Plenary #8: “Toward a Hermeneutics of Hope” (Congdon)

“Toward a Hermeneutics of Hope: Hans Urs von Balthasar on the Biblical Warrant for Universalism”
By David W. Congdon

1. Introduction

The problem of universalism has become an acute one in the modern era. The demise of Christendom and the rise of pluralism has radically altered the landscape within which Christian theology is constructed. In a post-colonial era of seemingly endless warfare and an ever-widening gap between the First World and the Two-Thirds World, how is one to understand the universality of Christ’s mission of reconciliation? In what sense is Jesus the victor, and in what sense is he the judge of the living and the dead? How free are humans really, and what is the relation between divine agency and human action? These are questions without easy answers, which raise the question of universalism for us in a new way. This is not to suggest that universalism has only become problematic due to the modern context—the problem is really an ancient one—but only to suggest why this issue has gained a new relevancy for the Christian church today.

In modern theology, universalism has been discussed from all sides, both for and against. Moreover, not everyone means the same thing by the word “universalism.” Robin Parry and Christopher Partridge, in their volume of essays on universalism within evangelicalism,1 offer a typology of universalisms: (1) multiracial universalism, (2) Arminian universalism, and (3) strong universalism. The first is taken for granted by Christians today and simply denotes the fact that people from “every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9) are included within the family of God. The second so-called Arminian or Catholic position is universalist in that God desires every individual to be saved and in fact offers salvation to all—in other words, a universalism in potentiality which we have to actualize through our faith. In concert with this universal offer of salvation, the Arminian position stresses a kind of libertarian free will which leaves the final outcome—salvation or damnation—up to each individual. The third category includes three different sub-types: (a) non-Christian universalism, (b) “pluralist universalism,” of the kind advocated by John Hick, and (c) “Christian universalism.” In discussing Hans Urs von Balthasar, we are concerned with the last of these types. Balthasar, as a Catholic, already accepts the free will version as part of accepted dogma. The question is whether the Christian gospel warrants a strong Christian universalism.

The rest of this essay is an exploration of how Balthasar handles the biblical material as it pertains to Christian universalism in his volume, Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved”?2 I will do so by (1) examining the internal contradiction within Scripture, (2) looking at several different exegetical “test cases,” and finally (3) critiquing Balthasar’s theological exegesis while offering an alternative. I argue that Balthasar, in seeking to do justice to the tensions within Scripture, ends up with a “hermeneutics of crisis” and only an abstract “hermeneutics of hope.”

2. The Internal Contradiction within Scripture

Balthasar’s analysis of the biblical warrant for universalism begins with a pastoral problem: Can we truly hope and pray that every person will be saved? He quotes G. Hermes as saying: “We can well . . . hope for every individual man and pray that he attains salvation, because we do not know what judgment God will pass upon him. But we cannot hope that all men will enter heaven, because that is expressly excluded through revelation” (20). Hermes presents a common, but contradictory, statement: either we do not know God’s judgment, and so the salvation of all is possible, or we do, and the salvation of all is excluded. Noticing this problem, Balthasar proceeds to investigate the claim that universalism “is expressly excluded through revelation.” He does this by identifying two sets of texts in the New Testament: one set of “threatening words” which speak of hell fire and eternal punishment, and another set of statements “which appear to hold out the prospect of universal redemption” (20-21).

Proponents on each side of the debate have plenty of texts to support their position. For those who reject universalism, appeals can be made to many of Jesus’ own statements, most famously the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matt. 25 and the imagery of the “lake of fire” in John’s Apocalypse. Those who support a hopeful universalism appeal to the Pauline epistles and the Johannine literature, most famously the Adam-Christ typology in 1 Cor. 15 and Rom. 5. Each side, of course, has ways of explaining away the other side. Balthasar highlights two.

