Beginning with Hans Urs von Balthasar

Todd Walatka, over at Memoria Dei, has a very helpful post on where to begin to figure out Hans Urs von Balthasar. It can be intimidating, seeing as he wrote some 85 books and over 500 articles. My favourite suggestion is Walatka’s first:  “Theology and Sanctity,” from Explorations in Theology I. A stunning essay with one of my favourite opening lines:

In the whole history of Catholic theology there is hardly anything that is less noticed, yet more deserving of notice, than the fact that, since the great period of Scholasticism, there have been few theologians who were saints. (181)

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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.

Von Balthasar on the Spirit’s Inspiration

Von Balthasar is in the middle of a long section on Christ: specifically, the link between “identity” and “mission” in Christ. For von Balthasar, Jesus is his task, his identity is defined by what he was sent to do. And so he can say things like, “Jesus Christ dedicates his whole self to his mission; he is entirely one with it. He is the ‘one sent'” (Theo-Drama, vol. 3, 166). Further, “The task given him by the Father, that is, of expressing God’s Fatherhood through his entire being, through his life and death in and for the world, totally occupies his self-consciousness and fills it to the very brim” (172). But this also means a complicated interplay of “freedom” and “inspiration” is involved in Jesus’ identity and mission:

Sublime inspiration awakens in the person inspired a deeper freedom than that involved in arbitrary choice; for that very reason, it stamps the work with the character of personal uniqueness and necessity. It is revealed as the work for which a [person] has lived, in which they have “immortalized” themselves; it enabled him to possess himself entirely, precisely because he was possessed by it. He has grasped and fulfilled his mission. This mission was not waiting for him, ready-made, in some preexistence: it was slumbering within him like a child in its mother’s womb, pressing to be delivered–out of the womb of his most personal freedom.

What this analogy teaches us is this: when Jesus lays hold of his mission and fashions it, he is not obeying some alien power. The Holy Spirit who inspires him is not only the Spirit of the Father (with whom the Son is “one”) but also his own Spirit. We cannot imagine his mission ever having a beginning: he has always laid hold of it already. It may be that he lives for it and for its sake (the inspired artist can experience something analogous), but he will not be able to say that his mission existed (in some eternal time) prior to his having affirmed and grasped it; for it is always his. Nor is it his in the sense that it lies ready, prefabricated, so that he only needs to assemble it. No; he must fashion it out of himself in utter freedom and responsibility; indeed, in a sense, he even has to invent it. (198)

Jesus does not simply follow some step-by-step directions when he undertakes his Father’s will, but he struggles through it. He has to listen patiently, at each moment, for the details of the Father’s will: he “adhered to it daily and hourly” (157). And just in receiving this inspiration from the Father through the Spirit, he realizes his own uttermost freedom to be who he is: that just these works and this mission make up who he has always been and will be.

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?