William A. Walker III

Pastor, Professor, Theologian

Tag: Hans Urs von Balthasar

Dissertation Question and Description

I get asked about my dissertation a lot, and I’ve posted about it before (abstract here, and theological significance here).  I’ve definitely made some headway in the past six months, but things have been slow as I’ve been adjusting to a new full-time job and have taken on a few other small writing projects.  Those are done now though, so 2015 promises to be a very productive writing year…  Anyway, to get back into it, I rewrote a description of my topic for a fellowship application, and here it is.

Core Question:

Seen within the context of the phenomenon of globalization, I am examining the Christian understanding of salvation with respect to the violence and impunity that has occurred as a result of the U.S.-Mexico Drug War. To do so, I ask: what is the good news and hope that the Christian faith promises to those who suffer in this conflict, and what kind of engagement and response does such a promise demand from North American churches in light of the difficulty that our Mexican neighbors are facing?

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Explaining the Theological Signficance of my Dissertation

[A few weeks ago I posted my dissertation abstract here (see link below), but was then asked to provide further clarification for what I understand to be the significance, uniqueness and potential contribution of my dissertation to contemporary, constructive Christian theology.  This is how I responded.]

First, as a work of political theology, it is hoped that a Christian soteriology will be expounded here that adequately develops a vision of redemption for the contemporary political and social situation in question on the one hand, but one that is also informed by eschatology – namely, has its criticism and inspiration rooted in an understanding of Christian hope in God’s coming reign through Christ as anticipated in Scripture and the confessing tradition of the Church – on the other hand.  Such an eschatologically-sensitized political theology will also necessarily take its departure from the social location of the Christian faith community, rather than principally from the standpoint of state citizenship.  Only from the eyes of faith, it is believed, can a resistance to violence and suffering be embodied in the spirit of neighborliness.  The object of that faith is taken here to be the beauty and goodness instantiated by Christ (von Balthasar), which is seen most acutely by this Incarnate bearing and overcoming of unjust death (Sobrino).

At the same time, these two places or identities – that of the church and the state – cannot be separated.  Moreover, if different identifies of religious, political or cultural groups are isolated from each other and/or reified, the possibility of neighborly praxis is thwarted (Dussel).  Therefore, and secondly, a notion of identity and discourse as transmodern will help to elucidate how salvation in this conflict can be conceived as both historical and eschatological, ecclesial and political, particular and planetary.  According to Dussel, however, transmodern identity, even if hybridized or pluriversal (a way of talking about solidarity and difference dialectically), is reliable precisely because it is subaltern in nature, or, formed from the view of history’s underside, what for me is a thoroughly Christian theological idea in spite of Christianity’s heritage of imperial complicity.  Thus, it will be necessary to attempt an immersion in the experience of the colonized — not to do a cross-cultural ‘study’, which would still leave us blind to the colonial difference (Walter Mignolo), but to make a contribution to the project of decolonization itself.  For only a decolonized Christian theology is a viable one in the age of globalization.

Of course, various theologies of liberation have explored historical and political salvation from the perspective of the marginalized before.  My concern, however, is that the eschatologies of these theologies have sometimes been either over-realized or anthropomorphized. That is, they have perhaps placed too much hope in political and economic reformation, even if these are nonetheless vital dimensions of any contextual theology (indeed, material relations are assumed here to be the most determinative of any context).  Accordingly then, a more contemplative conception of salvation is needed from the view of existence itself, and from the view of God’s action on behalf of humanity and all of creation as Christians conceive it – not merely as inspiration for social liberation.[1]

Thirdly, as a transdisciplinary project that will engage globalization theories in the area of economics and cultural studies, and that will also be looking at practical examples of neighborliness from an ecclesial perspective, a careful analysis of context is crucial for the success of this dissertation and for its theological significance.  This is because a theology can only truly be significant when it is appropriately contextualized, as all theology is in fact contextual.  Many modern and postmodern theologies have neglected to account for the context of material relations vis-à-vis globalization in the manner that I intend to, and the contribution and relevance to political theology hereby depends on this.


[1] I still presuppose the importance of social liberation for my understanding of Christian salvation, especially as it is expressed from the experience of social suffering by the poor and marginalized.  I am simply suggesting that the example of Christ and the promise of eschatological salvation, preserved by transcendent and not only immanent hope, must also constitute the imagination, expectation and performance of this historical salvation. In this way, it is hoped that Christian theology can be both subversive and peaceful, or non-anxious.

My Dissertation Abstract: Globalization, Violence and Salvation

Dissertation Prospectus

GLOBALIZATION, VIOLENCE AND SALVATION: TOWARD A TRANSMODERN POLITICAL THEOLOGY OF NEIGHBORLINESS AND RESISTANCE

“To be against globalization as such is like being against electricity.  However, this cannot lead us to resign ourselves to the present order of things because globalization as it is now being carried out exacerbates the unjust inequalities among different sectors of humanity and the social, economic, political and cultural exclusion of a good portion of the world’s population.” – Gustavo Gutierrez

Understood within an analytical framework and mediating theory of economic, political and cultural globalization, the purpose of this dissertation is to critically, socially and theologically reflect upon the violence and injustice that has been enacted and endured by people in Mexico and the United States in recent years (2008 to present) as a result of the so-called drug war.  To begin I will attempt to outline the various dimensions of the phenomenon of globalization and the drug war more specifically, the latter of which is presumed to epitomize major negative aspects of the former.  This part of the examination will rely on the work of several leading social scientists who have extensively studied the U.S. – Mexico underground political economy and its genealogy. Secondly, an ethical-political critique from a view of Christian salvation will be conducted as it pertains to this particular conflict, principally but not exclusively in its social sense.  My method and hermeneutical approach will be guided by what has been called the transmodern thought of Enrique Dussel and Hans Urs von Balthasar, respectively – Dussel with regard to historical and ethical-political concerns, and von Balthasar with attention to his theological aesthetics and the dramatic structure of his doctrine of salvation as symbolized by the theological significance he gives to Holy Saturday.

Dussel’s re-reading of the history of modernity as “coloniality” from a Latin American “border thinking” perspective, as well as his Levinasian and arguably Schellingian-Marxist interpretation of social relations will be the primary lens through which I will try to situate and appreciate the more particular problem of globalization and the drug war itself.  Subsequently, in an effort to sensitize Dussel’s approach to a view from “the eyes of faith,” it is von Balthasar’s meditation on the beauty of the Christ-form that will be appropriated in order to convey a less anthropocentric and more trans-temporal, thoroughgoing Christian theo-political imagination. The study will culminate in an attempt to synthesize several key contributions of Dussel and von Balthasar by drawing on additional soteriological and ecclesial insights from Dorothee Soelle, Jon Sobrino and Gustavo Gutierrez. It will be argued finally that only a properly historical-critical (Dussel), aesthetic and christocentric (von Balthasar) liberationist soteriology (Sobrino) of communion (Gutierrez) can confer the adequate theological and ethical vision of neighborliness – one that is necessary for the inspiration of faithful Christian and ecclesial resistance (Soelle) in this crisis and others.


The Radiance of Christ and its Effect on Human Beings: Theological Aesthetics in St. Thomas and von Balthasar

Below I’ve included an excerpt from Aidan Nichols’ little book on Hans Urs von Balthasar.  One of the chapters in my dissertation will take up certain aspects of von Balthasar’s theological aesthetics and dramatics so as to attempt to give a fuller picture of Christian social justice and the Church’s vision for striving after it in circumstances of violence and oppression — a fuller one, at least, than many modern and postmodern depictions tend to offer, in my view.  For this reason, I’m borrowing the term “transmodern” to describe it.  Of course, to whatever extent this is achieved, it will be due to the thinkers I’m writing about rather than anything original to my own thought.

