Balthasar ex­am­ined

The Church of England - - ENGLAND -

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.

Paul Richard­son

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