Karen KILBY.  Balthasar: A (Very) Critical Introduction. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012.  Pp xii, 173.  $23.00.  ISBN 978-0-8028-2378-8 (pbk).  Reviewed by Joseph A. BRACKEN S.J., Xavier University, Cincinnati, OH 45207

Karen Kilby, associate professor of systematic theology at the University of Nottingham, England, presents in this book an intriguing portrayal of one of the most controversial theologians of the 20th century, Hans Urs von Balthasar.  On the one hand, she shows clear appreciation of Balthasar’s monumental achievement in publishing a multi-volume trilogy in systematic theology: Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetic (in 7 books), Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory (5 books), and Theo-Logic: Theological Logical Theory (3 books with an Epilogue). In addition, he edited and published the writings of his dear friend, the mystic Adrienne von Speyr, and with her founded the Community of St. John, initially for women alone but eventually including men as well. His academic interests reflected a very wide background in contemporary philosophy, theology, literary theory, etc.  Yet, as Kilby makes clear, Balthasar was quite original but somewhat idiosyncratic in his approach to systematic theology.  He seemed to be unaware of or to have simply ignored potential criticism of his multi-dimensional approach to theology.  Kilby implies that this happened because he was a “loner.” He left the Jesuits and normal life in academe so as to continue his unusual relation with von Speyr as her confessor and soul-companion in the home they shared with her husband. Likewise, as a spiritual director for others seeking guidance in the spiritual life, he generally found more support than critique. But in my view, his idiosyncratic approach to theology can be traced to a Platonic understanding of the relation between the One and the Many wherein the transcendent One (his own view) gives order and intelligibility to the empirical Many (the views of others).  

After a chapter detailing the major influences on Balthasar during his career (notably Henri De Lubac, von Speyr, and Karl Barth),  Kilby focuses more on thought-patterns than specific issues in her overview of Balthasar’s theology.  For example, in Glory of the Lord she notes that he is fascinated with the beauty of divine revelation with special attention to its Gestalt or sense of the whole. But this approach to revelation lays him open to the charge that only he and his followers can judge the way that the content of revelation truly fits together; one either intuits it or fails to see it.  In Theo-Drama he is more concerned with Salvation History as a play with multiple participants in the action rather than a meta-narrative where the narrator stands aloof from what he/she is describing.  But, comments Kilby, Balthasar is still the script-writer who alone knows how the play will end.  Still another of his basic thought-patterns is the notion of fulfillment, namely, that only one of all possible choices to be made in a given situation can encompass and improve on all the others. This smacks of Hegelian dialectic in which the synthesis fulfills and completes the thesis and antithesis. In similar fashion, he imagines the relation of different theologies to one another as rays emanating from a transcendent center which alone does full justice to the truth of divine revelation and which happens to coincide with his own approach to theology.  In the chapter on the Trinity, Kilby notes how Balthasar deftly links together the workings of the immanent and economic understandings of the Trinity in Salvation History, but fails to acknowledge that this synthesis is only a model or partial symbolic understanding of the mystery of the Trinity.  Finally, she analyzes his preoccupation with nuptial imagery for depiction of the spiritual relation between Christ and the believer; but she cautions that in his thinking man and woman are not equal partners in this mystical intercourse.  The male is always active; the female is passive or receptive of the activity of the male. 

In a brief concluding chapter, she concludes that Balthasar is “an unfettered theologian” (147) whose insights are brilliant but more often than not one-sided.  Furthermore, as spiritual  director of Adrienne von Speyer with her mystical experiences, his own thinking is frequently grounded in mystical experiences to which not everyone has ready access. My own further comment on this matter would be that Balthasar had a truly valuable insight into intersubjectivity as the way to interpret Salvation History and Christian doctrine in dramatic terms. But he did not carry over that focus on dialogue and intersubjective exchange into his basic understanding of the  relation between the One and the Many which so heavily influenced the method and content of his theology. For the unity of intersubjectivity is not to be found in the priority of the I (the One) to the Thou (the empirical Many) but in their together constituting a mutually satisfactory We-relation.
God, in effect, “plays the odds” in dealing with us for the working out of Salvation History.             

Note from the editor: Joseph Bracken's  Does God Roll Dice? is reviewed at: