The Risk of Creation

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Talk about risk. On June 3rd of this month Alex Honnold became the first person to successfully free-ascend (no ropes!) the face of Yosemite’s El Capitan – 3,000 feet of sheer, unforgiving granite. It’s an amazing story that National Geographic will document in an upcoming special. It got me contemplating ‘risk’ and was in my mind when I happened upon the following passage about risk and suffering:

To produce something new is always a gamble, and God’s creation of man in His image after after His likeness involved a certain degree of risk. It was not that He risked introducing an element of instability or shock into His eternal being but that to give man god-like freedom shut the door against predestination in any form. Man is at full liberty to determine himself negatively in any form. Man is at full liberty to determine himself negatively in relation to God—even to enter into conflict with Him. As infinite love, the Heavenly Father cannot abandon man whom He created for eternity, in order to impart to him His divine plenitude. He lives with us our human tragedy. We appreciate this risk, so breath-taking in its majesty, when we contemplate the life of Christ on earth.

…In creating us as free beings, He anticipated the likelihood, perhaps the inevitability, of the tragedy of the fall of man Summoning us from the darkness of non-being. His fateful gesture flings us into the secret realms of cosmic life. ‘In all places and fulfilling all things’. He stays forever close to us. He loves us in spite of our senseless behavior. He calls to us, is always ready to respond to our cries for help and guide our fragile steps through all the obstacles that lie in our path. He respects us as on a part with Him. His ultimate idea for us is to see us in eternity verily His equals, His friends and brothers, the sons of the Father. He strives for this, He longs for it. This is our Christ, and as Man He sat o the right hand of the Father.

In the beginning God creates our spirit as pure potential. What follows does not depend altogether on Him. Man is free to disagree, even to resist Him. A situation arises in which we ourselves determine our eternal future—always, of course, in relation to Him; without Him, we should not exist. And if we seek a hallowed eternity with essentially appertains to Him alone, then our every action, all our creative activity, just most certainly proceed not separately from Him but together with Him and in Him.

Born as pure potential, our spirit must go on to actualize our being as hypostasis. We need to grow, and this growth is linked with pain and suffering. However strange it may seem, suffering is imperative for the preservation of life created from nothing. If animals did not feel hunger, they would never make any effort to find food but would simply lie down and die. Similarly, acute discomfort compels primitive man to look for nourishment. Then, as he advances towards rational cognition, suffering discloses to his contemplative mind both his own imperfection and that of the world around him. This forces him to recognize the necessity for a new form of creative effort to perfect life in all its manifestations. Later, he will arrive at a certain perception of Supreme Being which will inspire his soul to seek for better knowledge of Him. As so on, until he realizes that this Primordial Being, Whom apprehension first caused him to esteem, does not refuse congress with him; and in the light of this contact death is seen as an absurdity, the very possibility of which must be fought against relentlessly. And history has shown that many of those who waged this war with unflagging energy, even while they were still here on earth in spirit beheld the eternal kingdom of the Living God, and passed from death to unending life in the Light of Divine Being.”

Archimandrite Sophrony (His Life is Mine)

The risen-slaughtered one

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I was recently introduced to James Alison, Catholic theologian and author, well-known for his interpretation of Rene Girard’s thought. To get acquainted with him I picked up his first book, Knowing Jesus (1994), which addresses the question of what it means to know Christ. We’re associate knowing Christ with talk of a ‘personal relationship’ with God or with agreeing to fundamental beliefs about who Jesus was. Alison pushes through and beyond these to expose what he feels knowledge of Christ involves.

The book is full of profound insights. I do not intend to review them all, but I’d like to explore a portion of his first chapter in which he discusses the relationship between Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection and how these remain united in the transformative knowing of Christ.

As I picked up this book, I had in mind 2Cor 2.2 where Paul tells the Corinthians that when he first came to Corinth he “resolved to know nothing but Christ, and him crucified.” I’ve been pondering this statement of Paul’s coming out of having reviewed Boyd’s CWG in which Boyd refers to this statement as evidence of a particular cruciformity, but having discovered important weaknesses in Boyd’s work didn’t mean Paul’s statement didn’t continue to occupy my thoughts and challenge me. So I was happy to find Alison’s first chapter at least in part concerned with how Christ-crucified figured into knowing Christ. I’m not sure I understand Alison’s insight, but I hope thinking out loud on it here will bring some clarity. Feel free to offer your comments:

Now what that means is that the risen Lord is simultaneously the dead-and-risen Lord. Jesus as he appeared to the disciples was not, as it were, the champion who has showered down after the match; he appeared on a completely different level. If there’s any phrase that comes near expressing this, it is ‘the living dead’. Not, obviously, in the Hollywood sense of someone caught in a time warp between being dead and going to an eternal rest, whether up or down, but in the sense that the resurrection life was the giving back of the whole human life, leading up to and including that death has been conquered, that the resurrection life isn’t on the same level as death, just cancelling it out, as it were. The resurrection life includes the human death of Jesus. He is always present after the resurrection simultaneously as crucified and as risen Lord.

Just in case you think I’m making this up, may I refer you to the Easter Preface number III in the Roman Missal. There we are told that Jesus is ‘still our priest, our advocate who always pleads our cause. Christ is the victim who dies no more, the Lamb once slain who lives forever’. What the Latin of the Preface is fact says is, ‘agnus qui vivit semper occisus’, which literally means ‘who lives forever slain’ – closer to the idea of the living dead than the English translation. The same idea comes up in all those hymns in the book of Revelation, where the seer sees Jesus as ‘a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered’ (Rev. 5.6). This is well captured in certain medieval pictures, such as Van Eyck’s ‘Adoration of the Lamb’ [opening picture of this blog post], or Grunwald’s Isenheim Altarpiece (second picture of this blog post). The artists represent the living Lamb, standing with a banner, or an empty cross, to symbolize the resurrection. Out of the Lamb’s slaughtered neck blood flows into a chalice. That is about as good an image of the simultaneously crucified and risen Lord as we can manage. It is the slaughtered one who is made alive, given back in the resurrection. It is not as though the resurrection cured him of being slaughtered – (he was in a bad way but God bandaged him up) – the gratuity of the resurrection is what gives him back as the slaughtered one. It is here that the devotion to Christ crucified has its place in the lives of some of the saints. It is here that stigmatists like St. Francis or Padre Pio bear witness to the life of the risen Lord. The mistake is when people oppose the crucified Lord to the risen Lord, imagining perhaps that ‘a true spiritual life requires a balance between these two’. There is no opposition, for the presence of the crucified Lord is within the presence of the risen Lord It is as crucified Lord that Jesus is risen. As we will see, the presence of Jesus as [the] risen-slaughtered one is key to the sense in which the resurrection is the presence of forgiveness, is the forgiveness of sins.

The last of the resurrection appearances to a person, making of that person an apostle, an authentic witness to the resurrection, was the rather strange, sui generis, appearance to Paul. Strange and sui generis because Paul had had, as far as we know, no contact with Jesus of Nazareth before his death. That is, he had no personal historical recollection of the life of Jesus, or his teaching, to be deepened, transformed and authenticated by the appearance of the risen Lord. Paul’s relationship to Jesus was simply that of trying to wipe out, out of zeal for the Lord of hosts, the false ‘Way’ that was spreading in the wake of Jesus’ death. Saul, as he then was, would have been convinced that when it came to persecuting, it mattered entirely whose side you were on. It would be, for instance, wicked to be part of a foreign persecution of, say, the Maccabees, because that was to persecute God’s own faithful ones. On the other hand, it was certainly right to persecute, in the name of the Lord, those who were undermining the true faith in the God of Moses.

