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Entering into the cathedral of Notre Dame for the first time, with its towering arches, brilliant stained glass windows, and intricate architecture, a sense of awe and wonder rush through the eyes, evoking contemplation of the cathedral’s magnificence. The flood of emotions can be overwhelming. These emotions are no less present when standing at the precipice of Hans Urs von Balthasar ’s vast oeuvre that runs to a remarkable 174 pages in Hans Urs von Balthasar: Bibliographie, 1925-1990.1

We can easily be intimidated, though, by the magnitude of Balthasar’s writings and never enter into the cathedral. In doing so, we eschew one of the theological giants of the 20th century. There is much to learn from Balthasar, and his importance is only now being realized. Let us take, then, a brief tour through the Balthasarian Cathedral, laying out its floor plan, glancing only momentarily at a few prominent features, and suggesting longer tours and excursions that require more time and contemplation—all in hopes that patrons will turn this glance into a longer, more sustained gaze at Balthasar ’s theology. Before we begin, though, a brief description of the cathedral’s location that sketches Balthasar ’s life is in order.

Locating the Cathedral: A Succinct Sketch of Balthasar’s Life

Balthasar was born in Lucerne, Switzerland on August 12, 1905 into an aristocratic family of Hungarian descent. His childhood and early adolescent education occurs at a Benedictine abbey school in Engelberg, in the heart of the mountains, just outside Lucerne. While there, the influence of the Benedictine monks nourishes his love of music.2 Before finishing his secondary education in Engelberg, though, his parents move and enroll him in a Jesuit college in Feldkirch, Austria. Dissatisfied with his parents’ decision, Balthasar finishes his final examinations a year early and matriculates at the University of Zurich in Germanistik, an amalgam of German literature, philosophy, and linguistics, in 1923.3

Five years after enrolling, in October of 1928, Balthasar completes his doctoral examinations and soon thereafter finishes his final revisions on his thesis entitled The History of the Eschatological Problem in Modern German Literature, which he publishes in 1930.4 This will be the only doctoral degree that he earns. In 1929, he enrolls in the Jesuit novitiate where he studies the Neo-Scholastic manuals in preparation for ordination as a Jesuit priest.5 During this time of preparation, he embarks upon the thirty-day Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola under the tutelage of Fr. Friedrich Kronseder where he experiences an unmistakable divine calling that changes the course of his life.6

Balthasar’s first assignment as a Jesuit priest, in 1937, comes as a collaborator for the prestigious periodical, Stimmen der Zeit, located in Munich near Ludwigstrasse where “the boots of the SS sounded ever more loudly … and no ear could escape the loudspeakers that were set up everywhere in the city.”7 Shortly thereafter, in 1939, Balthasar ’s superiors offer him the opportunity to serve as a chaplain at the University of Basel or as a professor teaching theology at the Pontifical Jesuit University in Rome, the renowned Gregorian University. Given Balthasar’s relative disdain for professional theologians and what he considered to be the shallow Neo-Scholastic theology of his day, he opts for serving as a chaplain. This decision takes him to Basle where he encounters, arguably, the two most influential figures on his life—Karl Barth and Adrienne von Speyr.8 In 1945, Balthasar and Speyr, with the financial backing of a friend from Einsiedeln, collaborate to form the Johannes Verlag, a publishing house that will print and distribute their writings.9

Balthasar’s Jesuit superiors disapprove of his endeavors, so they give him an ultimatum to either abandon his pursuits or be disbanded from the Jesuit Society. After much prayer and consideration, Balthasar determines to leave the priesthood in February 1950, knowing the full ramifications of his decision. This decision causes him an immense amount of grief as he is isolated further from the ecclesiastical establishment and pushed to the margins.10 From this point forward, though, Balthasar produces some of his most seminal theological works like The Theology of Karl Barth, Theology of History, Explorations in Theology, and his trilogy (The Glory of the Lord, Theo-Drama, Theo-Logic), as well other more devotional works like Prayer, Christian Meditation, Credo, The Christian State of Life, and You Have Words of Eternal Life. These writings are only the highlights, so let us now begin our tour of the cathedral, describing its floor plan first and then commenting briefly on some of its more prominent features within each of these areas.

Surveying the Floor Plan of the Cathedral

In the Epilogue to his trilogy (The Glory of the Lord, Theo-Drama, Theo-Logic),Balthasar offers “the weary reader something like an overview of the whole enterprise” by employing a cathedral metaphor in order to demonstrate “how might we make the smoothest transition from a true (and thereby religious) philosophy to biblical revelation.”11 Through this metaphor, Balthasar demarcates three broad areas within a cathedral complex, namely die Vorhalle or the forecourt, die Schwelle or the threshold, and der Dom or the sacred space of the cathedral where worship occurs.

