Hans Urs von Balthasar: A Symphony of Sources

Among the greats of modern Catholic theology, Hans Urs von Balthasar stands apart as “the twentieth century’s premier ressourcement theologian.”[1] His theological work, radiating out from its radically Christological and Trinitarian heart, scanning the self-revelation of God according to the categories of the beautiful, the good and the true, and touching upon ecclesiology, missiology, eschatology and all the attendant concerns of the Church in the modern world, actively resists easy categorization. It is perhaps unsurprising that, “when set against the wider background of twentieth-century theology, the figure of Hans Urs von Balthasar comes across as rather isolated, even lonely.” Like the theology of the Fathers, Balthasar’s work is sui generis, occupying a niche of his own creation. However, he is no idle innovator; Balthasar is in fact “both intensely traditional (perhaps the most traditional of all twentieth-century theologians) and yet also astonishingly, startingly idiosyncratic.[2] His thought emerges from deep within the living tradition of the Fathers and of High Scholasticism, the sources from which he sought to renew the Church. This paper will trace Balthasar’s most significant “sources of renewal” among the Fathers, as well as the German Romantics, high culture and contemporary theologians, before concluding with a summary of his contributions to the development of theology today.

Balthasar was born in 1905 into a highly cultured family in Lucerne, Switzerland. His aristocratic origins and cultured upbringing may account in some measure for a deep, lifelong affinity for music, literature and the arts; his doctorate, for example, was in Germanistik, “a compound discipline of literature and philosophy … analyzing and evaluating texts in their philosophical, spiritual, and affective tenor, as somehow indicators of wider cultural trends.”[3]Henri de Lubac is quoted as saying that Balthasar was “probably the most cultured man in Europe” at the time.[4] This is significant since, as Aidan Nichols has it, “the style is the man,”[5] and Balthasar’s unique style is deeply indebted to his cultural background. For example, a key theme of Balthasar’s theology is that “truth is symphonic,” that, just as “all the instruments” in an orchestra “are integrated in a whole sound,”[6] so truth is a “polyphony of revelation,”[7] a multiplicity of voices in a “unity of composition” which “comes from God.”[8]

Balthasar’s lifelong attentiveness to cultural trends and questions may also provide an insight into his preference, when he later began his philosophical and theological studies, for the theological method of the Church Fathers over that of the Neo-Scholastics. The early twentieth century had made a clear “separation between ‘secular’ and theological studies,”[9] resulting in a divorce between the real human questions arising in the broader culture and the abstract, often self-referential answers provided by academic theology. Balthasar, by contrast, felt that the urgent task of the theologian was to “respond,” from deep within the Catholic tradition and the sources of revelation, to the “cultural situation” of the modern world.[10] For Balthasar, “theological questions were not separable from human questions.”[11] It is unsurprising, then, that in addition to his extracurricular reading of contemporary philosophers such as Blondel, Bergson, and Heidegger, Balthasar came to favor the style of Patristic theology over the “sawdust Thomism”[12] which comprised his official theological education: “For the Fathers, as for Balthasar, it was only obvious that Christ would have something to say to the philosophical questions of the day, insofar as, in Christ, God’s dialogue with humanity was now to occur in the context of human language and culture.”[13] In his theology classes as a Jesuit scholastic, he was known to sit through lectures with his ears stuffed, reading the works of Augustine,[14] and his earliest works as a theologian include monographs on Maximus the Confessor, Origen, and Gregory of Nyssa, among others. 

Far from merely historical explorations, Balthasar’s early efforts at ressourcement were marked very much by his concern to answer the live questions of his day: “Balthasar reads the Fathers from the setting of his own evangelical strategies, tailored as these were to modernity’s cultural situation.”[15] He was critical of a certain naïve nostalgia in vogue among other ressourcement theologians, a tendency to “look on the time of the Fathers” with “an almost Romantic longing.”[16] Rather than giving way to the desire to return to a former golden age of Christendom, Balthasar sought to apply the thought of past generations of Christians to the modern world, assured that the vitality of Patristic theology would take on a new relevance in the light of present questions. 