Jesus appeared to Paul on the road to Damascus as the persecuted one. ‘Who are you, Lord?’ ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting’ (Acts 9.5). That was the impact of the risen Lord on Paul – not the triumphant one, the victorious one, but the persecuted one. The dynamic is the same as I have been describing with relations to the appearances to the disciples in John and Luke. The risen Lord is the persecuted-and-risen Lord. Or rather, the impact made on Paul is that when he perceives that it is God whom he has been persecuting, in the name of God, it is the presence of God as persecuted that is, to him, forgiveness; that is to him the possibility of an entirely new life, a radical reordering of everything he had believed. The gratuitous presence was that of the crucified one. Not as accusation, but as forgiveness. Because of the persecution in which he was involved, Paul was able to perceived his involvement in the persecution of God, and was thus able to receive a huge change of life, a change by which he came to worship God as victim: to preach Christ crucified, and to know only Christ, and him crucified. Again, the risen Lord has risen as the crucified one.

lamgods_gent modifiedNow that, the simultaneous presence of the risen life in the crucified one, is what is called a mystery. Please notice that a ‘mystery’ is not here something obscurantist, or intellectually dubious, as when someone runs out of logical things to say, and retreats into talking piffle as a cover-up I think I’m saying something that is making reasonable use of categories we possess, but to indicate something of a density that is not part of our normal experience. I’m saying that the risen Jesus is risen simultaneously crucified to death, and living, both of which are categories we can understand separately, but which it would never normally occur to us to imagine together. It is not merely a question of simultaneity, as if I were claiming that two mutually exclusive states were simultaneously present – some sort of paradox, like a room which is simultaneously noisy and silent. I am saying that the resurrection was the giving back of the life and the death at the same time. If you like, the resurrection life is not on the same level as ordinary life, which is annihilated at death, rather it is able to include both the life and the death which concludes it, precisely because it is the free giving and giving back of both. Once again, it is the element of pure gratuity in the giving and giving back which is what is not on the same level as life or death, and is thus able to make both present simultaneously.

I ask your patience if this appears to be bizarre. It is, I would suggest, the experience that is at the center of the Christian faith, from which starting point the other pivotal doctrines – of the Incarnation and the Trinity – were discovered. (Bold emphasis mine)

As I said, coming out of having reviewed Boyd’s CWG, I had been thinking on 2Cor 2.2 (“resolved only to know Christ and him crucified”) as a proposed cruciform center to reading the Bible (per CWG). I described in that review why I think the Cross cannot comprise any sort of center (at least not in the terms proposed by Boyd). A wider, more inclusive center comprising the entirety of the incarnate career seemed to me to be more in line with the NT’s apostolic train of thought. In light of that, I take Alison’s insights to suggest that when Paul says he resolved to know nothing but Christ and him crucified, defining a hermeneutical center to reading the Scriptures was the last thing on his mind. If we read Paul in light of other similar statements he makes (Phil 3.10), and in light of his issues with the Corinthian believers, it becomes increasingly clear that his resolve ‘to know nothing but Christ crucified’ describes the transformational experience of NT faith/gospel (as we receive it from apostolic witness) and not a conviction about how to read the Bible.

If we must speak of a hermeneutical center, perhaps we should say that ‘transformational experience’ (of the risen-slaughtered one) just is the hermeneutical center Boyd is looking for – i.e., the hermeneutical center isn’t a set of propositions as such but a confluence of the truth-making realities that inform human transformation – the whole life and death of Jesus as they are mediated to us by the risen, living Jesus. When the death and resurrection become a single experienced personal reality – the ‘risen-slaughtered’ one (Phil 3.10f), the center becomes a living dynamic, a ‘reactor’, or (thank you James Loder) an asymmetrical relational unity in which the God who doesn’t need us (i.e., who creates freely, ex nihilo) refuses to be without us:

Needing nothing, you create me.
Wanting nothing, you desire me.
Full beyond measure, you pursue me.
Absolute, you invite me in.

As I read Alison, I began to wonder what it would even mean for a Christian believer to know and relate to Christ – a living person – solely (or primarily, or centrally) within the event of his death. One can’t “know” a dead person. One only “knows” the living – as living. So we only ‘know’ Christ crucified by knowing the risen Jesus. This is not merely to say that we only know what his death means as we contemplate it from his resurrection, though that is true. It also means it is only in experiencing him as risen and living that we experience the virtuous reality of his death.

I’m not sure how to unpack this for any so-called cruciform hermeneutic, but it seems to me that “knowing Christ and him crucified” doesn’t at all amount to making a particular understanding of the Cross the center around which one reads the Scriptures. Perhaps I’m missing the point because I’m more teleological-minded and more concerned with the concrete (existential) nature of transformation. When I read 2Cor 2.2 I see Paul resolving upon a kind of experience in light of alternatives being pursued by some Corinthians (some gnostic-leaning, some with an over-realized eschatology, some believing they had already realized an angelic-resurrected form of existence). It doesn’t seem to me that he is here thinking of a way to interpret the Old Testament as much as he is simply identifying the Jesus of his experience to be the real, historical Jesus. The Corinthian gnostic might claim, “I know Christ who ____” and fill in the blank with an attempt to define who Jesus is and what his life means apart from the event of his death. To this Paul resolves (2Cor 2.2) upon identifying the real, historical, embodied, Jesus as the living Jesus he worships and knows. He’s not advancing a hermeneutic per se. He’s advancing the identity of the risen Jesus of the Church’s faith with the historical, crucified Jesus. It is the Church’s experience and worship of the risen-slaughtered One which forms the center of how we read the Bible.

While I think Alison’s points address my concern regarding 2Cor 2.2, I think he says far more which I hope to reflect upon in due course.

God’s creative options

Still feeling this deeply. Do “best world” semantics collapse within the all-encompassing truth of God as the summum bonum? I still think so.



Just thinking out loud here. No commitments. Just speculating.

In the immediately preceding post I noted Hart’s criticism of those who imagine God’s choice to create in terms of a deliberation among infinite options. There are some, for example, those of a more analytic bent, who revel in talk of ‘possible worlds’, logical constructs depicting God’s creational ‘options’. Most suppose these to be infinite, since God is infinite. But certainly they’re innumerable. God could have created, say, a world with no sentient beings in it at all. Or he might have created a world populated with beings programmed to do only his bidding, or he might have — and on and on the possibilities go.

I think talk of an infinite number of possible worlds other than this one, possible worlds God deliberated and from which he picked this world to create, is mistaken. I do think there are innumerable possibilities

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Trinity and Cross: Karen Kilby on von Balthasar—Part 3


I hope those interested in Balthasar ponder Karen Kilby’s reflections. Here is the third and final portion of her Ch. 5 response to Balthasar’s views on the Trinity and the Cross.

Too Integrated?
The previous section focused on how Balthasar knows all that he seems to know, how indeed any theologian could possibly be in a position to make the claims that Balthasar does. We turn now to a more critical consideration of what he says. In other words, even if one might accept in principle that any such detailed and intimate portrait of the inner life of the Trinity could be acceptable, there is an aspect of Balthasar’s account which ought still, I will suggest, to give significant pause. I will argue that we find in what Balthasar says of the Trinity the apex of a tendency which is in fact met at all levels in his writings, and that whatever one makes of this tendency which is in fact met at all levels in his writings, and that whatever one makes of this tendency at other points, here it is distinctly troubling.

What is this tendency? Suffering, loss, and self-abasement get a strong press in Balthasar’s works. A proclivity to case suffering in a positive light, and to link faith, love, and obedience with self-loss, self-abasement, even something like annihilation of the self, is something that constantly makes itself felt.

One can see this first of all in Balthasar’s treatment of the Cross, and the extension into Holy Saturday. There is here a dwelling upon suffering, a concern to bring out the depth, the immensity, the all-exceeding quality, of Christ’s agony. The interest is not primary with Christ’s physical suffering, nor with his suffering of injustice, humiliation, and betrayal on the part of authorities, disciples, and so on. Balthasar’s concern pivots rather on Jesus’ suffering of God’s wrath, his suffering the betrayal and abandonment by the Father, the hell of absolute God-forsakenness. And he is very concerned to insist on the intensity, the unbearable, unspeakable, unthinkable enormity, of this suffering. Because of Christ’s “filial intimacy with the Father,” Balthasar writes, he can “suffer total abandonment by the Father and taste that suffering to the last drop.” Balthasar affirms at a number of points that the experience of Holy Saturday is timeless; Pascal is right to say that “Jesus’ agony lasts until the end of the world” as is Be’rulle to speak of the eternal openness of Christ’s moral wounds. Balthasar represents Christ’s sufferings as exceeding and so in some sense containing all other suffering; he endorses Barth’s claim that “All that happened to Israel then [in the Old Testament] and since in terms of divine judgment is ‘only a faint reflection compared with the infinitely more terrible happenings that took place on Good Friday’,” and writes elsewhere of “wounds which transcend all inner worldly hurts.” Christ’s suffering “towers far above chronological time,” he writes in his collection of aphorisms, and “Never will an individual man or the totality of all humanity even approximately grasp and encompass these sufferings.”

