Balthasar: A (Very) Critical Introduction by Karen Kilby

(William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company; Grand Rapids, Michigan/ Cambridge, U.K.; 2012)

This is easily the best introduction to von Balthasar that I’ve read.  Even better, there are two, 20 minute youtube clips with Karen talking through much of the key elements of the book!

part one

part two

The first thing to note is the very reassuring assertion that von Balthasar is a difficult theologian to get one’s head around: phew!  I wasn’t going crazy after all!  It’s not that his work is difficult to read, but rather there is so much of it, laid out primarily as persuasive writing rather than systematics, so it takes a lot of work to get a sense of the whole accurate enough to commence critical reflection.  Hence, many readers of von Balthasar tend to be uncritically embracing or uncompromisingly rejecting of him as a theologian.

Kilby starts her introductory navigation of von Balthasar by offering a context for reading his work which, I concur, is critical because there is much that is unique about his life underwritten in his theology.  First, he embraces the challenges of post-war Europe, with its wave of new thinking and being.  It is an era negotiating the collapse of Enlightenment optimism and the emergence of existentialism together with the global economy.  It is also an era of massive institutional change – both secular and sacred.

Second, he was undoubtedly a brilliant man – a concert standard pianist with a brilliant memory; he devoured music, literature and theology in German, French and Latin, translating and publishing many of his favourite works.  Not only this, was a creative, entrepreneurial man and a free thinker: he created ‘new’ pathways of theology and philosophy by synthesising the extensive resources he had at his disposal.  Like any genius, I suggest that von Balthasar begins an epoch changing work rather than handing over a completed thesis, because such significant work can never to achieved in isolation.

Third, Kilby draws our attention to three relationships von Balthasar had which exerted a significant impact on his writing: with Henri de Lubac, Karl Barth and Adrienne von Speyer.  De Lubac situates von Balthasar as part of the ‘new theology’ (nouveau theologie) movement of the second half of the twentieth century which focussed on returning to early church fathers (ressourcement). His relationship with Barth draws our attention to von Balthasar’s engagement with theology and philosophy beyond his own Catholic house.  Von Speyer, whom von Balthasar spoke of as his equal partner in the theological task, reminds us of his deep commitment to theology as spiritual experience.  This relationship with von Speyer however, was exceedingly complex and justifiably controversial.

In the next two chapters, Kilby offers us central images which permeate von Balthasar’s writings.  They are not a ‘key’ as such, like ‘the Word’ might be spoken of as the key to Barth’s writings, but they are ways of conceiving and articulating reality which von Balthasar returns to again and again.  The first of these chapters explores the complementary images of ‘The Picture and The Play’; seen most clearly in his conception of a theological aesthetics and theo-drama.

Secondly, ‘Fulfilment and the Circle’ are images not quite so straightforward to identify but no less significant.  Kilby is referring to von Balthasar’s habit of arguing: on the one hand this, on the other hand that, but now this.  I think this is more of a Hegelian indebtedness than Kilby emphasises in this volume, but that does not discount the truth of her claim, that this is a way in which von Balthasar’s supreme intellectual arrogance – something most brilliant thinkers seem to share – gets the better of him.  It ends up reading like: ‘at first theologians thought this, then they thought this, but now I’ll tell you the whole picture: this is how it really works!’

Similarly, von Balthasar’s confidence is expressed in the declaration of a ‘kernel’ of truth, a centre, the core from which many other insights and truths radiate out of or in towards.  Kilby describes this as like a child’s drawing of a sun; a circle with lines of sun-rays drawn outwards at various angles and extensions.  Aspects of ‘truth’ point towards a whole (because they emanate out from the whole) and very often we know only the individual lines.  But if we follow them we eventually arrive at the kernel, that which is wholly true.  This is an image which reflects something of my own emerging theological method, if the centre piece is left free and untameable.  However, Kilby convincingly argues that von Balthasar fails to refrain from naming the unnamable.  That is, he claims to know too much, even though his very own theological model directs him to do otherwise.

Von Balthasar’s inflated ego ends up infiltrating the content of his theology.  Hence, as Kilby presents von Balthasar’s ideas on the Trinity and on Nuptual Theology in the fifth and sixth chapters of this introduction, we begin to see there there is an element of over-reaching in his theological conceptualisions.  For example, the cross is a Trinitarian event – von Balthasar articulates the relational nature of the godhead beautifully, but when he starts to explain how that makes The Father (in this instance) feminine in relation to Christ, we really do need to suggest he has overcooked the dish! Unfortunately, if we are to follow in the footsteps of von Balthasar, it needs to be a case of taking from what he says, when it comes to theological method, rather than what he does.

For those of you who want to engage deeply with von Balthasar, I highly recommend Karen Kilby as a starting point.  She is both succinct and balanced, making her very easy to read, which this excerpt – the final three paragraphs of Balthasar: A (Very) Critical Introduction demonstrate.  I agree with her up till the last point: I do think that von Balthasar has something to teach us about how to be a theologian, but not as a guru.  Rather, we can learn from him as a supreme example of doing theology in a particular way, (integrating spiritual experience, rational thought and faithfully reading and referring to the Tradition, both scripture and church from the centuries) but like all of us, he is flawed and his insights are partial.