The forecourt is the space where humanity pursues the questions of ultimate concern, such as the question of why there is something rather than nothing. It is the realm that pursues the legitimacy of being and its subsequent study, seeking to shed light on ultimate questions of life that “hint at an ultimate meaning beyond and yet also somehow in the totality of being.”12 This, according to Balthasar, is the realm of true or religious philosophy. The threshold is the place where Balthasar transitions from the forecourt of the studying of being to biblical revelation. He suggests that we study being “from the perspective of Christianity that is at least hypothetically posited as the maximum and ultimum,” and in doing so, “this retrospectively cast light lets us see peculiarities of Being,” namely what is true, good, and beautiful.13 Yet, what lies beyond the threshold? It is the sacred space of the cathedral where the mysteries of Christian theology lie, “which cannot be derived from any religious philosophy,” as Balthasar contends.14 Yet, entering into this sacred space does not mean that we jettison what we have learned in the forecourt or the threshold. What we must remember, Balthasar insists, is the ever-greater dissimilarity within the similarity so that the wisdom of the world is foolishness in light of God’s wisdom.

This floor plan, delineated by Balthasar, provides us only with “meager outlines” designed to explain why he wrote his trilogy from the perspective of the transcendentals of being rather than the traditional theological loci.15 As such, there is nothing in the Epilogue that fleshes out these outlines, giving the reader a sense of where Balthasar has covered various topics that we would find in the forecourt, threshold, or the sacred space of the cathedral. Let us locate, then, some of Balthasar’s writings within this typology by wandering into the forecourt.

The Forecourt

Balthasar’s first published work at the age of twenty-five entitled The Development of the Musical Idea: An Attempt at a Synthesis of Music (1925) is a naively robust project that attempts to synthesize the nature of music through “the unfolding of the musical ideal.” All music—and indeed all art—are rooted, Balthasar maintains, in the same foundation. It is a foundation that consists of “rhythmic symmetry,” which leads Balthasar to ask how there can be a “general development of music” given the plethora of incongruent norms by which music is judged.16 Although he doubts that any one synthesis can be attained, he concludes that rhythm, melody, and harmony provide a spectrum that allows us to identify various forms of music found in a variety of cultural expressions. In the end, music has its own telos with an organic unity that is expressed in the commingling of these three elements.17

Turning our attention to another prominent feature of the forecourt, The Apocalypse of the German Soul is the culmination of Balthasar ’s Germanistik studies, whichis based in large part on his dissertation.18 Here, he seeks to trace German thought by beginning with the German Idealism of the late 18th and 19th centuries, examining German poets from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe to Rainer Maria Rilke, and culminating with the likes of Friedrich Nietzsche and other German thinkers of the 20th century. He surmises that the German soul is anthropocentric; that is, it seeks to construct existentially one’s understanding of self and the world from the vantage point of human subjectivity and reason. Humanity becomes the measure of all things.19

Both of these works are indicative of what Balthasar considers to be true or religious philosophy because, unlike modern science and philosophy that examine and describe a given phenomenological object, religious philosophy does not presuppose the metaphysical question that asks why there is something rather than nothing at all.20 As such, Balthasar approaches his study of music assuming that all art, including music, mediates the divine. He qualifies this seemingly naïve statement, though, by noting art’s limitations: “It is the limit point of the human, and on this boundary begins the divine.”21 Yet, because music is “dynamically metaphysical,” it is, for example, essential to understanding how he relates time and history in a later work.22 Similarly, Balthasar criticizes the trajectory of German thought as the human subject becomes the center of meaning and reality is reduced to the material. Yet, Goethe’s concept of Gestalt (Form) is instrumental forhis recovery of a theological aesthetic in The Glory of the Lord.

From these and other similar writings found in Balthasar’s forecourt, we see not only the seedlings that bear fruit in his later works but also what Balthasar believes to be the many logoi spermatikoi “scattered throughout the entire cultural and intellectual world of humanity.”23 These seeds, according to Balthasar, exhibi tthe created character of earthly truth, goodness, and beauty, allowing us to transition from the forecourt to the cathedral. We move now into the threshold, glancing at three works that enable Balthasar to make this transition from the realm of being to biblical revelation.

The Threshold

Karl Barth, one the most influential figures in Balthasar ’s life, was embroiled in a theological debate with one of Balthasar’s mentors, Erich Przywara. Consequently, Balthasar finds himself in the “suspended middle” between Przywara and Barth as they exchange theological barbs regarding the validity of the analogy of being.24 In an effort to resolve this palpable tension, Balthasar embarks upon a book length study, entitled The Theology of Karl Barth, of these two formal principles, namely the analogia entis and the analogia fidei.25 In that work, Balthasar endeavors to move beyond the esoteric language of Przywara and the overstatements of Barth by demonstrating that Barth’s thinking shifts from dialects to analogy albeit the analogia fidei and that Przywara’s analogia entis, if not centered in Christ, may very well succumb to Barth’s criticisms.26 Thus, in order to address the challenge that Barth’s theology poses to Catholicism, Balthasar attempts to prove that the analogy of being is not derivative of some prior philosophical framework but is a properly theological response to God’s self-revelation in Christ.

