Plenary #3: “Beauty and Revelation” (McClain)

Beauty and Revelation: Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Creational Aesthetics

“The first Adam had a determinate nature, but the second Adam is the ground and goal of this nature.” Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Theology of Karl Barth1

If I was forced to provide a label for von Balthasar’s aesthetics (God forbid!), I might start with something like a creational aesthetics—that is, if it weren’t for the unfortunate associations I might unintentionally call to mind with ‘creationism.’ But, then again, isn’t it about time we reclaim ‘creation’ for some truly noble purpose, rather than the petty and political uses it is put to nowadays? Nevertheless, the term creational aesthetics traverses a bit of the distance covered in this essay; inasmuch as the doctrine of creation invokes a theology of nature and grace, von Balthasar’s aesthetics indeed enjoys a reciprocating relationship to his doctrine of creation. Parsing out a definition of aesthetics in von Balthasar’s writing, however, is not merely a matter of spelling out his doctrine of creation; his corpus, not to mention his knowledge base, is far too expansive, too heterogeneous for that. And even if we could cover his whole corpus, it is beyond the humble scope of this essay to claim a decisive grasp of his aesthetics. What’s more, opening the boxes of his doctrine of creation and his aesthetics implicates all sorts of fascinating and seemingly bottomless questions about nature and grace, expression and perception of form, and the role of Revelation.2 While I cannot give sufficient attention to any or all of these areas of his thought, nor should I wish to do so, I will limit myself both in scope and material by merely sketching out some three areas for further exploration. First, I will touch on his involvement in the heyday of the nature and grace debate of the first half of the last century. Second, I will examine features of his theological aesthetics that will be crucial to any later definitive venture into his aesthetics. Third, I will bring the salient aspects of his theology of nature/grace and his aesthetics into dialogue with some of his work on Revelation. I will limit my reflections primarily to selections from volumes 1 and 7 of The Glory of the Lord (GL) as well as his Theology of Karl Barth. Von Balthasar’s aesthetics, I will argue, is intimately connected to his doctrine of Revelation. Both, as I have already intimated, find their genesis in his theology of nature and grace.

When approaching the themes of aesthetics and Revelation in von Balthasar’s corpus, one does well to first look to Henri de Lubac’s paradigmatic concept of nature and grace: nature, he held, is not properly understood as separate from the supernatural, but is instead made for the supernatural.3 We can no longer pretend that the late scholastic, modern division of nature and grace is an adequate representation of the Tradition. While the majority of his Roman Catholic colleagues were practicing a textbook theology founded in late-scholastic Thomism, de Lubac argued that more than a few of the late scholastics posited a concept of pure nature (with the intention, of course, of thereby protecting the autonomy of divine grace). However, with this harsh duality comes the inevitable consequence of diminishing the relevance of grace for nature, and vice versa. De Lubac, in response to this, returned to the Augustinian adage, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you,” attempting to restore the classic teaching to its rightful place in the center of the Tradition. He produced this ressourcement in countless essays, not to mention his controversial Surnatural, and then later in The Mystery of the Supernatural. The influence of these two works in the second half of the twentieth century is profound, one of the most obvious examples being Vatican II documents like Gaudium et Spes.4 Especially apropos to our present interests is de Lubac’s profound influence upon von Balthasar. In a 1950 letter, von Balthasar boldly proclaimed to de Lubac that The Theology of Karl Barth is nothing less than his bringing de Lubac’s Surnaturel to bear upon the very issue of nature and grace in Barth’s writing. “I am finishing my Karl Barth, which is basically a discussion between him and you. I would like to dedicate this book to you, he owes you almost everything . . . I am doing what I can to make your influence spread in German countries.”5 Von Balthasar keenly felt the problems that certain theologies of nature and grace posed to theologians on both sides of the Tiber. The solution presented by de Lubac was, von Balthasar believed, one of the initial steps in the ecumenical dialogue, and thus the reunification of the broken Church. De Lubac’s solution, as we will discuss below, was also important, as it provided a means for understanding the structures of creation and Revelation and constructing the methods of analyzing those things.

