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Fr Aidan Nichols


Say It Is Pentecost

Chapter 1: Introducing Baithasar's Logic

Balthasar did not his complete his theological logic until he had written his theological aesthetics and dramatics. But before he started on his aesthetics and dramatics he had already written the first volume of that logic. Containing as it does his general ontology, it is important for its expression of certain general principles of Christian thought later presupposed by the theological aesthetics and dramatics, and for introducing us for the first time to some of the root philosophical concepts set to theological use in those works.[1]

General principles

In the foreword to the original, 1947, edition, Balthasar insists that he does not want to be so original as in any way to displace those fundamental principles relevant to the theme of truth which the masters of the Western tradition, from Aristotle to Aquinas, have put forward, and which subsequent Christian philosophy from the high mediaeval period to the time of writing has the more solidly established. And yet, alternatively, human thought will surely never exhaust the truth which is its own proper object. So Balthasar's aim will be to introduce into the traditional theses some '
new developments', developments which cohere with what he calls the 'ever renewed perspective' that the passage of time brings in its train. The ethos of his study will be faithfulness to the spirit rather than the letter of the philosophia perennis.[2] When re-published in 1985 as the opening volume of a trilogy under the overall title of Theologik, the foreword to Wahrheit der Welt, 'The Truth of the World', turned out to have expanded so as to take in Balthasar's now widened conception, the second and third instalments of which would be called respectively 'The Truth of God' and 'The Spirit of Truth'. The overall aim of Balthasar's theological logic - in effect his ontology, for, like Hegel, he can think of no logic which is not 'onto-logic', the truth of being - is now re-defined in Trinitarian terms. A 'theo-logic' addresses the question of what is meant by 'truth' in the context of the 'event' of God's revelation through the Incarnation of the Logos and the Outpouring of the Holy Spirit. This Christological, Pneumatological and therefore ultimately Trinitarian setting for theological logic requires us to investigate what 'laws' of thought and language can be said to underlie the expression of the content perceived and experienced in theological aesthetics which, in another perspective, is also the 'confrontation' between divine and human freedom set forth in the theological dramatics. But Balthasar regards this as a question which can hardly be raised until we have clarified what we mean by the 'truth of being' in the first place, for this is the most fundamental question of all, unavoidable if we are to grasp something of the Logos, the foundation of 'logic'.

So despite the concern of volumes II and III of the
Theologik with Father, Son and Spirit, and the re-definition of theological truth which their self-manifestation brings in its train, Balthasar remained convinced of the appositeness of Volume I, which links his work to Scholastic metaphysics, and indeed to the entire tradition of ontological thinking, both pagan and Christian, in the Western world. As he writes, situating the task of Volume I in the context of the three great serial trilogies as a whole:

From the outset, the whole trilogy has been articulated in terms of the transcendental determinations of being, and indeed with reference to the analogical relationship which they bear, by their validity and their form, in the being of the world, and in divine Being: there is a correspondence in the 'aesthetics' between worldly 'beauty' and divine 'glory', and in the 'dramatics' between a worldly-finite and a divinely-infinite freedom. Here, accordingly, in the theological logic we shall be pondering the relation between the structure of created truth and that of divine truth. Following this, we must look into the question as to whether divine truth can represent itself within the structures of created truth and (in diverse forms) come to expression there. Theological findings about God's glory, goodness and truth naturally presuppose not only a formalistic or gnoseological but also an ontological structure in the being of the world. Without philosophy, no theology.[3]

The settled conviction of Catholic divinity that it cannot do without a philosophical mediation if it is both to grasp as fully as it can the content of its own divine resources and 'give a reason for the hope that is in' believers faced with a sceptical world (cf. 1 Peter 3.15) is Balthasar's wholly adequate justification in writing Wahrheit der Welt.[4]

Incarnation and ontology

In the 1985 Foreword to the ontological trilogy Balthasar makes it clear that the question of the analogy of being, so far from constituting a separated natural theology, paralleling, in uneasy independence, the deliverances of revealed doctrine, is intimately connected with the latter. For ontological thinking is crucially relevant to the Incarnation. The Incarnation is literally unthinkable unless a positive answer can be indicated to the question, Is '
worldly logos' - the intelligibility implicit in the world's being - capable of bearing the weight of the divine Logos were he to make himself known in his own world? And anticipating somewhat his own response, Balthasar speaks of the way in which being has a 'polarity structure' - a term he drew from his one-time mentor, the Polono-German Jesuit Erich Przywara [5] to whose contrasting poles of essence and existence, general and individual, he adds others which come to light both in aesthetics (such as form and radiance) and ethics (like obedience and freedom). This polarity structure of all existence, while manifesting the ontological difference between the being of the creature and that of the Creator (because, owing to the divine simplicity, the latter 'is' all that he 'has'), also suggests a 'positive moment' where the creature displays a certain likeness and so comparability with its God. For between these poles there plays a fullness of inner life - a continuous epiphany of the divine liveliness. Still, for Balthasar, to show how finite being might be considered the image and likeness of absolute being is only possible once we have begun to think in a thoroughgoing Trinitarian fashion.

