Plenary #5: “Von Balthasar on Exodus 3” (Murphy)

“Von Balthasar on Exodus 3: The Metaphysics of the Exodus Revisited”
By Francesca Murphy

1) Introduction

I am using my entry into this blog conference to discuss a relatively obscure and minute piece of von Balthasar’s scripture study because I didn’t understand what he was doing when I first read it. In my review of Glory VI in the Downside Review (c. 1990), I was ‘humorous’ at the expense of his idea that ‘J’ carries the cataphatic element in the Old Testament, and ‘E’ the apophatic. One can’t understand von Balthasar outside the traditions of Catholic theology, in this case, the ‘Christian philosophy’ recommended in Aeterni Patris and practised by chaps like Clement of Alexandria, Origen the Great and St. Thomas Aquinas.

Von Balthasar interprets Exodus 3 as a Christian philosopher, meaning, he makes revelation shed light on stuff we think about. He uses the revelation of the divine name to Moses to illuminate the discovery of multiple sources within the canonical text. To show how his reading sits within Christian philosophy, I will begin by describing Gilson’s classic (1948) presentation of Thomas Aquinas’ as the key interpreter of the ‘metaphysics of the Exodus.’ For Gilson, the accurate grasp of God’s ‘I am that I am’ is the moment of truth, in which faith and reason meet. Joseph Ratzinger defended an analogous reading of the revealed ‘name’ of God in 1968, arguing that the unknown and the known aspects of God coalesce in the revelation of the divine name to Moses. The year before, in 1967, von Balthasar had published the sixth volume of The Glory of the Lord: The Old Covenant. Von Balthasar’s reading of Exodus 3 is like Gilson’s and Ratzinger’s. It goes even further in showing that the mystical readings of Exodus 3 as containing both cataphatic (sensory and knowable) and apophatic (unknowable) elements helps to make sense of the source-history of the text. All three read the text as Christian philosophers, using the theological insight given to faith to stimulate the rational awareness of God.

2) Gilson (1948): He Who is means Act of Being

Before he tells us about Thomas on the divine name, Gilson presents Augustine as the earlier, and, contrasting (i.e., frankly less good), interpreter of Exodus 3.13-15. For the Bishop of Hippo, God’s ‘I am Who Am’ means that God is the essence of divinity: conceiving “the Being of Exodus … as the immovable entity of Plato … Augustine identified ... the God of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob with that alone which, being immovable, can be called essentia in ... the fullness of the term” (Gilson, The Christian Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, 85, 97).

Thomas applies negative theology before he arrives at the meaning of the revealed Name. He wants to arrive at the divine simplicity, and we are still ascribing composition to God if we say that God is God because of his deity. For Thomas, the notion of the divine simplicity requires us to avoid asserting that God’s essence (deity) defines or constitutes him as God. We need to back away from (‘negate’) anything that could give us an idea of God’s essence (divinitas) as founding the ‘Deus’ (God), because it creates a residue of ‘composition’ in our notion of God. Despite being a tautology, and compact, ‘God is the essence of Deity’ doesn’t deliver simplicity. It divides God into an ‘essence’ and a substance. To read I am Who I am as meaning ‘God is the Essence of God,’ introduces composition into God precisely because it is a definition: because it misses the negative element, and gives the Deus / God a knowable essence (divinitas). Without a negative probing which undermines such theological ‘essentialism,’ we will conceive of God as a substance backed up by an essence: the essence of divinity will be taken to determine the substance of Deity. Gilson claims that, because Thomas sets out on the ‘unclimbable’ (‘apophatic’) side of the mountain, he teaches us that we cannot “say” divine “simplicity” “properly if we remain on the plane of substance and essence, which are objects of quidditative concepts. The divine simplicity is perfect because it is the simplicity of pure act. We cannot define it; we can only affirm it by an act of the judging faculty” (Ibid., 91). We have no intellectually circumscribable concept of God. All we can say is that God’s essence is to exist. Thomas’ stripping away of everything that could produce a composite idea of God provokes the insight that God’s essence is existing: what God is (I am), the divine essence is “that by which He exists, namely, the pure act of existing” (Ibid.). Augustine and Thomas both read Exodus 3 ‘philosophically,’ but: “When St. Augustine read the name of God, he understood ‘I am he who never changes.’ St. Thomas reading the same words understood them to mean ‘I am the pure act-of-being’” (Ibid., 93).

