Book Review: The Early Hans Urs Von Balthasar

EarlyVonBalthasarTitle: The Early Hans Urs Von Balthasar: Historical Contexts and Intellectual Formation

Author: Paul Silas Peterson

Series: Theologische Bibliothek Topelmann

Bibliographic info: 379 pp.

Publisher: Walter De Gruyter, 2015.

Buy the book at Amazon or direct from the publisher

With thanks to Walter De Gruyter for the review copy.

In this volume, a revised version of the author’s doctoral dissertation completed at the University of Tübingen in 2011, the Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar is discussed in relation to the various contexts—literary, historical, cultural, sociopolitical, ecclesial, and theological—of his day that he drew upon (and responded to) during the period of the 1920s-1940s.

The key contexts which the author delves into are the central European Germanophone cultural context, the Germanophone Catholic cultural context, the German studies context, and the French Catholic renewal literature and theology. Within these are smaller sub-contexts, including the important German Jesuit journal Stimmen der Zeit, Neo-Scholasticism, Swiss fascism, Renouveau Catholique, George-Kreis, Neugermanistik, Germanophone Catholic theology, and French Catholic culture.

The author begins this study by looking at the earliest literature von Balthasar produced in the 1920s, such as his first work Die Entwicklung der musikalischen Idee (1925), which Peterson sees as being representative of how von Balthasar absorbed and integrated cultural criticism and philosophical themes from figures like and Hegel. A couple specific areas of focus are: (1) von Balthasar’s appropriation of Guardini’s cultural criticism, particularly his development of a Christian worldview, and von Balthasar’s treatment of Goethe and Nietzsche; and (2) German literature and culture, which includes a discussion of the background of German literature from 1880-1920, with the spotlight being places on a few figures and movements, such as the George-Kreis.

A couple of the most interesting sections of this volume were those that looked at the influence that the following persons and concepts had on von Balthasar: Swiss fascism, Nazi German (and the situation of the church in the context of national socialism), Julius Schmidhauser (and those who had been searching for a more profound relationship between Deutschtum and Christentum), and the relationships between von Balthasar and  two other thinkers, Erich Przywara (specifically Przywara’s metaphysics) and Karl Barth (his anti-liberal dialectical theology). There is, naturally, a section devoted to the Barth-Balthasar relationship.

The unfortunate anti-Semitism to be found in von Balthasar gets its own chapter which provides an analysis of his writings from the 30s and 40s (and a historical contextualization). So too does von Balthasar’s relationship with Renouveau Catholique, Neo-Scholasticism and Nouvelle Theologie, which is achieved by bringing key figures like Speyr, Rahner, and Lubac into the discussion. Balthasar’s works Présence et Pensée (1942) and Wahrheit (1947) are also discussed, with the latter work being examined in light of the context provided by Rahner’s new approach to transcendental philosophy.

The volume then concludes with a concluding chapter, an index of names, and a helpful five-page historical table with the dates and titles of von Balthasar’s publications in two columns and two other columns showing the contemporaneous literary movements (e.g. Blut-und-Boden) and local/global events (e.g. NYSE crash, rise of Swiss fascism, student fascist groups in Zurich, etc).

Hans Urs von Balthasar is the primary theologian from the Catholic tradition that I have been acquainting myself with. In order to understand the writings of a theologian, one needs to properly understand the Sitz im Leben that their works sprung from. This study from Paul Silas Peterson does a fantastic job of illuminating the world von Balthasar lived in and how it relates to his theology. I particularly appreciated the frank look at von Balthasar’s early anti-Semitism and other awkward aspects of his early work. This volume will appeal for those with interest in Hans Urs von Balthasar, European Catholicism, and twentieth-century German theology. If you are truly a fan of von Balthasar then this work should definitely be at the top of your list of books to read.

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