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.

Bibliography

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

———. Glory of the Lord Vol. 7: Theology: The New Covenant. T & T Clark International, 1990.

———. The Glory of the Lord, Vol. 1: Seeing the Form. 2nd ed. Ignatius Press, 2009.

———. Theo-Drama, Vol. 4: The Action. Ignatius Press, 1994.

———. Theo-Drama, Vol. 3: The Dramatis Personae : The Person in Christ. Ignatius Press, 1993.

———. Theo-Drama, Vol. 2: The Dramatis Personae: Man in God. Ignatius Press, 1990.

Balthasar, Hans Urs Von. The Last Act. Ignatius Press, 1998.

———. Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory, Vol. 1: Prolegomena. Ignatius Press, 1989.

Cavanaugh, William T. “Balthasar, globalization, and the problem of the one and the many.” Communio 28, no. 2 (June 1, 2001): 324-347.

D’Costa, Gavin. “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.

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

Frethheim, Terence E. The Suffering of God: An Old Testament Perspective. Fortress Press, 1984.

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

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

J, Edward T. Oakes S., and David Moss. The Cambridge Companion to Hans Urs von Balthasar. Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Kasper, Walter. The God of Jesus Christ. Crossroad Publishing Company, 1986.

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

Livingston, James C., Francis Schussler Fiorenza, Sarah Coakley, James H, and Jr. Evans. Modern Christian Thought: The Twentieth Century. 2nd ed. Fortress Press, 2006.

Lösel, Steffen. “A plain account of Christian salvation? Balthasar on sacrifice, solidarity, and substitution.” Pro Ecclesia 13, no. 2 (March 1, 2004): 141-171.

McFarland, Ian A. The Divine Image: Envisioning The Invisible God. FORTRESS PRESS, 2005.

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

Mongrain, Kevin. The Systematic Thought of Hans Urs von Balthasar: An Irenaean Retrieval. The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2002.

O’Hanlon, Gerard F. “Theological dramatics..” In Beauty of Christ, 92-111. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1994.

Pannenberg, Wolfhart. Systematic Theology. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1994.

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

Pitstick, Alyssa Lyra, and Edward T. Oakes. “Balthasar, hell, and heresy: an exchange.” First Things, no. 168 (December 1, 2006): 25-32.

Quash, Ben. “”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): 293-318.

Rieger, Joerg. God and the Excluded: Visions and Blindspots in Contemporary Theology. Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 2000.

Roberts, Louis. The Theological Aesthetics of Hans Urs Von Balthasar. Catholic Univ of Amer Pr, 1987.

9 thoughts on “The Drama of Salvation: The Christological Soteriology of Hans Urs von Balthasar

  1. CO Fines

    I have a book on Origen’s writings edited by von Balthasar, Spirit and Fire, which I’m slowly making my way thru, probably the best book on Origen available. What von Balthasar does is to select a chapter of Origen’s writing and give a synopsis of it at the start of the chapter. I started out reading it all but soon gave up and just started reading the synopses. If something catches my interest then I read it at length as Origen wrote it. Or spoke it, actually, with a secretary to take it down in shorthand. Origen isn’t really hard to understand, but he just goes on and on and on, yada yada yada. Von Balthasar is extremely good at giving the gist of Origen’s thought.

    Karl Barth thought that von Balthasar understood him better than anyone else. Contemporary theologians tend to disagree with that but I would give Barth the last word. I recently read the Armchair Theologian book on Barth, the first in the Armchair series that was just plain too dense for me to understand. It’s not that I can’t understand the words, it’s the drift of the words that just takes way too much effort to comprehend. I’m thinking all the while, who is this written for, what possible difference can this make in the ordinary person’s day to day attempts to keep up with Jesus?

    I feel the same way about von Balthasar as you present him here, Bill. Who is this written for? It seems to me that the obvious answser to that question is that it is written for theologians, professional theologians with very high IQ’s and a high degree of education to prove that they can understand and speak this complex technical language.