If the salvific suffering of Christ, and an instance on its eternity and enormity, is important in Balthasar’s theology, then so is the fact that this is something which Christ can graciously “share” with his followers, Balthasar affirms at a number of points the existence of a mystical participation in Christ’s Passion, in Holy Saturday, in Christ’s experience of abandonment and God-forsakenness. He is interested in the mystics’ “dark night of the soul” in general, and in the experiences of Adrienne von Speyr in particular.

The importance in Balthasar’s theology of Christ allowing others a share in his suffering leads at some points to the distinctive and rather surprising exegetical moves. Why does Jesus weep at the death of Lazarus? This is a traditional conundrum, since, if one supposes that Jesus knows that he will raise Lazarus, there seems little cause for tears at his death. One solution that has been given in the tradition is that Jesus wept for the suffering of Martha and Mary, and on this Balthasar puts an unusual spin of his own:

He must have been deeply moved at the inner tragic dimension in which he had to share his God-forsakenness on the Cross (eucharistically and by way of anticipation) with those he loved in a special way.

In the delay of his arrival, in other words, through his temporary “abandonment” of them, Jesus has allowed Martha and Mary to share in his own experience of divine forsakenness, and it is for this, according to Balthasar, that he weeps. Or, perhaps even more startingly, Balthasar suggests that in the words to Mary from the cross, “Woman, this is your son,” Jesus is not so much providing for his mother as rejecting her and so allowing her a share in his forsakenness.

If, for some, an aspect of the Christian life may be the “gift” of a share in unimaginable suffering, in Christ’s Passion and God-forsakenness, this Christian life for all is fundamentally to be characterized as surrender. Self-abnegation, loss of self, and sacrifice of the self, are constantly to the fore in Balthasar’s presentation of faith and the Christian life – and these not just as the vocation of some, or as things that faith might sometimes require, or as things that the Christian must when necessary embrace willingly, but as essential, constitutive, defining components of Christian faith and life.

It is instructive here to consider Balthasar’s treatment of Mary’s fiat, her consent to the angel’s message in the annunciation. This Balthasar takes to be the perfect and archetypal response of faith. “Let it be done to me according to thy will”: allowing oneself to be molded and stamped by God, allowing oneself to become as wax is, for Balthasar, the perfection of faith. He is keen to insist that this is not passivity, but what he calls “active receptivity.” Nevertheless, it is construed very much in terms of self-abnegation. Mary’s achievement, the “highest…made possible by grace,” is “unconditional self-surrender,” “pure transparency. Pure flight from self. Pure emptied space for the Incarnation of the Word.”

The sense that suffering, self-abnegation, and indeed humiliation carry some sort of positive valuation for Balthasar is confirmed at almost every turn in his writings. If we limit ourselves to a single, relatively slender volume of essays in ecclesiology (the second volume of Explorations in Theology), we find reference to the Church as “borne by the suffering members” to the “inner mystery of suffering” that the Constantinian church of glory hid; to the true Christian spirit as “the will to poverty, abasement and humility”; to the “real, fruitful humiliation” of Peter, which was not a “mere exercise in humiliation”; to a humility which, because we are sinners, must be “instilled into us by humiliation”; to “self-abnegation in the service of Christ” as the only way to reveal Christ’s own self-abnegation; to a self-abnegation that liturgical piety requires – one which indeed Balthasar describes as “this violent, this often ‘crucifying’ sacrifice of the pious subject to the ecclesial object”; and to “complete self-abnegation and obedience to the hierarchy” as something Charles de Foucauld rightly commended.

Even when Balthasar expresses thanks to his family, this same alignment of love and suffering makes itself felt. In a retrospective essay written in 1965, after a paragraph on the impossibility of properly acknowledging all that one ought to be thankful for, we find the following:

And where would a man end, if he wanted to begin thanking those of his fellow men who accompanied him on his way, formed him, protected him, made everything possible? Left and right the greetings would have to go: to the nameable and the nameless. A mother is there, who during the course of a long fatal illness dragged herself to Church each morning to pray for her children. Other close relatives, of whom (to what ends God knows) fearful sufferings were demanded. Only in the light of God will one really know what he has to be thankful for.

He is of course thanking his family for nurturing, loving, and educating him – this is presumably all covered in the first sentence cited. But what particularly calls out for granted here is, first, the painful prayers of one suffering and dying, and then simply sufferings whose purpose is unknown.

retablo_of_the_holy_trinity-by_alcario_otero-2001What are we to make of all this? Opinion will perhaps divine. Balthasar is not alone in this sensibility which aligns on some very fundamental level love and sanctity with suffering, and faith with self-abnegation. Something similar can be found in late medieval thought and practice, and in strands of Counter-Reformation and nineteenth-century piety. On the other hand, to develop such alignments is by no means an instinct which has characterized the whole of the Christian tradition: it is largely absent from the Fathers and from Thomas, for instance. It is a sensibility which some will take to be an authentic, developed expression of a theology of the Cross, and element of the mystical tradition that Balthasar laudably retrieves and revitalizes in the fact of the shallow optimism and activism of his time and our own; and which others will find alien, and see perhaps as a masochistic distortion of Christianity.

Whatever one makes of this alignment as it pertains to the characterization of Christian faith and the Christian life, however, there is a fundamental problem when a similar alignment is imported into speculation about the inner life of the Trinity – and this is in fact what we find in Balthasar.

I write of a “similar alignment” rather than “the same alignment” because Balthasar does not – quite – bring suffering into the Trinity. But he does speak of something in the Trinity which can develop into suffering, of a “suprasuffering” in God, and, as we have seen, of risk, of distance, and of something “dark” in the eternal Trinitarian drama. We have seen that he consistently construes the giving internal to the Trinity in terms of giving away, giving up – in terms suggestive of loss. And we have seen that he has a kenotic understanding of the giving which makes up the Trinitarian life, so that he can speak of the Father letting go of his divinity, giving it away, surrendering himself, going “to the very extreme of self-lessness.”

By bringing together in his depiction of God self-loss, self-abnegation, something that comes very close to self-annihilation on the one hand, and love on the other – or again, by bringing bliss together with something that can be described either as supra-suffering, or as that which can develop into suffering – Balthasar is fundamentally blurring the distinction between love and loss, joy and suffering. If love and renunciation, suffering (or something like it) and joy, are linked, not just in the Christian life, but eternally in God, then ultimately suffering and loss are given a positive valuation: they are eternalized, and take on an ultimate ontological status. And then, it seems to me, it becomes hard to understand how Christianity can possible be “good news.” [66]

Donald MacKinnon, an early and highly influential Anglican admirer of Balthasar, reads Balthasar as a theologian who, more than many others, reckons with the Holocaust. In an essay dealing with the Christological of the Theo-Drama, MacKinnon, writes:

In the pages of his work with which we are here concerned there is comparatively little that treats directly of these horrors; but the nervous tension of the whole argument bears witness to the author’s passionate concern to present the engagement of God with his world in a way that refuses to turn aside from the overwhelming, pervasive reality of evil…[Balthasar] insists on a vision that can only be won through the most strenuous acknowledgment of the cost of human redemption.

MacKinnon is certainly right about Balthasar’s insistence on a “strenuous acknowledgment of the cost of human redemption”: as we have seen, Balthasar insists on stressing the enormity, the infinite weight of what took place on Good Friday and Holy Saturday – where Christ in some sense plunges into the experience of all that is most wrong with the world and bears it himself. But we have also seen that Balthasar is concerned to root the Cross firmly in the immanent Trinity, so that there is no question of God at this particular stage taking on something new, something previously unknown (this is what Balthasar believes must be rejected of Moltmann): instead there is the working out on the Cross of something always true of the immanent Trinity. The blurring that I have described in Balthasar’s thought, between bliss and suffering, between love and loss, necessarily follows from these two moves: if Christ is to take into himself all that is most wrong, and if this is not to be something new, but something always in some way anticipated in the Trinity, then it seems that there is no way to avoid importing into God’s eternity something of all that is most wrong and so introducing a sort of fusion of the highest love and the greatest bliss with (something like) the greatest suffering and the profoundest loss. In Balthasar’s hands the effort to grapple in full theological seriousness with tragedy seems in great danger of finally flipping over into something like a divinizing of the tragic. [68]

This section is entitled “Too integrated?” and we are now in a position to see why. On the face of it, Balthasar is impressive, perhaps unsurpassed, in the integration he achieves between soteriology and Trinitarian theology. But the cost turns out to be high. The way in which Balthasar brings together reflection on the immanent Trinity and reflection on the world’s horrors involves, in the end, an introduction of elements from the latter into the former, elements of darkness into the divine light. The highest love of God and the greatest misery of the world are reconciled in his thought by introducing elements of misery, destruction, and loss into the conception of love itself.


