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

The Form and Drama of the Church; Hans Urs Von Balthasar on Mary, Peter, and the Eucharist

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

The Form and Drama of the Church; Hans Urs Von Balthasar on Mary, Peter, and the Eucharist

Article excerpt


The French Jesuit theologian Henri de Lubac once suggested the twentieth-century Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar to be the most cultivated man of his time. "If there is a Christian culture, then here it is!" (1) Father de Lubac's comment alludes to the breadth and depth of von Balthasar's work, which covers the expanse of much of Western intellectual history from classical antiquity to contemporary European literature. And perhaps Father de Lubac's comment also unwittingly serves as a caveat lector. For von Balthasar's erudition presents his readers with the formidable task of searching for the unity of his thought in a body of literature that is vast, diverse, and sometimes quite unsystematic (sometimes intentionally so).


More specifically, when one begins the task of understanding von Balthasar's ecclesiology, one immediately encounters the obstacle: von Balthasar neither developed a systematic treatise on the Church, nor as far as one can tell did he intend to do so. His reflections on the Church are, by his own admission, "a few building stones for a future [systematic ecclesiology]." (2) While several years later he would remark, should someone "like to make something out of these fragments, putting the stones in order and assembling them into a mosaic," he would mistrust such an endeavor as an attempt "to yank the mystery from its seclusion and cast it into the glare of our light." (3)

"Mystery" is perhaps the appropriate word to characterize von Balthasar's thought on the Church. The Church is a mystery of love, whose "most secret chamber" or center "remains hidden," to be approached only with reverence. Yet, this mystery can be approached because God enters into history, becomes flesh and blood and dwells among humanity in the person of Christ. Through God's self-gift, "many windows have been opened for us to see into the center" (ET II, 7). The most immediate "windows" that open upon the mystery are the theological persons most closely associated with and intimately involved in the mystery, Mary and Peter. They are, for von Balthasar, the windows through which we begin to see the visible form of the Church as Christ's concrete partner and the role the Church performs in the drama of salvation. The Eucharist too is a window that opens upon the mystery. But the Eucharist not only offers us a view of the mystery, it draws us into it, making us participants in the one body of Christ. Through the gift of the Holy Spirit the Church celebrates the Eucharist and in so doing enters into the Father's plan to redeem the world by Christ's missio (mission).

This article surveys a few themes in von Balthasar's ecclesiology, with the hope that an exploration of these themes might contribute to the Christian imagination and practice of the Church. (4) As prolegomena, the first section of this article discusses briefly the philosophical influences, languages, and grammars that animate von Balthasar's thought. The second section examines von Balthasar's Christology as an entree to the third, fourth, and fifth sections of this article, his understanding of the personhood of the Church in the form of the theological persons Mary and Peter. Christ's missio opens up an acting area for Mary and Peter to become "coactors" in the drama of salvation. The sixth section of this article investigates the Church's participation in "the mystery of the center" by discussing von Balthasar's treatment of the Eucharist as a gift given to the Church by Christ from the Father so the Church may have something to give back to the Father for the gift of the Son.

Prolegomena: Analogy, Expression, and Form

Perhaps the best way to bring into focus the philosophical concepts at work in von Balthasar's thought is to draw out the contrast he made in an interview in which he suggests that the difference between himself and his contemporary Karl Rahner is the difference between the eighteenth-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant and Kant's contemporary, the German poet and novelist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. …

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