Von Balthasar on “God is Love”

John famously wrote, “God is love” (1 John 4:8). What a beautiful and sweet truth this is. But we would not know that God is love unless he had given us his Son. John goes on to write, “This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (4:9-10).

For von Balthasar, this love explains the “care” that is evident in the creation. He writes, “Only love can explain this care; only love can explain the pledge he gives, guaranteeing the integrity of creation” (Theo-Drama, vol. 3, 518). And so, in the sending of his Son Jesus, the love that is revealed there is nothing other–though how infinitely more!–than what was already shown with the creation: “Thus the acceptance of his [Jesus’] mission, its implementation in obedience right up to its bloody end, cannot be anything other than the revelation of the Father’s primal, absolute love for his creatures” (ibid.).

This does not, however, mean that we are simply able to read the height of this divine love off the page of creation. The Son’s self-sacrifice at the behest of the Father is ingrained into the very fabric of creation. It was taken into account, so to speak, when God undertook to freely create the world. So von Balthasar: “[I]n view of God’s foreknowledge of what is to become of it, the world cannot be created without account being taken of this sending of the ‘beloved Son’. . . [Jesus’] readiness to accept the mission cannot have been elicited from him by persuasion, as it were; rather, it must be in him a priori, he must spontaneously have declared his readiness ‘before the foundation of the world’ [Rev. 13:8]” (516).

So in Jesus we see the love of the vineyard owner, who “had one left to send, a son, whom he loved” (Mark 12). His Father “takes the risk of sending him … to the murderers who killed all his previous messengers. . . By ‘not sparing’ his Son (Rom 8:32), by letting him be taken, by actually surrendering him…–because he foresees what they will do to him–the divine Sender manifests a disposition that, both in sublimity and in lowliness, is expressed in the serenity and surrender of his Ambassador” (515-516). Jesus, thus, on this earthly side of the mission of salvation, manifests the “serenity and surrender” that corresponds to the care of the Father, the vineyard’s caretaker.

And on this, everything depends: “What is at stake here is salvation (a total salvation that embraces the whole of existence and the world) or the forfeiting of it. . . What is at stake is his care for his vineyard … his care for the entire world created by God” (516). And in this care, the care that leads to the head of the hill called Golgotha, the meaning of all being is shown to be love.

Von Balthasar on the Immanent and Economic Trinity

In the theology of the Trinity–with Christology, the most difficult and most central piece (or the whole?) of Christian theology–a distinction is made between the “immanent” and the “economic” Trinity. The immanent Trinity refers to the inner life of God enjoyed between Father, Son and Holy Spirit, without reference, that is, to creation, to time, etc. The economic Trinity, on the other hand, refers to God’s activity in the creation, for example, in the Father’s sending of the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit.

In twentieth century theology, as Trinitarian theology experienced a renewal, this distinction was the subject of much discussion. Particularly jarring was the dictum of Karl Rahner, who wrote simply, “The economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity and vice versa” (quoted in von Balthasar, Theo-Drama, vol. 3, 508, n.3). In a single, compact paragraph, von Balthasar sums up the importance of maintaining the immanent/economic distinction for Christian theology:

[W]hile according to Christian faith, the economic Trinity assuredly appears the interpretation of the immanent Trinity, it may not be identified with it, for the latter grounds and supports the former. Otherwise, the immanent, eternal Trinity would threaten to dissolve into the economic; in other words, God would be swallowed up in the world process–a necessary stage, in this view, if he is to fully realize himself. (Theo-Drama, vol. 3, 508)

In this amazingly dense paragraph, two very important truths are laid out. First, the economic Trinity is the “interpretation” of the immanent. In other words, the activity of God revealing himself to us through the prophets and apostles, and most definitively in his Son Jesus, “interpret” to us the inner life of God. For instance, when Jesus prays to the Father, as he often does in the gospels, we catch a glimpse of what the eternal life of God is like.

Second, the immanent Trinity is distinguishable from the economic–not that they are not one reality–because if we collapse the two, then creation becomes necessary. If Christianity is not to become Hinduism, this fatal misstep must be avoided. Creation is contingent, not necessary; in other words, it is a gift out of the free choice of God’s love. Creation did not have to be, and if it did not, then there would never have been an “economic” side to God’s Trinitarian life. Instead, Father, Son and Spirit would have shared each other’s life in perfect self-giving from eternity to eternity.