Descartes was in love with what he called ‘clear and distinct ideas’.  Balthasar’s concept of clarity, however, is taken from Thomas, for whom clarity – radiance – is one of the essential traits of the beautiful, along with proportion and integrity.  This is a very different sort of ‘brightness’.  The brightness of the beautiful is something that overwhelms us, impelling us and enabling us to enter further into the depths of being than the unaided intelligence can venture.  And whereas the Cartesian ‘idea’ is, in Scholastic terms, an intuited potential essence – something that may or may not be the case about the world, the Thomistic ‘radiance’ is expressed by a form actually enacting its own existence, its being-in-act. — p. 17

St. Thomas explains that Christ has radiance through being the Art of the Father, where the Word illuminates the mind that contemplates him.  He has proportion because he is the fullest likeness of the Father.  He has integrity because his form is the Father’s form.  And for Aquinas precisely those three qualities – radiance, proportion, integrity – are the hallmarks of the beautiful.  St. Thomas was speaking of the pre-existent Son, who is with the Father from all eternity.  Balthasar, by contrast, wants to apply pulchrum to the incarnate Son, precisely in his sensuous as well as intelligible form, a form that is well accommodated to our finitude so that we may grasp it.

Though [artworks] function within the analogical network of being whose indefinitely extended character . . . though they belong to immanent being – the realm of being that suitably proportioned to the human mind, they also participate in the transcendentals, and thus they have a relation to the transcendent, divine Being that is all creation’s source.  Aesthetic beauty, we can say, strives towards transcendental beauty, and this is a token of its spirituality.  Yet aesthetic beauty cannot spiritualize itself.  It is ordered to the delight of the embodied human mind of everyman or everywoman – toward the satisfaction of the imagination as earthed in this world.  It can, then, only receive a direction toward the transcendent, and do so, accordingly, from beyond itself.   The supreme, altogether unified, and yet interior experience the Romantics were looking for is not self-shaped.  Rather, it is shaped by a transcendent and supernatural form.  The subject of religious experience, the human self, can be, ought to be, and has been, re-formed by its transcendent object.  Human experience enters true synthesis through receiving an objective revealed form that brings it to fulfillment.  The self becomes re-formed divinely when it lets Christ’s archetypal experience form its own.  — p. 26-27

 

The Drama of Salvation: The Christological Soteriology of Hans Urs von Balthasar

INTRODUCTION

As arguably the greatest theologian of the 20th century, the Swiss-Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar among many other works has written a sixteen volume systematic theology, consisting of three parts: theo-phany, or aesthetics (the beautiful), theo-praxy, or dramatic theory (the good), and theo-logy, or logic (the true).[i]  Most voluminous in his systematic corpus triforme is the first set, The Glory of the Lord, which is largely an attempt to reincorporate aesthetics into Christian thought by way of reviving beauty and form (gestalt): “Balthasar holds that in the face of death it is impossible to encourage belief unless [humanity] is sustained by the vision of the splendor of the form of Christ.”[ii]

In supposed contradistinction to his predecessors in Bultmann and Barth, von Balthasar seeks to preserve as much the objective (Barth) as the subjective (Bultmann) in his theology.  In doing so von Balthasar labors to integrate both existential subjectivity and revelatory objectivity into faith.  Not surprisingly, von Balthasar is critical of Protestantism in general to an extent, but in particular of Barth’s radical separation of the analogy of faith from the analogy of being, in which at least a faint echo of Kierkegaard’s fideism can be heard[1] (though ultimately von Balthasar will adopt what he calls the “analogy of charity” in his Theo-logic, since being and love for him are coextensive).[iii]

Broadly speaking, much of the rationale for the distinction between Catholicism and Protestantism can be illumined by highlighting the fundamental disagreement concerning natural theology and the doctrine of sin.  In orthodox Catholic fashion, von Balthasar holds the conviction that the natural and supernatural are correlated and that creation is (still) good.  Thus nature is a reliable but not sufficient mediator of truth.  It is sacramental and wondrous in fact, as patristic theology understood, and can be thought of as a vehicle for the divine.[iv]  Reason and revelation are complementarily though not extrinsically related.[v]  Therefore while sin stains and works against the relationship between God and human beings, deafening the ears of humanity to God’s pursuit and latent call, it does not destroy this relationship.  Von Balthasar in this sense maintains that despite its limitations, natural theology is not inherently sinful insofar as it isn’t abused by attempts to grasp or control God.[vi]

Located between the aesthetics and the logic is the theodramatiks, which, though not the most extensive part of von Balthasar’s trilogy, could defensibly be described as the crux of it.  For as Gerard O’Hanlon has astutely put it, “we are asked not only to contemplate Jesus but . . . to follow him.”[vii]  God’s revelation is not just something to be looked at but lived in. “The good has its center of gravity neither in perceiving nor in the uttering: the perception may be beautiful and the utterance true, but only the act can be good.”[viii]  Or as Louis Roberts encapsulates it: “The splendor of the form of Christ can be perceived only by one who is willing to suffer, to take up the cross and lose himself, to forget his selfish needs.  This is the role of the protagonist in a tragedy.”[ix]  As such the aesthetics is a prelude to the main event: the dramatic encounter between infinite and finite freedom via the self-emptying love of God in Christ.[x]  The analogy between finite and infinite freedom makes possible humanity’s sharing and participation in a common history and drama within the Trinity.

The dramatics consists of five volumes, the first of which mostly functions to frame the project in dramatic terms, followed by anthropology (vol. 2), christology (vol. 3), soteriology (vol. 4), eschatology (vol. 5).  Obviously no volume in the triptych is exclusive of or unrelated to the others.  Nicholas J. Healy has argued that the there are three main tensions within which von Balthasar is writing: 1) the eschatological: between over and under-realized, 2) unity and difference in theosis: namely, between the God-world relationship and the divinity-human Christ, and 3) salvation: between the universal and the particular.  This essay focuses mainly on the second and third tensions.

Between Exegesis and Dogmatics

By examining the historical witness of Scripture, it could be said that von Balthasar begins his dramatic soteriology with a christology “from below.”  At a certain point he departs from this perspective, however, and explores whether the subsequent Pauline and Johannine reflections “from above” can corroborate the person and work, or identity and mission, of Jesus Christ as revealed in the Synoptic Gospels.[xi]  After a relatively rigorous engagement with a number of challenges raised by those in the field of historical-critical biblical scholarship (see “The Problem of Method,” Tbeo-drama Vol. 3), von Balthasar observes that the temporal proximity of the Pauline epistles to Jesus’ life – in light of their high regard for the saving significance of the crucified and resurrected Christ of faith – could only make sense if the Jesus of history had possessed and communicated a clear messianic consciousness at an objective level, and one that was at least implicitly eschatological and universal.[xii]  The Triune and incarnational theological developments of the tradition that followed would provide the “deep coherence” necessary for the formulation of systematic thought in the early Christian churches.

The doctrinal formulas of the Councils then were neither abstract philosophical speculations nor faithless empirical records.  Rather, von Balthasar argues that “there exists an analogous transposition of what Jesus said in his parables originally addressing the Jews, because Jesus anticipates and embraces the time of the Church within his own time.”[xiii]  This is what is meant by “continuity in discontinuity”, which is found between the Conciliar Creeds and the Gospel narratives.[xiv]  Furthermore, the traditional dogma itself shines light on certain passages and words of Jesus that would otherwise be extremely difficult to interpret, and does so in a manor that can hardly be dismissed as merely coincidental or convenient.  The seemingly miscalculated apocalyptic prophecy of Mark 13:30 for instance can perhaps be explained by the successive trans-temporal nature of atonement theory, as well as by an immanent, “already but not yet” understanding of the presence of God’s kingdom.  According to von Balthasar, John sees a “mutual interpenetration of realized and futurist eschatology.”[xv]  As such, Jesus appropriately saw “world-time within the entirety and unity of his own destiny” rather than in terms of chronology.[xvi]

