Von Balthasar and the Reformation

Hans Urs von Balthasar, among the most influential Catholic theologians of the 20th century, unfolds in the early part of his trilogy a theology of Christian experience. Here the saints play a very interesting role as those who exemplify the Christian life which simply is the conformity to Christ’s form (von Balthasar’s first volume is entitled “Seeing the Form”). Between different saints, however, von Balthasar discerns different patterns of experiencing this path. Particularly interesting is his distinction between the experiences of the apostles Paul and John:

If we pass from Paul to John, who constitutes the second classical instance of a New Testament theology of experience, we leave a spiritual world which is impetuous and agitated almost in a violent sense and enter the calm of what “abides.” Paul’s fundamental experience is that of being snatched up by Christ’s dynamis [Greek, “power”] from one aeon and being transferred to the other. Paul overwhelms us because he has himself been overwhelmed. Damascus is a flash of lightning and remains such for the rest of the Apostle’s life. John, on the other hand, has been marked out ever since his first meeting with Jesus at the Jordan… To be sure, John too is one transported by love; but he is so profoundly at rest in this movement that, for him, it becomes the very presence of eternity… (The Glory of the Lord, vol. 1, 232-233)

In this light, it makes sense to see Paul speaking of the battle with the spiritual powers and authorities, the need for spiritual armour, the struggle with the sinful nature so central to his life (esp. Romans 7), and the bitter clashes with his opponents in the churches. From John, however, we are presented with a picture of calm repose, even at those moments in his gospel which in the others are full of agony. On the cross, Jesus’ life ends not with the dramatic cry as in Mark’s gospel (15:34), but with the composed, “It is finished” (19:30). Now, this difference should not be overplayed, but it is striking.

Striking especially in light of the historical circumstances that generated the Reformation. A certain monk, Martin Luther, of the Augustinian order—Augustine’s theology being strongly influenced by Paul—was greatly troubled over his sinfulness and lack of assurance. Luther was continuously plagued by Anfechtung, or “tempting attacks.” Only in reading the first chapter of Romans, with its teaching of justification by faith, did he find himself totally carried away, relieved, transported to a place of comfort and solace. The same sort of pattern is seen in Kierkegaard, perhaps the paradigmatic Protestant, who spoke similarly of Anfægtelse, or “spiritual trials.” (See the excellent article, “The Lightning and the Earthquake,” by Podmore.) This bloomed in Barth’s early dialectical theology of Krisis where Kierkegaard’s “infinite qualitative distance” between God and humanity is unfolded in all its purity.

This genealogy—Paul, Augustine, Luther, Kierkegaard, Barth—suggests a highly significant set of questions, again in light of von Balthasar’s earlier distinction between Pauline and Johannine types of Christian experience or spiritualities: Would the Reformation have occurred if Luther had been formed in a Johannine spirituality of eternal rest? If Luther had been, say, a Benedictine or Franciscan rather than an Augustinian monk? Would it have taken another avenue, perhaps waiting the 20 years for Calvin to begin it? Would it have ended with the Catholics and Reformers so violently opposed? Perhaps most interesting to me, and ecumenically significant: Can the history of the last 500 years between Protestants and Catholics be helpfully read as a history of spirituality? And will this reading allow us to come back to one another once again?

Catholic Catechism on Married Love

Catholics have a lot of things going for them. Sometimes they even say really beautiful things, like this bit from the Catechism, the authoritative book of Catholic teaching:

It can seem difficult, even impossible, to bind oneself for life to another human being. This makes it all the more important to proclaim the Good News that God loves us with a definitive and irrevocable love, that married couples share in this love, that it supports and sustains them, and that by their own faithfulness they can be witnesses to God’s faithful love. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, §1648)

No Wonder Hauerwas Almost Converted

Check out this quote from the Catechism of the Catholic Church (2306):

Those who renounce violence and bloodshed and, in order to safeguard human rights, make use of those means of defense available to the weakest, bear witness to evangelical charity, provided they do so without harming the rights and obligations of other [people] and societies. They bear legitimate witness to the gravity of the physical and moral risks of recourse to violence, with all its destruction and death.

Week of Prayer for Christian Unity: Day 1

Today marks the first day of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. It’s actually eight days, as the placement of this week (between January 18 and 25 each year) stretches from the Feast of St. Peter to the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul on the Christian calendar–two significant dates for two significant figures in the early Church. The theme for this year’s week is Mark 7.37: “He even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”

For a great overview of the history and purpose of this week, see this article by the BBC. I would ask that you join with me in prayer for the unity of the broad Christian tradition, across denominational and theological lines. I plan on posting my own prayer here each day for the next week.

Lord, on this first day of the week of prayer for Christian unity, I ask that You would draw together Your fractured and splintering body. Let us see in the face of our separated brothers and sisters Your face, Lord. Let us love one another as You have loved us in Christ. Draw us together for the sake of this hurting and broken world, and move our hearts to offer ourselves to You as living sacrifices.

I pray especially on this feast day of Peter for the Catholic Church. May she, together with the rest of Your Church, be continually converted to You, and continually renewed in You. Grant her strength of Your Spirit as she continues to be at work in very difficult situations throughout Your world. I ask for goodwill on the part of the Catholic Church toward her Protestant and Orthodox brothers and sisters. May the same be true of those churches.

I pray also for Pope Benedict, that You would grant him clarity of thought and vision; and even more than this, that he would love You with all of his heart, mind, soul and strength, and that he would guide his Church on the path to the Cross, first walked by Your Son. I pray that You would grant him humility, as he continues to set out each day as a humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord.

All these things I pray through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.


What a good word. It means “to make divine”, or “to deify”. I’ve learned that it’s at the center of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox understandings of justification. The belief is that what Jesus accomplished on the cross opened the way for us to be made like Him, more specifically in our obedience to God. Oddly, this strikes me as a fuller salvation than the simple legal transaction that we Protestants take justification to be. (We had an debt we couldn’t pay. Jesus paid the price for us. We get off scot-free without any necessary life change.)

It’s often thought to be a type of salvation-through-works, which strikes me as a complete misunderstanding. The belief, actually, is that we are enabled to live rightly because of our contact with a sanctifying, renewing, life-giving God. Jesus’ death on the cross opened the way for us to come into the presence of God, and to be changed by Him—not to be removed from His presence every time we sin, as before the death of Christ. Thus, every good work is completely of grace; grace enables us to live like God. I find that to be a beautiful and awe-inspiring belief.

Now, I’m still wrestling with and evaluating this view of justification, but I must admit that it strikes me (initially, at least) as more beautiful, more far-reaching and more biblically coherent than the Protestant view. (That itself is kind of frightening.)