Balthasar, his Christology, and the Mystery of Easter | Aidan Nichols OP | Introduction to Hans Urs von Balthasar's Mysterium Paschale
Balthasar was born in Lucerne in 1905.  It is probably significant that he was born in that particular Swiss city, whose name is virtually synonymous with Catholicism in Swiss history. The centre of resistance to the Reformation in the sixteenth century, in the nineteenth it led the Catholic cantons in what was virtually a civil war of religion, the War of the Sonderbund (which they lost). Even today it is very much a city of churches, of religious frescoes, of bells. Balthasar is a very self-consciously Catholic author. He was educated by both Benedictines and Jesuits, and then in 1923 began a university education divided between four Universities: Munich, Vienna, Berlin — where he heard Romano Guardini, for whom a Chair of Catholic Philosophy had been created in the heartland of Prussian Protestantism  - and finally Zurich.
In 1929 he presented his doctoral thesis, which had as a subject the idea of the end of the world in modern German literature, from Lessing to Ernst Bloch. Judging by his citations, Balthasar continued to regard playwrights, poets and novelists as theological sources as important as the Fathers of the Schoolmen.  He was prodigiously well-read in the literature of half a dozen languages and has been called the most cultivated man of his age.  In the year he got his doctorate, he entered the Society of Jesus. His studies with the German Jesuits he described later as a time spent languishing in a desert, even though one of his teachers was the outstanding Neo-Scholastic Erich Przywara, to whom he remained devoted.  From the Ignatian Exercises he took the personal ideal of uncompromising faithfulness to Christ the Word in the midst of a secular world.  His real theological awakening, however, only happened when he was sent to the French Jesuit study house at Lyons, where he found awaiting him Henri de Lubac and Jean Daniélou, both later to be cardinals of the Roman church. These were the men most closely associated with the 'Nouvelle Théologie', later to be excoriated by Pope Pius XII for its patristic absorption.  Pius XII saw in the return to the Fathers two undesirable hidden motives. These were, firstly, the search for a lost common ground with Orthodoxy and the Reformation, and secondly, the desire for a relatively undeveloped theology which could then be presented in a myriad new masks to modern man.  The orientation to the Fathers, especially the Greek Fathers, which de Lubac in particular gave Balthasar did not, in fact, diminish his respect for historic Scholasticism at the level of philosophical theology.  His own metaphysics consist of a repristinated Scholasticism, but he combined this with an enthusiasm for the more speculative of the Fathers, admired for the depths of their theological thought as well as for their ability to re-express an inherited faith in ways their contemporaries found immediately attractive and compelling. 
Balthasar did not stay with the Jesuits. In 1940 they had sent him to Basle as a chaplain to the University. From across the Swiss border, Balthasar could observe the unfolding of the Third Reich, whose ideology he believed to be a distorted form of Christian apocalyptic and the fulfilment of his own youthful ideas about the rôle of the eschatology theme in the German imagination. While in Basle Balthasar also observed Adrienne von Speyr, a convert to Catholicism and a visionary who was to write an ecstatic commentary on the Fourth Gospel, and some briefer commentaries on other New Testament books, as well as theological essays of a more sober kind.  In 1947, the motu proprio Provida Mater Ecciesia created the possibility of 'secular institutes' within the Roman Catholic Church, and, believing that these Weltgemeinschaften of laity in vows represented the Ignatian vision in the modern world, Balthasar proposed to his superiors that he and Adrienne von Speyr together might found such an institute within the Society of Jesus. When they declined, he left the Society and in 1950 became a diocesan priest under the bishop of Chur, in eastern Switzerland. Soon Balthasar had published so much that he was able to survive on his earnings alone, and moved to Einsiedeln, not far from Lucerne, where, in the shadow of the venerable Benedictine abbey, he built up his publishing house, the Johannes Verlag, named after Adrienne von Speyr's preferred evangelist. She died in 1967, but he continued to regard her as the great inspiration of his life, humanly speaking.
