Setting Out into the Dark with God: A Christmas Meditation

The Nativity‘And the angel said to them,

“Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you Good News of a great joy that will come to all the people: for to you is born this day in the city oft David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger” ( Luke 2:10–12).

On Christmas night the shepherds are addressed by an angel who shines upon them with the blinding glory of God, and they are very much afraid. The tremendous, unearthly radiance shows that the angel is a messenger of heaven and clothes him with an incontrovertible authority. With this authority he commands them not to be afraid but to embrace the great joy he is announcing to them. And while the angel is speaking thus to these poor frightened people, he is joined by a vast number of others, who unite in a “Gloria” praising God in heaven’s heights and announcing the peace of God’s goodwill to men on earth. Then, we read, “the angels went away from them into heaven.” In all probability the singing was very beautiful and the shepherds were glad to listen; doubtless they were sorry when the concert was over and the performers disappeared behind heaven’s curtain. Probably, however, they were secretly a little relieved when the unwonted light of divine glory and the unwonted sound of heavenly music came to an end, and they found themselves once more in their familiar earthly darkness. They probably felt like shabby beggars who had suddenly been set in a king’s audience chamber among courtiers dressed in magnificent robes and were glad to slip away unnoticed and take to their heels.

But the strange thing is that the intimidating glory of the heavenly realm, which has now vanished, has left behind a human glow of joy in their souls, a light of joyous expectation, reinforcing the heavenward-pointing angel’s word and causing them to set out for Bethlehem. Now they can turn their backs on the whole epiphany of the heavenly glory for it was only a starting point, an initial spark, a stimulus leading to what was really intended; all that remains of it is the tiny seed of the word that has been implanted in their hearts and that now starts to grow in the form of expectation, curiosity and hope: “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” They want to see the word that has taken place. Not the angel’s word with its heavenly radiance: that has already become unimportant. They want to see the content of the angel’s word, that is, the Child, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. They want to see the word that has “happened”, the word that has taken place, the word that is not only something uttered but something done, something that can not only be heard but also seen.

Thus the word that the shepherds want to see is not the angel’s word. This was only the proclamation (the kerygma, as people say nowadays); it was only a pointer. The angels, with their heavenly authority, disappear: they belong to the heavenly realm; all that remains is a pointer to a word that has been done. By God, of course. Just as it is God who made it known to them through the angels.

So they set off, heaven behind them, and the earthly sign before them. But, Lord, what a sign! Not even the Child, but a child. Some child or other. No special child. Not a child radiating a light of glory, as the religious painters depicted, but on the contrary: a child that looks as inglorious as possible. Wrapped in swaddling clothes. So that it cannot move. It lies there, imprisoned, as it were, in the clothes in which it has been wrapped through the solicitude of others. There is nothing elevating about the manger in which it lies, either, nothing even remotely corresponding to the heavenly glory of the singing angels. There is practically nothing even half worth seeing; the destination of the shepherds’ nightly journey is the most ordinary scene. Indeed, in its poverty it is decidedly disappointing. It is something entirely human and ordinary, something quite profane, in no way distinguishedexcept for the fact that this is the promised sign, and it fits.

The shepherds believe the word. The word sends them from heaven and to earth, and as they proceed along this path, from light to darkness, from the extraordinary to the ordinary, from the solitary experience of God to the realm of ordinary human intercourse, from the splendor above to the poverty below, they are given the confirmation they need: the sign fits. Only now does their fearful joy under heaven’s radiance turn into a completely uninhibited, human and Christian joy. Because it fits. And why does it fit? Because the Lord, the High God, has taken the same path as they have: he has left his glory behind him and gone into the dark world, into the child’s apparent insignificance, into the unfreedom of human restrictions and bonds, into the poverty of the crib. This is the Word in action, and as yet the shepherds do not know, no one knows, how far down into the darkness this Word-in-action will lead. At all events it will descend much deeper than anyone else into what is worldly, apparently insignificant and profane; into what is bound, poor and powerless; so much so that we shall not be able to follow the last stage of his path. A heavy stone will block the way, preventing the others from approaching, while, in titter night, in ultimate loneliness and forsakenness, he descends to his dead human brothers.

It is true, therefore: in order that he shall find God, the Christian is placed on the streets of the world, sent to his manacled and poor brethren, to all who suffer, hunger and thirst; to all who are naked, sick and in prison. From henceforth this is his place; he must identify with them all. This is the great joy that is proclaimed to him today, for it is the same way that God sent a Savior to us. We ourselves may be poor and in bondage too, in need of liberation; yet at the same time all of us who have been given a share in the joy of deliverance are sent to be companions of those who are poor and in bondage.

