Balthasar's theology, as we have seen, is biblical and expository. Much of it has been done in and through a sustained engagement with others' work, among them many of his contemporaries in Protestant as well as Catholic theology.
Although Balthasar's desire is not to construct a philosophical or natural theology as a framework around which to erect a "revealed" theology (he begins from the revealed form of Jesus Christ in scripture, sacraments, and church teaching), nevertheless he does not wish to deny all validity to the long history of human search for truth and life outside the Christian faith. His distinctive argument is that the revealed Word is the "apex" inserted into the world from above, such that "the revelation of God in Christ and its proclamation is not derivable from the 'base' of cosmic and human nature but can be what it is only as the apex of the base."30 This is an argument grounded in belief in the identity of the revealed Word and the Creator. Precisely because of this identity, Balthasar maintains, the revelation does not simply cut across the world's attempts to come at the truth but both judges and fulfills them.
Barth was never entirely convinced by this, nor happy with Balthasar's claim in the preface to the second edition of The Theology of Karl Barth that the dispute between them had been resolved. He remained deeply suspicious of the dangers of a natural theology which would ultimately control a theology of revelation, a suspicion greatly fueled by his battles with theologians like Brunner and Althaus who advocated a doctrine of orders of creation.
Yet Balthasar himself was fully alive to such dangers in the debates he conducted elsewhere. He was to live to see the way in which the opening up of the church to the world which he and others had fought for could easily lead to the erosion of that which was distinctively Christian. Hence his fierce reaction, notably in Cordula,31 to Rahner's development of the notion of "anonymous Christians." What Balthasar attacked in Cordula was Rahner's emphasis on the sense in which men and women are by virtue of their own inherent spiritual dynamism capable of apprehending the divine, of believing, hoping, and loving. If elsewhere Balthasar was sympathetic to Blondel's "méthode de l'immanence," which attempted to demonstrate from a study of human dynamism the need for divine revelation, he saw in Rahner's identification of such natural spiritual dynamism with the life of faith a fatal blurring of the distinction between men and women's apprehension of the divine and the divine self-revelation. To speak thus was, in Balthasar's terms, to confuse the natural searching of men and women for the truth with that ultimate vision of God which both fulfills and transcends those intimations of the divine which he had himself treated so sensitively in The Glory of the Lord: The Realm of Metaphysics. It was above all to lose sight of the way in which true Christian belief flourishes as a response to the encounter with the revelation Gestalt of Christ. Hence his emphasis on the place of martyrdom and witness in the Christian life. Christian faith is a faith "to die for."32
In a different field of debate - that of biblical theology and its proper method - it is this same stress on the revelation form and its normative power that makes Balthasar's approach so distinct from that of Bultmann. As we noticed, Balthasar objected first to Bultmann's reduction of the Christological and soteriological elements in the New Testament to their sources in first-century mythology, and second to his anthropological reduction of faith to the sightless decision whereby "my" existence is transformed. The combined result of these reductions is that the Christ of faith becomes an incognito Christ grasped only in the pro me of "the process of the upturning of all man's natural aims in life."33 They are two very different kinds of reduction, as John Riches has shown. In the first case we have an explanatory reduction whereby, true to the program of the History of Religions School, religious beliefs are explained "out of," that is to say in terms of, their sources in other contemporary - or near contemporary - religious beliefs and systems. In the second we have a conceptual reduction: what is being affirmed is that what may have been thought of as statements about the manner of God's action in the world, in certain events in human history, are really statements about the manner in which I may experience a change in my existence.
Now it is perfectly true that there is a neat fit between these two reductionisms in Bultmann's historical and theological method. Nevertheless there is a less than adequate acknowledgment in his work of the sense in which he passes from historical exposition of, say, John's Gospel to rational, theological reconstruction of it. What Balthasar wants to affirm is equally two things. First, it is that a proper exposition of such texts must pay due attention, not only to the historical sources of particular doctrines but also to the integrity of the synthesis which is achieved by the author when he or she puts such ideas to work. This seems to be a wholly necessary corrective to much of the work which, directly or indirectly, stems from the History of Religions School. The second point is quite different: it is that in reading such texts we should be attempting to see the way in which they mediate to us the revelation-Gestalt, in which that is to say there appears in them the divine glory for those who have eyes to see. This is properly contentious. Indeed, it is an open question as to whether Bultmann is right in his claim that the only way in which we can understand such texts is insofar as they confront us with an existential decision. He might even be right to rejoin that there is no conceptual reduction involved in reading them in this way; that this was indeed how they were meant to be understood by Paul and John.
