Balthasar on How the Infinite Presence and Distance of the Intratrinitarian Relations Opens a “Space” for the World

In Balthasar’s retelling of the history of Western metaphysics, he discerns a dialectical relation between the dialogico-dualistic world of myth and the monological world of philosophical reason. It is only when a distinctively Christian metaphysic comes on the scene—a metaphysic in which a (Triune) God existing a se freely creates and allows his creatures to participate analogously in the (created) being which He gives—that the dialectic between a mythico-dualistic and a philosophico-monistic concept of being can be overcome (p. 17).

For Balthasar, the relationality of the Persons of the Trinity is given accent, and is reflected in his description of God’s nature “as a series of absolutely free reciprocal relations (perichoresis) where an infinite self-donation is perfectly coincident with an infinite self-possession.” Given that each member of the Trinity manifests a reciprocity of both infinite distance and infinite presence, the one divine nature subsists “in an utterly non-static, non-univocal manner: God is ‘One’ as a dynamic relationality where infinite ‘distance’ is coincident with an infinite communion” (p. 18). Here the intratrinitarian relations, displaying both infinite presence and distance, become the archetype for the infinite distance between God and creation. In other words, the intratrinitarian relations as it were open up a “space” for the world. This open space is not an area of non-being within the trintaritarian relations, but instead is the “strictly positive reality of the distance required for truly interpersonal communion. It is the mystery of the abyss of infinite love where there is never a ‘boundary’ or a ‘limit’, but an excessus and an ecstasy that can ground the reality of the world as ‘not God’ in direct proportion to the depth of the world’s incorporation into God” (p. 19).

As one would expect, Balthasar’s doctrine of God as articulated above informs his understanding of revelation. Rather than a static moment in an otherwise changing world of flux, “revelation is to be viewed as the dynamic transformation of the temporal structure of our existence through an incorporation of that existence into the very heart of the trinitarian relations” (p. 20). Against all models of revelation that ultimately manifest an ahistorical set of hermeneutical assumptions in their attempts to understand the relation between the temporal or historical and the eternal, Balthasar begins with the “assumption that the historical realm should not be viewed as an oppositional metaphysical principle to the realm of the atemporal. Rather, the realm of the historical opens up to the event-like, incarnated nature of all truth” (p. 21). Jesus, as the concrete universal, overcomes the temporal/eternal dialectic. It is in the drama of his concrete, historical life that the “temporal structures find their inner completion” (p. 20).

Larry Chapp’s essay, “Revelation,” is published in The Cambridge Companion to Hans Urs Von Balthasar. Eds by Edward T. Oakes, SJ and David Moss. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004): 11-23.

Balthasar and Revelation as God’s Symphony

In the prologue of his book, Truth is Symphonic, Balthasar depicts creation as God’s symphony. Symphony of course literally means, “to sound together.” As Balthasar so elegantly describes it, “[f]irst there is sound, then different sounds and then we hear the different sounds singing together in a dance of sound” (p. 7). In order to compose a symphony well, it is necessary for the composer to have an intimate knowledge of each instrument. For example, s/he must be familiar with the instrument’s construction, range, and timbre so that the part written for each particular instrument not only properly corresponds to its capabilities, but also allows each particular instrument to realize its full potential. Yet, there is more. The composer must also hear how each part will sound as the different parts dance together simultaneously and form one sound. From a different angle, we might highlight the fact that the “orchestra must be pluralist in order to unfold the wealth of the totality that resounds in the composer’s mind” (p. 7).

Next, Balthasar compares the world to an orchestra tuning up just prior to the performance: “each player plays to himself, while the audience takes their seats and the conductor has not yet arrived. All the same, someone has struck an A on the piano, and a certain unity of atmosphere is established around it: they are tuning up for some common endeavor. Nor is the particular selection of instrumentation fortuitous: with their graded differences of qualities, they already form a kind of system of coordinates. The oboe, perhaps supported by the bassoon, will provide a foil to the corpus of strings, but could not do so effectively if the horns did not create a background linking the two sides of this counterpoint. The choice of instruments comes from the unity that, for the moment, lies silent in the open score on the conductor’s podium—but soon, when the conductor taps with his baton, this unity will draw everything to itself and transport it, and then we shall see why each instrument is there” (pp. 7-8).

In God’s symphonic performance, that is, his revelation, “it is impossible to say which is richer: the seamless genius of his composition or the polyphonous orchestra of Creation that he has prepared to play it” (p. 8). Prior to the Incarnation, the world orchestra, tuned to their own version of A, produces at best a cacophony of sounds. Yet, when the true A comes, the entire orchestra must tune to Him who brings unity to this display of diversity and plurality in a non-tyrannical way. From this analogy, we see that the diversity of the created order, or as Balthasar calls it, the “pluralism of the world” is not something to despise, but rather allows for the greatest manifestation of the fullness of divinity. However, the world should not expect to find its unity within itself, as its unity is found in Him whose origin is other-worldly. Balthasar then adds a specifically vertical or relational dimension to the analogy, as he explains that the purpose of the world’s plurality is “not to refuse to enter into the unity that lies in God and is imparted by him, but symphonically to get in tune with one another and give allegiance to the transcendent unity. As for the audience, none is envisaged other than the players themselves: by performing the divine symphony—the composition of which can in no way be deduced from the instruments, even in their totality—they discover why they have been assembled together. Initially, they stand or sit next to each other as strangers, in mutual contradiction, as it were. Suddenly, as the music begins, they realize how they are integrated. Not in unison, but what is far more beautiful—in sym-phony” (p. 9).