For those who lean toward universalism, one can point out that “the threatening remarks are made predominantly by the pre-Easter Jesus, and the universalist statements . . . with a view to the redemption that has occurred on the Cross” post-Easter (21). Of course, as Balthasar notes, there are indeed “post-Easter” passages of judgment, but one could easily make the case that Scripture is a set of diverse texts, not a coherent systematic theology. Moreover, the Gospels are themselves written from a “post-Easter” perspective. The theological danger in this attempt to “harmonize” the two sets of biblical texts is that it can end up placing Jesus in opposition to Paul—something which Balthasar, of course, rejects. The truth in this argument which Balthasar wishes to retain is that any statement must be read in light of “the totality and unity of the Word of God” (22). Jesus’ judgmental sayings in the Gospels cannot stand on their own apart from the early Christian witness of Paul. These texts must be read together. Any attempt to rely on proof-texts is excluded from the start.

The harmonizing argument from the other side—in opposition to universalism—argues for a theological distinction between God’s conditional and absolute will. God’s conditional will is that all people should be saved (1 Tim. 2:4), while God’s absolute will predestines only some to salvation. In other words, while God seemingly “wants” all to be saved, but God only actualizes this for some. This incoherent argument places God against God, and is simply a fancy way of saying that God is essentially a liar, or at least untrustworthy. On this reading, the “universalist” texts give us a false hope; they are an attempt to make God seem friendlier than God actually is.

In response to Hermes, who makes this conditional-absolute distinction, Balthasar says: “But who, then, has asked you to harmonize here?” (23). His point, of course, is that theologians throughout history have been guilty of thinking that they, and they alone, know the outcome of the final judgment. But this is to erect a system in the place of a theological tension which the biblical text refuses to homogenize. We must not try “to press these biblically irreconcilable statements into a speculative system” (236). Human logic must submit before the sovereignty of God.

Balthasar’s answer to the contradiction within Scripture is to reject any artificial synthesis of the scriptural witness. Whereas church theologians have all too easily given the impression that they know God’s judgment, Balthasar begins his theological exegesis of the text on the basis of Paul’s insight in 1 Cor. 4:4: “It is the Lord who judges me.” We are under judgment, according to Balthasar, and for this reason, “a synthesis of both [sets of texts] is neither permissible nor achievable” (29). The so-called “pre-Easter” message (of Jesus) and the “post-Easter” message (of Paul) “cannot be merged . . . into a readily comprehensible system” (44). We stand together with all humanity under the judgment of the Lord. We are all in crisis, and therefore we must renounce any hubristic claim of certainty about the future judgment of God. Here, at this point, Balthasar argues only for a “hermeneutics of crisis,” so to speak, not a true “hermeneutics of hope.”

3. Exegetical Test Cases

Balthasar is not content with simply recognizing two competing sets of passages in the New Testament; he proceeds to briefly—too briefly in many cases—comment on a number of passages, themes, and doctrines. I will only mention here the ones to which he gives the most attention.

3.1. The Sheep and the Goats (Matt. 25). Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats is the most widely cited against those who hope or believe in the salvation of all, second only perhaps to passages in Revelation. Balthasar begins his exegesis of this text by first getting to the heart of its message, viz., “the identification of Jesus with the least of his brethren” (30). Those who stand against the “least of these” are thus “consigned to the ‘fire of hell’” (31). Jesus employs traditional Jewish imagery—“gehenna,” “the worm that shall not die,” “fire of hell,” “outer darkness,” and “the weeping and gnashing of teeth”—in order to make the point that people should feel a “holy fear” before the Lord, a fear which leads people toward love and wisdom (also a traditional Jewish notion). The main point of this passage is “the requirement for sympathetic understanding and for emulation of absolute and unrelenting love as Jesus himself exemplifies this in his love of God and of his neighbor” (31). The parable of Matt. 25 is thus a narrative version of Christ’s twofold command (Matt. 22:37-40). Love for God is measured by love for one’s neighbor. But we might well ask Balthasar: even if this parable is indeed to be identified with Jesus’ twofold command, does this have any implications for a future twofold judgment? Here Balthasar sides with Karl Rahner’s interpretation:
Even if this scene is described, in line with Old Testament images of trial and on the basis of the unrelentingness of the New Testament either-or, as a judgment with a twofold outcome, it is “not to be read as an anticipatory report about something that will someday come into being but rather as a disclosure of the situation in which the person addressed now truly exists. He is the subject who is placed in the position of having to make a decision with irrevocable consequences; he is the one who, by rejecting God’s offer of salvation, can become lost once and for all.” (32)
In agreement with Rahner, Balthasar then says about Matt. 25 and Mark 16:16 that these passages are “not a report but a final being-placed-in-the-position-of-having-to-decide” (32-33). Balthasar thus interprets Matt. 25—and, we might infer, all of Jesus’ condemnatory parables—existentially. He existentializes the judgment as a moment of decision. Jesus is thus not speaking about future judgment but about present discipleship.

