The Scandal of the Incarnation

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Icon of the Crucifixion (source)

Tertullian once said that “the flesh is the hinge, the decisive criterion, of salvation”. What did he mean by this? What he meant was that the full assumption and renewal of the “flesh” by God the Son in the incarnation is of utmost importance for mankind’s redemption. If God the Son did not assume a fully human nature, if he did not renew it completely, then mankind is not fully saved.

Irenaeus, echoing Tertullian, says this about the incarnation:

There was no other way for us to receive incorruptibility and immortality than to be united to incorruptibility and immortality. But how could we be united to incorruptibility and immortality without incorruptibility and immortality first becoming what we are, the perishable putting on imperishability, the mortal putting on immortality (cf. 1 Cor. 15:54), ‘so that we might receive adoption as sons’ (Gal 4:5)? Advurses Haereses, III 19, 1

In other words, salvation is not possible unless God takes on human flesh. This is where the early church come up with the formula of the great exchange: God becomes what man is, so that man might become what God is. Irenaeus says it this way: “The Son of God became the Son of Man, so that through him we might receive adoption. This takes place when man receives and bears and embraces the Son of God” (Ibid, III 18, 7). God the Son takes what is ours — the fallen flesh — and bestows upon it a participation in his divine sonship. Irenaeus continues by saying:

The Word of God became man, assimilating Himself to man and man to Himself, so that, by His resemblance to the Son, man might become precious to the Father… When the Word of God was made flesh… He restored and made fast the likeness, making man like the invisible Father through the visible Word” (ibid, V 16, 2)

Crucial to the gospel is the flesh, the worldly. God has descended to earth not to get us out of the world, but to recreate and refashion the flesh according to the divine pattern of life. This is what the early fathers call theosis or divinization: it is to participate in God through the descension of God the Son into our fallen situation. The gospel is principally the glorification of the flesh through the humiliation of the Son. It is the ontological raising up of mortal humanity that lies in death, endowing man with God’s own eternal glory.

This of course sounds scandalous, and it is! The shock of the gospel is, as Balthasar says, that “God becomes nothing, so that nothings might become God” (The Scandal of the Incarnation, p 53). How can the ineffable God raise us up in this manner? Surely this is too good to be true! But it isn’t: God has united himself to man and has risen him up to such great heights in Christ.

One reason the doctrines of incarnation, theosis, divinization, are so scandalous, is because Gnosticism, though not explicit, is a common presumption within western Christianity. Gnosticism was the earliest of the church heresies. Gnosticism in its most elemental form was “the belief that the lower, material sphere, the ‘flesh’, the world of the ‘psychic’, was contemptible, something to be vanquished, while the higher, spiritual world was all that was excellent, the only thing worth cultivating” (ibid, 1). Therefore the goal of redemption was not for God to glorify the flesh, but for man to escape from the material world into the spiritual life of God.

There were numerous myths about how the material world came to be. In any case, the world was understood within Gnosticism to be a lower or fallen state of being. The fall within Gnostic myth was the imprisonment of the spiritual in the material. Even more, to think that God, the highest of all beings, would not only embrace the flesh, but become flesh, was unthinkable. Irenaeus explains:

[The gnostics] reject the commixture of the heavenly wine. They only want to be the water of this world and will not admit god into commixture with them. And so they remain in the Adam conquered and cast out of Paradise. They fail to see that, as at the beginning of our formation in Adam the breath of life which comes from God was united to what had been formed, animating man, and showed him to be a rational animal, so, at the end, the Word of the Father and the Spirit of God, united to the ancient substance of Adam’s formation, made man living and perfect, capable of knowing the perfect Father (Advurses Haereses, V 1, 3)

What results from this Gnostic mindset is a radical anti-materialism. The end goal of the spiritual life is not for the world to be fitted with God’s life, divinized, but rather for man to find the spiritual god outside of the world. For this reason, the Gnostics were anti-sacramental, anti-worldly, rather, in favor of a higher spiritual “knowing” which lifted them out of the world. Balthasar explains:

The Gnostic impulse secretly or openly animates all those modern world-views which see body and spirit, bios and ethos, nature and God, in antagonism or opposition… One of ancient Gnosticism’s favourite doctrines, vigorously satirized by Irenaeus, is the glorification of the ‘eternal quest’, the idea being that the supreme principle, the ‘Groundless One’, is unknowable. It is not difficult to see why this emotional attachment to seeking, which despises as bourgeois, should have revived in our own times. But the clearest proof of the continuing relevance of the second-century struggle against Gnosticism is the fashionable interest, within the Christian church, in Zen meditation. This is essentially anti-incarnational. All sensible images, all words and concepts must be removed, so that there is nothing left but the unfathomable void in which a supposedly superobjective insight (gnosis) can flourish. However mutually contradictory these currents of thought may at first sight appear to be, they are united in their ‘spiritualizing’ flight from matter and the ‘flesh’. Modern materialism seems to be an exception, and yet it too is opposed to the Christian principle of Incarnation. (The Scandal of the Incarnation, p 5-6)

Balthasar explains here the modern influence of Gnosticism: the quest to find God by emptying oneself, by ridding oneself of the objects and materials that “get in the way”. God is that unknowable spiritual principle to which we must escape. This, to Irenaeus, is anti-Christian, precisely because it is ant-Incarnational.

Balthasar concludes his thought:

In practice, [modern Gnostics] regard matter as something to be dominated, and in man himself as the way to power. Myth and Christianity are opposed on every point. Myth seeks the ascent of man to spirit; the Word of God seeks descent into flesh and blood. Myth wants power; revelation reveals the true power of God int he most extreme powerlessness (ibid, 6)

Gnosticism is ignorantly rampant in western Christianity. What we must return to is the scandalous gospel of God’s own descent into man’s fallen situation; his very gift of life to raise us up; his very desire to unite heaven and earth!

