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A Theology of History (Communio Books) Paperback – April 1, 1994
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Text: English (translation)
Original Language: German
About the Author
Fr. Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905–1988), a Swiss theologian, was one of the most important Catholic thinkers and writers of the twentieth century. His many works address theology, literature, philosophy, and spirituality. Included among his books are his multi-volume works The Glory of the Lord, Theo-Drama, and Theo-Logic, and other well-known works such as Love Alone Is Credible, Prayer, and Heart of the World. Highly regarded by Pope John Paul II, who named him a cardinal of the Catholic Church, von Balthasar died shortly before being received into the sacred college.
Top customer reviews
Balthasar wrote more books in one lifetime than ten theologians together produce. His magnum opus his "The Trilogy", not its official title but how it has come to be identified: Three multi-volume, consecutive and connected sets: 1) The Glory of the Lord (on the transcendental of Beauty); 2) Theo-Drama (on the transcendental of Goodness) and 3) Theo-Logic (on the transcendental of Truth). The 15 volume "Trilogy is NOT the place to start reading Balthasar!
Balthasar wrote a large number of relatively short, focused books, which are the best place to start. "A Theology of History" is one of those books. If you are ready to have your conceptual world turned upside down (a hallmark of Balthasar's thinking), this is an interesting and engrossing place to start. Fair warning: just because it is short does not mean it is "easy."
Almost all modern efforts to see history from a theological perspective begin with Theological Anthropology and Foundational Theology. The question is the existential or experiential of man's experience of being bound by time and space, and the sense man makes of that by perceiving a story -- history -- which orders time and moves it in a certain direction, which man recognizes as the movement toward the Divine.
Not Balthasar. For him, the only way to understand the meaning of history is by locating it in theology, and precisely at the point where history and eternity intersect -- at the Incarnation of the Son of God as the divine-human Person, Jesus, who in his Person is God living a human life, the human life of all people. So for Balthasar, a theology of history must see history interpreted theologically from the historical point of the Incarnation -- that is, at the center of history. There is no comprehendible "history" -- past or future -- until the Incarnation of God in Christ gives a divine meaning, a theological purpose, to the otherwise meaningless passage of time.
While conventional theological anthropology begins "at the beginning," and the meaning of history can only be seen in the apparent structure of history of predictably repeating sequences of events, Balthasar sees it in just the opposite way. History is not about the flow of repeating experiences and events. History takes its foundation on what cannot be "history" -- the idea of the singular unique event, that is, the unpredictable and unrepeatable historical moment of the Incarnation of Christ. It is the Incarnate God, Jesus Christ, who creates history from its center at his entering into history in a unique and singular event, an event which can be perceived only by faith. And it is Christ at the center who extends the reach and power of his unique incarnation both backwards and forwards so that the events of history are not random, but all are events leading to the center, to God in the world in Jesus Christ.
God in the world as Jesus Christ means Jesus as the Crucified God. History must be understood from that other unique event -- the crucifixion of the Son of God as the atoning sacrifice reconciling the world to the Father. The singular connected events that define the life of Christ -- Incarnation, Passion and Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Glorification -- and which have not and cannot ever be repeated, is the singular set of theological events upon which the whole meaning, purpose and direction of history turn. History goes back to the beginning of God with man in the garden of paradise; and history goes forward to the restoration and perfection of the eternal reunion of God with man in a paradise without a tempting serpent. This is the only true "meaning" of history: its theology in the triune life of God.
Balthasar runs intellectual, theological experiments in what this means for man who must live in history. One of his most intriguing insights and a reversal of the definition of sin. Traditionally, sin has been defined as "rebelling against God," turning away from God to become your own God." That only works, says Balthasar, if time is a continuum from Creation to New Creation. But if Christ is at the center, creating history both backwards and forwards, then is it not a better way to think of the nature of sin as wanting to be "helpful" to God? Sin is our desire to "anticipate" the will and act of God, and so act to be prepared for it, to lay the groundwork for it, to make God's job "easier" for him. Sin is trying to be "God's little helpers." Sin is "knowing" what God "surely" is going to do, and setting out in anticipation to do at least some of it ahead of time, so God does not need to be bothered. I think this is a far more convincing definition of sin. It is still exactly the "desire to be like God, knowing both good and evil." Only it is making a virtue out of the fall into sin. We can know what is good and what is evil (so we tell ourselves), and if God is pure goodness and the enemy of all evil, we are able to know as God knows -- not totally of course, but enough to anticipate the will and act of God to "lay the groundwork," "clear the field," make things easier for God. Adolf Hitler thought he was acting to anticipate the fulfillment of what he knew was the good will of God.
You cannot skim any book by Balthasar, and this one is no exception. Every few pages Balthasar expects yo to stop and think about what you have just read. That is what theology is for, and that is how theology works. So a theology of history is not going to make you stop and thinking about your experience of time; it is going to get you to stop and think about a God so audacious that he claims time itself as his own.