I have just finished reading one of the best books I have read in a long while: Hans Urs von Balthasar’s The Theology of Karl Barth (Ignatius, 1992; originally 1951). What makes this book so enjoyable and intellectually satisfying? A number of things. First there is the treatment of Barth’s theology, which is sympathetic and yet not uncritical. Second, there is Balthasar’s equally charitable and yet scrutinizing summary of the prevailing trends in Catholic theology at the time. Finally, there is the brilliant rapprochement which he achieves between the two, without settling for easy irenicism.
Balthasar begins with Barth’s early “dialectical” period–focusing primarily on the first and second editions of the Letter to the Romans. On the one hand, Balthasar respects Barth’s use of dialectics as a “corrective to remind theology that it is speaking of God in Christ” (76). On the other hand, Balthasar worries that the dialectical approach, when taken as a comprehensive theological strategy, and hence as more than a corrective, may actually obscure the real content of Christian theology by unwittingly superimposing “a very unbiblical philosophical pantheism (or more precisely, theopanism)” (84). Theopanism is a theory in which the whole of things are seen as constituted by means of an identity with God and anything that is not unified absolutely with God is understood strictly to be nothing, pure contradiction. Barth’s dialectical phase tends in this direction by emphasising both that creaturely existence is dominated by the nothingness of sin and that grace means a return to union with God.
However, Balthasar is perceptive of the dynamism in Barth’s thought, which takes him beyond this early dialectical formula and ultimately (especially in the later volumes of the Church Dogmatics) to a comprehensive theological vision, in which dialectics remains as a corrective, but the overarching paradigm is analogical: analogia fidei. This is a wholly theological and Christocentric understanding of analogy, for it is the graciously revealed and faithfully received knowledge of God in Christ that, in order to be expressed, must be expressed analogically. Balthasar’s assessment of this mature Barthian position is twofold.
(1) Balthasar affirms Barth’s theological use of analogy and the importance of its Christological event-character, arguing, however, that many (though not all) Catholic theologians have formulated something similiar (e.g., Aquinas, Rahner, Guardini, and Balthasar himself). Nevertheless, he thinks Barth’s insistence on this point is something valuable for Catholics and Protestants to reflect upon. Balthasar also affirms that there is room within this theological analogy to speak of being, and hence of an authentically theological analogia entis. This speech will be determined from the beginning and finally by faith/revelation but nevertheless include the creaturely experience of being among its terms.
(2) Balthasar holds on to the Catholic tendency to think, in addition to this theological analogy there is a legitimate philosophical version which the encounter with God in Christ necessarily presupposes, if only as a formal possibility not necessarily realizable in the concrete. Concretely, the created world of being which philosophers study is already shaped by God’s gracious activity in Christ; hence, de facto, a philosophical analogia entis will be, at some level, crypto-theological; and yet, de jure, its possibility must be presupposed because although grace is not something owed to nature it is nevertheless meant for it and makes no sense without it. In Balthasar’s mind, this idea of a presupposed formal concept of nature (analogically related to God) is something which Barth accepts in his doctrine of creation but which he does not think through to its logical (philosophy-affirming) conclusions.
Balthasar’s chapter on “The Concept of Nature in Catholic Theology” is a tour de force, which should probably be required reading for anyone interested in questions of nature and grace. Essentially, it shows how the disciples of Przywara and Marechal who have pursued a philosophical account of the analogia entis nevertheless did so with theological ends in mind; whereas Henri de Lubac and his intellectual inheritors authentically express a theological sense of analogy closely in line with what Barth proposes. The chapter also includes a very helpful account of the context and significance of Vatican I’s use of the term “nature,” in its decree that God can be known by the natural light of reason. Balthasar contends, once again, that this possibility must be held on faith as a formal possibility, which does not imply that in the concrete world of sin and grace it is permissible to abstract oneself absolutely from the event-character of the human encounter with God in Christ and seek satisfaction in a self-sufficient philosophical system.
All in all, I am rather impressed by this text. I suggest that its subtitle could have been “analogia omnis“–in the sense that, what Balthasar attempts to affirm is a maximally inclusive use of analogical thinking with reference to God, which could proceed from being (in explicitly theological terms or crypto-theological philosophical terms) or from relationality or faith or–and this is the point–really anything. After all, everything in the created world reflects the glory of the triune God who created it. So long as a Barthian dialectical corrective is included as part of any of these reflections, bringing us back into a concrete relationship with Christ, then every analogy is formally permissible and God may be sought in all things (Ignatius of Loyola).
All of this, it would seem, is nothing other than another way of expressing the authentic doctrine of Dionysius the Areopagite–who, despite some problematic ideas about necessary mediation!–does pass onto the church a very clear sense that everything in the created world has some (let’s say, analogical) capacity to lead us back to God.
One of the aspects of Dionysius’ system I’ve been trying to get handle on is what you can call the principle of necessary mediation: the lower ranks of the hierarchy can only receive the divinity through the higher ranks. The point of the principle, believe it or not, is not to absolutize the place of the bishop or any other church authority. Dionysius’ treatise on the ecclesiastical hierarchy assumes that some such principle is in effect, but it’s not a point of explicit insistence. The point of the principle, rather, is to say that the angels are absolutely necessary in relaying the divine word and the divine activity to human beings—that’s the reason that they, above all other creatures, are fittingly called angels or messengers. If the ecclesiastical hierarchy also works that way, it’s for the precise reason that the ecclesiastical hierarchy ought to be a perfect image of the celestial one.
That doesn’t rule out the possibility that this is all just ideological obfuscation, of course. And the fact that Dionysius offers literally no philosophical defense the principle might lend some credence to that interpretation. (The defense he does offer is scriptural: showing that Ezekiel, Moses, even Jesus only received the divine will through angelic intermediaries.) I’m inclined, though, to think Dionysius is being genuine here, especially since he’s creating this whole concept of hierarchy more or less ex nihilo, and affording himself a relatively low status. But then I’m just left baffled. Why insist on this principle at all? Even if there’s good reason to say that no one has gazed upon divinity directly, that there’s some necessary mediation there, what could possibly be the point of insisting that all communication from God be stepwise? And that not only knowledge of God is so mediated, but that the knowledge of the higher angels is as well?
Posted by Brian Hamilton