Prayer as Heavenly Sight

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Heavenly worship from John’s Revelation

Hans Urs von Balthasar, toward the end of his magnificent work Prayer, introduces several theological tensions in the act of prayer. One of these tensions is the contrasting reality of heaven and earth. Balthasar explains

Creation evinces a mysterious tension which is identified in the very first words of scripture: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth”. As the subsequent course of salvation history shows, this opposition is not simply cosmological but also theological, contrasting God’s being and place with man’s being and place. What is absolutely clear is that earth is not heaven, even before man puts a spiritual distance between himself and heaven as a result of the fall.  Even before the fall there are times in paradise where God makes himself present, walking “in the cool of the day”. And afterward we often read of Yahweh’s “coming down” (Gen 11:5, 7, 18:21, etc), we read of Jacob’s ladder linking earth and heaven, of God’s “looking down” on the earth… (p 277)

So there is a contrasting reality of heaven and earth. Heaven, where God dwells is not earth where man dwells. “But”, as Balthasar says,

this is not the way God desires to reveal his heavenly mystery to earthly men. The Son “comes down”, and in him heaven becomes tangible on earth… Mankind’s yearning to look into God’s dwelling place is satisfied, beyond all imagining, through God’s arrival in the house of man “to come and eat with him” (Rev 3:20)… In Jesus, heaven is no longer an image but a Person. (p 278)

What did God do through the incarnation of the Son? Paul says in Ephesians 1 that he united heaven and earth. God and man were brought together in a vital union. This is why so many of the theological masters along with Balthasar explain the very person of Christ as the kingdom, or as heaven and earth united. Man and God are no longer in separation, but are in a cooperative synergistic union. This is the point of the hypostatic union: God and man are united in the person of the divine Son.

But it is not simply that in Christ, heaven and earth are united; because Christ died, rose, and ascended. He was not simply united to our human nature: human nature was resurrected and ascended in him! Balthasar explains:

To contemplate Holy Saturday is to contemplate the collapse of heaven into the horrors of the nether world. But the Son of heaven rises from the dead, and the forty days he spends with us establish the fundamental sense of Christian existence: our beloved God, who became man, who became “heaven on earth”, who thus wooed our love on earth, and whose love we only reciprocate when he had died for our sake — he is now “earth in heaven” (p 278)

By “earth in heaven”, not “heaven in earth”, Balthasar means to say that in the person of Christ, earth is raised with Christ. The cosmos which had fallen was raised up to participate in Christ’s resurrection. Put another way, in his resurrection, Christ accomplished not simply the defeat of death, he accomplished the final union of heaven and earth in his person. But it is not simply that Christ rose; he ascended into heaven to sit at the Father’s right hand. Balthasar explains further that “by the ascension to heaven the Man Christ… has taken our humanity to heaven with him, authentically, although hidden” (p 284).

What all of this means is that Christ’s descent and ascent — theologically divided into four parts: incarnation, descent into hades, resurrection and ascension — is the movement of heaven to earth and earth into heaven. Or to put it more relationally: the Father sends the Son so that fallen man might be brought back to the Father. This is a movement of heaven down and earth up.

Paul explains this movement in Philippians 2:5-11 as Christ’s humiliation and exaltation. But it is not simply that Christ was humiliated and exalted. Heaven and earth were brought into a union that, as Balthasar says, is hidden but real. And believers are, as Paul aptly says, “raised with Christ” and “seated with him in the heavenly places” in Ephesians 3. This is again a hidden reality that cannot be seen with the eyes. And yet it is true: humanity (indeed the entire cosmos!) has been joined in a union with the Father in Christ.

It cannot be seen with eyes. However, there is a way to see it — and finally we get to the title of this article: prayer is the means of locating, finding ourselves in Christ before the Father. Christ has been raised and has ascended to the Father; and so have baptized believers! We have been raised and seated with Christ in heavenly places. The principle means of seeing this reality is in prayer.

Balthasar explains:

This irreducible tension, [that Christ has united heaven and earth], is part of our whole Christian life, and thus it belongs particularly to Christian contemplation.

The view of the Fathers, and of Augustine in particular, follows from this. Contemplation makes present the heavenly dimension and truth of the Christian life; action is the working-out of this truth in the transient conditions of this world (p 284)

Prayer is the sight of the reality that “we already have a share, concretely and authentically, in this union” of heaven and earth (p 287).

I have for about a year now understood prayer in terms of finding my place in the Son before the Father. This the tension: we do not see it, but we are in Christ seated in heavenly places. The world in fact has been risen in him. The universe itself is raised and included in God’s triune life. This reality is located by contemplative prayer. It is seen, as Paul says, with the “eyes of the heart” and not by physical sight!

 

 

The Cross of the Womb

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Byzantine icon, “The Visitation”. Mary visits Elizabeth “in haste” at the announcement of the angel

Hans Urs von Balthasar, in his devotional work The Threefold Garland, details Mary’s consent and conception of Christ. Mary said a magnificent “Yes” to the voice of the angel (“I am the servant of the Lord”), and so conceived the Messiah in her own womb. Her obedience was miraculous, surely aided by the Spirit. And yet, as Balthasar says, while Mary was obedient to the calling of God, the calling was a mystery. It was shrouded with darkness: who was this son going to be? How will he be the savior of her people?

