Friday, March 28, 2008

AAR Paper Proposal: “A Beautiful Anarchy”

This November, I will be in Chicago giving a paper at the annual AAR meeting. If you plan on being there, be sure to come to the session for the Religion, Film, and Visual Culture Group, where you can hear me give a paper on the films of Guillermo del Toro. To whet your appetite, I have posted the proposal for the paper below.

“A Beautiful Anarchy: Religion, Fascism, and Violence in the Theopolitical Imagination of Guillermo del Toro”

In a 2006 interview, Guillermo del Toro, the director of films such as Hellboy and Pan’s Labyrinth, explains why he turned away from his Catholic faith in the following way:
I was a choir boy. I was a member of the Virgin Mary Society. And I was this and I was that. And then, when you reach your teenage years, I discovered that the world was much wider. I started working in a place where I had to go through the morgue. One day I saw such a horrifying sight at the morgue that instantly showed me there was no real order in the universe, at least not a conscious order dictated by a guy in white robes and a long beard. It really shook me. I saw a pile of fetuses that was about five feet tall. There was such a harrowing variety of things going on there on every level. I just realized, I guess we are on our own, so we better make the best of it. It’s this world that I saw that made me love with a passion the world that I was creating.
Because of his encounter with the reality of evil in this world, del Toro set out to make films that challenge and subvert what he calls “the Establishment”—i.e., the structural powers of evil that result in horrific situations like Auschwitz or morgues full of dead children. He states in the same interview that “horror and fantasy saved my brain” and “allowed me to survive,” because these fantastical genres provide a way of re-imagining the world in which we live. According to del Toro, there are two kinds of fairytales and horror films: those that are in favor of the present world—the “Establishment”—and those that are against it. One kind uncritically affirms our present reality; the other kind, and the one del Toro prefers, criticizes it with “a beautiful anarchy.”

Del Toro’s “beautiful anarchy” takes the form of standard good-vs.-evil dramas, but his movies consistently merge the so-called “real world” with a world of fantasy. The fantastical world is not a false reality or mixture of real and unreal, but rather it is, as he says, the truly Real world. It is the world in which we live seen for what it really is. The genre of fantasy allows del Toro to expose the artifice of our everyday lives through the unfolding of what he calls “spiritual reality,” which is not opposed to our embodied existence but rather transcends it. Fantasy is an alternative imaginative framework that does not escape from reality but resituates it within a more palpable and coherent moral context. Three films, in particular, demonstrate del Toro’s artistic project: Hellboy, Devil’s Backbone, and Pan’s Labyrinth. Each of these films portrays a clear conflict between good and evil, but unlike standard escapist movies, these films use the fantastical as a way of rebelling against certain social and political forces. Specifically, del Toro identifies the evil reality with political fascism: the character of Hellboy is discovered by the Nazis, and The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth both take place in the shadow of Franco’s fascist regime in Spain. Moreover, fascism functions both literally and symbolically in these stories. Del Toro’s films are a “beautiful anarchy” against actual fascist ideologies as well as the broader structures of death which fascism symbolically represents in his stories.

In this essay, I will explore the nature of del Toro’s “beautiful anarchy” by looking at del Toro’s “theopolitical imagination,” to use William Cavanaugh’s phrase. Like Cavanaugh, del Toro recognizes that our entire human existence is imagined. We live and act within an imagined framework, one which Cavanaugh explores theologically and del Toro through film. According to del Toro, in the aforementioned interview, all reality is, in a very real sense, imagined:
The entire world we live in is fabricated: Republican/Democrat, left/right, morning/night, geography and borders—all these things are conceits. Borders are not visible from a satellite picture. The fact [is] that you can have a civil war where two sides kill each other, and essentially from afar they look exactly the same. They are both the same human beings. They share the same taste for food. They sing the same songs. This imagined conceit can create such horrors.
Because our collective, sociopolitical imagination “can create such horrors,” del Toro feels obligated to use the medium of film to imagine an alternative way of existence, one that actively rebels against the horrors of our world and refuses to affirm systems of oppression and violence. Hellboy is thus a demon who fights against supernatural forces of evil. Carlos, in The Devil’s Backbone, helps a group of other children (orphaned due to the Spanish Civil War) to fight against the murderous Jacinto, whom del Toro says is the embodiment of fascism in the film. And Ophelia, in Pan’s Labyrinth, rebels against Captain Vidal, who is part of Franco’s regime.

I will argue that despite del Toro’s denial of faith, his films present a thoroughly Christian theopolitical imagination. Regarding Pan’s Labyrinth, del Toro has said that “it was a truly profane film, a layman’s riff on Catholic dogma.” And yet his friend and fellow filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu said that it is “a truly Catholic film.” I argue that Iñárritu was correct. I will explore the religious imagination in each of these three films in turn, concluding with a critical analysis of how violence is used in del Toro’s fantasies and what Christian theology has to gain from an engagement with contemporary world cinema.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

2008 Balthasar Blog Conference: Index

The first annual 2008 Balthasar Blog Conference on “Von Balthasar’s Theological Interpretation of Scripture” has come to a close. The conference took place over nine days from March 17-25, with a plenary post and response presented each day. Below is the official index for the event.

Official 2008 Hans Urs von Balthasar Blog Conference Index:

Introduction to the 2008 Balthasar Blog Conference

1. Monday, March 17 — Adrienne von Speyr’s influence on Balthasar
2. Tuesday, March 18 — Balthasar’s approach to biblical hermeneutics
3. Wednesday, March 19 — Aesthetics and revelation
4. Thursday, March 20 — Balthasar on the Gospels
5. Friday, March 21 — Balthasar on Scripture and philosophy
6. Saturday, March 22 — Balthasar’s understanding of the Old Testament
7. Sunday, March 23 — Balthasar on the Apocalypse
8. Monday, March 24 — Balthasar on the problem of universalism
  • Plenary: David W. Congdon, “Toward a Hermeneutics of Hope: Hans Urs von Balthasar on the Biblical Warrant for Universalism”
  • Response: Patrick McManus
9. Tuesday, March 25 — Balthasar on the resurrection
Conclusion to the 2008 Balthasar Blog Conference

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

2008 Balthasar Blog Conference Conclusion

Looking Back

The 2008 Balthasar Blog Conference has come to a close. I am quite pleased with how the event turned out. We had nine excellent “plenary” essays and nine responses, all of a very high caliber. The essays covered a wide range of topics and texts. Lois M. Miles discussed the significance of Adrienne von Speyr’s contemplative and mystic reading of Scripture upon Balthasar’s interpretation of the Bible. Cynthia Nielsen, in conversation with W. T. Dickens, looked at Balthasar’s biblical hermeneutics, focusing on his understanding of the Bible as a self-interpreting christocentric narrative in which authorial intention and the regula fidei are important tools in proper exegesis. Daniel Wade McClain examined the relation between revelation and aesthetics, paying special attention to the nature-grace distinction. Heather Reichgott treated Balthasar’s affirmation of “pluralism” within the Bible, with a particular emphasis on the well-known problem of the contradictory accounts of the resurrection in the Gospels. Balthasar, she notes, refuses to explain away or systematize these narratives, but instead allows the scriptural polyphony to witness to the living Lord.

Francesca Murphy presented us with three different readings of Exodus 3 and the revelation of the divine name by Étienne Gilson, Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI), and Balthasar. Each of them offers theological and ontological interpretations of this narrative, and while Ratzinger and Balthasar also incorporate historical-critical research, they all attempt to understand in this story the being of God as eternal and creative love. Halden Doerge examined Balthasar’s figural reading of the Old Testament and his christocentric theology of Israel. Here the important issue of supercessionism was raised, which Balthasar rejects but not always unambiguously. Andrew Ryan Guffey discussed Balthasar’s interpretation of the Apocalypse of John not as a blueprint for “horizontal” history, but rather as an objective revelation of the “vertical” theodramatic history between God and the world. As Guffey notes, Balthasar situates the Apocalypse within a theological aesthetic in that it is descriptive and interpretive of the theo-drama, and not a prescriptive ethic or vision of world events. Guffey closes by acknowledging that the ethic of the Apocalypse, according to Balthasar, is doxological. In my own contribution to this conference, I analyzed the exegesis of various biblical texts in Balthasar’s discussion of the apokatastasis in Dare We Hope? I looked at the internal contradiction with Scripture as well as certain controversial texts (e.g., Matt. 25 and Acts 3:21), and I argued that his interpretation of the Bible in this book was more of “hermeneutics of crisis” than a “hermeneutics of hope,” in that he rested content with an existential tension that did not seem to be christologically determined. Finally, John L. Drury discussed Balthasar’s interpretation of the resurrection event in Mysterium Paschale. Drury looked first at how Balthasar conceives of the relation between theology and exegesis and then turned to three exegetical moves which demonstrate his careful integration of both in his own theological interpretation of Scripture.

All together, these essays attest to Balthasar’s rich and profound contribution to theology. While there are still plenty of debates to be had over certain presuppositions or conclusions, all agree that continuing engagement with Balthasar’s work is of crucial significance for the future of ecclesial and biblical theology.