    I can understand getting a degree at such a level as a means of joining a guild with certain benefits. I can understand wanting to learn to understand and speak the language if the purpose was to respeak it in the language of ordinary people for their benefit. In my view it is an extremely rare ability for someone to be able to think and understand skillfully at the doctoral level and yet be able to communicate well on the street.

    Von Balthasar devoted his life to his studies and writings, an immense amount to read, and Barth did the same. Both are considered preeminent theologians of the twentieth century. Other than younger doctoral candidates having a huge selection for their thesis, what actual difference have they made in the world? I’m really struggling to understand this.

  2. Bill Post author

    I struggle with the same thing, and I share your concerns. I would never be able to see the merit in devoting my life to producing the enormous corpus of work that both Barth and von Balthasar did. On the one hand, it wouldn’t be very much fun. On the other, I think there’s a lot more to life, as you say, and the quantity of those helped by a 16-volume systematic theology might be less than the total number of chapters in the books. This is why I don’t plan on having a career limited to academia or even theological education. I hope to continue work in the ministry and as a pastor as well – hopefully combined with some some mild political activism!

    Nonetheless, having read a decent chunk of von Balthasar, I’ve benefited significantly, and feel equiped to translate his work into much more useful terms (not what you see here). This is something I hope to do at some point along the way – maybe in the form of a book addressed to a popular audience, but also just through teaching in the church (preaching, sermons, etc.). The other thing is that, ironically, von Balthasar did not earn a PhD in theology, and neither did Barth! Von Balthasar was not up in an ivory tower in other words, despite how well-read he was. (I do criticize him however in my essay for his lack of engagement with actual political history and insensitivity to feminist/liberationist and even in some way, post-modern perspectives – all of which is probably in some measure due to exactly the method of writing/thinking you’re calling into question). Balthasar started a monastic order and led a fervent prayer life. He claims this is what informed his theology, which is why it has such a different feel I think – specifically with the appreciation of the aesthetic and dramatic tones. This is refreshing when compared to much of what you find in modern thought.

    In sum though, this is one of those posts that I publish simply because I put a lot of work into it. My professor is probably the only person who will ever read it through. That is fine. But at least if anyone is wondering, they can see what I’ve been slaving away on for the past month! That’s most of the value I see, so I think we are probably on the same page with this, except that I would conclude by saying, God can definitely use this stuff somehow, and maybe through those of us who are willing to apply it to our lives and interpret the useful things about it for others in a much more condensed and practical way. So despite the impracticality, I wouldn’t say the toil was in vain. God has gifted some with the nack for contemplation (theory), others action (politics), and still others labor in general. Many of us have some combination of the three, but all are needed.

  3. CO Fines

    My impression is that von Balthasar, Barth, and Origen could pass many happy hours at the same table with probably more than one pitcher of beer or bottle of wine. And perhaps they do.

    One thing they may have had in common is an open ended eschatological sense of the afterlife which today provokes horrified cries of “Universalism!!!”, particularly from the Evangelical wing who depend for their motivation and sustenance on a “one chance only before you die” scenario.

    I’m still learning about this aspect of church history and doctrine. One thing I have learned is that there is no one definition of Universalism in the wide range of human thought. It is more of a continuum of possibilities, all centering on Free Will.

    At the beginning of this continuum is the deterministic book end of predestination. At the other end is the detrministic book end of what usually gets called Universalism in a pejorative and scathing tone, Everybody Goes Right To Heaven No Matter What. I don’t know anyone who believes that one.

    The word Universalism really has been ruined for meaningful usage and we need to come up with better descriptors. But there are many people ready to point that accusatory finger at others as the Rob Bell firestorm demonstrated. But also a surprising, to me, number of people with open minds. Bell doesn’t operate at the same level as von Balthasar and Barth but he does reach people. A lot of people.

    Something else I have learned about what is called Universalism is that people in positions of spiritual leadership have learned not to come right out and say if they feel most comfortable somewhere along that middle continuum of ongoing salvation. Origen’s immense reputation was permanently destroyed by Augustine and Jerome and others over this matter. There are a lot of people ready to continue that vendetta.

