“Infidelity and the Form’s Unfolding: A Response to Halden Doerge”
By Andrew Ryan Guffey
Mr. Doerge’s essay confirms—with special attention to Balthasar’s use of the Old Testament and the relationship of Judaism and Christianity—the overwhelming but unspoken consensus of the conference thus far, namely, that Balthasar’s theological hermeneutic is primarily to be perceived in his theological aesthetics. While the space allotted for these essays does not permit us to follow all of our theses, certain questions need to be engaged more thoroughly. With Doerge’s fine essay I found myself wishing he had followed his theological question farther into Balthasar’s thought. The question to which I refer, of course, is that of Judaism. How can Christianity claim to fulfill Judaism without superceding it? It is a question Balthasar’s work invites.
It is true that for Balthasar “the Old Testament does not possess within itself its own eidos.” Christ is, of course, the antitype by which the types of the Old Testament are measured. Christ is the revelation of God, and the Old Testament is the revelation of God insofar as it finds its resolution in Christ. Doerge here asks the right question: “[D]oes not such a Christocentric figural reading of the Old Testament inevitably devalue and domesticate the distinctive nature of the Old Testament and Israel’s faith?” But Doerge is perhaps too quick to defend Balthasar against the charge of supercessionism without making a clean breast of the latter’s developed thoughts on the matter. Truly, for Balthasar, form and content belong together in aesthetics—the form cannot be left behind once one has perceived the content, for the content is to be perceived only in and not through the form. It is not clear, however, that this argument or its analogues can be transferred to the question of the place of the Old Testament in Christic revelation. Doerge draws on a similar argument to affirm the place of the Old Testament in Balthasar’s writings: “The Old Testament sets the historical and theological conventions within which Christ is who he is. While they are not necessary for Christ as he is for them, he assumes them and cannot be approached except through them.” But then, nothing that has come to pass can have happened without that which preceded it. Christ could not have been crucified by the Romans had the Romans not first conquered the Mediterranean. The Gospel could not have been preached throughout the Empire and so widely and effectively communicated had Alexander not conquered the known world three and a half centuries prior to Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. Does that mean that these events, too, participate in the revelation of God? If this is the true value of the Old Testament, does not Christ stick out as some sort of Hegelian Aufhebung in which neither thesis nor antithesis is lost, but rather both are sublated into the “synthesis”?
Doerge acknowledges that “much of what von Balthasar affirms about the fulfillment of the Old Testament and Israel in the form of Christ will be problematic, not only to adherents of Judaism, but to many Christian theologians who are rightly concerned with the crucial issue of Jewish-Christian relations.” But it is here that Doerge dodges the full force of the question he is asking. Doerge claims that the fulfillment of the Old Testament in Christ in Balthasar’s aesthetics in no way indicates Christian supercessionism, which he follows with the disclaimer that, in Balthasar’s work, “all forms of theological engagement with Israel and the Old Testament find their coherence only in Christ, in the faith that in Christ nothing is lost, nothing is violated, nothing is excluded.” Here he appeals to Balthasar’s “hopeful universalism,” which Doerge claims “prohibits any kind of anti-Semitic supercessionism.” Perhaps it does prohibit anti-Semitic supercessionism, but anti-Judaic supercessionism is yet another question.1
The question is all the more striking when one reads the sixth volume of Balthasar’s aesthetics (“Theology: Old Covenant”). This volume is among the most rich and fascinating of Balthasar’s writings. One aspect that makes the volume so intriguing is its unabashed proclamation of the broken covenant. Balthasar sketches the ideal of the covenant with Israel, for instance, in part I.C. But this is followed by a striking assertion that breaks with the mechanistic historicity of dialectical materialism. “Everything that has been said up to this point [regarding grace and covenant] has,” Balthasar writes, “an abstract validity, because it is seen in isolation from history. It is only history, which convicts man as a sinner and confronts God with the fact of the broken covenant, that permits us to see the concrete reality of God’s glory” (Balthasar, Glory of the Lord, vol. 6: 215). Balthasar continues later: “Existence in flight and in catastrophe, since the glory of God has changed to blazing wrath, is one of the fundamental themes of the old covenant. … Round about Israel too there are more and more descents into hell and ‘pursuits into darkness’ (Nahum 1.8): from the flood … to the final ruin of Babylon and the concluding lamentation of Rev 17-18. But in the midpoint stands the rejection which is the necessary reverse side of the privileged election: the rejection of Israel and of its holy mountain, Zion. God’s glory has withdrawn. … The Israel of the millennia represents the side of God’s salvific activity in which he rejects; this is the inexorable inner consequence and logic of the grace which had entered into history” (GL, 6: 218-19). In this history of disobedience, during the long twilight after the Babylonian exile, the three movements of messianism, apocalyptic, and wisdom theology sprang up. But “if one surveys the three developments of the theologia gloriae which have been sketched above … then it immediately becomes terrifyingly clear that such an urgent need for glory can derive only from a great deficiency” (GL 6: 365). Or even more clearly: “the twilight dominates everything, for the prophets have declared the old covenant to be broken and dissolved” (GL 6: 382). The covenant, according to Balthasar (according to the prophets), is broken. Could we not then conclude that Judaic religion is obsolete?
Only in this context, only in the context of this very controversial and problematic position, can Balthasar write about the prophetical character of the whole history of Israel: “This is the covenant history of the chosen people with God, a history with greatness, a catastrophe and a self-transcendence that drives forward to a fulfillment that cannot be clearly seen or constructed. … It is essential today to insist as strongly as possible that Christianity cannot be understood without the old covenant; every attempt to interpret the form, message and subsequent impact of Christ in the world necessarily fails unless it is able to assess it all precisely in its closeness to and its distance from the old covenant” (GL 6: 402-3). Balthasar’s eloquent defense against supercessionism on p. 409 of GL 6 is impressive and calls the Church to repentance in participation with Israel’s psalms of lamentations. Indeed, “there are forms in the old covenant,” writes Balthasar, “which cannot be left behind in the new. … One of these elements which cannot be superseded is the knowledge of the absolute sovereignty and glory of God” (GL 6: 409). It is perhaps here that we hit on Balthasar’s best defense against supercessionism. More than anything it is the perception of God’s glory in the Old Testament that cannot be superceded. An even stronger answer, I suspect, would come from the place of Israel under the sign of Apocalypse. The incorporation of Israel in the action of Theo-Drama may prove a worthy locus for reflection on this question. The inclusion of the twelve patriarchs with the twelve apostles is important for Balthasar, and he takes pains to remind his readers that in the vertical history of God with the world, Israel and the Church are found together.
Doerge’s essay had to leave many of these concerns aside. Understandably, chasing this question in the current forum would have proven difficult, but the sophistication with which Balthasar approaches the question is compelling. What does it mean, after all, that the whole of Israel’s history should be prophetic if indeed Israel’s history is the covenant broken by infidelity? How should theology appropriate that Old Testament?