Hans Urs von Balthasar and Hope (Part 1 of 3)

In his book Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved”? Balthasar stresses that hope in the goodness and mercy of God is the foundation of the Christian life. In responding to critics who argue that Balthasar’s theology leads to the certainty of an empty hell and universal salvation, which from their perspective is contrary both to Scripture and to Tradition, Balthasar argues that he “never spoke of uncertainty but rather of hope.”[i]

He quotes his critics to point out that they are the ones who have certainty, viz., that some will not be saved – and that this certainty conflicts with the biblical picture of the mercy of God as well as with the hope set out for Christians concerning God’s will to save all men.

The connection between hope and God’s will to save all men is central for Balthasar, and therefore he returns to this concept throughout his arguments. In 1 Tim. 2:3-4 Paul refers to “God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth,” and, as Balthasar makes clear by using this in the title of his book, his question is, how can we fail to hope that God will do exactly what he wills to do, viz., to save all men?

Theodrama

There are at least two issues to be addressed in relation to this passage.[ii] First, there is the question of the will of God. Balthasar’s theology is shaped by the concept of drama, which highlights the encompassing, infinite freedom of God without denying the freedom of man. Therefore, he would not argue that God’s will simply achieves what it determines without reference to the finite will of man that also shapes the drama in some meaningful way.

Aidan Nichols is correct when he argues that Balthasar is “indebted at once to Irenaeus and to Hegel” when he presents the Mediator as the one who will “recapitulate in himself the conflict between God’s ‘everything’ and man’s ‘something’ and, but so doing, sublimate and abolish it.”[iii]

However, Balthasar wants to distance himself from Hegelian categories that would render the contingencies of drama ineffective: “Lest the object of our beholding [through the eyes of faith] should turn into an ‘absolute knowledge’, however, it was necessary to distinguish our endeavor from that of Hegel in particular.”[iv] Balthasar has to maintain a distance from all that could constitute certainty of knowledge, because that would be like reading the script in advance (if there is indeed one) and failing to participate in the drama properly.

The theo-drama cannot be dialectical, but dialogical: “In the Christian drama God does not speak in monologues . . .  it is not a ‘teaching’ that has fallen from heaven but an interaction, a kind of negotiation between two parties.”[v] So he says that “absolute knowledge is the death of all theo-drama, but God’s ‘love which surpasses all gnosis’ is the death of ‘absolute knowledge’.”[vi]

The answer to the question of how such a dialogue is possible “if God is the Absolute and the ‘All’ is found in the fact that “God has given this play of freedoms a central meaning called Jesus Christ – the climax of the history of the world’s salvation, converging on him and radiating from him.”[vii] His desire is to maintain the tension between the two freedoms using Christ as the center, as well as the tension between the lack of certain knowledge of either redemption or damnation and human responsibility.

Kenosis

It is my estimation that this tension is problematic in Balthasar, since God’s will can only be infinite and truly encompass man’s will if it achieves its own ends, while at the same time allowing for man’s finite freedom to be exercised meaningfully and yet in complete accord with God’s decrees. But Balthasar wants to maintain the tension more unresolved, in order to heighten the dramatic element, and in doing so he makes statements that may appear contradictory. For example, when treating God’s self-limitations in relation to creation in terms of kenosis, he says,

The first “self-limitation” of the triune God arises through endowing his creature with freedom. The second, deeper, “limitation” of the same triune God occurs as a result of the covenant, which on God’s side, is indissoluble . . . The third kenosis . . . arises through the incarnation of the Son alone . . .  Man’s freedom is left intact, even when perverted into sin . . .  God does not overwhelm man; he leads him to his goals . . .  This indicates no inability on God’s part; it is not that the is uncertain whether he can convince rebellions man . . . human freedom and its perversion are always exercised within the Son’s eucharistia . . . [viii]

What is this exercise of faith within the Son’s eucharisitia? He says,

We must remember that the creature’s No, its wanting to be autonomous without acknowledging its origin, must be located within the Son’s all embracing Yes to the Father, in the Spirit; it is the refusal to participate in the autonomy with which the Son is endowed. [ix]

This structure is deliberately meant to uphold a the relationship between the infinite freedom of God and the finite freedom of man, which, on the one hand, is always in tension, and, on the other hand, is resolved in the God-man and his Yes to the Father. However, it is never quite clear whether Christ’s Yes to the Father automatically applies on behalf of all men (as some of Balthasar’s passages seem to indicate) or whether man’s freedom will be upheld if he decides to ultimately remain in an autonomous No to God. In the latter case, God’s will that all men will be saved becomes more of a statement about the goodness of God than a solid basis for hope of universal salvation.

