Plenary #6: “The Unfolding of the Form” (Doerge)

“The Unfolding of the Form: Von Balthasar, The Old Testament, and the Scriptural Mediation of Revelation”
By Halden Doerge

I. Introduction: Von Balthasar on the Scriptural Mediation of the Divine Form

The role of the Old Testament in Christian self-understanding and theology has been a disputed point of doctrine from the earliest points of Christian existence. The Marcionite controversy established, with the utmost indelibility, the importance to the Christian church of retaining the Old Testament scriptures and indispensable witnesses to the God revealed in Christ. Indeed, it is important to remember, in seeking to discern the theological status of the Old Testament for Christian reality, that the church was more than able to get along without the New Testament for a good portion of its early life. However, the reverse is absolutely not the case. From its earliest days, the testimony of the church is that it was not able to narrate its own story without the witness of the Old Testament.

The goal of this essay is to offer a treatment of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s view of the Old Testament, with particular reference to his theological aesthetics. While works beyond The Glory of the Lord will be engaged at points, the necessity of limiting the scope of this essay to something obtainable is incumbent upon us if we wish to avoid ironing out the nuances that von Balthasar works so hard to establish. While a thorough analysis of von Balthasar’s view of the Old Testament would require substantial engagement, both his statements about the role of Scripture in theology and his actual practice of reading biblical texts, here I will limit my argument primarily to von Balthasar’s statements about the Old Testament in volumes 1 and 6 of his theological aesthetics.

The question before us is how von Balthasar saw the first testament of the Christian Scriptures as functioning in the revelational disclosure of the Trinitarian God. Any reader of von Balthasar’s massive corpus will immediately be struck by its thoroughgoing immersion in the Bible. If von Balthasar is anything he is extremely committed to situating theology within the field of exegesis, allowing both disciplines to mutually determine one another.1 Any fair reading of von Balthasar’s theology is compelled to admit that it manifests a profound theological reading of Scripture which is vivified by his situatedness in the riches of the Christian tradition.

For von Balthasar, following closely as he did in the footsteps of the great patristic theologians in their engagement with Scripture, the Old Testament remained indispensible to the proper articulation of the Christian mystery. The revelation of the Trinitarian God manifested in the world in Christ could only be apprehended through the lens of the Scriptural witness which participates in the very form of revelation itself in testifying to it.2 Von Balthasar is clear that on the one hand, Scripture is not itself revelation, but rather its witness and servant. “Scripture is not the Word itself, but rather the Spirit’s testimony concerning the Word, which springs from an indissoluble bond and marriage between the Spirit and those eyewitnesses who were originally invited and admitted to the vision.”3 Scripture emerges as the Spirit-inspired witness to the revelation of the Trinitarian God, the humble servant of revelation which mediates it to its readers. The Scriptures (along with the Eucharist) participate in the form of revelation through their pneumatic activity of bearing witness to God’s self-revelation in Christ.4 In bearing witness to the form of the glory (beauty) of God revealed in Christ, the Scriptures themselves bear the marks of the divine luminosity, they themselves become a mediator of the divine radiance. The question, then for the purpose of this essay, is how, for von Balthasar, the distinctive portion of the Christian Scriptures, the Old Testament, fits into this revelational dynamic. How, precisely, does the Old Testament participate in and mediate the form of Christ?

II. The Old Covenant: Christ, Israel, and the Old Testament

For von Balthasar it is absolutely axiomatic that the Old Testament does not possess within itself its own eidos. The Old Testament is itself inherently incomplete. The Old Testament experience of the revelation of Yahweh’s glory does not in itself yield the absolute, but remains temporally oriented to it, the figure of Israel traversing its path with God in via, on pilgrimage towards the final revelation of God’s glory which is the object of Israel’s hope.5 This is the key difficulty that von Balthasar identifies concerning “the theological meaning of the Old Testament for Christians.” The question of the Old Testament is difficult “because, in order to be able to constitute one total form with Christ, the Old Testament must participate in his singularity ... while on the other hand, Christ’s uniqueness – the qualitative newness that he brings – must stand in contrast to the Old Testament, which is thus lowered to another level of theological reality.”6 Here von Balthasar draws attention to what could be crudely called the problem of “continuity and discontinuity.” On the one hand, the Old Testament, as part of the Spirit’s witness to the revelation of Christ must participate in his own singular reality. On the other hand, the very singularity of the Christ-form demands that it be distinguished from the Old Testament in an altogether unique way.

