Aidan Nichols’s new book on the theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar, A Key to Balthasar, provides a succinct gloss on essential themes that stretch across von Balthasar’s expansive works. Each chapter of the short book gives a different “key-word” to help understand von Balthasar’s thought: being (1-11), form (12-48), freedom (49-88), and logic (89-113). By organizing von Balthasar’s difficult reflections into the constellation of these four phrases, Nichols offers a helpful and brief introduction to the presupposing ideas that fuel von Balthasar’s sprawling prose.
Nichols’s book maps onto the basic premises of von Balthasar’s major trilogy. Form, freedom, and logic each serve to summarize the shaping intents of Glory of the Lord, Theo-Drama, and Theo-Logic respectively. These ideas, familiar to those in Balthasar studies, are given a basic introduction for the sake of novice students. “Form” is that by which we sensibly perceive beauty (see esp. 15-18); “freedom” refers to God’s interactions with humanity as the Spirit directs the “stage” of history (see esp. 50-53); and “logic” describes the ways we come to know truth, which is ultimately God’s truth (see esp. 90-91).
The summary Nichols offers is at its most useful in the beginning, with the key-word “being.” Here Nichols gives us a way to integrate the other key-words of the von Balthasar’s trilogy, and thus to grasp the unity of the trilogy itself. In his opening chapter, Nichols focuses on the two most important aspects of von Balthasar’s metaphysics of being: the transcendentals and the analogy of being. With analogy, Nichols sets the foundation for von Balthasar’s theo-centric understanding of the universe, and of God’s action in it as it works itself out in the trilogy. Through analogy, the world and God stand in a disproportionate relationship to one another, which for von Balthasar is essential to understanding either Creator or creature (see 7-8). With the transcendentals, Nichols argues that the beautiful, the good, and the true are ultimately one, and ultimately point us to the dynamic life of God (see 7, 12). Together, these two concepts – analogy and the transcendentals - show us how deeply invested von Balthasar is in the unity between philosophy and theology, and how that unity shaped his theology. Von Balthasar is out to defend and describe the wholeness of being, of salvation history, and of the world as redeemed by God (9). This concentration on wholeness is as much a philosophical disposition as a theological one. Nichols is perhaps at his best here, in revealing the wholeness of von Balthasar’s project.
In many ways, A Key to Balthasar is itself a synopsis of Nichols’s longer series of exegetical summaries of von Balthasar’s thought: The Word Has Been Abroad, No Bloodless Myth, Say it is Pentecost, Scattering the Seed, and Divine Fruitfulness. Though those familiar with these longer works may find nothing new in A Key to Balthasar, the brevity of the work gives its ideas freshness and clarity, and it works extremely well as an introductory text.