Response #8: Patrick McManus

Response to “Toward a Hermeneutic of Hope: Hans Urs von Balthasar on the Biblical Warrant for Universalism”
By Rev. Patrick McManus
Wycliffe College, Toronto

I would first of all like to thank David for a well crafted paper that nicely highlights the tensions both within the biblical witness and within Balthasar himself on the question of the biblical warrant for apokatastasis. David is succinct in his review of Balthasar’s exegesis and his critique of Balthasar while concise, gets right to the heart of some of Balthasar’s shortcomings on this long debated issue.

I must confess that I always find it easier to respond to a paper I find myself disagreeing with. However, in this case, my job is harder since David and I have similar concerns (though to different degrees) over Balthasar’s treatment—with his prioritizing of the possibility over the actuality of the Pauline ‘in Christ’, his problematic handling of the nature of human freedom, and the issues surrounding how he handles the relation between the work of Christ and the work of the Spirit. I also share in David’s desire for a hermeneutic of hope which avoids both the ‘possibility’ of apokatastasis in the abstract and also the codifying of universal hope into a doctrinal system. So, I will leave it to our ensuing discussion for champions of Balthasar to come to his defence to save him from David’s critique. I will also leave it to our following discussion to possibly engage the problematic biblical texts that David highlights. That said, I do have some issues.

I will limit my response to two: pressing David on his claims for a hermeneutic of hope and asking him to fill out for us what this hermeneutic might look like on the ground; and second, I just want to touch on David’s reading of Balthasar’s hermeneutic, as only a ‘hermeneutics of crisis’. I wonder if, in the end, this is simply reductionistic, given Balthasar’s wider theological programme (I’m thinking here especially of Balthasar’s Theo-Drama).

On the first count, to be precise, I’d like to ask how David’s hermeneutic of hope might parse the tension of the biblical witness? While I agree with David that both the mere ‘possibility’ of universal hope and the systematizing of it are equally philosophical abstractions and end up polarizing the biblical witness, it doesn’t seem to me that it’s necessary to have either a hermeneutic of crisis or a hermeneutic of hope as David seems to put the matter.

This strikes me as problematic, at least if the tension within Scripture that Balthasar highlights is a real one (as I take David to assume). It needs to be more clearly put to what extent David agrees with Balthasar’s claim (a Pauline one, surely) that the church sits under the judgment of her Lord—which negates any and all synthesizing of Scripture into a comprehensible system—and how well David’s third option complies with this theological caveat. In other words, does David’s ‘stronger form of hope’ carry with it the seed, or possibility, of this sort of synthesizing? If not, how does it account for this very real tension?

On the second issue, I will only say that to suggest that Balthasar’s hermeneutic ‘begins with anthropological existentialism’ as David seems to hint at in his second to last paragraph misses the whole thrust of his theological project and confuses it with something like Rahner’s transcendentalism. I understand that David is only engaging Dare We Hope?, a short cursive text that doesn’t really lay out for us the breadth of Balthasar’s hermeneutics, but to read it apart from what Balthasar does elsewhere might leave us with the impression that Balthasar’s hermeneutics is, at least on David’s reading, too thin. On this score, I think, if we were to press David’s caricature of Balthasar here, we would find that Barth and Balthasar are not so far apart as David has made them seem here. Both sought, hermeneutically and otherwise, in their own unique ways to draw out the universal reach of the christological particular. That, we can hash out in our discussion below.

Again, I would like to thank David for his paper and for this conference.


I wish to thank Patrick for a well-reasoned response (and one that I anticipated when writing my essay). He is certainly right to criticize me for caricaturing Balthasar. I almost admitted as much when I said that I was in search of an interesting argument. While I do think that Balthasar is not always faithful to his own best insights (a criticism which also applies to Barth for that matter), I also want to affirm Patrick's thesis that he and Barth are probably closer than I made them out to be in my piece.

That said, I will try to respond to both of Patrick's main points in turn. First, as to the practical implications of my "stronger" form of hope, I would say that we have good exegetical reasons for giving priority to the universalist texts of scripture. In other words, I think Matt. 25 can and should be read in light of Rom. 5 and Col. 1.