For Thomas, God’s essentia is “absorbed by its Esse”: it does not follow that God has no essence. Nor does it mean that the object of the rational, philosophical quest for God’s nature leads to an intellectual abyss. Whereas the Augustinian tautology seems to satisfy the mind’s desire to know God, but teaches us nothing, we know something more about God when we recognize that it is God’s nature to exist. This recognition is “a literal interpretation of the word of God” in Exodus 3.13-14 and, simultaneously, a philosophical insight. The philosophical, and negative, ascent to God converges with the positive, theological descent of God’s word: “this pure act-of-being which St. Thomas the philosopher met at the end of metaphysics, St. Thomas the theologian had met too in Holy Scripture. It was no longer the conclusion of rational dialectic but a revelation from God Himself to all men that they might accept it by faith. ... St. Thomas thought that God had revealed to men that His essence was to exist. ... Here … seeing these two beams of light so converging that they fused into each other, he was unable to withhold a word of admiration for the overwhelming truth blazing forth from their point of fusion. He saluted this truth with a title exalting it above all others: ‘God’s essence is therefore His act-of-being. Now this sublime truth (hanc autem sublimem veritatem) God had taught to Moses when Moses asked what to reply if the children of Israel should ask His name (Exod III.13). And the Lord replied: I am Who Am. You may say this to the children of Israel: He Who Is has sent me to you. Thus He showed that His proper name is Who Is. Now every name is intended to signify the nature or essence of something. It remains then that the divine act-of-being itself (ipsum divinum esse) is the essence or nature of God’” (Ibid., 93). He Who is means Act-of-Being. It is when Thomas’ reason hammers sufficiently hard on God’s dissonance with creaturely thinking to make him grasp that God’s essence is to exist that his rational quest coalesences with the positive, consonant given of faith: I Am Who Am.

3) Ratzinger (1968)

In his Introduction to Christianity, Ratzinger observes that two traditions have entered into the ‘divine name’ as delivered to Moses. One is the “El-religion of the surrounding peoples,” which conceives of God as a personality, a sort of ancient Middle Eastern notion of God as ‘I’ in relation to lesser ‘Thous’ (Introduction, 122). Because Exodus 3 includes this tradition, it gives God the personal name Elohim. It is as ‘Elohim’ that God tells Moses that he may tell the children of Israel, “the LORD God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, hath sent me unto you: this is my name for ever” (Exodus 3.15). On the other hand, this same God has just told Moses that his “name” is “I am who I am” – “almost a rebuff” to Moses, Ratzinger thinks, because, of course, how could Moses know what that meant? The name Yahweh delivers “a hint of a God who is entirely different from ‘the gods.’ The explanation of the name Yahweh by the little word ‘am’ thus serves as a kind of negative theology. It cancels out the significance of the name as a name; it effects a sort of withdrawal from the only too well known, which the name seems to be, into the unknown, the hidden. It dissolves the name into mystery, so that the familiarity of God, concealment and revelation, are indicated simultaneously. The name, a sign of acquaintance, becomes the cipher for the perpetually unknown and unnamed quality of God” (Ibid., 128).

The convergence of ‘Yahweh,’ meaning I am, with ‘Elohim’ means that the unknown God who just ‘is’ is the known, personal face of the God of the Fathers. This is scandalous, both to the ‘seers,’ the intellectuals, who seek an essential not a personal God, and to the theology Profs, who want God to speak by the book: “to the thinker it is a scandal that the Biblical God should bear a name. ... Platonic, absolute Being … is not named and names itself still less; for the ‘dogmatic theologian’ interpreting ‘Yahweh’ as Being entails ‘turning the Biblical idea of God into its opposite’” (Ibid., 119-120).

The intellectual is not thinking philosophically enough, and the anti-Hellenistic dogmatician lacks faith in the proximity of God to us in Jesus Christ. It is faith and Mosaic revelation which gives us the “enigmatic and profound ‘I am’” just as it is the humane, Biblical and extra-Biblical mind which desires the “element of the person, of proximity, … heralded in the idea of the ‘God of our fathers’ and … concentrated … later in the idea of ‘the God of Jesus Christ’” (Ibid., 135-136). The “two components in the biblical concept of God,” together produce the “paradox of Biblical faith in God”: “the conjunction” of the elusive and the tangible, the “unity” of the “fact … that Being is accepted as a person, and the person accepted as Being itself” (Ibid., 136). It was “Christian faith” which opted, “in favor of the God of the philosophers ... and in favour of the truth of Being” (Ibid., 142, my italics).

4) Von Balthasar (1967): Dazzling Darkness

Von Balthasar notes that God tells Moses two things about himself in Exodus 3: first, ‘I am who I am (or, I will be who I will be for you)’ and, second, ‘I am YHWH, the Elohim of your fathers.’ This ambiguous self-naming places Moses “in a dramatic dialectic of knowing and not knowing. … [W]hen he asks for the name on account of the mission, he receives a dialectical answer: the one name is a designation without apparent content, and the other name contains a promise of God’s self-attestation by a free attestion on behalf of the people, but it evades a specific designation” (Glory VI, 37-38). Moses is given an apparently contentless name backed up by a disconcertingly vague promise of presence: the name is elusive, the promise of protection sounds like open-ended hand waving. On Mount Sinai, Moses will see God, but only ‘from behind’: “Here the dialectic of knowing and not-knowing passes over into that of seeing and not-seeing.”