The reason we first come to this work in the threshold lies in the significance of the analogy of being for Balthasar’s theology since it serves as the basis for how Balthasar articulates the God-world relationship. He understands the analogia fidei and the analogia entis to be complementary rather than conflicting whereby “nature is to be sought in that minimum that must be present in every possible situation where God wants to reveal himself to a creature. And in that minimum is expressed by the term analogia entis.”27 Thus, the analogy of being, according to Balthasar, establishes common ground between God and creation though there is an ever-greater dissimilarity within the similarity.28 Keeping this in mind, we fixour eyes on the central feature of the threshold, Balthasar’s Theology of History.29

Despite Balthasar ’s agreement with Barth regarding the christological foundation for the doctrine of analogy, he contends that “it is a big step from there to the narrowing of everything to that one point,” for Barth “ends up talking about Christ so much as the true human being that it makes it seem as if all other human beings are mere epiphenomena.”30 Balthasar intends, then, to broaden his christocentrism in order to preserve the relative meaning of the created order in light of creation’s ontological grounding in Christ.31 In doing so, his Theology of History builds upon this notion of christocentrism by integrating “the form of time… into the process of revelation: Christ, as the one who obeys the Father and follows him, the one who awaits the ‘hour,’ subjects himself to the law of the time of creation and thus becomes the criterion for redeemed time and for all history.”32

The importance of this work has implications not only for the God-world relationship but also for understanding the relationship between being and act. In another passage, Balthasar critiques Barth for his mundane ecclesiology, noting that “nothing much really happens in his theology of event and history, because everything has already happened in eternity.” Consequently, “Barth rejects all discussion of anything in the realm of the relative and temporal that would make for a real and vibrant history of man with his redeeming Lord and God.”33 That being the case, Balthasar tries to shed light on the “event character of actus (essendi)” by exploring the connections between ontology and Christology.”34 The transition is almost complete as he moves closer to the heart of the Christian mysteries.

One final step in this transition that places us on the cusp of entering into the sacred space of the cathedral is a glance at Balthasar’s portraits of the Patristic Fathers. Balthasar draws deeply from Henri de Lubac’s encyclopedic knowledge of the Patristics, writing several monographs on the likes of Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Maximus the Confessor, Augustine, and others. Balthasar ’s study of the Patristic Fathers instills in him that “the meaning of Christ’s coming is to save the world and to open for the whole of it the way to the Father; the Church is only the means, a radiance that through preaching, example and discipleship spreads out from the God-man into every-sphere.”35 One of the key portraits that highlights this motif is Balthasar’s work on Origen entitled, Origen, Spirit and Fire: A Thematic Anthology of His Writings.36

In this work, Balthasar demonstrates through Origen’s writings the sacramental nature of all creation. He does so by showing “to what extent the Incarnation of the Word, and thereby the penetration of the flesh by the Spirit, has an all-embracing Catholic-sacramental character; theology appears in this book as the doctrine of appearing and communication of God through his eternal Word.” It is, therefore, Balthasar’s “theology of the Word,” of the God-man, that brings together the heavenly and the earthly. Yet, he can only make this declaration by looking retrospectively from within the cathedral. So, let us crossover the threshold and into this sacred space where “worship [occurs] within the splendor of the cathedral.”37

The Sacred Space of the Cathedral

Turning our gaze upward to the brilliant stained glass windows that color the incoming light, we find among these radiant works Balthasar ’s four volume set entitled Explorations in Theology.38 Like stained glass windows that lack detail and precision, these volumes are merely sketches of Balthasar’s thought on God’s self-revelation, the Church, and the Spirit. Volume one, The Word Made Flesh, is a combination of two volumes of eclectic essays that sketch Balthasar’s thoughts on the relationship between Word and Revelation and Word and Redemption. He covers topics like “The Word, Scripture and Tradition,” “The Word and History,” “Revelation and the Beautiful,” “Theology and Sanctity,” “Action and Contemplation,”and “Christian Universalism.” Volume two, Spouse of the Word, gives us the rudiments of Balthasar’s ecclesiology that seeks to answer the question “who is the church,” rooting his understanding in Mary, the Eucharist, and the Holy Spirit. He speaks, then, about the Christian life that emanates from this center and the sacramental bond between Christ and his bride. Volume three, Creator Spirit, is a polemical work that deconstructs the misrepresentations of the work of the Spirit in opposition to the Church while volume four, Spirit and Institution, explicitly advocates for the inseparability of the Spirit and the Church.

Continuing our gaze upward toward the ceiling, we come to the crowning dome within the cathedral that depicts Balthasar ’s seminal contribution to Christian theology, namely his trilogy, which is now fully translated into fifteen English volumes. Part one of the trilogy, The Lord of Glory, “is concerned, first, with learning to see God’s revelation, and because God can be known only in his Lordliness and sublimity” and Balthasar makes beauty his first topic of discussion rather than the true and the good. As such, God comes “to display and to radiate himself, the splendor of his eternal triune love in that ‘disinterestedness’ that true love has in common with true beauty.”39

Yet, theological aesthetics is only one aspect of theology. Part two of the trilogy, Theo-Drama, seeks to capture another, namely the relationship between God’s sovereign freedom and humanity’s relative freedom. The divine-human encounter, though, is not one that pits divine freedom against human freedom. Rather, as Balthasar notes through a dramatic metaphor, “a successful theatrical production always depends on the harmonious cooperation of three freedoms, which are not however equal: for the director must serve the script and the actor must serve both.”40 In the end, Theo-Drama is about “deed, event, [and] drama” whereby “God acts for man; [and], man responds through decision and deed.”41

