The Word Has Been Abroad
By Aidan Nichols OP
An Introduction to Balthasar ix 1. The Fate of Beauty 1 2. The Subjective Evidence 23 3. The Objective Evidence 34 4. Constellation of Clerics 65 5. Landscapes by Laymen 92 6. The Metaphysics of Antiquity 128 7. The Metaphysics of Christendom - and Beyond 145 8. The Elder Testament 187 9. New and Everlasting Covenant 211 Bibliography 254
Index of Subjects 256
Index of Names 265
This analytic exposition of Balthasar's text is intended to allow the reader to find his or her way through. And the goal is to discover the heart of theological aesthetics - the transfigured, blood-stained features of Jesus Christ where the glory of God streams forth as the beauty of the love that will save the world.
But the splendour of the sacrificial divine Goodness is also deed and truth. In two subsequent studies, therefore, I shall consider Balthasar's theological dramatics and his theological logic, as well as the 'epilogue' to the trilogy as a whole, and end with a critical evaluation of this most impressive of all twentieth-century Catholic theologies.
I am most grateful to Professor Geoffrey Hill for graciously permitting phrases from his poetic work to serve as titles for these studies, and to Stratford Caldecott for suggesting as cover image for the present volume David Jones' Vexilla Regis, the original of which is in Kettle's Yard, Cambridge. The Word's foreign travel into the realm of flesh on earth leaves behind the mighty tree of salvation, redemptively overshadowing (to left and right) the tree of fragile natural goodness and the tree of ambivalent power. Only thus can nature and culture, multiply symbolised in Jones' picture, find fulfilment and peace.
To the Brethren of the
An Introduction to Balthasar
From one point of view Balthasar never abandoned that faculty. I do not mean that, of course, in a physical sense: indeed, as was not unusual when pursuing higher studies in the universities of German-speaking Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, he was peripatetic already as a student. In the process of acquiring his doctorate he took courses in Berlin (where he studied as a sideline both Indian thought and, through the priest-philosopher Romano Guardini, Kierkegaard) and at Vienna (where he discovered Plotinus). His own mature theology would attempt to identify the elements of truth in both Existentialism, represented here by Kierkegaard, and Neo-Platonism, summed up in Plotinus, while at the same time identifying over against these the specifying features of a distinctively Christian metaphysics. It may also be relevant to mention here, vis-à-vis the topic of Hindu philosophy, that Balthasar's version of Christian apologetics attempts to show how the Christian gospel, and the characteristic thinking it generates, can find space within itself for the authentic spiritual aspiration represented by each of the great world religions while also showing up the errors on which their enterprise founders. This is the idea of Christian revelation (and the thinking that accompanies it) as a 'totality than which no greater can be thought'. Also worth noting, in the context of Balthasar's perambulations as a young man im deutschen Sprachraum is the influence upon him of Rudolf Allers, a fellow-citizen and erstwhile pupil of Freud in the Vienna of the 1920s, a convert to Catholicism whose journey from Freudian reductionism, where the self is not much more than a bundle of instinctual drives, to a Christian psychotherapy where primacy is given to interpersonal love as the proper medium of human existence, was assisted by his studies of mediaeval philosophy and theology.
To return, then, to my statement that in one sense Balthasar never left the German faculty at
Zurich. This is in an extended or metaphorical sense true, for he continued to regard the marriage of philosophy
and literature as the best possible preparation for theological existence. Or, to put the same point in another
way, the offspring of that marriage provides theology with its most serviceable handmaiden. That Balthasar was
already, even as a young layman engaged in purely academic work, thinking in religious and theological terms, is
clear both from his life-story and from the massive and (it has to be said) not entirely digestible text which
his studies produced. In the year when he submitted
his thesis, 1929, he entered the Bavarian Province of the Society of Jesus; ironically, his university was situated
in the most radical protestant of all Swiss cities, where opposition to any relaxing of the 'articles of exception',
forbidding the activity of the Jesuits, was at its most vociferous. And furthermore, the thesis he handed in was itself a form of tacit or implicit theology. Its subject
was modern German literature, examined from the viewpoint of its attitude, explicit or implicit, to the 'Last Things'
- the final or eternal destiny of the human soul. Much of the material of this thesis would find its way into the
first of his major works, The Apocalypse of the German Soul,
a massive tripartite study of the eschatological bearings of the work of numerous major German philosophers, dramatists
and poets of the late eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Despite wandering at times from his brief in chapters on the vitalist philosopher Henri Bergson, an important
figure, in more-than-Germanic perspective, in the overcoming of the rationalist element in nineteenth-century thought,
