by Hans Urs von Balthasar

From Explorations in Theology, vol. 1: The Word Made Flesh

Editor’s note: This selection from Explorations in Theology: The Word Made Flesh is subtitled “Unity and Division” and is from the chapter titled “Theology and Sanctity” (pp 181-86).

In the whole history of Catholic theology there is hardly anything that is less noticed, yet more deserving of notice, than the fact that, since the great period of Scholasticism, there have been few theologians who were saints. We mean here by “theologian” one whose office and vocation is to expound revelation in its fullness, and therefore whose work centers on dogmatic theology. If we consider the history of theology up to the time of the great Scholastics, we are struck by the fact that the great saints, those who not only achieved an exemplary purity of life, but who also had received from God a definite mission in the Church, were, mostly, great theologians. They were “pillars of the Church”, by vocation channels of her life: their own lives reproduced the fullness of the Church’s teaching, and their teaching the fullness of the Church’s life.

This is the reason for their enduring influence: the faithful saw in their lives an immediate expression of their teaching and a testimony to its value, and so were made fully confident in the rightness of teaching and acting. It also gave the teachers themselves the full assurance that they were not deviating from the canon of revealed truth; for the complete concept of truth, which the gospel offers us, consists precisely in this living exposition of theory in practice and of knowledge carried into action. “If you continue in my word … you shall know the truth” (Jn 8:32). “He that seeks the glory of him that sent me, he is true, and there is no injustice in him” (Jn 7:18). And even stronger: “He who says that he knows him, and keeps not his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him” (1 Jn 2:4). “He that loves not knows not God, for God is charity” (1 Jn 4:8).

From the standpoint of revelation, there is simply no real truth which does not have to be incarnated in an act or in some action, so that the incarnation of Christ is the criterion of all real truth (1 Jn 2:22; 4:2), and “walking in the truth” is the way the believer possesses the truth (2 Jn 1-4; 3 Jn etc.). Since the Holy Spirit distributes offices in the Church according to his will, and gives to some the grace to be “teachers” (Eph 4:11; 1 Cor 12:29), for which he imparts the gift of “knowledge in the Spirit” (1 Cor 12:8), the office of teacher will consist in proclaiming and transmitting the truth of revelation, manifested in the life of Christ, in such a way that the hearer can recognize it through his “walking in the truth” and can thus verify it. For Christ, the exemplar of the truth, who designates himself as the truth, is for us the canon of truth only in that his existence manifests his essence, which is to be the “image of God” (2 Cor 4:4). “I do always the things that please him” (Jn 8:29).

It was by virtue of this unity of knowledge and life that the great teachers of the Church were able, as was required by their special office, to be true lights and pastors of the Church. For although the pastoral office is numbered by Paul in association with that of teacher (Eph 4:11), this does not mean that all pastors must be teachers, though their office involves their sharing the work of transmitting doctrine (2 Tim 2:24, etc.). Likewise, the great teachers are not necessarily pastors, though, even if they are not bishops, they participate in the pastoral office. It is not surprising, therefore, to find that, in the early centuries, the offices of teacher and of pastor (in the sense of Ephesians 4 and 1 Corinthians 12) were normally conjoined. Irenaeus, Cyprian, Athanasius, the two Cyrus, Basil, Gregory of Nazianzen, Gregory of Nyssa, Epiphanius, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Chrysostom, Theodoret, Hilary, Ambrose, Augustine, Fulgentius, Isidore–all were bishops, not to mention the two great popes, Leo and Gregory. Among the great doctors, exceptions to this rule were the two Alexandrians, Jerome, Maximus and John of Damascus; but these representatives of the monastic and ascetical life bring out still more clearly the union of doctrine and life. The same may be said, too, of most of the bishops and teachers mentioned above, who were either monks themselves or were closely associated with monasticism and promoters of it.

In short, these pillars of the Church were complete personalities: what they taught they lived with such directness, so naively, we might say, that the subsequent separation of theology and spirituality was quite unknown to them. It would not only be idle but contrary to the very conceptions of the Fathers to attempt to divide their works into those dealing with doctrine and those concerned with the Christian life (spirituality). It is true that they wrote works of controversy and apologetics; but these, fundamentally, do not constitute a distinct branch, but served, at the time they appeared, as a spur to the development of doctrine. When Irenaeus, Basil, Gregory of Nazianzen or Augustine argue with their adversaries, they do not operate in a forecourt of theology, but in its very center. The answers they give express the fullness and depth of revelation in its central teaching. When they speak of those “outside”, their attitude is the same as when they speak of those within, though to the former they may have to explain certain things that are clear enough to the latter. And when they explain the Christian life to those within, it is always and exclusively in the form of an exposition of traditional doctrine. One might perhaps allow a distinction between the commentaries and homilies of Origen, the former being more speculative and the latter more pastoral in interest; but if we look deeper, the distinction vanishes; in both, Origen is concerned with expounding the word of God, which is as much a word of life as a word of truth. One could, of course, list a number of the works–chiefly shorter ones–of the Fathers as being more practical in scope, which could be classified under the heading “spirituality”; but, just as their works of controversy are, at the same time, doctrinal and theological, so too are those which treat of the Christian life.