But who will step out along this road that leads from God’s glory to the figure of the poor Child lying in the manger? Not the person who is taking a walk for his own pleasure. He will walk along other paths that are more likely to run in the opposite direction, paths that lead from the misery of his own existence toward some imaginary or dreamed-up attempt at a heaven, whether of a brief pleasure or of a long oblivion. The only one to journey from heaven, through the world, to the hell of the lost, is he who is aware, deep in his heart, of a mission to do so; such a one obeys a call that is stronger than his own comfort and his resistance. This is a call that has complete power and authority over my life; I submit to it because it comes from a higher plane than my entire existence. It is an appeal to my heart, demanding the investment of my total self; its hidden, magisterial radiance obliges me, willy-nilly, to submit. I may not know who it is that so takes me into his service. But one thing I do know: if l stay locked within myself, if I seek myself, I shall not find the peace that is promised to the man on whom God’s favor rests. I must go. I must enter the service of the poor and imprisoned. I must lose my soul if I am to regain it, for so long as I hold onto it, I shall lose it. This implacable, silent word (which yet is so unmistakable) burns in my heart and will not leave me in peace.

In other lands there are millions who are starving, who work themselves to death for a derisory day’s wage, heartlessly exploited like cattle. There too are the slaughtered peoples whose wars cannot end because certain interests (which are not theirs) are tied up with the continuance of their misery. And I know that all my talk about progress and mankind’s liberation will be dismissed with laughter and mockery by all the realistic forecasters of mankind’s next few decades. Indeed, I only need to open my eyes and ears, and I shall hear the cry of those unjustly oppressed growing louder every day, along with the clamor of those who are resolved to gain power at any price, through hatred and annihilation. These are the superpowers of darkness; in the face of them all our courage drains away, and we lose all belief in the mission that resides in our hearts, that mission that was once so bright, joyous and peace bringing; we lose all hope of really finding the poor Child wrapped in swaddling clothes. What can my pitiful mission achieve, this drop of water in the white-hot furnace? What is the point of my efforts, my dedication, my sacrifice, my pleading to God for a world that is resolved to perish?

“Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you Good News of a great joy … This day is born the Savior”, that is, he who, as Son of God and Son of the Father, has traveled (in obedience to the Father) the path that leads away from the Father and into the darkness of the world. Behind him omnipotence and freedom; before, powerlessness, bonds and obedience. Behind him the comprehensive divine vision; before him the prospect of the meaninglessness of death on the Cross between two criminals, Behind him the bliss of life with the Father; before him, grievous solidarity with all who do not know the Father, do not want to know him and deny his existence. Rejoice then, for God himself has passed this way! The Son took with him the awareness of doing the Father’s will. He took with him the unceasing prayer that the Father’s will would be done on the dark earth as in the brightness of heaven. He took with him his rejoicing that the Father had hidden these things from the wise and revealed them to babes, to the simple and the poor. “I am the way”, and this way is “the truth” for you; along this way you will find “the life”. Along “the way” that I am you will learn to lose your life in order to find it; you will learn to grow beyond yourselves and your insincerity into a truth that is greater than you are. From a worldly point of view everything may seem very dark; your dedication may seem unproductive and a failure. But do not be afraid: you are on God’s path. “Let not your hearts be troubled: believe in God; believe also in me.” I am walking on ahead of you and blazing the trail of Christian love for you. It leads to your most inaccessible brother, the person most forsaken by God. But it is the path of divine love itself. You are on the right path. All who deny themselves in order to carry out love’s commission are on the right path.

Miracles happen along this path. Apparently insignificant miracles, noticed by hardly anyone. The very finding of a Child wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger is this not a miracle in itself? Then there is the miracle when a particular mission, hidden in a person’s heart, really reaches its goal, bringing God’s peace and joy where there were nothing but despair and resignation; when someone succeeds in striking a tiny light in the midst of an overpowering darkness. When joy irradiates a heart that no longer dared to believe in it. Now and again we ourselves are assured that the angel’s word we are trying to obey will bring us to the place where God’s Word and Son is already made man. We are assured that, in spite of all the noise and nonsense, today, December 25, is Christmas just as truly as two millennia ago. Once and for all God has started out on his journey toward us, and nothing, till the world’s end, will stop him from coming to us and abiding in us’.

– Hans Urs von Balthasar, ‘Setting Out into the Dark with God’, in You Crown the Year With Your Goodness: Sermons Throughout the Liturgical Year (Ignatius Press, 1989).

Karen Kilby on suffering, pain and loss

In this video, Karen Kilby reflects on suffering, pain and loss in the Christian theological tradition and, as might be expected, she draws heavily upon the work of Han Urs von Balthasar (who is also the subject of her recent book, Balthasar: A (Very) Critical Introduction, a book which I am very much looking forward to reading).

Holy Saturday, the Son who is held in oneness with the Father

‘If it is hard to understand how the Father-Son relationship is maintained when Jesus is among the god-forsaken, it is even harder to understand how it could be maintained when at the end of his passion he is among the dead. What can it possibly mean to say that the eternal Son of God has died? … The Nicene creed within its second christological answer affirms that he of whom it speaks is “of one Being (homoöusios) with the Father” and also that as part of his work “for us men and our salvation”, “he suffered death and was buried”, but it does not tell us how we are to understand these statements in their relationship to each other.

