Balthasar, Hans Urs von
BALTHASAR, HANS URS VON
Theologian, author, publisher, priest; b. Aug. 24, 1905 of an ancient Catholic Swiss family of Lucerne; d. Basel, June 26, 1988. Balthasar received a doctorate in German literature and philosophy in 1928 following studies in Zurich, Vienna, and Berlin. He entered the Society of Jesus in 1929, studied philosophy at Pullach, near Munich, and theology (1933–37) at Lyon (Fourvière), a companion to J. daniÉlou and H. Bouillard. He was ordained a priest in July of 1936. For a brief time he served as an associate editor of Stimmen der Zeit (1937–39). In 1940, when chaplain of students in Basel, he met Adrienne von speyr, introducing her to the Catholic Church and remaining her confessor until her death (1967). In 1945 he founded with her the secular institute Johannes-gemeinschaft. Later he established Johannesverlag, a publishing house that issued major works on the Fathers of the Church and other "Christian masters" whom Balthasar regarded as foundational to Christian life and thought. Under his direction, Johannesverlag published some 60 volumes of von Speyr's writings, which she practically dictated to him in their entirety.
His departure from the Society of Jesus in 1950 dimmed his reputation for a while. He was not a peritus to the Second Vatican Council. Nevertheless, Pope Paul VI recognized Balthasar's brilliance and nominated him a member of the original international theological commission in 1969, later reappointing him. Pope John Paul II also selected him for the commission in 1980 and 1986. In 1972 he launched in Germany and Italy the international Catholic review communio, giving it both program and purpose; this review eventually appeared in 11 different languages. In 1984, Pope John Paul II recognized his achievement by personally giving him the "Pope Paul VI" prize. Although Balthasar was named a cardinal by Pope John Paul II, he died two days before receiving the red hat.
The Charism. While engaged in the spiritual exercises of St. ignatius (1929), God unexpectedly called Balthasar to serve Him with the sole directive that he "abandon everything and follow" with a typically Ignatian indifference. This choice of God would determine his destiny, his thought, and his work. A priest who found himself at home in the Society of Jesus, Balthasar received through Adrienne von Speyr a theological and ecclesial mission, founded in the interrelated roles of Mary, John, and Peter, incarnated in the secular institute Johannesgemeinschaft, and founded to be an actualization of the charism of St. Ignatius under the form of a "secular institute." Obliged as a result of his activities to quit the society, he would be broken like the Eucharistic bread. Passing beyond and reformulating the Lutheran idea of Good Friday and the Hegelian notion of a speculative Friday, he received the theology of Holy Saturday through von Speyr. It gave life and strength to his mission in a secular world. The most telling sign of the power of this charism, concealed in the invisible, was the colloquium he held in Rome (1985) that assembled several hundred friends of von Speyr from around the world.
His Writings. The books of Balthasar were written from within the interior of this charism. Under the influence of Erich Przywara (1889–1972), who exercised a decisive influence on him, Balthasar wrote the Apokalypse der deutschen Seele (3 vols., 1937–39), in which he attempted to unveil through "the great modern spiritual figures of German history, the most recent religious attitude that, though it often remains hidden, is in a way that of 'confession'." Through Henri de lubac, whose disciple Balthasar became at Fourvière and with whom he maintained a lifelong friendship, Balthasar's thought found its "Catholic" basis. Balthasar was responsible for the German translation of Lubac's Catholicism, a work he held in high regard, and of many other of Lubac's works. Stimulated by such a master, Balthasar studied Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and Maximus the Confessor (he had already compiled an anthology of the works of Saint Augustine). He also learned from Karl barth (1951), Romano guardini (1970), Martin buber (1958), and Gustav Siewert.
Balthasar acknowledged the lasting influence of Adrienne von Speyr on his thought and publications. "It was Adrienne von Speyr," he wrote, "who pointed out the fulfilling way from Ignatius to John, and thus laid out the foundation for most of what has been published by me since 1940. Her work and mine is neither psychologically nor philosophically separable, two halves of a whole that, as center, has but one foundation" (Balthasar Reader, 42). The experiences and theology of Adrienne von Speyr began to fulfill his hopes and to respond to questions, in particular, those concerning the final realities. He attributed to her his insights regarding the mystery of Holy Saturday "and hence of hell and of universal redemption as well" (ibid., 403).
