Home > Uncategorized > Hans Urs von Balthasar: Where to Start?

Hans Urs von Balthasar: Where to Start?

Finding a place to start in Balthasar’s extensive corpus is difficult to say the least. The center of his work is the trilogy: Glory of the Lord, Theo-Drama, and Theo-Logic. Obviously these works are essential for a nuanced understanding of his thought. GL 1 is probably his best know and perhaps most important work but most people I know who have tried to start with this have not made it all the way through. Perhaps the starting point depends on your principle interests: philosophy? take a glance at GL 5 and TL 1; Christian history? look at Balthasar’s early work on Maximus and some of the essays in GL 2; biblical theology? GL 6-7 should do the trick; ecumenism? turn to his Karl Barth (which also provides an outstanding reading of nature/grace disputes if you are so interested); literature? learn German and then read Apocalypse der deutschen Seele (or maybe just read his books on Bernanos and Schneider). Obviously there a number of places you can jump in depending on your interests. For a more basic introduction let me recommend the following shorter reads:

  • “Theology and Sanctity” in Explorations in Theology I (1960; 29 pages): this early essay is one of Balthasar’s most famous (and most widely cited) essays. In it he laments the separation of spirituality and theology and argues for how this separation impoverishes both. It also includes his idea of a “kneeling theology,” an idea which attempts to reunite spirituality and theology and which aptly describes his own self-understanding as a theologian.
  • Razing the Bastions (1952; 103 pages): the “bastions” here are the walls which Christians have built to keep the Church separated from the world. In this work Balthasar harshly criticizes the neo-scholastic theology in which he was trained and calls for a more thorough engagement with the world.
  • Love Alone is Credible (1963; 153 pages): this work is the positive counterpart to Razing. The earlier work does provide some positive vision but it is in Love Alone that Balthasar presents his vision of “theological aesthetics” as a way forward in theology. Love Alone presents a nice introduction to Balthasar’s thought and in particular to some of the core ideas found in the first part of his trilogy, The Glory of the Lord.
  • Engagement with God (1972; 120 pages: entitled “Living within God’s Engagement” in the German, this book offers a glimpse into many themes from Balthasar’s theodramatics (the second part of the trilogy). The focus here is on Christian discipleship in the light of God’s engagement with the world.
  • Epilogue (1987; 123 pages): this is an epilogue to the trilogy that Balthasar wrote the year before he died. It is more technical than the previous recommendations but it provides an excellent account of Balthasar’s vision for Catholic theology as well as rehearsing many of the central ideas in the trilogy.

You also could also start with what Balthasar himself recommended: Prayer. As for secondary sources, there is a ridiculously comprehensive list here. There are a number of helpful secondary sources that are worth looking at, but one that deserves special note is Aidan Nichols’ five-volume introduction to Balthasar (three on the trilogy, one on Balthasar’s early philosophical and literary work, and one on the rest). Nichols’ work is pure exposition. Thus it can be a bit tedious at times but it also provides an informed walk through of most of Balthasar’s corpus.

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  1. Stephen
    February 3, 2011 at 8:26 am

    Great recommendations! I would add the possibility of Truth is Symphonic, which is a short and simple entryway into his ecclesiology, Christology, and theology of revelation.

    • Todd Walatka
      February 3, 2011 at 9:51 am

      Another good suggestion. I thought about putting that one but the list was already getting too long! Truth is Symphonic is also a very nice introduction to his biblical hermeneutics. Convergences, A Theology of History, and Does Jesus Know Us, Do We Know Him? also provide nice entryways into many central themes. I chose the ones I did in part because Love Alone, Engagement with God, and Epilogue are especially helpful for understanding the trilogy.

  1. February 2, 2011 at 8:30 pm

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