Von Balthasar rhetorically raises the question: “Might not Jesus’s consciousness of his mission have been that he had to abolish the world’s estrangement from God in its entirely – that is, to the very end, or in Pauline and Johannine terms, deal with the sin of the whole world?  In that case, after his earthly mission, the decisive and (humanly speaking) immeasurable part was still to come.”[xvii] By this von Balthasar is confident that “[t]here can be no doubt that Jesus was someone indwelt, guided and even ‘driven’ by the Spirit, far surpassing the Old Testament prophets and apocalyptic figures.”[xviii]  The forgiving of sins and Jesus’s “authority” through teaching and healing activity further affirm this divine identity for von Balthasar.  It is important to recognize, however, that von Balthasar does not regard this datum as rational proof for anything about Jesus.  His is by and large not a scientific or even modern venture in the conventional sense.  This is why von Balthasar has been labeled a “transmodernist”[xix] practicing post-critical biblical interpretation.[xx]

There is indeed a plurality of New Testament theologies, as von Balthasar is aware.  In the case of human biographies, no exhaustive presentation can be given of a person’s “total utterance,” however “painstaking and conscientious.”[xxi]  Instead, one can only approach a multifaceted human life by considering a multiplicity of complementary perspectives.[xxii]  What is more, Von Balthasar regards the Hebrew Bible as a testament en route toward incarnation, expressed for the most part within the confines of God’s deeds in Israelite history and in the story of their nation.[xxiii] In sum, there must be a variety of testaments and accentuations, as only a polyvalent structure could give due witness to the fully transcendent idea of the one being proclaimed:

“Diverse theological variants are produced within the sphere of the plenitude of apostolic authority that comes from the exalted Lord.  It is to this apostolic authority that the kerygma (the eyewitness testimony, martyrion) is entrusted, literally ‘surrendered’, in an ‘interplay of obligation and freedom’ . . . Hence we can say that the plurality of perspectives in the New Testament Scriptures mirrors and echoes the Christological fact, which sums up the disparate Old Testament models, subsuming and transcending them in a new synthesis . . . On the other hand, this opening-up of perspectives does not run to infinity; rather, as the period of the canonical Scriptures, it is extensive with the Apostles’ preaching and supervision . . . Prior to and presupposed by all dogmatic theology, a hidden inner unity is present.”[xxiv]

While von Balthasar does not presuppose the veracity of Jesus’ divinity on a metaphysical scale without responding to the critics like Schweitzer, Bultmann, Harnack and others, his reason is informed by the “eyes” or “light” of faith – by an aesthetic receptivity to the beauty of Christ-form at outlined in Seeing the Form.[xxv]

Balthasar intends to give a “portrayal of Christ that neither preempts the action undertaken by him nor falls back into the kind of purely extrahistorical, static, ‘essence’ Christology that sees itself as a complete and round ‘part one’, smoothly unfolding into a soteriological ‘part two.’”[xxvi]  With respect to the two parts – which comprise the topic of this essay – the predominant or primary question nonetheless is not “who is Christ?” for von Balthasar, but “what does Christ accomplish?”.  The answer to the latter will necessitate meaning for the former.  At the same time, there is a mutually reinforcing relationship, and the act of Christ can be equated with person of Christ in many cases, but the economy and history, or, the action of salvation takes primacy in the theo-drama.

DRAMATIC SOTERIOLOGY

Trinity and Incarnation

This basic formula of the analogia entis is also the ultimate foundation of our Christian theological dramatic theory, just as it has its concrete center in the Chalcedonian “unconfused and indivisible” . . . two natures in Christ.  This means that we can speak concretely of theosis only in the context of Christology: it presupposes the no less mysterious possibility of the Incarnation of God.[xxvii]

In order to substantiate such a drama wherein both the triune God in Christ and humanity maintain agency – each in accordance with the adequate degree of finite and infinite freedom – two doctrines are of supreme importance, and each one underpins the other.  In the first place, the hypostatic union or the divine consubstantiation with humanity through the incarnation is necessary for Jesus to have born and carried the sin of the world.  No mere human being could ever do this or serve as the universal representative for all others.  Von Balthasar is even so bold as to allege that after the incarnation, “the Father has nothing further to communicate to the world, in the present aeon nor in the aeon to come.”[xxviii]  “As Irenaeus often repeats,” von Balthasar declares, “the Son is the visibleness of the Invisible One, and this paradox remains the non plus ultra of revelation.”[xxix]  At the same time, this revelation remains incalculably mysterious.  In his book The Divine Image, Ian McFarland echoes von Balthasar and his reliance of Maximus the Confessor, stating that the more visible and comprehensible Christ becomes through the incarnation, the more he is known to be incomprehensible.[xxx]

More concretely, however, the incarnation is what allows God the Father to have solidarity with and save every sinful conscious subject that answers ‘Yes’ to the divine beckoning. Without a share in the human nature of Christ, God remains an observer and is otherwise unaffected by the drama, leaving the forgiveness of sin unauthorized.  Because of the fusion of two natures (though they do not become indistinguishable) in one person, Christ is representative at once of humanity and the Source to which humanity’s owes its being.

In the second place, the coming of God in the form of a human being reveals something about the internal relationship within the Godhead.[xxxi]  Combined with the extension into world time through the covenant theology of both Covenants (with Israel and the Church), Jesus’s resurrection and the Spirit’s descent at Pentecost form the entire backdrop of the Trinity.[xxxii]  And von Balthasar sees the cross as the ever-present presupposition of the Trinity, so again there is a mutually constitutive relationship held between these doctrines:

This divine act that brings forth the Son, that is, the second way of participating in (and of being) the identical Godhead, involves the positing of an absolute, infinite “distance” that can contain and embrace all the other distances that are possible within the world of finitude, including the distance of sin.  Inherent in the Father’s love is an absolute renunciation: he will not be God for himself alone.  He lets go of his divinity and, in this sense, manifests a (divine) God-lessness (of love, of course) . . . The Son’s answer to the gift of Godhead (of equal substance with the Father) can only be eternal thanksgiving (eucharistia) to the Father, the Source –a thanksgiving as selfless and unreserved as the Father’s original self-surrender.  Proceeding from both, as their subsistent “We”, there breathes the “Spirit” who is common to both: as the essence of love, he maintains the infinite difference between them, seals it and, sine he is the one Spirit of them both, bridges it.[xxxiii]

The soteriology of von Balthasar’s Trinitarian theology is profoundly significant, for only the triune God can genuinely be a dramatic participant on the world stage.  The sin of the world is transposed into the “unholy distance” created by the Son, then overcome and transcended by God through the Spirit.[xxxiv]  The conjoining and interdependency of the two doctrines (Trinity and incarnation) is what actualizes the absorption of sin and the succeeding redemption of humanity.

Christology: Mission and Person

Von Balthasar’s point of departure must be Jesus’s will to live as a servant, as the slave of all (Mark 10:45, Luke 22:27), following his own commandment by humbling himself (Matt 23:12), losing his life (Matt 10:39), and giving it up (Mark 10:45, John 10:17).  Christ takes on a “descending” attitude and gives human beings an existential example (Phil 2:8).[xxxv]  Further, Christ parallels Isaiah’s Suffering Servant, but in his latent universalism moves from Israel to ta ethne (the nations):[xxxvi] “Just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt 20:28).  Von Balthasar underscores Jesus’s explicit awareness of being sent and his knowledge of the one who sent him (Luke 4:43; 10:16; 20:13; Matt 15:24; 21:37; Mark 12:16), as well as of the kingdom “coming” and as “having come” (Mark 1:38).  The Johannine metaphors are instructive here:  Christ as “divine light and life” (John 1:9; 3:19; 10:10), and the commissioning by the Father is abundantly overt – the profession to have come from and in the name of the Father (John 5:43; 8:42; 16:28):

“In these Johannine ‘sending’ formulas, the uniqueness of the person of Jesus is expressed through a twofold uniqueness: that is, his Trinitarian relationship to the Father and the soteriological goal of his mission.  Nor are these factors merely juxtaposed: the intimate relationship between the One sent and the One who sends him takes the form of obedience within the Father’s act of surrender.  The Father is the One who sends, and in this act of sending he establishes, guides, and takes responsibility for Jesus’ whole existence on earth; he lays down the latter’s purpose right from the start, namely, the salvation of the world (John 3:17; 6:39).”[xxxvii]

