The Mission of the Church: Moving Into and Through History

Further reflections on Balthasar’s essay, “The Fathers, the Scholastics, and Ourselves”

In the last post I looked at Balthasar’s image of the tree of culture from his essay “The Fathers, the Scholastics, and Ourselves. On the basis of this image, I described his admonition to receive from the past without overly romanticizing any given period, age, or thinker. In sum Balthasar argued, “Don’t so long for the past that you forget the moment that you actually live in.”

In this post I want to look at the same article and examine the larger argument he makes about the three great periods of Christianity, the patristic age, the scholastic age, and the modern age. In proposing this three fold division, Balthasar seeks to articulate what he discerns to be the inner core of each period. As he puts it, he wants, “To press on past all external and superficial features of each epoch, to focus on its innermost structural law, and then to measure each respective formal law according to the structural law of what is essentially Christian as we encounter this norm in the Gospel” (352).

Setting aside whether or not such a goal is even possible, especially in the span of a short essay, if we take his methodology at face value, the most important thing to determine is what he means by the “norm of the Gospel”. So what is the norm of the Gospel? It is that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and because the norm of the gospel is the Incarnation itself, it can never be an abstract principle. By extension this norm, “expresses itself in the level of history in ever-new forms without out being able thereby to call any one of these forms the absolute one” (352). Again he emphasizes that each age has sought to articulate the gospel faithfully, but even faithful articulation is never absolute. History changes so the forms the gospel takes must change too. So whether he fairly represents each period is in one sense slightly beside the point because his primary point has to do with the relationship between the Incarnation and history, a theme I wrote about in an earlier post about his book A Theology of History.

One form the gospel has taken on are the reigning philosophical systems of a given era. That the theology of the church takes on philosophic forms is both a kind of truism and a matter of heated debate. Everyone agrees that is does happen, but not everyone agrees to what extent it is a good or bad thing. Balthasar seems to argue that in one sense it must happen. The norm of the gospel must take on a form: “The Church has been sent to all peoples and to all times; and since she is expressly meant to speak in the form of the visible and the natural, she is also directed to take on the kaleidoscopic variety of the different situations of those times and peoples. Every epoch has its own language, world view, perspective; and the Church must make use of all these in order ’to become all things to all men and so to win all for Christ” (367). The “ever-new forms” include appropriating philosophical systems and concepts in order to articulate the Gospel. For him John’s use of the Logos concept to describe the Incarnation is the prime example of using this appropriation well.

Philosophical systems, such as Platonism for the Fathers and Aristotelianism for the Scholastics, are forms that theologians take on in order to articulate the gospel terms that make sense to a given culture, to a particular time and place. There are dangers in this, and Balthasar acknowledges this. With Platonism there is the possible danger of other worldliness, of escape from creation, and there is the possible danger of pantheism. With the Scholastics the danger is to naturalize everything. But this does not mean that the theologians of the those eras were wrong to adopt these forms.

Problems only arise when the philosophical appropriation becomes untethered from the Incarnation. And the temptation to untether is the problem of the Garden extending through history. The sin of Eden is for Balthasar the desire to ascend to God on our own terms, and philosophical forms can become just that. Gnosticism is the example par excellence. But that does not mean that using Platonic forms is inherently wrong or will inevitably lead to Gnosticism.

It comes back again and again as it so often does for Balthasar to the Incarnation, the Word becoming flesh. Christ as the concrete universal, the form of forms by which we measure all other forms. And the movement of Christ into history becomes the norm of the church’s mission. The Incarnation is the movement of the Logos into history, the Word becoming flesh, and as Christ’s body the movement of the Church is into history, into the particulars of each time and place that she find herself in. The Church moves into and through history, not soaring above it or standing beside it, but into the midst of it. From the Garden onward we have tried to ascend to God on our own terms, but the scandal of the Gospel is that God descends to creation, enters history, and embraces the particularity of the human form.

It is worth keeping in mind that for Balthasar it is the perennial temptation to ascend to God on our own terms that most corrupts the gospel rather than a particular philosophical form per se. When we think about philosophical and psychological and cultural forms on offer in our day, using the norm of Gospel in the Incarnation can be an extremely helpful way to determine whether we are trying to ascend to God on our own terms or to descend with him into the particulars of history.

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