[66] I would, in other words, be inclined to judge exactly the reverse of Balthasar about the relation between darkness and God. He writes that “we have no right to regard the Trinity one-sidedly as the ‘play’ of an absolute ‘blessedness’ that abstracts from concrete pain and lacks the ‘seriousness’ of separation and death.” (The Action, p. 325) I would suggest to the contrary that Christians have no right to overcome their incomprehension of evil by introducing pain, separation, and death (or something like them) into their talk of God, no right to the intellectual resolution that comes from knowing of some happening in God that “justifies the possibility and actual occurrence of all suffering in the world” (ibid., p. 324).

[68] Alyssa Lyra Pitstick’s Light in Darkness picks up well on these or closely related dangers in Balthasar’s thought. In contrast to the tradition, she writes, “Balthasar seems to ascribe a positive value to suffering and death in themselves in virtue of their likeness to the suffering Redeemer, not to mention the Trinity” (p. 133). She argues very effectively, too, that although Balthasar may maintain that sin has no place in the Trinity, “this position remains on the level of assertion” (p. 238), in that the whole weight of his thought, both in making sin a reality in itself, and in relating it to the distance between Father and Son, in fact points in the opposite direction. In her conclusion Pitstick insists that “Christ has come that we might have life, not death, and that we might have it in its fullness (see John 10:10). It would be the worst betrayal of this age (not to mention of Christ) to offer it elaborate theological platitudes suggesting its woulds are its life, thereby remaking God in its image” (p. 347). The characterization here of Balthasar’s theology as platitudinous is surely rather polemical, but in other respects I would concur with Pitstick.


Trinity and Cross: Karen Kilby on von Balthasar—Part 2

5120SYOd3HL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_In Part 1 I posted a portion of Karen Kilby’s reflections, outlining in the briefest of terms Balthasar’s views of the Trinity and the Cross. In this Part 2 and upcoming Part 3 I’ll present her responses (with portions of relevant footnotes added). As I’ve said already, she expresses doubts and reservations that have been forming in my own mind as I’ve slowing been getting to know Balthasar’s views.

Too Vivid?
Balthasar portrays the immanent Trinity, then, in a way which is vivid and powerful. There is eternal kenosis, infinite difference, distance, and otherness which is nevertheless united in love, a “primal drama.” But does he have a right to be so vivid? We turn now to the question of how Balthasar can know what he appears to know about the Trinity, and indeed what exactly some of his language about the Trinity might mean. [31]

Insofar as Balthasar provides an explicit account of a method of Trinitarian reflection, there seems little to which one might object. Like most theologians, Balthasar maintains that we learn of the Trinity not through philosophical reflection on God and the world, but through Christ:

It is only on the basis of Jesus Christ’s own behavior and attitude that we can distinguish such a plurality in God. Only in him is the Trinity opened up and made accessible.

This insistence on the centrality of Jesus to our understanding of the Trinity is affirmed at a number of points:

The revelation of the Trinity is bound to Jesus Christ, to his self-giving and hence to his consciousness.

We must hold fast to the conviction that the Trinity is not a synthesis of monotheism (Judaism) and polytheism (Hellenism) but only comes to light with the figure of Jesus Christ.

As will be clear from what has already been outlined, more than many theologians, Balthasar lays particular emphasis upon the Cross as revelatory of the Trinity. But there seems little reason, a priori, to object to this given the centrality of the Cross in the gospel accounts and indeed in Christian belief and practice. And, finally, we should note that at certain points Balthasar makes explicit gestures in the direction of epistemological humility: he writes, for instance:

On the basis of what is manifest in God’s kenosis in the theology of the covenant – and thence in the theology of the Cross – we must feel our way back into the mystery of the absolute, employing a negative theology that excludes from God all intramundane experience and suffering, while at the same time presupposing that the possibility of such experience and suffering…is grounded in God. To think in such a way is to walk on a knife edge.

One can find, on this level, an acknowledgment of the difficulty and the precariousness of reflection on the immanent Trinity.

The problem here does not become clear, then, from what Balthasar says about how one should reflect on the Trinity. To see the problem one needs to look once again at how he in fact proceeds. Let us consider, for instance, Balthasar’s language of distance in the Trinity. Between the Father and the Son, united though they are in love, Balthasar maintains, there is an infinite distance. This is, as we have already suggested, a relatively novel claim. It is not, or at least it has not traditionally been thought to be, something that self-evidently follows from standard affirmations about ousia and hypostases, processions and relations.

How, then, does Balthasar think we know of this infinite distance, separation, otherness, in the Trinity? There are two routes by which he arrives at this point. One – perhaps the less important one – has to do with the avoidance of modalism. Balthasar seems to suggest that something like distance, or “infinite space” must be necessary for the distinction between the Trinitarian Persons to be real. The second route, more frequently stressed, is by way of the Cross: we do not, he thinks, know of this inner-Trinitarian distance only from the Cross, but we somehow know it better, know of its full seriousness, from the Cross: “It is only from the Cross and in the context of the Son’s forsakenness that the latter’s distance from the Father is fully revealed.”

But simply to say that we learn of this distance from the Cross is in fact a little too easy. It is not the case that one has only to look at the Passion narratives to come to the conclusion that there must, in eternity, be an infinite distance between Father and Son. Certainly this is not something that most of the tradition has in fact learned from these narratives, nor is it, I suspect, something most Christians today learn from reading them. At least two things are required in order to learn of distance in the Trinity from the Cross. The first is a particular construal of the Cross itself; the second is a more speculative move from the Cross (thus construed) to what one could call the eternal conditions of its possibility.

The first thing, then, is that one must construe the Cross, Christ’s Passion and death, as most fundamentally a drama of abandonment of Christ by the Father. Although Balthasar is not alone in interpreting it in this way (for all the differences at other points, here he is fundamentally in accord with Jurgen Moltmann), this cannot pose as an obvious or unquestionable reading of the New Testament. There is, first of all, considerable scholarly debate over how to interpret Jesus’ cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?,” as recorded in Mark and Matthew: is this an expression of a sense of abandonment, or is it, as a quotation of the first line of Psalm 22, an affirmation of faith? And even if one accepts the former interpretation, and remains untroubled by the fact that there seems to be no overtones of such an experience of abandonment in the accounts of Luke or John, one needs still to make a further step: one needs to move, that is, from observing that Jesus is portrayed as suffering a sense of abandonment to affirming that what is most fundamentally being depicted and played out is in fact the abandonment of Jesus by the Father. The abandonment, in other words, needs to be thought of, not just as an element in the experience that Jesus as a suffering and dying human being has, but rather as the underlying truth, the central underlying truth, of what is taking place on the Cross.

MYST-PHaving determined to read the Cross as a drama of God’s abandonment by God, the Father’s rejection of the Son, the second thing one must do to arrive at the notion of distance in the Trinity is to suppose that this abandonment on the Cross (and during Holy Saturday) is possible only if the eternal Trinitarian relations are characterized by infinite, absolute distance, radical otherness, separation. This is not a matter of reasoning from an effect back to its cause, exactly, but rather from a historical (or quasi-historical)[39] drama of the economic Trinity to the characteristics of its eternal ground. What must have always been the case in the relations between Father and Son if they can on the Cross be expressed in terms of abandonment of the latter by the former? To be able to answer this question, it is worth noting, one has to suppose one knows how to do a certain kind of sifting, considering the various elements of the drama of the Cross and distinguishing between those which are specifically intramundane on the one hand and those which reveal something of the eternal life of the Trinity on the other. One does not, for instance, directly impute rejection and forsakenness to the immanent Trinity, but one does learn of distance and separation.

What I have so far suggested, then, is that to make the move Balthasar does from the Cross to an infinite distance in the eternal life of God requires both that one adopt a particular, contested reading of the significance of the death of Jesus, and that one then make a particular deduction, from the drama of the Cross thus construed, to the eternal conditions of its possibility. None of this need be illegitimate. But what I think does emerge is that this notion of infinite, absolute distance in the Trinity cannot be put forward as a kind of obvious and self-evident starting point for further argument or reflection, but is at most the highly tentative and rather precarious conclusion to a train of theological argumentation. If we construe the Cross in a particular way, then perhaps we can indeed tentatively hypothesize something like infinite distance in the Trinity to make sense of it. But to treat this notion of inner Trinitarian distance as though it were itself simply a given, a dogmatic datum, something to be understood with confidence, built upon, and further refined, would be illegitimate.

