Hans Urs von Balthasar’s metaphysics is not quite metaphysics in the traditional sense of the word, and it is certainly not metaphysics in the modern sense of the word. That is, Balthasar does not spend a great deal of his metaphysical reflections differentiating causality, as in Aristotle, or discussing the abolition of metaphysics, as is popular since Hegel (who happens to be Balthasar’s nemesis and sometimes-friend). All the while his metaphysics is thoroughly impossible to understand without traditional Thomism – even if he himself modifies Thomas – and without comprehending the terrible vistas he observes in Hegel. His response is Thomist and not, modern and not. His response is utterly unique.

When Balthasar employs the phrase forma, the Latin term that Aquinas used with great fascination, he does not use it quite as Aquinas did: he means forma both as the animating principle of a thing (as Aquinas essentially derives the term) and as Gestalt, a German phrase that can mean “outward shape,” “life -form,” intelligible form,” and “historical figure.” Balthasar means every meaning, including the traditional. Gestalt is fused with forma. This is cause for frustration and admiration.

Much has been made of Balthasar’s use of the term Gestalt, as must be the case. Much has been made of the fact that the word does not quite mean forma, especially in English literature, since Gestalt is translated as “form” in English and produces sharp confusion about the term. When Balthasar employs his concept of Gestalt – a modified version of Goethe, filtered through Thomism and German Idealism, distanced from psychology – he has Christ in mind. Christ is the Gestalt of God, and indeed of the world. As the eternal Son, he is the “exegesis of the Father,” the one who is the “image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15). As God Incarnate, he in his humanity reveals the full dimensions of creation (hidden even to itself), and he came “to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ” (Eph 1:9). This “bringing together” is perhaps the most comprehensive understanding of Gestalt’s function in Balthasar’s thought, with only one missing facet that I will discuss in a moment. As it is, Gestalt draws together all the disparate threads of meaning in the world – all the various contradictory qualities inscribed in it – and provides their inner coherence without elminating them. For Balthasar, such a coherence cannot be found “in the world,” but only “from above.” The coherence between distinct qualities in creation is beautiful, since beauty for Balthasar operates as the transcendental consonance between all things. It is beauty, in particular, that helps to describe unity.

As Aidan Nichols explains in this article:

In his person, life, death and resurrection, Jesus Christ is the ‘form of God’. As presented in the New Testament writings, the words, actions and sufferings of Jesus form an aesthetic unity, held together by the ‘style’ of unconditional love. Love is always beautiful, because it expresses the self- diffusiveness of being, and so is touched by being’s radiance, the pulchrum. But the unconditional, gracious, sacrificial love of Jesus Christ expresses not just the mystery of being — finite being — but the mystery of the Source of being, the transcendent communion of love which we call the Trinity.  Thus through the Gestalt Christi, the love which God is shines through to the world. This is Balthasar’s basic intuition.

Form (Gestalt) in this case cannot exactly mean forma, since here the focus is on a kind of woven-together unity and forma is not composite. Indeed, the matter is further complicated by Balthasar’s “ontology of language,” as Peter J. Casarella frames it  in an essay for the book, Glory, Grace, and Culture. Casarella explains that Balthasar has worked out an “ontology of language,” which incorporates the “polarityof being” into a theory of language. Now metaphysics (specifically ontology) – and Balthasar’s most beloved “polarities” between contingency and fulfillment, being and becoming, act and potency – are entwined with language: for Christ is indeed the Word of God, and human beings become words of God in him, and theological words (especially the words of the sacraments) receive effective, expressive qualities in him. Casarella describes these dynamics in more detail, but it is important here to stress that relating metaphysics and language is not exactly new: Thomas did it.

Thomas Aquinas – known, loved, and hated for his metaphysics – also described the nature of language, and in such a way that it was closely allied with metaphysics. This article on his theory of predication helps to describe certain aspects of his thought on the topic. Aquinas’s theory is not the same as modern language theory, and there are significant historical developments (and digressions) between the two. The Angelic Doctor has also received derision for his apparent naivete about language. Regardless, he did link metaphysics and language – whatever we may think of his link – and it is very clear that (1) metaphysics is not just a word game, and (2) words are not shell games.