Balthasar explains:

It may be that Mary felt a slight anxiety at what might be awaiting her… She knows she has been expropriated into God’s whole objective history of salvation, and that at the same time she has been placed on a pedestal, since the center of this salvation history is here living and growing within her own center, eventually to emerge from her. But this does not arouse any panic in her, for by her own consent she has surrendered to the… mystery… (p 36-37)

Mary has surrendered to the mystery of God’s plan of redemption. She knows he has come to save her people Israel, and that she is even an integral part of that. And yet, this is all she knows. She is therefore surrendering herself, giving herself up, “crucifying” her own questions and doubts in order to offer herself as a fitting agent of God’s salvation. As Balthasar says quite eloquently, she allows herself to be “borne along by what [she] contains” (p 37). As much as the Son was carried in her womb, she herself was carried along by the Son in his mission to save. In this way, Mary is already a disciple of the Lord, following him along the way to crucifixion. She is offering herself to be used by the God of Israel.

But, Balthasar continues by explaining that as much as Mary surrendered to a mysterious path, one which entailed her self-offering, Christ’s did as well. And why? Precisely because as much as Mary was carried by her Son and his mission, so He was carried by her! And this being carried entailed a voluntary “yes” to the will of the Father. A voluntary kenosis of the only Son of the Father into the helpless abode of Mary’s womb.

Balthasar explains:

But precisely this attitude of the Mother is nothing other than her integration into the attitude of her Child. Every child must begin by letting itself be borne. And this Child in particular, even when it is big, will never outgrow its childhood: even when he acts as an adult he will always let himself be borne and impelled by the will of the Father as manifested to him by the Spirit. Now he is undergoing his first, physical training as he is carried about bodily. It is training as in a novitiate, when a person is ordered around like a child. This is the first training in what every Christian must always be able to do: let himself willingly “be led where you do not want to go”, as Jesus will say to Peter (p 37-38)

This is a miraculous passage by Balthasar: as much as Mary must surrender and be led by the Father (and the Son), so now the divine Son must surrender, and even before birth, self-offer himself to be brought along and carried about by his Mother.

Balthasar continues:

The child in the womb does not know where it is being borne. Nor will Jesus know where he is being “driven” by the Holy Spirit (Mk 1:12): it may, for instance, be into the wilderness and temptation… Now this child, later on as a man… the Son will let himself be borne about as a thing that one can dispose of — and this is he who bears the sin of the world, and therefore, the world itself.

Only one — the Father in heaven — sees all of this, sees where the triune decision to save has led. In Mary, the Son is already under way; already he begins to be driven about in the world, and no one, not even the Father, can call him back. (p 38-39)

Already in the womb, the Son is being given by the Father. He is being handed over to be handled and controlled by human hands. And in this way, even the womb is a cross: it is a place in which the Son willingly offers himself. As much as Mary surrenders to the will of the Father, the Son surrenders infinitely more to that same will, and allows himself to be borne about. This is the loving kenosis of the Son of the Father!

A Theology of Divine Election

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Hans Urs von Balthasar, in his work Engagement with God, discusses the many facets and ways in which God engages and relates to the world, and also the ways in which man relates to and reflects God. In it, he outlines a rather full-orbed theology of divine election. Election is really the theology of the entire book: how and why God chooses mankind.

Balthasar begins his first chapter by defining the doctrine of election in terms of free love, which is unmerited or deserved. He says this:

All ancient peoples have their gods. The God of Israel, however, is distinguished from all other gods by the fact that he brings into being a people to worship him by his own free sovereign act of choosing — whether we look at the first manifestation of this choice of a people — when God called Abraham — or at his choosing his people when he led them out of Egypt at the hand of Moses (who himself had first to be called by God), thus making something like a nation out of a miserable collection of uncultured and demoralized slaves; before all this, in each case there is a free act of the divine initiative that can neither be foreseen, demanded, nor deduced. (p 13)

God’s choice of Israel can neither be foreseen, demanded, nor deduced; there is no reason for it. God chooses and creates a people solely from an free act to love. Balthasar will later go on to define election as “not primarily a manifestation of power but a revelation of love” (p 15). The content of election is not God’s bare sovereign power to choose — though choosing is involved — but rather his free sovereign love.*

The point here is that election is God’s free love. It is not based on anything lovely or meritorious in the one loved, but is solely based on God’s choice. For Balthasar, this is where any and all engagement of man with God starts. Man does not engage God, rather he is engaged by God.

But what is the purpose of this electing love of God? What is God’s goal in giving this free love? Balthasar explains:

As we saw, the reason for God’s choosing man lies in His love, free and groundless. [This free love] promotes as response the free, reciprocal love of the chosen, because free love can only be answered with love given freely. Therefore the love of God requires of those whom he chooses a free return of love.

This must always be borne in mind when considering the “commandments” and “laws” of the Old Testament. After all, in the final analysis the tone of these is “may” rather than “must”… [Israel’s] loyalty to the covenant is effected wholly and entirely by the loving kindness and grace of God that goes before. (p 20-21)

God’s free love, in other words, is meant to promote a free response of love from the one loved. The commandments are not properly about doing what one “must”, but what one may in loving response to God. Because we have been loved unconditionally, we are in turn urged to love unconditionally in response. God elects freely to produce free lovers in response.

Later on in this work, Balthasar will also stress that election by God not only causes free obedience and love back to God, but also promotes free love to fellow man. In fact, this is how God continues to engage the world today: God freely loves man in Christ, that man in Christ may freely love their fellow man. Properly speaking, we are freely loved by God so that God’s free love can continue through us for the life of the world.

