Friday, March 21, 2008

Response #5: Stephen M. Garrett

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).


Scott Williams said...

Correct me if I'm wrong, but Aquinas's 'name for God' is 'ipsum esse subsistens' not 'ipsum esse'. This looks like a minor point, but by leaving out the 'subsistens' one somewhat betrays Aquinas's Aristotelian claims. Aquinas doesn't say 'God just is being itself', but he wants to say something about this 'being', namely that is it is 'substantial' rather than 'accidental'. This has to do with Aquinas's use of Aristotle's category-theory.

But, besides this stuff on Christian philosophy of Exodus 3; does Von B. say about about the Jewish context of this? While in seminary I was taught the interpretation that God's saying 'I am who I am' expressed the idea that God is not subject to any creatures' will or exploits. Another reading of 'I am who I am' also is 'I will be who I will be'; is that right?

D.W. Congdon said...


I would say you are right on both counts. I'm not an expert on Thomas, so I'll leave others to discuss him. Regarding the second point, my skepticism regarding Balthasar et al. on Exod. 3 is that it seems guilty of eisegesis, in that the text is clearly not a Greek meditation on being but a Jewish revelation of God's identity as one faithful to the covenant. The best interpretation of the divine name I've come across is one suggested by Terrence Fretheim, who translates it, "I will be who I am." That is, God will remain there and then the one who makes this covenant with you here and now. It stresses covenantal fidelity, not metaphysical reality.

Scott Williams said...

Also, although 'ipsum esse subsistens' is a name for God, Aquinas does not say it is the 'proper name of God', but that 'YHWH' is the proper name of God. So, Aquinas, at least, admits a hierarchical order btwn. a metaphysical name for God, and this non-metaphysical name for God. Still, he hardly says much about the tetragrammaticon in ST 1a.13.11.ad1: "Sed quantum ad id ad quod imponitur nomen ad significandum, est magis proprium hoc nomen Deus, quod imponitur ad significandum naturam divinam. Et adhuc magis proprium nomen est tetragrammaton, quod est impositum ad significandam ipsam Dei substantiam incommunicabilem, et, ut sic liceat loqui, singularem.:

Stephen M. Garrett said...

Thanks for your comments. Hopefully, I can clarify a bit regarding the "ipsum esse subsistens" vs. "ipsum esse" discussion.

Both of you are correct regarding Aquinas' appropriation of Aristotle's notion of "subsistens" to distinguish between God's being as "substantial" rather than "accidental". In this instance, though, the point Murphy is making via Gilson regards the convergence of faith and reason via the divine name. In other words, "this pure act of being" of Aristotle meets "the divine act of being" in God's self-revelation of his name "He who is" to Moses. Now whether you agree with this convergence is another matter, which seems to be the issue, in part, regarding Balthasar's supposed eisegesis.

Scott, you are correct to point out, indirectly at least, that Aquinas did not use the phrase "ipsum divinum esse". The confusion is my mistake. The phrase is actually Gilson's (see his Christian Philosophy of Aquinas, 93). He is attempting to encapsulate what you have pointed to in your second post, although not the section you cite.

To be sure, Aquinas does say YHWH is the most proper name for God (ST 1a.13.11). Not sure he actually admits, though, that there is a hierarchy as you've suggested but rather sees it as a convergence as Murphy/Gilson have argued. Additionally, the first reason Aquinas cites for why YHWH is the most proper name is what Gilson summarizes with his phrase "ipsum divinum esse": "Primo quidem, propter sui significationem. Non enim significat formam aliquam, sed ipsum esse. Unde, cum esse Dei sit ipsa eius essentia, et hoc nulli alii conveniat, ut supra ostensum est, manifestum est quod inter alia nomina hoc maxime proprie nominat Deum: unumquodque enim denominatur a sua forma" (ST 1a.13.11). The divine name signifies divine existence itself.
Why is this important? Aquinas derives simplicity from this notion.

What is interesting in the passage you cite is the last sentence: "Et adhuc magis proprium nomen est tetragrammaton, quod est impositum ad significandam ipsam Dei substantiam incommunicabilem, et, ut sic liceat loqui, singularem," particularly the part where Aquinas refers to the divine name as an incommunicable substance. Yet, what is incommunicable? In the first part of his reply to objection 1, which is not in your quote, as well as in the previous passage I cited, I believe Aquinas is saying that it is God's divine existence or "ipsum divinum esse." This is significant because this is where Aquinas departs from Aristotle. Aristotle thought that creation was eternal and thus placed the emphasis on the substance of being (See Gilson, Being & Some Philosophers, 47). But Aquinas, following divine revelation, placed the stress on the pure act of being. In doing so, the act of existing for a created being is distinct from what it really is (Aquinas' distinction between esse and essentia). Yet created being is received. Thus, in God there is no distinction between essence and existence, and this is incommunicable. Additionally, what is derived from the above discussion is the doctrine of analogy, which I alluded to in my response.

