Response to Cynthia Nielsen, “Balthasar’s Biblical Hermeneutics”
By Jonathan King
It is my pleasure to respond to Cynthia Nielsen’s essay, as I’ve been a fan and avid reader of her Per Caritatem blog for some time now. To begin with, since Cynthia’s essay deals with Balthasar’s biblical hermeneutics vis-à-vis working through Dickens’ essay, the ambit of issues she covers is restricted to his. My own treatment of particular points of her essay is intended less to critique it as to more fully round out various aspects and perhaps advance the discussion for other conference participants to give response.
In Part 1, Cynthia sets out the paramount matter with which Balthasar wrestled of how Scripture should be viewed. The crux of it is the “lost theologico-aesthetic sensibility” to biblical hermeneutics. This consideration was integral to the development of his theodramatics as well, so more than just interpretive methodology was at issue. Attention is called to the denuding of theological meaning by the practices of modern biblical scholarship, and this is critical for understanding Balthasar’s turning to pre-modern hermeneutical practices. To this we can add that Balthasar’s rejection of the sign/referent dualism was accompanied by his rejection of the dualism of Historie (conventional view of history) and Geschichte (the meaning of the event for me, here and now).
The point that Balthasar overcame the sign/referent dualism by employing the medieval view of the transcendentals is an important one as far as it stands, but it seems Balthasar was theologically inconsistent applying this in other portions of his work. For instance, in his view the Spirit is free to bring to light in its own way “‘treasures’ that are ‘hidden’ in the enfleshed figure of the Word, which is already permeated by the Spirit,” because the “ultimately limited, fixed (written) text” has been superseded by “the enfleshed Word in the New Covenant,” which, “since it is Love incarnate, is predominantly spirit.”1 Perhaps there’s more subtlety in the fuller context than I’m appreciating, but from how Balthasar describes the written word in relation to the Spirit-permeated Word Incarnate, it sure sounds like the mediation of the former is rendered somewhat superfluous by the latter. — Thoughts?
Cynthia’s last paragraph in Part 1 (in which she quotes Dickens) deserves special attention: “Balthasar claimed that beautiful forms embody and reveal this transcendence, while simultaneously veiling . . . Breaking the bonds that unite a beautiful radiant form with its transcendent content destroys the one and renders the other inaccessible.” It is my contention that this relates directly to the heart of Balthasar’s hermeneutics, which I explain here: the aspect of Scripture that affects all of its other aspects, for Balthasar, is the hypostasis of the written word, which is derivative of the Incarnate Word. The truly unique factor upon which Balthasar seizes is not Scripture’s dual human-divine nature and authorship simply, but the particular spiritual and universalizing effectiveness that its divinity makes through the form of its humanity. This is because Christ is the host of God’s revelation in ‘man’, and therefore his humanity is not merely a natural and undefiled image-bearing human vessel through which divine revelation is expressed. Rather, his humanity itself corresponds to the universal human forms of existence and thought “through the expressive structures of that nature’s essence.”2 This correspondence is total definitiveness and concordance to what God from the beginning willed human beings to be, down to the finest detail. It is just this absoluteness and utterness of correspondence that is the important distinction for Balthasar’s hermeneutics. As such, the defining aspects and prominent elements within his hermeneutics are all derivative from this primary aspect, and therefore all reflect back on it in one way or another. — Thoughts?
For Part 2, it seems like a good idea to address two lacunae. In regard to Cynthia’s points about Balthasar’s understanding of the Bible as self-interpreting, and its canonical nature being self-glossing and symphonic, it is helpful to round this out by including Balthasar’s view of the Magisterial role of the Church: the Church is given a special organ to serve as a regulatory principle for maintaining the integrity of revelation, and it functions as the embodiment of the regula fidei within the community of the Church as a whole. From this notion, Balthasar establishes the ongoing importance of the Church’s teaching office, in which lies her interpretive authority. He defines it thus: “Its task is to preserve, for believers, the totality of God’s self-interpretation in Christ, through the Spirit, in and for the Church . . . The ‘teaching office’ will react — like a seismographical instrument — when some substantial underground tremor threatens the totality or catholicity of revelation. When a theological proposition, for instance, which is correct within the total context, is emphasized so one-sidedly, or is so wrenched from its organic place in the heart of the organism, that the organism’s inner harmony, expressed by the regula fidei, seems to be upset.”3
In regard to the aspect of intertextuality between the Testaments, Balthasar’s understanding of the Old Testament in light of the New needs to also be figured in. On this he affirms the revelation of the old covenant as properly being the path that led to the Incarnation, but at the same time he puts respectful limits on the meanings that can be derived from it to inform the revelation content of the new covenant in Christ. He definitely accents the ‘new’ of the New Testament, and considers the transition from old to new as a radical ‘transposition’ that could never be bridged by assiduously aggregating the plurality of promises and fulfillments of God’s plan leading up. For him, the old covenant can only point us in a certain direction: it is new creation.
For Part 3, let me start with saying that it sure would have been a nice bonus if Balthasar had somewhere explained his principles of use of the fourfold sense of Scripture (and if anyone knows that he did, then do tell, please). Notwithstanding, I also come down on the side that says he is not guilty of hermeneutical relativism. Cynthia’s final paragraph calls attention to another crucial point to grasp about Balthasar’s hermeneutics, namely, the theological aesthetic fittingness of harmonies and relationships in Scripture. The principle of contrariety, i.e. the harmony of paradox to which Cynthia refers, is especially profound in my view, and hermeneutically very powerful in regard to perceiving the theologico-aesthetic dimension in the grand pattern of redemption. — Other thoughts here?
Zoinks!, it seems I’ve more than used up all the good graces given me for the length of my response. Thanks to everyone involved for making this event fun and informative. Have at it conference readers!
1 GL III, 239.
2 GL I, 459.
3 TD II, 100-1.