Von Balthasar on Kenosis, Impassibility and Immutability

Hans Urs von BalthasarThe issue of the death of God in Moltmann’s theology came up today on Byron’s blog. The issue of the death of God was also touched on in another context in which I found myself today. Whether this is to be attributed to divine providence, Jungian synchronicity, or blind chance, I don’t know, but I thought that the appropriate response would be to post the following lengthy quote from Hans Urs von Balthasar’s preface to the second edition of Mysterium Paschale (highly recommended reading).

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For a number of years, indeed, the idea of a suffering God has become virtually omnipresent. Kitamori put it into official circulation. American ‘Process Theology’ nourished it. Then there were the polemics against the divine ‘impassibility’ (so strongly affirmed by the Church Fathers), and against God’s ‘immutability’ (denied, or so it seemed, by numerous Old Testament passages), as well as the Hegelianising theology of Jürgen Moltmann in his Theology of Hope, The Crucified God, and The Trinity and the Kingdom of God. All that appeared to suggest to Christians that the older dogmatics had blundered on an essential point of its interpretation of biblical revelation.

Doubtless the Kenosis of the Son will always remain a mystery no less unsoundable than that of the Trinity of hypostases in the single God. And yet, by placing the emphasis, in the doctrine of the Kenosis, so exclusively on the human nature assumed by the Son, or on his act of assuming that nature — the divine nature remaining inaccessible to all becoming or change, and even to any real relationship with the world — one was running the risk of under-estimating the weight of the assertions made in Scripture, and of succumbing at once to both Nestorianism and Monophysitism. Only the ‘Jesus of history’ would do the suffering, or perhaps the ‘lower faculties’ in Christ’s being, whereas the ‘fine point’ of his soul remained, even in the moment of the abandonment, united to the Father in a beatific vision which could never be interrupted.

It seems to me that the only way which might avoid the two opposed and incompatible extremes is that which relates the event of the Kenosis of the Son of God to what one can, by analogy, designate as the eternal ‘event’ of the divine processions. It is from that supra-temporal yet ever actual event that, as Christians, we must approach the mystery of the divine ‘essence’. That essence is forever ‘given’ in the self-gift of the Father, ‘rendered’ in the thanksgiving of the Son, and ‘represented’ in its character as absolute love by the Holy Spirit.

According to the great Scholastics, the inner-divine processions are the condition of possibility for a creation. The divine ‘ideas’ for a possible world derive from that everlasting circulation of life, founded as it is on the total and unconditional gift of each hypostasis to the others. De necessitate si est productio dissimilis praeintelligitur productio similis (Saint Bonaventure). Ex processione personarum divinarum distinctarum causatur omnis creaturarum processio et multiplicatio (Saint Thomas).

We shall never know how to express the abyss-like depths of the Father’s self-giving, that Father who, in an eternal ‘super-Kenosis’, makes himself ‘destitute’ of all that he is and can be so as to bring forth a consubstantial divinity, the Son. Everything that can be thought and imagined where God is concerned is, in advance, included and transcended in this self-destitution which constitutes the person of the Father, and, at the same time, those of the Son and the Spirit. God as the ‘gulf’ (Eckhart: Un-Grand) of absolute Love contains in advance, eternally, all the modalities of love, of compassion, and even of a ‘separation’ motivated by love and founded on the infinite distinction between the hypostases — modalities which may manifest themselves in the course of a history of salvation involving sinful humankind.

God, then, has no need to ‘change’ when he makes a reality of the wonders of his charity, wonders which include the Incarnation and, more particularly, the Passion of Christ, and, before him, the dramatic history of God with Israel and, no doubt, with humanity as a whole. All the contingent ‘abasements’ of God in the economy of salvation are forever included and outstripped in the eternal event of Love. And so what, in the temporal economy, appears as the (most real) suffering of the Cross is only the manifestation of the (Trinitarian) Eucharist of the Son: he will be forever the slain Lamb, on the throne of the Father’s glory, and his Eucharist — the Body shared out, the Blood poured forth — will never be abolished, since the Eucharist it is which must gather all creation into his body. What the Father has given, he will never take back.

Hans Urs von Balthasar, Mysterium Paschale, pp.vii-ix

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Quotations, The Triune God, Theological. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Von Balthasar on Kenosis, Impassibility and Immutability

  1. Byron says:

    Thanks for this – a complex and obviously highly contested area. I remember a few months back there were many posts going backwards and forwards on this issue. I never intended to raise it, but a friend took offense at my quoting Moltmann.

    One thought on the above quote: if Christ is to be eternally the slain Lamb, doesn’t this reduce the cross to revelation rather than also achievement? And although I’m sure von B is far more careful about it than those from whom I’ve heard this before, isn’t this idea often textually grounded in a misreading of Rev 13.8? It is the writing, not the slaying, that occurred at the foundation of the world.

  2. Al says:

    Byron,

    I don’t think that there needs to be any either/or. The cross is both revelation and achievement. Isn’t the whole of history a progressive revelation of God? Every achievement of God is also a fuller revelation of who God is. The opposition between revelation and achievement that we tend to set up may owe more to a static understanding of revelation through timeless and abstract truths, rather than a dynamic revelation in historical action. The cross is, paradoxically, perhaps the greatest moment of God’s self-revelation, the moment when the veil is removed.

    I am not sure that I share von Balthasar’s reading of Revelation 13:8 (particularly given the Revelation 17:8 parallel), but I think that his fundamental theological point is sound.

  3. Pingback: alastair.adversaria » Birth Pangs and New Birth as a Model for the Atonement and Resurrection

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