The relationship of nature and grace—it can be an overwhelming issue, for it subsumes nearly every major theological dialogue of the last century, from Yale vs. Chicago to Vatican II. One’s ‘position’ here affects whether one adopts a special or general hermeneutic, whether one does theological exegesis or biblical theology, or some hybrid of the two. An unavoidable avenue for von Balthasar as he extends de Lubac’s insights is the doctrine of creation, including creation understood as the history of the world in light of Christ’s mission. In A Theology of History, Balthasar radicalizes the nature/grace distinction by making the case that in Christ the entire history of the world is recapitulated. “[T]he prior claim that all things were created in and for the incarnate Christ entails there being no human experience that Christ himself does not experience in some sense from the ‘inside.’”6 Of course, this recapitulation is for Balthasar an insight into the self-revealing love of the Father to the Son being worked out in and as salvation history. Thus, the Church is more than implicated. It is drawn up into this divine love through the mission of the Son via the Holy Spirit because the Son gives his mission to the Church as his sacrament through the Holy Spirit. Much more could be said of not only the Trinitarian relations (much, much more) and the place of the church in the divine life. For the purposes of this paper, let it be said that von Balthasar’s approach to understanding the church in the world occurs through de Lubac’s nature/grace dynamism, and therefore inculcates the concept of grace being at the very heart of nature.7 Indeed, following not only Augustine and his restless heart, but also Nazianzen and Aquinas, we can affirm that at the core of every created being is a relationship as creature to the risen Lord who in his very incarnation has embodied every aspect of the creation.8 He is the Lord who is nearer to the depth of me and my being than I am to myself.

Despite writing a 7-volume theological aesthetics, von Balthasar rarely addresses prolegomenous issues of aesthetics head on. Thus, it is necessary to fashion, from his meditations on creation (the relationship of nature and grace), a makeshift base in order to launch into an exploration of his aesthetics. We should also note that von Balthasar’s confrontation with Scripture produces important material for his understanding of aesthetics in that through this confrontation he comes to understand the matter of theological aesthetics to be God’s glory. Whether reading his Christology, his creation, or his elucidations on Scripture, we’re never far from the event of God’s glory in nature. “The lightning-flash of God’s glory has struck the earth: eternal time has made its impact felt in the time of men, eternal love has poured out all its blood in the death of a human being, has rested in the irrevocability of Hell, and has ‘prepared a place beside the Father’ (Jn 14.2) for those doomed to futility.”9 Yet, von Balthasar centers his aesthetics not in Christology, as one might think. The consequence of such a Christological aesthetics is a too stark distinction between nature and grace. Rather, as Edward Oakes rightly draws our attention to, the key to aesthetics is the doctrine of creation. “Is not our every encounter with the beautiful tantamount to an assent to creation, either bestowed on us or drawn from us?”10 The Beautiful, central to not only an experience of creation but the very make up of creation itself, is the inroad to Revelation, the advent of grace in nature par excellence.11

Here, von Balthasar brings the full weight of Beauty to bear upon the doctrine of Revelation. Beauty is not addenda or external to Revelation, but is the core of Revelation, and thus theology.12 Likewise, Beauty, like grace, is not external or dichotomous to nature, but is mysteriously both internal to nature, and yet does not violate the autonomy of nature. At the beginning of his theological aesthetics, Balthasar says, “The appearance of the form, as revelation of the depths, is an indissoluble union of two things. It is the real presence of the depths, of the whole reality, and it is a real pointing beyond itself to these depths.”13 In other words, form is unique, for one reason among others, because it has the capability to reveal not only itself, but also that which lies beyond it. But it does this not by some external pointing, but by pointing inward and thereby breaking (or fulfilling) the very logic of transcendence and immanence.14

We can now return to the quote at the beginning of this essay, for in it we see not just the full import of von Balthasar’s understanding of nature and grace, but (consequently) his Christology, his doctrine of revelation, and his aesthetics. Indeed, in creation God does give nature to itself. But He also gives that which is more essential to nature than nature itself.15 It is through the Incarnation that God meets creation most profoundly, affirming and perfecting the created order, yet at the same time demonstrating the mysterious immanence of the supernatural to the natural. The Pantocrator is also the incarnate Christ who, as Gaudium et Spes says, reveals to humanity its fullness. Von Balthasar’s creational aesthetic assists us in understanding how the incarnation as the Revelation of God himself in his creation is simultaneously the revelation of God’s beauty and God’s gracious perfection of creation from within. Such is the mystery of the supernatural.

The Catholic University of America
Washington, DC
Passiontide 2008


1 The Theology of Karl Barth (KB), 383.

2 I am indebted in this article to the work of Nicholas J. Healy, III, specifically his lecture notes and his article “The World as Gift,” Communio (2005): 395-406, for especially helpful discussions of nature and grace in von Balthasar), and Peter Caserella’s articles, “Experience as a Theological Category: Hans Urs von Balthasar on the Christian encounter with God’s Image” Communio 20 (1993): 118-28 and “A Meal and a Sacrifice” (forthcoming) for explorations into expression and form in von Balthasar theological aesthetics.

