Plenary #9: “Balthasar’s Interpretation of the Resurrection of Christ in Mysterium Paschale” (Drury)

“Balthasar’s Interpretation of the Resurrection of Christ in Mysterium Paschale
By John L. Drury

Hans Urs von Balthasar is perhaps best known for his unique theology of Christ’s descent into hell. Although the topic appears through his vast corpus,1 Balthasar’s theology of Christ’s descent is most widely accessed through his Triduum meditations entitled Mysterium Paschale.2 The uniqueness of his reflections on Holy Saturday has unfortunately led to a neglect of what he has to say about Easter Sunday.

This lacuna is unfortunate, for one of the results of Balthasar’s radical theology of Christ’s descent is an increase in the significance of Christ’s resurrection. A genuinely dead Christ raises the stakes for Easter morn. These stakes are clear from the outset: “If without the Son no one can see the Father (John 1:18), nor anyone come to the Father (John 14:6), and if, without him, the Father is revealed to nobody (Matthew 11:27), then when the Son, the Word of the Father, is dead, then no one can see God, hear of him or attain him. And this day exists, when the Son is dead, and the Father, accordingly, inaccessible” (49). So Balthasar’s theology of Christ’s death is inextricably tied with his theology of Christ’s resurrection. It is only by the risen Christ that we have access to the Father.

In this essay I will explore Balthasar’s reflections on the resurrection in the final chapter of Mysterium Paschale. In accordance with the topic of this conference, I will focus on his interpretation of Scripture by (1) highlighting Balthasar’s understanding of the relationship between dogmatics and exegesis as it comes to expression in the structure of this chapter and (2) discussing three key exegetical moves Balthasar makes.


Balthasar is concerned in this chapter, perhaps more so than in the previous chapters, with the proper relationship between exegesis and dogmatics. This concern is foreign neither to Balthasar’s theology in general nor to this particular text, which first appeared in a multi-author, multi-volume work that took as one of its chief goals the incorporation of contemporary exegetical study into dogmatic theology. For Balthasar, this incorporation cannot mean that theology slavishly follows the latest historical-critical research. However, neither can theology exercise a priori control over exegesis. Rather, the two stand in a relationship of “reciprocal dependence” (230). Exegesis depends on theology because certain “partial prior decisions” (230) or “prior options” (234) determine the range of the possible. Theology depends on exegesis because the historical aspect of theological affirmations requires attention to exegetical problems and the multiplicity of images and concepts in Scripture enrich dogmatic reflection.

This reciprocal dependence of exegesis and theology comes to expression in the structure Balthasar gives to his chapter on the resurrection. The chapter is divided into three sections: (1) The Fundamental Theological Affirmation, (2) The Exegetical Situation, and (3) The Imagistic Developments of the Theological Aspects. While discussing the exegetical task, Balthasar makes the relationship among the sections explicit: “Our task here can in no way be that of examining in turn all the exegetical questions involved, and of commenting on them with exegesis’ own methods. Rather is it to highlight the reciprocal dependence of exegesis and theology in some of its most important instances. This enterprise must form the transitional stage between the dogmatic affirmation that Christ is risen (1), and the deployment of this dogmatic affirmation in a variety of images and concepts (3)” (230).

According to Balthasar, a theology of the resurrection must begin with the basal affirmation that Christ is risen (Section 1). This affirmation depends on exegesis of Scripture but one cannot do proper theological exegesis unless one begins with this affirmation. With this affirmation in place, the theologian is free to wrestle with the many exegetical problems in the resurrection narratives (Section 2). As we shall see below, Balthasar displays considerable openness regarding controversial matters of exegesis. Theology may require a basal affirmation, but it does not predetermine every exegetical decision, for this basal affirmation does not rest on any single interpretation of any one text. Theology’s exegetical freedom is not limited to wrestling with historical problems of Scripture, but also flourishes within the multiplicity of images and concepts in Scripture (Section 3). Theology is not only free for but is also free from historical-critical exegesis. Balthasar engages in a rich symbolic interpretation of the resurrection narratives that makes use of historical and literary techniques but is not bound to them.

