For many years I have been intending to dig into the work of the Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-1988), whose work, especially in theological aesthetics, has been profoundly influential. However, the Balthasar corpus is large, as he authored a trilogy of works, entitled The Glory of the Lord, Theo-Drama, and Theo-Logic. And each of these is massive, published in multiple volumes (The Glory of the Lord alone is comprised of seven volumes), which is forbidding, even for the serious scholar. Where does one begin? Aidan Nichols’ pithy new book A Key to Balthasar (Baker, 2011) happily provides the answer. I don’t know what impressed me more about this text—the clarity of Nichols’ exposition or his restraint, as he manages to provide substantive windows into Balthasar’s theology in a mere 115 pages.
Nichols’ organizational approach is thematic, featuring three main sections, each of which is devoted to unpacking one of the three themes: beauty, goodness, and truth. This is the classic philosophical division of subjects, of course, but these are also the principal angles of approach that emerge in Balthasar’s work, as Nichols reads him.
In the chapter on beauty, Nichols stresses the uniqueness of Balthasar’s approach to the subject, noting that he resisted the empiricization and naturalization of aesthetics, aiming to preserve an appreciation of the transcendent nature of beauty. Balthasar was also concerned to emphasize the vital connection between the appreciation of beauty and the worship of God. Both of these concerns are reflected in Balthasar’s refusal to title his work “theo-aesthetics” in favor of the more pedestrian, but more descriptive, The Glory of the Lord. Third, and most distinctive, is the Christocentric nature of Balthasar’s aesthetic. The incarnation of God in Jesus Christ is the principal form of God in the world. However, the incarnation is not the only form of divine revelational beauty. And Balthasar’s purpose is to awaken us to just how pervasive is the beauty of God manifest in creational forms.
The next chapter concerns the theme of the good in Balthasar’s work, but it is more specifically a discussion of the theologian’s exploration of the divine drama in creation. Nichols notes Balthasar’s analysis of this drama in terms a triad of factors pertaining to the “production” of the drama of human history, and these correspond to the three divine Persons: Author=Father, Chief Actor=Son, Director=Holy Spirit. These are more than just metaphors for Balthasar, as he sees the world drama, especially in the work of Christ, as a fundamental expression of divine kenotic love. As a Catholic theologian, Balthasar was concerned to overcome the abstractions of neo-Thomism, but he also strove to avoid the pure concretizing impulse of naturalism. Instead, he aimed to create a theology to explore “being encountered concretely in the transcendentals.”
Nichols explains how Balthasar’s theme of divine drama leads to some fascinating explorations in Trinitarian theology, including (1) the gender fluidity of the Trinity, (2) the analogy of suffering in divine kenotic love, (3) the eschatological “homecoming” of the world to God, and (4) the notion that the world drama reflects an eternal intra-Trinitarian drama involving the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is all extremely rich and imaginative stuff, at times teetering on the brink of heterodoxy, but, as far as I can tell, never crossing the line into heresy.
Nichols concludes the book with a short chapter on logic that explains Balthasar’s four-fold analysis of truth, which serves as a schematic for his “theo-logic.” The four aspects of truth developed by Balthasar are truth as nature (disclosure or unveiledness), truth as freedom (intentional self-manifestation), truth as mystery (the world’s “sign systems”) and participation (God in Christ in the world).
In so slim a volume Nichols can only provide the most general overview of Balthasarian themes. But he certainly succeeds in whetting the reader’s appetite for a more in-depth study.