Another way to come to see the precarious nature of this notion is to turn to the slightly different question of what exactly it might mean to talk to infinite distance in the eternal Trinity. It is certainly a suggestive and evocative notion, but not on the face of it a particularly clear one. Balthasar does not, of course, propose that the Trinitarian Persons have bodies which could be located at particular points in space, and between which one could be located at particular points in space, and between which one could therefore measure physical distance. But if not as physical or spatial, how then are we in fact to think of this distance? Rowan Williams suggests that we might take the German here (Abstand) as “difference,” so would be perhaps make more headway if we ask what might be meant by the infinite, absolute difference between Father and Son? This too is, prima facie, difficult to grasp, given that the Perrsons of the Trinity as consubstantial. That everything the Father is, he gives to the Son, is a traditional claim, and one also reaffirmed by Balthasar. The difference cannot lie in the “what” that is given, then: the only place left to locate the difference would seem to be in the fact that in one instance something is given, in the other received. The Father is the one who gives everything to the Son, the Son the one who receives everything from the Father. Can this difference, distance, separateness, of which Balthasar speaks – this infinite and absolute difference, distance, separateness – be a matter of the difference between total gift and total reception? Perhaps. But there is still quite a bit of room for questions.

Reflection on instances of giving that are rather more familiar might prompt one kind of hesitation. In general, we do not think of giving, and in particular giving of oneself, as creating distance, difference, separation between giver and receiver – at least not unless the giving somehow goes wrong. One might argue that it is otherwise in sexual relations, where difference and intimate giving seem in some sense to go together. We will return to this area, one very important to Balthasar, in the next chapter, but for the moment it is worth noting that even if difference is important here, sexual difference is not so much constituted by acts of giving and receiving, as it is (perhaps) the precondition of this particular kind of giving and receiving.

Even if we set aside such analogies as irrelevant – perhaps giving and receiving just are radically different in the sphere of the divine, or perhaps in light of the Cross and the Trinity we must reconceive all giving in terms of the creation of distance and otherness (indeed, as we shall discuss below, this is not too far from what Balthasar does propose) – even if we set all this aside, there are other difficulties lurking. The Father, according to Balthasar, empties himself, strips himself, in the originally kenotic act of giving himself to the Son, and we are exploring the possibility that it is in the difference between such kenosis and the Son’s reception that the infinite distance or difference is to be found. But then the Son is of course also engaged in kenosis – the Son follows the Father in this self-giving, self-stripping: the Son too, as image of the Father, completely gives himself away. So how can this, the difference between giving and receiving, actually constitute the otherness, the distance, the difference, between Father and Son, if self-giving is one of the things in which the Son precisely images the Father?

Again, here too perhaps answers can be found. Perhaps it is not in giving and receiving as such that one is to find the locus for the infinite, absolute difference, but the very particular relation between Father and Son that involves the one always giving and the other always receiving. Perhaps it is then this particular act of giving and receiving that somehow sets the two in a relation of infinite difference. The “somehow,” though, needs to be distinctly stressed here.

I do not mean to suggest that we should say that language of difference or separation in the eternal life of the Trinity is senseless, that it can in principle have no meaning. But certainly it seems like we find ourselves in rather difficult waters if we try to imagine what is in fact envisaged here; it is not particularly easy to offer a positive account of what “distance” or “difference,” much less infinite, absolute distance or difference, might look like in the Trinity. Ultimately, it seems that the position is something like this: if the Cross is conceived as God abandoning God, and if we are not, like Moltmann, to think of it as introducing something new, something previously unexperienced, into the life of the Trinity, then we are bound to suppose that there is something eternally present in the life of the Trinity which anticipates it, something to which it gives expression. Balthasar calls this whatever-it-is that anticipates the Cross distance, but, as the explorations above suggest, that really gets us no further towards imagining what it might be than would the phrase “that inexplicable, incomprehensible X in the eternal life of the Trinity, whatever it may be, which is a condition of the possibility of the Cross.”

von-BalthasarWhat is striking in Balthasar’s Trinitarian discussions, however, is that in a great many cases they are not marked by the tentativeness, the sense of precariousness, that ought to follow both from the way such notions about absolute distance are derived, and from the questions surrounding what they might mean. Instead we find confidence, ease, expansiveness, fluency – a sense that Balthasar knows very well what he is describing and is quite happy to fill out the picture. We find in him, not someone driven to stutter uncertainly, somehow, in light of the Cross, about the Trinity, but rather a theologian who seems very well to know his way around, to have a view – even sometimes something that seems remarkably like an insider’s view – of what happens in the inner life of the Trinity.

Balthasar is expansive on a number of fronts. He comments relatively freely, first of all, about the mechanics of the Trinitarian processions. He affirms, for instance, not only that the Father begets the Son, but that the Son “antecedently consents” to being begotten, that he holds himself in readiness to be begotten, that Son and Spirit place themselves at the disposal of their generation. He also seems to know a good deal about the attitudes of the Trinitarian Persons towards each other. Thus, he affirms that the Father is grateful to the Son for allowing himself to be begotten, who in turn is grateful to the Father for wanting to beget him; he also tells us that surprise, “eternal amazement,” is an element of the life of the Trinity, so that for instance “It is as if the Son…‘from the outset surpasses the Father’s wildest expectation’,” while the Son himself is always beholding the Father from new angles. The eternal life of the Trinity is, he seems to know, characterized by thanksgiving (each hypostasis “can only be itself insofar as it endlessly affirms and gives thanks for its own existence and all that shares existence”), by worship, and even by petitionary prayer.

The sense that Balthasar knows his way around the inner workings of the Trinity surprisingly well is at its strongest if one looks at the way he describes what one might call the Trinity’s decision-making processes. Consider the following passage:

If the Father has a (primary) intention – perhaps with regard to the shape of the creation he has planned – he communicates this intention to the Son in begetting him, giving him “preludes, beginnings taken up by the Son to be realized”; thus he leaves it to the Son to “promote the fatherly purposes.” In begetting the Son, the Father, as it were, addresses a request to him, and the Son in turn wishes nothing other than to employ his entire filial freedom in fulfilling the Father’s will. So “the Father is the first to ask: and he asks the Son, in order to give him the joy of granting his request….Even before the Son asks him” (for instance, to be entrusted with the task of saving the world through the Cross), “the Father wants to make his request, as if to give the Son precedence in the delight of granting.”

The Father, then, has the broad ideas, but he leaves it to the Son (out of “consideration,” a desire to give the Son a certain precedence) to work out the details of implementation. Just how concretely and seriously this division of labor is meant becomes clear in a further citation from von Speyr that Balthasar provides in a footnote: “Perhaps the Father would have had other suggestions, other ideas pertaining to redemption that would not have made the abandonment of the Cross necessary. But he does not express them; he leaves redemption up to the Son. In love, what is best is always what the other wishes.”

Much of what I have cited in the last two paragraphs comes from the fifth and final volume of the Theo-Drama, but though it is here that Balthasar waxes most eloquent (whether in his own words, or through his endorsement of those of von Speyr) about the inner life of the Trinity, it would be wrong to suppose that this late volume is somehow an aberration. We have seen some examples of quite free and confident language of divine self-stripping and a primal kenosis in the fourth volume, and one can find already in the second volume references to mutual acknowledgement, adoration, and petition among the Persons of the Trinity, the need for each to have “space,” and an insistence on the “joys of expectation, hope, and fulfillment.” Balthasar’s thinking about the Trinity and the Cross is actually remarkably consistent from the time he published Heart of the World in 1945 through to the end of his life.

At times, as we have seen, Balthasar makes gestures of epistemic humility. At times he points to a scriptural basis, or a process of reasoning, by which he arrives at his claims about the inner life of God. But taken as a whole, he does not write like a theologian who is “feeling his way back” into a mystery, on the basis of Christ and the Cross; he writes more like a novelist who, with a particular understanding of the Cross as a starting point, freely fills out background, adds character details, constructs prior scenes (“a primal drama”), and evokes a general atmosphere, all to make the central point plausible, powerful, effective – to make it work. [52]

The result is a theology that is undoubtedly integrated and vivid: integrated, because while it may not be especially plausible to claim that all Balthasar tells us of the Trinity is derived from Christ and the Cross, it is for the most part in one way or another related to Christ and the Cross, and vivid, because the larger story in which Balthasar places the Cross does serve to lend a kind of intensity to its drama. But it is also a work which seems to transgress the usual bounds of theology, to speak with too much confidence, to know more than can be known.


