What is in a name?
A Response to Francesca Murphy’s Plenary Post: “Von Balthasar on Exodus 3: The Metaphysics of the Exodus Revisited”
By Stephen M. Garrett
Trinity Evangelical Divinity School
Francesca Murphy, with her twenty-five plus years of study on Hans Urs von Balthasar, eloquently presents us with a “relatively obscure and minute piece of von Balthasar’s scripture study.” Her choice of Exodus 3, however, is no small matter when it comes to elucidating Balthasar’s theological exegesis. Murphy masterfully draws upon the Catholic tradition to explicate Balthasar, which is essential to understanding his theology. Her wading into these streams of influence, as helpful as they are, only intimate at the profundity and complexity of Balthasar’s thought. Yet, try we must, to understand this enormously important Catholic theologian whose influence on contemporary Christian theology is only in its infancy.
Murphy attempts to establish the thesis that “Von Balthasar interprets Exodus 3 as a Christian philosopher, meaning, he makes revelation shed light on the stuff we think about.” And, in this instance, Balthasar “uses the revelation of the divine name to Moses to illuminate the discovery of multiple sources within the canonical text.” To support her thesis, she draws upon St. Thomas Aquinas (via Étienne Gilson) and Joseph Ratzinger by paralleling their readings of Exodus 3 to Balthasar’s. In doing so, she concludes that “Von Balthasar’s reading of Exodus 3 is like Gilson’s and Ratzinger’s. It goes even further in showing that the mystical readings of Exodus 3 . . . help to make sense of the source-history of the text.”
Murphy employs Gilson’s interpretation of Aquinas as “the key interpreter of the ‘metaphysics of the Exodus’” in order to demonstrate that God’s revelation of himself to Moses through his divine name actually reveals something about his divine nature. This divine encounter reveals, according to St. Thomas, that God’s nature is to exist. The divine name signifies God’s nature as the ipsum divinum esse or “He Who is means Act-of-Being.” It is at this moment, for St. Thomas, that the age old question of the relationship between faith and reason converges, where the apophatic meets the cataphatic.
To be sure, Balthasar is in congruence with St. Thomas regarding the metaphysical implications of Exodus 3. In the giving of his name, God discloses the fact that he cannot be grasped or conceptualized. What emerges, though, from this tension for St. Thomas, and Balthasar as well, is the doctrine of analogy or analogia entis, which is essential to understanding Balthasar’s theological exegesis. Perhaps this is what is lurking behind Murphy’s discussion regarding the convergence of faith and reason.
Balthasar learns of the value of the doctrine of analogy from Erich Przywara, while distinguishing his position from Przywara’s (See Balthasar’s The Theology of Karl Barth). Through the analogy of being, Balthasar sees a true mutuality between Christ and believer (KB, 387-8) that is “real, internal, and present” (KB, 377). Yet, it also conceptualizes the distance that exists between God and creation (KB, 387). This presence and distance within the analogy of being creates space for a “real and vibrant history of man with his redeeming Lord” (KB, 371). Scripture, by the power of the Holy Spirit, mediates God’s divine presence in the form of personal address but not in such a way where God becomes the possession of the exegete (Glory VI, 64-5). Rather, it is God “who calls and names man, thereby taking man as his possession (Is. 43.1)” (Glory VI, 65). Such reverence leads the interpreter “to contemplate God in the Scriptures and consequently exercise [one’s] ministry in God” (Oakes, Pattern of Redemption, 183).
Murphy cites Joseph Ratzinger’s observation of the merging of the Elohist and Jahwist traditions in the divine name in Exodus 3. Similarly, Murphy identifies Balthasar’s attempts to connect the “seeing/knowing” and “not seeing/not knowing” to the Jahwist and Elohist traditions respectively. Ratzinger’s observation and Balthasar’s connection, for Murphy, serve to further her previous point regarding the convergence of faith and reason or the apophatic and cataphatic in the divine name. Only this time, Ratzinger and Balthasar endeavor to attend to the “light derived from recent research” (Divino Afflante Spiritu #33). Is Balthasar, though, so concerned about validating the contributions of the historical-critical method?