In 1969 Balthasar was appointed by Pope Paul VI to the International Theological Commission, and, after that date, he was drawn increasingly into the service of the Church's teaching office. In 1984, Pope John Paul II symbolized his high regard for Balthasar by awarding him the Paul VI prize for his services to theology. These included not only the unbroken stream of his own writing, but his founding, in 1972, of the international Catholic review Communio — a critical sifting, in the light of theological tradition, of the abundant but often confusing wares made available by post-conciliar Catholicism. Balthasar died in Basle on 26 June 1988, three days before his investiture as a cardinal of the Roman church. His remains are buried in the family grave, under the cloister of Lucerne cathedral.
Balthasar's writings are formidable in number and length. Any one area of his publications would constitute a decent life's work for a lesser man. In patristics he wrote accounts of Origen, Gregory of Nyssa and Maximus the Confessor.  In literature, he produced a major study of Bernanos  as well as translations of Claudel, Péguy and Calderón. In philosophy he turned his thesis into three massive tomes under the title Apokalypse der deutchen Seele,  from Lessing through Nietzsche to the rise of Hitler. Although a major idea of this work is the notion that the figure of Christ remained a dominant motif in German Romanticism, more significant for Balthasar's later Christology is his essay Wahrheit: Die Wahrheit der Welt,  in which he argues that the great forgotten theme of metaphysics is the theme of beauty.
Balthasar presents the beautiful as the 'forgotten transcendental', pulchrum, an aspect of everything and anything as important as verum, 'the true', and bonum, 'the good'. The beautiful is the radiance which something gives off simply because it is something, because it exists. A sequel to this work, intended to show the theological application of its leading idea, was not written until forty years later but Balthasar had given clear hints as to what it would contain. What corresponds theologically to beauty is God's glory. The radiance that shows itself through the communicative forms of finite being is what arouses our sense of transcendence, and so ultimately founds our theology. Thus Balthasar hit upon his key theological concept, as vital to him as ens a se to Thomists or 'radical infinity' to Scotists. In significant form and its attractive power, the Infinite discloses itself in finite expression, and this is supremely true in the biblical revelation. Thus Balthasar set out on his great trilogy: a theological aesthetics,  concerned with the perception of God's self-manifestation; a theological dramatics,  concerned with the content of this perception, namely God's action towards man; and a theological logic  dealing with the method, at once divine and human, whereby this action is expressed.
Balthasar insisted, however, that the manner in which theology is to be written is Christological from start to finish. He defined theology as a mediation between faith and revelation in which the Infinite, when fully expressed in the finite, i.e. made accessible as man, can only be apprehended by a convergent movement from the side of the finite, i.e. adoring, obedient faith in the God-man. Only thus can theology be Ignatian and produce 'holy worldliness', in Christian practice, testimony and self-abandonment.  Balthasar aimed at nothing less that a Christocentric revolution in Catholic theology. It is absolutely certain that the inspiration for this, derives, ironically for such an ultra- Catholic author, from the Protestantism of Karl Barth.
In the 1940s Balthasar was not the only person interested in theology in the University of Basle. Balthasar's book on Barth,  regarded by some Barthians as the best book on Barth ever written,  while expressing reserves on Barth's account of nature, predestination and the concept of the Church, puts Barth's Christocentricity at the top of the list of the things Catholic theology can learn from the Church Dogmatics.  Not repudiating the teaching of the First Vatican Council on the possibility of a natural knowledge of God, Balthasar set out nevertheless to realize in Catholicism the kind of Christocentric revolution Barth had wrought in Protestantism: to make Christ, in Pascal's words, 'the centre, towards which all things tend'.  Balthasar's acerbity towards the Catholic theological scene under Paul VI derived from the sense that this overdue revolution was being resisted from several quarters: from those who used philosophical or scientific concepts in a way that could not but dilute Christocentrism, building on German Idealism (Karl Rahner), evolutionism (Teilhard de Chardin) or Marxism (liberation theology), and from those who frittered away Christian energies on aspects of Church structure or tactics of pastoral practice, the characteristic post-conciliar obsessions. 
In his person, life, death and resurrection, Jesus Christ is the 'form of God'. As presented in the New Testament writings, the words, actions and sufferings of Jesus form an aesthetic unity, held together by the 'style' of unconditional love. Love is always beautiful, because it expresses the self- diffusiveness of being, and so is touched by being's radiance, the pulchrum. But the unconditional, gracious, sacrificial love of Jesus Christ expresses not just the mystery of being — finite being — but the mystery of the Source of being, the transcendent communion of love which we call the Trinity.  Thus through the Gestalt Christi, the love which God is shines through to the world. This is Balthasar's basic intuition.
