Toward the end of his life, Hans Urs von Balthasar said of his multi-volume trilogy, “I wrote it all for Barth – to convert him.” Stephen Wigley’s new book can be read as an exposition of this revealing statement. Wigley’s central claim is that Balthasar’s critical engagement with Barth shaped the deep structure of his trilogy. Barth is not merely one interlocutor among others for Balthasar, but rather is the key to understanding the whole of his theology. Although this is not a particularly original or controversial thesis, the enduring significance of Barth for Balthasar’s theological project is all too often forgotten or suppressed. So Wigley’s book contributes to the ongoing appropriation of Balthasar’s legacy by keeping his conversation with Barth in the foreground.
Wigley advances his argument by first discussing Balthasar’s book on Barth, followed by an overview of Balthasar’s trilogy that highlights the presence of Barth as the key conversation partner. This method has the advantage of showcasing the breadth of Balthasar’s engagement with Barth, as opposed to many previous studies that compare the two figures on a selected topic. Unfortunately, given the vastness of Balthasar’s output, this method consistently lends itself to mere summary even when the arguments call for closer examination. Wigley repeatedly acknowledges the limitation of such summarizing, but does not take any significant steps to mitigate its effects. Nevertheless, Wigley makes some crucial claims worthy of attention. I will identify and discuss three such claims, and then offer some more general criticisms of the book.
Wigley’s three most crucial claims are embedded within a single sentence in the conclusion of the book. “What this book does argue is that … the formof von Balthasar’s debate with Barth (centring on a christological reinterpretation of the analogy of being) … provides the key influence which in turn goes on to govern the structure of von Balthasar’s subsequent trilogy” (160, emphasis original). The three claims correspond to the three italicized words.
The first claim concerns the form of Balthasar’s debate with Barth. Balthasar’s book on Barth, argues Wigley, is not only an exposition but also a work of theology in its own right. Balthasar exposits Barth in order to respond to his theology. Of course, anyone who actually read Balthasar’s 1951 book would know this. Yet it is all too easy, especially in the midst of the recent renaissance in Barth studies, to reduce the significance of Balthasar’s book to its interpretive schema. Balthasar’s interpretive schema, famously focused on analogy, functions as a point of entry to reinterpret the analogy of being Christocentrically, thereby taking on board Barth’s driving concerns even while demurring from his views on analogy.
Wigley is certainly right in his description of Balthasar’s intentions, and his treatment of Balthasar’s book on Barth sets up his larger argument nicely. However, it should be noted that exposition and response can be distinguished but cannot be separated. Balthasar’s critical response to Barth claims to follow through on Barth’s own insights in order to arrive at a Catholic position concerning the analogy of being. As Wigley puts it, “Barth has, as it were, not moved far enough” (44). Such an internal critique presumes the accuracy of Balthasar’s interpretation of the trajectory of Barth’s development. At this point, Wigley gives Balthasar too much credit. If it turns out that Barth was not moving in the direction Balthasar thought he was, then Balthasar’s alternative, though it may be justifiable on other grounds, does not succeed as a critical response to Barth. The historical questions of Barth interpretation and the systematic questions of how to respond to him cannot be separated. Wigley has rightly characterized Balthasar’s overarching purpose, but has failed to acknowledge the interconnectedness of exposition and response.
The second claim concerns the key influence on Balthasar’s theology. Of all the many figures Balthasar constructively engages throughout his work, who is the key to unlocking his theology? Wigley argues that Barth is the key influence in Balthasar’s development. In the epilogue, he contends with the recent counterclaims of Mark McIntosh and Kevin Mongrain, who argue respectively that Maximus and Ignatius of Loyola or Irenaeus via Henri de Lubac are the key influences on Balthasar’s thought. Although Wigley acknowledges the significance of these and other figures for Balthasar, he claims that Barth is the key influence developmentally, inasmuch as Balthasar’s critical response to Barth occasions and drives his trilogy.
The justification of such a claim would require the collection and analysis of considerably more evidence than Wigley supplies, especially from Balthasar’s earlier writings, personal correspondence, and unpublished papers that might reveal more of Balthasar’s self-understanding. Yet, at least in terms of Balthasar’s major publication – the trilogy – the significance of Barth is unquestionable. Wigley’s work serves to block those who wish to downplay Barth’s influence. The negative function of this claim is more important that its positive counterpart, because it is doubtful whether debates over who is the key influence on a figure are productive or even meaningful. The more important question is how a theologian creatively integrates many influences within his or her own constructive project. How Barth and Irenaeus fit together within the developing structure of Balthasar’s thought is far more interesting than which one is supposedly more influential. The mention of structure brings us to Wigley’s third claim.
The third and final claim concerns the structure of Balthasar’s theological trilogy. Wigley claims that Balthasar’s choice to structure his major theological publication around the three transcendentals (beauty, goodness, truth) is a function of his Christological reinterpretation of the analogy of being and therefore a direct consequence of his debate with Barth. Put succinctly, Balthasar’s response to Barth is architectonic.
