Hans Urs von Balthasar

Hans Urs von Balthasar was a Swiss theologian and Catholic priest who is considered an important Roman Catholic theologian of the 20th century.


Balthasar was born in Lucerne, Switzerland, on 12 August 1905, to a wealthy family. Bishop Vilmos Apor was his uncle. He was educated first by Benedictine monks at the abbey school at Engelberg in central Switzerland. Before finishing his secondary education, however, Balthasar was moved by his parents to the Stella Matutina College run by the Society of Jesus in Feldkirch, Austria. In 1923, he enrolled in the University of Zurich. His studies in philosophy and German literature led him to study subsequently in Vienna and Berlin and culminated in his doctoral work on German literature and idealism.
In 1929, having submitted his thesis, he entered the Society of Jesus in Germany, since the Jesuits were banned in Switzerland until 1973. For three years he studied philosophy at Pullach, near Munich, and came into contact with Erich Przywara, whose work on analogia entis was very influential on him. In 1932, he moved to Fourvières, the Jesuit school at Lyon, for his four years of theological study. Here he encountered Jean Daniélou, Gaston Fessard, and Henri de Lubac. Daniélou and de Lubac were both to become notable from the 1940s onwards as members of the nouvelle théologie, a group of thinkers raising deep questions about the neoscholastic doctrine of grace and nature, with its suggestion that human nature could be conceived of in isolation from its relation to the vision of God. Both Daniélou and de Lubac, as part of their re-assessment of neo-scholastic thought, were increasingly turning to studies of patristic thinkers. Balthasar received from these theological studies an enduring love of the Church Fathers, which was later to lead to his studies of Origen of Alexandria, Maximus the Confessor, Kosmische Liturgie, and Gregory of Nyssa, Présence et pensée.
Having completed his training in seven years, because of his previous studies, Balthasar was ordained a priest in 1936. He then worked briefly in Munich, on the Jesuit journal Stimmen der Zeit. In 1940, with the Nazi regime encroaching on the freedom of Catholic journalists, he left Germany and began work in Basel as a student chaplain.
While in Basel he met Adrienne von Speyr. She was a twice-married Protestant medical doctor in chronically poor health, who through her mystical experiences would have a huge impact on Balthasar's later thought. In 1940 he received her into the Catholic Church. In 1945, they founded a religious society, the Community of Saint John, for men and women. This became more widely known three years later when Balthasar produced a theology for secular institutes in his work Der Laie und der Ordenstand, the first book to be published by the Johannes Verlag, a publishing house established with the help of a friend.
Because the Jesuits did not see running the institute as compatible with belonging to the society, von Balthasar had to choose between remaining a Jesuit and his involvement with the institute. In 1950, he left the Society of Jesus, feeling that God had called him to continue his work with this secular institute, a form of consecrated life that sought to work for the sanctification of the world from within the world. He accordingly remained without a role in the church until, in 1956, he was incardinated into the Diocese of Chur as a secular priest.
Balthasar was not invited to take part in any capacity in the Second Vatican Council, but in later years his reputation as a theologian grew. In 1969, Pope Paul VI appointed him to the International Theological Commission, and in 1984 he was awarded the first Paul VI International Prize for his contributions to theology.
From the low point of being banned from teaching as a result of his leaving the Society of Jesus, his reputation eventually rose to the extent that Pope John Paul II named him to be a cardinal in 1988. He died, however, in his home in Basel on 26 June 1988, two days before the ceremony which would have granted him that position. His remains were interred in the Hofkirche cemetery in Lucerne.


Along with Karl Rahner and Bernard Lonergan, Balthasar sought to offer a response to Western modernity, which posed a challenge to traditional Catholic thought. While Rahner offered a progressive, accommodating position on modernity and Lonergan worked out a philosophy of history that sought to critically appropriate modernity, Balthasar resisted the reductionism and human focus of modernity, wanting Christianity to be more challenging toward modern sensibilities.; Balthasar is very eclectic in his approach, sources, and interests and remains difficult to categorize. An example of his eclecticism was his long study and conversation with the influential Reformed Swiss theologian, Karl Barth, on whose work he wrote the first Catholic analysis and response. Although Balthasar's major points of analysis on Karl Barth's work have been disputed, his The Theology of Karl Barth: Exposition and Interpretation remains a classic work for its sensitivity and insight; Karl Barth himself agreed with its analysis of his own theological enterprise, calling it the best book on his own theology.