Inspired by German Romanticism since his Germanistik days, Balthasar was also keenly interested as a theologian in the potential of the affective faculties of the soul to discover truth, or better, to be impressed by the truth through a perception of its splendor. Conscious that “the exact sciences no longer have any time to spare” for beauty, “nor does theology, in so far as it increasingly strives to follow the method of the exact sciences and to envelope [sic] itself in their atmosphere,”[17] Balthasar embarked on a sixteen-volume theological trilogy which would become his life’s masterwork. Beginning with The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, Balthasar aimed “to complement the vision of the true and the good with that of the beautiful”[18] and thereby to restore aesthetics to its rightful place within the science of theology. For Balthasar, beauty (pulchrum) is “the manner in which God’s goodness (bonum) gives itself and is expressed by God and understood by man as the truth (verum).”[19] Beauty compels us, draws us out of ourselves spontaneously; it “brings with it a self-evidence that enlightens without mediation.”[20] Here, too, one detects the Patristic influence on Balthasar, particularly that of Gregory of Nyssa, who understood that beauty is a transcendental and that the attractiveness of the beautiful has the power to draw the soul upward to the contemplation of divine truths:

When the soul is moved towards what is naturally lovely, it seems to me that this is the sort of passionate desire with which it is moved. Beginning with the loveliness it sees, it is drawn upwards to what is transcendent. The soul is forever inflaming its desire for what is hidden, by means of what it has already grasped. For this reason, the ardent lover of beauty understands what is seen as an image of what he desires, and yearns to be filled with the actual substance (χαρακτήρ] of the archetype.[21]

Therefore, Balthasar chose to begin his theological trilogy by considering God’s self-revelation as beautiful, rather than as good or true, which the latter parts of the trilogy, Theo-Dramatics and Theo-Logic, would address. He was aware that “without beauty … the good also loses its attractiveness, the self-evidence of why it must be carried out,” while the logic embodied in scholastic syllogisms becomes “a mechanism which no longer captivates anyone.”[22] Together, theological aesthetics, dramatics and logic would offer a truly symphonic approach to Christian revelation: “The pulchrum, with which Balthasar opens his trilogy, is the primordial appearing of love’s gratuity, which, as such, contains both the good (the beautiful is an appearing of gratuity) and the true (the beautiful is an appearing of gratuity, which therefore appeals to logos).”[23]

In addition to the Fathers, the Romantics, and the high culture of his youth, Balthasar was profoundly influenced by two contemporary theologians. The greatest influence on his early theological work was no doubt that of Henri de Lubac, the great patristic scholar and Balthasar’s “old friend and master”[24] at Lyons, whose book Catholicisme: les aspects sociaux du dogme he regarded as “the key book of twentieth-century Catholic theology.”[25] For Balthasar, it proposed a compelling answer to the problem of the place of Christianity in an increasingly post-Christian and secularized world. De Lubac traced the roots of modern secularism back to the medieval philosophy of nominalism, which first introduced the concept of pura natura, human nature without grace, and in turn gave rise to “the neo-scholastic notion that human beings have two separate ends, a natural end—happiness in this world—which can be achieved through their natural powers, and a supernatural end—the face-to-face vision of God—which can only be achieved through superadded grace.”[26] For de Lubac, the divide between nature and supernature already contained the seeds of practical atheism; a straight line could be traced from the pura natura of the nominalists through the excessive rationalism and objectivism of neoscholasticism and on to the secularism of modernity. As a remedy, de Lubac proposed a return to the Alexandrian theology of nature and grace, which held that man is “inherently open to the supernatural”[27] and that therefore, while grace is “a good superadded to the natural good,”[28] the divine end to which grace is the means is not a “finality superadded to natural finality,”[29] but present from the beginning. Human beings do not have two ends, but one, namely, to see God. Grace, therefore, was not something extrinsic to human nature, but in fact the fulfillment of that nature, which is “by nature ordered to an end that it is not equipped by nature to attain.”[30]

Balthasar followed de Lubac’s theology closely and appreciated the potential it offered for dialogue with secular modernity: if man had a natural openness to the supernatural, then “the modern period … was not, for all of its forgetfulness of God, any more theologically neutral than any period before it.”[31] However, he was not unaware of the difficulties presented by this revolution in the theology of nature and grace. In a book-length tribute to his former teacher, he offered a cautious critique, saying that de Lubac’s theory of nature and grace was “not completely rounded out,”[32]and later wondered whether it “can hold up when all its implications are thought through to their logical conclusion.”[33]In particular, he observed that it had the potential to undermine the gratuitousness of grace, “somehow making grace a requirement of nature”[34] and collapsing the distinction between the two. 

