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Balthasar at the Center

Two of my favorite books, as I’ve mentioned many times are David Bentley Hart’s The Beauty of the Infinite and Alan Lewis’ Between Cross and Resurrection. And, in terms of theological conclusions, you would be hard-pressed to find two books that come to more radically different conclusions. Lewis’ study is a bold attempt to seriously think the reality of Holy Saturday, the day of Christ’s death and descent into hell. Lewis attempts to take the historical reality of Christ’s triduum with absolute seriousness for how we begin to think the being of the Triune God. Refusing to go behind the revelation of God in the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, Lewis insists that the radical interval of suffering and death seen in Good Friday and Holy Saturday cannot be dismissed by the light of Easter Sunday. The light of the resurrection only lengthens the shadow of the cross for it establishes that the one who died, who experienced the ultimate terminus of descent into the fullness of death and godforsakeness was indeed God in the flesh. If this is so then notions of divine passibility, temporality, and grace must be radically re-thought without attempting to circumvent the radicality of the narrative on the basis of what we “know” is metaphysically fitting for God to be God.

Hart, by contrast paints his vision of God on the basis of God’s resplendent, infinite glory, as seen in the resurrection. It is the always-already complete reality of God’s fullness, his replete plentitude that enfolds and immediately consumes and destroys any finite interval that seeks to determine God’s life. The suffering and death of Christ, for Hart are not events which truly occur within the being of God, despite all appearances to the contrary in the economy of salvation. Rather these events are simply the event of creation being seized up into God’s Trinitarian beauty without introducing anything new into the being of God. Christ’s suffering and death are, for Hart, as for many of the patristic fathers, simply realities proper to his human nature. God as such, despite what we see in Christ, does not suffer, is not implicated in created history. Rather God enters into history out of needless, gratuitous grace, always enfolding any perceived interval of finitude, suffering, and death with his own unchanging always-already actualized life of joy, feasting, and peace.

Personally, I find both theologian’s cases beautifully compelling, both as pieces of theological writing and argument. I suppose I should come clean and admit that I find Lewis more persuasive, though I think that these two thinkers could be brought to a wonderfully illuminating meeting of the minds (were Lewis alive, that is).

However, the point I really want to introduce in describing these two thinkers has to do with their respective dependence on Hans Urs von Balthasar. One could, I contend, parse the difference between Hart and Lewis on the basis of how they differently appropriate and extend certain of Balthasar’s key theological trajectories. Lewis follows in Balthasar’s train, exploring to the furthest limits the trajectory of Balthasar’s theology of Holy Saturday as laid out in Mysterium Paschale and The Glory of the Lord (see especially volume 6). Hart however pursues the logic of Balthasar’s theology of the immanent Trinity, which for Balthasar is extrapolated from the economic Trinity and which is its metaphysical ground. The immanent Trinity is an infinite fullness of primal kenosis which grounds and enfolds the suffering and death of Christ.

The funny thing is that the most radically opposed claims made by both Hart and Lewis can be found in almost identical form being affirmed by Balthasar. For Balthasar, as for Lewis, the interval of Holy Saturday is a real interval in the life of the Trinity. The suffering and death of Christ are events in the very life of God. Conversely, for Balthasar as for Hart, God is always-already replete in God’s Trinitarian plenitude and kenosis which enfolds and grounds God’s economic activity in the world. The infinite distance and difference between the Triune persons is the holy distance into which the unholy distance of sin is transposed and apocalyptically consumed in the ardor of God’s holy fire, God’s inexhaustible life of Love. For Balthasar, God’s being does indeed include economic events, even events as radical as suffering, death, and godforsakenness. When Christ suffers and dies, we behold the true and real suffering and death of God. However God’s being is not overcome or determined by these events precisely because of the intensity of the eternal life of Trinitarian self-giving, God’s primal kenosis.  The Triune life of infinite distance and freedom is not delimited or determined by its free taking of sin and death into itself. The Triune God freely and openly allows the reality of sin, death, and nothingness a true and real interruption into the divine life, as witnessed on Good Friday and Holy Saturday, and just so enfolds it, timefully into the replete, inexhaustible plenitude of God’s life. Here Balthasar is able, beautifully, to affirm the positive claims of Hart and Lewis without being sucked into affirming the oppositional logic that seems to separate their positions. As such, it seems that Balthasar represents a site where the radical and beautiful theologies represented by Hart and Lewis could come to an even more radical rapprochement.


  1. Chris Donato wrote:

    So, then, Balthasar is the continuum.

    Still, it’s very hard for me to get my mind wrapped around the death of God in the cross of Christ. I often find myself nodding in agreement with likes of Lewis and, for example, Bauckham’s God Crucifed, but then I read Hart and find myself, well, feeling a bit more settled. Maybe that’s the beauty of the “radical rapproachement” of which you speak.