The depth of this structural claim renders it both the most important as well as the most unwieldy of Wigley’s claims, for it suggests the corollary claim that Barth’s influence continues ‘underground’ even as Balthasar’s explicit engagement with Barth subsides over the years. On the one hand, such an underground influence is fruitful for interpretation because it enables one to see Barth’s role in the conversation even when Balthasar does not mention him. On the other hand, such presumed underground influence lets Wigley avoid the interpretive question: Why does Barth’s presence on Balthasar’s pages wane over the years? Wigley acknowledges but does not explain this phenomenon (88-89). Discussion of a few selected later texts where Barth does appear is not sufficient to answer this interpretive question. One must also attend to contextual factors, such as the cooling of their relationship after the publication of the second edition of Balthasar’s book on Barth. Although I tend to agree with Wigley’s structural claim, such weakness in execution raises serious doubts about the overall method of this book, which brings us to some more general criticisms.
Wigley’s reading of texts is unsatisfactory. This does not necessarily undermine the crucial claims highlighted above, but it certainly leads to numerous weak spots, blind spots, and outright errors. Such methodological inadequacy applies differently to different authors in question. Bluntly stated, Wigley interprets Balthasar flatly, represents Bruce McCormack falsely, and does not engage Barth at all.
Wigley claims to employ an “old-fashioned and ‘historico-critical’” (160) method, but he seldom places Balthasar in his wider historical context. Both diachronically and synchronically, Wigley’s interpretation of Balthasar is flat. Although he discusses Erich Przywara in the first chapter and refers to him throughout the book, Wigley does not take time to assess the developments and changes in his thought, nor does he address the complexities of Balthasar’s relationship to him. One gets the impression that Balthasar remained firmly supportive of Przywara’s earlier views throughout his career, when in fact both Balthasar and Przywara continued to develop and grew substantially apart in the process. Balthasar developed his Christologically-grounded analogy of being along this trajectory, which was certainly not fully operative from 1951 on as Wigley seems to suggest. Furthermore, the short-lived yet decisive place of Gottlieb Söhngen in the debate over analogy is entirely overlooked. Many more examples could be given, but these are sufficient to illustrate the endemic problem.
In the course of discussing Balthasar’s book on Barth, Wigley sets his sights on McCormack’s criticisms of Balthasar. McCormack offers an alternative developmental paradigm to the so-called “von Balthasar thesis” that Barth turned from dialectic to analogy in his Anselm book. Wigley claims that McCormack “does not do justice to the subtlety and detail of von Balthasar’s exposition” and obscures the fact that “Balthasar was not seeking simply to introduce and interpret Barth, but to engage and respond as a Catholic theologian” (41). As a criticism of McCormack, the second claim is a red herring. Although Balthasar’s intentions are crucial for understanding his constructive relationship with Barth, good intentions do not always make for good interpretation. Challenging Balthasar’s interpretation of Barth does not obscure Balthasar’s systematic intentions, but rather takes seriously the interconnectedness of interpretation and response. The first claim would be damning, if it were true. However, it is not. The only evidence Wigley cites to illustrate McCormack’s injustice to Balthasar’s “subtlety and detail” comes directly from McCormack’s own concessions (41-42). Wigley completely ignores McCormack’s detailed five-point argument against the received paradigm (Karl Barth’s Critically Realistic Dialectical Theology pp. 434-441). Wigley cites Balthasar’s emphasis on Barth’s “inner consistency” as evidence of a convergence between the two interpretations (42). However, this misses the import of McCormack’s interpretive paradigm: that Barth consistently developed along a materially different trajectory than Balthasar had supposed. The net result is a gross misrepresentation of McCormack’s argument, setting the book off on the wrong foot from the beginning. This misstep is especially unfortunate because it is entirely unnecessary. Wigley’s overall argument does not require that Balthasar’s interpretation of Barth be wholly accurate. Wigley would have been better off acknowledging that contemporary Barth scholarship has supplanted much of Balthasar’s interpretation and then moving on to show how Balthasar’s engagement with Barth functioned in Balthasar’s own development.
Even more disappointing than the flat reading of Balthasar and misrepresentation of McCormack is the complete lack of direct engagement with Barth. Although he cites Barth’s texts at numerous points, Wigley does not analyze in detail any of his arguments on their own terms. He only repeats Balthasar’s praises and criticisms. This lack of direct engagement contributes to a failure of follow-through regarding the subterranean influence of Barth. For instance, Balthasar’s anthropology and Christology in volumes two and three of Theo-Drama invite systematic comparison with Barth’s own exploration of these topics, but no such analysis is given. Along with these missed opportunities, there are a number of mistaken citations from Barth’s corpus that betray a lack of attention to detail.
Readers expecting a critical engagement with Barth and Balthasar will undoubtedly be disappointed. Perhaps a better title for this book would have been “Han Urs von Balthasar’s Critical Engagement with Karl Barth.” We will have to wait for a truly critical engagement with both figures. In the meantime, this volume provides a sort of “checklist” for further study by identifying many of the key places where Balthasar directly engages Barth. As such it will be of interest to some specialists, and may in due course serve to stimulate much needed research into the complex relationship between two of the church’s greatest theologians.
The views expressed here are strictly those of the author; they do not necessarily represent the views of the Center for Barth Studies or Princeton Theological Seminary.