Balthasar says this:

The church…is Christ’s fellow servant in his task of liberating the world. She shares with God in his work of sharing himself in Christ with the world. Hence the act of sharing must be at the very center of the church’s life and being. She can only be herself insofar as she accepts the fact that she is the mean of God’s sharing and imparting himself… (p 33-34)

So then, what is the purpose of election? God freely loves us, in order that we may freely and without coercion love and obey him, and spread his love to the world.

*Because the content of election is love, Balthasar, in contrast to theories of individual election, prefers to see election as a corporate reality. He points out rightly that in the Old Covenant, God entered into covenant with Israel as a nation as a whole. He will later argue that in the New Covenant, God’s elects the entire world through Christ. Christ as the elect one unites himself to mankind, dies and rises. In his resurrection, mankind as a unit, as a whole, is in principles raised and united to God. “In Christ men find a common destiny; in him they constitute a new and universal Israel whose common bond is the Son’s destiny that is decisive for every man” (p 30). In any case, Balthasar doesn’t harp on either theory, but rather focuses on what election is and why God engages in this way.

Purpose of Discipleship

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What is the purpose of discipleship? What is the point behind the disciplines, the virtues, ethical reform, etc? Hans Urs von Balthasar has a decisive answer that I believe sums up the biblical paradigm.

In his Theo Drama IV (in section III, C, 3, c), Balthasar explains that the purpose of discipleship is to be united with Christ’s life, passion, and resurrection; and to, as it were, have it “reproduced” in one’s own life. This unity with Christ is accomplished by the gift of the Holy Spirit, who as Balthasar says, “recapitulates the entire economy of salvation” in the believer, “since he is the Spirit of the whole historical and pneumatic Christ, crucified and risen”.

I find this to be richly biblical, especially in light of Romans 6. Paul says in this chapter, that in baptism, by the Spirit, the believer is immersed “into [Christ’s] death” (v. 3), “in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (v. 4). The purpose of salvation then is to become united with the sufferings and death of Christ such that they become one’s own.

Paul picks this motif back up again two chapters later in Romans 8, saying that this union or participation in Christ involves sharing “in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory” (v. 17). In salvation then, the believer is united to Christ’s passion, that by the Spirit, it might be born in his own life: death, suffering, resurrection, glory. This is the trajectory of the person united to Christ’s passion.

Paul, speaking of his own suffering, says in 2 Corinthians 4:10, “We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body”. Paul saw suffering as a way of life, uniting this suffering to Christ’s own suffering by the Spirit, that he might rise with and in Christ’s own (eschatological) resurrection.

Balthasar himself explains,

[T]he gift of the Spirit of Christ, whereby the believer is initiated into the sphere of Christ, is portrayed as a dying-with, a suffering-with, a being-crucified-with, a being-buried-with; the believer shares Christ’s weakness so that he may rise with him, enjoy new life with him, reign with him, be glorified with him, ascend to heaven with him

So then, discipleship is unity with Christ’s passion; sharing in his sufferings; rising in his resurrection. Balthasar aptly calls this process the “paradox of Christian discipleship”, because it goes against grain of the normal human experience: it is only when one “dies to self”, “takes up his cross”, that he experiences the life of Christ. It is only when one suffers, and unites that suffering Christ’s, that he partakes more and more in his life by the Spirit.

Balthasar adds:

Thus the “sphere” in which the Christian lives, which is summed up by the term en Christoi (in Christ), embraces both the historical Jesus and equally the Risen Christ, the Christ of faith, who recapitulates in himself everything earthly. In the life of the Christian, naturally, resurrection in the full sense belongs to the world to come, as in the case of Christ himself. So a Christian’s historical path may well lead to the Cross, as did Christ’s…

The life in union with Christ involves suffering and rising with Christ!

Life of the Trinity: Self-giving love

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Hans Urs von Balthasar, in his Theo-Drama IV: The Action, has an excellent (beware, Balthasar is deep!) explanation of the relationship between the persons of the Trinity. For him, life in the Trinity is the starting point of all theology.

In explaining the life involved inside the Trinity, von Balthasar centers on the “generation of the Son” by the Father. This, to him, is the starting point of the Trinity; it explains and reveals everything else.

Balthasar explains the “generation of the Son” as the eternal action of God the Father in giving of himself in love. Because God is love, he is constantly pouring himself out in love. As a result, this pouring of oneself out demands a Beloved — this beloved One is the Son, who is eternally begotten as a result of the Father’s eternal love.

von Balthasar explains*:

The action whereby the Father utters and bestows his whole Godhead, an action he both “does” and “is”, generates the Son. This Son is infinitely Other, but he is also the infinitely Other of the Father…

So, God the Father’s outpouring of love eternally generates the Son. And this outpouring is such that the Son is eternally begotten, and other than of the Father (other in Person, one in substance).

von Balthasar goes so far to say that,

God the Father gives… his divinity away in such a manner that it is not merely “lent” to the Son: the Son’s possession of it is “equally substantial”

And so, God the Son, as God the Father’s beloved, is consubstantial with the Father. von Balthasar describes this outpouring as the “kenosis” (emptying of oneself) of God the Father. He gives of his divinity, empties himself, such that the Son is equal with the Father as a result of that love.

von Balthasar then explains that the Son, as a result of this love, cannot help but give back:

It follows that the Son, for his part, cannot be and possess the absolute nature of God except in the mode of receptivity: he receives this unity of omnipotence and powerlessness from the Father. This receptivity simultaneously includes the Son’s self-givenness… and his filial thanksgiving (Eucharist) for the gift of consubstantial divinity.

What Balthasar explains is that as the Son receives this “powerless” outpouring, this kenosis, of God the Father, he cannot help but give of himself in an act of eucharistia (thankfulness). And so, the Son pours of himself in kenosis back to the Father. Thus, the Father and the Son give of themselves to one another eternally.