Looking Ahead

Looking ahead to the future, what should this conference examine next? While at first I considered making the next Balthasar Blog Conference about Balthasar and missional theology, I have since, in light of the debates surrounding my essay, decided to propose that the 2009 Balthasar Blog Conference examine the topic of Hans Urs von Balthasar and Protestantism. This topic holds a lot of promise for an online conference, partly because there is just so much interesting material. Balthasar discusses everyone from Luther and Schleiermacher to Bultmann and Moltmann. And, of course, Karl Barth. (We could even throw in Kierkegaard, Kant, and Hegel, among others.) Moreover, someone could also interact with Rodney Howsare’s book, Hans Urs von Balthasar and Protestantism. Theologically, the big issues include nature and grace, the Trinity, the divine attributes, analogy (of being and of faith), and pretty much anything related to ecclesiology. All in all, I think this is a very interesting and exciting topic. If you have an interest in participating in this conference, please let me know. I will try to accommodate as many people as possible. Most likely, it will be held around the same time next year.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Response #9: W. Travis McMaken

Response to “Balthasar’s Interpretation of the Resurrection of Christ in Mysterium Paschale
By W. Travis McMaken

By no stretch of the imagination could I be considered a von Balthasar scholar. Having read only snippets of his Theo-Drama and his Mysterium Paschale – the work from which Drury is working – my status must be located somewhere well beneath devotee and perhaps even beneath initiate. Since, then, I am hardly qualified to comment on the quality of Drury's exposition, I must content myself to a few more conceptual comments.

Drury first discusses HUvB's account of the relation between exegesis and dogmatics, characterizing it (following HUvB) as a relation of "reciprocal dependence," where exegesis depends on theology for certain prior orientations and theology depends on exegesis because historically (and one wonders if HUvB has primarily in mind the first five centuries of the Christian era) theology has been concerned with sorting out exegetical problems and theology needs the variety of "images and concepts" that Scripture has to offer. I certainly do not want to call the truth of this into question, but I also wonder if it goes far enough for there is no indication here (at least Drury presents us with none) that HUvB grants any priority of authority to Scripture. In other words, my Protestant dander is up because of what has not been said here. Certainly we must affirm mutuality between Scriptural exegesis and theology – this is merely an application of the hermeneutic circle – but is this relation perfectly symmetrical or asymmetrical, and if the latter, on which side does the accent fall? In all fairness, however, it should be noted that HUvB seems primarily concerned in this discussion with the relation of theology to historical critical exegetical method in particular, and not with Scriptural interpretation in general.

Having discussed this point, Drury goes on to recount three exegetical moves that Balthasar makes: first, affirmation of the resurrection is situated within a trinitarian grammar; second, contradictions and confusions among the various NT accounts of the resurrection are to be expected due to the nature of the subject matter; third, the accounts of Jesus eating and drinking after the resurrection are not superfluous but express the fundamental insight that Jesus transforms the old into the new. These are interesting, insightful, and promising avenues for further reflection. However, I'd like to go in a slightly different, "5th-grade theology" direction to close these comments.

HUvB's affirmation of Jesus' post-resurrection eating and drinking suggests that he gives proper attention to what TF Torrance has called the 'empirical correlate[s]' (Space, Time, Incarnation, 90) of the resurrection. In other words, Jesus' post-resurrection body – while transformed – is a real human body standing in continuity with our own, existing within space and time. So then, where is this body now?

The ancient geocentric cosmology, within which the ascension was perceived as literally ascending to a literally higher heavenly realm, has been rendered obsolete. It is now beyond our common sense to envision a corner of the expanding universe where Jesus is hanging out waiting for the eschaton, especially if we get the idea that because Jesus ate and drank his post-resurrection body needs to eat and drink just as we do. So, how do we solve this riddle?

My own tendency is not to focus on the spatial aspect, but on the temporal. Jesus is in the future. This does away with all the tricky spatial questions, especially if one envisions the eschaton as a 'new heaven and new earth' in significant continuity with our own. But, I am curious as to how Balthasar might handle – or did handle – this question.

Plenary #9: “Balthasar’s Interpretation of the Resurrection of Christ in Mysterium Paschale” (Drury)

“Balthasar’s Interpretation of the Resurrection of Christ in Mysterium Paschale
By John L. Drury

Hans Urs von Balthasar is perhaps best known for his unique theology of Christ’s descent into hell. Although the topic appears through his vast corpus,1 Balthasar’s theology of Christ’s descent is most widely accessed through his Triduum meditations entitled Mysterium Paschale.2 The uniqueness of his reflections on Holy Saturday has unfortunately led to a neglect of what he has to say about Easter Sunday.

This lacuna is unfortunate, for one of the results of Balthasar’s radical theology of Christ’s descent is an increase in the significance of Christ’s resurrection. A genuinely dead Christ raises the stakes for Easter morn. These stakes are clear from the outset: “If without the Son no one can see the Father (John 1:18), nor anyone come to the Father (John 14:6), and if, without him, the Father is revealed to nobody (Matthew 11:27), then when the Son, the Word of the Father, is dead, then no one can see God, hear of him or attain him. And this day exists, when the Son is dead, and the Father, accordingly, inaccessible” (49). So Balthasar’s theology of Christ’s death is inextricably tied with his theology of Christ’s resurrection. It is only by the risen Christ that we have access to the Father.

In this essay I will explore Balthasar’s reflections on the resurrection in the final chapter of Mysterium Paschale. In accordance with the topic of this conference, I will focus on his interpretation of Scripture by (1) highlighting Balthasar’s understanding of the relationship between dogmatics and exegesis as it comes to expression in the structure of this chapter and (2) discussing three key exegetical moves Balthasar makes.


Balthasar is concerned in this chapter, perhaps more so than in the previous chapters, with the proper relationship between exegesis and dogmatics. This concern is foreign neither to Balthasar’s theology in general nor to this particular text, which first appeared in a multi-author, multi-volume work that took as one of its chief goals the incorporation of contemporary exegetical study into dogmatic theology. For Balthasar, this incorporation cannot mean that theology slavishly follows the latest historical-critical research. However, neither can theology exercise a priori control over exegesis. Rather, the two stand in a relationship of “reciprocal dependence” (230). Exegesis depends on theology because certain “partial prior decisions” (230) or “prior options” (234) determine the range of the possible. Theology depends on exegesis because the historical aspect of theological affirmations requires attention to exegetical problems and the multiplicity of images and concepts in Scripture enrich dogmatic reflection.

This reciprocal dependence of exegesis and theology comes to expression in the structure Balthasar gives to his chapter on the resurrection. The chapter is divided into three sections: (1) The Fundamental Theological Affirmation, (2) The Exegetical Situation, and (3) The Imagistic Developments of the Theological Aspects. While discussing the exegetical task, Balthasar makes the relationship among the sections explicit: “Our task here can in no way be that of examining in turn all the exegetical questions involved, and of commenting on them with exegesis’ own methods. Rather is it to highlight the reciprocal dependence of exegesis and theology in some of its most important instances. This enterprise must form the transitional stage between the dogmatic affirmation that Christ is risen (1), and the deployment of this dogmatic affirmation in a variety of images and concepts (3)” (230).

According to Balthasar, a theology of the resurrection must begin with the basal affirmation that Christ is risen (Section 1). This affirmation depends on exegesis of Scripture but one cannot do proper theological exegesis unless one begins with this affirmation. With this affirmation in place, the theologian is free to wrestle with the many exegetical problems in the resurrection narratives (Section 2). As we shall see below, Balthasar displays considerable openness regarding controversial matters of exegesis. Theology may require a basal affirmation, but it does not predetermine every exegetical decision, for this basal affirmation does not rest on any single interpretation of any one text. Theology’s exegetical freedom is not limited to wrestling with historical problems of Scripture, but also flourishes within the multiplicity of images and concepts in Scripture (Section 3). Theology is not only free for but is also free from historical-critical exegesis. Balthasar engages in a rich symbolic interpretation of the resurrection narratives that makes use of historical and literary techniques but is not bound to them.

The threefold movement of Balthasar’s reflections on Christ’s resurrection expresses the reciprocal dependence of exegesis and theology. Within the context of this methodologically attuned structure, let us turn to a discussion of some key moves.


Although Balthasar makes intriguing moves on almost every page, I will discuss three key moves – one from each of the three sections mentioned above. The first and most complex of these moves is Balthasar’s exploration of the trinitarian form of the fundamental theological affirmation. Balthasar summarizes this trinitarian structure as follows: “The Resurrection of the dead Son is consistently ascribed to the action of the Father, and in the closet possible connexion with the Resurrection there is presented to us the outpouring of the divine Spirit” (203). Note the Scriptural ground of Balthasar’s statement: it is the New Testament that ‘ascribes’ action to the Father and ‘presents’ the outpouring of the Spirit. Balthasar’s reflections on the trinitarian form of resurrection faith are not just speculative exercises but emerge out of the trinitarian grammar of the New Testament message.