and on the Russian novelist Dostoevsky, whom he treats as a Christian counterpart to Nietzsche, Balthasar more
or less succeeds here in his self-appointed task. Taking German philosophers from Lessing to Heidegger and German
poets from Goethe to Rilke to be the most penetrating intelligences at work in the unfolding of European culture
in their periods, he tries to show that they divide ultimately into two principal attempted solutions of the riddle
that is existence, what he calls the 'Promethean' and the 'Dionysian' solutions, after respectively, the Greek
hero, Prometheus, and the Greek god, Dionysus. Prometheus
for Balthasar is the symbol of man's attempt to raise himself by his own bootstraps to the level of the gods. The
human 'I' exalts itself in self-affirmation, seizing fire from heaven - not only emancipating itself from inherited
constraints, whether biological or historical, but aiming at the total mastery of existence. The Promethean outlook
is manifested in the writers of the Enlightenment, and in such Idealist philosophers as Hegel with his project
of reaching absolute knowledge, where the human mind coincides with the divine mind in realising that everything
is, and has happened, just as it ought to have if infinite spirit is to become self-aware in man. Dionysus for Balthasar is a symbol of a more tragic attempt to resolve the
puzzle of existence. Dionysian man resembles Promethean man in the unboundedness of his aspirations but his interest
lies more in escaping the limitations of existence, rather than in dominating them. Faced with transience and mortality,
he leaves reason behind in a flight towards the unnameable heights of whatever lies behind everyday existence.
But characteristically this movement of mystical exaltation is followed by a falling back, disenchanted, into a
sense of the absurdity of everything. The Dionysian temper is reflected in such artistic and philosophical movements
as Expressionism and Existentialism.
Apocalypse of the German Soul is the expanded, published
form of Balthasar's History of the Eschatological Problem in German Literature and as such it gives us an insight into the making of his thought at a crucial and formative, if immature,
stage. But by the time Apocalypse was given to the public
in the years 1937 to 1939, Balthasar had completed his Jesuit training in the Jesuit studentates of Pullach, near
Munich and Fourvières, near Lyons, and on the basis of this combined Franco-German tuition, had received
ordination as a priest in November 1936, at the hands of the aristocratic German prelate, already celebrated for
his resistance to the ethos of the Third Reich, Cardinal Michael von Faulhaber whose ancient see of Freising had
been combined a century previously with the Witteisbach court-bishopric of Munich to form the primatial church
To understand the acerbity of this remark, I must look ahead briefly to Balthasar's mature work, the great trilogy which consists in, first, a theological aesthetics, secondly, a theological dramatics and thirdly, a theological logic. It may not have escaped the reader's notice that Balthasar's strictures on Jesuit theology in the 1930s were fundamentally stylistic in character. The large-scale rejection of a theological culture simply on the ground that its textbooks were poorly written may seem dilettantish or frankly bizarre. But not to one whose theological logic would not be finished until he had completed a theological aesthetics and dramatics. The revelation which Christian theology set itself to study was the disclosure of a beauty beyond all worldly beauty in the supreme artwork of Jesus Christ; in it the transcendent beauty - in biblical language, the glory - of the ever-greater God came to expression. How could a theology genuinely attuned to its own subject-matter be ugly? Similarly, the salvation history which Christian theology set out to represent, and into whose ambit, as players in an ongoing déroulement of the plot, it invited its readers to enter, was a drama in which God set forth his own philanthropy, his own goodness to men, in the midst of a conflictual and agonistic world. How could a theology really faithful to its own subject-matter be lacking in dramatic power and tension? And because the truth which theological logic sets out is the truth of the gloriously beautiful God in his incarnate Word, the truth of the dramatically philanthropic God in that play whose director is the Holy Spirit, could a theology which was unprepossessing and dull be adequately true, even given the qualifications we have to enter when faced with the notion of the adequate conceptualisation of a revelation of the living God who exceeds all our categories? Although my way of expressing here Balthasar's grounds for disliking Jesuit Neo-Scholasticism as he experienced is indebted to his later work, it would not, I think, be difficult to show that these most basic intuitions about divine beauty, divine goodness, divine truth, and the mark these qualities should leave on theology itself, were already in his possession from the earliest years of his priesthood. They show themselves above all in the choice of topic and manner of treatment which typify the series of short books on patristics and Christian literature which he wrote in the wake of Apocalypse of the German Soul, and the manner in which he praised his earliest theological hero, Karl Barth.