     Hans Urs von Balthasar’s theology has over the past few decades attracted a great deal of scholarly attention, and he has come more and more to be presented as a major theological guide for our time.  If the argument of this book is correct, then one must conclude, first, that the attention he has been given has indeed been justified, but second, that the notion that he might be a great guide, something like a Church Father for our age, has not.

The scholarly interest that Balthasar’s writings have provoked is amply justified by the rich creativity of his thought.  His writings break in many ways with our familiar theological categories; often he points towards fascinating new possibilities.  We have not come to the end of exploring what his work makes possible, of receiving what he has to give, of thinking through where the lines of thought he begins should lead.  Attention to Balthasar needs to continue.  But, if I am right, it should be combined with a certain wariness, a readiness to question him, to wonder how he knows what he seems to know, to ask where he stands so that he can tell us what he wants to tell us.

A recurring theme in Balthasar’s work, as we have seen, is the relation of the whole to the part, the whole to the fragment.  In essence what I am proposing in this book is that Balthasar in fragments is important and worth pursuing, for there is much to learn from, to borrow, to think about, to develop.  But when one tries to follow Balthasar as a whole, to treat him as one’s theological guide, as a contemporary Church Father, then he in fact becomes dangerous.  If there is much to learn from Balthasar, the one thing in my view one ought not to learn from him is how to be a theologian.

8 thoughts on “Balthasar: A (Very) Critical Introduction by Karen Kilby

  1. “If there is much to learn from Balthasar, the one thing in my view one ought not to learn from him is how to be a theologian.” It is just this type of bloated conclusion that betrays Kilby’s lack of critical acumen and her rather limited intellectual horizon; ironically, it reveals that she is guilty of that which she accuses Balthasar of doing: a God’s eye view… She thinks she can legislate for all how to be a theologian…

    • Hi Tony,
      Thanks for your comment: I gather from your frustration that you are a fan of von Balthasar’s theology! I don’t think that Kilby’s criticism needs to be read as deeply as you feel it: there IS much to learn from Balthasar! Perhaps a more generous reception of her criticism would acknowledge that Balthasar is far from being a systematic theologian – a fact that much endears him to me personally – but also presents a difficulty for systematic theologians such as Kilby to integrate Balthasar’s contribution in their own theological projects.
      I think that Kilby does demonstrate humility in this book and, having read quite a bit of Balthasar myself, offers some very helpful insights as to the strengths AND weaknesses of his work.
      Blessings for your theological journey, hope you drop back to reddresstheology again sometime,

  2. it is the last line in her book…how she arrives at this over-extended, global, and totalizing conclusion from the rather thin bits and pieces of her analysis of Balthasar’s works boggles the mind…

  3. What Kilby has shown in her book on Balthasar is that they live on different cultural universes, and what seems not acceptable to her are perfectly acceptable for others. Kilby overreaches herself and makes atrociously over-extended conclusions when she says that if there is anything that one should not learn from Balthasar, it is that of how one must be a theologian. such Kantian policing of the theological was precisely what Balthasar aimed to overturn, its covert ambition to police all thinking that is the true promethean thinking…

    Several interesting points to consider:

    1) One would have thought that Kilby would pay particular and close attention to the third part of the Balthasarian trilogy and its three volumes dedicated to, precisely, “Theology” or “Theological Logic”. This is the part after all where Balthasar engages with methodological and hermeneutical questions with regard to “theology” AFTER the Theological Aesthetics and Theological Dramatics. Zero. She does not engage this part of Balthasar’s ouvre AT ALL and therefore misrepresents Balthasar’s theology by failing to do so. In this respect, she mirrors the error of Quash who, in his book Theology and the Drama of History, when he makes the case for Balthasar falling back onto an “epic” mode, again quotes mostly from the Theological Aesthetics to buttress his point. Naturally, they fail to present Balthasar’s intention then in his trilogy with accuracy.

    2) One would have expected Kilby to pay close attention to Balthasar’s books where methodological and hermeneutical questions are to the fore ACROSS the whole range of Balthasar’s works. There is no engagement for example with Balthasar’s critique of Barth in Balthasar’s book on the latter, nor with Rahner scattered through out his works. Interestingly, Balthasar has a more positive view of Rahner in the third part of the trilogy for example!

    3) Other works are not even mentioned, like Razing the Bastions, which is after all a programmatic work that Batlhasar thinks should be taken together with Love Alone.

    4) Nowhere does Kilby engage with the secondary literature on Balthasar, and she studiously avoids engaging non-English sources. Look up her bibliography; they are all in English.

    5) Nowhere does Kilby deal with the SOURCES of Balthasar’s positions (as seen in his footnotes for example) in any great depth. She makes it appear therefore that Balthasar is “unfettered”, but she does not for example note the wide use of biblical exegetes that Balthasar deals with in Mysterium Paschale, pro, con, and in-between.

    6) For a deep critical engagement with Balthasar’s thought then, Kilby is truly unreliable. She quotes authors like Endean, who is certainly a Rahner expert but whose knowledge of Balthasr seems utterly sophomoric. We still await therefore the work(s) that are truly and genuinely critical where Balthasar is concerned, someone with (almost) the same exposure to a wide range of theological and other literary texts as Balthasar himself. Perhaps Cyril O’Regan is one such thinker in English; he has a volume coming out on Balthasar soon (Cf. . Vincent Holzer has written a dense book on the “le differand theologique Balthasar-Rahner” that is so much more respectable than Kilby’s.

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