I also do not think that this eliminates the existential tension of being under judgment nor do I think that this replaces the complexity of the biblical witness with an abstract system. I argue the former on the grounds that our existential tension should be christologically grounded; that is, our existential tension results from the fact that we are under judgment in Christ. The old human of sin is destroyed in his death, and the tension results from the eschatological gulf between who I truly am in him (the new righteous person) and who I am in myself (hence, simul iustus et peccator). The tension that I see in Balthasar, however, is anthropocentric; that is, the tension is not between Christ and us -- between the new person and the seemingly still old person -- but rather between the Two Ways set forth in Deuteronomy and the Didache, between my free choice for good and my free choice for evil. While Balthasar readily admits that Christ indeed accomplished the reconciliation of the world, he is still beholden to an abstract notion of freedom that locates the existential tension in the human decision for or against Christ. In other words, the tension is between two possibilities, whereas the tension in Barth is between the reality and the illusion, one an actuality and the other merely "nothing."

That this does not replace Scripture with a system is grounded in the fact that Christ is not a system but a person. This means that we are never in control of this reality. We are rather called to be faithful and obedient servants. But that does not lessen the fact that we can indeed have certainty in the fact of our reconciliation. The practical exegetical "payoff" is that we have a kind of hermeneutical "key" to Scripture: not a "canon within the canon," but a "person with the canon" or rather a "Savior within the canon." Christ, as both Barth and Balthasar affirm, is the center of Scripture, and if Christ really and truly accomplished the new creation in his death and resurrection, we cannot allow the internal contradiction within Scripture to remain a contradiction. There is a trajectory within Scripture, and that trajectory leads us to Jesus himself -- the Judge judged in our place. This, of course, should not be taken to mean that the Pauline notion that we are "under judgment" is being lessened in the least. What it means, as I said above, is that this judgment is finally located in the judgment that Christ bore on the cross in our place and on our behalf. The judgment is christological before it is ever anthropological.

Regarding Patrick's second point, I will admit that I have simplified Balthasar a bit for the sake of an argument. But I don't really think that I have done him a serious injustice. Part of the problem, as Patrick rightly notes, is that I have limited myself to this one volume and thus the "seams" are more apparent, whereas an engagement with his other writings would greatly help smooth out his position. I've done some work in the Theo-Drama, and while the theology there is far more sophisticated and "Barthian," there are still the same problematic elements: an emphasis on a rather abstract notion of freedom and a questionable account of the relation between divine and human agency.

My provocative thesis that Balthasar "begins with anthropological existentialism" is, quite probably, reductionistic. But I do think it gets to the heart of where I believe we need to go with Barth over Balthasar. Of course, Balthasar is one of the most christological theologians in the modern era, but it is not always clear what this means or how far he is willing to accept the logic of this position. I readily accept the concern of many that Barth is christomonist, but I think there are plenty of arguments against such a view of Barth's theology, and I am not convinced that Balthasar really offers a satisfactory alternative.

All that said, the two theologians are certainly in agreement on many, many issues. As I noted, my aim here is to press the logic of Balthasar's position and expose where I think he remains inadequate. But I continue to have the highest respect for his immense theological accomplishments -- hence this conference!
Thank you, Patrick, for a stimulating conversation.
Anonymous said…
My provocative thesis that Balthasar "begins with anthropological existentialism" is, quite probably, reductionistic.

I agree that this is probably reductionistic. In fact I think that one of the key things that makes Baltahsar unique is his ability to transcend the sort of German existentialism to which he, Barth, and Jungel all responded in various ways. In fact, this is Webster's remark about Balthasar pace Jungel in his essay on Jesus in Jungel's theology. Namely that Balthasar's Theo-Drama offers a paradigm which is able to incorporate the dialogical and dialectical dynamics of the "theology of crisis" (if you will) while transposing that sort of dialecticalism into a drama in which God and humans have their proper roles, a move that incorporates the horizontal and the vertical without sublating either.

But I do think it gets to the heart of where I believe we need to go with Barth over Balthasar.

Here also, I think you are quite right. As Daniel McClain's article showed, although Balthasar is profoundly Christocentric, the nature of his theology (particularly his aesthetics) is not Christocentric in the same way as Barth's (which in my view is more apocalyptic, discontinuitous, and indeed, more radical). Here, too, is where I think we must go with Barth of Balthasar. Perhaps this is just a way of saying that "evangelical urgency" may always have to trump "cathoic fullness" in our measure of which theologians to follow.
Anonymous said…
Pardon me, that should read "Barth over Balthasar.
Anonymous said…
And so we are back to the "solus Christus" vs the "totus Christus" argument...

