This is an extract of our forthcoming Balthasar: A Guide for the Perplexed by Rodney Howsare. The book will publish in June in the UK and in August in the US. The extract is from chapter 7: Balthasar's Ongoing Role in Theology. Enjoy!
Balthasar and the Resurgence of Traditional Catholicism
Once more, I intend in this short space only to raise questions for further discussion; I make no pretence at settling them. I stated earlier that when I began work on my dissertation in the mid-90’s, the main issue in Balthasar studies was to get Balthasar a hearing in a context still dominated by Rahner, Lonergan and Liberation Theology. Of course things were already changing. Milbank’s Theology and Social Theory had already come out in 1990 and Fergus Kerr’s, Theology after Wittgenstein had come out even before that. I mention these as just two examples of the growing dissatisfaction over an academic approach to theology that was still under the sway of Enlightenment patterns of thought. But once the modern has been put in its place, room is made not only for the postmodern (postliberal, radically orthodox, etc.), but also, in the case of some, for the pre-modern. In our own day, for instance, we are beginning to witness a new interest in the thought of Thomas Aquinas, not simply as a philosopher, and not simply out of historical curiosity, but as a theologian to be reckoned with.
First, one of the reasons that I began this study the way I did was to show just how wedded in many ways Balthasar’s thought is to that of Thomas Aquinas. I repeat, for instance, that the entire first volume of Theo-Logic reads like an extended commentary on Aquinas’s, On Truth. Furthermore, in spite of the fact that Thomas does not make Balthasar’s famous list of clerical styles that makes up the second volume of The Glory of the Lord, he is more than compensated by playing the pivotal role in the two volumes on metaphysics which come later. As I stated in chapter two, Aquinas marks a kairos for Balthasar between the Fathers’ tendency to swallow philosophy into theology and the moderns’ tendency either to separate the two entirely, or to absorb theology into philosophy. Balthasar, therefore, commends in large part Aquinas’s understanding of the relationship between philosophy and theology. This leads to a further point: it is not so much a question of whether Balthasar is faithful to Thomas as it is a question of which Thomas we are talking about. For Balthasar, Thomas is decidedly not the Thomas of the neo-scholastics. Balthasar’s reading of Thomas is much closer to that of Etienne Gilson, Henri de Lubac, Gustav Siewerth, Erich Przywara, and Ferdinand Ulrich, to name just a few. Indeed, even today Balthasar has his Thomistic defenders such as Norris Clarke and Kenneth Schmitz. Clarke even suggests that Thomists need to do a better job of explaining how God’s immutability should be understood both in the light of scriptures and the fact that Thomas defines God as “pure act.”
But the larger question in the background here concerns Balthasar’s fidelity to the tradition. To refer once more to chapter two, I tried to offer a series of rules which Balthasar applies for retrieving past thought. Obviously fidelity to the past cannot mean slavish repetition, if for no other reason than that there are tensions in the tradition. It is interesting to note, for instance, that Alyssa Pitstick’s book makes almost no reference to models of the Trinity except the psychological one preferred by Thomas and Augustine. Bonaventure is mentioned once in her book, and here she is quoting Balthasar. Neither Richard of St. Victor nor Matthias Scheeben are even mentioned. Any time Balthasar is trying to work through a difficult issue, for instance, which analogies from below work best for the Trinity, he examines an amazing array of authors from all sorts of time periods, from the East and the West, major thinkers and minor ones. This is part of his act of discernment. No single author in the Church’s past is right all of the time. Thomas was wrong, for instance, about the immaculate conception and about the torture of heretics. Augustine was at least partially wrong about predestination and, we can hope, the massa damnata. It could be argued that in examining such a wide variety of thinkers and teasing out the position which is most faithful to God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ, Balthasar is actually more traditional, in some ways, than some of his traditionalist critics. This is an issue that deserves more attention in the coming years.
Still, the criticism of Balthasar from this more Thomistic side could be seen as prompting what I think is the next, promising phase in Balthasar scholarship. In the early years, since the major foil for Balthasar was likely Karl Rahner and the so-called “mediating” school of theology, the emphasis was placed on Balthasar the non-rationalist. In the discussions that swirled around the Yale versus Chicago schools, Balthasar was almost always placed in the Yale camp. It was all but admitted that Rahner and Lonergan were the philosophers and fundamental theologians while Balthasar was the better intra-Catholic, doctrinal theologian. It was sometimes suggested that while Rahner and Lonergan followed Thomas and were therefore more philosophical, Balthasar followed Bonaventure and was more fideistic. But recently, partly on account of increasing interest in the thought of Gustav Siewerth and Ferdinand Ulrich and partly on account of the Thomistic critique mentioned above, more attention is being paid to Balthasar’s philosophy and his defense of reason and metaphysics. In closing this final chapter, then, I would like to mention three young thinkers, all associated with the American edition of Communio, who are doing groundbreaking work in the area of Balthasar’s philosophy: Adrian Walker, Nicholas J. Healy, and David C. Schindler. The latter two have written important books on Balthasar’s philosophy which will appear in the “suggested readings” below; the former has written numerous articles in the American edition of Communio on Balthasar’s philosophy, especially on the relationship between being, truth and love. It is my conviction that these three names will figure heavily in the future of Balthasar studies.