Father Hans Urs von Balthasar
The Century's Greatest Theologian
The Worthiness of the Liturgy
Hans Urs von Balthasar, Swiss theologian, is one of the greatest Catholic theologians of the 20th century.
Born in Lucerne, Switzerland, Balthasar studied philosophy and German literature at the universities of Zurich, Vienna,
and Berlin. In 1929 he joined the Society of Jesus where, in his philosophical studies, he came under the influence of
Erich Przywara. For his theological studies he went to the Jesuit Scholasticate at Lyon-Fourvière and studied under
Henri de Lubac, who inspired him and his contemporaries a love of the Fathers of the Church, which came to fruition
in his important studies of Origen (Parole et mystère chez Origène, 1957) and Gregory of Nyssa
(Présence et Pensée, 1942), and his seminal work on Maximus the Confessor (Kosmische Liturgie, 1941).
This period was also marked by a deepening love of French literature
and the beginning of his long commitment to the work of translation. This started with important selections from
Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and
A few years after Lyon-Fourvière at Basle he met Adrienne von Speyr, a medical doctor and the wife of Werner Kaegi, later professor of history at Basle. Together von Speyr and Balthasar founded a secular institute, a kind of religious order whose members would continue to fulfill their normal avocation in the world. The Jesuit authorities deemed such a task incompatible with membership in the Society, and Balthasar left the Society in 1950. This led to a long period in the ecclesiastical wilderness: he was not invited to the Second Vatican Council, though in 1967 his restoration to favor began when he was made a member of the Papal Theological Commission. He was widely regarded as the favorite theologian of Pope John Paul II, who named him a cardinal in 1988. Balthasar died a few days before the ceremony.
Balthasar's theology matured slowly during and after World War II. As he never held an academic post, his intellectual development pursued paths unusual in twentieth-century theology. Informing everything were his studies in German literature and philosophy and patristic theology. The influence of Adrienne von Speyr is evident from the early 1940s. Basle provided another influence on Balthasar's theology: Karl Barth. In his great work on Barth, Balthasar traced the development of Barth's theology from his commentary on Romans to the early sections of his Church Dogmatics, and payed particular attention to Barth's anti-Catholic polemic based on the rejection of analogia entis (the doctrine that any likeness between God and the creature discloses a still greater unlikeness). Balthasar was responsive to Barth's vision of biblical theology as God's own witness to his self-revelation, but argued that analogia entis fulfilled such a vision rather than undermined it.
In the 1950's Balthasar did studies of various saints, novelists, and theologians, including two young Carmelite saints, Thérèse of Lisieux (1950) and Elisabeth of Dijon (1952); the Catholic novelists Reinhold Schneider (1953) and Georges Bernanos (1954); Martin Buber (1958) and Thomas Aquinas, particularly the section in the Summa Theologica that deals with special gifts of grace; and a work on contemplative prayer (1955) which sought to overcome a dichotomy in Catholic teaching on prayer between meditation on Scripture and contemplation. These led to Balthasar's greatest theological achievement in his trilogy Herrlichkeit (1961-9, trans. The Glory of the Lord, 1982-91), Theodramatik (1973-83), and Theologik (1985). The underlying theme in these and in all of his theology is that God reveals himself not simply as truth or goodness, but as beauty, and consequently Christianity is not simply a collection of true dogmas, or a way of life, but the response to a vision that inspires and deeply influences one's way of life which we seek to discern more and more clearly and truly. The first volume of Herrlichkeit is largely concerned with exploring the response of faith to the revelation of God's beauty, devoting space to the traditional theme of the spiritual senses and drawing attention to the variety and complementarity of responses that God's revelation calls forth. Then in a study of Christian figures in history Balthasar goes on to explore the variety of ways in which Christians have used aesthetic categories to interpret God's self-manifestation. He next places twentieth-century western theology in the context of its heritage by exploring how the west has used the category of the beautiful to save humanity from "forgetfulness of being", from Homer to Martin Heidegger and many in between. The second part of his trilogy, Theodramatik, draws on his wide understanding of drama in western culture, and uses insights drawn from this to present the engagement between God and humanity in revelation and redemption in a broader perspective that incorporates as authentic elements grace and human free will, Christology, the church and the sacraments, and eschatology. The final part, Theologik (thus entitled, a kind of tribute to G. W. F. Hegel), raises in this richer context the fundamental questions of truth and orthodoxy.
Henri de Lubac, in a famous comparison, contrasted with Hegel's "speculative Good Friday" what he called Balthasar's "contemplative Holy Saturday." This draws attention to Balthasar's own characterization of his theology as a "kneeling theology," one which unites the cosmic dimension of patristic theology and the affective mysticism of the later west, as well as traditions of humane learning that reach back to the Renaissance. De Lubac has also called Balthasar "perhaps the most cultured man in Europe." Alongside of his central works Balthasar wrote a constant stream of articles and pamphlets addressing current concerns. Two works especially, Cordula (1966) and Die antirömische Affekt (1974) have fostered the idea of Balthasar as a conservative, dismayed by Vatican II, though he has been characterized by others as radical in the true sense of the word. No label really attaches to his theology, except for its importance in its wider context than has been traditional, requiring it to draw on a broad range of human experience and reflection.
The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Modern Christian Thought, ed. Alister E. McGrath, Copyright 1993 Blackwell Publishers Ltd.