Response to L. M. Miles, “Von Balthasar, von Speyr and Holy Scripture”
By Halden Doerge
Those of us who are interested in the theological work of Hans Urs von Balthasar have much to be grateful for in Lois Miles’ helpful summary of the intimate relationship between the mystical and contemplative readings of Scripture of Adrienne von Speyr and the multifaceted theology of von Balthasar. There is little I can find to disagree with in Miles’ distillation of the complex relationship between von Speyr and von Balthasar. In the interest, then, of extending the conversation further, I will attempt to simply add a few brush strokes to the excellent portrait that Miles has provided us with, and perhaps find some colorful vistas along the way that may open up new points of interest and dialogue in regard to the relationship between von Speyr and von Balthasar.
Let it be said first off that Miles’ overview of the friendship and collaboration of these two very different figures will certainly be of great help to those who are unfamiliar with their intellectual and spiritual connection. And a profound connection it is indeed. In addition to the various examples which Miles provides of how von Speyr’s commentaries cross-pollinated and vivified so much of von Balthasar’s work, one is reminded in particular of his Theo-Drama V: The Last Act, which demonstrates more clearly than any of his other works that I have encountered the degree to which the theological minds and hearts of he and von Speyr were intertwined. In crafting the conclusion of his theodramatics, von Balthasar freely weaves von Speyr’s prose into his own as he draws the dynamic strands of the biblical narrative together in depicting the final apocalyptic consummation of all creaturely reality being drawn into the divine life of triune God. It would almost surely be without exaggeration to claim that nearly one third of the prose in this 529 page volume consists of quotations from von Speyr.
One wonders how deep the influence of von Speyr goes throughout the whole of von Balthasar’s theology. In particular it might prove quite interesting to examine, in conversation with von Balthasar’s early works the possibility that von Speyr may be the person most directly responsible for making von Balthasar a Biblicist. Could it be that the intensely intellectual man who approached his career with a thoroughgoing fascination with the philosophical milieu of German idealsm was drawn through the denizens of Western philosophy to the riches of the Christian Scriptures largely through the work of von Speyr? I am, of course, not qualified to answer this question. But those who treasure the legacy of von Balthasar will doubtless find it a fruitful question to explore, and indeed one that may have a significant impact on further von Balthasar studies.
Of course, as Aidan Nichols rightly points out, it was not von Speyr alone who shaped von Balthasar into the reader of Scripture that he became. Rather it was Karl Barth and von Speyr together who more than anyone else would help to shape the direction of von Balthasar’s theological engagement with Scripture.1 Moreover, given the way in which Barth and von Speyr serve as perhaps von Balthasar’s two principle influences (leaving aside for a moment the very pertinent influence of de Lubac), this opens up another quite interesting question: What might it mean for the theological exegesis of Barth and the contemplative commentaries of von Speyr to be brought into dialogue with each other? What has Barth’s apocalyptic Der Römerbrief to say to von Speyr’s mystical readings of the book of Revelation? Or her The Victory of Love to his reading of Romans 8? These questions might lead to a truly interesting ecumenical study of the nature of the theological interpretation of Scripture. Of course we could already venture a tentative answer to this question. An exploration of the theological exegesis of Barth and von Speyr might very well tell us little more than we would learn from reading von Balthasar!
1. Aidan Nichols, The Word has Been Abroad: A Guide through Balthasar’s Aesthetics (Edinburgh: T&T Clark 1998), xvi.