“Balthasar and ‘Contradictory’ Material in the Gospels”
By Heather W. Reichgott
By Heather W. Reichgott
It has been about a hundred and fifty years since the first historical-critical and literary-critical scholarship on the Bible started appearing. These methods usually assume that the Biblical text was composed in a series of layers. Some layers are older and some newer. Because they were composed in this way, the texts incorporate differences within themselves, as new layers include old layers, without changing them to force everything to be consistent. The most famous examples may be the four different stories of the resurrection of Christ among the four gospels. Despite the fact that these methods of biblical scholarship are no longer new, an awareness of the differences within biblical texts does not often filter into parish churches, where most of us are catechized in the faith; the result is that many of us are surprised, even shaken, when we discover that the text may not have been handed down from the Most High as a unified whole.
Despite his reputation as a conservative theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar does not try to harmonize different stories into a single account, nor does he try to explain away the differences, both of which would help us return to the traditional perception of divine inspiration as God dictating a whole text at once (starting of course at the beginning and working His way to the end). However, neither does Balthasar explain the differences as the “human element” in the text—which would imply that differences exist only where the text is not divine revelation. Instead, Balthasar embraces the process of composition of texts in layers, including the resulting differences, precisely as the means by which divine revelation occurs.
Balthasar happily says there is “pluralism” within the Bible (Theo-Drama II, 79). The Gospels show us different aspects of Christ. Balthasar will not go so far as to say there is a “Marcan Christ” or a “Johannine Christ” as some contemporary scholars do. He does hold that, as in a musical fugue where different variants of a melody intersect and even clash at different times to create a complex and beautiful whole, we need the different parts of Christ’s form to understand him. The four Gospels together show us his suffering, his wisdom, his fragility, the history of his life, the mission in the future to which he calls people, his love of neighbor, his humanity, his divinity. Breaking these elements apart is what leads to all the historical heresies (Glory of the Lord I, 513).
In a section entitled “The Plurality of New Testament Theologies” Balthasar observes that no individual biography can exhaustively portray a human life (Theo-Drama III, 143). Moreover, Jesus’ life speaks above and beyond a finite life’s proportions. But the multiple perspectives don’t run to infinity—there are limits to what can be included in Jesus’ biography (144-146).
Historical Biblical research only points out more clearly that the historical testimony—historical, not invented—is of people who saw the person Jesus as Christ, and they bear witness to that reality. Events and witnessing get recorded together, which is to say that concrete history and faith are indivisible. History would be nothing without writing down the meanings of what happens. “Divine revelation has been received into the womb of human faith,” which is not the same thing as saying that one authoritative voice speaks and everyone else obeys (Glory of the Lord I, 536-537). We, like the disciples, need the eyes of faith to read events truly. This is not just subjectively projecting fictions back onto earlier events, because the outlines of history, perhaps especially a history with contradictions in it, can only be completed with the vision of faith (538-539). Scripture is testimony about a multi-faceted Christ, who dwells in the Church without being the Church. It is also not merely the internal (human) self-reflection of the Church (540).
As new Scripture comes from syntheses of faith, saying for example that Jesus really is the Christ, this is the “momentum of the glory of the divine love” at play (Glory of the Lord VII, 113). It is not (as some Protestants might have it) a “fundamentalism of the facts of salvation, strung together to be believed” (113-114). The facts are irreducibly important, yet they are only moments to light up the whole.
Scripture is “a word that journeys with us” (Theo-Drama II, 102). Scripture isn’t the finished stage text governing the enacting of real history. It becomes fixed at the end of events, not the beginning (103). In one sense Balthasar is referring to the later reflection of the Church, with the eyes of faith, but in another sense he is alluding to the final form that Scripture and all history will take at the eschaton. There are many layers in every text, and we can’t always tell whether earlier or later layers are fuller in understanding (104). The Word journeys from the earthly Jesus to the exalted Christ, through death to resurrection. Each layer has inalienable value. The final redaction doesn’t have to coincide with material words spoken by Jesus. It includes words spoken by the Spirit later, and words Jesus uttered that were only understood later and then fleshed out. God’s last word has not been said until the word ‘resurrection’ has been visibly fleshed out in full. And God’s final word is so vast that it makes us hear his silence too (105-106).
So, Scripture begins earliest with a narration of the events of Christ’s life. Then later on, in the light of Easter, the disciples are able to look back on those events and give a new, fuller meaning to them. Balthasar differs from writers like Marcus Borg in that he has no trouble saying the events in Christ’s life actually happened. However, when he discusses a passage such as the rush to the empty tomb by Peter and the beloved disciple near the end of John, it has much more to do with God’s revelation about different functions in the church than it does with the results of a photo-finish at the tomb’s entrance. The contemplatives (represented by the beloved disciple) and the official hierarchy (represented by Peter) both have their role in rushing toward Christ. God at work through the community of John’s gospel shows us that the official hierarchy is important, but the contemplatives are at the heart of the faith.
