One way to understand the nature of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s “mood” as a theologian is to realize the way in which he seeks to view all of reality as fundamentally symphonic. Indeed one could characterize his whole theological career as an attempt to listen to as much of the “symphony” of creation as possible. Balthasar, throughout his work seeks to provide a vision of the divine symphony of creation and redemption that encompasses all reality without immolating any of it. Otherness, difference, divergence, all of these find their place within the broad space of God’s own symphonic drama of redemption. This overt mood, however is what I take to be Balthasar’s biggest (potential) weakness, at least in regard to the shape of his ecclesiology.
Balthasar’s ecclesiology is fundamentally determined by his attempt to integrate and synthesize the various ecclesial streams of the New Testament. This is seen most clearly in his book, The Office of Peter and the Structure of the Church in which refers to the main biblical traditions as the Petrine, the Pauline, the Johannine, and the Marian. The whole of his book is an attempt to take seriously the Pauline, Johannine, and Marian perspectives, while showing how they “symphonize” within the broader Petrine structure that determines the shape of his ecclesiological thought and practice.
The potential problem I see with this is the problem of ideology. Or put more gently, it is the problem that attends all attempts at biblical or theological harmonization. By legitimating different theological trajectories of the New Testament as “exceptions” or internal animating principles within his determinative Petrine synthesis, Balthasar occludes the possibility that these other biblical perspectives might bear critically on the dominate trajectory of his ecclesiology.
In short, by snugly placing Pauline and Johannine theologies within his Petrine symphony Balthasar rules out the possibility of a Pauline or Johannine account of the church exerting any real critical pressure or challenge to his distinctly Roman Catholic/Petrine views of the church, apostolicity, etc. What makes this particularly dubious is the fact that Balthasar’s Petrine ordering principle actually can claim the least purchase within the New Testament material vis a vis the other streams which he seeks to determine via Petrine centrality.
The real problem I see with this is that serious study of the New Testament, especially the Johannine corpus reveals that these broad segments of the New Testament do indeed exist in tension with and in some cases as an overt challenge toward the sort of Petrine supremacy that Balthasar seeks to reify as his fundamental ordering principle. Ultimately I fear that Balthasar’s ecclesiological symphony may in fact be a forced harmony, or even a closed totality that attempts to situate, in advance, any and all challenges thereto. And therein lies the nadir of the ideological and theological problem.
Now, all of this is, of course a distinctly protestant objection to a distinctly Roman Catholic ecclesiology. However, that being the case should not mitigate these points in advance, though of course, ecclesiological commitments tend to function that way in theological discussion sometimes. The real point that undergirds all of this is that the vocation of theology in the church is to help discern what “shape” and mode of existence and mission are most appropriate to the gospel of the crucified and risen Lord. And so, this (distinctly protestant) questioner wonders, is Balthasar’s structure of ecclesial givenness one that takes proper account of the nature of the gospel? Should the gospel lead us into a wholeness that allows us to conceptually situate all forms of disruptive difference within an articulable harmony, or should it lead us into an utter poverty that requires us to face such disruptions and challenges without knowing, in advance how everything will turn out?