“Balthasar’s Biblical Hermeneutics”
By Cynthia Nielsen
By Cynthia Nielsen
W.T. Dickens in his essay, “Balthasar’s Biblical Hermeneutics,”1 notes that according to Balthasar the vast majority of modern theologians and biblical scholars (both Roman Catholic and Protestant) had thrown theological aesthetics to the wayside and as a result a distorted view of Scripture prevailed (e.g., seeing the Bible as a principally a set of propositional truths). This is not to say that Balthasar believed that modern biblical scholarship as a whole was a completely unfruitful project. Rather, for Balthasar, a recovery of certain premodern hermeneutical conventions was needed to reintroduce a lost theologico-aesthetic sensibility to the biblical hermeneutical project and such conventions were not incompatible with the positive discoveries of modern biblical scholarship. These premodern hermeneutical practices include “viewing the Bible as a self-glossing, christologically focused story, the proper interpretation of which is enabled by the Holy Spirit and nourished by regular liturgical worship” (p. 175).
As mentioned above, one of the problems arising when theological aesthetics is discarded is a tendency to view the Bible as primarily a set a propositional truths. Such a view presupposes a kind of dualism between sign and referent in which the sign becomes disposable once that which is signified is affirmed; hence, the mediation of revelation is rendered somewhat superfluous (p. 175). By reintroducing the medieval view of the transcendentals in which beauty, goodness, and oneness are understood as mutually dependent aspects of created being, not only can the sign/referent dualism be overcome, but one also gains a more integrated view of the relation between nature and grace. As Dickens explains,
“in redeeming creation, God does not destroy it in order to create it anew, but surpassingly fulfils it. From this perspective, creation’s unity, truth, goodness, and beauty are seen to be perfected in the life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Created being’s determinations are not identified with God; they are believed to participate in the divine beauty, truth, goodness, and unity. When beauty is conceived as a transcendental attribute of being that participates in the glory of God, then the natural and historic forms it takes are regarded in significantly different ways from those followed by most modern theologians. Rather than merely pointing to or dissolving in a transcendent ground or depth, Balthasar claimed that beautiful forms embody and reveal this transcendence, while simultaneously veiling it (Glory of the Lord 1, 151). This is because they are indissolubly united with the transcendence they mediate. Although a form’s content transcends its mediation, it is available only in and through the form. It does not lie behind, above, or in front of it—regardless of whether those spatial metaphors are construed historically, morally, spiritually, or otherwise. Form and content, therefore, can be distinguished only provisionally. Breaking the bonds that unite a beautiful radiant form with its transcendent content destroys the one and renders the other inaccessible.” (pp. 176-177)Part II
As mentioned in part I, Balthasar desired to reintroduce into the biblical hermeneutical project of his day, a number of premodern practices so as to attempt a recovery of theologico-aesthetic sensibilities that had been lost with certain modernist interpretive currents. In this section, I shall focus primarily on the first of two premodern hermeneutical practices that Balthasar viewed as crucial, viz., (1) understanding the Bible as self-interpreting and self-glossing and (2) interpreting the Bible as a Christocentric narrative. In part III, I shall discuss (2).
As Dickens points out, Balthasar was somewhat critical of diachronic readings of the Bible, though at times his own readings seem to depend on diachronic analyses. Balthasar’s burden it seems was not to establish the intelligibility of the Bible on the basis of certain similarities to non-biblical forms of life, but rather to emphasize the ways in which the biblical authors transformed what they had taken from non-biblical worldviews to communicate God’s purposes (p. 178). Moreover, Balthasar rejected the idea that the interpreter should “assume that all biblical concepts and images are so time-and culture-bound as to be unintelligible to the modern reader. He recognized that interpretation requires transposing horizons, but refused to countenance any comprehensive, programmatic summary thereof” (p. 178). For Balthasar, events like the Virgin birth are particular, historical events “that God has invested with universal theological significance. Each is a ‘supertemporal expression of the living revelation’ [TD 2, 98]. In such cases, it is not the biblical author’s view of creation, or of God’s identity and will, that must be transformed, but the interpreter’s” (p. 178). In other words, Balthasar took seriously the Bible’s claim on one’s life and its ability via the Spirit to radically change a person. Scripture, in other words, is not simply another fascinating subject to study, but is a medium through which we hear a call to follow Christ and die to self.