Part three of Balthasar’s trilogy, Theo-Logic, seeks to address questions about the nature of truth. For example, Balthasar asks “what, according to the Bible is truth? What philosophical form does it have” and “how does this philosophical form open itself to the incarnate form of Christ’s truth? Then, too, how can human word and life witness credibly to this truth of God?”42 These important questions cannot be answered, says Balthasar, without the first two parts of his trilogy. There is, thus, a performative element to understanding whereby “this ‘Theology’ involves reflection on the way in which the dramatic event can be transposed into human words and concepts for the purpose of comprehension, proclamation, and contemplation.”43

Balthasar’s trilogy represents his most mature thought that attempts to overcome the false dichotomy between theology and the Christian life by structuring his theological discourse around the transcendentals of being rather than the traditional loci of theology. In doing so, he takes an integrative approach such that it is difficult at times to locate one place where Balthasar discusses, say, the nature of the Trinity. As such, he has a symphonic style that attempts to bring together diverse parts into a unified whole. His reasoning for this approach is best seen in his work Convergences: To the Source of Christian Mystery where he argues “that the numerous biblical theologies are only partial aspects of a unity of divine truth existing in the Spirit in the Church but never systematizable.”44 “The multiplicity of dogmas,” says Balthasar, “is only the mediation of the unique ‘dogma,’ Jesus Christ,” for Christ is God’s unique, singular self-expression, who brings clarity to the parts in light of the whole.45 If Jesus Christ is the nexus of this convergence, where is Balthasar standing within the cathedral that allows him to see “the continuity of the Holy of Holies with the other two locations?”46

The Apse

Die Apsis or the apse, in my estimation, appears to be where he is standing, although Balthasar does not include this location in his cathedral metaphor. The apse is arguably the most sacred space in a cathedral as it contains the Eucharistic altar where the priest breaks the bread and pours the cup, signifying the death of Jesus Christ and the eschatological hope of the coming Christ. From this location, Balthasar peers back through the cathedral, determining that the events signified in the apse reveal the eternal primal moments within the Godhead that ground God’s economic activity in the world and the transcendentals theologically.

That being the case, there are two prominent features of the apse that deserve mentioning. First, Balthasar ’s work, Mysterium Paschale: The Mystery of Easter, articulates his understanding of the various kenotic movements of the Son, from the perspective of the incarnation and passion, which he then links to a divine eternal kenosis within the Godhead.47 Balthasar sees this theological move as necessary in order to avoid two extremes, those who want to locate suffering in the eternal Godhead and those who succumb to Monophysitism by associating Christ’s suffering merely with his humanity. Accordingly, Balthasar ’s controversial theology of Holy Saturday strikes a chord among contemporary theologians as there is a lively, ongoing debate.48

The second work worth mentioning, Dare We Hope “That All Men be Saved”?, is a response by Balthasar, in part, to some of the early debate regarding his theology of Holy Saturday.49 In this work, Balthasar examines numerous biblical passages, concluding that God’s revelation does not provide us with the assurance that all will be saved nor the certitude that any will be condemned. What it does assert, according to Balthasar, is the notion that we must hope that all will be saved. Balthasar’s theology of Holy Saturday grounds this hope because Christ’s love does not remain on the cross but extends into the depths of hell. Some argue that Balthasar’s theology leads to universal salvation; yet, this conclusion ignores not only his emphasis on hope but also his teaching on hell where he states explicitly that “to conclude from this that all human beings, before and after Christ, are hence-forth saved … is a surrender to the opposite extreme.”50

The vantage point of the apse is not simply to connect all the chambers of the cathedral complex but to provide the theological basis for the Church, for Christ’s mission gives shape to the Church’s mission and thus forms the Christian’s mission. Balthasar also believes that theology is written for the Church, which is why he strives to dissolve the supposed divide between scholar and saint. It is appropriate, then, to look out into the pews as our tour comes to a close in order to glance at some of the so-called devotional writings of Balthasar.

The Pews

It seems fitting to introduce, first, Balthasar’s work entitled Credo: Meditations on the Apostle’s Creed.51 It is a cogent formulation of his theology in simple ordinary language as he reflects on the twelve articles of the Apostles’ Creed. Balthasar wrote this book in the year prior to his death and seems to retain his characteristic style. Some have even characterized this work as a little “summa” of his theology.

Two other works written in a straightforward and simple style that aid in understanding his more extensive theological works are Love Alone is Credible and Engagement with God: The Drama of Christian Discipleship.52 The first articulates the necessity of a theological aesthetic for a proper rendering of theology’s object, namely “the self-interpreting glory of the sovereignly free love of God.” Other scientific, historical, or anthropological approaches that betray this dimension should “be presented secondary or complimentary at best.”53

The second work is similar in that it aids readers in grasping the essence of Balthasar’s Theo-Drama. Balthasar provides a biblical account of God’s divine involvement in the world through his electing purpose of Israel and Christ. He moves, then, to detailing humanity’s involvement in God’s divine purpose, noting the dramatic interplay between God’s sovereign freedom and humanity’s relative freedom.

