Karl Barth & Hans urs Von Balthasar

[NOTE: This post is a brief supplement to Dr. Blosser’s “The Problem with Hans Kung” (Scripture & Catholic Tradition, Dec. 22, 2004)].

Karl Barth and Hans Urs von Balthasar

Barth was reputedly described by Pope Pius XII as “the greatest theologian since Thomas Aquinas” — a quote I’ve seen before, usually in Protestant circles, but entirely absent of context. In any case, Hans Kung was not the only one to investigate his works. Fr. Kung’s interest in Barth was actually spurred by his doctrinal advisor Louis Bouyer (who advised Kung to read Luther and Calvin on connection with Kung’s study of justification), as well as Hans urs Von Balthasar, who had given a series of lecture son Barth in the Winter of 1948-49, later compiled as The Theology of Karl Barth: Exposition and Interpretation. According to Barth’s biographer Eberhard Busch, Barth attended Balthasar’s lectures when he could “to learn more about myself,” and considered Balthasar’s work “incomparably more powerful than most of the books which have clustered about me.”

Balthasar and Kung ultimately ended up in different camps, the former joining Ratzinger and De Lubac in launching Communio, and opposing those who would distort the Council to further the dismantling of orthodoxy; Kung placing himself decidely in opposition to the Magisterium and going on to adopt more and more controversial (“progressive”) stances on a number of issues in Catholic theology and morality.

Balthasar had his own reasons for studying (and dialoguing with) Barth. These are examined by Edward T. Oakes in the second chapter of Pattern of Redemption), which focuses on Balthasar’s critique of Barth’s commentary on The Epistle to the Romans — a text for which The Old Oligarch has little love: “I grit my teeth all the way through Epistle to the Romans. Can you say, ‘Radical hatred of the creation?’ Why the incarnation isn’t obscene to him is beyond me”

Balthasar saw something similar in Barth as our fellow blogger, although he didn’t put it quite in those terms. According to Balthasar, Barth’s emphasis on the complete distinction/opposition between God and man, Creator and creature, when taken to its logical conclusions leads to a parodoxical adoption of pantheism (or precisely theopanism) which abolishes the distinction between creature as creature, and undermines Barth’s original position (Oakes, pp. 55-60). Oakes quotes Balthasar:

First, God is identified (in all his aseity!) with his revelation. Then the creature is defined as the pure opposite to God and thus is identified with nothingness. And finally, when the creature is retrieved by God through revelation and brought back to God through a dynamic movement (which is an absolute, because divine movement), creation is then equated with God himself, at least in its origin and goal. (Karl Barth p. 84)

According to Oakes, Balthasar’s devastating critique of Barth’s early thought led him to “an ever greater recognition of the inherent rationality in theology . . . [and the acknowledgement of] the place of analogy in thelogical language.” This in fact, says Oakes, is the single most important reason why Barth abandoned his first draft of a dogmatics and started it anew: he realized he was still too influenced by dialectics, and so he still saw God and creation too much as contrasting, even contradictory terms.” [Oakes, p. 61]

That’s enough Barth for one week. (Do check out Oakes if you’re interested, however).

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