The trinitarian form of the fundamental theological affirmation is not a wholly separate matter from the more common ‘historical’ questions surrounding the resurrection. The trinitarian shape of resurrection discourse holds together the ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’ aspects of the event: “Only because the ‘God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts’ (Galatians 4:6) does the objective event becomes something that touches our own existence. Here we must once again recall that the texts forbid a simple identification of the saving event with the actuality of the message concerning that event. The message transmits the testimony to an encounter with the living Christ; but that encounter itself points back to a prior, presupposed event, to that ‘blessed night’ of which no human being was the experiencing witness ... It is only when, first of all, we grant this event its Trinitarian dimension that we can go on to speak appropriately of its being pro nobis and pro mundo” (203).

Scripture ascribes the initiative of this presupposed event to the Father. The Father as creator gives life to the Son by his power, glory, and spirit, thereby justifying himself as faithful to the covenant, justifying the Son’s obedience, and accepting the Son’s sacrifice. Given what Balthasar has already said about the genuine deadness of the Son, this activity must be ascribed to the Father alone, for the dead do not act.

But this hidden initiative of the Father is not the end but the beginning. Because its goal is revelation, this objective event presses towards subjective realization: “the Father shows to the world his risen and glorified Son ... And yet, since the Son is the Word of the Father, the Father, in disclosing the Son as the justified and glorified One, also discloses himself” (206). In this revelatory movement, activity is also ascribed to the Son: “The Father, in showing the world his Son as the One who became through him definitively living, gives the Son an utter spontaneity in his own self-showing” (207). Because the Father has restored the Son’s subjectivity, the Son reveals himself to his disciples by means of a personal encounter. Only in this sense can we speak reflexively of the Son “raising himself,” as found in the Gospel of John. Balthasar goes on in a later sub-section to discuss the Son’s self-attestation in terms of five aspects: encounter, conviction, confession, illumination, and mission (217-255).

But the initiative of the Father and the self-revelation of the Son are not all. Christ’s resurrection is also presented in close connection with the outpouring of the Spirit. This relationship is presented sequentially in Luke-Acts,3 perichoretically in John, and in the closest possible unity in Paul. The Spirit is not only the “instrument” by which the Father raises the Son. “He is also the milieu in which the Resurrection takes place” (211). The Risen One moves to and with his Church in the milieu of the Spirit, so that “the action of the Holy Spirit, manifesting himself in the Church, remains the real proof of Christ’s risen being” (212).

That should be enough on the trinitarian shape of the fundamental theological affirmation to highlight the richness of Balthasar’s resurrection discourse and the place of Scripture within it. Balthasar moves from these soaring explorations to the more mundane exegetical problem of textual discrepancies.4 The key move here requires less exposition, though it is no less worthy of reflection. Balthasar argues that the contradictions and confusions in the texts befit the nature of the subject-matter to which they witness. Christ’s resurrection as the fulfillment of history both takes place within history and transcends history. So historical reconstruction of events surrounding the resurrection is limited from the outset. As Balthasar puts it, “that it [the resurrection] can both possess the highest theological certitude and, despite that, by the manner in which it is formulated and presented, burst apart the form of profane narration, so confronting exegesis with problems never fully soluble ... belongs to the a priori structure of the phenomenon” (189). The historical-critical problems of resurrection texts are a consequence of the nature of the resurrection event itself. They are, in some sense, inevitable.

But this does not rule out taking time to think through the options for sorting out these exegetical problems. In his discussion of particular issues, Balthasar is even-handed and open-minded about different interpretive options, usually concluding with comment that aims to reframe rather than resolve the issue. For instance, he grants that the role of angels “can be excluded” but asks whether “one would be justified in so doing” (242). He leaves open whether the Galilee and Jerusalem traditions emerged independently or together (239). He is willing to grant the shorter ending of Mark, provided this does require that one relativize the contribution of other Gospels (238). Balthasar’s main point, however, is that throughout this hypothetical line of inquiry the theologian affirms that the truth of the resurrection does not hang on their exegetical ingenuity and that there may be a theological rationale behind particular discrepancies.

Balthasar turns to this theological rationale in a section concerning the rich multiplicity of images found in the Scriptural accounts. Here he engages in a creative and at times free form interpretation. Of particular interest is Balthasar’s treatment of the motif of eating in the resurrection narratives. That the risen Christ eats has raised all kinds of troublesome questions about the nature of resurrected bodies. Balthasar grants that there may be an apologetic aspect to the increasing realism of the Gospels. Yet to focus on this aspect is to miss the point. There is a theological necessity that the risen Christ eats: “To say that the transfigured body of Christ can no longer eat and drink (and thus cannot transform into the new aeon the realities of the old) is an undemonstrable assertion” (253). He goes on to say that the “Eastertide meals may for Jesus himself already be the eschatological banquet; ... for the disciples, they are the ‘first-fruits’ of that definitive feasting, annunciatory signs ‘until he comes again’... The fact that Jesus, after Easter, ‘shares the mean’ of the disciples (sunalizomenos, Acts 1:4) is not at all something slipped in by way of ‘massive realism’, but is rather a symbolic feature of a theologically indispensable kind” (256).

There is, of course, much more to discuss. The relationship between divine and human freedom in the resurrection appearances and the dialectic of love and office in the church founded at the resurrection are two such issues worthy of further (critical) reflection. But this initial foray will have to suffice to commend readers of Balthasar to press on to the third day, not leaving behind his theology of Christ’s descent, but, in conjunction with it, begin to cultivate and assess his contribution to a theology of Christ’s resurrection.


1 Cf. esp. The Glory of the Lord Vol. 7 and Theo-Drama Vol. 5.

2 Mysterium Paschale first appeared as a chapter in Mysterium Salutis: Grundriß heilgeschichtlicher Dogmatik, edited by Johannes Feiner and Magnus Löhrer (Einsiedeln/ Zürich/ Köln: Benziger Verlag, 1969), Vol. III/2, pp. 133-326. Balthasar later published it separately as Theologie der Drei Tage (Einsiedeln/ Freiburg: Johannes Verlag, 1990) and an authorized English translation, Mysterium Paschale: The Mystery of Easter, translated by Aidan Nichols (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990). All my in-text citations come from this English translation, with occasional typographical revisions.

3 It is worthy of note that Balthasar tends to de-emphasize the Lukan 40 days (pp. 210, 233, 244f, 248). This is a point of contrast between him and Karl Barth, for whom the 40 days play a crucial role (cf. Church Dogmatics I/2, §13-15; III/2, §47.1; IV/1, §59.3; IV/2, §64.2.iii, §64.4; IV/3, §69.4).

4 Cf. Heather Reichgott, “Balthasar and ‘Contradictory’ Material in the Gospels,” Balthasar Blog Conference 2008.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Response #8: Patrick McManus

Response to “Toward a Hermeneutic of Hope: Hans Urs von Balthasar on the Biblical Warrant for Universalism”
By Rev. Patrick McManus
Wycliffe College, Toronto

I would first of all like to thank David for a well crafted paper that nicely highlights the tensions both within the biblical witness and within Balthasar himself on the question of the biblical warrant for apokatastasis. David is succinct in his review of Balthasar’s exegesis and his critique of Balthasar while concise, gets right to the heart of some of Balthasar’s shortcomings on this long debated issue.

I must confess that I always find it easier to respond to a paper I find myself disagreeing with. However, in this case, my job is harder since David and I have similar concerns (though to different degrees) over Balthasar’s treatment—with his prioritizing of the possibility over the actuality of the Pauline ‘in Christ’, his problematic handling of the nature of human freedom, and the issues surrounding how he handles the relation between the work of Christ and the work of the Spirit. I also share in David’s desire for a hermeneutic of hope which avoids both the ‘possibility’ of apokatastasis in the abstract and also the codifying of universal hope into a doctrinal system. So, I will leave it to our ensuing discussion for champions of Balthasar to come to his defence to save him from David’s critique. I will also leave it to our following discussion to possibly engage the problematic biblical texts that David highlights. That said, I do have some issues.

I will limit my response to two: pressing David on his claims for a hermeneutic of hope and asking him to fill out for us what this hermeneutic might look like on the ground; and second, I just want to touch on David’s reading of Balthasar’s hermeneutic, as only a ‘hermeneutics of crisis’. I wonder if, in the end, this is simply reductionistic, given Balthasar’s wider theological programme (I’m thinking here especially of Balthasar’s Theo-Drama).

On the first count, to be precise, I’d like to ask how David’s hermeneutic of hope might parse the tension of the biblical witness? While I agree with David that both the mere ‘possibility’ of universal hope and the systematizing of it are equally philosophical abstractions and end up polarizing the biblical witness, it doesn’t seem to me that it’s necessary to have either a hermeneutic of crisis or a hermeneutic of hope as David seems to put the matter.

This strikes me as problematic, at least if the tension within Scripture that Balthasar highlights is a real one (as I take David to assume). It needs to be more clearly put to what extent David agrees with Balthasar’s claim (a Pauline one, surely) that the church sits under the judgment of her Lord—which negates any and all synthesizing of Scripture into a comprehensible system—and how well David’s third option complies with this theological caveat. In other words, does David’s ‘stronger form of hope’ carry with it the seed, or possibility, of this sort of synthesizing? If not, how does it account for this very real tension?