[31] One question that I will not attempt to deal with here is whether Balthasar is in fact propounding tritheism. This is a concern to which his theology, like that of the social theorists discussed above, can give rise. In both cases the Persons of the Trinity seem to be presented as three centers of consciousness, three “I’s” with three wills which are, in principle at least, distinct.
[39] Balthasar characterizes Christ’s experience of hell on Holy Saturday as “timeless,” which raises questions about whether one can describe the event of the Cross as historical.
[52] Rowan Williams makes a related point, though in typically understated form: “there is an inevitable risk,” he writes in an essay on Balthasar and the Trinity, “of creating a divine narrative, a story like the stories of contingent agents, of the kind that mainstream Trinitarian theology has consistently sought to avoid” (Balthasar on the Trinity,” p. 47).

Trinity and Cross: Karen Kilby on von Balthasar—Part 1

sidebar_topHans Urs von Balthasar (d. 1988), Swiss Catholic theologian and author, towers over Christian thought at the end of the 20th century and continues to inform and inspire thinkers into the 21st. I confess – I share the struggles of those who want to understand him well but who find his writing always daunting and often inaccessible. I’ve depended on others to sift through his opus and make sense of it for me. My most recent help has come from Karen Kilby’s (Durham University) Balthasar: A (Very) Criticial Introduction, a short introduction that has received both (well-deserved, I think) praise and criticism from Balthasar fans.

There is no ignoring Balthasar’s colossal output, which is why I continue to try to access him. I’ve naturally gravitated toward works that focus on his Trinitarianism (his speculative reach to describe the event(s) that constitute God’s inner life), his Christology (particularly his kenoticism), and his understanding of the Cross (as divine abandonment) – all three of which are a single subject for Balthasar.

As I got into Kilby’s responses in Ch 5 (“The Trinity”), I found myself doing far too much highlighting. Objections I had loosely and tentatively formed over several years in my own mind are explicitly described by Kilby. So I’d like to present three portions of this chapter (with relevant footnotes) – the first (in this post) a summary of Balthasar’s views (‘Trinity and Cross’), then a second and third which form Kilby’s (and my own) reservations.

Trinity and Cross
We saw in the previous chapter that Balthasar highlights as “the quintessence of Scripture” five biblical motifs surrounding the Cross (self-surrender, exchange, liberation, our being drawn into the divine life, God’s love as the primary source of the whole). And we saw that in his survey of the tradition he presented each of his predecessors as having taken up some but not all of the motifs, or else having failed to maintain the appropriate balance between them. Balthasar in fact proposes that two things are needed in order to do justice to the full range of motifs. One, we have already seen, is a dramatic approach, which can keep in play and hold in tension a variety of elements, rather than attempting to reduce everything to any single concept. The second, which is our concern here, is what he calls a “Trinitarian substructure.”

What, then, is this Trinitarian substructure? It has to do with the nature of the relations between the Persons of the Trinity. These relations Balthasar characterizes not only in the familiar terms of love and gift, but also in terms of distance (in fact, infinite distance), otherness, risk, and kenosis.

Now, the language of the Father giving everything, giving indeed himself, to the Son, is very common in traditional Trinitarian reflection. What is far less familiar is the way Balthasar consistently glosses this giving as a giving up, giving away, a self-stripping: “the Father strips himself, without remainder, of his Godhead and hands it over to the Son”; the Father “can give his divinity away”; the Father “lets go of his divinity”; this is an “original self-surrender” in which the Father “must go to the very extreme of self-lessness.”

Where classic treatments of the Trinity tend, if anything, to emphasize the closeness, the inseparability, of the Persons, Balthasar writes repeatedly of the distance (in his more cautious moment, of “something like distance”) between them, of otherness and separation. The Son is “the infinitely Other” of the Father; there is “an absolute, infinite ‘distance’” between them, “a unique and incomprehensible ‘separation’ of God from himself.” Interestingly, where in classic treatments, the closeness, the inseparability, of the Persons tends to be conceived as linked to the fullness of the Father’s self-gift – because the Father gives everything he is to the Son, there can be no distance between them – in Balthasar’s thought this same self-gift of the Father’s (though here conceived as self-stripping) leads, it would seem, in precisely the opposite direction: Balthasar’s assertion of the infinite difference or separation of the Persons regularly follows references to the Father giving himself away completely to the Son.

Kenosis – self-emptying – begins, then, not in the Cross or the Incarnation, but in the Father’s generation of the Son. The Father does not actually do away with himself in this kenosis: “the Father, in uttering and surrendering himself without reserve, does not lose himself. He does not extinguish himself by self-giving.” Nevertheless, Balthasar is keen to preserve something like a sense of risk, something vulnerable and dangerous, in this giving away.

What such an understanding of the inner relations of the eternal divine Persons does is to allow Balthasar to develop a Trinitarian understanding of the meaning of the Cross, which can then be seen not as a breach in or a change to the eternal inner-Trinitarian relations, but as an expression of them. He is able, that is, to present the Cross as the enactment of a drama between the Father and the Son, while at the same time insisting, with the tradition, that God is not somehow altered through an engagement with history.

The Cross should not be understood, Balthasar insists, simply as God incarnate, in his human nature, undergoing suffering and death on behalf of or in the place of sinners. Such a statement may not be false, but it does not go far enough, does not get to the most profound level of what is at stake. It is not just God incarnate who undergoes the Cross, but the Son, and what is undergone is not just suffering and death, but more profoundly forsakenness, abandonment, rejection, by the Father. On the Cross we see God rejected by and alienated from God. On the Cross the relationship between God’s wrath and sin is played out between the Father and the Son, and therefore taken over into God, into the relationship between the Father and the Son. But because of what we have seen above, of the infinite distance, the “incomprehensible separation” which all along, so to speak, characterizes the Father/Son relations, this is not the introduction of something new into the Trinity because infinite distance and something like alienation were always already there. The Trinity, one could say a little crudely, is “big enough” to encompass and so overcome even the terrible distance between the righteous and angry God and the lost sinner.

Balthasar’s much debated proposal concerning Holy Saturday is essentially the working out of this same idea. What happens in the time between Christ’s death and resurrection, between Good Friday and Easter Sunday? There is a biblical reference (1 Peter 3:19; 4:6) to Christ’s preaching to the dead, and traditionally this has been developed into a notion of a victorious descent, “the beginning of the manifestation of his triumph over death and the first application of the fruits of redemption.” [*] Balhasar proposes, by contrast, that Christ is utterly passive on Holy Saturday, that he can no longer act, that he is genuinely dead in solidarity with the dead, and indeed that , having become identified with sin itself, he experiences the full horror of it, which is to say hell, utter rejection, and abandonment by the Father.

Balthasar’s soteriology is powerful and vivid. It seems to show how we can take seriously the gravity of sin, and the recurrent biblical theme of divine wrath against sin, while presenting a drama in which the overwhelming theme is still that of God’s love. It takes up the traditional themes (typically emphasized in Protestant theology) of Christ’s substitution for us, even of Christ bearing punishment for us, but because of the thoroughly Trinitarian way in which Balthasar sets out the drama, the usual difficulty of these themes – that a requirement for a perfectly just man to be killed for the iniquities of the unjust is repellent, arbitrary, unfair – is, if not entirely eliminated, at least reduced. The dominant sense one is left with is not of God insisting on punishing one party instead of another, but of God taking into his own life the necessary conflict between us as the provision of an explanation, but as the exploration of a drama, he is able to put the emphasis on bringing out, rather than dissolving, conflicting themes and forces.

Our main concern at this stage, however, is not in his soteriology for its own sake, but in Balthasar’s treatment of the Trinity, and particularly the way he interweaves reflections on the Trinity with soteriology. To appreciate the distinctiveness of this integration, it is useful to compare it to what has become in recent years the more typical pattern of Trinitarian reflection.