Another important work that offers a synopsis of the kinds of works in the threshold is Balthasar’s The Grain of Wheat.54 This treatise focuses on the “action of God with the world that through creation, revelation, and redemption always remains history, action, drama, and event and has its center in the fullness of time, in the Incarnation.”55 Thus, the created order is the necessary minimum if God is to reveal himself to his creatures, which is encapsulated in Balthasar’s understanding of the analogia entis.

Moving to the center of the pews, we find a work that seems to be close to Balthasar’s heart, namely his work entitled The Heart of the World. This little vo-ume is written in a meditative style that reveals the deep ardor of Balthasar’s own heart through “vibrant christological poetry.”56 The form of these various meditations is no accident. Rather, they radiate the glorious love of the triune God expressed in the incarnate Word. This deeply contemplative work calls the saint to action as a child and servant of Christ and his Church.

If we turn our attention briefly back towards the apse, we see a tall lectern from which the Scriptures are read. “Scripture,” according to Balthasar, “is the Word of God and not the word of the Church, but it is the Word which the Church, by her meditation in faith, carries in her womb and really brings forth, giving it birth in the world.”57 As such, in his You Have Words of Eternal Life: Scripture Meditations, Balthasar offers profound reflections on numerous New Testament passages with the interest of nurturing the spiritual lives of the saints.58

One of the underlying themes of Balthasar’s life and work is his divine experience of God’s call,

[for] the key to “understanding” his person as well as his work is this obedient Yes to the call to follow Christ that, according to his own testimony, he spoke at that time. Whatever von Balthasar has done since then can be grasped only as an activity within this original Yes to the call God made to him.59

His work, The Christian State of Life, details this experience, illumining the relationship between God’s call and the Christian’s choice of a “state of life” congruent with that call.60

As we conclude our tour, we bow our heads and look to the base of the pews where we find kneeling benches, the place where saints offer prayers to almighty God. These fixtures recall Balthasar ’s classic work entitled Prayer where he explicates “the depth and splendor of … [contemplative] prayer within the whole context of Christian revelation” by developing its Trinitarian, Christological, Mariological, and ecclesiological dimensions.61 In doing so, he calls believers to contemplative prayer as a response of the whole person “in faith to the ever-greater meaning of the word of God.”62

This completes our tour of the Balthasarian Cathedral. But before departing, I suggest several other extended tours and excursions that provide more depth, analysis, and context, moving our glances toward a more sustained gaze of Balthasar’st heology.

Extended Tours and Excursions

The most in-depth tour is Aidan Nichols’s five-volume introduction to Balthasar’s theology.63 The first three volumes, The Word Has Been Abroad, No Bloodless Myth, and Say It is Pentecost cover Balthasar’s trilogy. Although there is limited critical interaction, these three works are decisive guides through Balthasar ’s trilogy that offer pertinent commentary and narration, enabling readers to grasp the salient themes. The fourth volume, Scattering the Seed, reviews Balthasar ’s earlier works on music, the arts, and German literary authors and philosophers. Nichols’s commentary draws out Balthasar ’s desire to discern what is true, good, and beautiful in these various figures while noting the inability of these authors to address the deepest concern of humanity without biblical revelation. The final volume, Divine Fruitfulness, sorts thematically through the vast array of Balthasar’s writings from 1940 until his death in 1988, excluding the trilogy. This important work by Nichols gives readers thematic categories for locating Balthasar’s thoughts on many of the traditional loci of theology. Moreover, he identifies some of the prominent sources and influences of Balthasar like the Patristic Fathers, Henri de Lubac, Erich Przywara, Karl Barth, and Adrienne von Speyr.

Another important secondary work is David Schindler ’s edited volume Hans Urs von Balthasar: His Life and Work.64 This volume contains twenty contributors that discuss not only Balthasar ’s biography but also several of the aforementioned influences on his life. Other essays sketch Balthasar’s use of Scripture, philosophy, christocentrism, and ethics, all in an effort to capture the astonishing breadth and depth of Balthasar. This work, though, is short on critical interaction and lacks substantive engagement with the trilogy.

Two complementary secondary works that account for the deficiencies of Schindler’s volume are The Cambridge Companion to Hans Urs von Balthasar and the finest single volume work on Balthasar ’s trilogy, Pattern of Redemption.65 The Cambridge Companion offers nineteen essays covering Balthasar ’s thought on several of the traditional loci of theology, his trilogy, his encounters with Karl Barth and Karl Rahner, as well as Balthasar’s interaction with philosophy, literature, and the Patristics. One of the most significant contributions of this work is the critical interaction of each author with Balthasar ’s theology, offering substantive analysis of Balthasar’s contributions. Its shortcoming, though, lies in the limited biographical details. Pattern of Redemption not only covers the trilogy in a creative fashion characteristic of Balthasar but also explores the streams of influence on Balthasar and how they impacted his theology like no other secondary work.

Two other edited works worth mentioning are The Analogy of Beauty and The Beauty of Christ.66 These works offer several essays that cover some of the same topics discussed previously, providing the reader with a different take on Balthasar, but their real value stems from the essays that cover specific themes in Balthasar’s writings like “Mary and Peter in the Christological Constellation: Balthasar’s Ecclesiology” in The Analogy of Beauty or “The Wider Ecumenism: Christian Prayer and Other Religions” in The Beauty of Christ.