    My point is that unless I’m misreading hints by others, both Barth and von Balthasar may have gone deep enough into matters of God’s love and mercy to question the pall that has smothered the church since Augustine, and in my view that is good. Both are respected enough that they may influence theologians and professors and thus pastors and teachers in sort of a trickle down reversion taking us back to the open ended thoughts of the early Church Fathers. It might take a while longer to reach Christian Television.

    I may be wrong about Barth fitting in here. He was, after all, Reformed. I can’t find what hinted to me at this direction in Barth’s thinking and I’m certainly not about to read thru his Church Dogmatics looking for it. Maybe when I finally get to his Dogmatics in Outline but I would guess you would have to read between the lines if he speaks of it at all. Dangerous stuff!

  4. Bill Post author

    I really like what you’ve said here about universalism. It’s amazing to me that it is a word more scandalous than exclusivism. I definitely think it should be the other way around, though as you suggest, the terms are incredibly misleading and unhelpful. It’s interesting though – precisely because Barth is reformed, he sort of has to be a universalist, otherwise God’s love turns out to be not so loving. Von Balthasar on the other hand is free to say “hope” instead, since his reflection on finite vs. infinite freedom takes reason, philosophy, and human volition much more seriously. Both of them fall short on systemic social analysis however – they’re falling into the German and European tradition in this regard, though maybe they would defend that it’s not their project to address this . . . I just think it’s every theologians project to address it! This is why I also appreciate some aspects of Moltmann and Pannenberg more so for instance – though both of them would benefit from incorporating a bit of von Balthasar’s aesthetics and overall contemplative spirit.

  5. CO Fines

    Barth and von Balthasar were Swiss and that’s where Calvin did his thing. Maybe it’s something in the water. Or the air. Or the lack thereof. I would like to see a psychological study of Christians to see if there is a correlation between theological belief and personality type. It seems to me obvious that there is Scriptural basis for both inclusivism and exclusivism, for justice and mercy, for the wrath of God and the love of God. What causes someone to give higher priority to one over the other? What causes them to think it obvious that this priority is, well, obvious. “The Bible clearly says blah blah blah.”

    Well meaning, sincere, fully devoted believers on either side of whatever fence, often lobbing grenades over to the other side, or at least privately consigning the other side to fire and brimstone. I’m thinking God probably has it worked out so that in the afterlife those of like minds may get to live together where they can all congratulate each other on being right and not be a bother to others. But then He just might put everyone together so you find yourself living next door to one of them. Probably would be better off working it out before we get there.

    I know you don’t have much time to spare being in grad school on top of keeping a family together. I don’t expect a lot of response from you and wouldn’t want my posts to add to the load you are carrying. Mostly I want to encourage you in what you are doing and figure if you are taking the time and effort to do this blog, someone ought to appreciate it. If you occasionally briefly express appreciation in return, as you have, that’s good enough to keep me going. I think in a way we are doing the same thing except you are doing it formally and that takes a lot more effort.

    My view of things doesn’t give much of a future to formal credentials, but my sense of what you are studying and how you think tells me that what you are doing will be worth the effort even if it gets used in a less than formal situation. Wish I could encourage you in person but this is next best.

  6. Bill Post author

    I think you’re really on to something with this personality idea, as you have said before I think. Or at least I’ve found it to be true in my own experience with different kinds of people and their respective theological tendencies. At the same time, I’m not ready to call it ambiguous, and would still hold on to the view that the “kernel” of Scripture as the person of Christ, his teachings, stories, and life, will lead us more in the direction of inclusivism, mercy, etc. than exclusivism, judgment and so on, recognizing of course that the latter are still in there, and I would even say necessarily so.

    I’m really grateful for the time you’ve taken here, and especially have benefited from and appreciate the encouragement, so know it hasn’t been taken lightly.

  7. CO Fines

    I appreciate your encouraging words in return. I just finished the Armchair Calvin. (Luther is next.) In the concluding part of the book which speaks of the various offshoots of Calvin’s legacy, Christopher Elwood, the author, speaks of liberation theologies in the general sense that I think interests you. These are viewed as possibly descended from Calvin tho not plainly so. Page 168 if you want to check it out.

