Tuesday, November 16, 2010

von Balthasar on Barth and the Church

Reading Hans Urs von Balthasar's assessment of Karl Barth's theology this week has been fruitful for my understanding of diverse Catholic and Protestant perceptions of the one Church.

Barth and von Balthasar are agreed that "the content of revelation can never be cut off from the act of revealing, that is, from the God who freely and sovereignly chooses to reveal himself." However, as von Balthasar notes, for Barth the Protestant church is best poised to keep central the fact that "grace ‘remains grace’, so that man ‘has not the least control over it.'’’ In Barth's view the Catholic Church "becomes a self-governing Church," thus robbing the "great prerogative of God." The response from von Balthasar is telling:

"Only a fool would deny that each one of [Barth's] accusations could be on target. The Church would not be a church composed of . . . sinners and tax-collectors, if this itch to ‘lay hands on God’ (which indeed is just another term for sin) did not occur in her each and every day."

Indeed, this is an itch that is scratched in Protestant evangelical circles as often as in Catholic ones. The difference may only be in the diversity of ways it is itched and the multiplicity of persons doing the scratching. (Garrett East signals a manifestation of this here.)

As a Protestant, I find von Balthasar's defense of Catholicism on this point quite illuminating, even if I desire a more thoroughgoing ecclesia reformata semper reformanda (church reformed and always reforming):

"Sinners we are, insofar as we abuse the grace of God as it has been revealed to us in its forms shaped to the world. But being formed to the world is never in itself guilty of sin. . . . . [The] institution is God’s trusting selfsurrender to the world in second potency. . . . Does the Church—knowing as she does that she has been founded by Christ—not have the right to regard herself as true? Can she relativize herself without abrogating her obedience to her Lord? And where would such a self-relativization ever come to an end? The ‘absoluteness’ that the Catholic Church must claim for herself really represents her obedience . . . . For every member of the Church, even for the infallible Pope, the essence of the Church is the promise of salvation and not its ‘guarantee’. . . . Christianity is no abstract affair. It is God’s own cause in Jesus Christ, who is the most concrete of all. . . .

So Karl Barth is absolutely right that the problem of analogy in theology must finally be a problem of Christology. . . . [But] Such a doctrine of the Church [as Barth’s] forgets that the Church is not only the Body of Christ but also his Bride. That is, she is both in reality and in parable a ‘self-substituting’ relational Other. Of course this otherness is scarcely a ‘sovereign’ freedom from Christ. On the contrary, analogous to the relation of creation to the Creator but far transcending it, the Church’s relational otherness to Christ is a freedom of dependence (this is why she is also the Body of Christ). But it really is a freedom, a freedom in which she truly and officially represents Christ."

I do not agree with von Balthasar that there is an official representative standing granted to and thus possessed by a certain structure of human community. But I take his point that the same questions that Protestants ask of the Catholic institution can be asked, perhaps even more scathingly, of individuals and church movements that "lay hands on God" in some other manner (again, see here). I can appreciate the truth of von Balthasar's frank confession, especially considering the increasingly to-each-his-own mood of modern times:

"Who among us has not been tempted even once to jump out of his own skin? (A Protestant is a Catholic who has leaped out of his own skin.) But we then recall that it is now high time we jump out of our own skin and not out of the Church."

(Quoting Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Theology of Karl Barth: Exposition and Interpretation, San Francisco: Ignatius, 1992, pp. 48-55, 107, 54)

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