Consequently, this expression of kenotic love between the Father and Son is the Holy Spirit. He is the unity of love between the Father and Son.

Balthasar says that the Spirit is a

seal of that self-expropriation that is identical in Father and Son… [He is] the pure manifestation and communication of the love between Father and Son

So this is the life of the Trinity. It is a Lover, a Beloved, and Love which seals the two. We may call the Trinity a kenosis of love. For each person empties himself for the other. The Trinity is radically other-centered. The Father gives, the Son receives and gives, the Spirit seals and glorifies the other two.

von Balthasar goes on to explain that this doctrine of the kenotic Trinity is the starting point for the rest of Christian doctrine. The doctrines, broadly, of creation, covenant, and cross, are all seen as coming from the Trinitarian life of God.

von Balthasar explains,

We spoke of a first “kenosis” of the Father, expropriating himself by “generating” the consubstantial Son. Almost automatically, this first kenosis expands to a kenosis involving the whole Trinity. For the Son could not be consubstantial with the Father except by self-expropriation; and their “We”, that is, the Spirit, must also be God if he is to be the “personal” seal of that self-expropriation…

This primal kenosis (Trinitarian life) makes possible all other kenotic movements of God into the world; they are simply its consequences. The first “self-limitation” of the triune God arises through endowing his creatures with freedom. The second, deeper, “limitation” of the same triune God occurs as a result of the covenant, which, on God’s side, is indissoluble, whatever may become of Israel. The third kenosis, which is not only christological but involves the whole Trinity, arises through the Incarnation of the Son alone: henceforth he manifests his eucharistic attitude (which was always his) in the pro nobis [for us, in place of] of the Cross and Resurrection for the sake of the world.

This is a favorite passage of mine, because in it, Balthasar ties Christian theology to the life of the Trinity.

For Balthasar, creation itself is seen as an over-pouring of Trinitarian love, in which God creates and gives of himself to free agents. Creation, for him, is “a new ‘kenosis’ on God’s part, since he is thereby restricted, implicitly by creaturely freedom and explicitly by the covenant with its stated terms”. In giving implicit freedom, and explicit covenants, God is thereby binding and limiting himself (even limiting his own freedom) to his creation. Thus, the creation is an act of self-giving love from an overflow of the Trinity itself!

On a deeper level still, the cross is an expression of Trinitarian kenosis; because in the cross, Jesus pours himself out — he empties himself (Phil 2:7) — on behalf of mankind. He gives himself as a sacrifice for the sin of mankind, which is a pleasing aroma to the Father (Eph 5:2). Balthasar explains that the the Son’s surrender to death on the cross is a “representation of the Father’s trinitarian, loving self-surrender”. This fits especially with Christ’s words: if you have seen Me, you have seen the Father (Jn 14:9). Thus, when we look to the cross — this kenosis of Christ, this atoning surrender — we see the Father in his essence.

And so, Trinitarian self-giving love — kenosis — is the grounding of all Christian theology!

*All quotes come from section III, C, 1

The Mission of the Church? Transforming the Culture

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What is the mission of the church? Hans Urs von Balthasar has a fascinating excerpt from his Theo-Drama IV, in which he tries to explain.

Essentially, his answer is that the church’s mission is meant to redeem and transform the culture. von Balthasar says,

The whole notion of “Church”, in radical contrast to the Synagogue, is centrifugal; not only is the Church open to the world, which in principle already belongs to Christ: she is also jointly responsible for it. It is not enough to preach the message of salvation to the world from outside: this message must permeate it like leaven, becoming disseminated throughout it. What we are speaking of is—in the modern expression —“inculturation”. The cultural materials that exist in the world must be taken up and adapted, albeit critically. Again, this must not be done by the forced imposition of Christianity onto a reluctant substratum; conquests of this sort continue to take their revenge centuries later. Rather, there must be a loving appreciation of the existing values; it must calmly be shown that they are genuinely fulfilled only in the message of Christ.

However, this is difficult, from both sides. It is difficult on the part of the culture that is to be transformed: particularly in its most highly developed form, its Gestalt exhibits an earthly perfection, like a work of art; in its own order, it seems incapable of improvement. The Christian reality, however, lives entirely in relationships of continual transcendence and in principle (not accidentally) breaks open the complacent, earthly forms, putting them in touch with a Catholic universality: thus they must open up to the world around them but also to the world above them. It is even more difficult on the part of the Church; the gospel message is embedded in the structures of the “missionized” culture, a fact that threatens to bring the movement of the missionary Church to a full stop. Inculturation threatens to adapt Christianity to the existing culture; the salt of the gospel is in danger of losing its savor. Amalgams are formed between Christianity and secular culture; at times this produces marvelous cathedrals of art, of philosophy and of piety, yet it is not clear whether these are a pure expression of the gospel.

The Church can only effectively pursue her task, therefore, if she herself alternates between two impossible poles: preaching to the world purely from without and transforming it purely from within. As Church, she must penetrate without becoming “establishment” and advance without leaving unfinished business behind. Paul represents a kind of ideal: he founds communities, moves on, then returns to his foundations, but without finally settling down there. The profile he presents should be that of every community and of each individual: the Church must put down roots where she is, yet without coming under the spell of the place. Here again we find that this paradox, which is baffling at an earthly level, reflects the discipleship of Christ, who comes into the world and leaves it (Jn 16:28) and yet stays with it until the end (Mt 28:20); for it is in his exodos (Lk 9:31)—which is his Eucharist—that he is killed and so remains with us. (Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory, Vol. 4: The Action, section IV, C, 3)

So then, the church is given the mission of fulfilling, redeeming, deifying the culture. And so the church must go into the culture, and adapt and fulfill it in Christ.