The first volume,
Wahrheit der Welt, will therefore play a role at once modest yet crucial. Exploration of the inner-worldly structure of truth -that is, of the ever-deeper strata of being as no less ever-deepening ways in which truth explicates itself to the knower: this is Balthasar's subject. He will remind readers of many points familiar to the ancients and the Fathers yet subsequently lost to view - without, however, departing from the main lines of the Thomist tradition, the 'great' tradition, as he terms it.[6] The book's closing chapter will show how these inner-worldly structures of finite being point on towards a transcendent divine Logos -even though for philosophical thinking God and his truth come into view simply as the world's beginning and end, as the First Vatican Council's Constitution on faith and reason, Dei Filius, makes clear. Balthasar realises that, to the reader unforewarned, it may seem strange that he can pass, in the second volume of Theologik, to an unashamedly theological account of the same topic: treating the truth God has made known through his free revelation as the final norm of worldly truth. The first volume simply presumes that divine revelation does not cancel out worldly truth but rather fulfils it in raising it up.

Revelation and philosophy

He uses the expanded preface of the ontological trilogy to justify this démarche. First, and taking up a major emphasis of his principal Francophone teacher, Henri de Lubac:
[7] in its concrete existence the world is already placed in a supernatural dimension by the grace of God. There is no such thing as a theologically neutral world for philosophy to investigate. It follows that, while philosophy may certainly abstract from the supernatural in order to lay out some basic structures of the world and our knowledge thereof, the closer it comes in this task to its object in the latter's concrete character, and the deeper it penetrates our equally concrete modes of knowledge, the more it will have to do with theological data - whether the philosopher concerned is aware of this or not. For the supernatural is at work as a leaven in the natural, or is present (in another metaphor) as its atmosphere. It would be foolish, in Balthasar's opinion, to attempt to banish supernatural truth from the philosophical enterprise. It is one thing for a Plato or an Aristotle to incorporate de iure theological elements within a de facto philosophy without being able to know that is what they were doing. It is quite another for one to undertake, after the Gospel's definitive illumination of rationality, a 'purification' of philosophy in a secularising spirit - though of course such a reductive return to a purely immanentist philosophical truth is the common denominator linking modern rationalisms of various kinds. A Catholic thinker by contrast will, in Balthasar's words:

describe the truth of the world in its prevailing worldly quality [Welthaftigkeit] without thereby excluding the possibility that the world thus described contains elements of directly divine, supernatural provenance.[8]

Moreover, and in particular, there may be truths pertaining to the 'first gift' of created nature which are available now only through the enlightening power of revelation. Balthasar proposes this as a way of understanding the First Vaticanum's claim that the divine existence is accessible to human reason.[9] His hopes, at this juncture, of the possible conversion to Catholicism of the great 'Neo-Orthodox' Protestant dogmatician Karl Barth[10] may have influenced him here, for such an interpretation would have enabled that doughty exponent of revelatione sola, 'by revelation alone', to accept the Council's dogmatic decree on faith and reason. In the world of antiquity, so Balthasar notes, people havered indecisively between a polytheism of personally conceived deities, as with Homer, and an impersonal mysticism of unity, as in Plotinus. The only way to overcome the unsatisfactory finitude of the many gods appeared to be through the positing of a non-personal principle of unity behind the divine world. By contrast, after the coming of Christianity, a thinker like Aquinas is able to speak of a 'natural' desire for the vision of the only and personal God. But did such a desire come to light naturally or supernaturally? Leaving that question open, Balthasar for his part will set out to describe the 'truth of the world' without distinguishing what in his understanding comes from natural, and what from supernatural, sources. In practice, in the construction of a Christian ontology, this demarcation line cannot be precisely drawn.

This does not mean, however, as Balthasar is at pains to point out, that he proposes to sink philosophy and theology as mere ingredients in some vast soup, for in the remaining volumes of the ontological trilogy his task of describing truth as conditioned by the Incarnation and Pentecost will be completely determined by the historic revelation. Indeed, Balthasar uses this opportunity to enter a caveat against any '
Rahnerian' misunderstanding of his project. There will be no question here, as in Karl Rahner's Theological Idealism, of dismembering the divine self-manifestation into on the one hand 'categorial' and on the other 'transcendental' aspects, such that the line of particular historical development which links Christ, the Spirit and the Church is to be distinguished (as merely 'categorial') from some more comprehensive, historically all-embracing, 'transcendental' sphere, with the concomitant danger that Christian truth becomes at best a key to, and at worst simply an illustration of, what is in any case already given in the universal God-world relationship. Here, looking back from the vantage point of 1985, he could appeal to his own Theology of History, published in 1950,[11] to suggest an alternative scheme. The mystery of the active influence of Christ's Holy Spirit must itself be understood in so universal a way and Christ, in his historical and resurrectional reality, be grasped as so much the 'concrete universal' that it strikes us as perfectly natural for the radiant light of the Spirit of Pentecost and the Christ of the Paschal Mystery to penetrate to the furthest boundaries of space and time.

