Response #7: David W. Congdon

Response to “The Apocalypse and the Theological Aesthetic of Theo-Drama”
By David W. Congdon

I am grateful to Andrew for his very thoughtful engagement with Balthasar’s interpretation of John’s Apocalypse. Indeed, as he rightly points out, the book of Revelation has been an especially potent force in modern political history. I recently finished reading Umberto Eco’s classic novel, The Name of the Rose. In this book, as most people already know, William of Baskerville is on the trail of a murderer, and as the mystery unfolds, it seems clear to him that the murders are being done according to the “script” laid out in the Apocalypse. As it turns out, there was no such script, and the pattern was imposed on the events by William because of his familiarity with the Apocalypse—and the general human tendency to read order into reality where no order exists. William is fascinated by the prospect of the Apocalypse forming the basis for a murder mystery, just as many people today are fascinated by the prospect of this book forming the basis for “horizontal” history.

Andrew mentions some recent authors who have written on the Apocalypse, but many others could be mentioned as well. I grew up in the world of American fundamentalism, where the thoughts of people like Hal Lindsey and, more recently, Tim LaHaye have dominated the conversation. But they are only the most recent versions of a general misconception about John’s visions. Further back in history we run up against the likes of Cyrus Scofield, John Nelson Darby, Lewis Sperry Chafer, and Dwight L. Moody, among many others. Up until I attended college, these people were revered as heroes of the faith, and their interpretations of Scripture—particularly of passages Rev. 4—were accepted as a matter of fact. I came to college presupposing dispensationalism as the proper interpretation of the Bible, and it’s still an accepted doctrine among family and friends at home.

All of this makes one rather sympathetic to Schleiermacher, who states in his Glaubenslehre that it would be better if the Apocalypse of John were simply not in the Bible. But whereas Schleiermacher simply excises from Scripture what is “parabolic” in nature, Balthasar redeems texts like the Apocalypse through a christocentric and theodramatic reading. As Andrew articulated very well, Balthasar interprets the Apocalypse as a “vertical” theodramatic history between God and the world, rather than as a “horizontal” history which one could read off of world events: “The book of Revelation is definitely NOT a script for the world’s end, or a code to interpret the political movements of history.”

The bolder and more controversial move that Balthasar makes, according to Andrew (and here I rely upon his essay, having not gone through the material myself), is that John’s visions are not simply drawn from the author’s subjective context but are in fact internal to the objective reality of revelation. This is both theologically profound but also historically and critically naïve. On the one hand, it allows for a brilliant wedding of aesthetics and theo-drama, but on the other hand it bypasses the important exegetical insights to be gained from reading the Apocalypse within the historical context. Is it sufficient for Balthasar to say that the form of the Apocalypse is subjective while its content is objective? Even if we affirm the “fundamental unity of form and content,” how does this translate into biblical exegesis? Is it really legitimate to ignore the relation between Babylon and the Roman empire as part of the material content of John’s visions? Are we really better off overlooking the message that the author gives to the churches of his own day, a message that urges them to remain steadfast in their faith in the midst of imperial persecution? To say that the author was subjectively prepared by his ecclesial context does not seem to say enough. There is certainly much to gain from a christological (“vertical”) reading of the text, but what do we lose in the process?

More importantly, I wonder if the vertical-horizontal and objective-subjective distinctions are theologically adequate. It seems to me that Barth’s understanding of history in Church Dogmatics, vol. 4, allows us to move past such limiting dichotomies. On Barth’s account, the history of Christ is the actualization of both the “vertical” and “horizontal” dimensions of history. The history of Christ simply is the history of God and the history of the world. Christ actualizes the being of God and the being of humanity in his particular, concrete history. In him, as the writer of Colossians states, all things truly hold together.