On the second issue, I will only say that to suggest that Balthasar’s hermeneutic ‘begins with anthropological existentialism’ as David seems to hint at in his second to last paragraph misses the whole thrust of his theological project and confuses it with something like Rahner’s transcendentalism. I understand that David is only engaging Dare We Hope?, a short cursive text that doesn’t really lay out for us the breadth of Balthasar’s hermeneutics, but to read it apart from what Balthasar does elsewhere might leave us with the impression that Balthasar’s hermeneutics is, at least on David’s reading, too thin. On this score, I think, if we were to press David’s caricature of Balthasar here, we would find that Barth and Balthasar are not so far apart as David has made them seem here. Both sought, hermeneutically and otherwise, in their own unique ways to draw out the universal reach of the christological particular. That, we can hash out in our discussion below.

Again, I would like to thank David for his paper and for this conference.

Plenary #8: “Toward a Hermeneutics of Hope” (Congdon)

“Toward a Hermeneutics of Hope: Hans Urs von Balthasar on the Biblical Warrant for Universalism”
By David W. Congdon

1. Introduction

The problem of universalism has become an acute one in the modern era. The demise of Christendom and the rise of pluralism has radically altered the landscape within which Christian theology is constructed. In a post-colonial era of seemingly endless warfare and an ever-widening gap between the First World and the Two-Thirds World, how is one to understand the universality of Christ’s mission of reconciliation? In what sense is Jesus the victor, and in what sense is he the judge of the living and the dead? How free are humans really, and what is the relation between divine agency and human action? These are questions without easy answers, which raise the question of universalism for us in a new way. This is not to suggest that universalism has only become problematic due to the modern context—the problem is really an ancient one—but only to suggest why this issue has gained a new relevancy for the Christian church today.

In modern theology, universalism has been discussed from all sides, both for and against. Moreover, not everyone means the same thing by the word “universalism.” Robin Parry and Christopher Partridge, in their volume of essays on universalism within evangelicalism,1 offer a typology of universalisms: (1) multiracial universalism, (2) Arminian universalism, and (3) strong universalism. The first is taken for granted by Christians today and simply denotes the fact that people from “every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9) are included within the family of God. The second so-called Arminian or Catholic position is universalist in that God desires every individual to be saved and in fact offers salvation to all—in other words, a universalism in potentiality which we have to actualize through our faith. In concert with this universal offer of salvation, the Arminian position stresses a kind of libertarian free will which leaves the final outcome—salvation or damnation—up to each individual. The third category includes three different sub-types: (a) non-Christian universalism, (b) “pluralist universalism,” of the kind advocated by John Hick, and (c) “Christian universalism.” In discussing Hans Urs von Balthasar, we are concerned with the last of these types. Balthasar, as a Catholic, already accepts the free will version as part of accepted dogma. The question is whether the Christian gospel warrants a strong Christian universalism.

The rest of this essay is an exploration of how Balthasar handles the biblical material as it pertains to Christian universalism in his volume, Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved”?2 I will do so by (1) examining the internal contradiction within Scripture, (2) looking at several different exegetical “test cases,” and finally (3) critiquing Balthasar’s theological exegesis while offering an alternative. I argue that Balthasar, in seeking to do justice to the tensions within Scripture, ends up with a “hermeneutics of crisis” and only an abstract “hermeneutics of hope.”

2. The Internal Contradiction within Scripture

Balthasar’s analysis of the biblical warrant for universalism begins with a pastoral problem: Can we truly hope and pray that every person will be saved? He quotes G. Hermes as saying: “We can well . . . hope for every individual man and pray that he attains salvation, because we do not know what judgment God will pass upon him. But we cannot hope that all men will enter heaven, because that is expressly excluded through revelation” (20). Hermes presents a common, but contradictory, statement: either we do not know God’s judgment, and so the salvation of all is possible, or we do, and the salvation of all is excluded. Noticing this problem, Balthasar proceeds to investigate the claim that universalism “is expressly excluded through revelation.” He does this by identifying two sets of texts in the New Testament: one set of “threatening words” which speak of hell fire and eternal punishment, and another set of statements “which appear to hold out the prospect of universal redemption” (20-21).

Proponents on each side of the debate have plenty of texts to support their position. For those who reject universalism, appeals can be made to many of Jesus’ own statements, most famously the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matt. 25 and the imagery of the “lake of fire” in John’s Apocalypse. Those who support a hopeful universalism appeal to the Pauline epistles and the Johannine literature, most famously the Adam-Christ typology in 1 Cor. 15 and Rom. 5. Each side, of course, has ways of explaining away the other side. Balthasar highlights two.

For those who lean toward universalism, one can point out that “the threatening remarks are made predominantly by the pre-Easter Jesus, and the universalist statements . . . with a view to the redemption that has occurred on the Cross” post-Easter (21). Of course, as Balthasar notes, there are indeed “post-Easter” passages of judgment, but one could easily make the case that Scripture is a set of diverse texts, not a coherent systematic theology. Moreover, the Gospels are themselves written from a “post-Easter” perspective. The theological danger in this attempt to “harmonize” the two sets of biblical texts is that it can end up placing Jesus in opposition to Paul—something which Balthasar, of course, rejects. The truth in this argument which Balthasar wishes to retain is that any statement must be read in light of “the totality and unity of the Word of God” (22). Jesus’ judgmental sayings in the Gospels cannot stand on their own apart from the early Christian witness of Paul. These texts must be read together. Any attempt to rely on proof-texts is excluded from the start.

The harmonizing argument from the other side—in opposition to universalism—argues for a theological distinction between God’s conditional and absolute will. God’s conditional will is that all people should be saved (1 Tim. 2:4), while God’s absolute will predestines only some to salvation. In other words, while God seemingly “wants” all to be saved, but God only actualizes this for some. This incoherent argument places God against God, and is simply a fancy way of saying that God is essentially a liar, or at least untrustworthy. On this reading, the “universalist” texts give us a false hope; they are an attempt to make God seem friendlier than God actually is.

In response to Hermes, who makes this conditional-absolute distinction, Balthasar says: “But who, then, has asked you to harmonize here?” (23). His point, of course, is that theologians throughout history have been guilty of thinking that they, and they alone, know the outcome of the final judgment. But this is to erect a system in the place of a theological tension which the biblical text refuses to homogenize. We must not try “to press these biblically irreconcilable statements into a speculative system” (236). Human logic must submit before the sovereignty of God.

Balthasar’s answer to the contradiction within Scripture is to reject any artificial synthesis of the scriptural witness. Whereas church theologians have all too easily given the impression that they know God’s judgment, Balthasar begins his theological exegesis of the text on the basis of Paul’s insight in 1 Cor. 4:4: “It is the Lord who judges me.” We are under judgment, according to Balthasar, and for this reason, “a synthesis of both [sets of texts] is neither permissible nor achievable” (29). The so-called “pre-Easter” message (of Jesus) and the “post-Easter” message (of Paul) “cannot be merged . . . into a readily comprehensible system” (44). We stand together with all humanity under the judgment of the Lord. We are all in crisis, and therefore we must renounce any hubristic claim of certainty about the future judgment of God. Here, at this point, Balthasar argues only for a “hermeneutics of crisis,” so to speak, not a true “hermeneutics of hope.”

3. Exegetical Test Cases

Balthasar is not content with simply recognizing two competing sets of passages in the New Testament; he proceeds to briefly—too briefly in many cases—comment on a number of passages, themes, and doctrines. I will only mention here the ones to which he gives the most attention.

3.1. The Sheep and the Goats (Matt. 25). Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats is the most widely cited against those who hope or believe in the salvation of all, second only perhaps to passages in Revelation. Balthasar begins his exegesis of this text by first getting to the heart of its message, viz., “the identification of Jesus with the least of his brethren” (30). Those who stand against the “least of these” are thus “consigned to the ‘fire of hell’” (31). Jesus employs traditional Jewish imagery—“gehenna,” “the worm that shall not die,” “fire of hell,” “outer darkness,” and “the weeping and gnashing of teeth”—in order to make the point that people should feel a “holy fear” before the Lord, a fear which leads people toward love and wisdom (also a traditional Jewish notion). The main point of this passage is “the requirement for sympathetic understanding and for emulation of absolute and unrelenting love as Jesus himself exemplifies this in his love of God and of his neighbor” (31). The parable of Matt. 25 is thus a narrative version of Christ’s twofold command (Matt. 22:37-40). Love for God is measured by love for one’s neighbor. But we might well ask Balthasar: even if this parable is indeed to be identified with Jesus’ twofold command, does this have any implications for a future twofold judgment? Here Balthasar sides with Karl Rahner’s interpretation:
Even if this scene is described, in line with Old Testament images of trial and on the basis of the unrelentingness of the New Testament either-or, as a judgment with a twofold outcome, it is “not to be read as an anticipatory report about something that will someday come into being but rather as a disclosure of the situation in which the person addressed now truly exists. He is the subject who is placed in the position of having to make a decision with irrevocable consequences; he is the one who, by rejecting God’s offer of salvation, can become lost once and for all.” (32)
In agreement with Rahner, Balthasar then says about Matt. 25 and Mark 16:16 that these passages are “not a report but a final being-placed-in-the-position-of-having-to-decide” (32-33). Balthasar thus interprets Matt. 25—and, we might infer, all of Jesus’ condemnatory parables—existentially. He existentializes the judgment as a moment of decision. Jesus is thus not speaking about future judgment but about present discipleship.