Hans Urs von Balthasar warns against failing to face up to the stark fact of Holy Saturday, the fact of a dead Christ. We can rush on too quickly to the joys of the third day; we can, with the Greek iconographers, picture a living and active and glorious Christ invading the world of the dead, raising Adam and Eve from their coffins in a pre-resurrection triumph. All that has its place, but it must not be allowed to displace or distract attention from the fact that from Good Friday to Holy Saturday the Son of God lies dead. His identification with us will be incomplete and his saving act insufficient if he does not share with us the ultimate consequence of our subservience to evil, either as its victims or its servants. Hebrews is quite clear that it belongs to the redeeming act of God’s grace that Jesus should experience the death that all of us have to experience and that this is the way he must go in order to reach his glorious destination: “… we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honour because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone” (Heb. 2.9).

Death, whatever function it might be designed to fulfil in the purpose of the Creator, becomes for those who are the sinful victims of evil the dreaded ultimate moment in which the destructiveness that is endemic to the sinful situation finally has its way. When we die all our relationships with God and with people are severed and we are carried from being to non-being: “The wages of sin is death.” Jesus dies, to quote Hebrews again, to “free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (Heb. 2:15).

The illusion of death as the automatic transition from an imperfect to a perfect heavenly state, deceptively propagated at many semi-Christian funerals, is untrue both to scripture and experience. Death can be more biblically and realistically described as the “ultimate enemy” (1 Cor. 15:26) and our reluctance to contemplate the reality of our own death only goes to prove the point.

There must therefore be no mitigation of the awfulness of death either in Jesus’ case or our own. As von Balthasar puts it:

It [death] is a happening which affects the whole person, though not necessarily to the point of obliterating the human subject altogether. It is a situation which signifies in the first place the abandonment of all spontaneous activity and so a passivity, a state in which, perhaps, the vital activity now brought to an end is mysteriously summed up.

Death is the collapse of all relationships into unresponsiveness. Those who are dead can neither speak nor be spoken to, they can neither receive love nor return it, they can neither initiate nor participate in all the activities and concerns in which our relationships are expressed and by which they are nourished. “I have lost my husband”, says the widow, and exactly that is the source of her grief. All that makes up life is lost to the dead and they are lost to it.

And so it is with Jesus, as his body is lowered from the cross and carried to Joseph of Arimathea’s dark garden tomb. No more parables, no more healing, no more praying to his Father; he has offered everything and he has nothing more. It looks as if all the hopes he roused are now reduced to mocking illusions, his promises become retreating echoes fading into nothingness: The Son of God is dead.

As Alan Lewis puts it, we are “compelled to confront the possibility that God’s own Son is dead and buried among the transgressors, and that God himself has failed in his fatherhood and deity” and as a consequence “the world is delivered up to godlessness and negativity”. That is the reality of Holy Saturday and we must give it its own space and its own meaning before we hurry on to Easter Sunday, not least because Holy Saturday is a day that both individuals and the Church have to live through again and again. We shall all have to confront the day of our dying when resurrection may seem a distant hope rather than an imminent reality.

The Son of God is dead; his death is our death. It is an evil undoing of the work of the Creator which looks like the final triumph of all the powers of darkness that have brought him to the cross. He is dead and unresponsive to his friends and he is dead and unresponsive to his Father. This is the ultimate disruptive attack on the unity of Father and Son, this is the permitted intrusion of death into the Trinitarian life of God.

Nevertheless … in his furthest absence from the Father, the dead Son is still in profound unity with the Father. His passivity and unresponsiveness are still the expressions of his obedience that hold him in oneness with the Father in his execution of the Father’s redeeming purpose. That fact alone makes his death different from ours and, even before the resurrection, full of hope for ours. This dead man is indeed bearing the death of the victims and perpetrators of evil, but he is bearing it as the loved and obedient Son of the Father’.

– Thomas A. Smail, Once and For All: A Confession of the Cross (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2005), 137–40.

John Webster’s Evangel articles

Rob Bradshaw has recently made available the following articles by John Webster:

Thanks Rob.

Lent Reflection 5: Hans Urs von Balthasar on the three decisive hours

crucifixion-2‘”Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour.” It was as if the cosmos sensed that something decisive was going on here, as if it were participating in the darkness invading the soul of Christ. For our part, we do not need to experience this darkening, for we are already estranged and dark enough. It would suffice if we held onto our faith in a world that has become dark all around us; it would be enough for us to be convinced that all inner light, all inner joy and security, all trust in life owes its existence to the darkness of Golgotha and never to forget to give God thanks for it’. – Hans Urs von Balthasar, You Crown the Year With Your Goodness: Sermons Through the Liturgical Year (trans. Graham Harrison; San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1989), 85-6.

I have posted previously von Balthasar’s entire sermon - The Scapegoat and the Trinity - from which this portion is lifted.

Around the traps …

  • Phil Baiden writes an appreciation of PT Forsyth.