3 At this point, an English translation of Surnatural (1946) is still unavailable; however, his The Mystery of the Supernatural (New York: Herder & Herder, 1998), written in 1965, is generally considered to be an extension and clarification of the earlier work - see John Milbank’s The Suspended Middle for the counter-claim. Cf. also de Lubac’s “Internal Causes of the Weakening and Disappearance of the Sense of the Sacred” (1942) and “The Mystery of the Supernatural” (1949) for concise, albeit inchoate, summaries of the arguments made in both monographs, which are in Theology in History, trans. Anne Eglund Nash (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1996).

4 The Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes (promulgated Dec. 7, 1965): “Above all the Church knows that her message is in harmony with the most secret desires of the human heart when she champions the dignity of the human vocation, restoring hope to those who have already despaired of anything higher than their present lot” (19); “The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light. For Adam, the first man, was a figure of Him Who was to come, namely Christ the Lord. Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear” (22).

5 Letter from von Balthasar to de Lubac, July 1950, in de Lubac, Theology in History, 597.

6 Nicholas Healy, III & David L Schindler, “Balthasar on the Church as Eucharist,” in The Cambridge Companion to H. U. von Balthasar (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2004): 53; the authors demonstrate that von Balthasar’s is a thorough realization of de Lubac’s insight into nature and grace as they go on to establish that inasmuch as all creation happens through and because of the incarnate Christ, “Christ can be called with justice the concrete analogia entis”; cf. KB, 383: “Nature and grace have a meaning; and grace and faith are the ultimate meaning of meaning. The first Adam had a determinate nature, but the second Adam is the ground and goal of this nature.”

7 Healy argues that whereas classical liberalism, taking its cues from the late scholastic tradition, understands the redemption of humanity and nature as a positivistic addition, von Balthasar reads the redemption and autonomy of nature as something inherent to the very scheme of nature made for the supernatural (62-63).

8 Gregory Nazianzen, Ep. 101, in NPNF, vol. 7, 440: Christ assumes the entirety of human nature, uniting human nature to the godhead - “For that which He has not assumed He has not healed: but that which is united to His Godhead is also saved”; for an erudite discussion of the implications of the Incarnation viz. human nature, see T. Weinandy’s “Aquinas: God Is Man: The Marvel of the Incarnation,” in Aquinas on Doctrine: A Critical Introduction, eds. Thomas, Weinandy, Daniel Keating, & John Yocum (New York: Continuum, 2004).

9 GL, VII: Theology of the New Covenant, 529.

10 GL, I: Seeing the Form, 63 (quoting Gerhard Nebel, Das Ereignes des Schönen [Klett, 1953], 149).

11 Edward Oakes, Patterns of Redemption (New York: Continuum, 2004), 144-145.

12 GL, I, 117; cf. Oakes, 147.

13 GL, I, 118.

14 Von Balthasar’s logic of form is resonant to the primacy he gives love; love like form is a source of renewal, it points into itself, it opens itself to illuminate that which is not itself: “All of a sudden only one thing is essential: love. But from its monism everything constantly comes forth new. The simple richness of the one being opens out and discloses all the fullness of its truth, trinitarian, christological, ecclesiological, sacramental and cosmological” (“Revelation and the Beautiful,” in Word and Revelation: Explorations in Theology I [New York: Herder and Herder, 1964]: 155).

15 His work here bears resemblance to de Lubac’s explanation of the twofold event of a creature being granted existence and a supernatural finality, all in one act of creation (The Mystery of the Supernatural, 300).

Works Cited

Texts by von Balthasar:
A Theology of History. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1963.

The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, vol. I: Seeing the Form. Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, translator. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1982.

The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, vol. 7: Theology of the New Covenant. Brian McNeil, C.R.V., translator. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1989.

The Theology of Karl Barth: Exposition and Interpretation. Edward T. Oakes, translator. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1992.

Word and Revelation: Essays in Theology 1. A. V. Littledale, translator. New York: Herder and Herder: 1964.

Additional Texts:
De Lubac, Henri. The Mystery of the Supernatural. Rosemary Sheed, translator. New York: Herder and Herder, 1967.

________. Theology in History. Anne Eglund Nash, translator. San Franscico: Ignatius Press, 1996.

Oakes, Edward T. Patterns of Redemption: The Theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar. New York: Continuum, 1994.

Oakes, Edward T. and Moss, David, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Hans Urs von Balthasar. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
The Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes. Vatican II, December 7, 1965.


Anonymous said…
Great job, Dan. I hope that you pursue your Balthasar/de Lubac interests in your studies at CUA. I've certainly benefited from you work thus far.