Finally, I mention two excursions that provide greater insight into a specificaspect of Balthasar’s thought—Karl Barth and Hans Urs von Balthasar: A Critical Engagement and Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Theological Aesthetics: A Model for Post-Critical Biblical Interpretation.67 The first is a superb account of Balthasar ’s and Barth’s relationship, detailing their mutual respect and the profound influence that Barth hadon Balthasar. It also argues that the debate between them regarding the nature and use of the analogia entis shaped Balthasar ’s trilogy significantly while also influencing Barth to shift his thinking from dialectics to analogy, albeit the analogia fides. The former claim is noted by a broad range of scholars; the latter, however, is highly contested, forcing Barth scholars to reexamine Barth’s view of analogy and ultimately his theological method. The second excursion is the first to detail Balthasar’s theological hermeneutics, demonstrating Balthasar’s efforts to recapture a pre-modern hermeneutic while garnering lessons from modern biblical scholarship. It uses Balthasar’s theological aesthetics as the basis of its conclusions, endeavoring to articulate Balthasar’s view and use of Scripture. It makes a significant contribution to the ongoing debate regarding the viability of a theological interpretation ofScripture.


Scholars are only beginning to engage Balthasar’s theology at a depth indicative of the man himself. Most of the scholarship to date has provided readers with summaries and ways to understand the essence of Balthasar’s theology albeit with little critical engagement. There is an opportunity, if one so desires to wade into the vast sea of his work, to engage Balthasar ’s theology on a host of issues, particularly from an Evangelical perspective. For example, his theology raises important questions such as how should Evangelicals construe the God-world relationship? How does God’s trinitarian nature shape our understanding of his actions in the world and hence influence our conception of other doctrines (for example, the nature of Scripture)? And, what are the implications of Balthasar’s view of the atonement for the doctrine of justification? These kinds of questions can only intimate atthe potential fruitfulness of interacting with Balthasar’s thought.

This short tour of the Balthasarian Cathedral hopes to provide patrons with a broad survey of works germane to the essence of his theology. If patrons grasp not only what Balthasar is doing in the various parts of the cathedral complex but also its layout, they will discern the very structures of his thought, grasping the impetus for much of his writings. In doing so, our glances on this tour may very well turn into a more sustained gaze of Balthasar’s theology.

Cite this article
Stephen M. Garrett, “Glancing int the Cathedral of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Theology”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 39:1 , 91-105