  • The latest IJST (11/2) is out, and includes articles on:
    • ‘Development of Doctrine, or Denial? Balthasar’s Holy Saturday and Newman’s Essay’ (p 129-145), by Alyssa Pitstick
    • ‘The Descent into Hell as a Solution for the Problem of the Fate of Unevangelized Non-Christians: Balthasar’s Hell, the Limbo of the Fathers and Purgatory’ (p 146-171), by Gavin D’Costa
    • ‘One Commixture of Light’: Rethinking some Modern Uses and Critiques of Gregory of Nazianzus on the Unity and Equality of the Divine Persons’ (p 172-189), by Ben Fulford
    • ‘The Cruciality of the Cross’: P.T. Forsyth’s Understanding of the Atonement’ (p 190-207), by Theng-Huat Leow (Congratulations Theng-Huat!!)
    • ‘The Grammar of Pneumatology in Barth and Rahner: A Reconsideration’ (p 208-224), by Travis Ables

The way by which God brings about reconciliation

cross‘[W]hat Christ did on the Cross was in no way intended to spare us death but rather to revalue death completely. In place of the “going down into the pit” of the Old Testament, it became “being in paradise tomorrow”. Instead of fearing death as the final evil and begging God for a few more years of life, as the weeping king Hezekiah does, Paul would like most of all to die immediately in order “to be with the Lord” (Phil 1:23). Together with death, life is also revalued: “If we live, we live to the Lord; if we die, we die to the Lord” (Rom 14:8).

But the issue is not only life and death but our existence before God and our being judged by him. All of us were sinners before him and worthy of condemnation. But God “made the One who knew no sin to be sin, so that we might be justified through him in God’s eyes” (2 Cor 5:21).

Only God in his absolute freedom can take hold of our finite freedom from within in such a way as to give it a direction toward him, an exit to him, when it was closed in on itself. This happened in virtue of the “wonderful exchange” between Christ and us: he experiences instead of us what distance from God is, so that we may become beloved and loving children of God instead of being his “enemies” (Rom 5:10).

Certainly God has the initiative in this reconciliation: he is the one who reconciles the world to himself in Christ. But one must not play this down (as famous theologians do) by saying that God is always the reconciled God anyway and merely manifests this state in a final way through the death of Christ. It is not clear how this could be the fitting and humanly intelligible form of such a manifestation.

No, the “wonderful exchange” on the Cross is the way by which God brings about reconciliation. It can only be a mutual reconciliation because God has long since been in a covenant with us. The mere forgiveness of God would not affect us in our alienation from God. Man must be represented in the making of the new treaty of peace, the “new and eternal covenant”. He is represented because we have been taken over by the man Jesus Christ. When he “signs” this treaty in advance in the name of all of us, it suffices if we add our name under his now or, at the latest, when we die.’ – Hans Urs von Balthasar, A Short Primer for Unsettled Laymen (trans. Michael Waldstein; San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1985), 85-7.

Hans Urs von Balthasar in Communio

balthasarOne of the real joys for me this year was reading work by and about Hans Urs von Balthasar (David also sponsored a wonderful Balthasar Blog Conference this year). Consequently, I was to recently delighted to discover a goodly number of his essays in Communio: International Catholic Review, a journal that he founded in 1973 together with Joseph Ratzinger, Henri de Lubac, and others. Here’s a list of his articles that appear in Communio (Now I just need to find a library that subscribes to the journal. I’m having no success on that front so far):

“Conversion in the New Testament.” 1, no. 1 (1974): 47-59.

“In Retrospect.” 2, no. 3 (1975): 197-220.

“Select Bibliography of Hans Urs von Balthasar.” 2, no. 3 (1975): 220-27.

“The Meaning of Celibacy.” 3, no. 4 (1976): 318-29.

“On Unceasing Prayer.” 4, no. 2 (1977): 99-113.

“Catholicism and the Religions.” 5, no. 1 (1978): 6-14.

“Christian Prayer.” 5, no. 1 (1978): 15-22.

“Response to my Critics.” 5, no. 1 (1978): 69-76.

“Current Trends in Catholic Theology and the Responsibility of the Christian.” 5, no. 1 (1978): 77-85.

Pistis and Gnosis.” 5, no. 1 (1978): 86-95.

“The Grandeur of the Liturgy.” 5, no. 4 (1978): 344-51.

“On the Withdrawal of Hans Küng’s Authorization to Teach.” 7, no. 1 (1980): 90-93.

“Reflections on the Discernment of Spirits.” 7, no. 3 (1980): 196-208.

“Theology and Aesthetic.” 8, no. 1 (1981): 62-71.

“The Anti-Roman Attitude.” 8, no. 4 (1981): 307-21.

“From the Theology of God to Theology in the Church.” 9, no. 3 (1982): 195-223.

“Should Faith or Theology Be the Basis of Catechesis?” 10, no. 1 (1983): 10-16.

“Unity and Diversity in the New Testament Theology.” 10, no. 2 (1983): 106-16.

“Earthly Beauty and Divine Glory.” 10, no. 3 (1983): 202-6.

“Transcendentality and Gestalt.” 11, no. 1 (1984): 4-12.

“Jesus and Forgiveness.” 11, no. 4 (1984): 322-34.

“Life and Institution in the Church.” 12, no. 1 (1985): 25-32.

“The Holy Church and the Eucharistic Sacrifice.” 12, no. 2 (1985): 139-45.

“Toward a Theology of Christian Prayer.” 12, no. 3 (1985): 245-57.

