Book Review: Christ and Analogy – The Christocentric Metaphysics of Hans Urs von Balthasar

christanalogybalthasarTitle: Christ and Analogy: The Christocentric Metaphysics of Hans Urs von Balthasar

Author: Junius Johnson

Bibliographic info: 224 pp.

Publisher: Fortress Press, 2013.

Buy the book at Amazon.

With thanks to Fortress Press for the review copy!

This work is a revised version of his doctoral dissertation, completed at Yale with Mirosalv Volf as his Doktorvater, and when I say “revised” I mean revised – there is an additional 40,000 words added to the initial dissertation.

Hans Urs von Balthasar is the Catholic theologian with whom I have recently been reading some primary and secondary literature on. I first came upon him due to his ecumenical relationship with Karl Barth and then I was further intrigued by him when I read his book Dare We Hope that All Men Be Saved. While he is the Catholic theologian with whom I am the most familiar, von Balthasar is also simultaneously quite foreign to me due to his large corpus of writing that I have barely begun to scratch. Junius Johnson attempts to help solve the quandary I am in by providing an index of interpretation to von Balthasar. This project of Johnson’s is to explore the metaphysics of von Balthasar through the theological concept of analogy: “[von Balthasar’s] doctrine of analogy is the key concept that unlocks the rest of his system. … [his] Christology turns upon the doctrine of analogy.” Johnson refuses to regard von Balthasar’s conception of this God-world relation in terms of either identity or pure difference.

The contents are as follows:

  1. Introduction
  2. Exemplarity and Expression: Rejection of the Pure Difference Thesis
  3. The Positivity of the Other: Rejection of the Identity Thesis
  4. Analogy: A Theological and Philosophical via Media
  5. Personhood and von Balthasar’s Two Metaphysics
  6. Analogy of Being in Trinitarian and Christological Keys
  7. Participation, Love, and Kenosis
  8. Epilogue

The importance of this volume is that in order to more fully appreciate von Balthasar’s theology, one must first grasp his metaphysics. What is meant by metaphysics?

Metaphysics is the philosophy of first principles. It includes under itself ontology and epistemology. Therefore, all ontological and epistemological questions are de facto also metaphysical questions. … Before creation, there is no metaphysics at all, just God and the all-sufficiency of the divine essence. … Metaphysics, therefore, while the height of philosophy, stops short of theology. In other words, philosophy takes creation for its object, theology takes God for its object. The incarnation is therefore the most significant event in the life of the relationship of these two disciplines, and on that analogy philosophy is not destroyed by theology, but perfected by it (gratia non destruit, sed perficit naturam).

Throughout this volume the author interacts primarily with von Balthasar’s Triptych, which is the fifteen volumes comprising The Glory of the Lord, Theodrama, and Theologica (as well as the concluding volume, the Epilogue). There is also repeated reference to three other works: The Theology of Karl Barth, A Theology of History, and Cosmic Liturgy. The sources which Johnson considers to be the most important when dealing with von Balthasar’s metaphysics are Plato, Aquinas, Hegel, Heidegger, and Bonaventure, with the latter being considered the most decisive in his thought:

Aquinas is constantly playing second fiddle to Bonaventure in the Triptych. In some ways, it is because Aquinas is not enough of a Platonist. But ultimately, it all comes down to the disagreement between Aquinas and Bonaventure over the choice of the formal object of theology: for Aquinas, it is God, while for Bonaventure, it is Christ.

Balthasar is the most interesting Catholic theologian I have had the pleasure of reading. One of the features of his writings–its scope and breadth–has been at the same time, one of its biggest draws but also the biggest setback. Johnson presents an informative study on von Balthasar’s Christocentric metaphysics, providing a particularly useful navigation of his triptych. This volume to be very useful as a guide to the metaphysics underpinning Balthasar’s thought and even if you’re not the biggest fan of von Balthasar, this volume will still be useful if you’re interested in the relationship between theology and metaphysics.

The author will apparently be coming out with another volume on von Balthasar sometime in the future which is focused more specifically on elucidating his theology. Johnson says it is his “ultimate desire to interpret von Balthasar theologically in light of the most central and pressing claims of Christian theology: the Trinity, Christology, and grace”, but these topics–“the ultimate theological horizon”–have been deferred until the future study, and I am truly looking forward to its release.

3 responses

  1. Might you be able to provide one or two examples of how the alteration in theory trickles down to practice? I have quite a lot of respect for getting your theory ever more correct (the destructive consequences of Modernism’s “quest for certainty” are staggering), but I have a hard time seeing its importance without being able to work it all the way out to practice, to the concrete.

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