Christ’s putting on of flesh encompasses perfect freedom and absolute obedience so that the Son can be the perfect image of the Father: “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).[xxxviii]

Christ’s “missio” is the guiding principle of von Balthasar’s christology – a christology of consciousness and of being.  Christ’s consciousness implies both the work and the person, and the identification of the person is what satisfies the “theodramatic requirement.”[xxxix] Christ’s role therefore is active and his person ontological.  His conscious subject is equivalent to the divine mission.[xl]  God has actually appeared in the play, on stage, in Christ the incarnate Son, and without evacuating his place as the sovereign One and as Judge; that is, God becomes immanent without foregoing transcendence.  External or neutral contemplation cannot grasp this truth.  In order to see, “we must have been admitted to the sphere of the Holy Spirit, that holy intimacy between Father and Son.”[xli]

Atonement

“And so it was that two marvels came to pass at once, that the death of all was accomplished in the Lord’s body, and that death and corruption were wholly done away by reason of the Word that was united with it.  For there was need of death, and death must needs be suffered on behalf of all, that the debt owing from all might be paid.  Whence . . . the Word, since it was not possible for Him to die, as He was immortal, took to Himself a body such as could die, that He might offer it as His own in the stead of all, and as suffering, through His union with it, on behalf of all . . . and might deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage . . . [b]y his death has salvation come to all, and all creation been ransomed.  He is the Life of all, and He it is that as a sheep yielded His body to death as a substitute, for the salvation of all . . .” (para. 20, 5-6; 37, 7) – Athanasius of Alexandria

Indispensable to dramatic soteriology for von Balthasar are five major aspects.  First, Christ gives himself through God the Father for the salvation of the world.  This act occurs both as free self-surrender and absolute obedience to the Father’s will.  Secondly,  the “Sinless One” takes the place of sinners in an exchange.  Third, humanity is freed, ransomed, redeemed, and released as a consequence of this substitution.  More than this, however, humanity is elevated and enabled to participate in the divine life as a result of this newfound freedom.  And finally, the entire sequence must be understood as instigated by divine love.[xlii]

In von Balthasar’s view, the Church Fathers were able to contemplate with profundity the notion of theosis, or divinization, which corresponds closely to the fourth point above, making possible the attachment to or participation in God’s being as a result of having been ransomed, redeemed, and freed from “the powers.”  What is not taken far enough according to Balthasar, however, is the second step – namely, exchange.  While there is definitely an appreciation for Christ’s function as the one who takes away the sins of the world and suffers the consequences of this sin, the early Church was unable to conceive of Christ’s direct identification with the sinfulness of humanity as such.  In fact it wasn’t until Luther, von Balthasar argues, that Christ’s atonement for sin was properly thought of as having thoroughly become sin itself on humanity’s behalf.  Anselm in particular for Balthasar, though he put more weight on the idea of Christ’s surrender and self-sacrifice, likewise devalues the function of Christ’s substitution by reducing it to a merited payment due to the “guiltless credit” earned before God.  Hence in Christ “satisfaction” is offered for humanity’s sin in Anselm’s model, but identification with sin itself is not sufficiently developed:

What is lacking is the link with the Son’s Trinitarian missio, his “sending” by the Father on the basis of his processio.  Thus Anselm cannot explain why Jesus’ obedience is addressed emphatically to the Father rather than to the whole Trinity.  What is also missing is the organic connection between Christ and all other human beings, which is established by the Incarnation and on which the Fathers lay such stress.  The fact that Christ is the New Adam, possessing the gratia capitis, is more assumed than declared.[xliii]

As this “new Adam,” Christ’s accomplishment is less than dramatic if only an external “work” with the right ontic or judicial dignity.[xliv]  For von Balthasar, the crucial question is this: “How internal is this role-playing in the suffering Christ, and how far does he identify himself with the role?”[xlv]  Even Saint Thomas falls short of a thoroughly dramatic soteriology in von Balthasar’s view.  Despite having contemplated Christ’s suffering in more depth than Anselm, the “satisfaction” theory dominates, and representation or substitution is fairly peripheral in Thomas.  And while Luther rightly accentuates substitution, does he not simultaneously deemphasize exactly what the Fathers stressed so well – namely, humanity’s becoming and actualization in the divine life, or theosis?  Moreover, Luther intensifies the necessity for the punishment of sin by underlining the redemptive quality of Christ’s death as an innocent victim.  Here Balthasar is hesitant and wonders whether Luther, with a concentration on the penal nature of substitution and sacrifice,  has compromised God’s love, which is supposed to undergird the entire process.

Although von Balthasar wishes to retain Anslem’s two postulates – “that is, death must be unmerited and undergone by a person of the highest dignity; and it must contain an element of infinite pain, which alone can purge and destroy the monstrous quality of the world’s guilt” – this isn’t enough.  Christ must bear the weight of this guilt.  At the same time, purging and destroying sin takes precedence over punishing it, just as in Anselm.

Then there are those like Pannenberg and Rene Girard (though their respective positions are quite disparate concerning atonement in general) who suggest that it was not God but humanity who cast sin onto the Lamb of God.[xlvi] The problem in this case from von Balthasar’s view is that humanity becomes the initiator of its own redemption, rather than it being God’s own enactment. Other Protestant liberal christologies also like to put emphasis on Jesus’s solidarity as expressed in his life of fellowship with the poor, sinners, and the marginalized, but these perspectives see the cross as “nothing more than the ultimate consequence of this ‘social’ solidarity.”[xlvii] So while the Son dies “because of sin”, at a deeper level he dies “because of God”, because “God has definitively rejected what cannot be reconciled with the divine nature.”[xlviii]

Conversely von Balthasar is unsatisfied with Rahner’s portrayal for the opposite reason.  In Rahner’s formal depiction, God’s activity in the drama is consigned too closely to that of a spectator instead of a self-giver.  On the other hand, von Balthasar strives to avoid relegating humanity’s role to one of strictly inactive passivity.  Some measure of finite freedom must be preserved and not eradicated or completely perverted by sin so that a genuinely dramatic creaturely interplay can be performed.  That is, subjectivity still matters in spite of humanity’s utter dependency on God for mercy and forgiveness.  In summation, for atonement both the substitutionary (or representative) side, which is objective and beyond sheer moral influence, and the participatory side, which invokes the human and subjective activity, are required.[xlix]  Whether this is compatible with the Reformation doctrine of sola fide and sola gratia as Luther intended it would be another focal inquiry.

The “Momentum of the Cross” and “Christ’s ‘Descent’ into Hell

“There was a cross in the heart of God before there was a cross on the hill of Calvary.”Horace Bushnell

“The bifurcation in God must contain within it the whole turmoil of history.”[l] – Jurgen Moltman

Sheol is understood by von Balthasar simply as the state of separation from (the glory of) God.[li]  The difference between sheol and hell after the New Covenant is not unlike the distinction now made between hell and purgatory.  Hell is the fate of those who recognize the vicarious deed of God both consciously reject it, but purgatory “must be a possibility for humanity, inasmuch as, through the vicarious suffering of lostness, an impulse of mercy has been commingled with the eschatological ‘fire’ of God that tests people” (1 Cor 3:12, and Origen).[lii]  Heaven on the other hand is a possibility because of Christ’s pending return.  Through the lens of the New Testament, since both “paradise” and “Gehenna” remain polyvalent, von Balthasar says they only receive their “theological unequivocalness” through the event of Holy Saturday.[liii]