The word 'intuition' is, perhaps, a fair one. Balthasar is not a New Testament scholar, not even a (largely) self-taught one like Schillebeeckx. Nor does he make, by Schillebeeckx's exigent standards, a very serious attempt to incorporate modern exegetical studies into his Christology. His somewhat negative attitude towards much — but, as Mysterium Paschale shows, by no means all — of current New Testament study follows from his belief that the identification of ever more sub-structures, redactional frameworks, 'traditions', perikopai, binary correspondences, and other methodological items in the paraphernalia of gospel criticism, tears into fragments what is an obvious unity. The New Testament is a unity because the men who wrote it had all been bowled over by the same thing, the glory of God in the face of Christ. Thus Balthasar can say, provocatively, that New Testament science is not a science at all compared with the traditional exegesis which preceded it. To be a science you must have a method adequate to your object. Only the contemplative reading of the New Testament is adequate to the glory of God in Jesus Christ. 
The importance of the concept of contemplation for Balthasar's approach to Christ can be seen by comparing his view of perceiving God in Christ with the notion of looking at a painting and seeing what the artist has been doing in it.  In Christian faith, the captivating force (the 'subjective evidence') of the artwork which is Christ takes hold of our imaginative powers; we enter into the 'painterly world' which this discloses and, entranced by what we see, come to contemplate the glory of sovereign love of God in Christ (the 'objective evidence') as manifested in the concrete events of his life, death and resurrection.  So entering his glory, we become absorbed by it, but this very absorption sends us out into the world in sacrificial love like that of Jesus.
This is the foundation of Balthasar's Christology, but its content is a series of meditations on the mysteries of the life of Jesus. His Christology is highly concrete and has been compared, suggestively, to the iconography of Andrei Rublev and Georges Roualt.  Balthasar is not especially concerned with the ontological make-up of Christ, with the hypostatic union and its implications, except insofar as these are directly involved in an account of the mysteries of the life.  In each major moment ('mystery') of the life, we see some aspect of the total Gestalt Christi, and through this the Gestalt Gottes itself. Although Balthasar stresses the narrative unity of these episodes, which is founded on the obedience that takes the divine Son from incarnation to passion, an obedience which translates his inner-Trinitarian being as the Logos, filial responsiveness to the Father,  his principal interest — nowhere more eloquently expressed than in the present work — is located very firmly in an unusual place. This place is the mystery of Christ's Descent into Hell, which Balthasar explicitly calls the centre of all Christology.  Because the Descent is the final point reached by the Kenosis, and the Kenosis is the supreme expression of the inner-Trinitarian love, the Christ of Holy Saturday is the consummate icon of what God is like.  While not relegating the Crucifixion to a mere prelude — far from it! — Balthasar sees the One who was raised at Easter as not primarily the Crucified, but rather the One who for us went down into Hell. The 'active' Passion of Good Friday is not, at any rate, complete without the 'passive' Passion of Holy Saturday which was its sequel.
Balthasar's account of the Descent is indebted to the visionary experiences of Adrienne von Speyr, and is a world away from the concept of a triumphant preaching to the just which nearly all traditional accounts of the going down to Hell come under.  Balthasar stresses Christ's solidarity with the dead, his passivity, his finding himself in a situation of total self-estrangement and alienation from the Father. For Balthasar, the Descent 'solves' the problem of theodicy, by showing us the conditions on which God accepted our foreknown abuse of freedom: namely, his own plan to take to himself our self-damnation in Hell. It also demonstrates the costliness of our redemption: the divine Son underwent the experience of Godlessness. Finally, it shows that the God revealed by the Redeemer is a Trinity. Only if the Spirit, as vinculum amoris between the Father and the Son, can re-relate Father and Son in their estrangement in the Descent, can the unity of the Revealed and Revealer be maintained. In this final humiliation of the forma servi, the glorious forma Dei shines forth via its lowest pitch of self-giving love.
