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 theologian.
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 Balthasar's writings.
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 Nyssa (1942).
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 Catholic Church.
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
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 to us.
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 Schillebeeckx.
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 whatsoever.
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. (my italics)
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
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
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
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 history.
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
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.
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 analogous
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 creator's reality:
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
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
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
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
 I am much indebted to Joel Garver of Lasalle
 The Modern Theologians, Volume 1, 1989
 Twentieth-century Religious Thought, 1963