Hans Urs von Balthasar
|Ordination||26 July 1939
by Michael von Faulhaber
12 August 1905|
|Died||26 June 1988
Hans Urs von Balthasar (12 August 1905 – 26 June 1988) was a Swiss theologian and Catholic priest who was to be created a cardinal of the Catholic Church but died before the ceremony. He is considered one of the most important Roman Catholic theologians of the 20th century.
Balthasar was born in Lucerne, Switzerland on 12 August 1905, to a wealthy family. He was educated first by Benedictine monks at the abbey school at Engelberg in central Switzerland. Before finishing his secondary education, however, Balthasar was moved by his parents to the Stella Matutina College run by the Society of Jesus in Feldkirch, Austria. In 1923 he enrolled in the university of Zurich. His studies in philosophy and German literature led him to study subsequently in Vienna and Berlin and culminated in his doctoral work on German literature and idealism.
In 1929, having submitted his thesis, he entered the Society of Jesus, better known as the Jesuits (in Germany, since the Jesuits were banned in Switzerland until 1973). For three years he studied philosophy at Pullach, near Munich, and came into contact with Erich Przywara, whose work on analogia entis (the analogy of being) was very influential on him. In 1932, he moved to Fourvières, the Jesuit school at Lyon, for his four years of theological study. Here he encountered Jean Daniélou, Gaston Fessard, and Henri de Lubac. Daniélou and de Lubac were both to become notorious from the 1940s onwards as members of the nouvelle théologie, a set of thinkers raising deep questions about the neoscholastic doctrine of grace and nature, with its suggestion that human nature could be conceived of in isolation from its relation to the vision of God. Both Daniélou and de Lubac, as part of their re-assessment of neoscholastic thought, were increasingly turning to studies of patristic thinkers. Balthasar received from his time here an enduring love of the church fathers, which was later to lead to his studies of Origen of Alexandria, (1938), Maximus the Confessor, Kosmische Liturgie (1941), and Gregory of Nyssa, Présence et pensée, (1942).
Having finished his seven years of training, Balthasar was ordained a priest in 1936. He then worked briefly in Munich, on the Jesuit journal Stimmen der Zeit. In 1940, with the Nazi regime encroaching on the freedom of Catholic journalists, he left Germany and began work in Basel as a student chaplain.
While he Basel he met Adrienne von Speyr. She was a twice-married Protestant medical doctor in chronically poor health, who through her mystical experiences would have a huge impact on Balthasar's later thought. In 1940 he received her into the Church. In 1945, they founded a religious society, the Community of Saint John (Johannesgemeinschaft), for men and women. This became more widely known three years later when Balthasar produced a theology for secular institutes in his work Der Laie und der Ordenstand, the first book to be published by the Johannes Verlag, a publishing house established  with the help of a friend.
Because the Jesuits did not see running the institute as compatible with belonging to the society, von Balthasar had to choose between remaining a Jesuit and his involvement with the institute. In 1950 he left the Society of Jesus, feeling that God had called him to continue his work with this secular institute, a form of consecrated life that sought to work for the sanctification of the world. He accordingly remained without a role in the Church until in 1956 he was incardinated into the Diocese of Chur as a secular priest.
Balthasar was not invited to take part in any capacity in the Second Vatican Council. In later years, though, his reputation as a theologian grew. In 1969, Pope Paul VI appointed him to the International Theological Commission.
From the low point of being banned from teaching as a result of this move, his reputation eventually rose to the extent that Pope John Paul II named him to be a cardinal in 1988. He died, however, in his home in Basel on 26 June 1988, two days before the ceremony which would have granted him that position. His remains were interred in the Hofkirche cemetery in Lucerne.
Along with Karl Rahner and Bernard Lonergan, Balthasar sought to offer an intellectual, faithful response to Western modernism, which has brought the world to no longer being well-disposed towards Christianity. While Rahner offered a progressive, accommodating position on modernity and Lonergan worked out a philosophy of history that sought to critically appropriate modernity, Balthasar resisted the reductionism and human focus of modernity, wanting Christianity to challenge modern sensibilities.
Balthasar is very eclectic in his approach, sources, and interests and remains difficult to categorize. An example of his eclecticism was his long study and conversation with the influential Reformed Swiss theologian, Karl Barth, of whose work he wrote the first Catholic analysis and response. Although Balthasar's major points of analysis on Karl Barth's work have been disputed, his The Theology of Karl Barth: Exposition and Interpretation (1951) remains a classic work for its sensitivity and insight; Karl Barth himself agreed with its analysis of his own theological enterprise, calling it the best book on his own theology.
Balthasar's first major work, the three volume Apokalypse der deutschen Seele (1937–39) (Apocalypse of the German Soul) was an expansion of his dissertation and a study in German literature, theology and philosophy. Published in Germany and Austria during the Third Reich, some have argued that the work contains anti-Semitism.