Balthasar is certainly right in saying that in doing this, the church must ride the line between simply evangelizing “from the outside” only (ie, never entering into the culture, but only being a culture in and of itself) and being “institutionalized” or adapted by the culture.

Rather, the church must go into the culture, appreciate it, and then elevate it in the gospel. In other words, Christianity wants to take culture and take it up into God’s own life so that it can participate in his own glory.

This reminds me of a line by Robert Barron, that God is not “a competitor with his creation”. Rather, God’s intention in the gospel is to elevate, redeem, deify creation — and culture, and art, and music, and family et al — through Christ’s death and resurrection. And in this way, as Barron says so aptly, the gospel makes Christianity “the greatest humanism that has ever appeared”. This is the church’s mission.

Does Calvinism Limit Christian Love?

balthasar

Hans Urs von Balthasar, in his controversial well-known work called, Dare we hope that all be saved?, espouses a certain type of “Christian hope” for the salvation of all men. In the first two chapters, he covers and rejects Origen’s and Barth’s absolutist universalism, saying that the certainty of all people’s salvation must be rejected. However, Balthasar does espouse a softer position, saying that a Christian can reasonably hope for all men’s salvation.

Now, why can we reasonably hope for this?

Essentially, what Balthasar says is that hope in and of itself demands that all men could be saved. In other words, if we hope for someone’s salvation, what we are saying is that it is at least possible. So then, universalism is at least reasonably possible. And while we can never truly know if all would be saved, we can be equally uncertain that any will be damned.

Balthasar explains,

If someone asks us, “Will all men be saved?” we answer in line with the Gospel: I do not know. I have no certainty whatsoever. That means just as well that I have no certainty whatsoever that all men will not be saved. The whole of Scripture is full of the proclamation of a salvation that binds all men by a Redeemer who gathers together and reconciles the whole universe. That is quite sufficient to enable us to hope for the salvation of all men without thereby coming into contradiction with the Word of God.

So Balthasar cannot definitively know that any will be damned or saved. And while this may seem like a sort of agnostic universalism, what Balthasar argues is that Christian hope cannot and must not limit itself. If we are to hope that anyone would be saved, what we are implicitly saying is that their salvation is at least possible. If God wills that all men be saved, it must be possible, right? For Balthasar, hope demands this possible end.

Citing Aquinas, Balthasar says,

On to the virtue of hope, [Aquinas] establishes that one “has to believe of whatever one hopes that it can be attained; this is what hope adds to mere desire. Man can, namely, also have desire for things that he does not believe he can attain; but hope cannot exist in such circumstances.”

In other words, what is hoped for must at least be possible. Hope “cannot exist” if what is hoped for cannot be attained. To Balthasar, this is simply logical. So then, Balthasar concludes that universalism, while not absolutely certain, is possible.

As a necessary corollary, Balthasar argues that the doctrine of unconditional election limits Christian hope and love. Covering Augustine’s doctrine of the “massa damnata” (mass of the damned = the non-elect), Balthasar says,

[I]f someone thus sees mankind as a massa damnata from the outset, how can he still adhere to the effective truth of Christ’s statement that, on the Cross, he will draw all men to himself? …

… If one believes in the twofold predestination advocated by Augustine and adheres, on the basis of that, to the certainty that a number of people will be damned, one might object that love would have to stop at this barrier.

Balthasar brings in two arguments here: The first is that unconditional election flattens the universal offer of the gospel. How can Christ “draw all men” to himself if he only draws some? How can the invitation of the gospel be liberal if only some are elected? I’ve heard this argument too many times to count.

However, Balthasar brings in a second argument that is novel to me. Balthasar says that if unconditional election is true, then “love would have to stop at this barrier”. Put another way, Christians are responsible to love only those who are elect. Why? Because that is who God has chosen to love. Should the Christian’s love be more liberal than God’s?

Next, Balthasar cites German theologian Verweyen, saying,

Hans-Jürgen Verweyen…puts forward the thesis: “Whoever reckons with the possibility of even only one person’s being eternally lost besides himself is unable to love unreservedly.” And he stresses here, above all, “the effect of this idea on my practical actions. It seems to me that just the slightest nagging thought of a final hell for others brings on moments in which human togetherness becomes especially difficult, as does leaving the other to himself. If there may, in fact, be people who are absolutely incorrigible, why, then, should not those who make my life on earth a hell perhaps also be of that sort?”

So then, election restricts liberal love. If we are certain that God has not chosen some, or, if we are certain that a mass of sinners will inhabit hell, then for what reason should we love them?

How should we Calvinists answer this question? At this point, it might be helpful to respond to and correct Balthasar’s first point: that election certainly cannot restrict the universal call of the gospel — rather, election limits response to the gospel. In other words, believers preach to every creature, and are sure the elect will say “yes”, but are not sure who they are! With this clarification in view, one should see how universal love plays a part. We love everyone regardless of their election; and pray for their salvation, regardless of their place in God’s salvific plan. Why? Because we don’t know who is who in God’s drama of salvation. We share the gospel, knowing that no one is beyond salvation, and knowing that God will irrevocably draw all whom he wills to himself. This is the part we play in God’s mystery plan of salvation.

With that said, Balthasar’s complaint should be heard. And I’ve seen and known many Calvinists, who seem to struggle to love beyond God’s sovereign choice, which is unacceptable. It assumes a vantage point that is not our own, but only God’s. On the same note, I’ve known many Arminians who feel much of the same, even without the election bit.