Why is it that, somehow, I have to ask whether the "Catholic fullness" approach COULD BE the MORE evangelical approach? "Evangelical urgency" always has to do with the "moment." But Catholic plenitude speaks of God's fullness; it is OUR eschatological destiny already made visible and acted out dramatically today...
Anonymous said…
Tony, for me the question is whether or not the allged "fullness" too easily becomes something we possess, a given reality that we have some sort of epistemic security and stability in. For Barth (and Protestantism as a whole) the emphasis must rather fall on the inherently destabilizing Word of God that comes to us from outside ourselves and which always and ever resists any sort of assimilation into a totality. That is the danger of "catholic fullness", I fear it turns the intrusion of God into our world in Christ too easily into something managable, immanent, and self-confirming. I don't think we can dispense with the Word extra nos which continually calls us into question so easily.
Anonymous said…
I have no problems with how you framed your response, Halden. It is just that I suspect a hidden or lurking fear that basically has to do with the Church and not with what is intended by "Catholic fullness". Understood rightly, "catholic fullness" is "God's fullness" Christologically made visible, dramatized and expressed and Pneumatologically enacted and prolonged in our world today (my succinct way of summarizing Balthasar's ouvre). Where we might disagree is perhaps the implications of this for ecclesiology or perhaps even for our understanding of theological anthropology. But really, given Balthasar's great nod to Barth, I am a bit at a loss at the SEEMING freezing of hermeneutical generosity on the part of Barthians with regard to Catholic and Orthodox approaches...
Hi Tony,

First, I would submit that any affirmation of the "totus Christus" has to be subordinated to the "solus Christus." This is just common sense from my perspective. We can't be one with Christ until we are reconciled to God in Christ.

Second, the fundamental issue at stake here is what role human action has in our own self-determination. Balthasar has a very tidy account in which Mary's Yes to God prior to Christ's salvific work demonstrates the constitutive role of free human action in the economy of salvation. I simply cannot follow him on this point, as much as I can appreciate it. While I like Balthasar's metaphor of the "acting area" opened up by Christ, I would stress very strongly that there is one place where no one else acts, and that is on the cross. Christ must act alone when it concerns the reconciliation of the world. That this opens up free human action elsewhere should not allow us to make such human action determinative for salvation.

What I think is controlling Balthasar's account is his twin commitment to (1) a Marian ecclesiology and (2) libertarian free will. The former allows him to "map" Mary's action onto the whole of the Church. Here we enter into the troubled waters of Balthasar's theology of gender. It's almost impossible to extricate his ecclesiology from his account of gender, and this presents deep problems for those of us who simply disagree with his understanding of masculinity and femininity. The latter issue is not unique to Balthasar but is an age-old issue dividing Catholics and Protestants. And here I am most definitely a Protestant. I think Luther was basically right, and Barth even better. I discussed this issue briefly in the "small-print" section of my essay.

Finally, I like the way you've emphasized "God's fullness," but in terms of Catholic theology, I wonder if there is finally any difference between "God's fullness" and "Catholic fullness."
Anonymous said…
Halden, maybe you could spell out how Balthasar's aesthetics are not christological? Because, while that statement is correct, it doesn't tell the whole story. The relationship between Creation and Christology needs to be made more explicit, which I hardly had the time to do in that essay. Moreover, it's not something that I'm convinced any theologian since the middle ages had done adequately for their time.. certainly Barth did NOT do that. Arguments that so and so is not Christological enough are hardly ever convincing to me. Too much bagage. Besides, those who are claimed to be "Christological" rarely go far enough in a Christo-logic, or a logic of incarnation. Remember, the incarnation requires a clear articulation and affirmation of fully divine and fully human. While documents like Gaudium et Spes point out that Christ fully humanity in its fullness to humanity, it still presupposes humanity. So, creation is a doctrine that has gotten short shrift from catholics, protestants, you name it.
Regardless of all that, I fail to see why evangelical urgency, or any other formulaic call to revolution or reformation should be heeded over anything but the gospel call to unity. I certainly disagree with that mantra, and am fairly certain that Barth would too, as he of all people is the one who invited Balthasar to come speak to his seminarians of none other than the nature and grace issue.
Anonymous said…
Dan, I think you're asking for a number of answers that would take far too long in a forum such as this, so I'll limit myself to just a couple comments.