The threefold movement of Balthasar’s reflections on Christ’s resurrection expresses the reciprocal dependence of exegesis and theology. Within the context of this methodologically attuned structure, let us turn to a discussion of some key moves.


Although Balthasar makes intriguing moves on almost every page, I will discuss three key moves – one from each of the three sections mentioned above. The first and most complex of these moves is Balthasar’s exploration of the trinitarian form of the fundamental theological affirmation. Balthasar summarizes this trinitarian structure as follows: “The Resurrection of the dead Son is consistently ascribed to the action of the Father, and in the closet possible connexion with the Resurrection there is presented to us the outpouring of the divine Spirit” (203). Note the Scriptural ground of Balthasar’s statement: it is the New Testament that ‘ascribes’ action to the Father and ‘presents’ the outpouring of the Spirit. Balthasar’s reflections on the trinitarian form of resurrection faith are not just speculative exercises but emerge out of the trinitarian grammar of the New Testament message.

The trinitarian form of the fundamental theological affirmation is not a wholly separate matter from the more common ‘historical’ questions surrounding the resurrection. The trinitarian shape of resurrection discourse holds together the ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’ aspects of the event: “Only because the ‘God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts’ (Galatians 4:6) does the objective event becomes something that touches our own existence. Here we must once again recall that the texts forbid a simple identification of the saving event with the actuality of the message concerning that event. The message transmits the testimony to an encounter with the living Christ; but that encounter itself points back to a prior, presupposed event, to that ‘blessed night’ of which no human being was the experiencing witness ... It is only when, first of all, we grant this event its Trinitarian dimension that we can go on to speak appropriately of its being pro nobis and pro mundo” (203).

Scripture ascribes the initiative of this presupposed event to the Father. The Father as creator gives life to the Son by his power, glory, and spirit, thereby justifying himself as faithful to the covenant, justifying the Son’s obedience, and accepting the Son’s sacrifice. Given what Balthasar has already said about the genuine deadness of the Son, this activity must be ascribed to the Father alone, for the dead do not act.

But this hidden initiative of the Father is not the end but the beginning. Because its goal is revelation, this objective event presses towards subjective realization: “the Father shows to the world his risen and glorified Son ... And yet, since the Son is the Word of the Father, the Father, in disclosing the Son as the justified and glorified One, also discloses himself” (206). In this revelatory movement, activity is also ascribed to the Son: “The Father, in showing the world his Son as the One who became through him definitively living, gives the Son an utter spontaneity in his own self-showing” (207). Because the Father has restored the Son’s subjectivity, the Son reveals himself to his disciples by means of a personal encounter. Only in this sense can we speak reflexively of the Son “raising himself,” as found in the Gospel of John. Balthasar goes on in a later sub-section to discuss the Son’s self-attestation in terms of five aspects: encounter, conviction, confession, illumination, and mission (217-255).

But the initiative of the Father and the self-revelation of the Son are not all. Christ’s resurrection is also presented in close connection with the outpouring of the Spirit. This relationship is presented sequentially in Luke-Acts,3 perichoretically in John, and in the closest possible unity in Paul. The Spirit is not only the “instrument” by which the Father raises the Son. “He is also the milieu in which the Resurrection takes place” (211). The Risen One moves to and with his Church in the milieu of the Spirit, so that “the action of the Holy Spirit, manifesting himself in the Church, remains the real proof of Christ’s risen being” (212).

That should be enough on the trinitarian shape of the fundamental theological affirmation to highlight the richness of Balthasar’s resurrection discourse and the place of Scripture within it. Balthasar moves from these soaring explorations to the more mundane exegetical problem of textual discrepancies.4 The key move here requires less exposition, though it is no less worthy of reflection. Balthasar argues that the contradictions and confusions in the texts befit the nature of the subject-matter to which they witness. Christ’s resurrection as the fulfillment of history both takes place within history and transcends history. So historical reconstruction of events surrounding the resurrection is limited from the outset. As Balthasar puts it, “that it [the resurrection] can both possess the highest theological certitude and, despite that, by the manner in which it is formulated and presented, burst apart the form of profane narration, so confronting exegesis with problems never fully soluble ... belongs to the a priori structure of the phenomenon” (189). The historical-critical problems of resurrection texts are a consequence of the nature of the resurrection event itself. They are, in some sense, inevitable.