Progress in Mystery in Hilary of Poitiers

Taking up our discussion of Trinity and mystery from Karen Kilby, I came across a similar discussion in Hilary of Poitiers (300-368). He is here, in On the Trinity, discussing how it is that the Son is eternally born from the Father–a basic confession of Christian faith:

Penetrate into the mystery, plunge into the darkness which shrouds that birth, where you will be alone with God the Unbegotten and God the Only-begotten. Make your start, continue, persevere. I know that you will not reach the goal, but I shall rejoice at your progress. For he who devoutly treads an endless road, though he reach no conclusion, will profit by his exertions. Reason will fail for want of words, but when it comes to a stand it will be the better for the effort made. (On the Trinity, Book II, §10; in Gunton, ed., The Practice of Theology, 229)

Hilary seems to be setting out on a quite different path than Karen Kilby in her recent article, “Is An Apophatic Trinitarianism Possible?” Making a comparison across disciplines, she argues, “[T]heology does not ‘progress’ in the way that mathematics does, and the doctrine of the Trinity which is the conclusion of a long hermeneutical struggle should not itself be taken as a fresh starting point for a new enquiry” (70). For Kilby, “[T]here ought properly to be … a resistance to, a fundamental reticence and reserve surrounding, speculation on the Trinity” (72).

The proper grammar surrounding the Trinity has been achieved: this is the result of great struggle in the first five centuries of the Church’s life. But that does not mean that we may now set off, as it were, from the Trinitarian definitions as a launching pad to deeper things. Instead, the Trinity remains most properly shrouded in a veil of apophasis. But Kilby makes an important additional distinction: apophasis is not simply a sheer act of denial–that we, for instance, have no knowledge whatsoever about the Trinity. Rather, the Trinity is so overwhelmingly excessive that all our attempts to “understand” what the Trinity is like fall short.

The Trinitarian dogmas, Kilby wishes to affirm however, do really teach us things about the nature of God’s life, even the immanent life of Father, Son and Spirit together. They also, importantly, hedge off certain wrong understandings. In her own words, “Or again, one thing the doctrine affirms is that there really is only one God, and to say this is to say something about the immanent Trinity, but this does not mean that one has a comprehension of – or even a feeling for – how the oneness of God fits with the threeness” (71). And here Kilby is much closer to Hilary:

Therefore, since no one knows the Father save the Son, let our thoughts of the Father be at one with the thoughts of the Son, the only faithful Witness, who reveals him to us. It is easier for me to feel this concerning the Father than to say it… We must feel that he is invisible, incomprehensible, eternal. But to say [these things]… all this is an acknowledgement of his glory, a hint of our meaning, a sketch of our thoughts, but speech is powerless to tell us what God is, words cannot express the reality. (§7; in Gunton, 227-228)

So what purpose, then, does theological writing on the Trinity serve? Karen Kilby and Hilary of Poitiers here offer the same answer:

So much I have resolved to say concerning the nature of their Divinity not imagining that I have succeeded in making a summary of the faith, but recognising that the theme is inexhaustible. So faith, you object, has no service to render, since there is nothing that it can comprehend. Not so; the proper service of faith is to grasp and confess the truth that it is incompetent to comprehend its object. (Hilary, §11; in Gunton, 229-230)

With equal elegance, Kilby: “What answers we may appear to have – answers drawing on notions of processions, relations, perichoresis – would be acknowledged as in fact no more than technical ways of articulating our inability to know” (67). Perhaps this, then, is progress: a recognition of the fundamental–indeed, theologically reasoned–need for a “trinitarian theological modesty” (67), or what Sarah Coakley calls “a theology committed to ascetic transformation.” Indeed, in the last analysis, “To know God is unlike any other knowledge; indeed, it is more truly to be known, and so transformed” (Is There a Future for Gender and Theology?, 5).

Karen Kilby on Apophatic Trinitarianism

Nottingham theologian Karen Kilby has an article in the January 2010 issue of the International Journal of Systematic Theology on the possibility of an “apophatic Trinitarianism.” Interestingly, she argues that there is something potentially rationalistic about an over-confident speaking about the Trinity, which, after all, is a fundamental mystery: how can we think of three persons in one essence? Father, Son, Spirit: these three are one? Instead, Kilby wants to throw up an important caution:

Or again, one might ask whether some versions of trinitarian robustness presuppose a rather elevated conception of the role of both theology and the theologian: it can sometimes seem that only if one has sat at the feet of contemporary theologians can one really see what it was … which was, all along, the deep meaning of the Christian revelation, the central thing it has to teach us. And ultimately of course one might wonder about the danger of idolatry, about the possibility of being so robust, so confident that we know what we are talking about when we talk about the Trinity, that we are in fact projecting our most pleasing ideas onto God and making those the object of our worship. (67)

Trinitarian theology is (perhaps) the deepest point of the Christian mystery. The only other point that is (perhaps) more mysterious is the self-giving of love we see in Jesus’ cross. For the theologian, then, who is charged by the Church to care for its speech about God, there is an incredible spiritual danger in speaking too confidently–of over-reaching what is given to him or her. But, as Kilby also reminds us, apophaticism–making negative statements of God, stating what we cannot say about God–has classically occurred (in the Church Fathers, for instance) in tandem with contemplation.

To define contemplation, Kilby states succinctly: “The Spirit allows us to contemplate the Father in the Son. This is the fundamental structure of Christian contemplation” (72). Christian contemplation, in other words, is structurally Trinitarian. This is something recognized also by Sarah Coakley: “[P]rayer (and especially prayer of a non-discursive sort, whether contemplative or charismatic) is the only context in which the irreducible threeness of God becomes humanly apparent” (Is There A Future for Gender and Theology?, 10).

But, Kilby notes, how can apophaticism–the making of negative statements–be associated with the Trinity, which is a reality and a truth preeminently rich and inexhaustible? Instead, Kilby turns this logic on its head to show that it is precisely the overflowing reality of the Trinity that cautions our speech:

Richness, excess, this overwhelming quality of what we cannot comprehend should, on the view I am developing, be located precisely at the level of our contemplation in the Trinity, rather than at the level of contemplation of the Trinity… And it is precisely because of the sense of excess and transcendence associated with contemplation in the Trinity that there ought properly to be, on the view I am exploring, a resistance to, a fundamental reticence and reserve surrounding, speculation on the Trinity. (72)

As Coakley states similarly elsewhere, “[S]ystematic theology without contemplative and ascetic practice is void; for theology in its proper sense is always implicitly in via. It comes, with the urge, the fundamental desire, to seek God’s face and yet to have that seeking constantly checked, corrected and purged” (Is There a Future for Gender and Theology?, 5-6).

Aelred of Rievaulx on the Triune Economy

Aelred of Rievaulx, a medieval spiritual writer (1110-1167), authored a reflection on the gospel story of Jesus at twelve years old (Luke 2:41-52). During this time, he is lost by his parents at the Temple for three days. Aelred ponders just what Jesus could have done during these three days, besides of course speaking with the teachers at the Temple, as Luke tells us (2:46). He proposes that Jesus was conferring with the Father and Spirit on their common plan of salvation. This ‘common plan’ is what the Church Fathers often referred to as the “divine economy.” Often in Paul’s letters, he refers to the unfolding of God’s plan of salvation as God’s “economy,” often translated “administration” or simply “plan” (for example, Ephesians 1:10). For Aelred, this divine economy includes the whole of Jesus’ ministry, and has a Trinitarian form:

But we can conjecture about more profound mysteries. Perhaps, the first day he presented himself before the face of his Father, not to sit at his right hand, but to consult the Father’s will on the order of the redemptive plan he had accepted. Indeed, it would not be absurd to think that the Son of God, who had, in his divine nature, drawn up a plan conjointly with the Father and Holy Spirit, being equal and consubstantial with one and the other, had, in the “form of a slave” [Phil. 2:7] which he had received, in his humanity, consulted God; that he had, in his smallness, inquired after the scale of this plan. Not to be instructed about what he himself knew from all eternity, being with the Father in the form of God, but to defer in all things to the Father, to give him his obedience, to offer him his abasement. There, in the secret places of the Father, he spoke of the baptism for him to receive, of the choice of his disciples, of the establishment of the Gospel, of miracles to accomplish, and finally of the suffering for him to undergo and of the glory of the resurrection.

Everything being divinely regulated, the next day he granted the sweetness of his design to the choirs of angels and archangels; he announced to them that the ancient defection of the citizens of heaven would soon be made up for, and he thus caused the whole city of God to rejoice.

At last, the third day, he mingled with the flock of patriarchs and prophets; to those that had already learned of this plan from the holy elder Simeon, he confirmed it by unveiling his face; he consoled them in the length of their long wait by the promise of the imminence of redemption, making them all more patient and more joyful. (Quand Jesus eut douze ans, Sources Chrétiennes 60, pp.61, 63)