I hope I clarified some things but probably muddied the waters even more. Thanks for correcting my sloppiness. Other sources that might be helpful are Caputo's Heidegger and Aquinas, Oakes' Pattern of Redemption, and Aquinas' Ente et Essentia.

Anonymous said...

Hi, thanks for your comments - the reply to my piece was much better than my piece! My idea was not that the whole point of von B's exegesis of Ex 3 was to elucidate Biblical criticism, but that in fact it does do that.

Francesca Murphy

Tony said...

Aquinas does say that God is "ipsum esse subsistens", but I am not quite so sure that "subsistens" here should be translated as "substantial". Correct me if I am wrong, but "substance" refers to "substantia", and "subsistence" refers to "subsistens" (the latter I suspect is more a verb, while "substantia" a noun: God is more a verb than a noun). God is "ipsum esse subsistens" because God is "being that exists in itself," not in virtue of another which may be designated its cause... The "subsistens" therefore does not refer to the substantial-accidental axis but to causality: creatures owe their existence NOT to themselves but to an OTHER, WHO IS HIMSELF HIS OWN CAUSE, i.e., God exists in himself, is existence itself, is ESSE itself (that is, he does not owe his "to be", his "esse" to any other...

Scott Williams said...


That is close, I think. 'Subsistens' is a participle: one who subsists (subsisting one). It is true, Aquinas (and most all scholastics) deny that the divine essence is a substance in the sense that it is a subject for accidents. Also, the divine essence is not some property (feature) 'said of' something (like 'humanity' is said of the matter that constitutes Socrates).

But what does 'subsistens' add to 'ipse esse'. Well, it denies that the divine essence is able or liable to receive accidents, and it denies that it is 'said of' something else (e.g. matter). It affirms the 'in itself' or 'per se' existence of God.

I wouldn't go so far as to say that the divine essence is a 'self-cause' for Aquinas. He'd say the divine essence has 'necessary existence' though. And, yes, he'd say that in God 'essence and existence' are identical, i.e. not seperable (God couldn't stop existing (esse), and God couldn't stop being divine (divina essentia)).

But, if we go with Gilson by saying God is 'being itself', then we are left with an unnecessary ambiguity. Is God's being identical with 'this rock's being'? Is God's being identical with 'Socrates's existing as a human'.

Tony said...

correction: substantial refers to "substantia" which translates into "substance"; the noun of the verb "subsistens" would be "subsistentia" (which would be one of the latin translations of "hypostasis", the other being "persona"). The trinitarian formula therefore: one (divine) substance in three (personal) hypostases... (actually: mia ousia, treis hypostaseis, μία οὐσία, τρεiς ὐποστάσεις, where ousia is equivalent to "substance" and "hupostaseis" to "subsistentiae"

Tony said...

Scott, I see your point. God is "ipsum esse subsistens", but "being" here translates the verb "esse" (therefore "be-ing"), not the noun "ens" ("a being"), and "esse" here is not in reference to "esse commune" (the "be-ing of cretures" which is contingent and derivative) but precisely to "ipsum esse subsistens". translating the latin to english is...difficult. i guess therefore "ipsum esse subsistens" could be translated as "be-ing subsisting (in) itself"... Thus the "I am who I am" or "I will be who I will be"...or "'I AM' has sent you." But perhaps beyond metaphysics, it is a question of WHO Israel's God is that is the point, and therefore it is a question of PERSONAL IDENTITY rather than (Greek) metaphysics... I've always thought that this is where Balthasar goes BEYOND Thomas: it is the Johannine "God is Love" that controls his interpretation of Exodus 3...

Anonymous said...

I agree that in a way von B goes beyond Thomas, but my point is that the way Gilson describes the Thomistic 'Being itself', it is so much a living and energetic force that it is naturally (re)described as a 'conflagratoin of love'. By taking the divine Being in a trans-conceptual/trans-essential sense, Gilson opens the way to considering it as Love. Paradoxically, the Augustinian sense that God is best named as love can only be articulated when (following Aquinas) one removes from it its conceptualism.

Francesca Murphy

Tony said...

Exactly, for "esse" is NOT a concept... It is not a concept for Aquinas, not for Gilson, not for Balthasar...