Robert Saler is Research Professor of Lutheran Studies and Executive Director of the Center for Pastoral Excellence at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, IN.
In this study, Jennifer Newsome Martin offers far more than a relatively esoteric consideration of the influence of the 19th-century “Russian School” (particularly Vladimir Soloviev, Nikolai Berdyaev, and Sergei Bulgakov) on Hans Urs von Balthasar’s theology, as interesting as such genealogy might be to theologians. Instead, by considering how Balthasar incorporates and rejects the fruits of a uniquely daring and speculative period within Russian theology (and Eastern Orthodox systematic theology in general), Martin is able to provide one of the more lucid introductions to the speculative yet ultimately disciplined character of Balthasar’s own theology. Indeed, given that von Balthasar has come under attack in recent years particularly by Roman Catholic theologians who regard some of his more daring theological formulations (e.g. his subjunctive universalism, his account of Christ’s descent into hell as one of suffering rather than triumph), Martin’s careful exegesis of where Balthasar follows the lead of his Russian interlocutors (as well as that of their mutual textual foil, Schelling) and where he demurs from their more radical conclusions in the name of Catholic doctrine and/or Christocentric theology serves a more subterranean yet compelling purpose: to demonstrate that Balthasar, whose capacious appreciation for intellectual sources outside of Roman Catholicism and indeed outside the orbit of Christian theology altogether, nonetheless was creatively orthodox in his interweaving of these disparate strands into a sustained theological vision of the fulfillment of all human endeavors – artistic, philosophical, and religious – in the resurrected life of Christ.
The result of this is a marvelously scholarly and non-polemical survey of some key themes in Balthasar’s theology, particularly in relation to eschatology, biblical hermeneutics, and the role of myth in theology. For instance, regarding the role of myth, Balthasar shared with both his Russian interlocutors and Schelling a suspicion of the seemingly deadening impact of unchecked Enlightenment rationality in describing the human condition (as well as the subsequent impact of such anemic understandings of revelation and the apocalyptic upon Christian theology). However, Balthasar saw in his Russian counterparts’ reception of both Schelling and Schelling’s ideological predecessor Jakob Böhme an object lesson in how to critically appropriate mythic hermeneutics both within and cognate to Christian scriptures in both unhelpful (as in his firm dismissal of Berdyaev on this score) and in evocative ways (as in his greater sympathy for Bulgakov).
In reading Martin’s account, the principal of “resonant, not relevant” comes to mind – because these Russian thinkers in diaspora, as heterogeneous as they were, all were confronted with the challenge of reconciling aesthetic and philosophical currents of modernity with biblical and patristic sources (a task that was arguably mostly eschewed by the subsequent neo-pastristic Renaissance brought to fruition by figures such as Florovsky, despite that movement’s ostensible program of synthesis) but from a wildly different cultural and ecclesial location than that of von Balthasar, their consideration of sources common to both East and West from the standpoint of ecclesial fidelity could inform Balthasar’s speculative imagination while also modeling epistemological and/or doctrinal restraint at key junctures. As Balthasar himself said about that tensions in inherent in that task (as quoted by Martin),
Being faithful to tradition most definitely does not consist…of a literal repetition and transmission of the philosophical and theological theses that one imagines lie hidden in time and in the contingencies of history. Rather, being faithful to tradition consists much more of imitating our Fathers in the faith with respect to their attitude of intimate reflection and their effort of audacious creation, which are necessary preludes to true spiritual fidelity. (14-15).
One of Martin’s most significant contributions in showcasing Balthasar’s “true fidelity” on this score is to demonstrate how, when all was said and done, for him the key theological loci of bodily resurrection and eschatological redemption as construed by the Catholic tradition are absolutely necessary for doing justice to the strivings of the human condition as reflected in art, philosophy, and other modes of cultural aesthetics. Indeed, Martin demonstrates convincingly that the moments in Balthasar’s corpus where he is most severe and epistemologically restrictive in his willingness to speculate apart from received Catholic doctrine is when he feels that the centrality of the resurrection (with its theological approbation of the material body as a site of God’s redemption) is in danger of being subsumed by quasi-gnostic mythos.
As a scholarly monograph (indeed, a dissertation revision) and as a sympathetic rendition of Balthasar’s major themes, Martin’s book succeeds well. Indeed, the only significant frustration that I had with the book was that, in this case, those two genres exist in some tension: because Martin stays on task of assessing Balthasar’s corpus in light of his Russian and German idealist interlocutors, the book – though clearly written – will largely be inaccessible for those seeking a more general introduction to Balthasar as well as a more sustained response to his more vociferous critics (whom Martin introduces and summarizes fairly but mostly rebuts, if at all, via indirect demonstration rather than direct response). If this book is any indication, Martin has quite a bit more to add to consideration of Balthasar’s legacy, and we can hope that her future contributions will help those of us who are sympathetic both to Balthasar’s theology and the larger theo-aesthetic tasks to which he addresses himself to draw some more pointed lines in the sand against those who would discount his impact or his legacy. But in the meantime, this book is a solid foundation on which to begin to build that case as well as a study that will be of interest not only to Balthasar scholars but also Eastern Orthodox scholars looking to see how a theologically astute Westerner “looks in” on a fraught and heavily contested moment in their theological heritage. Martin makes a convincing case that such resonant readings across traditions is all to the benefit of theology.