Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-1988)
Balthasar was regarded by Henri de Lubac as "perhaps the most cultured
man of our time." Karl Rahner described his achievements as "really
breathtaking" . His works
include over a thousand books and articles. And yet he was never an academic
As he readily admitted, a woman was probably one of the strongest influences
in his life. She was Adrienne von Speyr, a medical doctor and mystic, whom he
converted to Catholicism. It was during a retreat run by von Balthasar that she
had the first of many visions which were to occur
during her life. It was these visions which provided the central themes for
On the other hand, his "... vision of a comprehensive biblical theology" was
gained from reading Karl Barth's works. He met Barth while student chaplain at
Basel University, Switzerland, in the years after 1937. Jesuits were forbidden
at the time from any official presence in that country, so Balthasar could not
work officially as chaplain.
Balthasar was educated first by the Benedictines at Engelburg in Switzerland
and then by the Jesuits in Feldkirch. He joined the Society of Jesus in 1929.
He completed a doctoral thesis on German idealism which was later published in
three volumes (1937-39). He published works on Maximus (1941) and on Gregory of
With Speyr he started a new type of religious order (the Community of St
John), whose members would serve the Church yet continue with their
ordinary vocations and occupations in society.
In 1950, however, Balthasar left the Society of Jesus, which would not allow
him to remain a member and also develop a secular institute. Nor would the
Society take responsibility for Speyr's visions which so influenced Balthasar as
her confessor and spiritual director. He decided not to renew his Jesuit vows,
trying instead to have Speyr's visions investigated and validated by the Roman
Leaving the Society meant that Balthasar was without a position, a pastorate,
a place to live, or an income. Because he had left the Jesuit order, the
Catholic Congregation for Seminaries and Universities had banned him from
teaching. But he eventually found an ecclesiastical home under a sympathetic
bishop and was able to live by a gruelling schedule of lecture tours.
Perhaps his early struggles influenced an occasionally negative view of the
world around him. He wrote in Science, Religion and Christianity, for
Modern man has had the frightful misfortune that God in nature has died for
him. Where religion once flowered like a blooming meadow, there is nothing left
now but dry clay.
He reminded others that we all remain tied to the natural world. It's
nonsense to think that we rule it, said Balthasar. In fact, we are here to serve
it, to serve God in and through God's creation. In so doing we're wrong if we
pursue too abstract an approach. Abstraction takes us only a short distance
along the pilgrim's road. The people we encounter along the way bring the divine
He remained in limbo - though highly productive - until 1967 when it seemed
the Roman Catholic Church might become more open and flexible. Balthasar was
appointed to the Papal Theological Commission. In the years following the Second
Vatican Council his reputation as a conservative theologian grew steadily. This
was partly because of his pronouncements against the ordination of women,
and partly because he conflicted with frontier thinkers like Rahner, Kung and
Balthasar attempted in his own way to steer a course between extremes - which
seems an increasingly difficult option today, but was then perhaps the only
relatively safe course for an ordained Roman Catholic.
He didn't want to deny either revealed truth direct from God, or the human
capacity to seek and discover truth from creation. He thought that revelation is
the "apex" inserted into reality from above (i.e. from God) and that it rests on
the "base" of the natural order which includes humanity. The former defines
and "judges" the latter.
J Garver writes of this aspect of Balthasar's thought that he
... uses marital imagery, proposing that reason - womb-like - gives itself
to faith to be made fruitful, not arguing itself into faith, but allowing
faith to come into fulfillment within it. 
Not unsurprisingly this approach was regarded with suspicion by Barth, whose
entire vast edifice of thought rests on faith as the outcome of revelation in a
process whereby reason is merely a minor approach road to the real thing.
D F Ford comments that Balthasar's relationship with Barth
... may have cooled, but Barth's theology [nevertheless] remained for
Balthasar one of the fixed points by which he set the course of his own
The early part of the twentieth-century saw a number of theologians who were
more definite than Balthasar about the relationship between reason and
revelation. For example, D J Mercier (1851-1926), an influential Roman Catholic
bishop, said that if reason contradicts revelation it is because the former is
in error. It seems to me that this conclusion is more congruent with Balthasar's
thought than one which gives reason pride of place.
Mercier's outlook is the traditional vision of authority par excellence.
But it should be noted that this conclusion has what appears to be an
insurmountable difficulty. One must ask by what process it is arrived at. If by
reason, then the subsidiary proposal fails. If by revelation then an
ever-receding chain of revelation is necessary and reason is of no account
Balthasar, I think, hoped that reasoned and revealed truth would converge.
But I wouldn't feel confident that he ever noticed that they need not.
In a passage which illustrates his position, Balthasar writes:
The eye is the organ with which the world is possessed and dominated
... Through the eye the world is our world, in which we are not lost.
Rather, it is subordinate to us as an immeasurable dwelling space with
which we are familiar.
The other side of this material function denotes distance, separateness
Hearing is a wholly different, almost opposite mode of the revelation
of reality ... It is not objects we hear - in the dark, when it
is not possible to see - but their utterances and communications. Therefore
it is not we ourselves who determine on our part what is heard and place it
before us as an object in order to turn our attention to when it pleases us.
That which is heard comes upon us without our being informed in advance of
its coming. It lays hold of us without being asked ...
The basic relationship between the one who hears and that which is
heard is thus one of defencelessness on the one side and of
communication on the other ... The hearer belongs to the other and obeys him.
Balthasar wasn't keen on Rahner's thesis, often called the notion of
"anonymous Christians". By this Rahner apparently means that it is possible for
humans, through their own natures, to know and experience the divine.
Balthasar could not allow this because it cut across his emphasis on divine
self-revelation. That revelation comes to us, he thought, in an encounter with
the essence (gestalt) of Jesus.