Von Balthasar connects the two threads of ‘seeing’/‘knowing’ and ‘not-seeing’/‘not-knowing’ to the Yahwistic and Elohistic traditions. The Yahwistic ‘I am’ thread is the element of tangibility or light and flame, whilst the Elohistic contribution gives us the God of ‘cloud’ and darkness: “the (Yahwistic) divine fire does not erupt from inside the mountain, but, like the (Elohistic) cloud, it descends from above. … [T]he motif of light and darkness is subsequently transformed … First, we have the theme of the divine cloud which … takes its place at the head of the people: ‘YHWH went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead them along the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light’ (Ex. 13.21)” (Ibid., 41-42).

These “contradictory traditions” are interwoven, and not only in P’s “liturgised” “harmonis[ation] which was not built to last (2 Cor 3.10) (Ibid., 46, 43-44). God himself brings them together as form (temuna), and even as beauty (tub): ‘I will make my beauty pass before you,’ God tells Moses on Sinai, granting Moses “a vision of the Glory after it has passed by, since no one can see it in the ‘face’ (Ex. 33.23) … The beauty of God … is really seen even though his essence (his face) is not seen: beauty as a word for a knowledge which, even in its concealment, is nonetheless disclosed” (Ibid., 40-41).

5) Common Elements

Gilson, Ratzinger and von Balthasar all read Exodus theologically, that is, within Christian tradition. They therefore interpret it ontologically, that is, not just as a description of God’s self-naming, that is, as a unique ‘Christian’ myth about God’s self-designation, as if he were Zeus naming himself Zeus, repeating his mythological name very loud to Moses. They read the name ontologically, as an expression of God’s being (Gilson), truth (Ratzinger), and beauty (von Balthasar). To give one’s name is not tautologously to describe oneself as oneself, and thus to give nothing. It is a real – and thus ontologicalgiving of one’s being. In this act in which God “mak[es] himself nameable” (Introduction, 134), in which he reveals his “name” by showing his glory or “holiness” (Glory VI, 64), God exposes Who He Is: “each person who reveals himself by speaking and acting necessarily discloses … something about his nature” (Ibid., 53-54). As a real self-giving, or “enter[ing] into coexistence with” humanity (Introduction, 135), the revelation of the name to Mosaic faith coincides with the desire of human reason to know what God is. All three read Exodus 3 in relation to the age old problem of ‘faith and reason’, and all three find a double paradox in it. On the one hand, there is the paradox that faith and reason should come together at all. A real revelation is an ontological revelation, and therefore generates philosophy. On the other hand, there is the paradox that it is by reading ‘I am’ in the most lucidly ‘Hellenistic’ and onto-theological light that one perceives its elusive, non-conceptualizable and enigmatic quality. A real philosophy begins in wonder and therefore generates mystery.

6) Ratzinger and von Balthasar Apply Historical Criticism to Exodus 3

Despite reaching conclusions analogous to those of Gilson, Ratzinger’s and von Balthasar’s interpretations of Exodus 3 have a different feel. This is because they take into account what Pius XII called the Bible’s “forms of expression” (Divino Afflante Spiritu, #33; Vatican II, Dogmatic Constitution on Revelation, #12). The use of the idea that the Elohistic source conveys the ‘I and Thou’ (Ratzinger) or the ‘cloudy’ aspect of Israel’s God, while the Jahwist carries the firey ‘I am’ tradition (von Balthasar) goes back to Pius XII’s exhortation that “the interpreter … without neglecting any light derived from recent research, endeavors to determine the peculiar character and circumstances of the sacred writer, the age in which he lived, the sources written or oral to which he had recourse” (Divino Afflante Spiritu #33).

