The Eucharistic Form of God
Hans Urs von Balthasar's Sacramental Theology
- ISBN: 9780268202231
- Published By: University of Notre Dame Press
- Published: March 2022
In The Eucharistic Form of God: Hans Urs von Balthasar's Sacramental Theology, Jonathan Martin Ciraulo introduces us to the thought of Balthasar by exploring his Eucharistic theology, which Balthasar regards as the vibrant core of all Christian speculative theology. He reasons this is so because the Eucharist: (1) completes the Incarnation; (2) leaves for us the permanent reality of Christ’s self-gift to the Father; (3) assures a horizontal communion among finite believers in this life; and (4) more speculatively, perdures as the centerpiece of a paradisal liturgy where the symbols needed in this earthly world dissolve and the saved perceive the eternal essence of what was formerly a sacrament. Thus, the Eucharist transports us to its origin in the dynamics of the Trinity, where the Son eternally gives himself to the Father. Leading to such a grand conclusion, the author selects four major themes to address in the volume’s four chapters.
In the first chapter, Ciraulo summarizes Balthasar’s theology, and while doing so propounds that Christ’s kenotic self-gift in the Eucharist “completed the incarnation” (210) and mirrors the pre-existing self-gifts of the Trinitarian Persons in their eternal circumincession. For this reason, the Eucharist ideally presents itself as the nucleus around which all elements of the Church’s sacramental system must orbit.
Chapter 2 investigates the work of the Holy Spirit, not in all its manifold missions, but limited here to its role in the Church and its sacraments. Basically, this concerns the making universal of the concrete particularity of Christ, in whom the “interpenetration of divine and human” (81) occurs. That is, the Church limits the manifestation of its divine inspiration in order more effectively to speak to secular societies. Just as the Holy Spirit is the loving link between Father and Son, it likewise mediates and conjoins the Trinity with the Church, which in turn becomes “utterly kenotic” (106) as it relates to the world.
In its liturgy the Church offers to God “the only thing of value, the sacrifice of Christ” (96), truly present in the Eucharist. The Spirit universalizes the singular Christ by pneumatically rendering Christ’s body as “liquified” (52) so that his blood is able to flow via exsanguination to all its recipients, who then experience Christ existentially (100). It is by this diligence of the Holy Spirit that creatures may be said to be spiritualized and enjoy redemption, and even later divinization (108). Communicants then leave the church with the urgent ethical mission to leaven the world (106).
It is perhaps not surprising that, in the third chapter, we encounter a subject most difficult to fathom, “hiddenness.” Although Balthasar desires the Eucharist to be “the linchpin of all speculative dogmatics” (210), he guards against furnishing it with an overly aesthetic aura. This requires distinguishing its true substance from its overt and perceptible signs and symbols. We must remember that the liturgy is largely a human creation, not itself otherworldly. Therefore, avers Balthasar, it should be simple and sober, not a delectation for aesthetes where the temptation looms for the congregation to worship itself (217). Thus, we must consider that the “beauty of the liturgy is a fruit, a by-product of a salvific encounter with God” (161). On the major theme of this chapter, Balthasar stresses that Christ manifests himself as he does in the Incarnation, that is, as both revealed and concealed. Nevertheless, via our “eyes of faith” (176), we are blessed to perceive the body of Christ’s “hiddenness” in all three of its modes: natural, eucharistic, and ecclesial (13).
The final chapter brings us to the boldest speculation of Balthasar’s sacramental theology: that the eucharistic sacrifice continues even after the eschaton. This is so because, as we saw previously, Balthasar understands Christ’s eucharistic self-gift in the context of Trinitarian self-giving. Balthasar postulates that the Eucharist transcends time in light of its fundament in eternity. Thus, we must view it as central, continuous, and enduring.
Balthasar does not argue discursively for his stance but draws on the French mystical tradition to elucidate the “abiding state of Christ sacrificed” (199). So, he does not “describe in detail” (201) how this might be possible. Rather, he turns to poetical imagery to bolster his conjecture. Thereby, he seems to affirm what others have professed: theology is a fusion of philosophy and poetry. In any case, Balthasar avows that more awaits us in heaven than the Beatific Vision. (Egregiously for an orthodox Christian theologian, Balthasar does not develop a theodicy because he insists that “Christianity already has a robust and coherent answer to evil”  in the self-gift and suffering of Christ.)
Balthasar has few disciples (“disciples” in the strict sense of those who mimic a system religiously), as he did not found a school of modern theology. He was neither conservative nor liberal. Although influenced by continuing dialogue with Henri de Lubac, Karl Barth, and others, he built his own idiosyncratic set of theological postures that combined philosophy and mysticism. He was markedly dissatisfied with the rigid orthodoxy and style of neo-scholasticism and from his visionary perspective concentrated on the beauty of the great artwork of Revelation, which speaks to us aesthetically in the radiant and glorious kenosis of the Trinity. This self-giving, manifest in the Incarnation and Eucharist, deserves to be the sun around which circling bodies of Christian theology get their bearings.
This profoundly penetrating study on a pivotal aspect of Balthasar’s theology has been extensively footnoted and seems intended for well-grounded theologians. It could be appropriately employed in a graduate seminar, or an advanced class at a seminary, on modern theology. Anyone not already familiar with Balthasar’s oeuvre should delve into this book only if prepared to do collateral research while reading it. Also, having some indulgence for untranslated Latin and academic stylistics would prove helpful.
Charles G. Conway is an independent scholar.Charles ConwayDate Of Review:March 3, 2023