Balthasar was also influenced by the Protestant theologian Karl Barth, whom he came to know during his time as chaplain at the University of Basel and with whom he engaged in a kind of “dialectical relation,”[35] culminating in his publication of a book-length treatise on Barth’s theology in 1951. Barth, like de Lubac, “saw modern secularism as a result of a failure at the level of Christology”[36] and proposed a theology which took the person of Jesus Christ, rather than philosophical first principles or human subjectivity, as its starting point. Balthasar greatly appreciated Barth’s Christocentrism and the dynamic character of his theology, the awareness that “God acts in radical freedom, and is known in his acts … known better in narrated interaction than in abstraction.”[37] On the other hand, he sought to purify Barth’s theology of “a certain disvaluing of creation,”[38] which he detected especially in the latter’s dismissiveness of natural theology and the power of human reason to attain to knowledge of God. This fault arose from a false dualism in Barth’s conception of “the God-world relationship, and the interrelation of God and man in grace,”[39] which Balthasar could correct largely due to de Lubac’s influence: 

Barth responds to an immanentized and secularized account of natural human capacity for God by a fierce assertion of divine grace, failing to appreciate that any such natural capacity cannot be conceived apart from divine grace. Balthasar’s counter-suggestion is that Barth’s objection to a degraded natural theology is better met by reaffirming the unity of nature and grace.[40]

In this book, Balthasar also contributed to a resolution of the problem of nature and grace, still controversial today in Catholic theology, by proposing a reading of nature as a parable of grace: “The whole of creation and its order is undoubtedly the free gift of God,”[41] Balthasar argues, which is not “to be equated [with] the actual grace of God’s supernatural self-disclosure,”[42] but nonetheless is an appearing of the gratuity of love: “God could have ordered the world in many other different ways … That he chose this total arrangement that furnishes so much beneficence to the individual as well as to the whole can certainly be characterized as a ‘grace’.”[43]

Finally, no account of the major influences on Balthasar’s theology would be complete without mention of Adrienne von Speyr, the Swiss Protestant doctor who converted to Catholicism under Balthasar’s direction during these same years of his university chaplaincy. Speyr was a recipient of mystical “graces not seen since Teresa of Avila,”[44]according to Balthasar’s own reports, including the “yearly reliving of the descent of Christ into hell.”[45] Meeting von Speyr introduced a mystical element into Balthasar’s theology and a lived sense of the dynamism of God, “the strange, transformative, and all-demanding impact of God’s self-disclosure on the believer.”[46] It is no doubt due to her direct experience of the descent that Balthasar proposes that the Lord descended truly and fully into hell on Holy Saturday: 

Jesus was truly dead, because he really became a man as we are, a son of Adam, and therefore, despite what one can sometimes read in certain theological works, he did not use the so-called ‘brief’ time of his death for all manner of activities in the world beyond. In the same way that, upon earth, he was in solidarity with the living, so, in the tomb, he is in solidarity with the dead.[47]

For Balthasar, there was no part of man’s fallenness, even the experience of death, that the Lord did not experience and take up into himself. Most indicative of Speyr’s influence on Balthasar, however, is his own statement at the outset of one of his final works: “This book has one chief aim: to prevent any attempt being made after my death to separate my work from that of Adrienne von Speyr. It will show that in no respect is this possible.”[48]