Mysterium Paschale could not, however, be an account of the paschal mystery, the mystery of Easter, unless it moved on, following the fate of the Crucified himself, to the Father's acceptance of his sacrifice, which we call the Resurrection. Whilst not over-playing the role of the empty tomb — which is, after all, a sign, with the limitations which that word implies, Balthasar insists, in a fashion highly pertinent to a recurrent debate in England, as well as in Continental Europe, that the Father in raising the Son does not go back on the Incarnation: that is, he raises the Son into visibility, rather than returns him to the pre-incarnate condition of the invisible Word. The Resurrection appearances are not visionary experiences but personal encounters, even though the Resurrection itself cannot be adequately thought by means of any concept, any comparison.
Finally, in his account of the 'typical' significance of such diverse Resurrection witnesses as Peter, John and the women, Balthasar offers a profound interpretation of the make-up of the Church, which issued from the paschal mystery of Christ. In his portrayal of the inter-relation of the masculine and feminine elements in the community of the Crucified and Risen One — the Church of office and the Church of love, Balthasar confirms the words spoken in his funeral oration by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger:
Balthasar had a great respect for the primacy of Peter, and the hierarchical structure of the Church. But he also knew that the Church is not only that, nor is that what is deepest in the Church. 
What is deepest in the Church, as the concluding section of Mysterium Paschale shows, is the spouse-like responsiveness of receptivity and obedience to the Jesus Christ who, as the Church's Head, 'ever plunges anew into his own being those whom he sends out as his disciples'.
 Balthasar's own estimate of his life and work is in Rechenschaft (Einsiedeln 1965). The most thorough study of his theology to date is A. Moda, Hans Urs von Balthasar (Ban 1976); for his Christology see also G. Marchesi, La Cristologia di Hans Urs von Balthasar (Rome 1977).
 See H. U. von Balthasar, Romano Guardini. Reform aus dem Ursprung (Munich 1970): the title is significant.
 See especially, Herrlichkeit. Em theologische Ästhetik (Einsiedeln 1961-1969), Ill/I. Et: The Glory of God (Edinburgh and San Francisco 1983-).
 By H. de Lubac in 'Un testimonio di Cristo. Hans Urs von Balthasar', Humanitas 20 (1965) p. 853.
 H. U. von Balthasar 'Die Metaphysik Erich Pyrzwara', Schweizer Rundschau 33 (1933), pp. 488-499. Przywara convinced him of the importance of the analogy of being in theology.
 Balthasar has compared the 'evangelicalism' of the Exercises to that not only of Barth but of Luther. See Rechenschaft, op. cit., pp. 7-8.
 See R. Aubert's summary of the Nouvelle Théologie in Bilan de la théologie du vingtième siècle (Paris 1971), I. pp. 457-460.
 Pius XII, Humani Generis 14-17.
 Stressed by B. Mondin, 'Hans Urs von Balthasar e l'estetica teologica' in I grandi teologi del secolo ventesimo I (Turin 1969), pp. 268-9.
 De Lubac spoke of Balthasar enjoying 'una specie di connaturalità' with the Fathers; but he has never suffered from that tiresome suspension of all criticism of patristic theology which is sometimes found, not least in England. In Liturgie Cosmique: Maxime le Confesseur (Paris 1947) he points out that the Fathers stand at the beginning (only) of Christian thought, pp. 7-8.
 H. U. von Balthasar, Erster Blick auf Adrienne von Speyr (Einsiedeln 1967), with full bibliography.
 Parole et mystère chez Origène (Paris 1957); Presence et pensée. Essai sur la philosophie religieuse de Grégoire de Nysse (Paris 1942); Kosmische Liturgie. Höhe und Krise des griechischen Weltbilds bei Maximus Confessor (Freiburg 1941).
 Bernanos (Cologne 1954).
 Apokalypse der deutschen Seele (Salzburg 1937-9).
 Wahrheit. Wahrheit der Welt (Einsiedeln 1947).
 Thus Herrlichkeit, op. cit.
 Theodramatik (Einsiedeln 1973-6).
 The Theologik took up the earlier Wahrheit. Wahrheit der Welt, op. cit., re-published as Theologik I, and united it to a new work, Wahrheit Gottes. Theologik II. Both appeared at Einsiedeln in 1985. Also relevant to this project is his Das Ganze im Fragment (Einsiedeln 1963).