3.2. Lazarus and Dives (Lk. 16). The parable of Lazarus and Dives is another famous passage often cited against universalism. According to Balthasar, “the Parable of the Rich Glutton and the Poor Lazarus is not meant as anything more than an earnest warning to the living to have mercy on the beggar at their door” (198). He calls the passage an “allegory” and says that any question about the “mental state” of the characters in the parable is “absurd.” Its intention, he says, is “directed toward man’s salvation, not toward giving purely concrete information” (198). The point of all talk about hell in the New Testament—and here he quotes, of all people, Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI—is to help us to understand the seriousness of revelation and what it means for our lives. Again, Balthasar sides with an existential interpretation of Scripture.

3.3. The Book of Revelation. Revelation has been a controversial book ever since the ancient church. Many, like Schleiermacher, have expressed a desire to see it excluded from the canon altogether. And in recent years, hyper-literal interpretations of the book have led to bizarre interpretations by fundamentalists. Here, I will merely note that Balthasar explicitly says that John’s Apocalypse “is not a historical but a visionary book” (138). The book does not describe historical, “inner-worldly processes” which can be equated—as the fundamentalists do—with specific events in world history. Balthasar states: “This purely visionary character of Revelation, which leaves the historical aside, prohibits us from drawing any conclusions about earthly historical events” (139). Elsewhere he states that “the visionary images of Revelation” cannot be read as “a ‘report’ on God’s historical and end-historical judgments” (33n2). Having said that, it does not seem to follow when, in discussing the “book of life” and the “lake of fire” from Rev. 20:15, he lets Adrienne von Speyr have the last word, who says that the lake of fire “really exists and . . . has a perfect justification on the basis of the justice of God” (141). Both the existence of the “lake” and its theological justification are questionable on the grounds Balthasar outlines in his book.

3.4. Acts 3:21. This is the only verse in which we find the term apokatastasis, and Balthasar notes that two translations are possible: “until the time of universal restoration of which God spoke,” or “until everything predicted by God’s prophets has come about” (225). (I should note that virtually every English version accepts the first translation of this verse. The ones that are more ambiguous, such as the NASB and ESV, translate it in the following way: “until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago” (ESV). This is ambiguous in that “restoring” could just mean “fulfilling,” and the “things” being restored are equated with what God has declared in the past, rather than with the cosmos.) Balthasar analyzes these two translation possibilities. The first version accepts the more literal understanding of the word “restoration,” and has a home in the Greek intellectual world of the time. The term could be medical (“restoration to health”) or political (“restoration of a previous government”), for example, but Balthasar notes the more prevalent philosophical use of the word to mean “the recurrence of a cosmic era” or “some notion of a recurring cycle” (225-26). After noting this possibility, Balthasar sides with the second translation: “the second translation . . . seems preferable because it better brings out the line of thought in Peter’s speech” (226). He proceeds to quote from the speech, indicating the places where Peter makes connections between Christ and Israel’s covenantal history. As opposed to the Stoic notion of a “recurring cycle” throughout history, the Jewish framework of thinking posits “a notion of linear development” (227).

As a kind of dialectical thinker, Balthasar does not make these two translations mutually exclusive, but holds them together theologically and exegetically. He begins by noting that the notion of a cycle is not entirely foreign to the OT. For example, there is the promised restoration of Israel post-exile, the restoration of the Twelve Tribes, the restoration or recurrence of a New Moses or New Elijah, and the restoration of Eden and original humanity. But at the same time there is a linear development from creation to covenant to the messiah and finally to the eschaton. The linear emphasizes a kind of messianic teleology, but this is “permeated and sometimes overshadowed . . . by reflections concerning recurrence, restoration and repetition of the origins” (228). The linear teleological stands together with a kind of covenantal history of repetition and renewal, a return “to the original integrity and purity of the Covenant” (228).

Balthasar continues this line of thought by reflecting on the Christ-event, where “we see the linear chronology of promise-to-fulfillment almost wrapped in a cyclical conception” (229). The cyclical dimension is brought out in John’s Gospel (Jn. 16:28) and throughout Paul’s letters. But even the notion of recapitulation found in Rom. 5:18-19 involves a kind of linear progression, as 1 Cor. 15:22-26. (The latter passage is used by evangelical universalists, such as Thomas Talbott, to buttress their claim that universalism is not completed in a single event but unfolds throughout eternity as people come to acknowledge Jesus as their Lord and Savior.) Balthasar ends his reflection on this topic by looking at three patristic universalists: Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and Maximus the Confessor. Origen fully works within a cyclical framework, while the latter two employ both cyclical and linear thinking. Balthasar does not give any evaluation here, but his discussion suggests that while Origen may have gone too far, Gregory and Maximus are more faithful to the scriptures in their theological thought. The point simply is that we cannot be reductionistic in our theology and exegesis. We must hold both translations—and thus both patterns of thought, Greek and Jewish, cyclical and linear—together in tension. This tension mirrors the tension between the two sets of passages in the NT. Both relations must not be sublated into a higher synthesis. No speculative system should be allowed to smooth out the tensions inherent in the biblical text.

3.5. Romans 9:3. In this difficult passage, Paul says that he would rather be “accursed and cut off from Christ” for the sake of the Israelites. Balthasar begins his analysis of this verse by pointing out a connection between Paul and Moses, since the latter, in Exod. 32:32, told the Lord that he would rather have God “blot” both him and Israel from the book of life rather than forgive his sins alone. This is a comparison which Origen also makes, and he and Gregory Nazianzen both compare Paul’s statement to the life of Christ. The Paul-Christ comparison is one which Balthasar also affirms when he says that “all the offerings up of self that seem so insane to us, of Moses and Paul, are caught up, taken in and gone beyond” in the self-offering of Christ on the cross, in his all-encompassing declaration: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (208). Rom. 9:3 thus leads Balthasar to reflect theologically on how one person can represent others. Paul and Moses want to represent Israel, while Jesus represents all of humanity, according to the witness of the New Testament.

The question of human free will presents itself: “Can the human defiance really resist to the end the representative assumption of its sins by the incarnate God?” (208). Balthasar goes on to say, as he commonly does, both Yes and No. On the one hand, he says that the cross must not be interpreted as a “magical-mechanical exchange,” in which prior to the cross I am destined for hell and after the cross I am destined for heaven. For Balthasar, “nothing can just have its way with me” without my consent. On the other hand, the representative work of Christ is indeed effective. Balthasar appeals in the end to the Holy Spirit. The “Spirit of absolute freedom” (209) confronts human persons with themselves, thus exposing their self-contradiction in the light of the cross and compelling them to respond affirmatively to the person of Christ. According to Balthasar, when it is “efficacious,” grace gives the human will no other choice but to “freely seize itself,” but when it is merely “sufficient,” we are left in our self-contradiction (209). Here he leaves himself open to serious critique, in appealing to the scholastic distinction between efficacious and sufficient grace. Balthasar tries to ground the human decision in the freedom of the Spirit. But it is hard to escape the sense that he is placing the efficaciousness of Christ over against the sufficiency of the Spirit, in that Christ’s representative work only “reaches us” in the absolute freedom of the Spirit, which may or may not bring about our Yes in response.

Balthasar closes this section with one of his most questionable statements: “We have to stop at this observation: it would be in God’s power to allow the grace that flows into the world from the self-sacrifice of his Son (2 Cor 5:19) to grow powerful enough to become his ‘efficacious’ grace for all sinners. But precisely this is something that we can only hope for” (210). Granted, he seeks in this statement to open up a space for true hope, but he opens this space at the expense of seeing the reconciliation accomplished in Jesus Christ as an accomplished fact. To speak of the grace of Christ as something which may “grow powerful enough” is to suggest that it was weak to begin with and needs to be augmented by either the work of the Spirit or the response of human persons in their freedom. Either way, we are left concluding that either the Spirit or humanity must complete what Christ began. Is this truly something worth hoping for?

4. Toward a Hermeneutics of Hope

It is difficult to present an overall argument either from Balthasar’s text or about Balthasar’s text, because (1) he refuses to make a clear-cut case himself, and (2) he tells us that to make a decision one way or another is to replace the biblical material with a speculative system. This places people like me in a difficult situation. I can resign myself to commenting on areas of inconsistency in Balthasar’s presentation of the material—as I did briefly above, though many more examples could be highlighted—or I can dispense with his advice and make an argument anyway. Since the former is only marginally interesting, and because I disagree with some of Balthasar’s presuppositions, I choose to go with the latter.

From my perspective, Balthasar argues that we have an “obligation to hope for all,” but every time he takes one step forwards he seems to take two steps backwards. So, for example, in one sentence he contrasts Christian “universality of redemption” with the “salvation-particularism” of Judaism and Islam, but then in the next sentence he quotes Hermann-Josef Lauter who says: “Will it really be all men who allow themselves to be reconciled? No theology or prophecy can answer this question” (213). Of course, Lauter goes on to say that hoping for others is “not only permitted but commanded,” but what is the basis for this hope if we are dealing with a mere possibility? Moreover, it is a possibility which Lauter explicitly says—and with which Balthasar agrees—each person must actualize. According to Lauter, we have to “allow ourselves” to be reconciled! But this is a view grounded in the notion of a libertarian free will, and certainly has no place in the Pauline notion that “while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God” (Rom. 5:10).