Writings and thought

Balthasar's first major work, the three-volume Apokalypse der deutschen Seele was an expansion of his dissertation and a study in German literature, theology, and philosophy. Published in Germany and Austria during the Third Reich, one scholar has argued that the work contains anti-Semitism.
Balthasar was better known for his 15-volume systematics, published from 1961–1985, which is divided into three parts according to John , and therefore according to the transcendentals bonum, verum, and pulchrum.
The Glory of the Lord a work on 'theological aesthetics'. One of the often quoted passages from the entire Trilogy comes from the First Volume of The Glory of the Lord:

Before the beautiful—no, not really before but within the beautiful—the whole person quivers. He not only 'finds' the beautiful moving; rather, he experiences himself as being moved and possessed by it.

Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory, a work on 'theodramatics', examines the ethics and goodness in the action of God and in the human response, especially in the events of Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. Balthasar's soteriology, christology, and eschatology, are here developed.
The final group of volumes is titled Theo-Logic, describing the truth about the relation of the nature of Jesus Christ to reality itself. He completes the third part of his trilogy with a brief Epilogue.
A distinctive thought in Balthasar's work is that our first experience after birth is the face of love of our mothers, where the I encounters for the first time the Thou, and the Thou smiles in a relationship of love and sustenance.
Balthasar also wrote of the lives of saints and Church fathers. Saints appear as an example of the lived Christian life throughout his writings. Instead of merely systematic analysis of theology, Balthasar described his theology as a "kneeling theology" deeply connected to contemplative prayer and as a "sitting theology" intensely connected to faith seeking understanding guided by the heart and mind of the Catholic Church.
Balthasar was very concerned that his writings address spiritual and practical issues. He insisted that his theology never be divorced from the mystical experiences of his long-time friend and convert, the physician Adrienne von Speyr.
Balthasar published varied works spanning many decades, fields of study, and languages.
Balthasar used the expression Casta Meretrix to argue that the term Whore of Babylon was acceptable in a certain tradition of the Church, in the writings of Rabanus Maurus for instance.
At Balthasar's funeral, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, later to become Pope Benedict XVI, said, speaking of Balthasar's work in general: "What the pope intended to express by this mark of distinction , and of honor, remains valid; no longer only private individuals but the Church itself, in its official responsibility, tells us that he is right in what he teaches of the faith."


On his 1970 book Theologie der Drei Tage, von Balthasar explored the meaning of Holy Saturday, where Jesus Christ dies and descends to the dead, to be resurrected by God the Father. His exegesis emphasizes that Jesus was not betrayed but surrendered and delivered up by himself, since the meaning of the Greek word used by the New Testament, paradidonai, is unequivocally "handing over of self". In the "Preface to the Second Edition", Balthasar takes a cue from Revelation to extrapolate the idea that God as "immanent Trinity" can endure and conquer godlessness, abandonment, and death in an "eternal super-kenosis". Christ would deposit His divine knowledge with the Father before the Incarnation and, after it, He would literally be "made sin", experiencing in Sheol after His death on the cross a state of abandonment from the Father worse than hell. In the words of Balthasar himself: "At this point, where the subject undergoing the 'hour' is the Son speaking with the Father, the controversial 'Theopaschist formula' has its proper place: 'One of the Trinity has suffered.' The formula can already be found in Gregory Nazianzen: 'We needed a...crucified God'."
His other controversial theological assertions were in favour of a rehabilitation of Origen and his soteriology. In a sort of conflict among the theological virtues, since "Love believes all things, hopes all things", what for fides must be rejected, for spes must be accepted, in order to recover with the theology of hope what in 553 the dogmatic theology had condemned with the anathema of the fifth Ecumenical Council of Constantinople against the possibility of apocatastasis, i.e. of a universal salvation. Universal salvation, if it happens, would be the result of the "utter abandonment the Son undergoes". Balthasar cited the list of other Catholic thinkers who have agreed with such a perspective: Przywara, de Lubac, Fessard, Blondel, Péguy, Claudel, Marcel, Bloy, Ratzinger, Kasper, Greshake, Guardini, Rahner. "In summa: a company in which one can feel quite comfortable."


The most comprehensive bibliography now available of all of von Balthasar's writings is


Balthasar's Theological Dramatic Theory has influenced the work of Raymund Schwager.
Balthasar's major writings have been translated into English, and the journal he co-founded with Henri de Lubac, Karl Lehmann, and Joseph Ratzinger, Communio, currently appears in twelve languages. In delivering his eulogy, Ratzinger, quoting de Lubac, called Balthasar, "perhaps the most cultured man of our time," In March 2018, together with Adrienne von Speyr, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Chur formally opened their cause towards canonisation. Von Balthasar has also been highly influential in the work of Bishop Robert Barron, who has been an ardent advocate of von Balthasar's soteriology.