“The Holy Spirit enables such dying and rising in Christ by shattering the interpreter’s anthropological and cosmological horizons of interpretation [TD2, 91]. Hence another implication of Balthasar’s claim that the Bible is self-interpreting is that the Spirit leads the faithful to understand the Bible as God would have them do. The hermeneutics that constitutes theology’s task is therefore sustained by God’s own hermeneutics. Wanting to be known and loved by creation, God provides the conditions that make this possible. The most important of these are the incarnation, death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. This proves to the eyes of faith both that God is freely self-emptying trinitarian love, and that, as such, God communicates through creaturely forms without destroying them. Part of the Son’s self-emptying involves handing over to the Spirit the responsibility of interpreting the mutual love of Father and Son, which, according to Balthasar, the Spirit both is and exhibits [GL7, 255].” (p. 178)In addition, according to Balthasar, the two most important ways in which the Spirit interprets the Son are
“enabling the biblical authors to fashion a salvifically adequate image of the Spirit’s own vision of the event of Jesus Christ—and through him of the Father—and initiating the faithful into the triune love of God [GL1, 3; TD2, 106]. These two actions of the Holy Spirit imply each other. On Balthasar’s view, interpreting the Bible as God intends requires an in-spiration in the interpreter that analogously corresponds to the inspiration of the biblical authors.” (pp. 178-79)In sum, Scripture is not merely an academic affair but lays a claim on the life of the interpreter. Thus, to interpret Scripture properly involves a noetic and existential transformation of the self that is accomplished by an active cooperation with and submission to Holy Spirit.
Another dimension of Balthasar’s understanding of Scripture as self-interpreting is what we today speak of as intratextuality. The medievals used the term self-glossing to describe this same idea, viz. that the various parts of Scripture are interrelated and can be read as commenting and illumining each other in a polyphonic manner. For example,
“Balthasar frequently used verses from the Gospel or epistles of John to solve interpretative riddles that he believed were evident in other texts. Sometimes the intratextual melodies that Balthasar heard were more complex, involving several different texts, from both Testaments. For instance, when discussing the identity of the Church, he used the Deutero-Pauline imagery of Christ being the Head of his Body, the Church, to interpret the ecclesiology of the Letter to the Hebrews, which itself, he maintained, provided a theological corrective to the Old Testament image of Israel as the people of God [GL7, 92]. By listening for such melodies, Balthasar did not mean necessarily to imply that a given biblical author or editor had read the texts with which Balthasar put him in conversation. Rather than making a historical claim about the likely reading list of various biblical authors, Balthasar was contending that contemporary interpreters are more likely to avoid interpretative pitfalls and dead ends if they are alert to the theological interaction among texts that the canon brings together. Otherwise, a certain note will be allowed to sound too loudly, distorting the symphony that he believed the Spirit performs by means of the whole Bible.” (p. 181)Clearly, viewing the Bible as self-glossing presupposes its canonical integrity, which Balthasar of course firmly believed. Though the Bible was composed over hundreds of years by numerous authors and consists of diverse parts, Balthasar emphasized the received or final form of the canon as the standard for Christian life and thought (p. 178). Consequently, in interpretative endeavors one must keep the biblical drama in its entirety in mind when attempting to interpret any of its parts, just as one must keep the entire symphony in mind when analyzing one of its movements or smaller melodic fragments.
The focus of this concluding post is Balthasar’s hermeneutical practice of interpreting the Bible as a Christocentric narrative. Here again Balthasar’s conviction regarding the canonical integrity of the Bible comes to the fore. For Balthasar, the Bible as a whole speaks of Christ, who is the climax of the one unfolding story from Genesis to Revelation. Stated slightly differently, both the Old and New Testaments must be read in light of the cosmic significance of the resurrection. As one would expect, Balthasar welcomed the ancient and medieval view of a fourfold sense of Scripture, but here too he stressed Christ as the hermeneutical center through which these four senses must ultimately pass. According to Balthasar, the literal or grammatical-historical sense is the basis for the allegorical, tropological, and anagogical senses. “But the literal sense is not a verbal shell above or behind which lie the so-called spiritual senses. Reading the Bible as though the literal and spiritual senses were thus related would, of course, sever the indissoluble bonds uniting its form and content.” Rather than construing Balthasar’s understanding of the relation between the literal and other senses of Scripture in spatial metaphors (though Balthasar did at times speak of layers of meaning), “it is more consistent to think of the relation, as he did, in terms of different applications or uses of a given text by the Spirit, who seeks thereby to bring humanity through Christ into the divine life” (p. 182).