The scope of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s contribution to the development of theology in the twentieth century is difficult to overstate. During the pontificate of John Paul II, von Balthasar was described by one journalist (perhaps somewhat polemically) as having moved from “an institutional misfit excluded from Vatican II, to the court theologian of today’s Vatican.”[49] The Polish pope certainly held the Swiss theologian in high esteem, elevating him to the cardinalate mere days before his death. There are clear theological affinities between Balthasar’s theology and John Paul II’s magisterium, including the conviction that “beauty … as a glimmer of the Spirit of God, will transfigure matter, opening the human soul to the sense of the eternal”[50] and the understanding—following de Lubac’s theory of nature and grace and echoing the Christocentrism of Barth—that the saving mission of Christ brings “humanity to its fullness not only in terms of a future or separate eternal life but also as a hundredfold of fulfillment of our natural desire for God in this life.”[51] One might even trace a direct line of influence in one key aspect of John Paul II’s ecclesiology, first proposed by Balthasar in 1986, that “the Church lives both by a Petrine principle of apostolic ministry and by a Marian principle of life and fruitful receptivity. Of the two, the Marian principle is primary.”[52]

The influence of von Balthasar’s theological aesthetics can even be seen in the magisterium of Pope Francis, who claimed in his first encyclical that “every expression of true beauty can … be acknowledged as a path leading to an encounter with the Lord Jesus” and called for “a renewed esteem for beauty as a means of touching the human heart and enabling the truth and goodness of the Risen Christ to radiate within it.”[53] Of course, the mutual influence and lifelong friendship of Balthasar and Joseph Ratzinger is well known; along with Henri de Lubac and other collaborators, the two friends co-founded the theological journal Communio in the wake of the Second Vatican Council. The threads of influence between these two great theologians are too numerous and interwoven to enumerate briefly. It must suffice to quote the newly-elected Pope Benedict XVI’s remark, on the centenary of his friend’s birth, “that von Balthasar’s life was a genuine quest for the truth, which he understood as a search for true Life. He sought everywhere for traces of God’s presence and truth: in philosophy, in literature, in the religions, always managing to break those circuits that make reason a prisoner of itself and opening it to the spaces of the infinite.”[54]

In a post-modern world increasingly hardened against the Gospel by secularism and atheism, Balthasar provides a compelling witness of the continued possibility of engagement between theology and culture. Twenty-first century man, despite the indifference or outright hostility he might exhibit at times to Christianity, is still made for the vision of God. Priests today would do well to follow Balthasar’s example of “theology on one’s knees,”[55] drawing from the inexhaustible sources—above all in one’s individual life of prayer and meditation upon God’s self-revelation in Scripture and tradition—to address the real questions of post-modern culture with a fresh and vigorous proclamation of the Mystery of Christ. 


[1] Edward T. Oakes, SJ, “Balthasar and Ressourcement: An Ambiguous Relationship,” in Ressourcement: A Movement for Renewal in Twentieth-Century Catholic Theology, ed. Gabriel Flynn and Paul D. Murray (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2012), 288.

[2] David Moss and Edward T. Oakes, SJ, The Cambridge Companion to Hans Urs von Balthasar (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004), 7.

[3] Aidan Nichols, OP, Balthasar for Thomists (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2020), 14.

[4] Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, vol. 3: Studies in Theological Style: Lay Styles (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), back cover.

[5] Nichols, Balthasar for Thomists, 31.

[6] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Truth is Symphonic: Aspects of Christian Pluralism (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1987), 7.

[7] Balthasar, Truth is Symphonic: Aspects of Christian Pluralism, 11.

[8] Balthasar, Truth is Symphonic: Aspects of Christian Pluralism, 9.

[9] Rodney A. Howsare, Balthasar: A Guide for the Perplexed (London: T&T Clark, 2009), 2.

[10] Paul Silas Peterson, The Early Hans Urs von Balthasar: Historical Contexts and Intellectual Formation (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2015), 283.

[11] Howsare, Balthasar, 3.

[12] Moss and Oakes, Cambridge Companion to Hans Urs von Balthasar, 2.

[13] Howsare, Balthasar, 2.

[14] Peter Henrici, “A Sketch of von Balthasar’s Life,” in Hans Urs von Balthasar: His Life and Work, ed. David L. Schindler (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1991), 14.