Perhaps, ending on this warning by Balthasar (which I agree with) will help in humility for people on either side:

How can anyone equate hoping with knowing? I hope that my friend will recover from his serious illness—do I therefore know this? But: if I hope for you, for others, for everyone, then in the end I am also allowed to include myself. (Not the reverse: I hope for me; but I do not know with certainty whether you are among the chosen.)

[W]oe is me if, looking back, I see how others, who were not so lucky as I, are sinking beneath the waves; if, that is, I objectify hell and turn it into a theological-scientific “object” and begin to ponder on how many perish in this hell and how many escape it. For at that moment everything is transformed: hell is no longer something that is ever mine but rather something that befalls “the others”, while I, praise God, have escaped it…

…And at once the prayer is on [my] lips: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector” (Lk 18:11). Then one goes on to populate hell, according to one’s own taste, with all sorts of monsters: Ivan the Terrible, Stalin the Horrible, Hitler the Madman and all his cronies, which certainly results, as well, in an imposing company that one would prefer not to encounter in heaven. It can be taken as a motif running through the history of theology that, whenever one fills hell with a massa damnata of sinners, one also, through some kind of conscious or unconscious trick (perhaps cautiously, and yet reassuredly), places oneself on the other side.

We might ask the great Augustine, the teacher of grace and love who has the greater portion of mankind destined to eternal hell, whether—with his hand on his heart—he ever worried, after his conversion, about his eternal salvation.

How do Catholics view Protestants?

catholics-vs-protestants

My study of the Catholic faith started with a conversation I had with a fellow pastor. And one question that we both asked, and a question that all must ask, is whether Catholics can be viewed as Christian, or saved, from the Protestant scheme of things. This forced me to study their beliefs, particularly on justification and the cross. And while their beliefs are different, I accept Catholic baptism, as did John Calvin and many of the Reformers. Though we may disagree on some fundamental issues concerning the nature of salvation, what I have to affirm is that Jesus is able to save anyone, even when their theology is different from mine.

But another question that remains, is whether Catholics accept Protestants as Christian. In other words, are Protestants, who follow Jesus, saved in the eyes of Catholics? One might say that their sacramentalism prohibits them from accepting Protestants are being saved. What I mean is that for Catholics, baptism is necessary for forgiveness, and confession is necessary for the forgiveness of new sins. And, the eucharist is necessary for deeper and deeper union with Jesus. Could they possibly think we are saved if we don’t understand the sacraments in this manner?

Over my time reading about Catholicism, I have compiled some fascinating quotes from Catholic scholars. And here is the conclusion they draw: yes, Protestants are saved, but they are critically deformed in many matters of faith and practice. What I mean, is that while they can affirm that Protestants are saved, they cannot affirm that Protestants are healthy. Why? Because us Protestants lack many of the crucial practices of the Catholic church.

For instance, GK Chesterton says in his theodicy of the Catholic faith (source):

Protestants are Catholics gone wrong; that is what is really meant by saying they are Christians. Sometimes they have gone very wrong; but not often have they gone right ahead with their own particular wrong. Thus a Calvinist is a Catholic obsessed with the Catholic idea of the sovereignty of God. But when he makes it mean that God wishes particular people to be damned, we may say with all restraint that he has become a rather morbid Catholic. In point of fact he is a diseased Catholic; and the disease left to itself would be death or madness. But, as a matter of fact, the disease did not last long, and is itself now practically dead. But every step he takes back towards humanity is a step back towards Catholicism. Thus a Quaker is a Catholic obsessed with the Catholic idea of gentle simplicity and truth. But when he made it mean that it is a lie to say “you” and an act of idolatry to take off your hat to a lady, it is not too much to say that whether or not he had a hat off, he certainly had a tile loose. But as a matter of fact he himself found it necessary to dispense with the eccentricity (and the hat) and to leave the straight road that would have led him to a lunatic asylum. Only every step he takes back towards common sense is a step back towards Catholicism. In so far as he was right he was a Catholic; and in so far as he was wrong he has not himself been able to remain a Protestant.

To us, therefore, it is henceforth impossible to think of the Quaker as a figure at the beginning of a new Quaker history or the Calvinist as the founder of a new Calvinistic world. It is quite obvious to us that they are simply characters in our own Catholic history, only characters who caused a great deal of trouble by trying to do something that we could do better and that they did not really do at all.

Now what is Chesterton saying? Whatever Protestants have right, they have it right because it is in line with Catholicism. And, whatever they have wrong, it is a disease that must be corrected. Hence, Calvinists are obsessed withs sovereignty, and Quakers with simplicity.

Hans Urs von Balthasar says of Protestantism (source):

The more Christianity splinters, the more unrecognizable becomes that Church that has persisted, through the splintering process, as the original, straight tree-trunk from which the branches emerge. The phenomenology of religion sees this tree trunk as one splinter group among others, which, in order to distinguish itself from the other Christian denominations, has to give itself a complicated title: Roman Catholic.

But it is not only in phenomenology that the position becomes clouded: even theology is confused, because the branches contain much living sap from the original root-complex and trunk; thus they bear flowers and fruits that are undeniably part of the Christian totality. So we have a paradoxical situation: the Catholica finds that things that are fundamentally hers, but which she has somehow forgotten or inadequately realized, are exhibited—to her shame—by other Christian communities (Theo Drama IV, Part IV, C, 1).

Some interesting points here. First, Balthasar makes the point that Catholicism is “forced” to give itself a distinct title within Christendom. Why? Because of splintering (obviously speaking of the reformation) that has come about within Christianity. His obvious point is that Catholicism is not one among others, but is forced to call itself one among others, which muddles the “fact” that Catholicism is “the church”.

