Caravaggio, "The Inspiration of St. Matthew"

Hans Urs von Balthasar compares Sacred Scripture to a kaleidoscope, so that our understanding shifts with each distinctive read (Theo-Drama). He describes the Bible’s pages in a succession of progressive themes, each ending in a Christological turn (Glory of the Lord). He says that all truth, even all human language, is in a profound fashion governed by Scripture (Theo-Logic). Scripture is one of the primary sinews that holds together von Balthasar’s great volumes of work, and in many ways those hundreds of books and articles can be summarized as a constant and concerted effort to grapple with the Bible.

Of course, it is not so easy as that.

Von Balthasar’s lengthiest forays into Scripture are contained in the final two volumes of Glory of the Lord (VI, on the Old Testament; and VII, on the New). Both volumes find themselves scarcely heeded by systematic theologians, who struggle to integrate von Balthasar’s immense dogmatic reflections with his complex Scriptural engagements, and indeed quite ignored by biblical scholars, who would rather do without von Balthasar’s obviously theological syntheses and deliberate anachronisms. The difficulty in the case of either set of scholars is von Balthasar’s thoroughness. He refuses to let his thought be extracted from Scripture, which renders him a perplexing hybrid. He cannot quite be made into a systemetician, and he cannot be made into a biblical scholar: quite irritatingly, the man is and is not deeply Scriptural.

In truth, I sometimes think he was not interested in being lauded or accepted by either camp of scholars.

The approach to Scripture as displayed in Glory of the Lord is not straightforward, and summarizing the two Scriptural volumes with a schematic hermeneutic would be tantamount to violence. Von Balthasar argues for a deeply Christological read of Scripture, one that holds together the apparently contradictory threads of the Old Testament (whose many internal variations von Balthasar is at pains to indicate), and indeed the New Testament as well. To his credit, von Balthasar permits discontinuity between the Old and New: it is no seamless transition, like an unrolling carpet, but rather an entirely unexpected fulfillment. Against his credit, the unity between Old and New is still perhaps too neat.

Christ is the unity; Christ is also, as Cyril O’Regan and others argue, the source of variation. Nothing can quite capture Christ, so to speak. By necessity, creation must strain to describe God at all – and indeed it could not do so to the extent that it does were it not for the Spirit sent by Christ, who governs all interpretation of the Son. The straining tension between unity and multiplicity, between the singleness of truth and its various expressions, receives von Balthasar’s intense attentions in the first volume of Glory of the Lord: “Seeing the Form.” Christ, the Word made flesh, is the form (Gestalt) of God and the form of revelation; he is, too, the form of the world.

Form: that almost magical word floating through von Balthasar’s works and in the scholarship devoted to him. It receives so much use that it is possible to wonder whether he, or anyone talking about him, knows what it means. The contours of the word are, I believe, deliberately flexible. Von Balthasar, throughout his career, will value totality and flexibility more than he will precision. So Gestalt, form, comes to bear a variety of meanings: it bespeaks intelligibility, as something that can be understood and subjected to analysis; it indicates an intrinsically determining principle, as in the Aristotelian sense of form; it describes a complex unity, as various parts can together make a whole and only be understood through that wholeness; it defines a thorough simplicity, since God is one and his revelation indeed one. This is but the beginning of Gestalt in von Balthasar’s thought, but the point here really is that Christ is the Gestalt and bears all of its characteristics. He is the intelligible revelation of God’s own self, the intrinsic determination of the world’s fulfillment in the work of salvation; he is the complex unity of all created being through the unity of his humanity and divinity, and yet in himself, as God, he is simple and the Trinity is unchanged.

Christ, too, is the form of Scripture. Its various themes relate to one another across time through Christ himself, which is how von Balthasar justifies his quite knowing anachronisms. Christ is also how von Balthasar will justify his rather pronounced sense of Scripture’s lingering tensions and challenges, since the singular One that Scripture describes is forever being expressed anew in Scripture’s pages.

It should be clear by now that von Balthasar does not imagine that the Bible’s unity is internal to itself. It is not. It is found in Christ, so that by comparison the words of Scripture are but analogies of the Word who is Jesus Christ. This Christological claim, which locates Scripture’s unity decisively outside of its own confines, is at the same time an ecclesiological claim: by “Christ,” von Balthasar always means the “total Christ” (totus Christus): Christ himself, his life, death, and resurrection; and Christ’s body, the Church, which in unity with him in the Spirit continues the totality of his life, death, and resurrection both on earth and in heaven. Scripture is thus thoroughly ecclesial, and by this von Balthasar will mean to imply Scripture’s priority and the Church’s priority.

Theo-Drama, the second passage in von Balthasar’s trilogy, outlines a great deal of his ecclesial sensibilities. He is, as always, interested in a manifold wholeness. Von Balthasar describes the Church as an “actor” that acts in the “space” (or stage) of Christ’s action. Scripture mediates here in several respects, most importantly as that by which the Church will perceive the contours of its own faith. The Bible, both Old and New, is the mirror in which the Church sees its savior, and thus sees an image of what it in the Spirit is and is always becoming. But in a great inversion of this dynamic, the Church also forms Scripture: the faith of the Church, and the preceding faith of Israel, shape the Bible even as these are shaped by it. So von Balthasar will highlight figures (already discussed at length in Glory of the Lord) of ecclesial faith – the Virgin Mary, Peter, John, Paul – and discuss how their faithful experience becomes in a very profound manner the possession of the Church. These important biblical-historical figures, their experiences, become for the Church guiding and enduring expressions of the Church’s identity. They are “principles” of the Church, “archetypes” who continue to vivify the Church both as intercessors and examples. The complex biblical inheritance is seen at the crossway between, for example, Mary and the Marian Church: the Church is Marian in a thoroughly historical sense, recapitulating the themes of Mary’s life before a word of the New Testament is written, and yet the Church knows itself in Mary through the New Testament.

Scripture thus finds its unity in Christ and in the Church. But there is yet a third way, one that intensifies Scripture’s place while at the same time placing it in yet another field of relationships that – as relationships do – relativizes it: sacrament. The Eucharist here is central for von Balthasar, though to say “Eucharist” again will be a sort of total phrase, drawing to itself the rest of the sacraments, which are ordered to the Eucharist. “Sacrament,” too, draws to itself the whole complex of priesthood and hierarchy, which von Balthasar refuses to consider as “scaffolding” of the Church, insisting on their place as intrinsic qualities of the Ecclesia.

Christ gives the Church its unity and identity, its wholeness, and he does so most of all in the Eucharist. Von Balthasar is thus unremittingly Christocentric, but now that we have stepped into the sacramental stage, everything else is drawn with it: the Church and Scripture. Their unity is expressed through the sacrament, which of course is thoroughly ecclesial in its collective symbols, but also thoroughly Scriptural in the same way.

Sacramental signs are also natural signs. By natural signs (bread, wine, water, etc.) Christ is made present. For von Balthasar, this will mean all natural signs – including human language –  are ordered to and transformed by Christ (in Theologic, the third of the trilogy). These natural signs are, too, drawn into unity with one another in a thoroughly sacramental-Scriptural manner, as all else is.

“His language,” von Balthasar says of Christ, “is like an organ with many registers, and he makes us of all these registers one after the other.”