    Elwood also speaks of Barth in relation to Calvin. “At other points, such as predestination, Barth felt free to say that Calvin had plainly got it wrong.” He goes on to say that God had elected all of humanity in Jesus Christ. Page 167. This ties in with my previous comment about Barth being comfortable with von Balthasar and Origen in spite of being Reformed.

    This is not just an intellectual matter with me. I am sensing a general repudiation of hyper-Calvinism in the church at large, even a revulsion. And there is a resultant circling of the wagons for a last ditch stand. It may be a remix of the repudiation of fundamentalism and both may go back to Charles Hodge and further back to Jonathan Edwards. That legacy has permeated American culture far more than most people realize.

    I just finished two books by Andrew Farley. He is of your generation, apparently an orthodox evangelical, but has some extremely interesting things to say about the wrong turns the church has taken. I was especially interested in his take on the Biblical meaning of predestination, which he ties in with the intended expansion of the message of Jesus outside the Jewish culture. I had passed up his The Naked Gospel as pop Christianity but it isn’t. Both it and God Without Religion are well worth reading. Maybe don’t go far enough for me, but should have a lot to say to those who can’t stomach the church as we know it today.

    Also have started reading Rubel Shelly, whose latest book is I Knew Jesus Before He Was a Christian , , , and I Liked Him Better Then. Not sure yet where he’s coming from but he’s interesting. I do like mavericks. Not very many old people are interesting to me. You might relate to the statement that says he “became disenchanted with what he has called a language of exclusion.”

    I know you don’t have time to look at all this stuff. What I am doing with all this is trying to work my way back thru all the twists and turns the church has taken, major targets being Augustine and the Nicene Coagulation. My goal is to find the Spirit of the church before it was institutionalized into rigidity so that this can be transmitted to a post-apocalyptic generation. Hopefully avoiding the mistakes already made, but first those mistakes have to be recognized for what they are. Not an easy task since going on two thousand years of effort hasn’t figured it out. I think we are getting closer but there’s not a lot of time left.

    I have a lot of confidence in your generation, not that you don’t have your own ding-a-lings.

  8. Bill Post author

    Thanks for the reading recommendations. I was wondering about the Naked Gospel – have a PDF copy on my desktop but haven’t looked at it yet. I think we share in common the hope for retrieving pre-institutionalized rigidity in church. Yeah, our generation just might be able to do it, but I suspect it will still be a fringe movement . . .

  9. Sam R.

    Dear Bill (or indeed any who are interested),
    I saw this recently – I’m not a ‘blogger’ or anything just passionate about theology, or should I say Jesus!
    I’ve been trying to understand Balthasar’s (or the ‘traditional Catholic) take on vicarious suffering – I’m referring to the idea of the ‘treasury of merits’ of the saints and it makes absolutely no sense to me. I mean his (their) understanding of Stellvertretung. I know that’s a fairly complex word with an interesting (recent) history but its one he uses in this context. His book, “In the Fullness of Faith’ has a section on the communion of Saints which quotes both Luther and Bonhoeffer in this regard, and I mean Luther in 1520/35! This idea makes no empirical sense. I’m fairly resistant to Penal Substitution theories and more sympathetic to Rahner than Balthasar in my understanding of soteriology, but feel fairly lost about this and can’t find anything to help or which can reconcile the tension. Catholics I talk to, including Protestant converts, all say ‘of course, just offer up your sufferings!’ Protestants just can’t see this and it has unfortunate implications (whatever Catholics say) about the ‘unfinished work of Calvary.’ Then I’m pointed to verses in the scriptures like Col. 1:24! I’ve looked at this carefully and, to be honest, the theories around this (even if St. Paul wasn’t the author) aren’t too persuasive. People seem to be going through torture to prove that it doesn’t say what it seems to – that Christ’s work was ‘incomplete’. It’s more than a little confusing. The idea is even in the Catechism, so it’s not just ‘Balthasarian’. John Paul II (philosophically), and Pope Benedict (theologically) support the idea, so t’s not just something of Catholic piety (i.e. Carmelite). Any thoughts?
    Thanks
    Sam R.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s