1. My point was not that Barth is "more" Christocentric than Balthasar, only that the way Christ functions (vis a vis things like "nature" or "the world") is different, at least in emphasis. Barth's theology stresses far more the discontinuity and interruptive nature of revelation in relation to the world whereas Balthasar stresses the opening up of the "acting area" in Christ within which nature and grace enter into a more seamless harmony. For Barth however, grace always disrupts and intrudes on nature in an almost violent way. The Word is not assimilatable into a systematic totality.

This is part of the reason why spelling out a "Christo-logic, or a logic of incarnation" is a bit problematic. The Christ event cannot be circumscribed into a totalized logic - its radical singularity defies assimilation. What is needed, rather, is to return, ever and again to the revelation of God in Christ so that it may continually disrupt and reconstitute our attempts to understand it.

As to this last comment "I fail to see why evangelical urgency, or any other formulaic call to revolution or reformation should be heeded over anything but the gospel call to unity." - I couldn't agree more. The question is how we understand the theological nature of the unity that is commanded by the gospel. That is of course, beyond us to simply figure out right here, but let me say in no uncertain terms that there can be no "revolution" or "reformation" of the church which has any other purpose than the unity of the Church in faith of the Apostles. On this Barth, Balthasar, and hopefully all of us would agree.
Anonymous said…
1. David, you say: "First, I would submit that any affirmation of the "totus Christus" has to be subordinated to the "solus Christus." This is just common sense from my perspective."

I would say: there is mutual affirmation and subordination of the solus and totus Christus, with, I suspect, much depending on context and goal of given pastoral and theological situations. It is my understanding that the "solus Christus" BECOMES christomonistic (and ultimately "theopanistic") if its Trinitarian basis is relativized and Pneumatology is not allowed to shed light on the aesthetics, dramatics and logic of the trinitarian God-world axis.

2. You say: "Balthasar has a very tidy account in which Mary's Yes to God prior to Christ's salvific work demonstrates the constitutive role of free human action in the economy of salvation."

I say: human freedom is constitutive, but not sufficient, for salvation. Human freedom is NOT the EFFICIENT CAUSE of that Christic salvation from which Mary herself was NOT exempt. Human freedom MUST play its role. Otherwise, there is NO salvation and no redemption. But this human freedom operative in Mary IS THE ACTION OF GOD within her. I suspect a certain dichotomous handling of grace and human freedom in your assertion: MORE human freedom MUST mean, in your thinking, LESS grace. It is Balthasar's position that THIS IS NOT THE CASE with Mary.

3. You say: "Finally, I like the way you've emphasized 'God's fullness,' but in terms of Catholic theology, I wonder if there is finally any difference between 'God's fullness' and 'Catholic fullness.'"

I say: Well, perhaps SOME Catholic theologians COULD BE accused of sheer identification between "God's fullness" and "Catholic fullness" ("Catholic" here referring to the Catholic Church). But I doubt whether Balthasar could be accused of leveling the DIFFERENCE between the two. That he is not always consistent is something acknowledged by all worthy commentators (e.g., Rowan Williams), but in what is best in Balthasar's theology, there can be no doubt that Balthasar is THE Catholic theologian of DIFFERENCE par excellence.
Anonymous said…
Halden. I never ask too much. Always the right amount. :)
I think I understand you better, and I actually think we agree quite a bit, but my anglican via media spurs me on to press a bit further, if that's ok with you.
First, regarding your last paragraph, you are affirming the catholic 'and' or catholic fullness as I understand it.