3.2. Lazarus and Dives (Lk. 16). The parable of Lazarus and Dives is another famous passage often cited against universalism. According to Balthasar, “the Parable of the Rich Glutton and the Poor Lazarus is not meant as anything more than an earnest warning to the living to have mercy on the beggar at their door” (198). He calls the passage an “allegory” and says that any question about the “mental state” of the characters in the parable is “absurd.” Its intention, he says, is “directed toward man’s salvation, not toward giving purely concrete information” (198). The point of all talk about hell in the New Testament—and here he quotes, of all people, Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI—is to help us to understand the seriousness of revelation and what it means for our lives. Again, Balthasar sides with an existential interpretation of Scripture.

3.3. The Book of Revelation. Revelation has been a controversial book ever since the ancient church. Many, like Schleiermacher, have expressed a desire to see it excluded from the canon altogether. And in recent years, hyper-literal interpretations of the book have led to bizarre interpretations by fundamentalists. Here, I will merely note that Balthasar explicitly says that John’s Apocalypse “is not a historical but a visionary book” (138). The book does not describe historical, “inner-worldly processes” which can be equated—as the fundamentalists do—with specific events in world history. Balthasar states: “This purely visionary character of Revelation, which leaves the historical aside, prohibits us from drawing any conclusions about earthly historical events” (139). Elsewhere he states that “the visionary images of Revelation” cannot be read as “a ‘report’ on God’s historical and end-historical judgments” (33n2). Having said that, it does not seem to follow when, in discussing the “book of life” and the “lake of fire” from Rev. 20:15, he lets Adrienne von Speyr have the last word, who says that the lake of fire “really exists and . . . has a perfect justification on the basis of the justice of God” (141). Both the existence of the “lake” and its theological justification are questionable on the grounds Balthasar outlines in his book.

3.4. Acts 3:21. This is the only verse in which we find the term apokatastasis, and Balthasar notes that two translations are possible: “until the time of universal restoration of which God spoke,” or “until everything predicted by God’s prophets has come about” (225). (I should note that virtually every English version accepts the first translation of this verse. The ones that are more ambiguous, such as the NASB and ESV, translate it in the following way: “until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago” (ESV). This is ambiguous in that “restoring” could just mean “fulfilling,” and the “things” being restored are equated with what God has declared in the past, rather than with the cosmos.) Balthasar analyzes these two translation possibilities. The first version accepts the more literal understanding of the word “restoration,” and has a home in the Greek intellectual world of the time. The term could be medical (“restoration to health”) or political (“restoration of a previous government”), for example, but Balthasar notes the more prevalent philosophical use of the word to mean “the recurrence of a cosmic era” or “some notion of a recurring cycle” (225-26). After noting this possibility, Balthasar sides with the second translation: “the second translation . . . seems preferable because it better brings out the line of thought in Peter’s speech” (226). He proceeds to quote from the speech, indicating the places where Peter makes connections between Christ and Israel’s covenantal history. As opposed to the Stoic notion of a “recurring cycle” throughout history, the Jewish framework of thinking posits “a notion of linear development” (227).