  1. Cornelia Capol, ed. Hans Urs von Balthasar, Bibliographie, 1925-1990 (Einsiedeln: JohannesVerlag, 1990). See also Edward T. Oakes and David Moss, eds. Cambridge Companion to HansUrs von Balthasar (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004) for a complete list of workstranslated into English up to 2003.
  2. Balthasar ’s love of music is an important theme throughout his life as his affinity for Mozartbecomes a central conversation piece with his dear Protestant friend Karl Barth. Moreover,the influence of Christian von Ehrenfels upon Balthasar ’s understanding of Form (Gestalt)appeals to a dynamic, melodic notion that considers the Form of given experiences as uni-fied wholes (See Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Realm of Metaphysics in Antiquity, trans. OliverDavies, Andrew Louth, Brian McNeil, John Saward, and Rowan Williams, vol. 4 of The Gloryof the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, eds. Joseph Fessio and John Riches [San Francisco: IgnatiusPress, 1991], 30-31).
  3. Peter Henrici, “Hans Urs von Balthasar: A Sketch of His Life,” in Hans Urs von Balthasar: HisLife and Work, ed. David L. Schindler (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1991), 7-44.
  4. Hans Urs von Balthasar, Geschichte des Eschatologischen Problems in Der Modernen Deutschen Literatur (Zurich: University of Zurich, 1930).
  5. Aidan Nichols, The Word Has Been Abroad: A Guide Through Balthasar’s Theological Aesthetics(Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1998), ix-xv.
  6. See Werner Löser, “The Ignatian Exercises in the Work of Hans Urs von Balthasar,” in HansUrs von Balthasar: His Life and Work, ed. David L. Schindler (San Francisco: Ignatius Press,1991), 103-120 for details regarding Balthasar’s experience as well has how the Exercises in-fluence his theology.
  7. Hans Urs von Balthasar, My Work: In Retrospect (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), 13.
  8. Peter Henrici, “Hans Urs von Balthasar: His Cultural and Theological Education,” in TheBeauty of Christ: An Introduction to the Theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar, eds. Bede McGregor and Thomas Norris (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1994), 11-18.
  9. 9Johannes Verlag was created as part of The Community of St. John, which Balthasar andSpeyr founded in 1945 as “a secular institute or society of consecrated life for lay peopleliving the world as also for diocesan priests” (Nichols, The Word Has Been Abroad, xvii). Foran intimate glimpse at the inner workings of this community see Maximilian Greiner’s inter-view, “The Community of St. John: A Conversation with Cornelia Capol and Martha Gisi,”in Hans Urs von Balthasar: His Life and Work, ed. David L. Schindler (San Francisco: IgnatiusPress, 1991), 87-102, with two of its founding members.
  10. Henrici, “Hans Urs von Balthasar,” 19-28.
  11. Hans Urs von Balthasar, Epilogue, trans. Edward T. Oakes (San Francisco: Ignatius Press,2004), 9.
  12. Ibid., 22.
  13. Ibid., 45-46.
  14. bid., 9.
  15. According to Balthasar, his cathedral metaphor is not designed to provide “the reader witha kind of Reader’s Digest of the whole, that is, a condensed, summary version of the trilogy.Rather, it wants to explain why the trilogy has tried to present theology from the perspectiveof the Platonic transcendentals instead of, as used to be done, in the traditional tractate style”(Epilogue, 9).
  16. Hans Urs von Balthasar, Die Entfaltung der Musikalischen Idee. Versuch Einer Synthese derMusik (Braunschweig, 1925),10..
  17. Ibid., 26
  18. Hans Urs von Balthasar, Apokalypse der Deutschen Seele: Studien zu Einer Lehre von LetztenHaltungen, 3 vols. (Salzburg: Pustet, 1937-1939).
  19. Balthasar, Geschichte des Eschatologischen Problems in der Modernen Deutschen Literatur, 7-9.See also Edward T. Oakes’s chapter, “Goethe, Nietzsche, and the Encounter with GermanIdealism,” in Pattern of Redemption: The Theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar (New York: Con-tinuum, 1994), 72-101.
  20. Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Realm of Metaphysics in the Modern Age, trans. Oliver Davies,Andrew Louth, John Saward, and Martin Simon, vol. 5 of The Glory of the Lord: A TheologicalAesthetics, eds. Joseph Fessio and John Riches (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1991), 613-615.
  21. Balthasar, Die Entfaltung der Musikalischen Idee, 38-39.
  22. See Das Ganze im Fragment: Aspekte der Geschichtstheologie (Einsiedeln: Johannes Verlag, 1963),36.
  23. Balthasar, Epilogue, 9.
  24. See Thomas F. O’Meara, Erich Przywara, S.J.: His Theology and His World (Notre Dame: Uni-versity of Notre Dame Press, 2002), 99-107 and Ben Quash, “Von Balthasar and the Dialoguewith Karl Barth,” New Blackfriars 70 (1998): 45-55, for further detail on the relationship be-tween Barth and Przywara.
  25. Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Theology of Karl Barth: Exposition and Interpretation, trans. Ed-ward T. Oakes (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1992). Referred to hereafter by the abbreviationKB.
  26. It is also worth noting that Bruce McCormack disagrees with Balthasar ’s interpretationthat Barth converted to analogy. Rather, he believes that Barth’s thought develops as the“unfolding of a single material insight” in four stages. See Bruce McCormack, Karl Barth’sCritically Realistic Dialectical Theology: Its Genesis and Development 1909-1936 (Oxford: OxfordUniversity Press, 1995), 16-25.
  27. Balthasar, KB, 285.
  28. Balthasar, Epilogue, 22.
  29. Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theology of History, unknown translator (San Francisco: IgnatiusPress, 1994).
  30. Balthasar, KB, 242-243.
  31. Balthasar makes this point clear: “Yes, it may well be true that meaning ultimately comesfrom Christ, that we can say nothing conclusive about the (provisional) meaning of creationuntil we have considered Christ. Yes, it may well be true that this ultimate meaning is theontological ground for the presence of every other (provisional) meaning. But it remains noless true that this very relationship requires us to preserve scrupulously all relative meaningsas proper to themselves and to avoid any appearance of deducing them from their ultimatemeaning” (Balthasar, KB, 242).
  32. Balthasar, My Work, 23.
  33. Balthasar, KB, 371.
  34. Balthasar, My Work, 24.
  35. Ibid., 48.
  36. Hans Urs von Balthasar, ed., Origen, Spirit and Fire: A Thematic Anthology of His Writings,trans. Robert J. Daley (Washington D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1984)
  37. Balthasar, Epilogue, 89.
  38. Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Word Made Flesh, trans. A. V. Littledale and Alexander Dru,vol. 1 of Explorations in Theology (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1989); Spouse of the Word, trans. A.V. Littledale, Alexander Dru, Brian McNeil, CRV, John Saward, and Edward T. Oakes, vol. 2of Explorations in Theology (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1991); Creator Spirit, trans. BrianMcNeil, CRV, vol. 3 of Explorations in Theology (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993); Spirit andInstitution, trans. Edward T. Oakes, vol. 4 of Explorations in Theology (San Francisco: IgnatiusPress, 1995).
  39. Balthasar, My Work, 80. Emphasis added.
  40. Oakes, Pattern of Redemption, 217-218. Balthasar does not connect every detail of dramatictheory to theology. He simply uses the metaphor of drama, making use of several generalconcepts. The heart of his dramatic metaphor, though, centers on the triadic relationships between playwright-actor-director, which he applies to the Trinity as Father-Son-Holy Spirit, respectively (See Oakes, Pattern of Redemption, 218n.16).
  41. Balthasar, My Work, 86.
  42. Ibid., 87.
  43. Ibid., 99
  44. Balthasar, My Work, 104; Convergences: To the Source of Christian Mystery, trans. E. A. Nelson(San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1983).