For von Balthasar, the answer to this problematic is to be found in a distinctly figural reading of the reality of Israel and the Old Testament. The dialectic of type and antitype, a fixture of patristic theological interpretation of the Old Testament remains for von Balthasar the proper way to articulate the union of the Old Testament witness with the christic form of revelation, and its subordination to the radical singularity of Christ. “Existence in the Old Testament is, in its innermost essence, a transition from no participation at all to fullness of participation.”7 For von Balthasar the revelation of God in Israel as mediated through the Old Testament witness must be understood as participating in the future reality of the fullness of the revelation of Christ precisely insofar as it manifests the absence of such participation in itself. “The most important thing with the Old Testament ... is that it understands and explains itself as an incomprehensible historical movement that sets Israel apart from the paths of all other peoples and impels Israel towards an ever more incomprehensible historical destination.”8

The participation of the Old Testament in the event of Christ’s revelation occurs precisely through the Old Testament giving way to Christ as type to antitype. However, one may ask, does not such a Christocentric figural reading of the Old Testament inevitably devalue and domesticate the distinctive nature of the Old Testament and Israel’s faith? In the face of the luminosity of the antitype, what further need is there for the type? Here von Balthasar is emphatic about the indispensability of the Old Testament for the Christian church. The Old Testament sets the historical and theological conventions within which Christ is who he is. While they are not as necessary for Christ as he is for them, he assumes them and cannot be approached except through them. Thus, in assuming the history of Israel as the historical and theological context for his incarnation, Christ unites himself to the witness of the Old Testament and Israel in such a way that he can never be considered without them. “Jesus constitutes one form with the history of the Old Testament.”9

The fulfillment of the figure of Israel in Christ does not set aside the Old Testament any more than the fulfillment of the promise nullifies the giving of the promise. This is perhaps the fundamental way in which von Balthasar approaches the issue of the continuing participation of the Old Testament in the form of revelation. It is central to recognize the fact that “that which brings fulfillment can be understood only with what it fulfils. It is essential to insist as strongly as possible that Christianity cannot be understood without the old covenant.” The church’s identity is derived from Israel and the fulfillment of Israel in Christ does not abrogate but establishes this reality. For the church, it is “the particular mode of formlessness which is Israel’s” which “transcends itself objectively in such a way that it comes truly into its own in the particular mode in which the Christian Church knows that it is a form, and is also legitimated as such on the basis of Israel.”10 Israel is not cast aside in Christ’s fulfillment of the Old Testament, but rather is transfigured in God’s act of drawing all nations in Christ into their reality in the form of a New Creation, the civitate dei, the New Jerusalem in which nothing is lost or sublimated.

III. Conclusion: The Splendor of the Promise

Much of what von Balthasar affirms about the fulfillment of the Old Testament and Israel in the form of Christ will be problematic, not only to adherents of Judaism, but to many Christian theologians who are rightly concerned with the crucial issue of Jewish-Christian relations. For von Balthasar, the figure of Christ is the lens through which all such issues may be negotiated. Unlike certain proposals, such as that of Douglas Harink, the option is not open for von Balthasar to simply affirm that Jewish communities who manifest the moral virtues of Christ must be seen as participating in the fullness of the mystery of salvation.11 For von Balthasar, as for Barth, Christ is the center and circumference of theological reality and the difficult questions of Israel and the Old Testament must be negotiated through him, not around him.