But there is a second reason too which legitimates the apparently effortless transition, within the
Theologik, from the philosophical programme of Volume I to the Christological and Pneumatological interpretation of the truth of the world within the mystery of God in volumes II and III. The inner fulness of philosophical truth - quite apart from any theological light which may fall upon it - is much richer (so Balthasar claims) than many post-Renaissance philosophical systems will concede. If, following the example given by St Thomas in his integration of the contrasting Platonic and Aristotelian world-views, a variety of philosophies, each with their own favoured insights, are permitted to 'infiltrate' each other, then natural reality has a chance to appear in its own largeness, fullness and manysidedness. And this in turn makes possible a proper evaluation of the work of grace, for grace can only display itself in its true Colours where just such a 'fulness' offers itself as its raw material - as the 'matter' which grace will penetrate, form, raise up and perfect in its activity.

If this preparatory philosophical homework is neglected, then theology will be the sufferer. Balthasar's ideal, then, is that philosophy and theology should '
draw life from each other'.

A philosophy that renounces the transcendent ends up, he believes, of necessity, with what amounts to forms and varieties of Positivism, sterile systems that go by various names: functionalism, logicism, linguistic analysis. Then truth itself as a transcendental determination of being becomes perfectly superfluous. Theology finds itself left hanging in the air, and can take refuge only in the most unsatisfactory of solutions, whether some kind of existentialism, or an exegetical rationalism, or a political theology that turns belief into praxis. Here what are at best
partial aspects of theological truth, now left un-integrated, lead into the sand. But, Balthasar thinks, a programme of re-integrating philosophy with theology is only plausible if the analogy between divine prototype and worldly reflection is restored to its former centrality in Western thought. Kant and Nietzsche were not far wrong in centering their attack on traditional metaphysics on the transcendentals - for the latter give us access to the heart of the God-world relation. And in any case clear-eyed modern man, contemplating his world, can only treat the transcendentals as illusory: where is this all-governing truth, goodness and beauty? Alas, the perversions of being and its basic determinations which human freedom has (whether maliciously or negligently) perpetrated in the history of culture have had the effect of suppressing our awareness of the mysterious depth of reality, and so leading us to misdescribe it. 'X is nothing other than' is the typical formula of this betrayal. In reality, in the last analysis, everything knowable must have a 'mysteric' character, on the simple grounds that all objects of knowledge have a creaturely character, which must mean that the final truth of all things is 'hidden in the mind of the Creator who alone may utter [their] eternal names...'[12]


1. See the two previous studies in this series: A. Nichols, The Word Has Been Abroad: A Guide through Balthasar's Aesthetics (Edinburgh 1998); idem, No Bloodless Myth: A Guide through Balthasar's Dramatics (Edinburgh 2000).

2. 'Vorwort', Wahrheit: I Wahrheit der Welt (Einsiedeln 1947).

3. ~Zum Gesamtwerk', Theologik I Wahrheit der Welt (Einsiedeln 1985), cited below as TL I, p. vii.

4. A conviction re-expressed at the highest level in the 1998 encyclical of Pope John Paul II, Fides et ratio.

5 For Przywara's role in Baithasar's development, see Nichols, The Word Has Been Abroad, pp. xiii-xiv.

6 TL I, p. x.

7 For Baithasar's relation to de Lubac, see Nichols, The Word Has Been Abroad, pp. xlv-xv

8 Ibid., p. xii; cf. pp. 21-2. See also on this H. U. von Balthasar, 'Der Begriff der Natur in der Theologie', Zeitschrift für katholische Theologie 75 (1953), pp. 452-64.

9 Though at the First Vatican Council no explicit mention was made of the condition of sin as reducing the human capacity to know God, there was - via the text of Thomas' Summa Theologiae - an implicit reference, for Thomas is reflecting on the concrete, post-lapsarian human being who carries in his flesh the rationally debilitating consequences of original sin. The development of this point by Pope Pius XII in his encyclical letter Humani Generis might suggest that while human reason, weakened though it is by sin, can none the less reach God as the beginning and end of created things through the means placed at its disposal by created reality, there is still a moral necessity for supernatural revelation. At the Second Vatican Council, Dci Verbum will reverse the sequence of Dei Filius, speaking of a natural revelation in the creation only after it has dealt with the supernatural revelation in biblical history.

10 See Nichols, The Word Has Been Abroad, pp. xvi-xvii.

Extracts from "Say it is Pentecost" reproduced with the kind permission of the publisher.

Copyright ©; T & T Clark Ltd, 2001

Version: 6th February 2008


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