On the one hand, Balthasar speaks of an “encompassing Providence” that restrains and gives limits to finite freedom, “so that all men’s error takes place within the realm of divine love.” At the same time, he approvingly quotes Clement of Alexandria who says that” “God does not compel us” but rather “wishes us to be saved on the basis of our own decision” because the soul “moves by its own power.”[x] If man’s finite will has to be taken seriously into the equation, it might in some way frustrate God’s will in this matter.

New Testament

The greater difficulty in relation to 1 Tim. 2:3-4, however, is the nature of “all men.” Balthasar assumes that the passage refers to all men without distinction. However, there are very good reasons to believe that, in the context of the passage, Paul is not referring to all individual persons indiscriminately.

Paul starts chapter 2 by urging Timothy “that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” It is clear that Paul is asking Timothy to pray not for all individuals of the world, but to the different groups of people in their society who are all involved in the life and destiny of the Church.

In fact, Paul uses the same words in verse 1 (πάντων ἀνθρώπων, in the genitive case) to refer to all different segments of society as he does in verse 4 (πάντας ἀνθρώπους, in the accusative). Add to this the fact that Paul follows these verses by making the point that there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus – i.e., Timothy should pray for all kinds of people, including kings and all those who are in high positions, because despite whom they might worship, there is only one God, and they also will have access to him through only one mediator.

Therefore, it is more likely that what Paul is saying, at least in this passage, is not that God wills every single member of the human race to be saved, but that he wills all different kinds of people, from every segment of society, as well as from every tribe, tongue, and nation, to be saved.

This, of course, does not rule out the idea that God might indeed will that every single person that has ever lived will be saved. Indeed Christian doctrine teaches the goodness and mercy of God, and the intrinsic goodness of all created things insofar as they exist and are created by God. However, these considerations have to be compared to an extensive corpus of revelation concerning the justice of God and the judgment of the wicked.

Balthasar does not ignore those, but it seems as though lays undue weight on 1 Tim. 2:3-4 as a controlling thought for the understanding of the other passages. It is not fair to say, however, that this passage is the only one in which he relies for his thesis that God wishes to save all individuals and therefore we should hope so. There are a few other key Scriptural passages to which he refers, and these should be briefly addressed here.

Balthasar cites Jesus’ saying that “when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32). However, this passage cannot be taken in isolation from what this same gospel had taught a few chapters before. In John 6:44, we read that “no one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.” This means that all who are drawn will indeed come to Christ and be raised up on the last day.

This implies either that there will be universal salvation, or that only some will be drawn and come to Christ and therefore be raised up (i.e., the statement “all people” should then be taken in a way similar to 1 Tim. 2:3-4). It is the last option that seems to follow from Jesus’ further interaction with those who did not believe him: “there are some of you who do not believe . . . And he said, ‘This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.’”

That is to say, they did not believe because it was not granted them by the Father to believe; therefore, the Father did not draw them, otherwise they would believe and be raised on the last day. John’s gospel (as with the rest of the New Testament) often makes this contrast between those who believe and are adopted as children of God, and those who do not believe and therefore stand under judgment: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him” (John 3:36).

Therefore, it is unlikely that the saying “when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” gives a solid basis for the idea that Christ indeed draws all individual persons to himself in a salvific sense. There are also other passages that Balthasar cites that contain the idea of God’s desire and Christ’s work that brings mercy and salvation to all men, but the ones addressed above are representative of the problem.

Click here for Part 2.


[i] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved?” (Ignatius Press, 1989), 18.

[ii] Of course, the issues of faith, salvation, restoration, judgment, mercy, heaven and hell go well beyond whatever this passage can determine; but since 1 Tim. 2:3-4 provides such a central concept for Balthasar’s understanding of these issues, not only in this particular book but in all of his theology, it is important to address the passage in more detail.

[iii] Nichols, 65 (citing Theo-Drama II, p. 195).

[iv] Theo-Drama II, 89.

[v] Ibid., 71.

[vi] Ibid., 89.

[vii] Ibid., 63; emphasis in the original.

[viii] Theo-Drama IV, 331-332.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Theo-Drama II, 217.

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3 comments on “Hans Urs von Balthasar and Hope (Part 1 of 3)

  1. […] In his book Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved”? Balthasar stresses that hope in the goodness and mercy of God is the foundation of the Christian life. I make an assessment of his arguments in that book in my article Hans Urs von Balthasar and Hope. […]

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