Home Page

Von Balthasar

Von Balthasar and the Co-redemption


Bridge to Balthasar - Scotus Origins

[I had been wondering to what extent the fragmentation of Mariology was due to a more general theological fragmentation in the Church. This latter thought had been inspired by a previous telephone comment to me by Fr Nichols to the effect that Marian fragmentation would not improve whilst the Church was in such disarray. The exposition given to me by Fr Nichols inspired further questions in my mind relating to the whole question of "synthesis" in theology. M.A.]

To: Mark Alder From: Fr. Aidan Nichols OP. Date: 12th July 1995.

Question: Is mariological thought in the Catholic Church since Vatican II progressing in some particular direction?


In the absence of any close familiarity with modern Mariological literature (as distinct from post Councilar theology in general) I can only offer some broad predictions/principles.

1) The great diversity of theological method in post councilar Catholicism (eg Balthasariansim, Neo-neo Thomism, Liberation theology, Narrative theology, Neo-patrisitic theology) make it unlikely. In general, theological convergence is only to be expected in periods when the theological life of the Church shows a marked unity. We await a new Aquinas to synthesise much theology (and exclude some!) in a new "classical" theology for the Church.

2)One can however distinguish between theology and doctrine. The same doctrine can be entertained in a variety of fashions by a diversity of theologians. (Otherwise the mere co-existence of various 'schools' known also in the past, eg. Scotism and Thomism, would imply that all but one were heterodox.)

So there COULD still be convergence on a doctrine (eg. the Blessed Virgin Mary) without agreement however on the manner in which the doctrine is arrived at, and its place within the intelligible structure of faith as a whole.

Re the possible dogmatisation of the Marion titles you mentioned.

The preamble to
Pastor Aeternus (1870) envisages that the 'normal' exercise of the pope's power of Ex Cathedra definition will be in circumstances where the episcopate is in disagreement on some aspect of the faith and morals of the Church. Possibly the dogmatisation of the Immaculate Conception can be brought under this heading inasmuch as the bishops did not deter 'Maculist' theologians from writing against the notion of Mary's 'pre- redemption'. Other interventions by popes in doctrinal history (such as the Tome of Leo, 451) might be held to exemplify what the Council had in mind, though most Catholic theologians today are reluctant to extend their range of examples of Ex Cathedra definition beyond the two modern Marian dogmas.

Given that the dogmatisation of the Assumption does not fall within the scope of the normative understanding of
Ex Cathedra pronouncements implied in the preamble to Pastor Aeternus, one must allow another kind of occasion for their making, viz., by a solemn liturgical act to renew the faith and devotion of the Church on some point of doctrine, in the hope that the resonances of this action will have pastorally beneficial results. The step you have in mind would come more naturally under this heading, since the presence of the Marian titles you mention in Lumen Gentium already create a presumption that the whole Church accepts them.

The question then arise, what sort of pastoral fruitfulness could be expected from such a dogmatic act? My own feeling is that there is already a renaissance in Marian sensibility (compared with the 1960's), a result of the initiatives of the present pope, the influence of such theologians as Balthasar and the need, vis-a-vis feminism, to show the 'female face' of the Church. However, possibly a case could be made out that such an action would constitute a
Captatio Benevolentiae for alienated Catholic woman.


[My reflections on the possibilities of authentic theological synthesis since 1995 had this year seemed to have ground to a standstill; One reason for this was probably I lacked the necessary theological training. There was something of a parodox in my mind however; the compatibility between authentic, orthodox theological development and the mainentance of the high levels of creativity required in our increasingly secular and "intrusive" world. I discussed with many people the above-mentioned statement by Fr Aidan: "We await a new Aquinas to synthesise much theology (and exclude some!) in a new "classical" theology for the Church." I had been discussing this statement yet one more time recently, with a friend Tim Williams who responded by suggesting that I examine the contribution made by Duns Scotus. This lead to further enquiry and I was fortunate to receive the following excellent clarification from the Franciscan theologian, Fr Peter Fehner. M.A.]

FROM: Fr. Peter Mary Fehner TO: Mark Alder DATE: 15th March 1999

There is no doubt in my mind that Thomism would immensely benefit from the cultivation of Scotism (and behind Scotus, St. Bonaventure, St. Anselm and the entire "essentialist" Augustianian tradition.)

There is no need to indulge in uncharitable polarities motivated by jealousy, nor attempt impossible synthesis as St. Bonaventure notes within the absolute unity of faith there is a possibility of relative differences between Catholic spiritualities (e.g. Dominicans and Franciscans). It is in this context that we must situate the relatively different ways of achieving a metaphysical-theological synthesis. The principal ones, for St. Bonaventure, what we call Thomist and Scotist.

In the neo-scholastic revival the de facto one-sided emphasis on Neo-Thomism in its own way contributed to the polarization you mention. By positing out the complementarity (St. Bonaventure's word), between the two synthesis-- both fully Catholic, believers will be aided in their efforts to integrate faith and reason and will be better able to avoid the pitfalls both of nominalism-voluntarism and naturalism-scientism. Ockham depends not on developing ideas of Scotus, but on parting company with him, just as scientism (intellectualism) is not fruit of Thomism, but of parting company with him.

The contemporaries of Scotus and Ockham saw this clearly. They regarded Scotus, with Thomas and Bonaventure, as great representatives of the "via antiqua" or Traditional Method of Theology, whereas Ockham was regarded as the initiator of the "via moderna" or modernism.

