This is the final volume of Aidan Nichols’s five-volume Introduction to Hans Urs von Balthasar. Nichols, a Dominican, is a prolific theologian teaching in Cambridge and Rome whose writings deal with an extremely vast array of themes, including a laudatory study of the theology of the current pope Benedict XVI.
The first three volumes of Nichols’s Balthasar quintology expound the key ideas of Balthasar’s theological aesthetics, dramatics, and logic, the first being The Word Has been Abroad, the second No Bloodless Myth, and the third Say It Is Pentecost. Whereas these volumes focus on Balthasar’s Herrlichkeit, Theodramatik, and Theologik, the forth volume, Scattering the Seed studies Balthasar’s early writings on philosophy and the arts, and this fifth and last volume studies what it calls “Balthasar’s Theology beyond the Trilogy.”
The book is divided in two parts, The first, titled “Sources,” traces the influence of the Fathers of the Church, Henri de Lubac, Karl Barth, and Adrienne von Speyr on Balthasar’s theology. The second, titled “Themes,” expounds eight theological themes: revelation and theology, time and history, the paschal mystery, the church, Mary, the saints, prayer and mysticism, and Christian literature. All of these 12 chapters include the word ‘divine’ in their title, and the conclusion bears the title “Divine Reflection.” While the iteration of “divine” and “fruitful” is a cute play on the title of the book, it is startling, to say the least, to read that Henri de Lubac is named “divine mentor,” Karl Barth “divine interlocutor,” and especially Adrienne von Speyer “divine helpmate,” the latter recalling—incongruously— Eve as the spousal helpmate of Adam, given the unusual—to put it mildly—relationship between her and Balthasar.
This quibble should not belittle the fact that like its predecessors this volume is well-researched, informative, and clearly written. While Nichols is deeply admirous of his theological hero, and one who is not so may find more objectionable aspects in Balthasar’s theology than he, his book does present abundant bibliographical resources, both primary and secondary, for readers to judge for themselves the worth of Balthasar’s theological legacy.
It is interesting that Nichols does admit that, whatever the validity of Balthasar’s theology, “some people, doubtless, will not appreciate the tone of much in Balthasar’s writing” (p. 339). Make it “many people.” What Nichols refers to is Balthasar’s polemical, not rarely vitriolic, attack on those whom he regards as the enemy of the Christian truth (as least as he perceives it). This is rather puzzling in a theologian whose constant refrain is God’s-beauty-manifested-as-love. While Nichols charitably calls this trait “pastorally well-conceived hard love” (339), it is hoped that his 1500-page, five-volume guide to Balthasar’s theological oeuvre will induce readers put off by Balthasar’s harshness to give his work a second look.
There is no doubt that Nichols has established himself as the foremost expert on the Swiss theologian’s massive oeuvre. For this and all his numerous other studies on various church figures and theological themes, he surely deserves the red hat like the theologian to whom he has devoted his multi-volume study.