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 (minus her 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)