The momentum of the cross, powered by Jesus’s authority, obedience, self-abandonment and poverty carries over to the descent into hell and the annihilation of the last enemy, which is death (1 Cor 15:26).  This is what von Balthasar calls the place of the lowest rung on the “ladder of obedience.”[liv]  All have sinned, are guilty, and have lost the glory of God (Rom 3:23).  Christ’s poverty and self-abandonment (kenosis) constitute the bearing of the sin of the world, but this is only the first of two essential acts.  The second is accomplished through “solidarity with the death that is the lot of all.”[lv]  Because of the incarnation, the “journey to the dead” (Thomas) is an implicit consequence of the cross event.[lvi]  Von Balthasar contests that Jesus carries the Father’s saving will to this point as the “crushed sufferer” (Isaiah 53:10) quite passively.  This claim runs somewhat contrary the traditional one, which instead concentrates on the active conquering by Jesus of the gates of hell, and without much struggle.  Alyssa Pitstick draws attention to this and points out that in the classical account, Jesus did not “suffer” in hell.[lvii]  For von Balthasar, however, Jesus must have assumed the absolute nature of this extreme condition, which entails not triumph but almost lifeless “sinking down.”[lviii]  Furthermore, those like Edward Oates defend that von Balthasar’s Holy Saturday reflection, grounded in the Apostle’s Creed, meets the criteria for acceptable theological development and innovation.  Paul Griffiths also criticizes Pitstick for classifying von Balthasar’s inventive study outside of the orthodox vein.[lix]

In the wake of Nicholas of Cusa, von Balthasar speaks of the “interior view of death” and reiterates that the suffering of Christ is “the greatest that can be thought of.”[lx] At the same time, von Balthasar also says that Jesus becomes the “judge who has measured out all the dimensions of [humanity] in its own experience, and can assign to each [human being her] lot eschatologically.”[lxi]  So the descent into hell and solidarity with the dead is of course not ultimately devoid of victory – “death is swallowed up” (1 Cor 15:54; 2 Cor 5:4).[lxii]

Calvin stresses humanity’s justification by obedience as well, but fails to unite Jesus’ suffering with the Father’s love: “In Calvin, moreover, the ‘brackets’ of the trinitarian love are lost to sight, so that the idea of the ‘severe vengeance of God’ (divinae ultionis severitas) takes on one-sided prominence.”[lxiii] Again in a Cusanian reading, von Balthasar prefers to proclaim Christ’s absolute obedience as the key christological concept within the broader trinitarian context.  This does not ignore, however, that Christ absorbs the wrath of God into the realm of grace as a consequence of sin, but the latter process must be reconciled with the “proclamation made to the world of God’s disposition of love.”[lxiv]

Subjectively, Jesus earnestly cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  And yet objectively, this feeling and experience of unreserved anguish is redemptive, because in Christ the culprits have a representative before the Judge.  As Christ takes sin up into the ‘trinitarian fellowship’, the sinners’ ‘No’ to God is transfigured. [lxv]  The contradiction in God created by sin is resolved on account of Christ’s self-abandonment.  God’s anger is countered by the Son’s love that willingly exposes itself to such torment, disarming it and “literally depriving it of its object.”[lxvi]  God’s wrath toward humanity for its rejection of God is dissolved by a divine love that is more abundant than God’s wrath.

Christ’s mediation and representation occurs within the Trinity itself, not externally to it – despite the apparent irreconcilable conflict caused by the sin it subsumes.  In this way it is reasonable to assert that in the incarnation, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the triune God is engaged on humanity’s behalf.[lxvii]  What’s more, in view of this multi-layered and triune atonement, the concept of substitution need not “stand or fall” with the ancient sacrificial system.[lxviii]

The God-world Relationship

In short, Balthasar is traversing the razor’s edge between demoting God’s involvement in the economy of salvation to the plane of world entanglement and tragic mythology on the one hand (of which he believes Hegel and Whitehead to be guilty, and even Moltmann to an extent – God doesn’t “need” the cross or the process of self-surrender in other words) and over-negating or mystifying any awareness of this involvement to the realm of static, obstinate dualism and detachment on the other.  Whether von Balthasar succeeds in walking this fine line will be a pertinent question.  Can God the Father in “uttering and surrendering himself without reserve,” not lose himself?[lxix]  Does God not extinguish herself in kenosis, or does this demonstrate an even more unfathomable love and omnipotence, as von Balthasar would have it?  He contends that God’s sovereignty paradoxically situates God above the need to dominate or use coercion and violence, such that even when confronted by God, humanity is not overwhelmed to the point of forfeiting volition.[lxx]  In this way von Balthasar draws on the Augustinian idea, insisting that finite freedom can only find its fulfillment in infinite freedom.[lxxi]  This is what leads Thomas to later say that “the nearer (vicinior) a free nature stands to God, the more it is able to move itself.”[lxxii]

As a result of what von Bathasar imagines in the above Trinitarian description, the substitution or “exchange of place” can ultimately be grounded in the immanent Trinity; hence God is not unmoved by the event of the cross.[lxxiii] Most interestingly perhaps, and to which was alluded above, the concept of punishment or sacrifice is not prevalent in von Balthasar’s language.  Accordingly, deeming the exchange as a “payment for sin” is somewhat precluded and does not adequately capture the character of the atonement for von Balthasar.  Though Christ atones for the guilt of humanity’s sin, like the Thomistic and classical position has always said, one must be open to the possibility that God could have redeemed humanity in other way, and this is no minor stipulation.

Yet von Balthasar goes a step further.  He submits that the sufferings of Christ are far greater than all possible sufferings caused by sin, so that it is the freely chosen, immeasurable quality of torment that generates the highest possible display of God’s love for and solidarity with humanity.  This gives another plausible reason for Christ’s death without subtracting its ontological and soteriological significance.  Still, one way or another, sin has to be overcome, vanquished – and its severity and divisiveness ought not be downplayed – but the essence of atonement is illuminated for von Balthasar more by God’s desire for reconciled relationship with creation than by the requisite to penalize people for sin.

Dramatic Anthropology

“Only a fool can hope for ultimate fulfillment in this world – and, as for penultimate hopes, we are not concerned with them here.  In other words, even the Old Testament Messianic hope in the future is self-contradictory unless it opens out to a victory over death (both the death of the individual and the death of the world as a whole), to a ‘resurrection from the dead’ . . . Only on the basis of his Resurrection does he show that he has “‘overcome the world’” (John 16:33).[lxxiv]

Humanity is characterized as “the meeting point of many conflicting forces”: human beings are aware of their shortcomings and limited achievement while also being driven by unlimited longings.[lxxv]  More than this, human beings can know their sinfulness and the obstruction to full finite freedom that this sinfulness causes. This is what Paul describes as “finding himself doing things he wishes he did not do.”[lxxvi] Accordingly, human existence is described as a battlefield: “Man therefore is divided in himself.  As a result, the whole life of men, both individual and social, shows itself to be a struggle, and a dramatic one, between good and evil, between light and darkness.”  The tragedy is that human beings find themselves “unable to overcome the assaults of evil” and so feel “bound by chains – despite the universal aspiration for freedom and justice that is stronger now than ever before.”[lxxvii]

This bondage and preceding talk of the Son’s all-embracing obedience to the point of death on the cross begs the question of how human beings can be liberated to live presently as dynamic characters in the drama.  To address this, von Balthasar reminds that the definitive event of Christ’s death and resurrection is being “continually rendered concrete from below, as it were, by continued sin: it is continually being implanted from above into all times, in the sacrament instituted by Christ” (referring to Baptism and the Eucharist).[lxxviii] God’s grace is ministered through these sacraments in order to resolve the ontic problem of the God/creature relationship.[lxxix] Christians are hereby empowered to live in the sphere of en Christoi, which includes the risen Christ of faith as well as the historical Jesus, who “recapitulates in himself everything earthly.”[lxxx] This provocative claim summons the whole world.[lxxxi] In his outline of von Balthasar, Kevin Mongrain asserts that this “participation in the paschal mystery . . . liberates humanity from despair and/or fatalism, thereby enabling it definitely to reject all human-made utopias in the name of alternative “utopian hope” based in the memory of Christ’s death and resurrection.”[lxxxii]  Additionally, in contrast to some forms of Eastern religions or even certain negative, mystical, or apophatic Christian traditions, this participation does not erase or diminish the identity of individuals.[lxxxiii]

Thus, the personal mission of Christ can be imitated by those who are called in him to participate in his drama.[lxxxiv]  O’Hanlon summarizes it this way: “The dramatic notion of role becomes identified with the theological notion of mission – we as human beings have a role within the divine drama by becoming persons, which we do in answering our mission as beings called and sent by God” (emphasis added).[lxxxv] Von Balthasar elucidates this calling himself with allusion to the posture of prayer: “The great ‘Watch and pray!’ in which the Synoptic Gospels end, is a call to enter into the fundamental attitude of Christ.”[lxxxvi] This relationship with the person of Christ is that through which humanity is drawn into the Father.  Hence the human struggle with evil affects the very inner life of God.