Next, my immediate reaction to the rest of your response is that you have an unfortunate idea of what a Christological or incarnational logic really is. After all, it is essentially that the Son of God is fully God and fully human. This is not some acquiescence to formal logic or a binding of the pleroma of revelation to the strictures of philosophy. Nor is it an assimilation and submission to human understanding. if anything, it's what you term a call to "the revelation of God in Christ so that it may continually disrupt and reconstitute our attempts to understand it." In this way, even you have an incarnational logic, both sophisticated and sloppy at the same time, no offense intended.
An honestly, its with dismay that I read your words, because the logic or formula that the creeds and Paul give us for the incarnation is such a fecund resource for theology, and to treat it as if it were some blackhole - "grace always disrupts and intrudes on nature in an almost violent way" - seems to indicate that God wants to confuse us, wants to put us at unease in the universe, when my read of the creation account says anything but. Is the fall so radical to you that creation tells us nothing about our God or our existence in this cosmos? If so, what do you do with the 1400 years of tradition before the reformation that disagree - let's start with Irenaeus for conversation sake?
Anonymous said…
Friends, Tony makes a good point about lurking dichotomies between nature and grace. It's interesting to note how this gets played out in similar ways among the reformation crowd as in catholic (ie. RC, G.O, and some Anglican) circles. What has been interesting to me is that more plenaries didn't explore the nature/grace question in Balthasar. It's so fundamental for him and de Lubac. While the conference has been very good, I fear that we still have yet to break out of reading Balthasar as a halfway house to protestantism, and therefore reading protestant categories onto him (and therefore not treating his understanding of the spirit and nature & grace before explicating his doctrine of revelation in toto). Hopefully that didn't come across as too whiny and/or polemical.

1. I disagree, as a proud Protestant, that the solus and totus Christus are mutually subordinated. There is no christomonism or theopanism here. The Father is the Father of the Son, just as the Spirit is the Spirit of the Son. The Spirit has no independent work to accomplish apart from the work of the Son. The Spirit is the one who confirms, subjectivizes, and fructifies the Son's work, but the Spirit does not accomplish anything separate from the Son in the economy of grace. This is one of those points of major disagreement which I readily acknowledge is not going to be accepted by many people, but it is both biblically and theologically grounded.

2. Again, I reject the view that individual human freedom is constitutive for salvation. I also reject the causal logic which was adopted by Thomas Aquinas from Aristotle and has become basic to Catholic theology. I certainly do not want to say that nature and grace are in a competitive relationship, but I would go to Schleiermacher and Kathryn Tanner rather than to de Lubac for a way of understanding their relationship. But I will say very strongly that human freedom is something that follows from Christ's liberation of humanity from sin and death; it cannot have a role in effecting this liberation. There is, however, one very clear example of human freedom being constitutive of salvation, and that is the human freedom of Jesus. I would argue that it is his human freedom which constitutes our own freedom. We don't act alongside Christ; Christ acts in our place, but in acting, he actualizes our own acting. The subjective dimension of human action is constituted by the objective dimension of human action in Jesus Christ.

3. I certainly am not criticizing Balthasar here for collapsing the distinction between catholic and divine fullness, but I would accuse Catholic theology in general for tending in that direction.

(By the way, may I suggest that you use the html tags instead of capitalizing your words.)
Anonymous said…
1. David, I really do not know what you mean by "Proud Protestant"; the way you say it, it makes being a Protestant an exemplary case of idolatry. I would have thought "being a Christian" and not "being a Protestant" or "being a Catholic" was the point of a blog conference like this. Otherwise, it seems to me we have fixed the boundaries where Christ himself has not fixed them. As for your position being "biblically and theologically grounded," so I would say the same for a position different from yours.

In some ways, you reprise the Balthasar-Barth debate, and perhaps Balthasar's accusation that in Barth there is a kind of "Christological constriction" that is also a "Christological narrowing" may be applied to your position as well.

It seems to me that proponents of an exclusive "solus Christus" position spring not from any assertion from Christ himself but from a reading of the New Testament that fails to take in the fullest possible extension of Christ's work.

The Spirit, "the unknown One Beyond the Word" as Balthasar puts it, certainly does not operate a work independent to that of the Son, but neither could the work of the Spirit be simply reduced to that of the Son. It seems to me that you come close to such a reduction.

That is what Christomonism is. Theopanism is the reduction to nothing or almost nothing of the creature. In order for God to be more, the creature must be shorn of any ontological reality, particularly her freedom, even if that freedom has been liberated by Christ and transformed into his image and likeness. In your thinking, there can be no real drama of salvation, no real interchange between God and world.

By "proud Protestant" I simply mean that I think the Reformation was and remains necessary. By this, I do not mean that I am insensitive to or unconcerned with ecumenical issues. I am very well aware of Catholic teaching. I recently finished teaching RCIA to Catholic students at Princeton University, so I am critiquing the Catholic position with an intimate knowledge of what they teach.