For [apologetics] the heart of the matter should be this question: "How
does God's revelation confront man in history? How is it perceived?"
Under the influence of a modern rationalistic concept of science, the
question has shifted ever more from its proper centre to the margin, to be
restated in this manner: "Here we encounter a man who claims to be God, and
who, on the basis of this claim, demands that we should believe many truths
he utters which cannot be verified by reason. What basis acceptable to
reason can we give to his authoritative claims?"
Anyone asking the question in this way has already forfeited an
answer, because he is at once enmeshed in an insoluble dilemma
... Christ cannot be considered one "sign" among others ...
In a similar way, Balthasar's position on biblical theology followed from his
position about revelation. The Bible mediates to us the "revelation-gestalt"
and therefore the divine glory to those who can perceive it. The limitation of
his position in this respect is that certain possible conclusions are closed off
before reasoning begins. It does not accept either personal freedom to
investigate and choose truth, or the goodness of being open to all and any truth
- that is, to truth for its own sake.
The essentially traditional nature of Balthasar's theology, although tempered
and highlighted by the thought of Hegel, became increasingly clear as he rose in
the Church's hierarchy. But it should be noted that he did attempt to balance
this out by recognising the scarred and sinful nature of the Church as
an organisation - in particular its lesions through the Reformation, its
amputation from the Jewish faith, and the bloody and septic aspects of its
In the final analysis, Balthasar can't be said to have brought to the
theological debate of the twentieth-century a systematic, analytical or even
truly rational approach. His contribution was more like poetry, giving creative
and imaginative expression to the many great metaphorical elements of tradition.
Nevertheless, his desire for traditional theology to remain open to the
non-Christian world of thought and discovery was clear - even if, in practice,
what he expressed seems to limit or even exclude much human initiative,
creativity, vision and endeavour.
He tried, especially in his work with his secular religious order, to
prevent the Church's thinking from forming a self-centred, circular lager,
motivated by fear of the unknown, and formed in defence of orthodoxy against
heresy. Nevertheless, his later life seems to have swung more towards a need, in
what he thought of as a radical openness, to preserve the identity and coherence
of traditional Christian thought and practice.
I think it is now plain that a strategy of preservation through revision will
not do. The gap between Western humanity and traditional theology is now so wide
that the bridge which has spanned it for two millennia is in the final stages of
collapse. It must be crossed - perhaps only by a few - before it plunges into
the abyss. There the new pioneers must recreate a gospel which truly speaks to
the alienated who live on that bank.
It's no longer viable to expect the so-called heathen masses of the West to
abandon their shore and cross back into a land settled in the first-century and
developed in Medieval times. Having said this, John Macquarrie may well be right
to maintain that Balthasar's theology
... is not to be dismissed as merely a retreat into medievalism ... its
categories are deployed so as to tackle contemporary problems in a
contemporary way, while at the same time drawing on the wisdom of the past.
But Macquarrie's comment is followed by the dismissal of what is contemporary
as a desert of "effete and sterile secularism". In other words, in the 1960s he
and no doubt many other Christian theologians saw the land on the other side of
the great divide as barren. They inhabited the fertile bank. If that is so, one
wonders why so few have since crossed to their side. Indeed, the flow seems to
be increasingly the other way.
Balthasar's outlook was expressed by a text from the Fourth Lateran Council
of 1215: "As great as may be the similarity, so much greater must the
dissimilarity between creator and creature be preserved". So human drama,
literature, poetry and passion is always superseded by the great "Theo-drama" of
the infusion into the universe of God's power and energy - especially in the
person of Jesus.
Humanity's achievement of imagination and creativity are by definition
to the true fount or "form" of reality which is God. And insofar as human
achievements are analogies they are second-rate and profoundly dissimilar to the
By and large the actor's nature and person do not coincide with the role
he has to play, and this is true not only of the stage play but also of the
theatrum mundi itself. In the play that takes place on the world stage,
the author, director, and producer is - in an absolute sense - God himself.
True, he allows [human] freedom to act in its own part according to its
nature - and this is the greatest mystery of creation and of God's direct
creative power - yet ultimately the play [God] plays is his own. In this
play there can be a tragic or comic dichotomy between the actor and the
role; and this produces the comedies and tragedies of world history. Only in
the drama of the God-Man do we find identity between the sublime actor
and the role he has to play.
Theologians and other Christians, said Balthasar, have the right and duty to
explore these human aspects precisely because they come about as a revelation or
expression of the "supra-form": "Every comparison and relatedness of the
creature has therefore its measure in a converse relatedness of God to the
creature." Human philosophy and reason are good in their own right as they seek
to express the greater truth which comes from god. But it is God's logic
(Theo-logic), not man's, which is the real thing.
Balthasar rejected the suggestion that his concern with form and beauty is in
any way Platonist. Ford defends Balthasar in this respect:
His whole theological endeavour is directed towards learning to see things
as they are in themselves, whole and entire, and in so seeing to perceive the
reality of being in all its variety and concreteness. 
Balthasar says he's not trying to find behind concrete things the true
form which is their reality. Nevertheless, it seems to me that the distinction
is a fine one.
A sure indication of Balthasar's essential traditionalism is, I
think, his acceptance of a Paul VI prize in theology, and his appointment as
a cardinal in 1988 just before he died. One should note that he arrived at
his conclusions during a time when world events were demonstrating the
terminal illness of what was essentially a neo-Thomist world-view.
than cure the patient by an infusion of new vision, Balthasar had sought
merely to apply a remedial poultice. Time has shown that his band-aid
solution has not worked.
 I am much indebted to Joel Garver of
 The Modern Theologians, Volume 1, 1989
 Twentieth-century Religious Thought, 1963