Stephen D. Wigley, (London: T&T Clark, 2007),
178 pages. ISBN:9780567031914.
(Review copy courtesy of T&T Clark)
Over many years, two of the greatest theologians of the Twentieth century, both of them Swiss, formed a remarkable theological friendship rich in conversation and mutual admiration. Hans urs Von Balthasar and Karl Barth each wrote their theology out of their own tradition, and each in reaction against what they saw as a dominant wrong turning in their respective traditions. Barth wrote from within the Reformed tradition against the liberal Protestantism of Germany, and Von Balthasar against the 'dry as sawdust' version of Thomism he encountered in his Jesuit training.
For years now I have been reading Karl Barth. Ive done so, not as an academic theologian, but as a preaching pastor who 'kens fine' where to go looking for Alpine theology, those massive themes that should undergird all pastoral preaching which doesn't play around with people, trivialise the gospel or patronise the congregation by keeping it simple and practical. Keeping what practical and simple? Surely not the Gospel - which is not practical but eternal, not simple but the deepest mystery. Barth's passion for God, self-revealed in Christ, Creator, Reconciler and Redeemer, is an awesome response by one mind to the Gospel. And the fourteen volumes of the Church Dogmatics, along with his sensational Commentary on Romans express both the vastness and disruptiveness of a Gospel which comes as God's gracious gift.
It is only in recent years I have been introduced to Von Balthasar, and by one of his earlier English speaking admirers, Professor Donald Mackinnon. Following a paper on Julian of Norwich which I delivered in Aberdeen, Professor Mackinnon then retired to Aberdeen, sent me a copy of his paper on Von Balthasar. It took some more years before I started reading Von Balthasar and developing a growing interest in his work. Like Barth, Von Balthasar was also impatient with contemporary approaches to theology; in his case those which arrogantly dismissed the riches of the Christian catholic tradition. Like Barth he has left an almost unmanageable array of written theology, but also a magnum opus of 15 volumes. The great organising principle are the three eternal transcendentals of beauty, goodness and truth: The seven volume The Glory of the Lord, is an exploration of beauty as defined by the nature and being of God; the five volume Theo-Drama explores the nature of goodness as revealed in the eternal drama of God and humanity as played out in the gospels; and Theo-Logic provides the foundational nature of truth which, together with beauty and goodness, are defined by the nature of God.
Barth's Church Dogmatics, and Von Balthasar's Trilogy require two metres of shelf space. I've no idea how much space would be required for the rest of their writings, but as Oliver Davies quipped,'Either measuring scales or measuring tape will confirm this is a very Germanic way of doing theology'.
Stepeh Wigley is a Welsh Methodist Minister. His book compares the work of Von Balthasar with that of Barth, and traces the ways in which Von Balthasar's Trilogy is a Catholic response to the Reformed Barth's Church Dogmatics. The central thesis for those interested in the systematic and technical merit of Wigley's work is that Von balthasar's debate with Barth about the analogy of being, and Barth's alternative, the analogy of faith, was definitive and formative in how Von Balthasar worked out his great theological project. So not only was the conversation one between friends, but one between disagreeing allies. Those who want to follow this line of study, can do so in this elegant, ecumenical and sympathetic exposition of Von Balthasar, in responsive conversation with Barth.
My own review over the next few posts on Wigley's book, will be less an analysis of the systematic and philosophical issues that united or divided these two companions on the way, but on the theological richness, spiritual rigour and intellectual vastness of their visions. I say visions, but in truth the vision was one, and it was the vision of God - the Word of God and the Glory of God, revealed in Jesus Christ, and portrayed with a lifelong passionate fascination, expressed in doxological prose. Barth and Von Balthasar are in my view, two of those rare gifts of God, profound theological thinkers whose writing is a spiritual tonic, an intellectual feast, and so big, a lifetime doesn't exhaust it!