    Friday, August 29, 2008 at 6:56 am | Permalink
  2. Evan wrote:

    I’d agree with you completely, Halden. As I read Mysterium Paschale I was constantly struck by the fact that Balthasar was effectively creating a synthesis of the theologia gloriae and the theologia crucis in his exposition of Holy Saturday. At the time I had thought of it in terms of the ecumenical implications for the doctrine of justification, but I think that the connection between Hart and Lewis makes much the same point.

    Friday, August 29, 2008 at 7:31 am | Permalink
  3. Tony wrote:

    I was almost tempted to quote Scripture in summarizing your wonderful piece, Halden: “what God has put together, let no man put asunder.” Not that Balthasar takes the place of God!!! But, imitating the witness of Scripture itself, good theology I guess must try to maintain a lively and creative tension between and among different perspectives, perspectives that, in any case, find their true synthesis only in the personal and concrete universal, Jesus Christ himself.

    Friday, August 29, 2008 at 7:57 am | Permalink
  4. Chris Donato wrote:

    As an aside (and for precision’s sake), theologia gloriae, at least in Lutheran thought from which it has entered into common, Protestant discourse, is contrasted with theologia crucis in the sense that the latter is the precise point where God and his salvation is revealed, whereas the former places greater emphasis on natural revelation and human experience / reason.

    To oversimplify it even further, it’s the difference between human inability and human ability.

    Friday, August 29, 2008 at 8:24 am | Permalink
  5. Evan wrote:

    I wouldn’t associate the theologie gloriae with an emphasis on natural revelation/experience/reason so much as with where revelation is identified. In the Heidelberg Disputation Luther associates it with Philip’s asking Christ to show the Father, without realizing that the Father is perceived through the Crucified Son. Luther goes on to say in the next thesis, “He who does not know Christ does not know God hidden in suffering. Therefore he prefers… glory to the cross”. The point isn’t so much about human inability or ability (although this aspect of the question is obviously always present) as it is about how God reveals Himself.

    Balthasar seeks to recognize the centrality of glory for the vision of God, but identifies it- with Luther- in the cross. Rather than a theology of glory whereby the theologian prefers “glory to the cross”, Balthasar finds “glory in the cross”. This especially comes out towards the end of his second chapter:

    “Once we realised that even the most extreme Kenosis, inasmuch as it is a possibility in the eternal love of God, is englobed in that love which takes responsibility for it, then the opposition between a theologia crucis and a theologia gloriae is fundamentally overcome – even though those two may not dissolve the one into the other.”

    He continues with a quote from Barth,

    “A theologia gloriae, celebrating what Jesus Christ in his Resurrection, received for us, and what he is for us as the Risen One, would have no meaning unless it also contained in itself the theologia crucis: the praise of what he has done for us in his death and of what he is for us as the crucified. But no more would an abstract theologia crucis have meaning. One cannot celebrate in proper fashion the passion and death of Jesus Christ, if this praise does not already contain in itself the theologia gloriae: the praise of him who, in his Resurrection, receives our justice and our life, the One who rose for us from among the dead.”

    Friday, August 29, 2008 at 9:50 am | Permalink
  6. Halden wrote:

    Chris, the settledness you speak of in your first comment is exactly why, at the end of the day I have a bit more sympathy for Lewis than Hart. What I love about Lewis and the school of thought he represents is the willingness to let the gospel be unsettling, surprising, and subversive ever and again. I think we cannot do without that in our attempts to do theology.

    Friday, August 29, 2008 at 11:01 am | Permalink
  7. Chris Donato wrote:

    @Halden: I would agree that we can’t do without it. Each and every time I’m confronted with the subversive, unsettling aspects of the gospel my faith is strengthened. I supposed, though, that every Paul has to have his James.

    @Evan: Well said. I’ve not been saturated with either Balthasar or Barth, so I wasn’t exactly sure on where they were coming from in their “emendations” re: theologia gloriae. I like it, and it seems to me from what I’ve read in Wright (JVG, etc.), Bauckham, et al., that they’re following this same trajectory.

    I think it’s absolutely right to associate gloriae / crucis with where revelation is identified. That’s really what I was thinking in that the former locates revelation somewhere else other than the cross, which, to Luther’s mind at least, meant missing it altogether:

    “In that it is God who is made known in the passion and cross of Christ, it is revelation; in that this revelation can only be discerned by the eye of faith, it is concealed. The ‘friends of the cross’ know that beneath the humility and shame of the cross lie concealed the power and glory of God — but to others, this insight is denied (McGrath, Luther’s Theology of the Cross 149–150).

    Lurking in the above, incidentally, is the inability of those not ‘friends of the cross’ by faith to see the God hidden in suffering.

    Friday, August 29, 2008 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

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