This notion of “theology and sanctity” is illuminatingly corroborated and, as it were, canonized by that mysterious writer who, next to Augustine, did most to form the theology of the Middle Ages, and even of modern theology, namely the Areopagite. His Ecclesiastical Hierarchy (to which the Celestial Hierarchy forms little more than an “ideological superstructure”) is framed throughout on an a priori (which has become for us almost inconceivable) identification of hierarchical office and personal holiness. Denis was a far too superior mind for us to impute this action to a naive ignorance of the world; in any case, we have the witness of many of his letters, especially the celebrated one to Demophilus, which shows he was fully alive to the actual defects in the Church. But Denis was of the opinion that we can only grasp the structure of the Church and make it intelligible if we start from what ought to be, what in fact is, when seen in its existence in Christ and in its direct constitution by Christ. The degrees in the hierarchy must, therefore, be put on an identical footing with the degrees of inner purification, illumination and unification; to understand what the episcopal office really is, we must think of it as embodied in one who has reached perfection, who possesses the fullness of contemplation, the highest degree of initiation into the mysteries of God.

In the above-mentioned letter, Denis does not shrink from the conclusion that only one who is himself a “light of the world” can communicate what is sacred, can illuminate. We are inclined to see, in this, the Donatist error, and not to take sufficient account of the constant basic principle of his vision of the Church. Denis, in fact, is not thinking of any purely subjective perfection, but of the gospel image of perfection. And if any commentary is needed, one only has to turn to Lallemant’s invective against priests and religious who, ignoring the Holy Spirit and vegetating at the lowest stages of the Christian life, are powerless to communicate the Spirit to others. Up to the time of Thomas, Denis’ concept of the structure of the Church and the hierarchy was the pattern, though often after Thomas’ time the clarifying distinction between status perfectionis and actual perfection (S Th II, II, 184, 4), and his sober estimate of the relations between the episcopal and religious states (185, 3-8) were bound to come in. It is through the writings of Denis that the de jure identification of bishop, saint and teacher of the Church was most effectively impressed on theology, and this has been received as part of the gospel tradition.

The early medieval thinkers in the West, under the aegis of Augustine, did not depart from this basic concept. Anselm, himself abbot, bishop and doctor of the Church, knew no other canon of truth than the unity of knowledge and life. The same may be said of Bede, Bernard and Peter Damian. But as theology increasingly took on a “scholastic” form, and Aristotelianism burst in like an elemental force, the naive unity hitherto accepted was gravely shaken. No one would think of denying that the gain in clarity, insight and mastery of the entire field was enormous. More resoundingly than in the time of the Fathers, who, almost as a matter of course, achieved eminence in the schools of antiquity, was the jubilation over the spolia Aegyptiorum repeated. The mood which fastened on Christian thinkers was like the intoxication of victors after a battle, at the sight of booty far beyond their expectations.

The booty in this case, however, was primarily philosophical, and only indirectly theological. Philosophy began to emerge as a special discipline alongside theology, with its own concept of philosophical truth, which was perfectly correct in its own sphere, and could lay no claim to the superior content of revealed truth. Adaequatio intellectus ad rem [conformity of the mind to reality]: this definition envisaged, primarily, only the theoretical side of truth. The intimate connection was seen, and indeed emphasized, between the true and the good as the transcendental properties of the one being, but it was looked at more from the human standpoint, in the mutual presupposition of intellect and will (S Th I, 16, 4 and ad 2), than in their objective mutual inclusion, or real identity.

Philosophy, as a doctrine of natural being and excluding revelation, could not know that the highest mode of interpreting that philosophical definition of truth must be a trinitarian one, corresponding to the passages on truth in St. John already cited. There was no danger of misconceiving supernatural truth, so long as philosophical concepts were used as pointers to the final truth which is supernatural and divine. These concepts, in being taken up as part of the assumptio humanae naturae in Christ, lost nothing of their content–just as Christ’s humanity in its entirety subsisted in the Logos–but yet, through this assumption, they must be, as Scheeben says, “transfigured”, and become, like Christ’s humanity, wholly a function and expression of his divine person and truth.

But the Aristotelianism of the thirteenth century did not only enlarge the basis of theology, it was itself the start of the modern sciences of nature and mind as independent disciplines, and rightly so. It gave birth to modern “secularism”, and thereby introduced new tensions and set new problems to the Christian. The great Scholastic period of Albert, Bonaventure and Thomas was peculiarly fitted for theology to irradiate and transfigure the self-subsisting science of nature, raising it to the plane of the sacred, and so to impart to the secular sciences a real Christian ethos, one affecting the whole out- look of the scientific investigator.

But the work of transposing the concepts and methods of the physical and mental sciences, and articulating them with theology, was bound to become more and more difficult, and post-Scholastic theology rarely applied itself to the task (in their own way, Nicholas of Cusa, Leibniz and Baader did, but they were not taken up into official theology). For the most part, it confined itself to using a natural theology, antecedent to biblical theology, as a basis for a rational exposition of the latter. Moreover this was not without its dangers, especially when the philosophical propaedeutic came to be considered a fixed and unalterable basis, whose concepts, without the necessary transposition, were used as norms and criteria of the content of faith, and therefore set in judgment over it. Teachers behaved as though man knew from the outset, before he had been given revelation, knew with some sort of finality what truth, goodness, being, light, love and faith were. It was as though divine revelation on these realities had to accommodate itself to these fixed philosophical conceptual containers that admitted of no expansion. Nor was the actual method of teaching calculated to lessen the danger.

On the contrary, the student was, first of all, required to familiarize himself with the concepts of philosophy and their content, before going on to their application in theology; and he needed an almost superhuman vigilance not to approach theology with preconceived concepts which needed to be “strained” to the utmost. If those established on natural grounds were to be raised to a higher plane and seen in the light of biblical revelation, that was no task for the beginner; it needed the highest degree of maturity, of genius allied with holiness. Albert, Bonaventure, Thomas, perhaps even Scotus, achieved the task. They did not allow their ultimate understanding of the truth to be disturbed by the fullness of the irruption of philosophical truth; and so the original conception of the teacher in the Church, who was by inner necessity a saint, could once again be embodied in them.