“Peace and Theology.” 12, no. 4 (1985): 398-40.

“On the Concept of Person.” 13, no. 1 (1986): 18-26.

“The Poverty of Christ.” 13, no. 3 (1986): 196-98.

“God is His Own Exegete.” 13, no. 4 (1986): 280-87.

“Death is Swallowed up by Life.” 14, no. 1 (1987): 49-54.

“The Meaning of Christ’s Saying: ‘I Am the Truth.’” 14, no. 2 (1987): 158-160.

“Theology and Holiness.” 14, no. 4 (1987): 341-50.

“The Marian Principle.” 15, no. 1 (1988): 122-30 RT.

“Editorial: The Meaning of the Communion of Saints.” 15, no. 2 (1988): 160-62.

“Catholicism and the Communion of Saints.” 15, no. 2 (1988): 163-68.

“Creation and Trinity.” 15, no. 3 (1988): 285-93.

“Editorial: Buddhism-An Approach to Dialogue.” 15, no. 4 (1988): 403-10.

“A Résumé of My Thought.” 15, no. 4 (1988): 468-73.

“Natural Law and Private Ownership.” 17, no. 1 (1990): 105-19 RT.

“The Mission of Communio.” 19, no. 3 (1992): 509 NC.

“The Council of the Holy Spirit.” 17, no. 4 (1990): 595-611 RT.

“Eternal Life and the Human Condition.” 18, no. 1 (1991): 4-23.

“Still the First Commandment.” 19, no. 1 (1992): 179-82 RT.

Communio: International Catholic Review.” 19, no. 3 (1992): 507-8 NC.

“On the Task of Catholic Philosophy in Our Time.” 20, no. 1 (1993): 147-87 RT.

“A Word on Humanae Vitae.” 20, no. 2 (1993): 437-50 RT.

Theo-Logic: On the Work as a Whole.” 20, no. 4 (1993): 623-37.

“Women Priests? A Marian Church in a Fatherless and Motherless Culture.” 22, no. 1 (1995): 164-70 RT.

“Jesus as Child and His Praise of the Child.” 22, no. 4 (1995): 625-34.

“How Weighty is the Argument from ‘Uninterrupted Tradition’ to Justify the Male Priesthood?” 23, no. 1 (1996): 185-92 RT.

“Mary-Church-Office.” 23, no. 1 (1996): 193-98 RT.

“Georges Bernanos on Reason: Prophetic, Free, and Catholic.” 23, no. 2 (1996): 389-418 RT.

“Christ: Alpha and Omega.” 23, no. 3 (1996): 465-71.

“Thoughts on the Priesthood of Women.” 23, no. 4 (1996): 701-9.

“The Fathers, the Scholastics, and Ourselves.” 24, no. 2 (1997): 347-96 RT.

“Afterword to The Satin Slipper.” 26, no. 1 (1999): 186-211 RT.

“Faith and the Expectation of an Imminent End.” 26, no. 4 (1999): 687.

“Asceticism.” 27, no. 1 (2000): 14-26.

Good and Evil: Epilogue to Nietzsche.” 27, no. 3 (2000): 594-99 RT.

“Tribute to Mozart.” 28, no. 2 (2001): 398-399.

“Why We Need Nicholas of Cusa.” 28, no. 4 (2001): 854-859.

”Joy and the Cross.” 31, no. 2 (2004): 332-344. 

“Spirit and Fire. An Interview With Hans Urs von Balthasar.” 32, no. 3 (2005): 573-593. SH

“Communio: A Program.” 33, no. 1 (2006): 153-169.

“Where Does Fidelity Dwell?” 34, no. 4 (2007): 495-510.

April Book Notes – 1

While there certainly remains a place for more lengthy book reviews, I thought it might be useful to just pen a few very brief book notes (and give some scores – ♦ – out of 5) on some of the more significant books I read each month. So here’s a few from April so far. As you can see, I’ve been following a definite theme.

Geiko Müller-Fahrenholz, The Kingdom and the Power: The Theology of Jürgen Moltmann (trans. John Bowden; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000).

This is one of the most helpful introductions to Moltmann’s thought available. Appreciative, but not uncritical at key points, Müller-Fahrenholz introduces us to the big themes in Moltmann’s major works. Recommended. ♦♦♦

Nigel M. de S. Cameron, ed., Universalism and the Doctrine of Hell: Papers Presented at the Fourth Edinburgh Conference on Christian Dogmatics, 1991 (Carlisle/Grand Rapids: Paternoster/Baker, 1993).

Like most collections of essays, this one is a bit hit and miss. The better essays are those by Trevor Hart, David Powys, TF Torrance and Henri Blocher. ♦♦½

Thomas Talbott, The Inescapable Love of God (Boca Raton: Universal, 1999).

See my review here. ♦♦♦

Robin A. Parry and Christopher H. Partridge, ed., Universal Salvation? The Current Debate (Carlisle: Paternoster, 2003).