The “Pain” of God

In von Balthasar’s estimation, God takes a risk with this act, and “something in God can develop into suffering.”[lxxxvii] These are no small claims, and despite his commitment to the classical tradition and aversion to certain contemporary anthropomorphic tendencies, such language goes against the grain of traditional theology.  Qualification is added in that “the divine is not so interwoven in the drama of history that the conclusion of the struggle is uncertain; but the divine is also not elevated beyond the world so that whoever will assume the standpoint of God must elevate himself beyond the dramatic into epic distance.”[lxxxviii]  Whether such imagery and necessarily human language warrants von Balthasar’s theo-logical conclusions, the theophanies of the Hebrew Bible certainly lend support:[lxxxix] “The Old Covenant spoke of God’s ‘bowels’ (rachamin) trembling with compassionate love: this is precisely what is revealed to the world when the Father surrenders all his love, embodied in the Son.”[xc]

Traditionally, God is both immutable and (in the Son) mutable.[xci] Von Balthasar makes reference to Ignatius who speaks of “the impassible one who suffers for us.”  And relying on Gregory of Nyssa, von Balthasar explicates that “If God wishes to save [humanity] by freely choosing suffering, [God] suffers impassibly; [and] since [God] suffers freely, [God] is not subject to suffering but superior to it.”[xcii]  Presumably then, what Christ takes upon himself, without sin or inclination to sin, is the healing of humanity’s fallenness from within.  This indicates the tension in God between apatheia and pathos, though von Balthasar cautions that these attributes should only be associated with God whilst keeping in mind the incomprehensibility of God and the break along the ontological continuum.

But von Balthasar also argues that the Fathers stressed apatheia mostly because of the way that the Greeks understood it – as mythological.[xciii]  Hence he seems to be saying that attributing apatheia to the classical conception of God is in danger of approaching a misinterpretation.  Of course von Balthasar is careful to ensure that “there can be no pathos in God if by this we mean some involuntary influence from outside.”[xciv]  So it is never that God’s essence changes, “but that the unchangeable God enters into a relationship with creaturely reality, and this relationship imparts a new look to his internal relations.”[xcv] So while God does not change in any univocal sense, this interaction does demonstrate the great extent to which the destiny of the world is a concern for God.

 A Theology of Liberation?

For the criticism and controversy surrounding liberation theology, coming from the Vatican and European Catholicism in particular, von Balthasar has a surprising amount of appreciation for the urgency evoked by liberation theology.  He concedes extensively with this rather astounding statement: “since this appeal to Christians, this summoning of their crucial, world-transforming cooperation, is at the heart of Christianity, [liberation theology] reveals the dramatic situation of the Christian in this world as perhaps nothing else does.”[xcvi]

Pointing to the example of Paul as one who “earned his keep” and said that anyone who does not work should not eat (2 Th. 3:10), von Balthasar sympathetically acknowledges that organizations of “human toil” can nonetheless operate to gain power at the expensive of workers for the benefit of owners, at which point working for sheer survival would no longer be a viable option:

Whether this domination aims at “boundless affluence or the boundless stockpiling of arms” does not particularly matter . . .in either case, the threshhold has been crossed to a purpose that is immoral because it is inhuman.  The inhuman aspect is immediately seen in the exploitation no the workers, who are regarded and treated as mere means to power.  Clearly, the Christian must throw himself into the to cogs of this pitiless machinery and, as the Pastoral Constitution tirelessly insists, urge the human proportions (which he has discerned in Jesus Christ) against the twofold disproportions of excessive power (in affluence and imperialism) and powerlessness (in poverty).[xcvii]

One could almost mistake this passage for words that came from Gustavo Guitierrez himself.

Nevertheless, von Balthasar remains concerned that liberation theology’s “greatest danger lies in its tendency to link together the relationships of the first and Second Adam, earthly action and the kingdom that comes down from God, within a single system or overview; in doing so, it succumbs in a new way to theological rationalism.”[xcviii] Von Balthasar elaborates by stating that while “we have a strict Christian duty to fight for social justice on behalf of the poor and oppressed,” the boundaries of the use of force for realizing political change are not easily identified.[xcix]  He argues that even Jesus’s “cleansing” of the Temple is no justification for Christians to behave coercively.  Can agape, which endures all things, be applied as a tactical instrument for the attainment of political goals?[c]  Von Balthasar asks, would this not be a manipulation of divine virtue?  Yahweh’s “holy” wars in the Hebrew Bible are equally unfitting as an illustration and are at best typoi or anticipations.

Though the ‘politics of the cross’ may be become a mere partial ingredient in overall political calculations as the practicality of earthy justice, the state can never be “theologized”, even if God has instituted it for the purpose of order and finite justice (Rom 13).[ci]  At most the “Christian can try to exercise influence in the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount,” for at the point that the political sphere is breached, it becomes a question of how this approach can be imposed on multitudes of people.  In spite of his expressed sympathies then, in von Balthasar’s total response he comes close to basically consigning the Christian politic to either martyrdom or the monastery.  It is not difficult to imagine how those living in destitution might reply.  As Joerg Rieger has poignantly observed, the question of “who benefits?” materially from a given approach to theology should be given serious consideration.[cii]  But to fairly summarize, von Balthasar simply believes that “all intermediate zones, in spite of their urgency,” can only be relative insofar as they have “political and economic liberation in the foreground.”[ciii]  Ultimately, “liberation movements merit theological credentials only if they are carried on within the horizon of that ultimate liberation won by Christ and for him.”[civ]

A BRIEF CRITICAL RESPONSE

As one commentator wisely disclaimed, pretending to probe and challenge a theologian of this stature might be akin to a “fly trying to show an elephant to visitors to the zoo – the fly keeps getting whisked off the immense corpus.”[cv]  With that said, any theological treatise as vast and sophisticated on von Balthasar’s can hardly avoid creative and at least partially novel features, and no “new” claim about a two-thousand-year-old tradition is exempt from scrutiny.  Who should be the one to bring the scrutiny is the better question, and for this reason some dependence on the inspection by others is obligatory.  I will, however, include a modest dose of my own deflection.

First, despite his otherwise critical tone toward Hegel, von Balthasar appears to envisage a change in the Son and therefore in the Trinity that is brought about by the total abandonment and emptying that realizes salvation for humanity and the world.  This is also where expressions like God’s “risk” and talk of God “giving himself away” is used.  Ben Quash has interestingly contended that Hegel and von Balthasar both designed their aesthetic projects in such a way “that all lines converge on drama as a consummate form of artistic expression.”[cvi]  Both of them also choose the literary method of “drama” as opposed to “lyric” or “epic”; “‘epic’ is modern realism devoid of awe and reverence while ‘lyric’ is artful romanticism remote from reality.”[cvii] Is it not feasible then that attributing the unstable quality inherent in “drama” to God does more (or less) than merely enhance or enrich the portrayal of God as found in Scripture and the whole tradition?  Doubtless von Balthasar is enlisting such a description for the purpose of depicting a more vivified and suspenseful scene, and this may be where the notion of drama as the overarching framework falls short of faithfulness to the very ontological gap between humanity and God that he is determined to protect.  In this regard, it is hard to see how von Balthasar doesn’t recommit Moltmann’s “sin”, albeit is a more subtle way.