But this does not rule out taking time to think through the options for sorting out these exegetical problems. In his discussion of particular issues, Balthasar is even-handed and open-minded about different interpretive options, usually concluding with comment that aims to reframe rather than resolve the issue. For instance, he grants that the role of angels “can be excluded” but asks whether “one would be justified in so doing” (242). He leaves open whether the Galilee and Jerusalem traditions emerged independently or together (239). He is willing to grant the shorter ending of Mark, provided this does require that one relativize the contribution of other Gospels (238). Balthasar’s main point, however, is that throughout this hypothetical line of inquiry the theologian affirms that the truth of the resurrection does not hang on their exegetical ingenuity and that there may be a theological rationale behind particular discrepancies.

Balthasar turns to this theological rationale in a section concerning the rich multiplicity of images found in the Scriptural accounts. Here he engages in a creative and at times free form interpretation. Of particular interest is Balthasar’s treatment of the motif of eating in the resurrection narratives. That the risen Christ eats has raised all kinds of troublesome questions about the nature of resurrected bodies. Balthasar grants that there may be an apologetic aspect to the increasing realism of the Gospels. Yet to focus on this aspect is to miss the point. There is a theological necessity that the risen Christ eats: “To say that the transfigured body of Christ can no longer eat and drink (and thus cannot transform into the new aeon the realities of the old) is an undemonstrable assertion” (253). He goes on to say that the “Eastertide meals may for Jesus himself already be the eschatological banquet; ... for the disciples, they are the ‘first-fruits’ of that definitive feasting, annunciatory signs ‘until he comes again’... The fact that Jesus, after Easter, ‘shares the mean’ of the disciples (sunalizomenos, Acts 1:4) is not at all something slipped in by way of ‘massive realism’, but is rather a symbolic feature of a theologically indispensable kind” (256).

There is, of course, much more to discuss. The relationship between divine and human freedom in the resurrection appearances and the dialectic of love and office in the church founded at the resurrection are two such issues worthy of further (critical) reflection. But this initial foray will have to suffice to commend readers of Balthasar to press on to the third day, not leaving behind his theology of Christ’s descent, but, in conjunction with it, begin to cultivate and assess his contribution to a theology of Christ’s resurrection.


1 Cf. esp. The Glory of the Lord Vol. 7 and Theo-Drama Vol. 5.

2 Mysterium Paschale first appeared as a chapter in Mysterium Salutis: Grundriß heilgeschichtlicher Dogmatik, edited by Johannes Feiner and Magnus Löhrer (Einsiedeln/ Zürich/ Köln: Benziger Verlag, 1969), Vol. III/2, pp. 133-326. Balthasar later published it separately as Theologie der Drei Tage (Einsiedeln/ Freiburg: Johannes Verlag, 1990) and an authorized English translation, Mysterium Paschale: The Mystery of Easter, translated by Aidan Nichols (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990). All my in-text citations come from this English translation, with occasional typographical revisions.

3 It is worthy of note that Balthasar tends to de-emphasize the Lukan 40 days (pp. 210, 233, 244f, 248). This is a point of contrast between him and Karl Barth, for whom the 40 days play a crucial role (cf. Church Dogmatics I/2, §13-15; III/2, §47.1; IV/1, §59.3; IV/2, §64.2.iii, §64.4; IV/3, §69.4).

4 Cf. Heather Reichgott, “Balthasar and ‘Contradictory’ Material in the Gospels,” Balthasar Blog Conference 2008.


John: Thanks for this essay. It was an excellent way to close this conference.