In this light, the fact that the other gospels lack this scene doesn’t make a difference for the credibility of the passage. Rather, it means this gospel is giving us something irreducibly valuable—its own divine revelation—and the other gospels are as well. To make sense of Gospels with contradictions we must in fact keep all parts of the historical Jesus, not disregard it in favor of a more consistent and un-contradictory idea, as Balthasar accuses Schleiermacher and Bultmann of doing (Theo-Drama III, 67-68).
Let us look in a bit more detail at Balthasar’s approach to the differing Resurrection narratives. They begin with a historical fact, consistent across all four gospels: the place where Jesus lay became empty (Mysterium Paschale, 226). More important theologically are the encounters of the disciples with the risen Christ. And yet, in recording all these encounters, each gospel makes a different “partial prior decision” (230). We can begin to tackle the differences by identifying the process of composition; we discover, probably, individual accounts, later enrichment, and harmonizations dating from still later periods—thanks to historical and literary criticism (233-234). But can we really exclude any particular account, from any time period, as being without historical value? “In the brokenness of revelation there is an adequacy, harmony, in divine inspiration, allowing the encounter of the self-revealing Lord with the believing mediating community” (235-236).
Balthasar then suggests some options for theological exegesis of the Resurrection narratives. First, the much-controverted end of Mark. There is no clear exegetical solution to the problem of the various endings. The theologian should appreciate the whole unity of the differing gospels, not create a special Marcan theology of the Parousia (236). Second, do the appearances occur in Galilee or Jerusalem? Galilee might have more historical heft behind it, but excluding Jerusalem means we forget about the relationship of Galilee and Jerusalem, not to mention the significance of Christ’s appearances in the place where he was condemned to death. Galilee and Jerusalem are related and so are the meaning of the resurrection appearances there (238-239). In considering the question about the Ascension—it is only present in Luke’s account—Balthasar meditates on the way this points up the other Gospels’ treatment of resurrection and ascension as a single happening. Luke lets both modes of exaltation stand side by side. If we do not view this as competing accounts, we can see that the same transcendent event can manifest itself differently (244-246). As a caveat Balthasar concludes this section by observing that as important as the theological meaning is, we shouldn’t forget the value that is in the specificity of the historical accounts (246-247).
The history is after all what gives us the full freight of actual appearances to actual people who then told everyone of the appearance and what it meant to them. Jesus’ resurrection appearances to the disciples are more than visions. The disciples recognize the “I,” the self, of God the Risen One. Jesus’ whole person is manifest to them. The encounter brings about personal conviction, conversion, and the earliest confessions of Jesus’ divinity. Only on the basis of Easter can the disciples grasp the meaning of Jesus’ entire life and begin to put it together with what they knew of him beforehand. Again, that does not make the gospels “legendary formations,” but gives them a transcendent synthesis they would have lacked without Easter (Theo-Drama IV, 218-222). He eats and drinks, transforming the realities of this world into the new aeon (253). Jesus’ appearances are always connected with his departure. He appears not to gather disciples into a permanent beatific vision but to send them onward to their brothers and sisters (224). One cannot tell this story without counting on its historic validity—and at the same time, its plurality, which allows it to be relevant to each and every believer.
Balthasar approaches Scripture with a core commitment, grounded in faith: to take what is offered, as itself. It is the same commitment with which he approaches Christ, or works of art or literature, or other people. Every person, work or whatever has its particular form, its own uniqueness in which God created it. If we decide ahead of time that we are going to ignore certain aspects of a person, or pick him apart for the purposes of scientific investigation, we’re never going to see him for who he is. “The first prerequisite for understanding is to accept what is given just as it offers itself. If certain excisions are practised on the Gospel from the outset, the integrity of the phenomenon is lost and it has already become incomprehensible” (Glory of the Lord I, 467). The whole form together is more authentic than any “simplifying suggestions.” Historical and literary criticism point to differences in the Gospels that are real, including the nature of faith, the role of eschatology, Jewish tradition, Hellenistic tradition, and so on. But we shouldn’t use them to simplify a complex Bible. Instead, the texts’ complexity expresses their unity (487). The contradictions are precisely what enable the Gospels to be Gospels, not just ethical teachings (Theo-Drama III, 87). We must take the Gospels with their inconsistencies if we are to have any chance of glimpsing the living God among the pages.
Balthasar, Hans Urs von. The Glory of the Lord. 7 vols. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1982-91 (1961-69).
—. Mysterium Paschale: the Mystery of Easter. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1990.
—. Theo-Drama. 5 vols. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988-98 (1973-83).