As I mentioned in the opening paragraph of the chapter, many contemporary theologians feel the need to restore the doctrine of the Trinity to a place of centrality and importance, to restore to it a sense of relevance, to rescue it from the realm of technical puzzles, intellectual gymnastics, celestial mathematics. One very common strategy is to reject the traditional Western “psychological analogy” for the Trinity and introduce instead a social analogy: the Trinity is to be modeled, not on the multiple faculties or multiple activities of a single mind, but on a small community bound together by love. The relevance of the Trinity is then found in the way it becomes itself a model for community, and in the quality of the relationships within it, relationships so profound that they can make the Three genuinely One. If the doctrine of the Trinity portrays the divine in its innermost reality as Persons-in-relation, as relationships so profound that they constitute the Persons, or as relationships so profound that they lead to a “perichoretic” unity of Persons, then surely it has something to say about how we think about family, about the Church, about society at all levels, and about ourselves. In this way the Trinity is found to be, after all, an edifying doctrine with a range of very practical applications.

Social theories are, of course, varied, but many share in a basic pattern, a pattern of abstraction followed by application. One moves away from the complexities of the biblical texts, away from discussion of creation, Incarnation, Cross, resurrection, ascension, Pentecost, to rest one’s focus on a set of quite abstract concepts – concepts of Persons, relations, and perichoresis – and then, taking these to be what ware at the heart of the doctrine of the Trinity, one looks to find application for the concepts, to give these abstractions relevance. So one can find a Colin Gunton, for instance, writing enthusiastically about the applications of the notion of perichoresis in metaphysics or in conceiving of the interpenetration of different academic disciplines, or a Jurgen Moltmann drawing on the eternal relations of the Trinity as a way to provide a model for Church polity and indeed a way to move beyond the impasse between Western individualism and Eastern communitarianism.

On some points Balthasar is at one with these social theorists. He too envisages the Persons of the Trinity functioning as something not too far from persons in our ordinary sense of the term, and so he too imagines the Trinity as something closer to a small society or family than to differing aspects of a single psyche. But here the ways part, for Balthasar does not engage in the abstraction so characteristic of social theories of the Trinity. The Trinity is never, in Balthasar’s theology, a doctrine in search of a meaning, and he does not need to propose for it some extra relevance of its own: it is rather, as he presents it, intimately concerned with, and necessary for the understanding of, the life of Jesus and particularly the Cross. So, for example, though Balthasar is like the social theorists in showing a concern with the eternal inner relations of the Trinity, he leads us not into a reflection about a general concept of relations that can then perhaps find useful application elsewhere, but into a reflection very specifically about the relation of the Father to the Son (and to some extent of the Holy Spirit to both). We have in Balthasar, then, as vivid and gripping a presentation of the inner life of the Trinity as any social theorist could wish for, but one which maintains at every stage vital links with the drama of salvation.

* Not to be confused with Balthasar, this quote if from Alyssa Pitstick (First Things, December 2006)

If you can’t join Christ on the Cross, you’ve got the wrong Cross

12724940_1720132754866853_78842786_nI’m in the middle of James Alison’s Knowing Jesus and hope soon to put together some thoughts on 1Cor 2.2 where Paul resolves to “know nothing except Christ and him crucified.” In the meantime, because I’ve been discussing a good deal about whether, and if so how, the Cross can be the “center” (the hermeneutical center) of how we read Scripture, I want to offer a thought on the general tendency to make the Cross the place where Christ suffers the godforsakenness we justly deserve because of our sin. The more I think about this, the less sense it makes. I don’t doubt there is a Cross “because” of our sins, of course, and I don’t doubt that Christ suffers “for” us.

Let me offer a couple of thoughts on Phil 3 to suggest viewing the Cross as means rather than as end. I’m not negating the revelatory value of the Cross or its value as a demonstration of love. I’m suggesting it’s not the center of the center. Phil 3.8-11 (vv. 10f here):

I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and to participate in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.

a_light_in_the_darkness_by_abenteuerzeit-d5dlskcI’ll offer Boyd’s Crucifixion of the Warrior God (CWG) as the backdrop for my thought here since it proposes an understanding of the Cross as a kind of suffering we cannot participate in because it is God suffering godforsakenness as the consequence of our sinful choices and on our behalf. Without question this is not a suffering in which we can participate. It is suffering we’re saved from. Yet we see Paul wanting to “participate in Christ’s sufferings” and to “become like Christ in his death” (even to “fill up in his flesh what is lacking in Christ’s sufferings,” Col 1.24).  These are curious things to say indeed if Paul believed the Cross is God suffering in our stead the godforsakenness we deserve.

I suggest that at the very least

…we understand the Cross not as a kind of suffering from which we are excluded (because it is a godforsakenness we are saved from) but as a kind of suffering and death we are saved in or through.

This difference in perspective is like the small difference between competing orientations that end up worlds apart the farther down the road one tracks their implications. I don’t think Paul could be any more explicit: the Cross isn’t the Incarnate God dying instead of us (however legitimately talk of ‘substitution’ expresses a perspective on an aspect of what’s happening), it is the God-Man dying ahead of us — showing us how to die, how life is found in the worst the world can do to us, and also how to suffer redemptively as a victim of the world’s violence. But all this precludes the Cross’s being the place where the Son is estranged from the Father and the Spirit. On the contrary, it’s where all estranging narratives, including narratives of the Cross as estrangement, are exposed as false and impotent precisely because they do not offer us a ‘way’, a suffering, we can participate in, a death to which we can conform. If Paul hopes to attain the resurrection on account of “becoming like Christ in his death” through “participating in his sufferings,” then Christ’s death can’t be the place where Father, Son and Spirit suffer godforsakenness in our stead.

This thought is found outside of Paul as well. Hebrews 13.13f:

Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.

Again, here the Cross represents sufferings we follow Christ into, “bearing the disgrace he bore,” hardly something we rejoice in being saved from. Mere verses prior to the call to follow Christ by bearing the disgrace he bore “outside the city” (a reference to the only ‘abandonment’ in view, viz., the abandonment of us by the world) we find this encouragement which precedes and introduces the whole passage:

Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you. So we say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?”

The Cross is where these words are proved true, not the one time they fail to be so. This is a Cross we can follow, suffering we can participate in, a death we can conform to, and in conforming to his death, a resurrection we can attain. So, my suggestion is: If you can’t join Christ on the Cross, you’ve got the wrong Cross.

Has Tom Oord solved the problem of evil?—Part 2

This didn’t generate discussion earlier, but I still think it’s relevant, especially to those interested in the conversation between Process theologies and more orthodox leaning views.



A quick thank you to friends and family who have supported Anita and me in our recent move from Minnesota to California. I’m settling into a new job which promises to be a wonderful experience as general manager for an Arabic language non-prof dedicated to translating and publishing the Scriptures in Arabic. More on that latter perhaps.

Moving to California hasn’t left me time for blogging, but I’d like to get back in the saddle. To begin with I’m here offering Part 2 of my reflections on Tom Oord (seePart 1). I also have simmering some thoughts on a couple of Greg Boyd’s latest posts (Cross Shaped Transcendence and The Cross and the Trinity) that address topics of special interest to me.

For now, let’s return to Tom Oord’s work on God’s essential kenosis. I see John Sanders has posted a second reply to Oord in their…

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Abacus theologica


Work forces man to use measurements. He works eight hours a day, and for this work a certain average result is expected from him. The number of a certain kind of item a worker is able to make in a day, week, or year is fixed. Also fixed is the amount he needs to support himself and his family (if a loaf of bread or a dozen eggs cost such and such…) and the amount he needs for pleasure (the cost of a ticket to the movies or to a soccer match). His entire existence is saturated with numbers, and each presents a certain measure. When something in the mechanism breaks down, he stands there helpless. For the most part, it has an unpleasant effect. When as a worker he imagines the work schedule of his superior, he sees that he has more holidays, a higher salary, and therefore different pleasures. The superior, however, does not organize his time with any less precision, since he probably also has more work to do and greater responsibility.

If a man gets completely accustomed to the idea that everything can be measured, then he loses any sense of eternity. His horizon does not reach farther than the measurable, passing time, and mortal existence. Everything he measures constantly brings him to limits: there lies the point where what he has planned comes to an end; beyond it begins something else to measure. The life of an individual passes away between such ends and new beginnings. He gets on top of what he has measured; it has been incorporated within the compass of his life. He is ruled by the law of numbers, and he in turn rules over it. The measurements are handed over to him already complete, and yet he preserves a small amount of freedom in relation to them. He can compare things (for example, the price of milk); he can also save; he can give up things that he would have a right to in order to enjoy others. He accustoms himself to this freedom in the midst of measurements as though behind bars.