Concerning Christ’s descent, his absolute torment and debasement in hell renders conditional the state of all person’s condemned status.  Though he has been suspected of positing some kind of grounds here for universal salvation, von Balthasar refuses to make any pronouncements about the eschatological outcome for anyone.[cviii]  With the instigation and conversion of sheol into purgatory, however, it is difficult to imagine how he does not eventually envision that all could be saved, and he has certainly expressed hope for so much.[cix]  This is more of an observation than a criticism, however.  In my judgment there is no fault in hoping that God will redeem and reconcile all things.

But about Jesus’s experience in hell, does von Balthasar speculate too much or exaggerate the enormous quality of Christ’s suffering?  What is the basis for this preoccupation if not mild sadism?  Is it not enough that the Son of God would become human and die this humiliating death that many other “nonpersons” – rejects of the imperial rule – had to endure?  Surely the patristic emphasis on victory over death and “the powers” was no mere coincidence.  Solidarity is unquestionably essential for atonement, but defeat of this systemic and institutional sin of the world is no less imperative if Jesus is Lord and if the Kingdom of God is at hand, as Christ taught.

Even more pressing is a question raised by Steffen Losel and Frances Fiorenza, along with a host of others: where is the mentioning of suffering on behalf of victims rather than just perpetrators?[cx]  Love as self-surrender and obedience on behalf of guilty sinners – this is unevenly weighted.  Cannot God’s love be thought of just as much in terms of God’s compassion for the victimized?  No doubt von Balthasar’s account of the atonement has recourse to this – and solidarity with the suffering is by no means an absent theme[2] – but this exact dimension of reconciliation for victims as such, and historically speaking, is at most an addendum.  The point here is that self-sacrifice and obedience might be the most valuable expressions of the Christian life for some, but not necessarily for others – others like the masses of abused and defeated peoples.[cxi]

It is not just that substitution for sin is carried out in atonement, or even that human deification is prompted, but equally that the very structures and systems that devise the death machine of the Roman Imperial expansion are criticized. The cross inverts and reveals the dark underbelly of the “pax romana” perjury.  What better denouncement of violence and subjugation than the demonstration of power over death resounded by the resurrection?  The cross must appeal and plead to sufferers, calling on them to forgive.  On the other hand the cross convicts and summons tyrants to repentance.  Thirdly, the sins of all are taken up by the sacrifice to end all sacrifices (Heb 10).[cxii]  Korean theologian Andrew Sung Park has also presented a triune atonement model that opts largely for the restoration of victims’ dignity in a non-retributive manor.[cxiii]  Park includes in his reflection the atonement for the forgiveness of the oppressors, but the nonviolent emphasis would likely pose problems for scrupulous harmony and continuity with the tradition.  The problem of nonviolence notwithstanding, however, his is an apposite example of an atonement theory with historical consciousness.

This should be a concern not just for feminists and liberation theologians, but anyone wanting to apply theological reflection to the realm of history with all of its dialectical oppositions, which are all the more acute in the age of globalization.[3]  This criticism is by no means novel and by now is widespread, but just the same it should be mentioned.  It is not that von Balthasar overlooks the social and the communal so much as the historical.  His interpretation of trinitarian and christological love is danger of functioning “to reinforce passive acceptance rather than active resistance to oppression and abuse,” signaling that the Christian life consists exclusively in submission to God and “obedience to the church (as the institution through which the Holy Spirit speaks).”[cxiv]

With respect to John 14:6 and the claim that “no one comes to the Father except by me”, von Balthasar concedes with the rest of Christian inclusivists that “this is not to deny the ultimate salvation of all who do not know him and adhere to other religions.”  On the other hand, von Balthasar maintains that other religions do not mediate salvation – only Christ can do this.[cxv] (He also makes no distinction between the various salvations that are sought by the world religions.) This position is a slightly more restrictive and conservative take on theology of religious pluralism than one finds in Rahner or Kung, for instance, and certainly more so than what would satisfy many interreligious theologians today.  Nonetheless, von Balthasar does at least leave room for the salvation of any non-Christian, and since it is not the task of this essay to explore the merit of von Balthasar’s theology of religions, further questions here will be put aside.[4]  It may also be that von Balthasar’s aesthetics in itself is an apologetic for Christian truth:  “The whole mystery of Christianity,” he says – “that which distinguishes it radically from every other religious project, is that the form does not stand in opposition to infinite light, for the reason that God has himself instituted and confirmed such a form.”[cxvi]  Even still, this belief relies heavily on a revelation that is not equally available to everyone.  For a genuinely dramatic theology, that indeed is intended to include the stage of the whole world, it would surely seem like further reflection is needful with regard to how exactly Christ’s atonement might be mediated in other faith traditions, and to what extent these faith traditions themselves have intrinsic salvific value for their own hopes and soteriological aspirations.[5]  Any thought experiment along these lines must be carried out in the utmost humility, however, with care not to take for granted any special insight into “things too wonderful” (Psalm 131).

As Pannenberg prudently instructed, in systematic theology “we keep in view the plurality and debatability of all religious truth claims.”[cxvii] One must deal with the correctness of Christian truth claims as open ones.  Even more sobering is the reality that for many people “it is by no means self-evident today that the truth claims of Christian doctrine may even be regarded as open” in the first place.[cxviii] At the same time, what von Balthasar does provide is one of the most impressive and integrative presentations conceivable as regards the Christian revelation, its heritage of interpretation, and the view of God therein with respect to humanity and the world – all with the best reason and resources available.  The product as it concerns salvation is a hope-filled assurance and inspiration to all who wonder about God’s distance from creation, care for it, and involvement in redemption through the person and work of Jesus Christ.  In this account, God’s solidarity with sinners in the face of death – humanity’s greatest enemy – is firmly established.  Though the more historico-liberative aspect of this redemption story might be wanting, the trinitarian and representative potential is ripe for further development and reflection to be taken up.  The retrieval of the aesthetic and the dramatic, as well as the classical – going against the modern flow of thought – makes for a masterful outcome that theologians will need to wrestle with for decades and perhaps even centuries to come.


[1] the sharp divide between their “subjective” (Kierkegaard) and “objective” (Barth) faiths notwithstanding

[2] An example would be the following: The posture of “serenity and surrender” of the Ambassador (Son) manifests the world-embracing mission of the divine Sender (Father), such that God can accordingly identify with the “least” the “lowly” (Balthasar, Theo-Drama, Vol. 4, 516.).  What is still missing though, from the perspective of the feminist critique for instance, is any implication of Christ’s empowerment of these “least” and “lowly.”  The disinherited, tortured and imprisoned are included, but not especially included – they do not receive the God’s “preferential option” for von Balthasar.

[3] I take globalization, very generally speaking, to be “the process of worldwide economic, political, and cultural integration that has taken on accelerated force in the last few decades” (see William T. Cavanaugh, “Balthasar, globalization, and the problem of the one and the many,” Communio 28, no. 2 (June 1, 2001): 324-347.)  Cavanaugh actually argues that von Balthasar’s christology can be useful for solving the global problem of the one and the many: “The Christian is called not to replace one universal system with another,” he says, “but to attempt to ‘realize’ the universal body of Christ in every particular exchange” (p. 324).

[4] Gavin D’Costa has argued by using Joseph Dinoia’s trinitarianism, that the doctrine of descent into hell is particularly resourceful for addressing the issue of the salvation of non-Christians – but not in the way that Edward Oates or von Balthasar construe it.  (Gavin D’Costa, “The descent into hell as a solution for the problem of the fate of unevangelized non-Christians: Balthasar’s hell, the limbo of the fathers, and purgatory,” International Journal of Systematic Theology 11, no. 2 (April 1, 2009): 146-171.)

[5] I’m waiting in anticipation to see what fruit S. Mark Heim’s current research on cross-religious atonement will produce.


[i] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory, Vol. 1: Prolegomena (Ignatius Press, 1989), 15.

[ii] Louis Roberts, The Theological Aesthetics of Hans Urs Von Balthasar (Catholic Univ of Amer Pr, 1987), 229.

