Von Balthasar and the Reformation

Hans Urs von Balthasar, among the most influential Catholic theologians of the 20th century, unfolds in the early part of his trilogy a theology of Christian experience. Here the saints play a very interesting role as those who exemplify the Christian life which simply is the conformity to Christ’s form (von Balthasar’s first volume is entitled “Seeing the Form”). Between different saints, however, von Balthasar discerns different patterns of experiencing this path. Particularly interesting is his distinction between the experiences of the apostles Paul and John:

If we pass from Paul to John, who constitutes the second classical instance of a New Testament theology of experience, we leave a spiritual world which is impetuous and agitated almost in a violent sense and enter the calm of what “abides.” Paul’s fundamental experience is that of being snatched up by Christ’s dynamis [Greek, “power”] from one aeon and being transferred to the other. Paul overwhelms us because he has himself been overwhelmed. Damascus is a flash of lightning and remains such for the rest of the Apostle’s life. John, on the other hand, has been marked out ever since his first meeting with Jesus at the Jordan… To be sure, John too is one transported by love; but he is so profoundly at rest in this movement that, for him, it becomes the very presence of eternity… (The Glory of the Lord, vol. 1, 232-233)

In this light, it makes sense to see Paul speaking of the battle with the spiritual powers and authorities, the need for spiritual armour, the struggle with the sinful nature so central to his life (esp. Romans 7), and the bitter clashes with his opponents in the churches. From John, however, we are presented with a picture of calm repose, even at those moments in his gospel which in the others are full of agony. On the cross, Jesus’ life ends not with the dramatic cry as in Mark’s gospel (15:34), but with the composed, “It is finished” (19:30). Now, this difference should not be overplayed, but it is striking.

Striking especially in light of the historical circumstances that generated the Reformation. A certain monk, Martin Luther, of the Augustinian order—Augustine’s theology being strongly influenced by Paul—was greatly troubled over his sinfulness and lack of assurance. Luther was continuously plagued by Anfechtung, or “tempting attacks.” Only in reading the first chapter of Romans, with its teaching of justification by faith, did he find himself totally carried away, relieved, transported to a place of comfort and solace. The same sort of pattern is seen in Kierkegaard, perhaps the paradigmatic Protestant, who spoke similarly of Anfægtelse, or “spiritual trials.” (See the excellent article, “The Lightning and the Earthquake,” by Podmore.) This bloomed in Barth’s early dialectical theology of Krisis where Kierkegaard’s “infinite qualitative distance” between God and humanity is unfolded in all its purity.

This genealogy—Paul, Augustine, Luther, Kierkegaard, Barth—suggests a highly significant set of questions, again in light of von Balthasar’s earlier distinction between Pauline and Johannine types of Christian experience or spiritualities: Would the Reformation have occurred if Luther had been formed in a Johannine spirituality of eternal rest? If Luther had been, say, a Benedictine or Franciscan rather than an Augustinian monk? Would it have taken another avenue, perhaps waiting the 20 years for Calvin to begin it? Would it have ended with the Catholics and Reformers so violently opposed? Perhaps most interesting to me, and ecumenically significant: Can the history of the last 500 years between Protestants and Catholics be helpfully read as a history of spirituality? And will this reading allow us to come back to one another once again?

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