However, von Balthasar’s understanding of Christ’s fulfillment of the Old Covenant, properly understood, need not, and indeed cannot, lead to the kind of supercessionism that many theologians rightly fear today.12 It does however insist that all forms of theological engagement with Israel and the Old Testament find their coherence only in Christ, in the faith that in Christ nothing is lost, nothing is violated, nothing is excluded.13 The various images that emerge in Israel’s journey with Yahweh, in their hope for the fullness of participation in his life, are not cast aside in Christ. Rather, in their very fragmentation and incompatibility, the figures of Israel’s faith as recounted in the Old Testament14 find their being in Christ, only coming into a polyphonic symphony in him. “The images of the periphery have not been absorbed and dissolved in Christ as something that is superseded; the midpoint of the new covenant retains its full historical form together with the images that fill it; Moses and Elijah appear on Tabor to speak about the Passion, the twenty-four elders before the throne are made up in equal measure of the ‘pillars’ of the old and new covenants. For there are forms in the old covenant which cannot be left behind by the new, even when they are filled here with new contents and with greater glory (2 Cor 3).”15

The hope of Israel and the abiding witness of the Old Testament are not found, for von Balthasar in themselves, but in Christ,
And since Christ as God and man is the fulfilled covenant in himself, bridegroom and bride are brought by him into the divine fulfillment: the total breach of faithfulness by the daughter of Zion and her rejection are no longer possible, since all breaches of fidelity – even the most terrible – by the Church on earth are undergirded by an indefectible nuptial fidelity which – in the resurrection of the bridegroom and, as its necessary consequence, the bodily assumption into heaven of the άπάρχη, the first fruits, of the bride – justifies the cry in the midnight of this age: “Behold, the bridegroom comes!” (Matt. 25:6)


1 For von Balthasar the relation of exegesis and theology (or between biblical and ecclesial theology) was only a further aspect of the very question of the relationship between the Old and New Testaments (and the relationship of the various literary parts of the Old and New Testaments to one another). On this point see Convergences: To the Source of the Christian Mystery (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1983), 75-110, esp. 82-90.

2 Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, Volume 1: Seeing the Form (San Francisco, Ignatius, 1982), 30-33.

3 Ibid., 31.

4 See ibid., 529-532.

5 See Hans Urs von Balthasar, A Theology of History (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1994), 130-133.

6 GL 1, 621.

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid., 627.

9 Ibid., 619.

10 Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, Volume 6: The Old Covenant (San Francisco, Ignatius, 1991), 403.

11 See his Paul Among the Postliberals: Pauline Theology Beyond Christendom and Modernity (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2003).

12 See, for example, R. Kendall Soulen, The God of Israel and Christian Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996).

13 On this point it is worth noting that if nothing else, von Balthasar’s “hopeful universalism” prohibits any kind of anti-Semitic supercessionism. See his Dare we Hope “That All Men be Saved”? (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1988).

14 On the important issue of the various figures or images of Israel’s faith, see GL 1, 637-638.

15 GL 6, 409.

16 GL 6, 413-14.


Fred said…
Thanks for this post, Halden! I would add that von Balthasar explicitly denies supercessionism in his essay "Israel and the Church" which is a dense reflection on Romans 9-11(Explorations in Theology II: the Spouse of the Word). I recently posted some chunks from this essay.

In this same volume, the essay "Casta Meretrix" takes up the Patristic theme of the Church as redeemed prostitute, demonstrating that this great Biblical theme of the unfaithfulness of Israel not only applies to Judaism (see for example Scott Hahn's The Lamb's Supper), but also to Christianity.
Anonymous said…
"Rather, in their very fragmentation and incompatibility, the figures of Israel’s faith as recounted in the Old Testament find their being in Christ, only coming into a polyphonic symphony in him."

This, it seems to me, is the crux of the a dialogue between Jews and Christians.

What position would an orthodox Jew hold on the "completeness" or "fragmentation" into various images and "incompatibility" of the various figures of the Hebrew Bible? Balthasar plays a lot on the plurality of images/figures of Yahweh in the Old Testament, a plurality that cannot find its unity from within itself...
Fred said…

I would say that dialogue does not depend on complete agreement (see the conversation between Benedict XVI and Jacob Neusner), but upon mutual respect and an openness to learning from each other.