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).

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

  1. rwwilson147 says:

    It has for me for many years seemed appropriate in light of the paucity of clarity in scripture regarding divine essences and substances to suggest regarding the whole of the early church speculations about the nature of the Godhead, that there was far too great a tendency “to speak with too much confidence, to know more than can be known.” This critique of Balthasar might apply just as well to the creedal speculations.


    • Tom says:

      Thanks Richard,

      I agree speculation can go too far. I do think Kilby is right (IF her summary of Balthasar is accurate), that (a) there’s a depth to the mechanics of the inner Triune life that Balthasar expounds upon which traditional more restrained Christian thought avoids, and that (b) he assumes a confidence regarding his speculations that goes too far.

      It’s one thing to say the language of the NT regarding Father and Son (image [Paul], exact representation [Heb 1], eternal uncreated existence [Jn 1], etc.) justifies the a doctrine of ‘the eternal begetting of the Son by the Father’. We have to say that sort of thing, I think. I actually don’t take that much to involve “speculation.” It’s another thing to theorize about the God-constituting machinations that define that eternal act of begetting on the level Balthasar seems to do.

      That said, I’d be interested in knowing what there is in the creeds that you consider to be illegitimate speculation. Do you think the creedal affirmations of the Trinity, the incarnation, the full humanity and divinity of Jesus, the crucifixion or resurrection are too speculative as expressed in, say, Nicaea or Chalcedon?
      I take those creeds to be some of the simplest, least cumbersome, least speculative statements of faith there are. Are you opposed to any doctrinal non-negotiables? If not, how do you suggest their meaning be established?



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