[15] Nichols, Balthasar for Thomists, 28.

[16] Hans Urs von Balthasar, “The Fathers, the Scholastics and Ourselves,” Communio 24 (1997): 350.

[17] Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, vol. 1: Seeing the Form (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1982),18.

[18] Balthasar, Glory of the Lord, 1:9.

[19] Balthasar, Glory of the Lord, 1:11.

[20] Balthasar, Glory of the Lord, 1:36.

[21] Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses, 2:231, trans. Anthony Meredith, S.J. (London: Routledge, 1999), 106.

[22] Balthasar, Glory of the Lord, 1:19.

[23] Adrian Walker, “Love Alone: Hans Urs von Balthasar as a Master of Theological Renewal,” Communio 32 (2005): 532, fn. 28.

[24] Hans Urs von Balthasar, My Work in Retrospect, trans. Brian McNeil (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), 48.

[25] Fergus Kerr, Twentieth-Century Catholic Theologians: From Neoscholasticism to Nuptial Mysticism (Oxford: Blackwell, 2007), 71.

[26] Howsare, Balthasar: A Guide for the Perplexed, 11.

[27] Oakes, “Balthasar and Ressourcement,” 285.

[28] Henri de Lubac, SJ, “Supernatural and Superadded,” in Ressourcement Theology: A Sourcebook, ed. Patricia Kelly (London: T&T Clark, 2021), 58-59.

[29] De Lubac, “Supernatural,” 59.

[30] Howsare, Balthasar: A Guide for the Perplexed, 15.

[31] Howsare, Balthasar: A Guide for the Perplexed, 3.

[32] Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Theology of Henri de Lubac: An Overview, trans. Joseph Fessio, SJ and Michael Waldstein (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1991), 63.

[33] Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Theology of Karl Barth: Exposition and Interpretation, trans. Edward T. Oakes, SJ (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1992), 297.

[34] Balthasar, The Theology of Karl Barth, 298.

[35] Nichols, Balthasar for Thomists, 22.

[36] Howsare, Balthasar: A Guide for the Perplexed, 25.

[37] Ben Quash, “The theo-drama,” in The Cambridge Companion to Hans Urs von Balthasar, ed. Edward T. Oakes, S.J. and David Moss(Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004), 145-146.

[38] Nichols, Balthasar for Thomists, 21.

[39] Ibid. 

[40] John Webster, “Balthasar and Karl Bath,” in The Cambridge Companion to Hans Urs von Balthasar, , ed. Edward T. Oakes, S.J. and David Moss (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004), 251.

[41] Balthasar, The Theology of Karl Barth, 277.

[42] Balthasar, The Theology of Karl Barth, 279.

[43] Domenico Palmieri, Tractatus de gratia divina actualis (Gulpen: M. Alberts, 1885), 7-8, qtd. in Balthasar, The Theology of Karl Barth, 278.

[44] Moss and Oakes, Cambridge Companion to Hans Urs von Balthasar, 4.

[45] Nichols, Balthasar for Thomists, 29.        

[46] Quash, “The theo-drama,” 146.

[47] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Mysterium Paschale: The Mystery of Easter (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000), 148-149.

[48] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Our Task (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1994), 13.

[49] Margaret Hebbelthwaite, “Balthasar’s Golden Touch,” The Tablet (20 September 1997), 1208.

[50] John Paul II, “Letter to Artists” (4 April 1999), §16.

[51] Leahy, “John Paul II and Hans Urs von Balthasar,” 36.

[52] Avery Dulles, The Splendor of Faith: The Theological Vision of Pope John Paul II (New York: Crossroad, 1999)115. See Hans Urs von Balthasar, New Elucidations (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986). 

[53] Francis, Evangelii gaudium [The Joy of the Gospel] (24 November 2013), §167.

[54] Benedict XVI, “Message for the Centenary of the Birth of Fr Hans Urs von Balthasar” (6 October 2005).

[55] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Explorations in Theology, vol. 1: The Word Made Flesh (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1989), 206.

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