Balthasar thinks – and scholars debate whether this is true – that he has managed to draw out the impliations of Thomas’s metaphysics and apply them in his own theology, especially his own theology of being. He accomplishes such a task in part through the thought of Erich Przywara, and describes much of its essentials in his Epilogue to his trilogy. There is a strong phenomenological bent to Balthasar’s reflections – which are always particular, personal, dynamic – though he ultimately rejects phenomenology as insufficient to the task of studying being (especially as it comes to move away from such a study). David C. Schindler at Villanova University has an excellent book on Balthasar and his complex philosophical motives, entitled Hans Urs Von Balthasar and the Dramatic Structure of Truth. His article, “Metaphysics Within the Limits of Phenomenology,” describes the basic contours of his reflections, and can be read online.

Schindler helpfully points us toward the analogia entis, and it is in this way that Thomas continues to play a vital role in Balthasar’s thinking, and more of a role than has been admitted in the past. In Glory of the Lord IV, Balthasar insists that Aquinas’s metaphysical insights – particularly the distinction between essence and existence in contingent being, which Balthasar interprets as a real distinction (along with others) and Suarez (among others) does not – are the absolute height of metaphysics, never to be equalled again. The analogy of being is a fundamental quality of every single one of Balthasar’s works, even his historical analyses of figures like Maximus the Confessor (who Balthasar rather anachronistically tends to interpret in terms of the analogia entis, which is not necessarily contra Maximus’s work but also not necessarily constituitive of it).

What does the analogia entis have to do with form? In the first place, the Gestalt Christi operates vertically as well as horizontally. That is to say: it is not simply that creation receives a revelation of its own inner coherence, but that this inner coherence is illuminated through the incomparable difference between God and creation. In encountering Christ, we indeed learn who we are. We also learn that we are not God. Neither insight is extractible from the other. Nor does this mean that Christ “provides” the inner unity of creation as if it were “missing” like a piece of a  jigsaw puzzle until the Incarnation: the unity is revealed, not added.

At the same time, the Incarnation fulfills the world and presses it toward its final end. In this way, Christ is the form of the world not simply in terms of Gestalt, but also with respect to forma. Here it must be stressed that forma operates in a highly modified sense, in such a way that does not violate the analogy of being. We might even say forma operates in an analagous sense when applied to Gestalt. That is how the two terms are inwardly united. Forma, then, also contributes to Balthasar’s thought – even as it is modified in the face of Gestalt.

Aquinas has incredible importance in relation to Balthasar’s concept of form, and this is true whether or not Balthasar saw it himself. In Divine Fruitfulness, Aidan Nichols explains that “Unlike some, but by no means all, the French Jesuits, Balthasar never lost confidence, however, in the perennial importance of St. Thomas, especially for metaphysics.” This does not mean he always fully appreciated Aquinas, just as when Nichols, in Redeeming Beauty, notes the profound aesthetic qualities of Aquinas’s theology, and the oddity of Balthasar’s neglect of him in his own aesthetics.

What can this mean? Is it necessary, then, to draw out the more Thomist lines of thinking in Balthasar’s thought, as I have argued in the past? Or are current Thomists correct in thinking that Balthasar has essentially abandoned Aquinas’s synthesis? The concept of form (Gestalt and forma) is an interesting test-case. I do not yet know where it leads, though my basic intuition is that Gestalt and forma are more intrinsically related to one another than it appears at first blush.

Nor do I think, much as I desire to argue that Balthasar can be interpreted in such a way that is more ammenable to Thomism, that this makes his metaphysics any less strange. It remains a deeply mystical-philsophical endeavor for him, one intrinsically united to the saints, who are the guardians of metaphysical wonder. Mark A. McIntosh has argued in Christology Within that “with the aid of mystical theology, he [Balthasar] has been able to shift the central categories for envisioning the reality of Christ from ontological to obediential terms.” While I do not wholly disagree – and indeed admit McIntosh is by far the greater expert – I am disquieted by the “from” and “to” in the sentence: as if it were possible to move from metaphysics to something else? Is it not easier, and perhaps even more accurate, to conceive of Balthasar’s theology as an “outworking” or “dependent extrapolation” of metaphysics in mystical theological terms?

Aidan Nichols has an interesting assessment of theology at the end of his article called “Thomism and the Nouvelle Theologie.” He notes that Thomism does not need to “absorb” every theological system like a grand Marxist theory, and indeed a pluralism of theologies (for which the nouvelle theologie argued) is not bad. Nevertheless, “to be” is most foundational, and classic ontological theology must “enjoy a primacy” among theologies. I know this makes Balthasar’s theology fundamentally secondary. And yet I agree.