As a kind of dialectical thinker, Balthasar does not make these two translations mutually exclusive, but holds them together theologically and exegetically. He begins by noting that the notion of a cycle is not entirely foreign to the OT. For example, there is the promised restoration of Israel post-exile, the restoration of the Twelve Tribes, the restoration or recurrence of a New Moses or New Elijah, and the restoration of Eden and original humanity. But at the same time there is a linear development from creation to covenant to the messiah and finally to the eschaton. The linear emphasizes a kind of messianic teleology, but this is “permeated and sometimes overshadowed . . . by reflections concerning recurrence, restoration and repetition of the origins” (228). The linear teleological stands together with a kind of covenantal history of repetition and renewal, a return “to the original integrity and purity of the Covenant” (228).

Balthasar continues this line of thought by reflecting on the Christ-event, where “we see the linear chronology of promise-to-fulfillment almost wrapped in a cyclical conception” (229). The cyclical dimension is brought out in John’s Gospel (Jn. 16:28) and throughout Paul’s letters. But even the notion of recapitulation found in Rom. 5:18-19 involves a kind of linear progression, as 1 Cor. 15:22-26. (The latter passage is used by evangelical universalists, such as Thomas Talbott, to buttress their claim that universalism is not completed in a single event but unfolds throughout eternity as people come to acknowledge Jesus as their Lord and Savior.) Balthasar ends his reflection on this topic by looking at three patristic universalists: Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and Maximus the Confessor. Origen fully works within a cyclical framework, while the latter two employ both cyclical and linear thinking. Balthasar does not give any evaluation here, but his discussion suggests that while Origen may have gone too far, Gregory and Maximus are more faithful to the scriptures in their theological thought. The point simply is that we cannot be reductionistic in our theology and exegesis. We must hold both translations—and thus both patterns of thought, Greek and Jewish, cyclical and linear—together in tension. This tension mirrors the tension between the two sets of passages in the NT. Both relations must not be sublated into a higher synthesis. No speculative system should be allowed to smooth out the tensions inherent in the biblical text.

3.5. Romans 9:3. In this difficult passage, Paul says that he would rather be “accursed and cut off from Christ” for the sake of the Israelites. Balthasar begins his analysis of this verse by pointing out a connection between Paul and Moses, since the latter, in Exod. 32:32, told the Lord that he would rather have God “blot” both him and Israel from the book of life rather than forgive his sins alone. This is a comparison which Origen also makes, and he and Gregory Nazianzen both compare Paul’s statement to the life of Christ. The Paul-Christ comparison is one which Balthasar also affirms when he says that “all the offerings up of self that seem so insane to us, of Moses and Paul, are caught up, taken in and gone beyond” in the self-offering of Christ on the cross, in his all-encompassing declaration: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (208). Rom. 9:3 thus leads Balthasar to reflect theologically on how one person can represent others. Paul and Moses want to represent Israel, while Jesus represents all of humanity, according to the witness of the New Testament.

The question of human free will presents itself: “Can the human defiance really resist to the end the representative assumption of its sins by the incarnate God?” (208). Balthasar goes on to say, as he commonly does, both Yes and No. On the one hand, he says that the cross must not be interpreted as a “magical-mechanical exchange,” in which prior to the cross I am destined for hell and after the cross I am destined for heaven. For Balthasar, “nothing can just have its way with me” without my consent. On the other hand, the representative work of Christ is indeed effective. Balthasar appeals in the end to the Holy Spirit. The “Spirit of absolute freedom” (209) confronts human persons with themselves, thus exposing their self-contradiction in the light of the cross and compelling them to respond affirmatively to the person of Christ. According to Balthasar, when it is “efficacious,” grace gives the human will no other choice but to “freely seize itself,” but when it is merely “sufficient,” we are left in our self-contradiction (209). Here he leaves himself open to serious critique, in appealing to the scholastic distinction between efficacious and sufficient grace. Balthasar tries to ground the human decision in the freedom of the Spirit. But it is hard to escape the sense that he is placing the efficaciousness of Christ over against the sufficiency of the Spirit, in that Christ’s representative work only “reaches us” in the absolute freedom of the Spirit, which may or may not bring about our Yes in response.