 'Der Ort der Theologie', Verbum Caro (Einsiedeln 1960).
 Karl Barth. Darstellung und Deutung seiner Theologie (Cologne 1951).
 By Professor T. F. Torrance, to the present author in a private conversation.
 op. cit. pp. 335-372.
 Pensées 449 in the Lafuma numbering.
 See Schleifung der Bastionen (Einsiedeln 1952); Wer ist ein Christ? (Einsiedeln 1965); Cordula oder der Ernstfall (Einsiedeln 1966). The notion that, because Christian existence has its own form, which is founded on the prior form of Christ, Christian proclamation does not (strictly speaking) need philosophical or social scientific mediations, is the clearest link between Balthasar and Pope John Paul II. See, for instance, the papal address to the South American bishops at Puebla.
 Herrlichkeit I pp. 123-658.
 Einfaltungen. Auf Wegen christlicher Einigung (Munich 1969).
 Cf. A. Nichols OP, The Art of God Incarnate (London 1980), pp. 105-152.
 For an excellent analysis of Balthasar's twofold Christological 'evidence', see A. Moda, op. cit., pp. 305-410.
 By H. Vorgrimler, in Bilan de la Théologie du vingtième siècle, op. cit., pp. 686ff.
 We can say that, had Balthasar been St Thomas, he would have begun the Tertia pars of the Summa at Question 36: de manfestatione Christ nati.
 'Mysterium Paschale', in Mysterium Salutis III/2 (Einsiedeln 1962), pp. 133-158.
 Glaubhaft ist nur Liebe (Einsiedeln 1963), p. 57.
 'Mysterium Paschale', art. cit., pp. 227-255. Balthasar speaks of a 'contemplative Holy Saturday' as the centre of theology, in contra-distinction to G. W. F. Hegel's 'speculative Good Friday'.
 See J. Chaine, 'La Descente du Christ aux enfers', Dictionnaire de la Bible, Supplément II.
 Translated from the French, alone accessible to me, of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, 'Oraison funèbre de Hans-Urs von Balthasar', Communio XIV, 2 (March-April 1989), p. 8.
The translator is grateful to the editor of New Blackfriars for permission to re-publish, in modified form, some material originally found in that journal (66.781-2 ) as 'Balthasar and his Christology'.
Excerpts from the writings of Hans Urs von Balthasar:
Introduction | From Adrienne von Speyr's The Book of All Saints
The Conquest of the Bride | From Heart of the World
Jesus Is Catholic | From In The Fullness of Faith: On the Centrality of the Distinctively Catholic
A Résumé of My Thought | From Hans Urs von Balthasar: His Life and Work
Church Authority and the Petrine Element | From In The Fullness of Faith: On the Centrality of the Distinctively Catholic
The CrossFor Us | From A Short Primer For Unsettled Laymen
A Theology of Anxiety? | The Introduction to The Christian and Anxiety
"Conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary" | From Credo: Meditations on the Apostles' Creed
IgnatiusInsight.com articles about Hans Urs von Balthasar:
Discerning What Is Christian | The Foreword to Hans Urs von Balthasar's Engagement with God | Margaret M. Turek
Hans Urs von Balthasar and the Tarot | Stratford Caldecott
Love Alone is Believable: Hans Urs von Balthasars Apologetics | Fr. John R. Cihak
Balthasar and Anxiety: Methodological and Phenomenological Considerations | Fr. John R. Cihak
Reading von Balthasar Together: An Interview with Adam Janke | Carl E. Olson
Fr. Aidan Nichols, O.P., a Dominican priest, is currently the John Paul II Memorial Visiting Lecturer, University of Oxford; has served as the Robert Randall Distinguished Professor in Christian Culture, Providence College; and is a Fellow of Greyfriars, Oxford. He has also served as the Prior of the Dominicans at St. Michael's Priory, Cambridge. Father Nichols is the author of numerous books including Looking at the Liturgy, Holy Eucharist, Hopkins: Theologian's Poet, and The Thought of Benedict XVI. His most recent book is Lovely Like Jerusalem: The Fulfillment of the Old Testament in Christ and the Church.
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