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Formalism in theology

The idea of approaching Christ as a form–an idea popularized by Hans Urs von Balthasar (among others)–tends to crop up wherever the mere fact of revelation becomes the primary locus of theological attention, as it does, for instance, in the first volume of Balthasar’s Glory of the Lord, subtitled “Seeing the Form.”  The decision to prioritize the fact of revelation finds its catalyst, and perhaps its warrant as well, in the epistemological anxiety of the modern age, within which, at least since Kant, it has come to seem impossible to think of the divine except as located on one or the other side of a fateful dividing line: that between the world of phenomenal objects present to consciousness, on the one hand, and the theoretically unknown noumenal beyond (for Kant a purely negative construct), on the other.  If the former, then “God is dead” and there are only idols; if the latter, then “God,” if anything, is inaccessible, and this is all that can be said.  The fact of revelation shatters this dichotomy: Christ, as visible form of the invisible God, makes actual precisely that which modern epistemology conceives as impossible. 

In his theological aesthetics, Balthasar richly develops this remarkable fact into a formidable theory of revelation, which has enjoyed a wide influence.  Without disputing its importance, I would, however, like to raise one concern, in the form of a question: To what extent does the perspective which presents Christ as a form promote, almost certainly despite itself, a certain formalism in theology?  I’m thinking here of a style of reasoning in which the mere fact that God is revealed in Christ (or analogously, in the church) takes precedence over questions regarding the determinate content which comes to light in Jesus’ parables, his healings, his prayers, the particular way he died, the particular way he rose from the dead, the precise images and concepts which the church has developed in order to understand itself in relation to Christ, and the many ambiguities which accompany these developments. 

I cannot at the moment point to any textual location (and, of course, Balthasar himself does not shy away from detail), but over the past several years I have heard praise expressed, on a number of occasions, for a theological text because it is Christological, ecclesial, Trinitarian–or in other words because it accepts the mere fact of revelation in one way or another–with almost no attention given to how adequately the text in question brings out those details which are most decisive for the gospels and for Jesus’ first disciples.  I propose that Jesus and his followers were not primarily concerned with the issues framing modern epistemology but rather with things such as death, disease, poverty, holiness, wisdom, the law, the prophets, the empire, the end of days, the promises of God, . . .  

Approaching Christ as a form is probably a necessary condition for the possibility of our appreciation of the details of revelation, precisely insofar as we find ourselves in the modern academy, but sometimes it seems easy to forget that this transcendental theological intervention is far from sufficient.  It is only a beginning–and perhaps finally not really the point.

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  1. October 17, 2010 at 1:36 pm

    Thoughtful post,

    I was reading that volume of von Balthasar a few months ago and let it get back to the library before getting very well out of the Introduction. But I have a sense of the chapter to which you refer.

    Your question about the value and disvalue of formalism in christology has weight I think, and it’s a problem I am contemplating myself lately. For example, Is the ‘beauty’ of the incarnation as form in all its goodness and truth such as would admit of worship for the incarnate one? I say certainly not, qua form. Aren’t you saying something like this, that there is a tendency for the form of revelation, too much emphasized, to get in the way of its own good news (and this was sometimes the case with the disciples too, I think).

    I think of an ikon I once saw which depicts Jesus as pointing with one hand to his heart and with the other up off the plane of determinates, toward the transcendent Father (the true object of both faith and worship).

    Certainly the form and its beauty is not such as would preclude misinterpretation either. The epistemological issues you bring up are good ones for these reasons, among others.

    Thanks for the post, and the blog – an occasion for reflection this morning.

    • andrewlp
      October 18, 2010 at 10:34 pm


      Thanks for your comments. I think I see what you’re suggesting, but I’m not sure if I’m trying to say quite the same thing. Your example of the ikon seems to point to the idea that form may get in the way of worshipping the transcendent Father beyond the determinate plane. I think this is a point which I need to reflect on for awhile. I’m not sure quite what to say about it: on the one hand, I’m attracted to thinkers such as Bonaventure, for whom the heighest praise never passes beyond mediation by Christ’s humanity. On the other hand, God, as absolute, transcends every representation. There seems to be a paradox here, which I would not want to resolve too quickly in one way or the other.