[iii] Walter Kasper, The God of Jesus Christ (Crossroad Publishing Company, 1986), 55.

[iv] Kevin Mongrain, The Systematic Thought of Hans Urs von Balthasar: An Irenaean Retrieval (The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2002), 60.

[v] James C. Livingston et al., Modern Christian Thought: The Twentieth Century, 2nd ed. (Fortress Press, 2006), 258.

[vi] Ibid., 257.

[vii] Gerard F. O’Hanlon, “Theological dramatics,” in Beauty of Christ (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1994), 94.

[viii] Balthasar, Theo-Drama, Vol. 1, 18.

[ix] Roberts, The Theological Aesthetics of Hans Urs Von Balthasar, 229.

[x] O’Hanlon, “Theological dramatics,” 93.

[xi] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory: The Dramatis Personae: The Person in Christ, vol. 3 (Ignatius Press, 1990), 149-50.

[xii] Ibid., 82.

[xiii] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory : The Dramatis Personae : The Person in Christ (Ignatius Press, 1993), 142.

[xiv] Balthasar, Theo-Drama, Vol. 3, 78.

[xv] Ibid., 99.

[xvi] Ibid.

[xvii] Ibid., 110.

[xviii] Ibid., 163.

[xix] Dutton Kearney, “Von Balthasar as transmodernist: recent works on theological aesthetics,” Religion and the Arts 14, no. 3 (January 1, 2010): 332-340.

[xx] W T. Dickens, Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Theological Aesthetics: a model for post-critical Biblical interpretation (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2003).

[xxi] Balthasar, Theo-Drama, Vol. 3, 143.

[xxii] Ibid.

[xxiii] Ibid., 144.

[xxiv] Ibid., 145-7.

[xxv] Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord, Vol. 1: Seeing the Form, 2nd ed. (Ignatius Press, 2009).

[xxvi] Balthasar, Theo-Drama, 143.

[xxvii] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theo-Drama, Vol. 4: The Action (Ignatius Press, 1994), 380-1.

[xxviii] Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord, Vol. 1, 302.

[xxix] Ibid.

[xxx] Ian A. McFarland, The Divine Image: Envisioning The Invisible God (FORTRESS PRESS, 2005), 48.

[xxxi] Balthasar, Theo-Drama, Vol. 4, 318.

[xxxii] Ibid.

[xxxiii] Ibid., 323-4.

[xxxiv] Ibid., 362.

[xxxv] Balthasar, Theo-Drama, Vol. 3, 135.

[xxxvi] Ibid., 138-9.

[xxxvii] Ibid., 153.

[xxxviii] Ibid., 519.

[xxxix] Ibid., 163.

[xl] Ibid., 505.

[xli] Ibid., 506.

[xlii] Balthasar, Theo-Drama, Vol. 4, 317.

[xliii] Ibid., 261.

[xliv] Steffen Lösel, “A plain account of Christian salvation? Balthasar on sacrifice, solidarity, and substitution,” Pro Ecclesia 13, no. 2 (March 1, 2004): 165.

[xlv] Balthasar, Theo-Drama, Vol. 4, 252.

[xlvi] Ibid., 317.

[xlvii] Ibid., 268.

[xlviii] Ibid., 496.

[xlix] Edward T. Oakes S. J and David Moss, The Cambridge Companion to Hans Urs von Balthasar (Cambridge University Press, 2004), 151.

[l] Balthasar, Theo-Drama, Vol. 4, 325.

[li] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Glory of the Lord, Vol. 7: Theology: The New Covenant (T & T Clark International, 1990), 233.

[lii] Ibid., 234.

[liii] Ibid., 229.

[liv] Ibid.

[lv] Ibid.

[lvi] Ibid.

[lvii] Alyssa Lyra Pitstick and Edward T. Oakes, “Balthasar, hell, and heresy: an exchange,” First Things, no. 168 (December 1, 2006): 25.

[lviii] Balthasar, Glory of the Lord Vol. 7, 230.

[lix] Paul J. Griffiths, “Is there a doctrine of the descent into hell?,” Pro Ecclesia 17, no. 3 (June 1, 2008): 257-268.

[lx] Balthasar, Glory of the Lord Vol. 7, 232.

[lxi] Ibid., 233.

[lxii] Ibid., 228.

[lxiii] Ibid., 232.

[lxiv] Ibid.

[lxv] Lösel, “A plain account of Christian salvation? Balthasar on sacrifice, solidarity, and substitution,” 146.

[lxvi] Ibid.

[lxvii] Ibid., 165.

[lxviii] Ibid.

[lxix] Balthasar, Theo-Drama, Vol. 4, 325.

[lxx] Ibid., 331.

[lxxi] Ibid., 149-50.

[lxxii] Ibid., 272.

[lxxiii] Ibid., 333.

[lxxiv] Balthasar, Theo-Drama, Vol. 4, 478.

[lxxv] Ibid., 479.

[lxxvi] Ibid.

[lxxvii] Ibid.

[lxxviii] Ibid., 363.

[lxxix] Ibid., 379.

[lxxx] Ibid., 385.

[lxxxi] Ibid., 433.

[lxxxii] Mongrain, The Systematic Thought of Hans Urs von Balthasar, 59.

[lxxxiii] Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord, Vol. 1, 215.

[lxxxiv] Balthasar, Theo-Drama, Vol. 3, 162.

[lxxxv] O’Hanlon, “Theological dramatics,” 96.

[lxxxvi] Balthasar, Theo-Drama, Vol. 3, 142.

[lxxxvii] Ibid., 328.

[lxxxviii] Roberts, The Theological Aesthetics of Hans Urs Von Balthasar, 206.

[lxxxix] Terence E. Frethheim, The Suffering of God: An Old Testament Perspective (Fortress Press, 1984).

[xc] Balthasar, Theo-Drama, Vol. 3, 519.

[xci] Hans Urs Von Balthasar, The Last Act (Ignatius Press, 1998), 216.

[xcii] Ibid., 219.

[xciii] Ibid., 218.

[xciv] Ibid., 222.

[xcv] Balthasar, Theo-Drama, Vol. 3, 523.

[xcvi] Balthasar, Theo-Drama, Vol. 4, 482.

[xcvii] Ibid., 483.

[xcviii] Ibid., 482.

[xcix] Ibid., 486.

[c] Ibid., 484.

[ci] Ibid.

[cii] Joerg Rieger, God and the Excluded: Visions and Blindspots in Contemporary Theology (Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 2000), 169.

[ciii] Balthasar, Theo-Drama, Vol. 4, 487.

[civ] Ibid.

[cv] O’Hanlon, “Theological dramatics,” 92.

[cvi] Ben Quash, “”Between the Brutely Given, and the Brutally, Banally Free” : Von Balthasar’s Theology of Drama in Dialogue with Hegel.,” Modern Theology 13, no. 3 (July 1, 1997): 293.

[cvii] J and Moss, The Cambridge Companion to Hans Urs von Balthasar, 156.

[cviii] Lösel, “A plain account of Christian salvation? Balthasar on sacrifice, solidarity, and substitution,” 154.

[cix] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved? With a Short Discourse on Hell (Ignatius Press, 1988).

[cx] Jürgen Moltmann, “Justice for Victims and Perpetrators,” Reformed World 44, no. 1 (March 1, 1994): 2-12.

[cxi] Lösel, “A plain account of Christian salvation? Balthasar on sacrifice, solidarity, and substitution,” 171.

[cxii] S. Mark Heim, Saved from Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2006).

[cxiii] Andrew Park, Triune Atonement: Christ’s Healing for Sinners, Victims, and the Whole Creation (Westminster John Knox, 2009).

[cxiv] Lösel, “A plain account of Christian salvation? Balthasar on sacrifice, solidarity, and substitution,” 170.

[cxv] Balthasar, Theo-Drama, Vol. 4, 439.

[cxvi] Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord, Vol. 1, 216.

[cxvii] Wolfhart Pannenberg, Systematic Theology (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1994), xiii.

[cxviii] Ibid.

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