To me though, what is even more fascinating, is Balthasar’s reference to Catholicism as a “trunk”, or a “tree”. No doubt, he is thinking of Romans 11, where Paul calls Christianity an olive tree, where Gentiles are wild branches grafted in among natural Jews. What this means is that Balthasar sees Catholicism as that great trunk, that great foundation from which all “splintered” Christianity’s get their “sap”, or “fruit”. And Protestantism is connect only insofar as it borrows elements from Catholicism. Thus, Protestantism “takes what is hers”, and in some cases uses them better than the Catholic church, “to her shame”.

So then, Protestants are saved, but only insofar as they borrow elements from Catholicism. They are saved, but “on the fringe”. Protestants are “diseased Catholics”, as Chesterton says.

Now, to be fair here, I have to say that Catholics are saved, despite some erroneous (faith and works, venial/mortal sin, authority, etc) teaching on their end. And so, in a way, I would say the exact same thing!

With that, we are left with opposing opinions of one another. Protestants think Catholics are legalistic or religious, and Catholics think Protestants are diseased! Perhaps one day we will be able to be more generous to one another, or even more unified. Time will tell.

Eschatology as the Church Suffering with Christ

passion scene

Hans Urs von Balthasar has an interesting aside in his Theo-Drama IV: The Action, in which he suggests that eschatology and history, rather than centering around an “apocalypse-focused” theology (i.e. dispensational / rapture theology), should be centered, even structured around the church-as-suffering-with-Christ.

Balthasar suggests that the history of the church, and the church’s eschatological consummation, should be seen and structured in light of Christ’s life, death and resurrection. And what he means is that just as Christ’s life became more and more violent and ended in the cross and resurrection, so the church’s history, as Christ’s body, should be seen that way as well: growing in intensity, in violence, and consummating in a final persecution which ends in resurrection glory.

In other words, as Jesus goes, so goes the church, his body. Because Christ suffered, so the church must expect to suffer. The church’s destiny within history, is to die and rise with Christ. And this church-Christ connection is how Balthasar prefers to structure history. It is a progression of the church toward her ultimate end: death and resurrection with Christ. To him, this is what the final stage of history looks like!

What is interesting here, is that NT theology does seem to find a historical continuum of the church-as-suffering-with-Christ. Jesus himself says that suffering is a “norm” for the church. He also defines discipleship as being crucified with Christ: “if anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Lk 9:23).

Paul, in his letter to the Romans, says that suffering “with Christ” is a condition for final salvation (Rom 8:17). Paul even says that he rejoices in his sufferings, as they fill “up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Col 1:24). It would seem that persecution and martyrdom is an anticipated and even necessary experience for the church. Why? The church is the body of Jesus, growing into him through death and resurrection. In other words, the church suffers in and with Christ, as his body. This is her historic destiny.

More than that though, the NT also points to a final suffering, a final “dying-with-Christ”, if you will, where the church suffers in a more complete and eschatological sense. In Thessalonians, for instance, we find Paul teaching that persecution, although normal and expected (“mystery of godlessness… at work now“, 2 Thess 2:7), will grow to a climax at the appearance of a final “lawless one” (2:8, antichrist) whom Jesus himself will destroy. Revelation, of course, envisions a final persecution which will only end with the appearance of Jesus and glorification (Rev 19-20).

What Balthasar suggests is that the church, as the body of Jesus, is meant to experience Jesus’ sufferings. This is the destiny of the church: to be conformed into Christ. This experience of the church, this dying-with-Christ, is expressed in history, culminating in a final death and resurrection, after which she will be completed in glory. This is Balthasar’s eschatological center: the church as suffering with Christ.

Here is how Balthasar explains it:

A question may be asked at this point: Do the various periods in Jesus’ life shed light on the Church’s history and hence, indirectly, on world history? … [T]he destinies of Peter and Paul—according to John 21, Acts, 2 Corinthians, Galatians and 2 Timothy—are fashioned closely enough after their Lord’s. Should this sequence be applied to the Church’s history as a whole?…

[I believe we can draw a] parallel between Jesus’ progress toward his “hour” and the Church’s progress toward the eschatological tribulation. For, as we have shown, the Church comes from the Cross and is always heading toward it. It is in the power of the Holy Spirit, who is sent to her on the basis of Christ’s Resurrection and Ascension, that she is equipped for discipleship, enabled to drink the Lord’s cup (Mk 10:39). Hence, in Paul, the baffling simultaneity of transfiguration and Passion: “For while we live we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh” (2 Cor 4:11)… [And] indeed, it seems to be Paul’s view that the glory of the Lord actually shines forth in the disciple’s sharing of Christ’s sufferings: “When I am weak, then am I strong” (2 Cor 12:10). “For we are weak in him [Christ], but in dealing with you we shall live with him by the power of God” (2 Cor 13:4)…

So we cannot avoid the question: Does world history give indications that [Christ’s passion has]… a universal effect? That is, does not world history show a theological structure, a christological structure, and can it not be demonstrated even to the nonbeliever? In such a case, world history and the Church’s history would be more interrelated than is commonly assumed; not merely in the sense of an external intertwining of Church and State (since Constantine), including modern absolutism with its ideal of “throne and altar”, but in a way that is more in accord with the gospel? (Theo-Drama: The Action, Part IV, A)

I believe that Balthasar truly has something here. The church as the body of Christ, suffers as Christ in history. And this history centers around that suffering, in which we shall die with Christ, and finally be raised (in the actual eschatological sense of the world!) with him.