WBalthasar: A (very) Critical Introduction Karen Kilby Eerdmans, pb, £16.99; Is Scripture Holy? AE Harvey Eerdmans, pb, £16.99 hen Rowan Williams was about to make his first visit to Benedict XVI he announced that one of the subjects he looked for ward to discussing with the Pope was the theology of Hans urs von Balthasar. The Archbishop is just one of a large number of non-Roman Catholics who have been influenced by the Swiss theologian.
A man who was regarded with suspicion at Rome in the 1950s and who was not invited as a ‘peritus’ to Vatican II is now hailed as one of the 20th centur y’s greatest theologians, even as one of the gr eatest theologians of all time. He died just befor e John Paul II could confer a Car dinal’s hat on him but a future pope, Joseph Ratzinger gave the homily at his funeral.
Karen Kilby has written the best intr oduction to Balthasar’s work I have r ead. She has alr eady written two excellent books on Karl Rahner and it is easy to see that her sympathies ar e more with him than with Balthasar. But this does not stop her r ecognising the vast scope of Balthasar’s work or his ability to r
elate Christian faith to literature, music and philosophy. As Henri du Lubac put it, Balthasar was probably the most cultured man of his time. Unfor tunately, as Kilby points out, the downside of this that he can be hard to read since his theology often proceeds by an exegesis of other works.
At the hear t of Kilby’s criticism of Balthasar is a point made by Rahner: he often writes as if he had a special insight into the divine mind or was able to see things from God’s point of view. ‘To make pluralism into a sympathy – as good old Balthasar does – a sympathy which we can hear as such: this is fundamentally impossible,’ Rahner told the English Jesuit, Philip Endean.
There i s little tentativeness in Balthasar’s theology. Whether he is pr onouncing on the dif ferences between men and women or discussing the inner life of the Trinity he seems assured in his conclusions without ever y really providing supporting reasons. People who do not agr ee with him ‘lack the eye to see’. Balthasar describes his theology as ‘dramatic’ but he himself appears to stand outside the drama as a critic rather than an actor in full knowledge of all that is happening and where the drama ends.
Once or twice Kilby is so keen to criticise that she overlooks value in Balthasar’s work. It is possible to r escue his comparison between our response to divine revelation and the way we ar e transfixed by a great work of ar t from the criticisms she makes about it. But Kilby is right to question the emphasis Balthasar placed on suffering and she may well also be right in her suggestion that Adrienne von Speyr’s visions and extraor dinar y experiences were a source of the cer tainty in Balthasar’s work although this is a point she is reluctant to develop.
In the end Kilby concludes that although there is much to learn from Balthasar we should not learn from him how to be a theologian. AE Har vey’s book is ver y dif ferent in style fr om Balthasar. Looking at scripture, Balthasar stressed the unity of the New T estament, its beauty and its glor y. Harvey is more concerned to examine the credentials of the New Testament in detail. Is it historically accurate? Is it consistent? Can it function as an ethical guide or nourish the spiritual and liturgical life of Christians?
Although Harvey asks sear ching questions, his final conclusions are positive. The Gospels stand comparison with other historical works of the time and provide us with a tradition that is consistent and unlikely to be fabricated. A fabricated Jesus is unlikely to have made the mark on the world that Jesus has done. John’s gospel is dif ferent and complements the synoptics but we should not r ule out the conclusion that on cer tain topics it may be more historically accurate.
As far as moral teaching is concer ned, Har vey stresses that Jesus was concerned not to lay down rules but to challenge peo- ple to cultivate the habits and vir tues that lead to eter nal life. Paul pr oduced more r ules as he tried to interpr et the meaning of Christ’s teaching for concr ete moral problems of his day.
Har vey has produced a good overview of the New Testament that has one surprising omission. He has nothing to say about the Resur r ecti on and this means ther e is a big gap at the hear t of his work. He has sensible words to say about Christ’s miracles b ut avoids the most important miracle of all.