This is a well chosen collection of essays and authors on a timely and important topic for evangelicals. It seeks to engage with Talbott’s thesis of dogmatic universalism which Talbott outlines in the first 3 chapters. His chapter on ‘Christ Victorious’ expands on what I believe is an underplayed theme in his The Inescapable Love of God, and so I was encouraged to see it included here. Biblical, philosophical, theological and historical responses are then offered. Talbott responds briefly in the final chapter. The best responses are those offered by Eric Reitan, David Hilborn and Don Horrocks. Overall, it’s a helpful discussion. It needs an index, but the book is worth buying for the bibliography alone. It’s 18 pages! ♦♦♦

Gregory MacDonald, The Evangelical Universalist (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2006).

This is the most well argued exegetical treatment on the subject of universalism currently available. It’s well written, and the combination of ‘MacDonald’s’ cogency of argument, respect for the Biblical texts, and personal humility as to his claims makes his advocacy of evangelical universalism most attractive. Those who disagree with his position will find here a case worthy of as humble response. Good bibliography, but no index. ♦♦♦♦

Rowan Williams, Tokens of Trust: An Introduction to Christian Belief (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2007).

A beautifully-written reflection – it’s almost a poem – that deserves the widest readership. ♦♦♦♦

Hans Urs von Balthasar, Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved”? With a Short Discourse on Hell (Fort Collins: Ignatius Press, 1988).

While this wee book is not particularly well written (it may be better in the German), it’s almost impossible to put down, and it really does have not a few flashes of magnificent insight. Von Balthasar’s overall thesis regarding a hopeful universalism is attractive, even if not at every point convincing. His aggregating of quotes reminded me of Bloesch’s work (which I love). A good read. ♦♦♦½

Lindsey Hall, Swinburne’s Hell and Hick’s Universalism: Are we free to reject God? (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003).

This is a helpfully lucid outline and critical response to important themes in the theology of Richard Swinburne and John Hick. While her own position is considerably more Hickian than perhaps most evangelical universalists will be comfortable with, Hall is to be commended for avoiding stereotypes and for offering a cogent contribution to an increasingly voluminous discussion on the question of Christian universalism. ♦♦♦

Richard Bauckham and Trevor Hart, Hope Against Hope: Christian Eschatology at the Turn of the Millennium (Grand Rapids/Cambridge: Eerdmans, 1999).

Richard Bauckham and Trevor Hart pair up again for this project that arose out of number of conferences and the result is a stunning collection of six essays on Christian hope – its context, its value, its basis, its power, its praxis, and its goal. Bauckham and Hart set out not merely to expose modernity’s myth of inevitable progress and postmodernity’s Nietzschian anti-metanarrative and deconstruction of mimetic imagination, but do so by laying before our eyes the broad and graced vision of God’s promises begun in the resurrection of Jesus Christ and fully realised in the new creation. Inspired by the work of Jürgen Moltmann (to whom the book is dedicated), this is a book that requires careful and reflective reading, stopping regularly to view the terrain, and then returning to again and again to grapple with its implications. This is one to buy, read, keep and re-read. [NB. This may be a biased note as Trevor is my doctoral supervisor]. ♦♦♦♦

von Balthasar on hopeless conservatives and dung-heaps

‘… If I have been cast aside as a hopeless conservative by the tribe of the left, then I now know what sort of dung-heap I have been dumped upon by the right. But back to the matters of substance’. – Hans Urs von Balthasar, Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved”? With a Short Discourse on Hell (Fort Collins: Ignatius Press, 1988), 19-20.

Around the traps …

Dan has posted An Open Letter to Jürgen Moltmann.

Baxter Kruger shares a sermon On the Death of Jesus.

Jim Gordon draws our attention to Dora Greenwell who co-wrote a book on prayer with PT Forsyth, and offers a fine reflection on Holy Saturday.

Byron shares a great affirmation of materiality from Rowan Williams’ pen.

Travis has posted a review of Paul Nimmo’s Being in Action: The Theological Shape of Barth’s Ethical Vision.

The recent Balthasar Blog Conference has been helpfully summarised by David Congdon and I’ve just noticed that my mate Jon Mackenzie (who has all but disappeared from blogdom) will be kick starting the second Karl Barth Blog Conference in early June.

David Congdon’s contribution to the Balthasar Blog Conference is a stellar must-read critique of von Balthasar’s pseudo-universalism. He writes:

This is the basis for a true “hermeneutics of hope”: the person of Jesus Christ, the Crucified and Risen One, who reconciled the world to God. When we begin with christological hope, we can preserve anthropological existentialism; but when we begin with anthropological existentialism, we will never truly reach christological hope.

And for your listening pleasure …

Listen to John Dickson talk about historical Jesus research in this podcast.

Graeme Goldsworthy shares a talk on The necessity and validity of Biblical Theology, Graeme Goldsworthy at SBTS.

Paul Davies reflects on the question ‘Could the universe have been other than what it is?’ in this podcast entitled The Cosmic Jackpot.

And barrister and human rights advocate Julian Burnside QC gives the ninth Manning Clark lecture in which he speaks about anti-terror laws, children in detention, and compensation for the stolen generations.