In the hearts of Jesus and Mary,

Fr. Peter Mary, fi

From: Mark Armitage TO:Mark Alder DATE: 28/03/99 22:03

Dear Mark,

I read X's e-mail with interest. I am a patrologist rather than a mediaevalist, but I know that X has a good reputation, and I would be inclined to accept his judgement. Having said that, I would add that everything he says is written from the perspective of a 'historian of theology', whereas I think that Fehlner is writing specifically as a 'contemporary theologian'. This is a problem that any attempt at synthesis is always going to produce. As soon as the synthesis starts making generalising comments about Scotus and Aquinas (as he is bound to do), the historian of theology will leap in and point to a number of texts or studies which disprove the generalisation. The trouble is that, if we make generalisations, they are bound to be questioned by the historians; however, if we don't make them, but canvass every single opinion proposed by the historians first (and many of these will be conflicting), then we shall never get round to drawing any conclusions for contemporary theology.

The question for the WWW site, therefore, is: do you want it to be produced by historians for historians, or do you want it to represent 'Scotism' from a 'contemporary' perspective? If you opt for the former, you won't exactly be advancing our contemporary understanding of the issues and won't be establishing the basis for a synthesis between Aquinas and Scotus, though you will be providing a unique and valuable resource. If you opt for the latter, good-quality scholars like X will, quite justifiably, object that you are breaking certain academic 'rules', and will call into question the inevitably over-simplistic version of Aquinas and Scotus that you are presenting.

My own feeling is that there already exists a 'kind of synthesis' of the Bonaventuran tradition and the Thomist tradition, in the shape of the theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar. Of course, von Balthasar does not set out to synthesise any traditions in particular (indeed, he would probably have been suspicious of the whole program of synthesis with its Hegelian overtones), but his vast reading in patristics, scholastics, philosophy and literature means that, in effect, his work represents a synthesis not just of two or three authors but of the entire patrimony of Catholic culture.

As I say, if you try to use Scotus as the basis for explorations in contemporary theology, the 'historical theologians' will inevitably accuse you of over-simplifying things (after all, Scotus and Aquinas comprise entire fields of study within themselves, and to understand them fully one would have had to have read widely in a number of European languages). My feeling is that by promoting von Balthasar you would, in the process, be promoting all that is best in Bonaventure, Aquinas and Scotus - not to mention dozens of others - without having to undertake the daunting task of drawing together the immense and frequently highly complex literature on these authors. And, because von Balthasar scholarship is still only emerging, there is more room for creative work than there is in the field of thirteenth century
philosophy and theology, where the secondary literature is massive and where high-calibre experts will always question the propriety of what you are doing.

From: Mark Armitage TO: Mark Alder DATE: 30/03/99 21:33

Dear Mark,

Further to my e-mail of yesterday, I discussed what X said with N, and he agrees that, as soon as you get involved with 'historical theology'. you are mixing with people who, for understandable reasons, view Scotus or Aquinas or Augustine (or whoever) as historical figures to be studied only by the historian of theology, and who regard with deepest suspicion the attempts of 'contemporary theologians' to construct a 'Scotist' or a 'Thomist' or an 'Augustinian' approach to theology - or, still worse, to construct a synthesis of various approaches. In a University department of theology I know the department is more or less split down the middle between 'historical theologians' and 'contemporary theologians', and the animosity between the two camps is tangible.

If anyone tries to synthesise Aquinas and Scotus with a view to advancing our understanding of theology in our contemporary situation, the 'contemporary theologians' will object that Aquinas and Scotus are 'outdated' and 'conditioned by their time', while the 'historical theologians' will object that it is 'anachronistic' to attempt a synthesis between the two or to apply their insights to modern questions. Obviously there are enlightened people on both sides of the divide who are more open-minded, but, in general, as I know from personal experience, if one seeks to bring the great theologians of history to bear on the modern theological situation one is liable to receive a good deal of flak from people on both sides of the historical/contemporary divide who do not regard such an enterprise as either valid or helpful.

I'm sorry to sound so negative, and my personal belief is that it would be a jolly good thing if people were to listen to what Aquinas and Scotus have to say to us today, but, sadly, 'contemporary theologians' tend to be interested only in the latest liberal/modernist fad, while 'historical theologians' tend to be interested only in meticulous documentation of sources and influences and intellectual background, and have little or no interest in what might be described as the 'broader picture'.

It's a great pity, because a return to scholastic theology as championed by Bonaventure, Aquinas and Scotus could have a powerful and beneficial impact on the life of the Church (and not just its theological life), but the divide between historical and contemporary theologians is not going to be an easy one to overcome.

That's why I suggested looking at von Balthasar: his theology is full of the spirit of Bonaventure, Aquinas, and others, but he has processed their ideas in such a way as to make them his own, with the result that, like Henri de Lubac and Yves Congar he is that rare and precious thing - a theologian whose writings are imbued with the wisdom of the past, yet at the same time are thoroughly modern and rooted in the present. With von Balthasar, de Lubac and the like you can apply patristic and scholastic theology in a modern context without falling foul of the historical theologians' cries of 'anachronism' and the contemporary theologians' cries of 'irrelevant'.

I hope that these reflections will help point the way forward. I hate sounding negative, but I fear that any attempt to re-discover Scotus will inevitably lead to criticism both from Scotus experts (amongst the historical theologians) who are dismissive of supposed simplifications and generalisations, and from liberals (amongst the contemporary theologians) who regard scholasticism as something of a dead letter.

With every good wish,

Mark (Armitage)

From: Mark Armitage TO: Mark Alder DATE: 03/04/99 22:37
RE: Books by Aidan Nichols.

Here are some notes on five books by Aidan Nichols which I think are very useful reading for anyone who wishes to promote an understanding of Catholicism that is (a) totally traditional and orthodox and (b) based on solid academic and intellectual foundations.
These notes are reproduced on the Opinions page to which interested people can refer.

This version: 6th February 2008

Home Page

Von Balthasar

Von Balthasar and the Co-redemption