Throughout his book, Balthasar shows that he presupposes the freedom of the will, a freedom which is able to choose between good and evil. He is well aware of the fact that Barth categorically rejects this notion of freedom—recall the image of Hercules at the crossroads—because true freedom is a freedom for something, a freedom to do the good. Libertarian freedom is freedom from all commitments, capable of choosing evil if it so wills. But such freedom, as Barth made clear, is actually slavery. The freedom to reject the good is already sin. Only the freedom which follows God in humble obedience is true freedom. Balthasar himself explicitly rejects Barth’s position on this matter, as he must, seeing that such libertarian freedom is part of Catholic doctrine. Balthasar’s position on this matter is made clear in his discussion of angels and demons. Barth dispenses with the notion that the angels “fell” from grace, because this requires an abstractly free will. Balthasar says in response: “one cannot agree with Barth’s claim that the angels had no freedom of choice and that the myth of a ‘fall of the angels’ is thus to be rejected absolutely” (144). He goes on to say that “it is of the essence of the gift of freedom to be able to choose one’s own highest value, thereby realizing oneself for the very first time” (145). He then says that the traditional doctrine of the fall of the angels is in fact “inescapable.” Barth would absolutely reject the view that freedom is an act of self-realization. Here I must depart from Balthasar in the strongest of terms. Unfortunately, at the same time, I depart from my own evangelical heritage, which has (at least in the non-Reformed camp) adopted a similar doctrine of free will.

Balthasar’s position is perhaps best summarized by Rahner, who states: “We have to preserve alongside one another . . . the principle of . . . the redemption of all men through Christ, the duty to hope for the salvation of all men and the principle of the real possibility of becoming eternally lost” (212). Again, I ask, if the latter is a “real” possibility, then is the former also merely a “possibility”? Rahner only applies the language of possibility to eternal damnation, but if it is a real option, then “the redemption of all humanity through Christ” is a rhetorical exaggeration and is in fact only a possibility as well. When we are dealing with possibilities and not actualities, what is the basis for our hope?

This leads us to the main virtue and the main failure of Balthasar’s theological exegesis. The virtue of his exegesis is that he reads Scripture existentially. He offers a robust “hermeneutics of crisis.” I take this to be a model for others to follow, since it not only captures the dialogical and existential nature of, say, the genre of parable, but it also fits well with the nature of the gospel as a kerygmatic address. Balthasar is thus correct in his basic thesis that “we all stand under God’s absolute judgment” (253). Where he goes astray is in his conviction that “I deem it appropriate simply to be content with this existential posture. Whoever wants to go further would enter a realm where things can no longer be reasoned out” (253). Certainly, there is a measure of truth in this. Our reason and logic reach a dead-end. At a certain point, all systems break down before the mystery of the gospel. But has anyone in this discussion, including Barth, ever claimed that we could reason our way into the knowledge of God?

Balthasar’s argument depends upon the logical fallacy of the false dilemma: either we abandon all reason and rest content with an existential crisis (and hope), or we are guilty of using human logic to penetrate and control the divine mystery. This simply will not do. There is a clear third option: God has revealed to us the mystery of salvation. Paul himself says that “[God] has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ” (Eph. 1:9). Paul is very clear: we only know God’s eternal will in Christ; we do not reason our way toward it. Balthasar’s fear of replacing revelation with reason is worth remembering, but we need not let this fear take over, as it seems Balthasar is guilty of doing. He repeatedly says that he cannot follow Barth, because the latter comes too close to universalism. But Barth never elevated any speculative rational system; his battle cry was always, “Jesus is victor!” And this is a truly Pauline insight. God has made known the mystery of God’s will in Jesus Christ—not in a system, but in a person. This is the basis for a true “hermeneutics of hope”: the person of Jesus Christ, the Crucified and Risen One, who reconciled the world to God. When we begin with christological hope, we can preserve anthropological existentialism; but when we begin with anthropological existentialism, we will never truly reach christological hope.

According to Eberhard Jüngel, Karl Barth once said, “I do not teach [universalism], but I also do not not teach it.” This clever statement, in which Barth uses a negative and a double negative without offering a true positive, is perhaps where we must end—and probably most faithful to Balthasar’s own views. Balthasar is correct to question the attempt to resolve the matter, either through a doctrine of double predestination or a doctrine of universalism. I argue, however, that we can do justice to the biblical texts and still hold to a stronger form of hope—a more concrete, christological hope—than Balthasar himself proffers without avoiding the existential crisis and taking false comfort in a doctrine. True evangelical hope need not take refuge in abstract possibilities (Balthasar) or abstract systems (doctrinal universalists). We can—in fact, we must!—take refuge in Jesus Christ.

David W. Congdon
Princeton Theological Seminary
Princeton, NJ


1 Robin A. Parry and Christopher H. Partridge, eds., Universal Salvation? The Current Debate (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), xv-xvii.

2 Hans Urs von Balthasar, Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved”? with a Short Discourse on Hell, trans. David Kipp and Lothar Krauth (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1988). All parenthetical citations refer to this work unless otherwise noted.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Response #7: David W. Congdon

Response to “The Apocalypse and the Theological Aesthetic of Theo-Drama”
By David W. Congdon

I am grateful to Andrew for his very thoughtful engagement with Balthasar’s interpretation of John’s Apocalypse. Indeed, as he rightly points out, the book of Revelation has been an especially potent force in modern political history. I recently finished reading Umberto Eco’s classic novel, The Name of the Rose. In this book, as most people already know, William of Baskerville is on the trail of a murderer, and as the mystery unfolds, it seems clear to him that the murders are being done according to the “script” laid out in the Apocalypse. As it turns out, there was no such script, and the pattern was imposed on the events by William because of his familiarity with the Apocalypse—and the general human tendency to read order into reality where no order exists. William is fascinated by the prospect of the Apocalypse forming the basis for a murder mystery, just as many people today are fascinated by the prospect of this book forming the basis for “horizontal” history.

Andrew mentions some recent authors who have written on the Apocalypse, but many others could be mentioned as well. I grew up in the world of American fundamentalism, where the thoughts of people like Hal Lindsey and, more recently, Tim LaHaye have dominated the conversation. But they are only the most recent versions of a general misconception about John’s visions. Further back in history we run up against the likes of Cyrus Scofield, John Nelson Darby, Lewis Sperry Chafer, and Dwight L. Moody, among many others. Up until I attended college, these people were revered as heroes of the faith, and their interpretations of Scripture—particularly of passages Rev. 4—were accepted as a matter of fact. I came to college presupposing dispensationalism as the proper interpretation of the Bible, and it’s still an accepted doctrine among family and friends at home.

All of this makes one rather sympathetic to Schleiermacher, who states in his Glaubenslehre that it would be better if the Apocalypse of John were simply not in the Bible. But whereas Schleiermacher simply excises from Scripture what is “parabolic” in nature, Balthasar redeems texts like the Apocalypse through a christocentric and theodramatic reading. As Andrew articulated very well, Balthasar interprets the Apocalypse as a “vertical” theodramatic history between God and the world, rather than as a “horizontal” history which one could read off of world events: “The book of Revelation is definitely NOT a script for the world’s end, or a code to interpret the political movements of history.”

The bolder and more controversial move that Balthasar makes, according to Andrew (and here I rely upon his essay, having not gone through the material myself), is that John’s visions are not simply drawn from the author’s subjective context but are in fact internal to the objective reality of revelation. This is both theologically profound but also historically and critically naïve. On the one hand, it allows for a brilliant wedding of aesthetics and theo-drama, but on the other hand it bypasses the important exegetical insights to be gained from reading the Apocalypse within the historical context. Is it sufficient for Balthasar to say that the form of the Apocalypse is subjective while its content is objective? Even if we affirm the “fundamental unity of form and content,” how does this translate into biblical exegesis? Is it really legitimate to ignore the relation between Babylon and the Roman empire as part of the material content of John’s visions? Are we really better off overlooking the message that the author gives to the churches of his own day, a message that urges them to remain steadfast in their faith in the midst of imperial persecution? To say that the author was subjectively prepared by his ecclesial context does not seem to say enough. There is certainly much to gain from a christological (“vertical”) reading of the text, but what do we lose in the process?

More importantly, I wonder if the vertical-horizontal and objective-subjective distinctions are theologically adequate. It seems to me that Barth’s understanding of history in Church Dogmatics, vol. 4, allows us to move past such limiting dichotomies. On Barth’s account, the history of Christ is the actualization of both the “vertical” and “horizontal” dimensions of history. The history of Christ simply is the history of God and the history of the world. Christ actualizes the being of God and the being of humanity in his particular, concrete history. In him, as the writer of Colossians states, all things truly hold together.

