made between esse and essentia (being and beings; the problem of the one and the many), Balthasar notes the puzzling experience of being an individual member of a species: one can possess a nature in common with others (human nature), and yet be a particular and unique instantiation of that nature. Further reflection upon this theme, and no doubt related to esse and essentia, yields the realization that the species would not exist were it not for all of the particular, limited manifestations of it, which is to say that humanity subsists only in particular human beings (who cannot, as limited, express the fullness of the humanum), and yet particular human beings cannot be human unless there is a greater nature of humanity to subsist within. To state things rather plainly, we can observe that no one of us has seen humanity, but rather, we’ve only ever encountered this man or that woman. It should not surprise us that Genesis 1:27 grounds this claim. The above consideration, for Balthasar, still does not reach what it means to be a person, but only considers what it means to be an individual in a species.

For Balthasar, personhood – the answer to the question, Who are you? – is revealed only by the discovery of one’s mission in Christ, and therefore of one’s meaning to God from all eternity. Personhood, we must say, is always and already relational; one is always from another, in one’s self, and for others. Departing from Boethius and what he considers to be an ultimately simplistic understanding of personhood, Balthasar argues that the persons of the Trinity are persons insofar as they are defined by their relations as gift to one another, and are only substantial – standing-in-themselves – by way of their standing with and for each other. This profound and indissoluble eternal unity in the Trinity holds within it the profound and indissoluble difference of each of the persons within; the Son is not the Father, and so forth. This is to say that there is a distance, so to speak, between the persons of the Trinity, and therefore a definite difference between them.

As the Trinity is the source and ground of all positive perfections in Creation, Balthasar finds himself obliged to say that the distance and difference between God and the world is circumscribed by the difference within the Trinity. Therefore, when asserting with St. Paul that Creation occurs in Christ Jesus, Balthasar finds himself able to articulate that the distance between men and God caused by sin can never be greater than the eternal distance between the Father and the Son. There is “room for sin,” to speak somewhat provocatively, in God, without God having been the one to commit it. Hell, in turn, must be a “place” in God, a place of love, indeed a place in Christ. This deserves much more reflection than we can engage in at present, but suffice it to say that these few tantalizing lines about the reality of Hell bear further reflection in a much more concentrated way; I hope only to gesture vaguely in the direction of the great work done by Balthasar and others after him on this issue of central importance for all people. When Jesus cries out in dereliction from the Cross, he attests to the eternal nature of the distance between the Father and the Son that makes their eternal union possible in the first place, and when Jesus rises on Easter Sunday, he reveals to us that even death cannot, finally, distance the sinner from God.

[1] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Explorations in Theology, vol. III, Creator Spirit. Trans. Brian McNeil, C.R.V. (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1993), p. 34. Found in Cardinal Ouellet’s Divine Likeness: Toward a Trinitarian Anthropology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), p. 156.


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