It is fitting that Murphy draws our attention to Balthasar’s adherence to his Catholic tradition in his interpretation of Exodus 3 in Glory VI. In doing so, we gain insight to his theological exegesis. Her historical argument via Ratzinger is astute in that it shows the convergence of faith and reason, elucidating how “theology corroborates philosophy by correcting it.” Her philosophical argument attempts to address why there are different source traditions in Scripture by appealing to “a religious common sense that turns up throughout history.” After all, “the cataphatic and apophatic modes were not invented by Pseudo-Dionysius. These two ways have always been with us.”
Yet, is Balthasar’s main purpose when expositing Exodus 3 to “make sense of the source-history of the text” as Murphy contends? To be sure, Balthasar reckons with source criticism in his interpretation of Exodus 3, but he often critiques historical-critical methodology for it’s failure to appreciate those “dissected parts” in light of the whole (Glory I, 31, 174). Holy Scripture, he contends, should be read as a complex-unity and to dissect it without considering the whole truncates our understanding (“The Literal Sense of Scripture” (1991)). Is Balthasar’s polemic against historical criticism valid, though, considering his own appropriations and developments within the discipline during his life time that addressed many of his concerns? Perhaps not, particularly since some have pointed to Balthasar’s inconsistencies regarding his own critiques of historical criticism. It seems best, however, to understand Balthasar’s critique of historical criticism as one that focused on a particular version of it, one that tends to rely merely on analysis without synthesis. Balthasar does not desire to jettison the fruits of modern scholarship. Rather, he is concerned more about understanding those parts in light of the canonical whole.
Consequently, his interpretation of Exodus 3 seems to have a “different feel” than Ratzinger’s. Murphy does acknowledge that while all three read the divine name ontologically, they understand it differently (i.e. “God’s being (Gilson), truth (Ratzinger), and beauty (von Balthasar)”). Murphy uses the continuity to illumine an aspect of Balthasar’s theological exegesis and rightfully so. It’s the discontinuity, though, that strikes this different feel, unveiling the uniqueness of Balthasar’s theological interpretation of Scripture. This discontinuity that Murphy notes is God’s beauty, better said his glory. Why, though, does Balthasar focus on glory? What is it about God’s glory that leads him to associate it with the divine name?
Here’s the theological payoff. For Balthasar, “the Abyss and Ocean of all reality, on its own initiative, presses in upon humanity in order to disclose itself, in order to reveal itself as ‘what’ it ‘is’” (Glory VI, 31). “If this could happen,” Balthasar asks, “how would it have happened?” Reasoning analogically, Balthasar finds significant value in God’s appearing, for “appearing before one another…casts a spell around itself, either to keep others away . . . or to keep them in its power” (Glory VI, 32). These divine appearings, theophanies, “of which the most important takes place on Sinai, are intended to be understood as overwhelming events in which the living God becomes present” (Glory VI, 34). These theophanies, therefore, are glimpses of divine glory, revealing in freedom the multifarious divine nature to humanity.
All divine manifestations, for Balthasar, are revelations of God’s glory, including the self-giving of his divine name to Moses: “God’s kabod is inseparable from his particular ‘holiness,’ from the ‘might’ of his spiritual actions, from the manifestation of his ‘name,’ from the turning of his ‘countenance’ to man; and yet, in spite of its inseparability from these aspects, kabod does not fully coincide with any one of them” (Glory VI, 35; emphasis mine). This theological insight becomes an interpretative principle for Balthasar in “that all aspects must be seen in their mutual contemplation and interpenetration” (Glory VI, 35, n5) This principle is seen precisely in his exposition of Exodus 3 where Balthasar articulates “the mutual interpenetration of ‘holiness’, ‘name’, and ‘glory’” through an historical progression beginning with Moses and culminating with Jesus Christ, the name above all names (Glory VI, 61-66; NB: this historical progression is exactly what Murphy has astutely taught us a la Ratzinger).
Balthasar’s theological exegesis, first and foremost, is not supposed to lead us into the tempting pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake but rather to our knees in worship of the almighty triune God of the universe. In doing so, Balthasar’s continual emphasis on God’s glory points the interpreter to “. . . that revelatory experience of God which transports believers out of themselves and into what God means to manifest in the text—a much different focus than a concentration on what the human author (or: his community) meant to express (which is the concentration on exegesis in the historical-critical mode). This in no way denies the legitimacy of the historical-critical mode, but it must be preliminary, at least for a theologian: in the sense that historical criticism focuses on the events of history while Balthasar’s focus is on those events as manifestations of the glory of God” (Oakes, Pattern of Redemption, 186-187).