Sometime about 1961, Balthasar elaborated a plan for a trilogy which he published in subsequent years as Herrlichkeit, Theodramatik, and Theologik. The multi-volume work has the transcendentals—the Beautiful, the Good, and the True—as its foci; each concentrates on a different power of the human person: What can one perceive? For what should one hope? For what purpose has one intelligence? In fact, the trilogy is a theological synthesis that brings together Balthasar's vast knowledge of ancient and modern European literature and philosophy on the one hand, and the Christian tradition, including the Church fathers, scholastic and modem theology, exegesis, and mysticism on the other. In Balthasar's vision of things, the theological enterprise takes as its point of departure the mystery of revelation made known in the incarnate and crucified Word of God: made visible in Him is a glory or splendor (Herrlichkeit ) integrating all natural beauty and surpassing all human attempts to order and shape the created universe.
The passage from "aesthetic" to "dramatic" takes place in the drama of the Incarnation and Crucifixion, whereby God gathers together and brings to perfection everything worthwhile in creation. Truth, which responds to every human question, is revealed in the kenosis of God in the Incarnation and the Crucifixion. According to Balthasar's scheme, Theologik, which concludes the trilogy, seeks to make intelligible the inner logic that underlies God's action in history. In the Truth that is Jesus Christ, every human question and all knowing is revealed.
The Form. "To know as I am known": the vertical of Revelation and of faith traverses and gives birth to the horizontal of history and human research. Theology cannot pass over anthropology, for "man is the way of God" (John Paul II) and in Christ man is completed as God loved and created him. All converges toward and in Christ, the Son of God who is delivered up for us and united with Mary the Church. Trinity, christology, soteriology, Mariology, ecclesiology, and anthropology are united as in the Credo. It is the same unity. Balthasar's "catholic" theology is aided by his musical and artistic gifts. It is not systematic, but "symphonic." It finds coherence and dynamism in its "return to the center," (Einfaltung), which is at the same time an unfolding (Entfaltung).
Balthasar contemplates a God who gives Himself by revealing who He is, thereby giving life to man's free response to Him. Because of this gift of freedom that God has given man, being is essential, for following Saint Thomas (in the manner in which G. Siewert had explained him), Balthasar regarded being as the gift of God to His creatures, in which they may participate in order to receive it in their own singularity. In considering this gift (being in the transcendentals) Balthasar did not forget the giver; in God the Beautiful is divine Glory, in which human beings are called to share; in God the Good is merciful love, by which humans hope for salvation (without excluding the possibility of Hell), and in God the True is the Word of the Father, communicated by the Spirit, through whom humans know the love that is beyond all knowledge. The transcendentals, without losing their own identity, are thereby theologically transmuted.
This transformation leads to several consequences, of which we shall consider a few. That which humans may see and sense has a profundity that goes beyond what constitutes them: Humans are called to contemplate the Glory of God. This intellectual act is also a sensible one, for there exist spiritual senses (cf. Origen). Correlatively Jesus is his own light; a manifestation of divine Glory in a union of spirit and body that sets aside all Platonism and demands an incarnated mystic.
The divine drama "rests in part on the notion of mission that elevates and accomplishes the psychological and Christian notion of role…and in part on the confrontation of a created and finite freedom with the freedom of divine infinity." The divine mission, being the economic form of the procession, "cannot be made one except with the theological notion of person." The confrontation of divine and human freedom leads, through Christ, to the abandoned state of the Son in death and to the separation of the Father and the Son, who are united without fail by the Spirit. Here Balthasar inserts a theology of Holy Saturday. These same notions of mission and person furnish the basis for an ecclesiology, wherein are illuminated the figures of Mary, John, and Peter.
Bibliography: For complete bibliography of Von Balthasar's work, see: Hans Urs von Balthasar, Bibliographie: 1925–1990. (Einsiedeln, Switzerland, 1990). m. kehl and w. loser. The Von Balthasar Reader, translated by r. j. daly and f. lawrence (New York, 1982). hans urs von balthasar. "Discour du P. H. U. von Balthasar." Hans Urs von Balthasar: Premio Internazionale Paolo VI 1984. (Brescia, 1984); First Glance at Adrienne von Speyr, translated by a. lawry and s. englund (San Francisco, 1968); My Work: In Retrospect (San Francisco, 1993); Our Task: A Report and a Plan, translated by john saward (San Francisco, 1994). l.s. chapp, The God Who Speaks: Hans Urs von Balthasar's Theology of Revelation (Bethesda, Md. 1996). e. t. oakes, Pattern of Redemption: The Theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar. (2d rev. ed. New York, 1997). david schindler, ed., Hans Urs von Balthasar: His Life and Work (Notre Dame, Ind., 1991).
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