Barth’s historicized theology also overcomes the subjective-objective division in that the subjective reality is contained within the objective reality and the objective is contained with the subjective. Christ’s history is our history, and our history is a participation in Christ’s history. A more actualistic and historicized theology, such as the one Barth provides, might allow us to attend more faithfully to the subjective context of the author without seeking refuge in the “objective revelation,” where such concerns can fade into the distance. In other words, I want to suggest that Barth’s theology offers a better way to hold together “spiritual” and “historical-critical” readings of the biblical text, including the Apocalypse. This is not to suggest that Balthasar’s account is facile and simplistic—because it certainly is not—but only to argue that his may not be the most adequate way of approaching the material. While Balthasar’s affirmation of the unity of form and content seems to be on the right track, perhaps he did not carry through the logic of this position fully, or perhaps it is not sufficiently grounded in the history of Christ. Or perhaps I simply need to investigate Balthasar’s theology further on this point!

I will readily grant that my familiarity with Balthasar’s aesthetics is limited in both depth and scope, so some of the nuances of Andrew’s essay are undoubtedly lost on me. I accept this as a challenge to continue reading Balthasar in the hopes of learning to appreciate the magnitude of his contribution to theology. My sincere thanks to him for offering this insightful and theologically rich account of Balthasar’s theological exegesis.

Plenary #7: “The Apocalypse and the Theological Aesthetic of Theo-Drama” (Guffey)

“The Apocalypse and the Theological Aesthetic of Theo-Drama”
By Andrew Ryan Guffey

Balthasar opens the fourth volume of his Theo-Drama with a brief examination of the Apocalypse. By this move, Balthasar indicates how the “action” of the theo-drama occurs “under the sign of the Apocalypse.” Should this surprise us? The book of Revelation, as Mark Lilla, John Gray, Geiko Müller-Fahrenholz, and Jonathan Kirsch (just to mention a few) have recently reminded us, has roamed freely throughout the provinces of political theology in the history of Western politics. In the drama of European history the Apocalypse has been leased by ideologies, and it has inspired daemons. And yet there is a fundamental difference between Balthasar’s engagement with the Apocalypse and Thomas Müntzer’s deployment of the same. For Balthasar, the Apocalypse outlines not an ethic, but an aesthetic. The Apocalypse is not prescriptive for world history, but descriptive and interpretive. This is somewhat paradoxical given that the Apocalypse makes its most explicit appearance in Balthasar’s work in the Theo-Drama, the part of the Balthasar’s triptych concerned with the good, with action—in short, with ethics. Even so, in the edifice of Balthasar’s trilogy, the Apocalypse functions not as a summons to a particular course of action or a particular apocalyptic (bellicose) ethic, but rather as the core of a theological aesthetic of history. Given the forum for this essay, I will simply sketch a few features of this role of the book of Revelation in Balthasar’s thought.

The first thing that should be mentioned regarding Balthasar’s use of the Apocalypse is the influence of Adrienne von Speyr’s work. Theo-Drama IV opens with a description of the perspective of John the revelator. What John “sees is not a representation of successive historical events—or even of their archetypes—but a sequence of images that, though most closely related to reality, possesses its own intrinsic eidetic truth” (15). His following quotation of Adrienne reveals his debt to her here: “Truth is not presented to us in a developmental form—the only form we know on earth—but in an absolute, fulfilled, accomplished form. . . . This means that all earthly concepts of time are suspended; it is impossible, therefore, to give a temporal interpretation of the visions” (15). This quote comes from Adrienne’s commentary on the Apocalypse, which Balthasar frequently references throughout his opening section of Theo-Drama IV. Adrienne here reports that the visions and images must not be interpreted chronologically or as analogues to any historical situation, either in the author’s time or our own. The book of Revelation is definitely NOT a script for the world’s end, or a code to interpret the political movements of history.

Truth is presented in the visions of the Apocalypse, according to Adrienne, in an absolute, fulfilled, accomplished form. By this she does not mean the visions should be read synchronically as opposed to diachronically. The visions are only loosely temporally related, and so should not be read at all temporally. “[T]he images must on no account be resolved in terms of ecclesiastical and world history familiar to us from other sources” (46). Instead, the visions should be read according to their sequence—as revelation. The images, after all, are not subjective, but objective. This is one of the more strange claims Balthasar makes for the nature of the Apocalypse. Adrienne says in her Apokalypse (Vienna: Herold, 1950), “The Apocalypse is the revelation of Jesus Christ—a revelation which God the Father imparted to the Son’s beloved apostle, and which the Son conveyed to him through his angel in a visionary way” (15, translation mine). Balthasar builds on her fairly simple insight: “Revelation comes from God” (TD IV, 17); “The truth of the revealed images is in God; it is guaranteed by the fact that he is their Revealer. . . . Thus we must assume that an objective world of images exists in God; excerpts from it are communicated now to this prophet, now to that, until in the Apocalypse of John a kind of summa is distilled from it” (16). The content of the vision, the images themselves, carry the character of objectivity, and this because they come from God. Here, the very nature of the Apocalypse is most closely related to section III of Seeing the Form (Glory of the Lord, vol. 1): “The Objective Evidence.” Following on the heels of “The Subjective Evidence,” which most nearly represents fundamental theology and the conditions for perception of Glory, the “objective evidence” represents the content of the form, or the work of dogmatic theology. This requires that there be an objective form for revelation. (That form, of course, is Christ, mediated by Scripture and Church, attested by the Father, History, and the Cosmos.) There also must be, therefore, an objective content of revelation. This requires a circumincession of faith and knowledge (subjective and objective). For our purposes, this division of revelation into subjective and objective evidence helps us to understand Balthasar’s claim that the images are objective. Rather than a pastiche of imagery drawn simply from OT images or Hellenistic astrological motifs, Balthasar understands the images of the vision to be elements of the objective revelation translated from God to John.

This point goes directly to the question of Balthasar’s hermeneutic of Scripture. The Apocalypse is not simply a pastiche of images from the imagination of John, subjectively interpreting and conveying his environment in the vein of Jewish apocalyptic. John is conveying an objective revelation, which is prepared by his subjective condition (of faith). One common theme for Balthasar is that the practice of theology must not become divorced from the practices of holiness. For Balthasar, faith and discipleship, saving and sacramental grace are necessary to any authentic theology. This corresponds, for instance, to his discussion of the spiritual senses in the first volume of the aesthetics, and really to the whole portion of that volume concerned with the “Subjective Evidence.” Even so, although the seer may be subjectively prepared by means of the community of faith and the Scriptures, the content of the vision—the entire visionary cycle—is objective revelation. The objectivity of the content, grounded in God, is what provides the Apocalypse with the authority over its subject matter (though, of course, we cannot overlook its validation by inclusion in the canon, either). But what, then, is the subject matter of the Apocalypse?

The popular apocalypticists are correct to think the book of Revelation is concerned with history, but it is not horizontal world history with which it is most concerned. Horizontal human history and experience is littered with pathos—a series of contradictions and antitheses, failed gropings in the dark for some transcendence, some absolute that brings meaning to the whole. Only God in God’s absolute freedom can grant such meaning, and this through the vertical history. Ultimately there can be no reconciliation between the two histories. Horizontal world history cries out for some transcendence, some absolute to offer it meaning, but to no avail. “Inevitably, most of the great interpretations of the world had the ambition of bringing the raging world drama into unity with the divine stillness” (TD II, 34). These are attempts to reconcile the contradictory experience of life in which love and war coexist. The “phenomenon of existence itself . . . in the face of the Absolute, can be simultaneously a liturgy of worship and a battlefield” (TD II, 33). “But neither the simple affirmation of the contradiction [between conflict and stillness] nor the flight from it nor man’s overcoming of it by ‘striving and exerting himself’ (Faust) can explain the mysterious, apocalyptic simultaneity of liturgy and drama” (TD II, 35). This yearning for a resolution, for the absolute, is what prompts philosophy to posit some integrity and meaning to horizontal history, to find transcendence in immanence. Only the vertical history can provide this meaning. Indeed, “the essential history is that which is enacted in the vertical plane between heaven and earth” (TD IV, 71). Interestingly enough, this sounds a great deal like Balthasar’s observation already found in the first volume of his triptych: “[T]he decisive drama is played out vertically between God and the world . . .” (Glory I, 645). The concern of the Apocalypse is precisely this vertical drama and history.

In other words, to answer our question more directly, the subject matter of the Apocalypse is the Theo-Drama. “The last book of Holy Scripture,” writes Balthasar, “presupposes the Christ-events of the New Covenant and opens up the vast perspectives they imply. It links up with the magisterial Old Testament prophecy . . . and so transcends and integrates it. The Book of Revelation, then, will provide a vantage point from which to survey the form and content of the theodramatic action we intend to portray” (TD IV, 45). Here the tension of Balthasar’s apocalyptic aesthetic and his apocalyptic dramatics reaches its peak and he is constrained to clarify: “Form and content cannot be separated: they presuppose each other. The same applies to theo-logy in which we must become involved when we come to describe the action of theo-drama: its form is essentially the form of this content; its content is essentially the concrete unfolding of this form” (TD IV, 45). At first sight this might suggest that our thesis is incorrect—the Apocalypse does not belong to Balthasar’s theological aesthetics or his theological dramatics. And this is true. Indeed, both his aesthetics and his dramatics belong to the Apocalypse. They are two modes of discourse on the same subject matter. On the other hand, however, we must not fail to note the way in which Balthasar argues this point. The coinherence of the theological aesthetics and the Theo-drama are analyzed by the conspicuously theological aesthetic categories of form and content.

