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Some (potential) Problems with Balthasar’s Ecclesiology

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?


  1. Hill wrote:

    I have much more thinking to do about this question, but I think we have to understand how, in von Balthasar’s case, the Petrine structure is in fact the epistemological ground upon which he understands the other structures. This is different than saying that it is the ontological ground upon which he understands the other structures. So even if this is an arbitrary move (complicated question), what other option does he have? There is a since in which Christian theology necessarily presupposes an ecclesiology, and Balthasar is incredibly honest in that regard.

    Important caveat: I have no idea what I’m talking about and am utterly flying by the seat of my pants. Perhaps this is nonetheless somewhat insightful.

    Friday, January 30, 2009 at 12:39 pm | Permalink
  2. Halden wrote:

    Certainly, I see that point. Which is really to say that the only people who are going to have this problem with Balthasar are protestants. In other words the problem is not with the fact that he presupposes an ecclesiology, the question is whether or not his Petrine-epistemological framework is able to deal “justly” so to speak, with the other particulars of the New Testament on ecclesiology.

    Friday, January 30, 2009 at 12:49 pm | Permalink
  3. Hill wrote:

    Indeed. Not to suggest that this is ultimately a mysterious aporia (maybe it is?) I think that the converse problems are all equally true. Put otherwise, I think “catholics” have similar problems with what one might call “overemphasis” of the “Pauline” structures. The issue here is that the epistemological foundation for this, while I wouldn’t want to call it “suspect,” is certainly more numinous, and to my mind “modern” or at least subject to some fairly incisive genealogical deconstructions.

    This maybe at the heart of why I am a catholic but why it is also not obvious how that impulse is universalizable in any way.

    Friday, January 30, 2009 at 12:57 pm | Permalink
  4. X-Cathedra wrote:


    I’m not sure I see how the primacy of the Petrine undermines the potential for the Pauline, Johanine, or Marian to offer critical pressure. Rather, it seems that it is what grounds such critical pressure: such that these voices can offer criticism while avoiding becoming opposed alternatives to the Petrine.

    I’m sympathetic to the fact that the tradition given centrality by Balthasar has the least purchase in NT material, but Balthasar might claim that it has the most purchase with extra (though not contra) biblical Tradition (not a claim the Protestant will find very convincing).

    Of course we must always ask to what degree is the harmony achieved and to what degree is it a forced amalgam. But my guess is that the reason Balthasar would be unsatisfied with the poverty that lets be the disruptions is the strong NT emphasis on the Church as a unity. One would think that the voices, though seemingly discordant sometimes, would have to be compatible with strong claims of ecclesial unity, no?

    Pax Christi,

    Friday, January 30, 2009 at 1:00 pm | Permalink
  5. Hill wrote:

    I would want to add, by way of addition to X-Cathedra’s comments, and a clarification of my own, that I think there are fundamental problems with an appeal to “the New Testament” as a deus ex machina in these sorts of situations, at least “over against tradition.” I’m not advocating an appeal in the other direction, just cautioning that that old canard ought to be kept in mind here.

    Friday, January 30, 2009 at 1:03 pm | Permalink
  6. Paul wrote:

    I feel like Hill: this seems a bit over my head, but just reading your post I think you have a potential dissertation on your hands, if anyone want to seriously engage it. I’m no theological expert, so is it possible you could explain Balthasar’s attempt at “symphony” “for dummies”? My familiarity with his work is very basic, although I heard someone once criticize his theology at attempting “aesthetic perfection” or being unobjectionable. Whatever that means.


    Friday, January 30, 2009 at 1:05 pm | Permalink
  7. Halden wrote:

    @ x-Cathedra: Yes, I think unity is the issue for Balthasar, or more accurately a specifically modulated structural concept thereof. In other words, the issue is what sort of unity is most appropriate to the dynamics of the gospel. Which may be a way of me trying to rephrase my last paragraph in the post.

    Friday, January 30, 2009 at 1:06 pm | Permalink
  8. Hill wrote:

    Thanks for the compliment, Paul, but I think you’ve overestimated my capabilities. If someone can compile all of my comments on Halden’s blog and publish them after my death as a warning to a new generation of the dangers of idleness, that will likely be the extent of my formal output, unless you are interested in the activation of nitrous oxide by soluble iron complexes. I do have a paper out on that. :)

    Friday, January 30, 2009 at 1:08 pm | Permalink
  9. Halden wrote:

    I don’t think I can ever forgive you for becoming a chemist, dude.

    Friday, January 30, 2009 at 1:11 pm | Permalink
  10. Hill wrote:

    God is meting out his judgment on me in great measure for this, I assure you.

    Friday, January 30, 2009 at 1:13 pm | Permalink
  11. Halden wrote:

    Well if he isn’t then he is not God.

    Friday, January 30, 2009 at 1:48 pm | Permalink
  12. Fred wrote:

    The Petrine certainly has its place, but Christ is the conductor of the symphony, not Peter. Did you catch the critical aside Balthasar makes regarding the Petrine: that is, “a certain absence of New Testament prophecy” (GL 1, p354)?

    On the other hand, “the threefold archetypal experience of Christ [Peter, Paul, John], which is conferred by the Apostles on the Church for its use, remains permanently sustained and undergirded by the Marian experience of Christ, which in its depth and simplicity is quite beyond the power of words. But the Marian experience existed prior to the apostolic experience, and it thus wholly conditions it, for Mary, as Mother of the Head, is also Mother of the Body” (GL 1, p362).

    John is also a strong point of unity, as his testimony “constitutes something like a synthesis of the Petrine and Pauline elements” (GL 1, p 357).