Moreover, for Balthasar, the Bible is neither “a script, which the faithful must slavishly follow in order to secure their heavenly reward. Nor does it contain a fixed set of propositions or ‘fundamentals’ to be believed. And it is not the historical record of events now long past whose impact gradually attenuates with the passage of time. From Balthasar’s perspective, the Christological or spiritual sense of the Bible is neither static, nor time-bound. It mediates the resurrected Christ, who did not ascend into a timeless eternity, but is present in every time as a living event that is ‘always taking place in an ever-new “now”’ [TD2, 102; Balthasar’s emphasis]” (p. 183). As one would expect, Balthasar rejected the idea presented by a number of modern biblical scholars and theologians that the goal of biblical hermeneutics is to find a “fixed, original meaning, which then is contrasted to a contemporary perspective [TD2,103]. It is not the transposition of one horizon to another that bothered him about this standard approach, for […] he believed such transpositions are necessary, but rather the presumption that the Bible is an inert object whose meaning can be laid hold of once for all” (p. 183). By this, Balthasar is in no way dismissing the importance of seeking to understand the original authorial intention. It is, however, to insist that the meaning of a text cannot be exhausted by human authorial intention. “Balthasar believed that at the time of a given biblical text’s composition and first reception, the Spirit was already at work opening up the text’s superabundant range of meanings” (p. 183). Relatedly, Balthasar was extremely critical of the idea that a text’s meaning can be summarized in brief formulas in which the summary is presented as articulating the text’s meaning more perspicuously than the text itself. “Once we step into that boat […], we inevitably cut the mooring lines to the text and are sure to drift wherever our own culture’s winds happen to blow us. The standard approach, therefore, fails to appreciate the Bible’s surplus of meaning as it participates in the theodrama” (p. 183).
In light of the fact that Balthasar accepts multiple meanings in Scripture, does his position necessarily result in a kind of hermeneutical relativism? According to Dickens, (and I tend to agree), absolutely not. There are two constraints that limit the range of acceptable meanings: (1) authorial intent and (2) the regula fidei. Regarding the first, though Balthasar did not limit the meaning of a text to human authorial intent, he did view the human author’s (or redactor’s) intent as being a necessary but not sufficient condition for proper interpretation.
“For Balthasar, trying to discern the human author’s intention is, in part, a straightforwardly historical-critical undertaking, involving the identification of the various conditions attending the creation and reception of the original text. Such investigations do not yield meanings, however, since […] tracing the genesis of a text [i.e., relying solely on the diachronic approach] is not the same as understanding it. But this research does limit the number of plausible authorial intentions.” (p. 184)Secondly, part of understanding the human author’s intention involves what Balthasar calls seeking a “fellow-feeling” with the author. [I hear echoes of Gadamer here]. Because the goal of
“sharing a fellow-feeling with the author is to apprehend more accurately the text’s subject matter, interpreters trying to cultivate this feeling must take their cues from the texts themselves. Putting the point differently, a reader must not allow his or her pre-understanding of love to control the way he or she interprets, say, John’s claims about God’s love for the world. Rather, the interpreter must let the evangelist’s (and redactor’s) uses of this term and its philological relatives guide the inquiry.” (p. 184)The second constraint that restricts the range of acceptable meanings is the regula fidei, which Balthasar understood as a “sense for the radiant integrity of the whole form of revelation as that is mediated by the Scriptures. This is a theological aesthetic sensibility, a capacity to hear when a proposed interpretation distorts the harmonies that Balthasar believed resonate throughout the Bible” (p. 184). Examples of such harmonies include the (consonant, yet in some instances paradoxical) relation between mercy and judgment, Christ’s humiliation and exaltation, the distance of the Father and the nearness of the Son, the dual nature of the one Person Jesus Christ and so on.
“For Balthasar, the theological aesthetic fittingness of these relationships, and the beauty of the whole to which they belong, is objectively demonstrable to the eyes of faith. These demonstrations, however, are not based on a comprehensive overview of revelation in its finished totality, for such a vision would undermine the theodramatic quality of God’s dealings with creation. Rather, the rule of faith is a graced capacity to detect when one aspect of revelation’s dynamic relationships has been thrown out of balance by exaggerating or unduly minimizing its significance, or by omitting it altogether.” (pp. 184-85)____________________
1 Dickens’ essay is found in The Cambridge Companion to Hans Urs Von Balthasar, eds. by Edward T. Oakes, S.J., and David Moss (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 175-186.