Hans Urs von Balthasar was one of the most prolific Catholic theologians of the 20th century. He published dozens of books in the interrelated realms of theology and philosophy – becoming noted for his relationship with Karl Barth and his publication of his multi-volume work entitled Theo-Drama.
I first became aware of von Balthasar while searching for a book on a theological approach to historiography and history itself. Who I was really searching for was Wolfhart Pannenberg (whose Jesus – God and Man I later bought), however, I came across von Balthasar’s A Theology of History and the title was too tempting to ignore, so I purchased it.
That was about 5 months ago – I never got around to reading it. However, this morning I decided to give a bit of time to working through this little book. While von Balthasar’s philosophy is quite sophisticated – and at times very difficult to understand – I found his writing tremendously engaging. I have yet to read a more creative theologian (of course, I haven’t read very many theologians).
To understand his excerpt on the incarnation, the subject of this post, you’ll need to understand the philosophical problem he is interacting with:
Since man first began to philosophize he has sought to grasp things by distinguishing two elements: the factual, singular, sensible, concrete and contingent; and the necessary and universal (and, because universal, abstract), which has the validity of a law rising above the individual case and determining it. (pp. 9)
Von Balthasar then recounts two popular approaches to understanding the relationship between these two categories. On the one hand:
The emphasis can be placed on the (relatively) universal and necessary aspect in such a way that the factual, empirical element encountered in the sensible world is regarded simply as the point where the rationally ordered lines of being rather untidily intersect, so that it is the thinker’s job to unravel them and thus reduce them, wholly or in great part, to the essential. (pp. 9)
In reaction to this line of thinking arises the second approach:
The empirical tradition has always protested against this devaluation of the particular fact; for it, what is real is the unrepeatable, the concrete, this historical, and abstract laws of being spring from an inadequate attempt on the part of our limited powers of thought to cope with the factual world which we can never fully master. (pp. 10)
The latter of these two, rather than being a viable option for von Balthasar, is simply an obstacle in the way of “higher” philosophy. The former approach is to which he attributes much more significance, and rightly so. In speaking of this approach, von Balthasar turns to Hegel:
He interpreted the whole sequence and constellation of facts in nature and in human history as the manifestation of an all-embracing rational spirit, rational precisely in its factual manifestation. This may in one sense be regarded as the highest tribute of reason to the realm of fact and history, since the latter is then longer mere phenomenon, outside the scope of law-giving reason, but a meaningful presentation of reason itself – which indeed requires this manifestation in order to be reason, so as to communicate itself to itself. But it may equally be regarded as the final devaluation of the historical, in that reason has finally disposed of it, leaving no room for genuine creativity or freedom in the person who acts. It was inevitable that one road at least should leaf from Hegel to Marx. But that road offers no solution to our problem; for dialectical materialism does not involve taking empirical facts and events seriously, but on the contrary finally subjects them to a tyranny of mechanical processes governed by abstract laws, these merely taking the place of the old essences [represented by Aristotle and Plato] and their much freer system of teleological law. (pp. 11
Here, von Balthasar begins to pose the problem more acutely:
Any attempt to interpret history as a whole, if it is not to succumb to gnostic myth, must posit some subject which works in and reveals itself in the whole of history and which is at the same time a being capable of providing general norms. This can only be either God himself – but he does not require history in order to communicate himself to himself – or man; but he insofar as he is a free, acting subject, is always some one, particular individual who plainly cannot dominate history as a whole. (pp. 12)
In address to this problem, von Balthasar responds:
This inviolable line of demarcation [between historical and universal], while it has to be established and maintained by philosophical reflection, does at the same time inhibit the full play of the factual and historical pole in favor of the pole of the universal essences. Nothing could break this barrier but a miracle undiscoverable and unguessable by philosophical thought: the existential union of God and man is one subject: a subject necessarily, as such, absolutely unique, because the human personality is here, without any strain or breakage, assumed into the divine Person who incarnates and reveals himself. But this assumption into the personal inner life of God simply must not mean the removal of an individual from the sphere of his fellow-individuals (Elijah being snatched from among men in the fiery chariot, as it were): nor the translation of normal human nature to a higher level of being: this would be something which the very fact of creation makes impossible; it would be the Arian heresy, contradicting precisely what it purports to establish – the redemption of ordinary, creaturely human nature.
Thus the raising of a man to the level of the unique, the only-begotten, calls for the yet deeper descent of God himself, his humbling, his kenosis or emptying, right down to the binding of himself by entering into one man, a man who, unique though he is, does not cease to be a man among men. Moreover this likeness is not assumed or external, as if Christ merely took on the appearance and behavior of any ordinary man while retaining something higher. On the contrary, it is an interior becoming “in all things like unto his brothers” (Heb. 2:17), an ability to “have compassion on our infirmities…tempted in all things like we are, without sin” (Heb. 4:15). The twice-occurring “like” implies both equality and similarity and also the passage from one to the other: assimilation, becoming like so as to become one with. (pp. 14-16)
And so, it is the incarnation of Christ that is the answer to the philosophical problem of the historical and the universal. The Universal transcendent God becomes the Unique Human being, Jesus.
As should be clear, von Balthasar is wildly confusing, yet deeply profound. If you have the courage, he is worth the read.