This also influences his thinking. He thinks within fixed categories that have become so natural to him that he hardly ever questions them. On the contrary, he simplifies them more and more.

However, if he meets someone who lives from faith, he encounters in him God himself. Something adventurous breaks into his limited existence. He does not know whether he is thereby weighed and measured. One thing, however, is ceritain: his measurements do not suffice to determine these dimensions. His conventional categories, time schedules, and simplifications cannot cope with the phenomenon. He had arranged a plan for himself that would allow him to advance in his job in order to be able to afford certain things when he reached the age of fifty or sixty. If the Christian truth is valid, God could frustrate all his plans; he could perhaps even require him to give up his position. In any event, God could demand from him his advance calculations and small arrangements, with now appear to him as countless reservations against God. Who could place conditions on God? This belongs to the most difficult aspects of faith: to let go of the narrow boundaries and divisions we have worked hard to put in place. We must give them up when we encounter the limitless and unmeasurable. Even time can no longer be measured by years and months, but only in terms of the entirety of a life – and the length of a life is unknown. Everything that was measured according to one’s own advantage must now be held in contempt. God offers no measures that man could get used to or for which he could use his own system of calculation. The prescribed time for prayer, the commandments of the Church, and the demands of loving one’s neighbor strike him as hard, and he does not know how to cope with it. On the surface, the circumstances remain the same: time remains time. Interiorly, however, everything has completely changed: time is now something in which eternity wants to find a place; and measure is now something in which the unmeasurable must be sheltered. Thus everything becomes quite uncomfortable…

…The hardest thing required of the believer is to place himself at the disposal of something incomprehensible, something that begins to make sense only through love. Until now he was collecting, gathering, counting, and disposing; now he is meant to open himself in such a way that the hands he holds out to collect have to remain apart. He is embraced by God in such a way that he is no longer capable of embracing anything. He must keep himself as vessel, and he cannot guarantee what this vessel will contain. He no longer knows it because he must allow what he had once well protected and thought through many times over simply to flow into the infinite, according to a rhythm that God alone determines.

(Adienne von Speyr, Man Before God)

Brief thoughts on penal substitution

IMG_5205edited-720x380Dwayne recently shared a Tom Wright piece with me in which Wright addresses the shades of meaning of, and confusion over, ‘penal substitution’. While Wright considers it an obvious misappropriation of the concepts ‘penal’ and ‘substitution’ to understand them as imagining Jesus to come between God and humanity to save the later from the former by placating the anger of the former, he doesn’t want to reject biblical talk of divine wrath and judgment and Christ’s role in expressing and addressing such judgment. Write says:

The biblical doctrine of God’s wrath is rooted in the doctrine of God as the good, wise and loving creator, who hates – yes, hates, and hates implacably – anything that spoils, defaces, distorts or damages his beautiful creation, and in particular anything that does that to his image-bearing creatures. If God does not hate racial prejudice, he is neither good nor loving. If God is not wrathful at child abuse, he is neither good nor loving. If God is not utterly determined to root out from his creation, in an act of proper wrath and judgment, the arrogance that allows people to exploit, bomb, bully and enslave one another, he is neither loving, nor good, nor wise.

There’s a prevailing difference in definitions that plagues disagreements over penal substitution. There are those who define “penal” as merely punitive and thus excluding any wider redemptive intention. A ‘penal’ act is a ‘punitive’ act – pure and simple – a ‘getting even with’ which as such is incompatible with acts that are redemptive and healing in their intention. But not everybody defines ‘penal’ that way. Those who take a wider view on what ‘penal’ might mean appear to say that God’s judgment of evil is ‘penal’ in the sense that it is designed to expose evil as evil, to render its truth plain through bringing persons into an experience of evil as evil. But the purpose of such judgment terminates not in this exposition but in the redemption of those judged. God wills that those who reject him experience what that rejection is like and so turn to him. I can’t disagree with this, so long as one understands this is the natural and necessary consequence of God’s willing himself as our highest good. But ‘penal’ is an especially unhelpful term to describe this.

There’s a fine line between this latter view and statements that assume a kind of competition between ‘love’ and ‘judgment’ within God. Even Wright appears to locate ‘wrath’ and ‘love’ on contrary but inseparable poles of a divine reality, a reality that is ‘now doing this’ (which we call loving a person) and ‘now doing that’ (which we call judging a person). Perhaps the line between the two is the difference between organic/natural judgment (like the Orthodox espouse) and imagining God to take more positive actions that are willed by him “in addition to” or “over and against” willing the highest good of those judged. In other words, if ‘penal’ and ‘substitution’ compete with the highest good of those judged, then we have problems. Can the terms, if carefully qualified, express God’s pursuit of the highest good of a fallen world? ‘Substitution’ may simply describe the Cross in the sense that Christ volunteers to “step into” (taking our place in) our scapegoating mechanism, substituting himself for us in that violence in a representative mode. But this is not so that God does to Jesus what God in his holiness must do to sinners (which is how I’m reading Wright). Rather, God endures our doing to him what we do to other innocent victims, and thereby God demonstrates how unlike he is from our concepts of justice and peace. (Brad Jersak prefers “identification” to “substitution” and this may better express the truth of what happens on the Cross.)

This love enduring our violence is God’s judgment (his estimate, verdict upon, or opinion) of evil. Where any mind perceives a measure of the depth of God’s abiding, loving beatitude and peace, it comes into an experience of judgment. Its privation is revealed or exposed. It suffers that revelation, but it suffers nothing other than God in and as the undiminished delight that values and loves the world and whose delight is the highest good of creatures. In judging sin, God takes no action ‘in addition to’ his loving us, no positive judgment that is a counterpart to his actually loving us (even if that judgment is inseparable from God’s love as south pole is contrary to but inseparable from the north pole). I think a big part of Wright’s problem here is that he mistakenly views the sheer, undisturbed delight of triune love to be indifferent to evil if all it is is delight. He imagines God has to suffer some internal diminishment (Wright’s “hatred”) over and against divine beatitude or else God is indifferent to evil. But perhaps he assumes this because that’s how he feels about evil – i.e., joy and delight are not motivation enough to oppose evil and act in the world for its healing and salvation. He has to be disturbed out of the complacency of happiness and act because because “hate” now motivates his opposition to the wrong.

Wright may object to crude, competitive notions of justice and love that get expressed in versions of ‘penal substitution’ which view Jesus as saving us from God by placating his rage, he doesn’t entirely escape a competitive polarizing of ‘wrath’ and ‘love’ when he suggests that God must be thought of as “hating, yes hating” evil. Exactly what kind of change would that entail in God over and against his loving people and being the life which is the end of all things? Why cannot an undisturbed peace and beatitude be its own motivation to pursue the highest good of all things? And why cannot this beatitude itself be experienced as painful torture for those who don’t love it?

Happy people don’t help miserable people by hating their misery. They help them by being happy.

Certainly God cannot will our highest good in him and do nothing to address our violence or save us from its consequences. Wright admits to directing his criticism against viewing God as “indifferent” to sin and evil. The problem with Wright’s criticism is that he feels divine indifference is only avoided if God “hates” something, if he is prompted to act through feeling something relative to evil over and against being the infinite beatitude and peace which is his being and existence to begin with. Beatitude and peace aren’t enough. This bring to mind comments I earlier made on the question of divine motivation and indifference in the face of a violent/sinful world:

I agree that acting in love to relieve the suffering of another must be motivated and that such acts are in response to the suffering of others. But surely it’s possible to conceive of a personal satisfaction/happiness which need not be diminished by the suffering of others before it can benevolently intend their well-being and act on their behalf, or additionally, that sympathy means one’s own happiness is diminished to a degree proportionate to the misery of those who suffer. The motivation of such beatitude would be a self-motivating fullness which need not be prodded into action either by the inconvenience of a diminished sense of well-being brought on by the lack of well-being in the world or by the prospect of increasing one’s aesthetic value by addition. A present fullness may be its own motivation to pursue the well-being of others as an expression of its own completeness.

Am I suggesting God is, in some sense, indifferent to evil? Yes. But any sane theism has to concede that God is ontologically indifferent to evil. But this indifference is not a self-absorbed lack of concern for the well-being of others. It just is the well-being of others, and it’s not indifferent in the sense that it fails on any level to pursue the highest well-being of all things in him.

Can “penal” and “substitution” be helpfully employed at all? My own feeling is it would require more qualification than its worth.