Barth’s historicized theology also overcomes the subjective-objective division in that the subjective reality is contained within the objective reality and the objective is contained with the subjective. Christ’s history is our history, and our history is a participation in Christ’s history. A more actualistic and historicized theology, such as the one Barth provides, might allow us to attend more faithfully to the subjective context of the author without seeking refuge in the “objective revelation,” where such concerns can fade into the distance. In other words, I want to suggest that Barth’s theology offers a better way to hold together “spiritual” and “historical-critical” readings of the biblical text, including the Apocalypse. This is not to suggest that Balthasar’s account is facile and simplistic—because it certainly is not—but only to argue that his may not be the most adequate way of approaching the material. While Balthasar’s affirmation of the unity of form and content seems to be on the right track, perhaps he did not carry through the logic of this position fully, or perhaps it is not sufficiently grounded in the history of Christ. Or perhaps I simply need to investigate Balthasar’s theology further on this point!

I will readily grant that my familiarity with Balthasar’s aesthetics is limited in both depth and scope, so some of the nuances of Andrew’s essay are undoubtedly lost on me. I accept this as a challenge to continue reading Balthasar in the hopes of learning to appreciate the magnitude of his contribution to theology. My sincere thanks to him for offering this insightful and theologically rich account of Balthasar’s theological exegesis.


Andy said…
My thanks to David for his perceptive comments and my apologies for such a late rejoinder.

Indeed, Balthasar's appeal to objective revelation in Theo-Drama 4 is startling and, to say the least, odd. And yet, I do not think we can take him as historically naive at this point. The fundamental move Balthasar is making is consistent with his investment in mysticism. Probably especially from Adrienne, Balthasar developed a great sensitivity toward mystical elements of Christian spirituality. The argument Balthasar makes is simply that the author of the book of Revelation was not imagining or drawing on images in his imagination to write a brilliant piece of inspired poetry. Rather, the author was relating and communicating an actual revelatory vision. This allows Balthasar to appeal to the objective revelation of the Apocalypse by way of the subjective reception and communication of it in the book of Revelation. (Here he stands in some contrast to Austin Farrer's Rebirth of Images.) In other words, his assumption about scripture here is less in step with modern biblical studies, and more interested in the religious experience the text presents.

In some ways this frees Balthasar from some of the false certainty of historical-critical research. For instance, although it may be profitable to read the Apocalypse from the standpoint of a persecuted people, a minority report (including Jonathan Knight and Brian Blount) argues that there was no actual persecution at the time John was writing, but rather, he wrote in anticipation of persecution, or even to exhort his readers to the kind of resistance toward the Empire that would surely incite persecution. Either he saw it coming or he was telling the churches of Asia Minor to pick a fight.

While they can certainly prove problematic, the distinctions between subjective and objective and vertical and horizontal that Balthasar employs are, to my mind, not so problematic as David makes them out to be. I cannot engage a full discussion here, as that would take us into another full paper. I will have to settle with the bald claim that Balthasar's ultimate position is not far from Barth's at this juncture. Balthasar's Theology of History is particularly illuminating for the vertical/horizontal distinction. And Glory of the Lord I is likewise instructive for the subjective/objective distinction.

I will offer only a brief extract from Theology of History to whet the appetite:

"In Jesus Christ, the Logos is no longer the realm of ideas, values and laws which governs and gives meaning to history, but is himself history. In the life of Christ the factual and the normative coincide not only in fact but necessarily, because the fact is both the manifestation of God and the divine-human pattern of true humanity in God's eyes. ...The historical life of the Logos--to which his death, Resurrection, and Ascension belong--is, as such, that very world of ideas which, directly or reductively, gives the norm for all history; yet not as coming from some non-historical height above, but from the living center of history itself. Seen from the highest, definitive point of view, it is the source of history, the point whence the whole of history before and after Christ emanates, its center" (24).

In the end, I think David has raised some fine questions, and I suspect it is along these lines that one might find some minor --but all the more salient because of their proximity--dissonance between Balthasar and Barth. While the two thinkers are probably closer than David has indicated, in the end it is the differences here that would be fascinating to explore.