      In some ways, I think my worry about form is coming from another direction. It’s not that forms might get in the way of worshipping the transcendent God; its more that the very idea of form, because it is somewhat abstract, and because it is perhaps foreign to the gospels, may take our attention away from those concrete things, histories, or experiences which are really essential for the scriptural authors and the early church.

      • October 19, 2010 at 1:21 pm

        I appreciate your response and I am excited about all this terminology – if I put something up at my own site I will link back to you.

        Just off-hand, I think ‘Messiah’ represents a formal construct under which the content of Jesus’ revelation of the Father was both recognized and rejected. How interesting that Jesus’ opponents rejected this form for Jesus by a comparison of their alleged infallible scriptures with his person and mission. For these teachers in Israel, Jesus was in fact anti-Christ. And yet even for the apostles I think there was confusion over his mission caused by their apprehension of it strictly under the form of ‘Jewish Messiah’ – since there was more than one such form to choose from in Jewish scripture and apocalyptic. All that confusion over the immediate return may well have arisen out of this confusion – not in Jesus’ mind but in, say, Simon Peter’s.

  2. Todd Walatka
    October 17, 2010 at 7:16 pm

    Within the logic of any appeal to “form,” isn’t there the precise demand to do attend to the particularities of Jesus Christ? Isn’t Balthasar’s worry with much of modern theology that these are particularities are ignored? Within this Balthasar obviously emphasizes the cross and the receptivity of Christ vis-a-vis the Father but it obviously need not stop here. It seems to me that Balthaar’s own logic would force him to see those other aspects you mention – healings, teachings, etc – as essential parts of the ‘form’ and thus revelation.

  3. andrewlp
    October 17, 2010 at 7:32 pm

    Todd, in one sense, I agree completely with what you are saying. In fact, I see it as another way of saying what I was trying to say: that form needs to be filled out. And to the extent that this is not done, there is a problem. But, in another sense, I suppose I’m also suggesting that the “logic of any appeal to ‘form'” may actually work in another direction as well, insofar as it puts stress on the fact of revelation, on the relation of the visible and the invisible, and perhaps therefore not on those things which the gospels would most stress. Including all of the details of scripture within a rubric of form may still subordinate them to a structure of thought which is somewhat foreign to them.

  4. dbarber
    October 17, 2010 at 8:43 pm

    Suppose that one writes, in a kind of shorthand, the content as being enemy-love, because the messianic age is here. What kind of form would be adequate to that? Perhaps we would have to think a different kind of form — one, for instance, that is differential. For a form of identity — and let’s face it, that’s what forms generally are — would actually get in the way of the nature of the content given that it divides between included and excluded, friend and enemy.

  5. dbarber
    October 17, 2010 at 8:44 pm

    in other words: rather than say form vs. particular content, maybe it’s more a matter of thinking about how the particular content calls for a re-thinking of form (as opposed to a rejection of form or a subsuming under form)

    • andrewlp
      October 18, 2010 at 10:44 pm


      I’m sympathetic to the idea of rethinking form, instead of say, abandoning it altogether. I suppose what I would hypothesize is that this rethinking may ultimately require us to deemphasize somewhat the theory of form, and hence the aesthetic confrontation with modern epistemology, in favor of other ideas which may be able to organize and express more adequately those matters which were most pressing for those who witnessed apostolically to Christ. I’m not saying that form has no hermenuetical value for Christianity, or that it is simply a question of moving from form to content. Instead, I guess what I’m trying to question is whether the theory of form, rooted as it is in a modern intellectual context, is really the most suitable paradigm for theological hermeneutics in general. It may need to be rethought and/or relativized.

  6. October 20, 2010 at 2:29 pm


    Thanks for this post. I share your concern, but I’m not sure it flags much more than the inadequacy of sundering form from content generally. You’ve noted well the problems when the formal aspects tend to overshadow the particular expressions of that form in the Gospels; but then again, the pendulum swings the other way when the form fades into the background and one tries to adequately understand the Gospels (or Revelation of any kind) by stressing only the contents (or rather by paying no heed to the form). It seems to me that this latter case is certainly a concern of Balthasar’s, since he constantly points to the errors of, say, “pure” historical criticism or heretical doctrines that entirely fail to read the “facts” of Revelation in terms of the hypostatic form of Christ (in all it’s Trinitarian depth). Clearly, to fail to account for the form is to fail to read the contents as Revelation.