  45. Ibid., 105.
  46. Balthasar, Epilogue, 89.
  47. Hans Urs von Balthasar, Mysterium Paschale: The Mystery of Easter, trans. Aidan Nichols(San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990).
  48. See Alyssa L. Pitstick, Light in Darkness: Hans Urs von Balthasar and the Catholic Doctrine ofChrist’s Descent Into Hell (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007); Edward T. Oakes, “The InternalLogic of Holy Saturday in the Theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar,” International Journal ofSystematic Theology 9 (2007): 184-199; and David Lauber, Barth On the Descent Into Hell: God,Atonement and the Christian Life (Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 2004). See also the rather livelyexchange between Oakes and Pitstick in “Balthasar, Hell, and Heresy: An Exchange,” FirstThings (December 2006): 25-32 and The Scottish Journal of Theology 62 (May 2009): 195-216,where John Webster and Lauber charitably engage with Pitstick, seeking to frame the discus-sion dogmatically. Pitstick continues the conversation with Gavin D’Costa in the followingtwo articles: Alyssa Pitstick, “Development of Doctrine or Denial? Balthasar ’s Holy Satur-day and Newman’s Essay,” International Journal of Systematic Theology 11 (April 2009): 129-145 and Gavin D’Costa, “The Descent Into Hell as a Solution to the Problem of the Fate ofUnevangelized Non-Christians: Balthasar’s Hell, the Limbo of the Fathers, and Purgatory,”International Journal of Systematic Theology 11 (April 2009): 146-171.
  49. Hans Urs von Balthasar, Dare We Hope “That All May Be Saved”? With a Short Discourse onHell, trans. David Kipp and Lothar Krauth (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988).
  50. Balthasar, Mysterium Paschale, 177.
  51. Hans Urs von Balthasar, Credo: Meditations on the Apostles’ Creed, trans. David Kipp (SanFrancisco: Ignatius Press, 2000).
  52. Hans Urs von Balthasar, Love Alone is Credible, trans. David C. Schindler (San Francisco:Ignatius Press, 2004) and Engagement with God: The Drama of Christian Discipleship, trans. R.John Halliburton (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2008).
  53. Balthasar, Love Alone is Credible, 11. “This little book,” says Balthasar, also “stands as thepositive, constructive complement to my earlier book Razing the Bastions, which cleared theway for this approach” (13).
  54. Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Grain of Wheat: Aphorisms, n.t. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press,1995).
  55. Balthasar, My Work, 22.
  56. Hans Urs von Balthasar, Heart of the World, trans. Erasmo S. Leiva (San Francisco: IgnatiusPress, 1979), 8.
  57. Hans Urs von Balthasar, Seeing the Form, trans. Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, vol. 1 of The Gloryof the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, eds. Joseph Fessio and John Riches (San Francisco: IgnatiusPress, 1982), 539.
  58. Hans Urs von Balthasar, You Have Words of Eternal Life: Scripture Meditations, trans. Dennis D. Martin (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1991).
  59. Werner Löser, “Being Interpreted as Love: Reflections on the Theology of Hans Urs vonBalthasar,” Communio 16 (Fall 1989): 482.

  60. Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Christian State of Life, trans. Mary Frances McCarthy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1983). I am grateful to Jonathan King for bringing this work to myattention.
  61. Hans Urs von Balthasar, Prayer, trans. Graham Harrison (San Francisco: Ignatius Press,1986), 8. For a practical guide to performing this type of prayer, see Balthasar ’s ChristianMeditation, trans. Mary T. Skerry (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1989).4.
  62. Balthasar, My Work, 6

  63. Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Word Has Been Abroad: A Guide Through Balthasar’s Aesthetics(Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1998); No Bloodless Myth: A GuideThrough Balthasar’s Dramatics (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2000);Say It is Pentecost: A Guide Through Balthasar’s Logic (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University ofAmerica Press, 2001); Scattering the Seed: A Guide Through Balthasar’s Earlier Writings on Phi-losophy and the Arts (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2006); DivineFruitfulness: A Guide to Balthasar’s Theology Beyond the Trilogy (Washington, D.C.: CatholicUniversity of America Press, 2007).
  64. David L. Schindler, ed., Hans Urs von Balthasar: His Life and Work (San Francisco: IgnatiusPress, 1991).
  65. Edward T. Oakes and David Moss, eds., The Cambridge Companion to Hans Urs von Balthasar(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004) and Edward T. Oakes, Pattern of Redemption:The Theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar (London: Continuum, 2005).
  66. John Riches, ed., The Analogy of Beauty: The Theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar (Edinburgh: T& T Clark, 1986) and Bede McGregor and Thomas Norris, eds., The Beauty of Christ: An Intro-duction to the Theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1994).
  67. Stephen D. Wigley, Karl Barth and Hans Urs von Balthasar: A Critical Engagement (London: T& T Clark, 2007) and William T. Dickens, Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Theological Aesthetics: AModel for Post-Critical Biblical Interpretation (Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press, 2003).

Stephen M. Garrett

Stephen M. Garrett earned a Ph.D. in Theological Studies from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.