Hans Urs von Balthasar Blog Conference

David has reminded us that the first annual Balthasar Blog Conference is coming up March 16-25. The topic will be von Balthasar’s theological exegesis, and ten plenary posts have already been listed:

Looks like a good lineup. Unfortunately, only four responses have thus far been planned:

David is seeking a further six respondents. If you would like to be one of them then send him an email (via his profile) or leave a comment on this post, where there is also more information.

Two new books on Barth

Eisenbrauns have recently announced two new books on Barth:

Karl Barth’s Trinitarian Theology, by Peter S. Oh (Continuum, 2007)

Karl Barth’s Trinitarian Theology is an original and insightful discussion of the theme of the Trinity in the thought of Karl Barth, with particular reference to ecclesiology. The book examines Karl Barth’s analogical use of the Trinity, with respect to various patterns of divine-human communion in the context of the doctrine of redemption. In the first part of the book Oh explores Barth’s understanding and use of analogy throughout his theological development, and compares the work of Kierkegaard and Barth. This research gives fresh insight into Karl Barth’s Trinitarian, theological hermeneutics. In part II, Oh examines Barth’s analogical use of the doctrine of the Trinity from an ecclesiastical perspective.

and…

Karl Barth and Hans Urs Von Balthasar: A Critical Engagement, by Stephen Wigley (Continuum, 2007)

Karl Barth and Hans Urs von Balthasar are two of the most important theologians of the last century. Although one being Reformed and the other Catholic, they kept a lifelong friendship which also influenced their theological work. The book argues for the crucial influence of von Balthasar’s meeting with and study of Barth for the emergence of his own great theological trilogy, beginning with The Glory of the Lord, continuing with the Theo-Drama and concluding with the Theo-Logic. In particular it argues that it is von Balthasar’s debate with Barth over the analogy of being which is to determine the shape of von Balthasar’s subsequent theology, structured as it is around the transcendentals of being, the beautiful, the good and the true.

On this second book, check out Jim Gordon’s excellent 6-part review: here, here, here, here, here and here.

The Scapegoat and the Trinity

While I don’t concur with every idea in this Good Friday sermon by Hans Urs von Balthasar (for example the notion that ‘that there is room in [the Triune life] for all the alienation and sin of the world’; some things simply just need to be destroyed and are beyond redemption or reconciliation!) I was greatly encouraged reading this sermon today and thought it worthwhile reproducing here that others may also be encouraged.

‘Nearly two thousand years ago a trial took place that resulted in the death of the condemned man. Why is it that, even today, it will not allow mankind to forget about it? Have there not been countless other show trials down the years, particularly in our own time, and should the crying injustice of these trials not stir us up and preoccupy us just as much as that ancient trial at the Passover in Jerusalem? To judge by the constant and even increasing flood of books and discussions about Jesus, however, all the horrors of the extermination camps and the Gulag Archipelago matter less to mankind than the sentencing of this one innocent man whom, according to the Bible, God himself championed and vindicated—as is evident from his Resurrection from the dead.

The question is: Was he the one, great and final scapegoat for mankind? Did mankind load him with all its guilt, and did he, the Lamb of God, carry this guilt away? This is the thesis of a modern ethnologist, René Girard, whose books have attracted much attention in America, France and recently in Germany. According to this view, all human civilization, right from the outset, is constructed on the principle of the scapegoat. That is, men have cunningly invented a way of overcoming their reciprocal aggression and arriving at an at least temporary peace: thus they concentrate this aggression on an almost randomly chosen scapegoat and appoint this scapegoat as the sacrificial victim, in order to pacify an allegedly angry god. According to Girard, however, this divine anger is nothing other than men’s reciprocal rage. This mechanism always needs to be set in motion again after a period of relative peace if world history is to proceed in any half-tolerable way; in this context it reached its absolute peak in the general rejection of Jesus by the gentiles, the Jews and the Christians too: Jesus really did take over and carry away the sins of all that were loaded onto him, in such a way that anyone who believes this can live in peace with his brother from now on.

Girard’s ideas are interesting; they bring the trial of Jesus to life in a new way. But we can still ask why this particular murder, after so many others, should be the conclusive event of world history, the advent of the end time? Men have cast their guilt onto many innocent scapegoats; why did this particular bearer of sins bring about a change in the world as a whole?

For the believer the answer is easy: the crucial thing is not that this is an instance of our wanting to rid ourselves of guilt. Naturally, no one wants to admit guilt. Pilate washes his hands and declares himself guiltless; the Jews hide behind their law, which requires them to condemn a blasphemer; they act in a pious and God-fearing way. Judas himself has remorse for his deed; he brings the blood money back and, when no one will take it from him, throws it at the high priests. No one is prepared to accept responsibility. But precisely by attempting to extricate themselves, they are convinced by God that they are guilty of the death of this innocent man. Ultimately it is not what men do that is the determining factor.