During his student days a number of Balthasar's books on the Fathers and on the literary art
of twentieth-century Catholicism were happily gestating. This is true of his substantial essays on the seventh-century
Greek Father St Maximus the Confessor, and his fourth-century predecessor St Gregory of Nyssa, both of which appeared
during the Second World War, as well as his slighter study of the ante-Nicene writer Origen of Alexandria - which,
published in Austria in 1938, only achieved its definitive form in a French version in 1957. At the same time, stimulated both by de Lubac and Pryzwara, no mean
students of Augustine, he was compiling two anthologies of texts from the North African doctor, for which purpose
he read through the entire corpus of Augustine in class, with earplugs in to block out the sound of lectures. Balthasar was lucky enough to be living in France at the time
of a major Catholic literary renaissance there, and this bore fruit in his books on the novelist Georges Bernanos,
Le chrétien Bernanos, as well as his translations
The Maximus book presented Christ as the key to the cosmos, tying together in his own person all the pathways of creation and redemption. The Nyssa book set forth for the first time the related themes of desire, eros, and charity, agape, presenting the stream of eros, which is never exhausted by any object in this world, as the concrete form of man's openness to transcendence, on which divine grace, then, can set to work, turning desire into self-giving. The Origen book is a modern restatement of the idea of the spiritual sense of Scripture, a sense more important than the literal in being not more foundational - for the literal is always that - but higher, more open to the full dimensions of God's self-revelation. The study of Bernanos presents major themes of sin and forgiveness, confession and judgment. Claudel was sought out for his ideas on the nature of poetic knowledge and the need for sympathy -connaturality - between the knower and the object known. Connaissance, 'knowledge', in its highest reaches, is co-naissance, 'co-birth', familial intimacy. But more widely, these books represent an appeal to broaden, deepen and above all humanise the Scholastic tradition, going back behind it to the Fathers with their mystical warmth and rhetorical power, and going ahead of it (or to the side of it) by appeal to literary artists who could put Christian experience, the wider sense of the faith, into compelling, unforgettable form.
At the time when this stream of what we could call his ancillary works
I call Basle the city of Balthasar's opportunity and crisis, because it was, on the one hand, the home of the two people - the dogmatician Karl Barth and the mystic Adrienne von Speyr - who more than any others were to determine the direction of his work; and, on the other, the occasion of his traumatic break with the Jesuits. His dispensation from vows and consequent acceptance of the status of a secular priest was, in the climate of the time, a perfectly adequate explanation for his cold-shouldering by Church authority. Even today the Roman Curia looks somewhat askance at exclaustrated Religious, even though they may continue to be worthy priests.
Balthasar's admiration for Barth, which was reciprocated, is expressed in his book The Theology of Karl Barth, which began life as a series of lectures on Barth given in Barth's presence: a daunting undertaking when one considers that Pope Pius XII called Barth the greatest Christian thinker since Aquinas. In the opening section of his study of Barth, Balthasar waxes lyrical in his praise of Barth's manner of practising theology. He calls Barth's work 'beautiful' on the grounds that it combines 'passion' with 'objectivity'. Barth's theology is objective in the sense of being thoroughly immersed in its object, God as revealed to the world in Christ. But the effect of this objectivity is that the theologian himself becomes involved in, and fascinated by, what he studies, and that at the deepest level: hence passion. The combination, Balthasar remarks drily, is not that common in contemporary Catholic theology.
To Balthasar's eyes, Barth shows us a true understanding of what theology should be. The 'principle' of theology is nothing other than the content of
revelation itself. But this revealed content cannot be separated from revelation perceived as the action of God. It is not primarily the communication of truths, but God
himself, very Truth, revealing himself in all his sovereign freedom. Consequently, theology must be a contemplative
exploration of God's self-gift. In theology's case, we cannot dispose of the principles of our discipline, in the
way that we can with profane studies. Furthermore, it is not just that, in Barth, revelation's content provides
theology with its foundational principles. The style
of Barth's theology expresses the immensity of this revealed content, the extraordinary greatness of the dramatic
event of revelation.
