Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture

The Unselfing Activity of the Holy Spirit in the Theology of Hans Urs Von Balthasar

Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture

The Unselfing Activity of the Holy Spirit in the Theology of Hans Urs Von Balthasar

Article excerpt

IN THE EXTENSIVE SECONDARY literature on the theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar, comparatively little attention has been given to his understanding of the activity of the Holy Spirit. This is to be expected, as it is the incarnate Word who forms the basis of his aesthetics, his trinitarian speculation, and his ethics, and the acts and episodes of Christ's life on which he counsels the Christian to meditate. Christ, he says, is not only the "means" of salvation, but also its "content," so that all theology, if it is to be Christian, must ultimately be speech about him.

In contrast, von Balthasar says that the Holy Spirit desires not so much to be seen as to enable seeing, to illuminate the Son. He is among those Western theologians to emphasize the Spirit's role in rendering believers attentive, a theme more commonly encountered in the East. As he puts it,

   This Spirit is breath, not a full outline, and therefore he wishes
   only to breathe through us, not to present himself to us as an
   object; he does not wish to be seen but to be the seeing eye of
   grace in us, and he is little concerned about whether we pray to
   him, provided that we pray with him, 'Abba, Father,' provided that
   we consent to his unutterable groaning in the depths of our soul.
   He is the light that cannot be seen except upon the object that is
   lit up; and he is the love between Father and Son that has appeared
   in Jesus. (1)

The Spirit is the discloser of the mysteries of faith, according to von Balthasar, 'which are hidden from the purely human gaze but already offered in the sensible incarnation. He is such all the more since he is simultaneously present in the objective mystery on which we meditate and in the subjective depths of our own selves as the bridge that leads us over into the mystery." (2) It is through the light of the Spirit, himself "beyond all objectification," that "everything that is at all capable of being illuminated becomes clear and transparent." (3) In describing the spirit this way, von Balthasar is conscious of following in the footsteps of the Eastern Fathers of the Church, especially St. Basil.

Even though von Balthasar maintains that Christ is the proper object of our vision, he does not leave the doctrine of the Holy Spirit to tend to itself. The charge often leveled against Karl Barth-another Christocentric thinker--namely, that his theology is effectively "binitarian," does not apply in the case of von Balthasar. He is perfectly at ease speculating about the role of the Holy Spirit in the triune life, the conception of Christ, and the triduum mortis. The final volume of his Theo-Logic, the concluding work of his three-part magnum opus, is devoted entirely to the Third divine Person, as are numerous shorter pieces throughout his vast corpus. In short, though von Balthasar holds that the Spirit is "beyond all objectification," that the Spirit is, in a sense, hidden in the very act of manifesting Christ to us, his pneumatology is a topic worthy of consideration in its own right.

Since this topic is too extensive to be the subject of any one article, I have limited myself in the current piece to a consideration of a single aspect of von Balthasar's pneumatology: his claim that the Holy Spirit is the interpreter of God's revelation in Christ. (4) I will argue that the Spirit interprets Christ to us by bringing us into participation in his way of being in the world. To put this another way, we are able to "see" the truth of Christ only from within, only through an appropriation of his openness and obedience to the Father. This identity between the Spirit's activity of interpreting Christ to us and establishing us in Christ means that, for von Balthasar, there can be no separation between theory and practice. He lamented the disappearance of the idea of the "identity of knowledge and life" in modern theology, which he ultimately traced back to the influence of Scholasticism. …

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