The crucial thing is that there is Someone who is both ready and able to take their guilt upon himself. None of the other scapegoats was able to do this. According to the New Testament understanding, the Son of God became man in order to take this guilt upon himself. He lived with a view to the “hour” that awaited him at the end of his earthly existence, with a view to the terrible baptism with which he would have to be baptized, as he says. This “hour” would see him chained and brought to trial not merely outwardly; it would not only tear his body to pieces with scourges and nail it to the wood but also penetrate into his very soul, his spirit, his most intimate relationship with God, his Father. It would fill everything with desolation and the mortal fear of having been forsaken—as it were, with a totally alien, hostile and deadly poisonous substance that would block his every access to the source from which he lived.

It is in the horror of this darkness, of this emptiness and alienation from God, that the words on the Mount of Olives are spoken: “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me. ” The cup of which he here speaks is well known in the Old Testament: it is the cup full of God’s anger and wrath, which sinners must drink to the dregs; often it is threatened or forced upon unfaithful Jerusalem or enemy peoples like Babylon. The cry from the Cross is uttered out of the same horror of spiritual blackness, the cry asking why God has forsaken this tortured man. The man who cries out knows only that he is forsaken; in this darkness he no longer knows why. He is not permitted to know why, for the idea that the darkness he is undergoing might be on behalf of others would constitute a certain comfort; it would give him a ray of light. No such comfort can be granted him now, for the issue, in absolute seriousness, is that of purifying the relationship between God and the guilty world.

The man who endures this night is the Innocent One. No one else could effectively undergo it on behalf of others. What ordinary or extraordinary man would even have enough room in himself to accommodate the world’s guilt? Only someone who is a partner of the eternal Father, distinct from him and yet divine, that is, the Son who, man that he is, is also God, can have such capacity within him.

Here we are faced with a bottomless mystery, for in fact there is an immense difference between the generating womb in God the Father and the generated fruit, the Son, although both are one God in the Holy Spirit. Nowadays many theologians say, quite rightly, that it is precisely at the Cross that this difference becomes clearly manifest: at this precise point the mystery of the divine Trinity is fully proclaimed. The distance is so great—for in God everything is infinite—that there is room in it for all the alienation and sin of the world; the Son can draw all this into his relationship with the Father without any danger of it harming or altering the mutual eternal love between Father and Son in the Holy Spirit. Sin is burnt up, as it were, in the fire of this love, for God, as Scripture says, is a consuming fire that will not tolerate anything impure but must burn it away.

Jesus, the Crucified, endures our inner darkness and estrangement from God, and he does so in our place. It is all the more painful for him, the less he has merited it. As we have already said, there is nothing familiar about it to him: it is utterly alien and full of horror. Indeed, he suffers more deeply than an ordinary man is capable of suffering, even were he condemned and rejected by God, because only the incarnate Son knows who the Father really is and what it means to be deprived of him, to have lost him (to all appearances) forever. It is meaningless to call this suffering “hell”, for there is no hatred of God in Jesus, only a pain that is deeper and more timeless than the ordinary man could endure either in his lifetime or after his death.

Nor can we say that God the Father “punishes” his suffering Son in our place. It is not a question of punishment, for the work accomplished here between Father and Son with the cooperation of the Holy Spirit is utter love, the purest love possible; so, too, it is a work of the purest spontaneity, from the Son’s side as from the side of Father and Spirit. God’s love is so rich that it can also assume this form of darkness, out of love for our dark world.

What, then, can we do? “Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour.” It was as if the cosmos sensed that something decisive was going on here, as if it were participating in the darkness invading the soul of Christ. For our part, we do not need to experience this darkening, for we are already estranged and dark enough. It would suffice if we held onto our faith in a world that has become dark all around us; it would be enough for us to be convinced that all inner light, all inner joy and security, all trust in life owes its existence to the darkness of Golgotha and never to forget to give God thanks for it.

At the very periphery of this thanksgiving to God, it is legitimate to ask that, if God permits it, we may help the Lord to bear a tiny particle of the suffering of the Cross, of his inner anxiety and darkness, if it will contribute to reconciling the world with God. Jesus himself says that it is possible to help him bear it when he challenges us to take up our cross daily. Paul says the same in affirming that he suffers that portion of the Cross that Christ has reserved for him and for other Christians. When life is hard and apparently hopeless, we can be confident that this darkness of ours can be taken up into the great darkness of redemption through which the light of Easter dawns. And when what is required of us seems too burdensome, when the pains become unbearable and the fate we are asked to accept seems simply meaningless—then we have come very close to the man nailed on the Cross at the Place of the Skull, for he has already undergone this on our behalf and, moreover, in unimaginable intensity. When surrounded by apparent meaninglessness, therefore, we cannot ask to be given a calming sense of meaning; all we can do is wait and endure, quite still, like the Crucified, not seeing anything, facing the dark abyss of death. Beyond this abyss there waits for us something that, at present, we cannot see (nor can we even manage to regard it as true), namely, a further abyss of light in which all the world’s pain is treasured and cherished in the ever-open heart of God. Then we shall be allowed, like the Apostle Thomas, to put our hand into this gaping wound; feeling it, we shall realize in a very bodily way that God’s love transcends all human senses, and with the disciple we shall pray: “My Lord and my God.”‘


Hans Urs von Balthasar, You Crown the Year With Your Goodness: Sermons Through the Liturgical Year (trans. Graham Harrison; San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1989), 82-6.