In 1945 after a retreat in the second-order Dominican monastery of Estavayer, in canton Neuchâtel, Balthasar founded with von Speyr a secular institute or society of consecrated life for lay people living in the world as also for diocesan priests. The Community of St John became more widely known three years later when Balthasar produced a theology for secular institutes, the first book to be published by the Johannes Verlag, a publishing house established with the help of a friend at Einsiedeln, halfway between Lucerne and Zurich, and named after the Gospel writer, St John, who predominates in both von Speyr's work and his own. Neither the local bishop nor the Jesuit superiors supported the venture, and the Society made it clear, after an interview with its Belgian Father General J. B. Janssens, that Balthasar must choose between the Jesuits on the one hand and his collaborator and spiritual children on the other. Balthasar made known his decision in a short printed statement sent to friends:
The key to the trilogy is found in the Scholastic notion of transcendental determinations of
being, qualities so pervasive throughout reality that they crop up in all the categories of particular being, and
so may be said to 'transcend' such categorial
distinctions as those differentiating substance and accident, quality and mode. It is the existence of these transcendental
determinations - of which the most relevant to Balthasar are verum, the true, pulchrum, the beautiful, and bonum, the good, which allows the analogy of being, the various intensities
of reality as manifested in the varying activity of beings at all levels, from amoeba to angel, to be pressed into
service by patristic and mediaeval theology for speaking about God. For that which can be ascribed to being itself
must surely have some validity in discourse about the ultimate Source of being, God.
2. For Vilmos Apor of Gyor, see J. Kozi Horvath, Leben und Sterben von Bischof Apor (Munich 19852).
3. Die Entwicklung der musikalischen Idee. Versuch einer Syn these der Musik (Braunschweig 1925).
4. Geschichte des eschatologischen Problems in der modernen deutschen Literatur (Zurich 1930)
5. Such laws, in the context of a less dispersed system of authority in the post-
6. Apokalypse der deutschen Seele. Studien zu einer Lehre von letzten Haltungen I. Der deutsche Idealismus (Salzburg 1937); II Im Zeichen Nietzsches (Salzburg 1939); III Die Vergottlichung des Todes (Salzburg 1939).
7. H. U. von Balthasar, 'Einleitung', in A. von Speyr, Erde und Himmel, Em Tagebuch. Zweiter Tell, II: Die Zeit der grossen Diktate (Einsiedeln 1975), p. 195.
8. 'Einleiturtg', in L. Zimmy (ed.), Erich Przywara. Sein Schrifttum (Einsiedeln 1963), pp. 5-18.
9. H. U. von Balthasar, Henri de Lubac. Sein organisches Lebenswerk (Einsiedeln
10 Kosmische Liturgie. Hohe und Krise des griechischen Weitbilds bei Maximus Confessor (Freiburg 1941); to this should be added: Die Gnostische Cent urien des Maxirnus Confessor (Freiburg 1941); his Nyssa essay is: Presence et pensee. Essai sur la philosophic religieuse de Gregoire de Nysse (Paris 1942); note also in this connexion Gregor von Nyssa, der versiegelte Quell. Auslegung des Hohen Liedes (Salzburg 1939); on Origen, there is: Origenes, Geist und Feuer. Em Aufbau aus semen Werken (Salzburg 1938), an anthology produced in the course of writing 'Le Mystere d'Origène', Recherches de Science Religieuse 26 (1936), pp. 513-552,27(1937), pp. 38- 64, which itself was later reconstructed as: Parole et mystère chez Origène (Paris 1957).
11. Aurelius Augustinus, Ueber die Psalmen
(Leipzig 1936); Aurelius Augustinus. Das Antlitz der Kirche (Einsiedeln-Cologne
13. Karl Barth. Darstellung mid Deutung seiner Theologie (Olten-Cologne 1951); E.t. The Theology of Karl Barth (New York 1971; San Francisco 19922). For the consonances between the two theologies, see J. Thomson, 'Barth and Baithasar. An Ecumenical Dialogue', in B. McGregor, OP., and T. Norris (eds), The Beauty of Christ. An Introduction to the Theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar (Edinburgh 1994), pp. 171 -192.
14. Unser Auftrag. Bericht und Entwurf (Einsiedeln 1984).
15. Schwestern irn Geist. Thérèse von Lisieux und Elisaheth von Dijon (Einsiedeln 1970).
16. Lindbeck, 'Scripture, Consensus and Community', in R. J. Neuhaus (ed), Biblical Interpretation in Crisis: The Ratzinger Conference on Bible and Church (Grand Rapids, Mich. 1989), pp. 74-101.
17. Der Laie und der Ordenstand (Einsiedeln 1948; Freiburg 19492).
18. Cited in, Henrici, 'Hans Urs von Balthasar', in Schindler (ed), Hans Urs von Balthasar, p. 21.
20. J. Ratzinger, 'Ein Mann der Kirche für die Welt', in K. Lehmann and W. Kasper
Extracts from "The Word Has Been Abroad" reproduced with the kind permission of the publisher.
Copyright ©; T&T Clark Ltd, 1998
First published 1998
Version: 6th February 2008