    What jumps out at me is the form of the Pauline mission in the Church through history: that is, the Holy Spirit’s repeated irruption in history of new charisms: Benedict, Francis, Ignatius, etc. The Catholic Church is increasingly reflecting upon her history as profoundly Pauline, and this can be understood by reading the official documents on the laity, religious life, consecrated life, etc.

    Friday, January 30, 2009 at 5:24 pm | Permalink
  13. Halden,

    Thanks for the comment at la perruque and the link to this post. It is kind of late to respond in substance (sorry – I have been swamped!), but I am sure all of us will have plenty of opportunity to hash out this perennial issue. Also, I have not read Blathasar’s book, The Office of Peter and the Structure of the Church, but probably need to! If I do, maybe I will be as suspicious as you are of his thought as ideological.

    Monday, February 2, 2009 at 11:05 am | Permalink
  14. Tony wrote:

    What’s this, Halden, a “Petrine symphony” is what Balthasar’s book is all about? No, it is rather a Christological symphony, and Fred is right, it is Christ who is the conductor, not Peter. Peter is ONLY one of the several dimensions of the Church, and they are all necessary for the Church. In fact, the Petrine element is NOT even the most basic among them, it is the MARIAN dimension that is the most fundamental among these various elements. From a Catholic perspective, Balthasar’s is a corrective of every one-sided emphasis on the Petrine office among Catholics. It is ironic therefore that you should basically misrepresent his thoughts on the matter.

    Tuesday, March 3, 2009 at 6:11 am | Permalink
  15. Tony wrote:

    From John McDade on the four principles of the Petrine, Johannine, Jamesian and Pauline developed by Balthasar:

    “A brief outline of the features of each principle:
    • Peter exercises the pastoral office. The scandal of Peter is that he is given ‘singular participation in Jesus’ authority’ which obliges him to ‘participate especially in Jesus’ spirit of service and his readiness to suffer’ (142). A sinful man, he is to hold the keys of the kingdom and feed the sheep and lambs of Jesus the Good Shepherd. In his weakness he is appointed as the Rock/Shepherd who is to exemplify Christ’s own position as the cornerstone (Eph 2.20) and the true shepherd (Jn 10.11). His denial of Christ places him closest to Judas in his betrayal, yet he is called to strengthen the faith of his brethren and be the unifying principle within the Church. The authority given to Peter is ‘social and universal, affecting the entire flock’ (62).
    • John, the Beloved Disciple, exercises the office of love, the dimension of reciprocal love between Christ and his Church, an office exercised by the saints of the Church who always ‘represent the link between the Marian and the Petrine Church’ (225). Balthasar sees Johannine love as fulfilling a mediating role, first of all, between Christ and Peter’s pastoral office: when Peter is asked by Christ, ‘Do you love me?’ he is asked to share in Johannine love as a condition of his exercising the pastoral ministry (‘Feed my sheep’). Peter is reminded by Christ that Johannine love will remain (in the Church) until Christ returns in glory: ‘In the unfathomable mystery of Jesus’ good pleasure, John retains his own mission, distinct from that of Peter’. John 21 contains ‘a subtly composed symbolic doctrine of the Church in which the task of “office” (Peter) and the task of “love” (John) become…intertwined’ (142). John’s second mediating role, between the (lay) Marian and the (institutional) Petrine Church is signalled by his faithful discipleship at the foot of the Cross when, Peter having denied Christ, John becomes the son and guardian of Maria-Ecclesia. ‘The truly Johannine Church is… the one that stands under the Cross in place of Peter and on his behalf receives the Marian Church’ (225).
    • James, the brother of the Lord, represents the dimension of tradition and law (Torah). The leader of the Jewish-Christian Jerusalem community (the ecclesia ex circumcisione) — taking Peter’s place after he leaves Jerusalem (Acts 12.17) — he represents continuity between the Old and New Covenants and the dimension of Torah-observance that Jesus came to perfect. James mediated between Jews and Gentiles at the first Council of Jerusalem, reconciling conservative Jewish Christians to the presence in the Church of ‘those not under the law’ (1 Cor 2.20-1). He puts forward nothing less than ‘the perfect law of liberty’ (James 1.25). The Jewish writer Franz Rosenzweig in the early part of this century suggested that God’s ‘Star of Redemption’ had Judaism at its core from which the rays of Christianity spread to the Gentile world; Rosenzweig argued that Christianity had to stay close to Jewish faith and observance or it would get lost in the gnosticisms of the pagan world. By making the principle of tradition and law constitutive of the Church, Balthasar echoes Rosenzweig in making the tie to Jewish tradition a bulwark against cultural assimilation and compromise.
    • Paul represents the dimension of universalism and inculturation. The apostle of the ecclesia ex gentibus, he represents the Church’s engagement with the cultures of the world, in which it is to find a home, becoming ‘all things to all people…for the sake of the Gospel’ (1 Cor 9.22-3). He also represents charismatic vocation—he is outside the structure of the Twelve, yet is given a vocation which the hierarchical Church must acknowledge as willed by Christ—and dynamic mission modelled on the ‘type’ of Christ (144). He also represents the dimension of the creation and development of local churches—his ‘anxiety for all the churches’ (2 Cor 11.28) and his ‘travail till Christ be formed’ in them (Gal 4.19) — which are to find their place within the Catholica. He also symbolises the dimension of freedom in the Spirit: the dialectic between James and Paul (Rom 4.2-3 versus James 2.20-23) mirrors the dialectic in the Church between freedom from the Law and obedience to the Law until the return of Christ. He is, in short, the dimension of apostolic energy in the Church.”

    Monday, March 9, 2009 at 1:17 am | Permalink

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