Balthasar's Formative Influences

S. Joel Garver


There were a number of important influences on the highly original thought of Han Urs von Balthasar. In the following several of those influences are traced.

Erich Przywara

Przywara was both a teacher and mentor to Balthasar and his influence is seen most decisively in regard to the analogia entis or analogy of being. Przywaras version of it was influenced primarily by Augustine and Aquinas, but also, it seems, by Newman, Pseudo-Dionysius, and Nicholas of Cusa.

Przywara saw Greek philosophy as groping for some understanding of "being," some relationship between being itself and this world of changing and contingent beings, a relationship between transcendence and immanence. According to Przywara, however, Greek thought too easily fell into false notions of transcendence (e.g., radical appearance/reality dichotomies) or into false notions of immanence (e.g., pantheism). He also saw modern philosophies as foundering on the same difficulties from the dualistic tendencies of Descartes to Hegel's dialectical pantheism.

In Przywara's view only a Christian doctrine of the analogy of being solves these problems with its doctrine of creation, the absolute distinction between the Creator and the creature, and the fact that the self-manifestation of God in His creation is never exhaustive. This last point had been formulated in the Middle Ages at the Fourth Lateran Council in its doctrine that in every similarity between the world and God, there is an even greater dissimilarity (maior dissimulitudo in tanta similitudine). Furthermore, for Przywara, the analogous relation of God and the cosmos is only grasped by the eyes of faith. He writes:

For the principle of analogia entis, it is an unassailable axiom that all striving towards and all experience of God must assume rather than prove the relationship to God…Scientific doctrine about God is always something which ensues in the practical life of religion

This focus on the analogy of being and the presuppositional structure of Christian thought, was to become an important thread in Balthasar's vision.

Henri de Lubac

At Lyons, Balthasar encountered de Lubac and the nouvelle theologie, and though he never had de Lubac as a professor he is to be counted as an important influence and mentor. Part of the emphasis was an attempt to overcome the traditional strictures of neo-Scholastic theology and its sharp dichotomy between nature and grace. On de Lubac's view grace is not something merely added onto a human nature that is already complete in itself. Rather nature already presupposes grace and is eschatologically directed towards grace (on these topics see Balthasar's The Theology of Henri de Lubac and de Lubac's own A Brief Catechesis on Nature and Grace). For those familiar, this discussion in Roman Catholic circles in some ways parallels discussions within Reformed covenant theology concerning the nature of the creation covenant in regard to grace and works.

De Lubac was also largely responsible for turning Balthasar towards the Fathers, a influence we shall examine separately below.

Karl Barth

Balthasar had written on Barth in his doctoral dissertation but did not take up his theology in earnest until his time in Basel. Przywara and Barth had dialogued on the notion of the analogia entis, without much success. On one hand Barth saw the doctrine of the analogia entis as an attempt to place God and man together in one common scheme or within one common notion of "being" (the error of Duns Scotus). On the other hand Przywara saw Barth’s dialectics as falling into the same trap, trying to bridge the Creator/creature distinction by dependence upon idealistic philosophy. Barth's views, however, continued to evolve from his early dialecticism in Der Romerbrief into the more fully developed theology of the Dogmatiks.

At this point Balthasar was able open discussion again with Barth on the notion of the analogia entis, this time with de Lubac's doctrines of creation and grace in hand. Nevertheless, Balthasar believed that Barth's Christo-centrism and views on grace, in the end, undermined a doctrine of the analogia entis. Unlike Barth's Christo-monism, the analogy of being maintained the reality and value of the creation of nature —as something that is really analogous to God and, though receiving its reality and value wholly from God, truly receives and possesses that reality and value in itself. Despite differences, however, Balthasar was quite impressed and influenced by Barth's radical Christo-centrism and the overwhelming triumph of the grace of divine election in Christ in Barth's theology.

The Fathers

Along with the nouvelle theologie came a renewed interest in the Fathers of the Church. This was not mere traditionalism or nostalgia, but a critical appraisal and appropriation of the Fathers as, what Balthasar called, "the Church'’s youthful, intimate diary." In fact, this interest in patristics aroused the suspicion of the Vatican under Paul VI and led to a thorough investigation of the nouvelle theologie as a threat.

In regard to Balthasar, we can cite the influences of Augustine, Irenaeus, Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and Maximus the Confessor who all contributed to Balthasar's theology in various ways: his theological anthropology, his Christo-centrism and ecclesio-centrism, his sweeping vision of redemption, and so on.

Balthasar had been introduced most deeply to Augustine under the influence of Przywara and drew from him many ideas regarding the Church as mystical body and communion of charity. For Balthasar Irenaeus' anti-gnostic writings anticipated a refutation of idealism which he saw as one of the pitfalls of non-Christian thought for which Christianity alone provides an adequate response. Origen provided a model of theological exegesis of Scripture, an inspiration for hope in universal salvation, and much else. Gregory of Nyssa provided a theological anthropology that, to Balthasar's mind, anticipated and answered existentialism. Maximus was seen as one of the greatest theologians in the sheer scope, comprehensiveness, and synthesis of his thought, again providing a developed Christology, anthropology, and cosmic vision of redemption.

Relationship with von Speyr

Balthasar's relationship with Speyr is difficult to entirely comprehend. Whatever else, she was the Beatrice to his Dante. But as that kind of figure she was unusual. She is known to have experienced multiple stigmatizations, worked healings and other miracles, and seen numerous visions. Balthasar claimed that his theology was inseparable from her experiences and thought; certainly their foundations--especially the Johannes Verlag and its publishing house--were a mutual project

The influence of Speyr is most clearly seen in Balthasar's interpretation of the Descent into Hell as that is expressed in Mysterium Paschale and the Theo-Drama , an interpretation we will have opportunity to examine in more detail when condsidering those texts.