The fundamental unity of form and content is integral to the structure of the theological aesthetics. Already in the introduction to Glory, vol. 1, Balthasar argues for the unity of the lumen and species in the beautiful object (20). He comes back to the theme at the end of the introduction: “The appearance of the form, as revelation of the depths, is an indissoluble union of two things. It is the real presence of the depths, of the whole of reality, and it is a real pointing beyond itself to these depths” (118). Balthasar crystallizes these twin thoughts a little later: “This dualism [between ostensive sign and signified interior light] can be abolished only by introducing as well the thought-forms and categories of the beautiful. The beautiful is above all a form, and the light does not fall on this form from above and from outside, rather it breaks forth from the form’s interior. Species and lumen in beauty are one. . . . The content (Gehalt) does not lie behind the form (Gestalt), but within it” (151). That the Theo-drama—the vertical history between God and the world—is the content of John’s Revelation is inseparable from the form of that revelation, that is, the visionary (and now literary) transmission of that which is revealed.

The question remains: In what way does this employment of the structure of a theological aesthetics, in the context of Balthasar’s thought, really properly place the Apocalypse primarily in the aesthetics? The answer should not be hard to discover. The theodramatic action does not encourage a particular ethic, as the Theo-Drama might attempt. Theo-Drama is, after all, a theo-praxy. As Balthasar writes early in the first volume of Theo-Drama, “Theo-drama is concerned with the good. . . . The good has its center of gravity neither in the perceiving nor in the uttering: the perception may be beautiful and the utterance true, but only the act can be good” (TD I: 18). Balthasar’s reading of the Apocalypse is an exercise in interpreting Scripture in a way that leads rather to a new perception of reality, a new aisthēsis, in which doxology, not world history, is the battlefield. To put the matter in ethical-political terms, the ethic of the Apocalypse is doxological, and is thus also a matter of warfare, not vice versa. The prime activity of the theodramatic action is precisely the same as that in the Apocalypse: the activity of God, more specifically, of the Lamb. The soteriological history is the centerpiece of the vertical history between God and the world. It is from within this history, from within God’s pathos, that we act (TD IV, part III). And in the end the battle is the battle of the Logos (TD IV, part IV). We are to live into this history, but first we must see its form in the Apocalypse. This is the work of a theological hermeneutic. It is the work of theological aesthetics.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Response #6: Andrew Ryan Guffey

“Infidelity and the Form’s Unfolding: A Response to Halden Doerge”
By Andrew Ryan Guffey

Mr. Doerge’s essay confirms—with special attention to Balthasar’s use of the Old Testament and the relationship of Judaism and Christianity—the overwhelming but unspoken consensus of the conference thus far, namely, that Balthasar’s theological hermeneutic is primarily to be perceived in his theological aesthetics. While the space allotted for these essays does not permit us to follow all of our theses, certain questions need to be engaged more thoroughly. With Doerge’s fine essay I found myself wishing he had followed his theological question farther into Balthasar’s thought. The question to which I refer, of course, is that of Judaism. How can Christianity claim to fulfill Judaism without superceding it? It is a question Balthasar’s work invites.

It is true that for Balthasar “the Old Testament does not possess within itself its own eidos.” Christ is, of course, the antitype by which the types of the Old Testament are measured. Christ is the revelation of God, and the Old Testament is the revelation of God insofar as it finds its resolution in Christ. Doerge here asks the right question: “[D]oes not such a Christocentric figural reading of the Old Testament inevitably devalue and domesticate the distinctive nature of the Old Testament and Israel’s faith?” But Doerge is perhaps too quick to defend Balthasar against the charge of supercessionism without making a clean breast of the latter’s developed thoughts on the matter. Truly, for Balthasar, form and content belong together in aesthetics—the form cannot be left behind once one has perceived the content, for the content is to be perceived only in and not through the form. It is not clear, however, that this argument or its analogues can be transferred to the question of the place of the Old Testament in Christic revelation. Doerge draws on a similar argument to affirm the place of the Old Testament in Balthasar’s writings: “The Old Testament sets the historical and theological conventions within which Christ is who he is. While they are not necessary for Christ as he is for them, he assumes them and cannot be approached except through them.” But then, nothing that has come to pass can have happened without that which preceded it. Christ could not have been crucified by the Romans had the Romans not first conquered the Mediterranean. The Gospel could not have been preached throughout the Empire and so widely and effectively communicated had Alexander not conquered the known world three and a half centuries prior to Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. Does that mean that these events, too, participate in the revelation of God? If this is the true value of the Old Testament, does not Christ stick out as some sort of Hegelian Aufhebung in which neither thesis nor antithesis is lost, but rather both are sublated into the “synthesis”?

Doerge acknowledges that “much of what von Balthasar affirms about the fulfillment of the Old Testament and Israel in the form of Christ will be problematic, not only to adherents of Judaism, but to many Christian theologians who are rightly concerned with the crucial issue of Jewish-Christian relations.” But it is here that Doerge dodges the full force of the question he is asking. Doerge claims that the fulfillment of the Old Testament in Christ in Balthasar’s aesthetics in no way indicates Christian supercessionism, which he follows with the disclaimer that, in Balthasar’s work, “all forms of theological engagement with Israel and the Old Testament find their coherence only in Christ, in the faith that in Christ nothing is lost, nothing is violated, nothing is excluded.” Here he appeals to Balthasar’s “hopeful universalism,” which Doerge claims “prohibits any kind of anti-Semitic supercessionism.” Perhaps it does prohibit anti-Semitic supercessionism, but anti-Judaic supercessionism is yet another question.1

The question is all the more striking when one reads the sixth volume of Balthasar’s aesthetics (“Theology: Old Covenant”). This volume is among the most rich and fascinating of Balthasar’s writings. One aspect that makes the volume so intriguing is its unabashed proclamation of the broken covenant. Balthasar sketches the ideal of the covenant with Israel, for instance, in part I.C. But this is followed by a striking assertion that breaks with the mechanistic historicity of dialectical materialism. “Everything that has been said up to this point [regarding grace and covenant] has,” Balthasar writes, “an abstract validity, because it is seen in isolation from history. It is only history, which convicts man as a sinner and confronts God with the fact of the broken covenant, that permits us to see the concrete reality of God’s glory” (Balthasar, Glory of the Lord, vol. 6: 215). Balthasar continues later: “Existence in flight and in catastrophe, since the glory of God has changed to blazing wrath, is one of the fundamental themes of the old covenant. … Round about Israel too there are more and more descents into hell and ‘pursuits into darkness’ (Nahum 1.8): from the flood … to the final ruin of Babylon and the concluding lamentation of Rev 17-18. But in the midpoint stands the rejection which is the necessary reverse side of the privileged election: the rejection of Israel and of its holy mountain, Zion. God’s glory has withdrawn. … The Israel of the millennia represents the side of God’s salvific activity in which he rejects; this is the inexorable inner consequence and logic of the grace which had entered into history” (GL, 6: 218-19). In this history of disobedience, during the long twilight after the Babylonian exile, the three movements of messianism, apocalyptic, and wisdom theology sprang up. But “if one surveys the three developments of the theologia gloriae which have been sketched above … then it immediately becomes terrifyingly clear that such an urgent need for glory can derive only from a great deficiency” (GL 6: 365). Or even more clearly: “the twilight dominates everything, for the prophets have declared the old covenant to be broken and dissolved” (GL 6: 382). The covenant, according to Balthasar (according to the prophets), is broken. Could we not then conclude that Judaic religion is obsolete?

Only in this context, only in the context of this very controversial and problematic position, can Balthasar write about the prophetical character of the whole history of Israel: “This is the covenant history of the chosen people with God, a history with greatness, a catastrophe and a self-transcendence that drives forward to a fulfillment that cannot be clearly seen or constructed. … It is essential today to insist as strongly as possible that Christianity cannot be understood without the old covenant; every attempt to interpret the form, message and subsequent impact of Christ in the world necessarily fails unless it is able to assess it all precisely in its closeness to and its distance from the old covenant” (GL 6: 402-3). Balthasar’s eloquent defense against supercessionism on p. 409 of GL 6 is impressive and calls the Church to repentance in participation with Israel’s psalms of lamentations. Indeed, “there are forms in the old covenant,” writes Balthasar, “which cannot be left behind in the new. … One of these elements which cannot be superseded is the knowledge of the absolute sovereignty and glory of God” (GL 6: 409). It is perhaps here that we hit on Balthasar’s best defense against supercessionism. More than anything it is the perception of God’s glory in the Old Testament that cannot be superceded. An even stronger answer, I suspect, would come from the place of Israel under the sign of Apocalypse. The incorporation of Israel in the action of Theo-Drama may prove a worthy locus for reflection on this question. The inclusion of the twelve patriarchs with the twelve apostles is important for Balthasar, and he takes pains to remind his readers that in the vertical history of God with the world, Israel and the Church are found together.

Doerge’s essay had to leave many of these concerns aside. Understandably, chasing this question in the current forum would have proven difficult, but the sophistication with which Balthasar approaches the question is compelling. What does it mean, after all, that the whole of Israel’s history should be prophetic if indeed Israel’s history is the covenant broken by infidelity? How should theology appropriate that Old Testament?