Thursday, August 21, 2014

Karl Barth and Hans Urs von Balthasar: A Theological Friendship

Books on theological friendships are rare. This ought not be. What better way to compare and contrast differing theologies than through the crucible of intellectuals of differing confessions finding their way as friends? D. Stephen Long assigns himself the admirable task of saving the Balthasar-Barth friendship from neoscholastic misunderstanding and Protestant misappropriation. Long considers Balthasar an outstanding guide through Barth's theology, both as an interpreter of Barth, as well as a theologian who supplements and forwards what Barth accomplished.

Long makes his case in a series of captivating moves, beginning with a chapter on their friendship. Although it was the Catholic-Protestant split that divided them (especially on the topics of "pure nature" and the analogia entis), on another level Barth and Balthasar had much in common. Both loved Mozart. Both had a painting of the Grünewald crucifixion hung over their desk. Both wrote long, fascinating works of theology. Both saw Jesus Christ as the center of their theology.

Barth and Balthasar's theological conversation begins with a letter Balthasar sent to Barth upon the publication of Church Dogmatics 2.1. Their friendship (which was always a conversation and a disagreement) continued until Barth's death. They vacationed together. They taught seminars together. They corresponded.

It may always have been part of Balthasar's program to welcome Barth back to Roman Catholicism. This was less a form of proselytizing, and more a sense on Balthasar's part that either Barth misunderstood a basic theologomena of Catholic thought, or it had never been presented in the proper manner, and if only Barth saw Catholic theology in the light Balthasar saw it, there would be no barrier.

So, although Barth and Balthasar find substantial and sustained agreement on the "form" of theology and its impact on various realms of theological thought, such as God, in Christ; ethics, as dogma; and the church, always in renewal; it is around this particular loci, the analogia entis, that the two never find rapprochement.

It is also the case that Balthasar continually risks censure from his own Catholic community, and misunderstanding from the Protestant side, for his way of presenting Barth's theology (and his lifelong commitment to do so). Chapter two in Long's book is therefore devoted, in all its complexity, to presenting Balthasar's interpretation of Barth, and charts the genealogy of its abandonment by Catholics and Protestants alike, if for different reasons.

It may do a disservice to Long's work to attempt a one sentence summary of Balthasar's way of interpreting Barth, for in fact neither writer wrote in ways that can be simply summarized. Instead, Long notes, Balthasar himself believed "setting forth Barth's theology is difficult... it could not be done in a few propositions, but was more like finding the right way to present Mozart" (39).

There is, in another sense, a very straightforward way to summarize what was central for both Barth and Balthasar. Long offers the sentence, midway in his book, that anyone would do well to memorize. Barth and Balthasar sought "much more profound articulation of what mattered to both of them: Christology with an analogy between God and creatures that prevented identity" (44, emphasis added).

Two terms in the book are worth defining here in this review. It is not my intent to be pedantic, but honestly, even as a reader of the book somewhat familiar with theological reflections on the topics of pure nature and the analogia entis, they were not terms I had developed concise definitions of in my own mind, so I offer these reflections here.

First: Pure nature is the idea that created nature is whole and complete on its own. It does not need God to be what it is. In theological systems that assume pure nature (and most Protestant theologies do so) grace is something added on top, extrinsic to, nature. The basic question: Was grace present prior to sin, or does grace only come into play when nature stops being pure?

Both Barth and Balthasar reject the notion of pure nature, although they approach some questions about nature and grace from different perspectives.

Second: Analogia entis is the theological concept that there exists something that analogically corresponds to the creator (of everything) that makes contemplation of the nature of that creator possible. In other words, the very being of creation offers an analogy by which one can contemplate the being of God.

Barth was famously opposed to the analogia entis, especially in his early work, although remarkably he develops later in his Church Dogmatics an understanding of the hypostatic union as a potential locus for the analogia entis. Balthasar sees this implicit in Barth's work and expresses it explicitly.

The middle to late section of Long's book is a riproaring good read, especially if you like a theologian who picks a fight in a friendly manner. Here, Long outlines the collapse of Balthasar's interpretation of Barth--not the failure of Balthasar's interpretation, but rather its abandonment by later theologians both of the Protestant and Catholic variety. Then one by one he illustrates why they are wrong, or how they have misunderstood Barth, Balthasar, or both.

Long concludes the book with a chapter on Barth and Balthasar as unlikely ecumenists. Barth often said he believed the proper posture for ecumenism was dogmatic intolerance of others positions (239). Balthasar was often suspect in his own community because of his fascination with Barth. Barth was involved in the church struggles during the war and following. Balthasar had left his Jesuit order and founded a new one, a religious community for men and women called the Community of Saint John. In spite of their oddly marginal positions vis-a-vis the church, their friendship became a model for ecumenism then, and Long argues it can be a model for ecumenical conversation today.

the precise way the two were ecumenical is summarized well in a late sentence of Long's: "Balthasar's theology was always caught between these two poles convincing Catholics they were as christological as Barth's Reformed theology, and convincing Protestants they could affirm the analogia entis and thereby glimpse the whole creation as God's good gift in, through, and for the glory of the mystery that is the hypostatic union" (277).

Barth and Balthasar shared a common vision of Christ as a radiating center that illumined everything else. Barth is remembered for focusing on the center. Balthasar, for Long, is to be remembered for illuminating how that center in Barth can radiate out into even more theological arenas than even Barth considered, especially into creation itself. It is Long's lovely accomplishment to invite all of us afresh to read Barth through Balthasar, and to read their friendship as a model for our own starting point in the continuing theological conversation.

Forthcoming as a review in Word & World: A Journal of Christian Ministry


  1. Off the topic, but relevant to both Balthasar and Barth, I have wondered if either wrote much against the antisemitism tacitly endorsed by the Protestant and Catholic Churches in Germany before and after the rise of Hitler and the Nazi Party. Having read exhausting accounts of the prevalent viewpoint of ordinary Germans, as well as among German church leaders, which resulted in little opposition to the purges of Jews from German society, it appears to me that Barth and Balthasar could have put their considerable influence to good use by condemning the mindset among Germans responsible for setting the scene for the Holocaust. I say this as a man who is half German myself, and one who believes that too few Christians, including Lutherans and Catholics, failed to deal with this issue on a moral and spiritual level at this brutal time in European history.



    3. The Barmen Declaration did not dig into the root of antisemitism on an acceptable level, and while it was a worthy counterpoint to the Nazification of the national churches, it did not explicitly chastise German Christians for participating in viewing Jews as subhuman and agreeing with those Fascists who intended a violent solution to their elimination from German society.