Home » Doctrine of Scripture » A Roman Catholic’s (Hans Urs von Balthasar’s) Doctrine of Scripture: Christ, the Holy Ground that Makes Scripture Holy and Intelligible

A Roman Catholic’s (Hans Urs von Balthasar’s) Doctrine of Scripture: Christ, the Holy Ground that Makes Scripture Holy and Intelligible

As a Reformed Protestant Christian Holy Scripture is very important to me, for obvious reasons. But of course how we understand and develop a doctrine of Scripture, and its ontology relative to God, is diffuse. I am prone, also obviously (at this point) to follow Karl Barth’s theory of revelation, and how that implicates, then, the development of a so called theology of the Word. In light of that, then, the following quote (I’m about to share) from Roman Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar might seem ironic (since he is well, Roman Catholic). But what you’ll see is that what Balthasar offers, as he argues from his ‘aesthetic’ and ‘beauty’ based theological paradigm, is that what he articulates in regard to Scripture’s ontology is quite coordinate with what we might find in Karl Barth’s or even Thomas Torrance’s understanding of Scripture. You will also read something in the quote that I don’t fully agree with, even if I think it can be qualified in such a way that still fits within say something like Barth’s threefold form of the Word, or the classical Reformed’s fourfold form of the Word (well at least in a kind of incidental way). Here is what von Balthasar has to say about the Word:

It was this image, seen with the eyes of faith and of faith’s insight, that the eye-witnesses rendered, first, an oral and then a written testimony. And, just as the Holy Spirit was in their eyes so that the image should spring into view, so, too, was he in their mouth and in their pen so that the likeness (Nachbild)which they drew up of the original image (Ur-Bild) should  correspond to the vision which God’s Holy Spirit himself possesses of God’s self-representation in the flesh. We must, then, repeat that Scripture is not the Word itself, but rather the Spirit’s testimony concerning the Word, which springs from an indissoluble bond and marriage between the Spirit and those eyewitnesses who were originally invited and admitted to the vision. With such an understanding of Scripture, we can say further that its testimony possesses and inner form which is canonical simply by being such a form, and for this reason we can ‘go behind’ this form only at the risk of losing both image and Spirit conjointly. Only the final result of the historical developments which lie behind the text—a history never to be adequately reconstructed—may be said to be inspired, not the bits and scraps which philological analysis thinks it can tear loose from the finished totality in order, as it were, to steal up to the form from behind in the hope of enticing it to betray its mystery by exposing its development. Does it not make one suspicious when Biblical philology’s first move in its search for an ‘understanding’ of its texts is to dissect their form into sources, psychological motivations, and the sociological effects of milieu, even before the form has been really contemplated and read its meaning as form? For we can be sure of one thing: we can never again recapture the living totality of form once it has been dissected and sawed into pieces, no matter how informative the conclusions which this anatomy may bring to light. Anatomy can be practiced only on a dead body, since it is opposed to the movement of life and seeks to pass from the whole to its parts and elements. It is not impossible that certain relations within the canonical form itself may occasionally call for and justify such a procedure. But one should first ask whether such attempts to work back ‘scientifically’ to real or alleged sources are not most useful when they once again demonstrate the indivisibility of the definitively expressed Word. With respect to our scholars, may we not credit the Holy Spirit with a little divine humour, a little divine irony? And would it be wholly erroneous to find some connection between this divine irony and humour and the Gospel’s fourfold form? This would suggest that the unique and divine plasticity of the living, incarnate Word could not be witnessed to other than through this system of perspectives which, although it cannot be further synthesized, compensates for this by offering a stereoscopic vista. And the divine irony would further suggest that the main fruits to be gathered from the very unfruitfulness and failure of the scientific experiment would be the every clearer exigency of returning to the one thing necessary. We must return to the primary contemplation of what is really said, really presented to us, really meant. Regardless of how distasteful this may be to some, we must stress that, in the Christian realm, such contemplation exactly corresponds to the aesthetic contemplation that steadily and patiently beholds those forms which either nature or art offers to its view. Inspiration in its totality is to be grasped only in the form, never in psychology and biography. And, therefore, it any kind of Biblical philology is to be fruitful, it must have its point of departure in form and must lead back to it. Only ‘Scripture’ itself possesses the power and the authority to point authentically to the highest figure that has ever walked upon the earth, a figure in keeping with whose sovereignty it is to create for himself a body by which to express himself. But a body is itself a ‘field’, and it requires another ‘field’ in which to expand, a field part of whose form it must already be if it is to stand in contrast to it. Christ’s existence and his teachings would not be a comprehensible form if it were not for his rootedness in a salvation-history that leads up to him. Both in his union with this history and in his relief from it, Christ becomes for us the image that reveals the invisible God. Even Scripture is not an isolated book, but rather is embedded in the context of everything created, established, and effected by Christ—the total reality constituted by his work and activity in the world. Only in this context is the form of Scripture perceivable.[1]

If you’re familiar at all with Brevard Child’s canonical critical approach, or Barth’s second naïveté approach, or Thomas Torrance’s mediation of Christ approach, or George Lindbeck’s cultural linguistic approach, or Matthew Levering’s participatory approach; then what Balthasar is communicating might be familiar to you, at some level or resonance anyway.

The only real pushback I’d offer Balthasar is against his claim that Scripture is not properly understood as the Word. Scripture itself, in its own “self-understanding,” canonically read, refers to itself as the Word of God (see Hebrews 4:12 and its surrounding near context). But that said, Balthasar’s basic point is well taken. Scripture itself is part of a web of realities and finds its orientation and “Holiness” (as John Webster so eloquently argues!) only insofar as it is properly situated within the economy of God’s Triune life. Scripture has an ‘ontology’ (or ‘being’) relative to the ‘order’ provided for, again, in the economy of God’s life—which is reference to his penetration into the world, in a God-world relation, wherein he has chosen to accommodate himself to and for us, within the created and contingent realm of things wherein humans have been given space to function in a coherent and intelligible fashion; but only because God by his Word, has graciously and freely chosen for that to be the outcome of things (i.e. creation and now recreation itself). In other words, per Balthasar’s basic premise, Scripture has no context or importance without its primary context provided for by the living reality of God’s Word who is Jesus Christ, the eternal Son (cf. John 1:1). We see how Balthasar thinks this doctrine of Scripture impacts how we interpret it.

Which brings up another important point: I would contend along with Balthasar, that attempting to access Scripture’s meaning apart from Christ as regulative of that, apart from a dialogical context wherein the interpreter is in ongoing contact with Scripture’s reality through prayer (i.e. Christ and the Triune life), that mere text-critical analysis will never be able to get at what Scripture is really all about; i.e. encounter with the living God in Jesus Christ. If Jesus is the context of Holy Scripture, if he is the Holy ground of Scripture, then to not take our sandals off on that ground, and tremble (cf. Is. 66), means we will skip off the real meaning of Scripture every time! Balthasar is onto something.

[1] Hans Urs Von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics. I: Seeing the Form (San Francisco: Igantius Press/New York: Crossroad Publication, 1983), 31-2.

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