To whatever degree Balthasar's Gestalt theology is seen as a valuable corrective in the area of biblical study, there remains a question about whether this same Gestalt theology can be used too overbearingly by Balthasar to suppress the crucial role of the maior dissimilitudo in the context of his analogical framework. Is the maior dissimilitudo always strong enough to prevent supra-form or supra-drama from becoming just very large and very comprehensive versions of worldly form and worldly drama? For where similarity is not properly suspended in dissimilarity, seeing things whole can sometimes appear to entail the excessive tidying up of loose ends. In relation to his theological aesthetics, Balthasar's intermittent reliance on metaphors of harmony and interweaving concord, though qualified, is often read by his interpreters as the unqualified key to his theological vision, and Balthasar himself often fails to take the necessary precautions to defend against such interpretation. Similarly, in relation to his theological dramatic theory, the "shape" which Balthasar imputes to Theo-Drama can seem insufficiently distinct from the famously "shaped" model of drama presented in the dramatic theory of Hegel (whose influence on
Balthasar in this area is profound). Balthasar's emphasis on the integrating power of dramatic form (even a theodramatic supra-form) makes it hard for him to distance himself from Hegel's belief that achieving a clear resolution is the one thing of overriding importance in a drama, and that, if necessary, the "pathos" of each individual protagonist must be sacrificed to this end. The theological question that needs to be put both to an aesthetics that is inclined to speak in terms of harmony and a dramatics that is inclined to look for clear resolution, is whether it is proper for any disciple of the Crucified to intuit such things too readily.34
The inclination to see clear resolution is linked with the Marian dimension of Balthasar's theology. Balthasar writes that "to the extent that the Church is Marian, she is a pure form which is immediately legible and comprehensible."35 This Marian form of the church, which includes the ecclesial constellation of saints and their exemplary interrelations,36 seems to intrude into the area of the maior dissimilitudo by means of a privileged mediation of the supra-form. Marian self-abandonment (echoing the Hegelian call for a sacrifice of the individual "pathos") stands as the analogical counterpart of divine self-giving or kenosis, and archetypally represents the human role in Theo-Drama. But does this analogy (between Marian self-abandonment and divine self-giving) become too uncritical and too unreserved a mediation between divine and creaturely action? All analogical apprehensions of the divine-human relation are strictly provisional - even, presumably, those intuited in the story of Mary. This is so, however tempting it might be to set her up as the embodiment of timeless virtue (and in Balthasar's case, primarily the virtue of obedience). So there is a question here about the legitimacy of a theology of what Balthasar calls the Ecclesia Immaculata, as focused in Mary, and has parallels with the Barthian challenge to analogy more generally.
But there is also a question of great importance about whether in such approaches Balthasar side-steps or downplays history as having no real consequence for theological insight. His tendency seems often to be to intuit super-historical forms, forms that are wholly invulnerable to contradiction in the light of historical experience, and in no need of enrichment or supplementation, provided they are understood in the light of Catholic teaching. Such a betrayal of history would be a betrayal of some of his own dearly held commitments to show Christian truth in terms of an unfolding drama.
Apparently undeterred by the risks, however, Balthasar seems content to rest a lot of theological weight on the analogy between Marian receptivity and divine kenosis, and one realizes that beneath this analogy there lies a further (and equally suspect) typology of what constitutes the male-female relation, whose suitability as an analogue of the Creator-creature relation may need more critical caution to be applied than is apparently the case. Here, too, a notion of "form" plays too readily into the hands of an over-resolved patterning of "types," which suppresses the provisionality that ought to accompany our sense of the maior dissimilitudo, as when Balthasar states "the active potency of the bearing, giving birth, and nourishing female organism . . . makes the creature as such appear essentially female over against the creating God."37
Meanwhile, Balthasar orders a more extended typology of saints around the Marian archetype, in which for instance John (with Mary) represents "love," Peter "office," and Paul and James alongside them make up a fourfold structure on which the church and its theology rest.38 While consonant with the trends of Balthasar's more general approach to scripture, this is a manifestation of Gestalt theology which depends on some decidedly speculative interpretations of biblical passages. The fact, for example, that Peter and John run together to the tomb of Jesus is taken as evidence of the birth of "a Church with two poles: the Church of office and the Church of love, with a harmonious [!] tension between them."39
It must be acknowledged that Balthasar attempts to counterbalance his theology of the Ecclesia Immaculata with a powerful recognition of the marred and sinful aspects of the church: the wound of the Reformation, the division from Israel, the atrocities and corruptions of the church's history.40 This more tragic vision should not be underestimated in his theology. In conjunction with his theology of Holy Saturday it expresses an acute sensitivity to the concrete reality of death, of betrayal, and of the weight and consequence of sin. Balthasar clearly resists anything like a Barthian doctrine of the unreality of evil.41 His outlook owes itself at least in part to the contribution that Adrienne von Speyr's mystical experience of Hell (documented most notably in Kreuz und Holle) has made to his theology. Indeed, it can be argued that his distinctive development of the theology of divine kenosis (as found in the witness of Paul and, even more notably, John) to include a concentrated meditation on Hell is undertaken precisely to emphasize the fact that unless the divine act of salvation embraces the reality of Hell there remains that of human evil which is for ever past redemption; that in which Christ cannot be made legible.
This emphasis helps explain Donald MacKinnon's admiration for Balthasar. MacKinnon wrote that it is a test of any contemporary theology that it should refuse to turn aside from the overwhelming, pervasive reality of evil, which was manifested in the deliberate murder of six million Jews in the years between 1933 and 1945. In Balthasar's meditations on Holy Saturday, and also on the Stations of the Cross,42 he wrestles with the enormity of that history and the ultimate question of its redemption. Balthasar, for MacKinnon, shows signs of that "remorseless emphasis on the concrete"43 which resists all harmonious and systematizing visions of worldly relationship to the divine purpose.
Yet subsequent commentators have questioned quite how remorseless this emphasis on the concrete really is. For Balthasar's emphasis on the triduum mortis (three days of death) and specifically the descensus (descent into Hell) is most concrete at the point at which it is also most mythological. It seems to divert attention from the struggles and sufferings that characterize the social and material aspects of human history, and to demonstrate an avoidance of the structural and political aspects of sin, in favor of a realm in which the trinitarian relations are acted out for us and for our salvation beyond or outside historical time. This has led Gerard O'Hanlon to remark that "from one who is so conscious of the reality of evil there is a curious lack of engagement with the great modern structural evils."44
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