The perfectly anticipated surprise


I referenced Aidan Nichols several times recently and here wish to do so again. From his A Key to Balthasar (discussing Balthasar’s understanding of Christ as the ‘form’ of the beautiful):

We have here one major source of Balthasar’s disagreement with the approach of his erstwhile fellow Jesuit, Karl Rahner. To Balthasar’s mind, Rahner made a great mistake in blocking together the theological a priori with its merely religious counterpart. Rahner’s vocabulary is partly the same and partly different, which could make comparison confusing. But the upshot is that Rahner tends to treat the Trinitarian and Christological revelation as simply the fullest (in Rahner’s word) ‘thematisation’ or conscious, explicit articulation of a piety which is itself not yet ‘thematic’—not consciously, explicitly articulated—but, at least in principle, pre-contains the content of the supreme revelation since our intellectual nature is turned towards the human-divine encounter, without our being aware of it, from the very start. For Balthasar, this renders the given, historic revelation vulnerable to what some would frankly call ‘demythologising’ and others, more politely, ‘resolution into its transcendental formality’. It seems to come down to much the same thing…What Balthasar objects to in Rahner’s theology of faith is that it fails to derive faith from the form of Christ. Christ’s form does not verify itself (as it should) by virtue of the unique evidence contained in its amazing and unexpected beauty. Instead, it commends itself by its ability to satisfy, especially on the level of the understanding, a drive towards transcendence already entirely operative in peoples’ lives (so no great surprise is involved). Balthasar sees Rahner as, so to speak, almost half way down the road to Rudolph Bultmann…

Balthasar shows his forthright commitment to the Christian revelation in its irreducibly specific pattern when he insists that, in collaboration with this inner grace, the form of Christ makes for a new revelation with its own evidence which no insight into the dynamism of the human spirit in its tendency towards God can either anticipate in advance or verify in retrospect. There is in fact no need at all in man that can explain or authenticate the words and deeds of Christ. Only Christ’s form makes those words and deeds lucidly plain. The ‘a posteriori’, historical, evidence of that form is what founds Christian faith, not some ‘a priori’, ahistorical state of affairs which has come into consciousness for this or that individual through prompting by the general a posteriori experience. In any case, what human expectation could envisage a triune, totally self-sufficient Creator becoming man in a tiny speck of dust somewhere in the universe and presenting his own extremity of humiliation, suffering – both physical and spiritual – and substitutionary death as the very form of life for all mankind? This rhetorical question identifies Balthasar’s most basic theological conviction. Nowhere else but in the historical form of Jesus could anyone find the evidence to verify so extravagantly wasteful a love on the side of humanity. As Balthasar puts it in his theology of the Easter Tridium, no human evolution, hope or desire can unite the Hellish destruction of Good Friday with the splendid affirmation of Easter Sunday. Only Jesus’ form can verify a triune God who knows no need to subject himself to such horrors and yet in his total freedom does so. The evidence of the form of Christ is thus akin, Balthasar argues, to that of an artistic masterpiece. This form knows no external necessity in either divine or human reality, yet once we apprehend it we see that it ‘must’ be as it is. (emphasis mine)


I find myself agreeing with both. I don’t think Rahner’s point constitutes a denial of what Bathasar wants to protect. Faith is derived from the form of Christ. But if it’s true that “once we apprehend it we see that it ‘must’ be as it is,” then this only confirms Rahner’s point. That is, the form of Christ fulfills all other created forms which, inasmuch as their forms are participations in the good, the truth, and the beautiful, truly anticipate it. It may be (to agree with Bathasar against Rahner) that no created forms in themselves could perfectly predict or even verify that the triune God would love to such an extreme, but this is an epistemological issue. It just states the proper order of knowing and believing is in this case from Christ to creation. But once the form of Christ is viewed as the objective, historical form which the transcendentals take within fallen history, and once all history is viewed as a participation in/of those transcendentals, then the form of Christ cannot stand altogether outside all other forms, as alient to them, as unanticipated by them. Rahner seems right—all created forms (ontologically) do instantiate the triune self-sufficient and self-sacrificial love “operative in all creation.” It couldn’t be otherwise if truth, beauty, and goodness are in fact ‘transcendentals’. But Balthasar also seems correct—we can only ultimately know and come to believe this (epistemologically) and experience its truth as transforming presence through perceiving Christ as the concrete form of creation’s goodness, beauty, and truth. Then all forms are always and everywhere a participation of the beauty, truth, and goodness always operative in creation, these only present themselves as personally accessible to us in Christ. No limited experience of ours could have predicted such a surprising, extravagant, incarnate love. But once known, that love cannot but be viewed as the abiding ground and orientation of all our forms.


You’ve given yourself to be named
Truth, Beauty, Goodness—each a side of the Same;
May my every feeling, act, and claim,
Conform to your form, your love, your aim.