An Overview of Balthasar's Project

S. Joel Garver


The following summary is drawn from Balthasar’s own "Retrospective" (1988).

He starts with the philosophical wranglings of humanity: we recognize our own finitude and contingency as well as the contingency of the world of things around us—and yet we are aware of being itself as something absolute and unlimited. Various philosophical and theological attempts have been made at explaining the problem of being.

Some (such as Parmenides) have tried to say that all things are infinite and immutable being, while others (such as Heraclitus) have said that everything is movement and becoming. The Parmenidean solution—which is also that of Buddhism and neo-Platonism—falters since anything finite must be non-being, an illusion to be discovered, and the One is attained only through mystical experience. The Heraclitean solution must end in contradiction, identifying life with death, wisdom with folly. We are left then with an inescapable dualism between finite and infinite, contingent and necessary, and so on.

But leaves the question of the source of this duality. On one hand the duality may be the result of a falling away from or rupture withi a primordial unity and thus salvation is achieved through a reabsorption into the infinite One—but this is theopanism. On the other hand, perhaps the infinite had some need of the finite in order to perfect itself or to actualize its potential or the like—but this is pantheism. Wither case founders on the problem that the infinite is reduced to the finite.

According to Balthasar only theology—in particular Christian Trinitarian theism—could give an adequate response to these philosophical problems and, in fact, the solution could only be given to us by the infinite Being Himself, revealing Himself from Himself. But, asks Balthasar, could creatures such as us understand the revelation? He answers that this is the case only if the God of the universe is the God of the Bible since this God is the creator of the world and man, of the ear and of language. This is the God who constituted man to receive this revelation of the God who speaks and hears. This is the fundamental openness of man to the divine and so, simultaneously, knowledge of God and self-knowledge are inseparable.

Some further observations. Humanity exists only in dialogue with the neighbor—even infants are only brought to consciousness of themselves by love, as Balthasar is fond of saying, only by "the smile of the mother." This truth reveals four things. First, love unites the different as one even as it establishes that difference. Second, since love is joyful, being must be beautiful. Third, since love is good, being must be good. And finally, since love is true, being must be true.

There we have the basic outline of the Trilogy: aesthetics (beauty), dramatics (goodness), and logic (truth). We also have its major motif: while there is an absolute distinction between God and the creature, there is also an analogy between them and so God is beauty, goodness, and truth.

Thus, we conclude the following. First, since we exist only in interpersonal dialogue, God Himself must exist as interpersonal dialogue. Speech—the Word—is of His essence. Second, since God is truly God and in no need of the creature, He must be the true, the good, and the beautiful in Himself. So the analogous manifestation of these realities in the creature is only partial and finite. For example, for us as humans our unity as humans could either be that each of us is part of one humanity or that each of us is an individual. Only in the Trinity is such partial unity resolved since God’s unity is precisely in the individuality of the Persons.

Balthasar’s Trilogy, then, is an attempt to examine the True, the Good, and the Beautiful as they are concretely revealed (and not just as philosophical abstractions), working with the assumption of the analogia entis and the internal relations between these attributes. Thus the beautiful is also true and good. A thing appears to us as beautiful and in doing so gives itself to us. Such self-giving is the essence of goodness. And in giving itself it bespeaks itself, revealing the truth of itself.

In reference to God we have a theological aesthetic. God appears in theophany to Abraham, to Moses, to the prophets. Finally God appears to us in Christ. But we are left with questions. What makes this appearance distinct from every other phenomenon? What is different about the God of Israel from the idols of the pagans? What is different about the God of Israel from the vain philosophies of men? What is unique about the glory of this God revealed in Christ hung upon a Cross and Resurrected from the grave?

We also have a theological dramatics. God gives Himself to us in the drama of salvation. But more questions. How does the absolute freedom of God in Christ interact with the relative, but real, freedom of us? How is the final victory achieved?

And finally we have a theological logic. In Christ God has made Himself truly known, in the God-man. How can an infinite Word express Himself in a finite word? This is related to the two natures of Christ. How can finite men come to understand the unlimited riches of the Word of God? This is the work of the Holy Spirit.

Balthasar concludes this retrospective of his work by noting that Christianity alone is capable of answering the question why God created a world of which he had absolutely no need in order to be God. The monotheisms of Judaism and Islam cannot answer this question.

The doctrine of the Trinity alone tells us that God is one, good, true, and beautiful because His is essentially Love which both establishes the Other and their Unity. Thus God has no need of the creation, but freely creates it out of a Love which is already fully expressed. Moreover, since the Trinity necessarily includes otherness, the creation is not a fall from infinite perfection, but an image of God’s own otherness even while it is distinct from God. Since the Son is the express image of the Father He can assume to himself the creation which already images God. He can do so without, on one hand, dissolving the created order or, on the other hand, merely extrinsically adding something to a creation that is already complete in itself.

Balthasar concludes:

All true solutions offered by the Christian Faith hold, therefore, to these two mysteries [the Trinity and the Incarnation], categorically refused by a human reason that makes itself that absolute. It is because of this that the true battle between religions begins only after the coming of Christ. humanity will prefer to renounce all philosophical questions—in Marxism, or positivism of all stripes—rather than accept a philosophy that finds its final response only in the revelation of Christ. Foreseeing that, Christ sent his believers into the whole world as sheep among wolves. Before making a pact with the world, it is necessary to meditate on that comparison.