Balthasar closes this section with one of his most questionable statements: “We have to stop at this observation: it would be in God’s power to allow the grace that flows into the world from the self-sacrifice of his Son (2 Cor 5:19) to grow powerful enough to become his ‘efficacious’ grace for all sinners. But precisely this is something that we can only hope for” (210). Granted, he seeks in this statement to open up a space for true hope, but he opens this space at the expense of seeing the reconciliation accomplished in Jesus Christ as an accomplished fact. To speak of the grace of Christ as something which may “grow powerful enough” is to suggest that it was weak to begin with and needs to be augmented by either the work of the Spirit or the response of human persons in their freedom. Either way, we are left concluding that either the Spirit or humanity must complete what Christ began. Is this truly something worth hoping for?

4. Toward a Hermeneutics of Hope

It is difficult to present an overall argument either from Balthasar’s text or about Balthasar’s text, because (1) he refuses to make a clear-cut case himself, and (2) he tells us that to make a decision one way or another is to replace the biblical material with a speculative system. This places people like me in a difficult situation. I can resign myself to commenting on areas of inconsistency in Balthasar’s presentation of the material—as I did briefly above, though many more examples could be highlighted—or I can dispense with his advice and make an argument anyway. Since the former is only marginally interesting, and because I disagree with some of Balthasar’s presuppositions, I choose to go with the latter.

From my perspective, Balthasar argues that we have an “obligation to hope for all,” but every time he takes one step forwards he seems to take two steps backwards. So, for example, in one sentence he contrasts Christian “universality of redemption” with the “salvation-particularism” of Judaism and Islam, but then in the next sentence he quotes Hermann-Josef Lauter who says: “Will it really be all men who allow themselves to be reconciled? No theology or prophecy can answer this question” (213). Of course, Lauter goes on to say that hoping for others is “not only permitted but commanded,” but what is the basis for this hope if we are dealing with a mere possibility? Moreover, it is a possibility which Lauter explicitly says—and with which Balthasar agrees—each person must actualize. According to Lauter, we have to “allow ourselves” to be reconciled! But this is a view grounded in the notion of a libertarian free will, and certainly has no place in the Pauline notion that “while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God” (Rom. 5:10).

Throughout his book, Balthasar shows that he presupposes the freedom of the will, a freedom which is able to choose between good and evil. He is well aware of the fact that Barth categorically rejects this notion of freedom—recall the image of Hercules at the crossroads—because true freedom is a freedom for something, a freedom to do the good. Libertarian freedom is freedom from all commitments, capable of choosing evil if it so wills. But such freedom, as Barth made clear, is actually slavery. The freedom to reject the good is already sin. Only the freedom which follows God in humble obedience is true freedom. Balthasar himself explicitly rejects Barth’s position on this matter, as he must, seeing that such libertarian freedom is part of Catholic doctrine. Balthasar’s position on this matter is made clear in his discussion of angels and demons. Barth dispenses with the notion that the angels “fell” from grace, because this requires an abstractly free will. Balthasar says in response: “one cannot agree with Barth’s claim that the angels had no freedom of choice and that the myth of a ‘fall of the angels’ is thus to be rejected absolutely” (144). He goes on to say that “it is of the essence of the gift of freedom to be able to choose one’s own highest value, thereby realizing oneself for the very first time” (145). He then says that the traditional doctrine of the fall of the angels is in fact “inescapable.” Barth would absolutely reject the view that freedom is an act of self-realization. Here I must depart from Balthasar in the strongest of terms. Unfortunately, at the same time, I depart from my own evangelical heritage, which has (at least in the non-Reformed camp) adopted a similar doctrine of free will.