    In Revelation the two dimenions are never sundered or abstracted, and this seems uncontroversial. But any emphasis of one dimension over the other will inevitably carry with it the dangers that follow from separating or subordinating them. I think Balthasar does thematize form for precisely the reasons you cite, but with the caveat that for him it seems it’s not exclusively a concern for the post-Kantian context (since obviously he argues that the form of Christ was a central, even thematic aspect of Biblical Revelation and pre-modern theology as well). But isn’t this thematization the kind of thing that we expect from theology (as distinct from Revelation itself or from preaching, etc.)? I don’t think it need imply anything regarding the judgment about the suitability of form as a paradigm for theological hermeneutics, since it seems any candidate will be subject to the same or similar dangers.

    So it seems to me the problem doesn’t necessarily stem from form as a guiding principle (there are clear dangers to abandoning this, and Balthasar himself argues that it is rooted in Scripture), but from the nature of all theological reflection as a kind of second-order discourse, whether dependent upon a theory of form or not. Such discourse will always be a swinging of the pendulum, won’t it?

    Pax Christi,

  7. andrewlp
    October 20, 2010 at 5:14 pm


    Thanks so much for your comments. They’re really helping me to clarify what it was that was concerning me. I think you’re right to object to my exclusive focus on the post-Kantian context, since Balthasar’s response to this is precisely to identify a resonance between the German Romantic account of form and the theological sources from scripture and tradition which he retrieves. So Balthasar’s theological aesthetics, though responding to modernity and located within it, is also located before it. I’m also willing to concede that, perhaps, most issues would be resolved if a proper balance were kept between form and content, and also that an overemphasis on content, to the exclusion of form, poses other dangers.

    I suppose what’s still on my mind, though, is to what extent organizing things in terms of form/content, or thinking of what we’ve got in scripture and tradition as revelation, is always the best way to get at what is really at stake. I think you’re probably right, once again, to suggest that all second-order interpretations will be subject to a similar sort of scrutiny, insofar as they are necessarily foreign to the now permanently elusive “origin” of things. But is there room to speak of better or worse? Or, perhaps I should say: might we need to ask seriously, from time to time, whether even some of our better approaches are missing something? Balthasar may already give us precedent for this, insofar as he transitions from an aesthetic to a dramatic paradigm, in order to better emphasize that a play of finite and infinite freedom is at stake. But I’m not sure we can rest content with drama either. Reading the gospel of Luke, for instance, I might ask myself: is aesthetics (form) the right angle to take here? is this better understood as a drama? or, is even that category perhaps too formulaic?

    I do not raise these questions in order to critique Balthasar, but because I think they were the kinds of questions which Balthasar must have asked himself, when, for instance, he decided not to approach theology from the point of view of the scholastic manuals.

  8. October 23, 2010 at 7:23 pm


    Thanks for your response. I think your concern is right on. There is certainly room for judging better or worse. But I think even our best approaches will always be missing something in virtue of them always being situated in certain contexts, and thus always having to emphasize certain things, even certain formal aspects, to the detriment of others for the purpose of responding to contingent imbalances. A concrete way to put this is that the deposit of Revelation is too rich to be contained in an aesthetics alone (or a dramatics, or a logic, etc.). I think you’re right for pointing out that Balthasar seems to provide a certain precedent here, precisely because he doesn’t stop writing the trilogy after vol.7 of the aesthetics. Nor would he assume that his trilogy is the last word on theology as such.

    I’m sympathetic to the idea that, because of hermeneutic realities, truth is plurivocal (dare I say, “symphonic”). No conceptual approach or system, no matter how successfully it seems to cover all the bases, will be be able to say everything (sorry, Hegel). If that is what we assume when we judge adequacy, it seems pretty uncontroversial that a form-centered approach won’t get the job done. That would be, in other words, the wrong question to ask it. But if our standards of judgment are sensitive to plurivocity, and can only judge it as one voice among many, according to whether it meaningfully lends intelligibility to the faith where we would otherwise be blind to it, that strikes me as the approach proper to it. And then one is free to question the accuracy of Balthasar’s genealogical argument to back up the aesthetic approach at all. Presupposing, of course, the problematic tendencies native to it and any other partial vision.

    Pax Christi,

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