Hans Urs von Balthasar’s “ever greater”

Reading von Balthasar one finds many of the same concerns and interests that motivated a number of other mid-twentieth century theologians, Catholic or Protestant. But in von Balthasar one hears such a different theological voice coming through, and this is surely because of von Balthasar’s immersion in patristic writers. As Ben Quash puts it, Balthasar found in the patristic writers “‘mystical warmth’ and ‘rhetorical power,’ and no fear of paradox. He found a genuinely prayerful theology; a reverent relationship to God and a sense of his dynamism and freedom.” In von Balthasar God is free and unconstrained by late modern notions of causation or agency; God’s own self-engagement with humanity can only be characterized—as von Balthasar will emphasize time and again—as “excess”, the “ever-greater”, the “yet more”.

Only God, acting in Christ, takes man’s finitude, guilt, and death seriously into account. He does not stand aloof in contempt for the things of this world and the activities to which it is tragically committed, in order to resettle man in a spiritual world on the other side; he relates the whole fiasco of life in this world to the beyond, so that it makes sense, making all man’s troubles in the world the foundation of his work of resurrection, salvaging the ‘mark of the nails’ (Jn. 20:25) in the glory of eternal life. The sweat and blood of man were not in vain; God acting freely salvages everything when the world is cast in its final and perfect form. Hence in the solution that God offers to this mystery which is man, the tensions still exist, and no aspect of man’s being is merely suppressed. For God is great enough to embrace this eternally open being in the ever greater expanse of his own openness (Engagement with God: The Drama of Christian Discipleship [1971], 84)

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7 thoughts on “Hans Urs von Balthasar’s “ever greater”

  1. “I God do not change,” God thunders in Mal. 3.6. “Nevertheless,” Barth seems to have found in the Bible, God sometimes declines to enforce his laws (and promised miracles too) with exactitude.

    Then too somehow, though God himself never changes in some metaphsical sense (as the “One”), at the same time, often a “new covenant” or contract is negotiated between God and man. Like the “New” testament itself.

    Given these signs of flexibility in our Lord, it seems worth asking: how many once-suppressed or unacknowledged aspects of human nature and culture, can God and the Bible eventually accomodate? Often things thought evil, were later allowed: Jews were told never to eat pork, or shellfish; while Peter merely has a dream, where we are allowed to eat anything … and that dream was sufficient to change the rules in Christianity.

    How many changes might be made therefore, in fundamentalist dogmatics?

    • Brett, I don’t follow toward whom this question is being directed. Is this a question for me? For Barth? For the canon of the Christian church (i.e. the Bible)? For an anonymous “fundamentalist” dogmatist? As it stands I don’t know how to respond.

  2. My comment borrows from many made recently on this blog; comments that seem to wonder whether there is much room for “change” in Christianity. In this case specifically, I wonder if there room for say a new Humanistic Christianity; a wider embrace of a fuller, even “liberal” range of human characteristics, of our nature.

    So my implied question would be: specifically HOW does von B.’s work suggest there is room in Christianity, for recognition of a wider range of human characteristics? Is there room for even some things thought to be “bad” in the past, by conservative readings of the Bible?

    I’m thinking of issues like recognition of homosexuality, and so forth. But there would of course be many other aspects of our human nature that should perhaps be better acknowledged by and integrated into, Christianity. As they might be, in part, by an “Anthropology” of Christianity.

    So ultimately my question would be: over and above whatever elements of our humanity that were approved by Christianity in the PAST, specifically WHICH if any, elements of our FULLER human nature, are now being more broadly being acknowledged, by new theologies, anthropologies. And theologians like Von B.

    And wouldn’t any such new allowances, of course conflict with conservative/literal/fundamentalist/dogmatic, rule-oriented theology?

  3. Brett, I’m not sure I’m following you regarding your notion of “our nature” as humans. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems to me that your idea of “change” hides the assumption that change in social convention is the equivalent of progress in understanding human nature, a “FULLER” understanding/practice of human nature.