Balthasar’s position is perhaps best summarized by Rahner, who states: “We have to preserve alongside one another . . . the principle of . . . the redemption of all men through Christ, the duty to hope for the salvation of all men and the principle of the real possibility of becoming eternally lost” (212). Again, I ask, if the latter is a “real” possibility, then is the former also merely a “possibility”? Rahner only applies the language of possibility to eternal damnation, but if it is a real option, then “the redemption of all humanity through Christ” is a rhetorical exaggeration and is in fact only a possibility as well. When we are dealing with possibilities and not actualities, what is the basis for our hope?

This leads us to the main virtue and the main failure of Balthasar’s theological exegesis. The virtue of his exegesis is that he reads Scripture existentially. He offers a robust “hermeneutics of crisis.” I take this to be a model for others to follow, since it not only captures the dialogical and existential nature of, say, the genre of parable, but it also fits well with the nature of the gospel as a kerygmatic address. Balthasar is thus correct in his basic thesis that “we all stand under God’s absolute judgment” (253). Where he goes astray is in his conviction that “I deem it appropriate simply to be content with this existential posture. Whoever wants to go further would enter a realm where things can no longer be reasoned out” (253). Certainly, there is a measure of truth in this. Our reason and logic reach a dead-end. At a certain point, all systems break down before the mystery of the gospel. But has anyone in this discussion, including Barth, ever claimed that we could reason our way into the knowledge of God?

Balthasar’s argument depends upon the logical fallacy of the false dilemma: either we abandon all reason and rest content with an existential crisis (and hope), or we are guilty of using human logic to penetrate and control the divine mystery. This simply will not do. There is a clear third option: God has revealed to us the mystery of salvation. Paul himself says that “[God] has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ” (Eph. 1:9). Paul is very clear: we only know God’s eternal will in Christ; we do not reason our way toward it. Balthasar’s fear of replacing revelation with reason is worth remembering, but we need not let this fear take over, as it seems Balthasar is guilty of doing. He repeatedly says that he cannot follow Barth, because the latter comes too close to universalism. But Barth never elevated any speculative rational system; his battle cry was always, “Jesus is victor!” And this is a truly Pauline insight. God has made known the mystery of God’s will in Jesus Christ—not in a system, but in a person. This is the basis for a true “hermeneutics of hope”: the person of Jesus Christ, the Crucified and Risen One, who reconciled the world to God. When we begin with christological hope, we can preserve anthropological existentialism; but when we begin with anthropological existentialism, we will never truly reach christological hope.

According to Eberhard Jüngel, Karl Barth once said, “I do not teach [universalism], but I also do not not teach it.” This clever statement, in which Barth uses a negative and a double negative without offering a true positive, is perhaps where we must end—and probably most faithful to Balthasar’s own views. Balthasar is correct to question the attempt to resolve the matter, either through a doctrine of double predestination or a doctrine of universalism. I argue, however, that we can do justice to the biblical texts and still hold to a stronger form of hope—a more concrete, christological hope—than Balthasar himself proffers without avoiding the existential crisis and taking false comfort in a doctrine. True evangelical hope need not take refuge in abstract possibilities (Balthasar) or abstract systems (doctrinal universalists). We can—in fact, we must!—take refuge in Jesus Christ.

David W. Congdon
Princeton Theological Seminary
Princeton, NJ


1 Robin A. Parry and Christopher H. Partridge, eds., Universal Salvation? The Current Debate (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), xv-xvii.

2 Hans Urs von Balthasar, Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved”? with a Short Discourse on Hell, trans. David Kipp and Lothar Krauth (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1988). All parenthetical citations refer to this work unless otherwise noted.


Anonymous said…
Fantastic. Thanks David.