In Balthasar's book Mysterium Paschale he explored the meaning of Holy Saturday, where Jesus Christ dies and descends to the dead, to be resurrected by God the Father and His own power. Balthasar extrapolates from it the idea that God can endure and conquer godlessness, abandonment, and death.
Balthasar was well known for his 16-volume systematics (Trilogy), published from 1961-1985, which is divided into three parts: The Glory of the Lord, the first 7-volume work on 'theological aesthetics' (a theology based upon contemplation of the good, the beautiful, and the true). One of the often quoted passages from the entire Trilogy comes from the First Volume (Seeing the Form) of The Glory of the Lord:
Before the beautiful—no, not really before but within the beautiful—the whole person quivers. He not only 'finds' the beautiful moving; rather, he experiences himself as being moved and possessed by it.
In Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory—the following 5-volume work on 'theodramatics'—the action of God and the human response, especially in the events of Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday are examined. Balthasar's soteriology, christology, and eschatology, are here developed. The final group of volumes are titled: Theo-Logic. These three volumes describing the relation of the nature of Jesus Christ (christology) to reality itself (ontology, or the study of being). He completes the third part of his trilogy with a brief Epilogue.
A distinctive thought in Balthasar's work is that our first experience after birth is the face of love of our mothers, where the I encounters for the first time the Thou, and the Thou smiles in a relationship of love and sustenance.
Balthasar also wrote of the lives of saints and Church fathers. Saints appear as an example of the lived Christian life throughout his writings. Instead of merely systematic analysis of theology, Balthasar described his theology as a "kneeling theology" deeply connected to contemplative prayer and as a "sitting theology" intensely connected to faith seeking understanding guided by the heart and mind of the Catholic Church.
Balthasar was very concerned that his writings address spiritual and practical issues. He insisted that his theology never be divorced from the mystical experiences of his long-time friend and convert, the physician Adrienne von Speyr.
Balthasar published varied works spanning many decades, fields of study (e.g., literature and literary analysis, lives of the saints, and the Church Fathers), and languages. His most controversial theological assertions were that Christ deposited his divine knowledge with the Father before the incarnation (kenotic doctrine), the possibility that all people may be saved, that Christ literally was "made sin", and the idea that Christ experienced in Sheol after his death on the cross a state of abandonment from the Father worse than hell.
At Balthasar's funeral, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, later to become Pope Benedict XVI, said, speaking of Balthasar's work in general, "What the pope intended to express by this mark of distinction [i.e., elevation to the cardinalate], and of honor, remains valid, no longer only private individuals but the Church itself, in its official responsibility, tells us that he is right in what he teaches of the faith."
Balthasar expressed some sympathy with a "hope" for salvation for non-Christians, and even believes that it is possible that all human beings will be saved (but warns against asserting it). Universal salvation, if it happens, would be the result of Christ's "utter abandonment".
Balthasar's major writings have been translated into English, and the journal he co-founded with Henri de Lubac, Walter Kasper, and Joseph Ratzinger, Communio, currently appears in twelve languages. In delivering his eulogy, Ratzinger, quoting de Lubac, called Balthasar, "perhaps the most cultured man of our time," a tribute to Balthasar's immense erudition.
Bibliography: The most comprehensive bibliography (174 pages, including translations up to 1990) now available of all of von Balthasar's writings is Hans Urs von Balthasar: Bibliographie 1925-1990, ed. Cornelia Capol, (Einsiedeln: Johannes Verlag, 1990)
Collections of articles
Explorations in Theology
• Explorations in Theology: Word Made Flesh, vol 1 • Explorations in Theology: Spouse of the Word, vol 2 • Explorations in Theology: Creator Spirit, vol 3 • Explorations in Theology: Spirit and Institution, vol 4
The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, 7 vols, (Edinburgh, 1982–91; first published 1961–9).
• Volume I: Seeing the Form • Volume II: Clerical Styles • Volume III: Lay Styles • Volume IV: The Realm of Metaphysics in Antiquity • Volume V: The Realm of Metaphysics in the Modern Age • Volume VI: Theology: The Old Covenant • Volume VII: Theology: The New Covenant
• Volume I: The Truth of the World • Volume II: Truth of God • Volume III: The Spirit of the Truth
Theo-Drama, 5 vols. (San Francisco, 1988–98; first published 1973–83).
• Volume I: Prolegomena • Volume II: Dramatis Personae • Volume III: Dramatis Personae • Volume IV: The Action • Volume V: The Last Act
Hans Urs von Balthasar selbst hat die Begegnung mit Adrienne von Speyr und ihrer „experimentellen Dogmatik"6 als das Movens seiner Theologie bezeichnet: „Das meiste, was ich schrieb, ist eine Übersetzung dessen, was auf unmittelbarere, weniger technische' Weise in dem gewaltigen Werk Adriennes von Speyr niedergelegt wurde.