    If social change is the equivalent of progress, I would worry about the implications present. After all, Nazi Germany certainly brought about social change, though I wouldn’t call it progress in better understanding humanity. In other words, change can clearly be bad, wouldn’t you say?

    In terms of your above reference to Peter’s dream in Acts 10 as a case in which you claim God “changes” the rules as regards to what food people might consume, I believe reading further in the passage (namely Acts 10:28) will give you a fuller understanding of what the communicates, as its message is not regarding an expanded culinary menu.

    If you just might spend some time clearing up this line: “But there would of course be many other aspects of our human nature that should perhaps be better acknowledged by and integrated into, Christianity”.

    I might ask, should our theological beliefs be evaluated by our contemporary cultural practices or should our contemporary cultural practices be evaluated by our theological beliefs? And where does God fit into all of this?

  4. Nick:

    Logically, not all change is progress; but all progress is change.

    Regarding the dream of Peter? Whatever other import it may have, Christians as a matter of cultural fact, did drop Old Testament food restrictions from God; today we eat pork and shellfish, even though God himself in the Old Testament, had set the law against it, as a law whose violation was punishable by death.

    But finally your question is a good one: WHICH aspects of humanity might be allowed in or by religion? This would not be an attempt to change the Bible; but to find in the Bible passages that would allow a greater freedom. Like say the passages that advocate the “freedom we have in Christ.” Or here, the part where God set down Old Testament rules, but then suggested that “nevertheless” God could somehow decide not to enforce his own rules; and even send a “new covenant.”

    At the very least, if God himself does not change in some metaphysical sense, our perception of what he says, does advance and “change.”

    Some have suggested that, on closer reading of the Bible, we find that many things we conventionally think of as “bad” in human nature, might even be allowed, even by the Bible itself.

    So the question here would be, what parts of the Bible does Von B. focus on? And specifically which elements of Humanity, might the BIble have allowed?

    Rather than discuss this in totally obscure language, I prefer to address it in relatively accessible terms. And fortunately, our positions here can be supported by the core text of even conservative Christians: the Bible itself.

  5. I wonder if the area of our disagreement rests upon our method of Biblical exegesis. For example, I take your statement “This would not be an attempt to change the Bible; but to find in the Bible passages that would allow a greater freedom” to suggest that you have first decided which actions are morally permissible and have secondly sought after how the Bible matches up to your discoveries.

    I have worries if our approach to the Bible is to decide in our own cultural context what is morally permissible and then, following our decision, to seek out passages in the Bible to “confirm” our contemporary notions of morality.

    Additionally, I wonder if our notions of “progress” are the same. You state that all progress is change. Yet what of situations in which a change will result only in a regress? If this were the case, the best course of action would be to resist change. Admittedly this wouldn’t be progress in a technical sense, but it would be a more ideal route than regress.

    What do you think about the following?: The fact that God extends His grace continuously to humanity, despite their constant failures to abide by His covenant, is not the equivalent of His suddenly approving of what they are doing.

  6. Am I merely projecting my cultural biases and desires on the text? I suggest that our postmodern culture offers new perspectives on the old writings – and allows us to see things in them, that we never saw before. Things that were always in them, but that others did not notice.

    For shorthand, I here spoke of “looking for” this or that thing, the notion of “Freedom” say, in the text; but originally of course, long before that in my earlier writings elsewhere, I FIRST found genuine signs of them, strictly within the text itself.

    This is not mere projection therefore.

    Next: how much of contemporary culture might God, the Bible itself actually approve therefore? Let’s indeed look at the Bible itself, rather than simply deifying bourgois conventions. Like noticing to start, the “freedom you have in Christ.”

    [Then too, the conventional apologetic you offer, for the apprent temporary lack of the promised amazing punishments from God, fire from heaven, does not work. The idea that God is temporarily withholding punishment, out of Grace, to protect us - does not quite really make up for the appearance that God warned/promised something, and did not deliver it.

    God goes back on his word, out of compassion? In some ways that works; in others, definitely not.]

    Ultimately perhaps the more modern/postmodern view of God will hold up better. Just from looking at the text itself.

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