7) Why Do the Sources Combine? Historical Argument

Observing that the Biblical exegete’s “foremost and greatest endeavor should be to discern and define clearly that sense of the biblical words which is called literal,” Pius XII notes that, because “what was said and done in the Old Testament was ordained and disposed by God … that things past prefigured in a spiritual way those that were to come under the new dispensation of grace ... the exegete … must search out and expound … the spiritual sense” (DAS, #22, 26). In Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, this means that “since Holy Scripture must be read and interpreted in the sacred spirit in which it was written, no less serious attention must be given to the content and unity of the whole of Scripture if the meaning of the sacred texts is to be correctly worked out” (DCR, #12). Does this require us to assume an unreasoning preference for the ‘canonical whole’? Not if it can be shown that Scripture is unitary because the ‘spiritual sense’ unveiled by the “dispensation of grace” makes sense of the individual, literal meanings. For the anti-Hellenistic voices in theology, ‘I am Who am’ is an hapax legomenon. The anti-ontological readings make the divine self-naming both unique to faith or alien to human reasoning, and an hapax within Scripture itself. Ratzinger takes an historical route into showing that the ‘I am that I am’ saying coheres with the philosophical probing of the divine. He picks out a continuous intra-Biblical tradition of interpreting God as ‘I am,’ from the Mosaic witness to Deutero-Isaiah, to Revelation, and to John’s Gospel. This indicates that the theological testimony given to Moses is not a ‘mythological,’ descriptive ‘once-off,’ which fires the imagination without touching the intellect. Rather, God’s donation of his name to Moses becomes an intellectual acquisition, around which accumulate deeper and deeper insights, from Deutero-Isaiah’s ‘I, Yahweh, the first, and with the last, I am He’ (41.4) to Revelation’s iteration of the formula, now translated into the Greek εγο ειμι (Rev. 1.4, 1.17, 2.8, 22.13). In this ‘I am’/εγο ειμι “the God of Israel confronts the gods and identified himself as the one who is, in contrast to those who have been toppled over and pass away.” As an historical tradition, this theological acquisition is oriented toward the logical ‘Greek’ perception that God is Being: “The name Yahweh, whose meaning is brought home in such a fashion, thus moves a step farther toward the idea of him who ‘is’ in the midst of the ruins of appearance” (Introduction, 131-132). John 17 completes the unification of Scripture by revealing Christ “as the burning bush from which the name of God issues to mankind. But since in the view of the fourth Gospel Jesus unites in himself … the ‘I am’ of Exodus 3 and Isaiah 43, it becomes clear … that he himself is the name, that is, the invocability of God. The name is ... a person: Jesus himself” (Ibid., 133).

8) Why Different Traditions? Philosophical Argument

Even given the historical defence of a unitary thread in Scripture, one can still ask, why should different sources and traditions have gone into the making of Canonical Scripture? For the Biblical historian, they are just there. There just are divergent contributions to what became ‘Sacred Scripture,’ and, because there are, they should be left in their isolated plurality. Compelling them to converge is anachronistically to disregard the original intentions of the authors. It was some such ‘thought’ which led me, twenty years ago, to imagine, when I read that Moses on Sinai is “caught up in” a “vision/non-vision” (Glory VI, 38) that von Balthasar was imposing an artifical, neo-Platonic Life of Moses on the real Elohists, Yahwists and Priestly authors. Doesn’t von Balthasar give the game away when he affirms with naïve confidence that the “primary scheme whereby the glory is manifested as such again emerges at Tabor (the ‘bright cloud’), and lives on … in the biblical mysticism of Gregory of Nyssa (‘the ascent of Moses’), of Denys (‘dazzling darkness’), and John of the Cross (the ‘dark night’)” (Ibid., 44)? But then again, why several traditions? If you take your perspective from faith, the discoveries of the source critics make sense. Gregory of Nyssa and John of the Cross didn’t live on a different planet from the Elohist and the Yahwist. It’s a common finding of the whole human and theological tradition that there’s a light side and a dark side to our knowledge of God. The cataphatic and apophatic modes were not invented by Pseudo-Dionysius. These two ways have always been with us. They belong to a religious common sense that turns up throughout history. By considering the matter from the perspective of what Pius XII called “the explanations and declarations of the teaching authority of the Church, as likewise the interpretation given by the Holy Fathers, and even ‘the analogy of faith’ as Leo XIII … observed in … Providentissimus Deus” (DAS #24), von Balthasar illuminates, and does not disregard, the discovery of multiple strata within the Exodus tradition.

9) Theological Interpretation of Scripture: the Glory

Gilson, Ratzinger and von Balthasar read Exodus 3 theologically. The justification of the theological interpretation of Scripture is that it helps us to understand that God is love. The “mysterious reticence” with which God “reveals his name” to Moses (Glory VI, 64) is that of a lover. Grasping this is what ‘negative theology’ is for. This is why theology corroborates philosophy by correcting it. When he “wrote on a slip of paper … ‘Fire. God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob,’ not ‘of the philosophers and scholars,’” Pascal “had encountered the burning bush experience, as opposed to a God sinking back … into the realm of mathematics, and had realized that the God who is the eternal geometry of the universe can only be this because he is creative love” (Introduction, 143-144). The gloriously sensorily perceptible, and yet, burning, jealous ‘fire’ of the Yahwist and the prophets, “precisely this consuming conflagration is God’s ‘eternal love’ (Jer. 31.3)” (Glory VI, 48-49).


Fred said…
Splendid! Thank you so much for this post.