That said, I again reiterate the point from my post, namely, that an abstract freedom that chooses between good and evil is no freedom at all but bondage. True freedom is the freedom for obedience. The possibility of choosing sin is not freedom. Eating the fruit was not the first sin; the first sin was considering the idea of eating the fruit as a real option. True freedom, in other words, is the freedom displayed by Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. This is a point Maximus the Confessor really gets.

I never said the Spirit is reduced to the Son, so that's not a criticism that really applies to me. You seem to want the Spirit to do something special and independent. I don't think you've clarified exactly how you understand pneumatology, but if you'd like to explain further, I'd be interested in hearing how you would articulate it.

This just leaves your last point that "there can be no real drama of salvation, no real interchange between God and world" in my theology (or Barth's theology). But that's just not true. The question is not whether there is a real drama, but rather where does this drama take place? And Barth answers unequivocally: in Jesus Christ. He is the drama of salvation, and in him takes places the interchange between God and the world. You can call this christomonism or theopanism if you want, but that's to forget that in Barth's ontology, our own freedom and drama is included within his. He doesn't replace or efface our own subjective drama; rather our subjective drama is actualized in him and finds its basis in him. We discover our true humanity, our true freedom, in the drama of Christ's incarnate history.
Anonymous said…
David, I have to thank you for being so patient with me. And I am edified, "built up", a word that no longer seems to have any currency today.

Let me just say this: the way you put the Barthian and your position, I cannot help but think: Balthasar agrees with that. Barth's Christocentrism was, in his mind, Barth's greatest service to the Church. And Balthasar follows him on this road. And yet, and yet...your criticism of Balthasar ultimately seems to be: Balthasar is not Barthian enough. A valid point, I grant you, given your own theological presuppositions (and Barth's). Still, I wonder then whether the point is that Barthians are not comfortable with the Balthasarian "more", beyond the "either/or" dialectical position Barthians are committed to...

Human freedom is not an easy concept to get a hold of. I was taught: there is no such thing as "moral freedom". We cannot choose to do evil. We can only choose to do the good. I think this is substantially what you were hinting at. And Balthasar agrees. I cannot therefore understand why you seem to attribute to the theologian of obedience in the Catholic tradition a position that is not his. But perhaps the confusion lies in that human freedom has a psychological component (or existential, psychic, spiritual, ontological, however you name it). And here it is important to note that though we are not morally free to choose evil, nevertheless we must be psychologically "built" freely make that choice for the (moral) good. Having said that, one has to also say that grace elevates, builds and perfects our human nature so that we may respond to grace. Grace at the beginning then, and grace at the end, but in between, there is something that grace works on. Therefore, psychologically, or "naturally," we need grace to break our own psychological idolatries, elevate our psychological powers, and perfect our psychological capacity for making that choice of the moral good. And note: "grace" is always the grace of Christ and the indwelling of the Spirit within us, conforming us to the Father's will. Grace is always trinitarian grace.

I have spoken as just one Catholic. It could be that there are other "Catholic" positions on this.

In any case, Barth was always uncomfortable with Balthasar's proclivity for the saints. And this explains a lot of the divide between Barth and Balthasar. But is Christ necessarily obscured by this attention to humans already and still being transformed by Christ, conformed to his image and likeness, in time and in history? This residual mistrust I would say is not biblically warranted, given that it is clearly the case that such "saints" are not the cause of their own salvation, are continually being "re-created" in the grace of Christ, and are always dependent on the grace of Christ, all the way to the Eschaton. It seems to me that it is your account of human freedom that is "abstract"; there is a phenomenological robustness to Balthasar's attention to the saints, the mystics, a generosity that allows Christ to be mirrored in "ten thousand places, lovely in eyes and limbs not his." This, too, is good news, that the Christic salvation that liberates our human freedom truly gifts us with a liberated human freedom, a liberated and graced human freedom that is truly and authentically made ours...not a bogus freedom that remains, in the end, not given at all.

I can't recall who it was now, but I think it was either Placher, or Hauerwas, or one prominent Barthian scholar, who thinks that the divide here between Barth and Balthasar is more "psychological" than doctrinal...

Thanks for the patience.