From Renegades to Virtuosos

In the same issue of First Things, R. R. Reno comments on a new book on Urs von Balthasr (Karen Kirby, Balthasar: A [Very] Critical Introduction, Eerdmans). Reno mentions that some Roman Catholic theologians worry that Balthasar was too “dependent on modern German philosophy,” or that he played “fast and loose with the authoritative tradition of the church.” Reno concedes the point:

Balthasar was by any reckoning a unique figure in twentieth-century Catholicism. For good and for ill, he was a free agent. He left the Jesuits and struck out on his own, forming a community in Basel and founding his own publishing house. He had no academic appointment, no graduate students, and no religious superiors other than the spiritual authority he accorded to Adrienne von Speyr.

That sort of independence got Martin Luther in a lot of trouble (and gets blamed for the downfall of Christendom and the destruction of Europe’s “sacred canopy”.) But now, such creativity and independence inspire marvel. Reno writes that Balthasar “exemplifies an exploratory, virtuoso style of theology. It’s a style characteristic of the heroic generation that prepared the way for the lasting achievements of Vatican II.” But it is also “unstable, and hard to reproduce”:

Balthasar and his peers were unique, creative figures who resist summary and resist integration in the earlier theological traditions of the Church. The result is a feeling of discontinuity in theology, and this often in spite of explicit efforts to the contrary.

Looks to this Protestant like a double standard. Or it could simply be discontinuity between Rome’s willingness to discipline wayward theologians (from the Middle Ages to the Cold War) when during the 1960s development of doctrine turned fairly arbitrary, with continuity and discontinuity doing their best impersonation of each other.

8 thoughts on “From Renegades to Virtuosos

  1. That sort of independence got Martin Luther in a lot of trouble (and gets blamed for the downfall of Christendom and the destruction of Europe’s “sacred canopy”.)

    That’s funny.


  2. I heard more than once that if Luther had remained in Rome He would’ve been canonized. I’m not sure you could be that vocal and contrary toward the pope at that time and live, but possibly from an historical perspective he would’ve been honored as a catholic saint. On a few occasions after becoming a protestant and expressing my faith to some of my former priests and professors they encouraged me to come back to seminary(finish) and teach. They really do see Rome, theologically, as this enormous catch-all of Christian beliefs and they accomodate most anything you believe as long as you can abide the magisterium and sacerdotalism.


  3. I should say tolerate the magisterium, you can be as cross as you want with them as long as you don’t ultimately abandon the faith, and abide sacerdotalism. There are some real pastoral lessons to learn from the priesthood, I have to admit. My father has been given last rites twice recently and there is a tremendous amount of comfort in having a ‘representative’ of your faith come to you as ‘representative’ of God to you, to offer biblical comfort and absolution-gospel. A lot of protestant pastors, that I’ve known, are not as good at giving the distance necessary, between friend away from their office, and then putting back on the full authority and mantle of the office, when preaching or otherwise, to deliver to you not themselves but the gospel of Jesus Christ in a comforting pastoral way, not an evanjellyfish, ‘have you accepted Jesus kind of way.’ Particularly in that situation.


  4. Sean, I wonder if the Protestant pastors’ problem is that they have become the 24/7 counselor and friend. Protestants want their pastors around for “all of life” and not just for the big moments like marriage, birth, sickness, and death.


  5. Darryl,

    It’s that. The vestments sometimes help create the transition for the priest and change of atmosphere for the recipient. These are two priests who have known our family since I was a kid and as such they’re good friends but also my parent’s priests. There’s also the lack of otherness, distance from the pulpit. I’d pay good money to get RH preaching with any sort of regularity. Even when the pastor isn’t doing anecdotal stories and schmoozing, we too often go from text to therapeutic application, or what this means for us. How about just what it means in a RH way. The only time we seem to get the distance we need from the pastor to hear from God is the actual partaking of the lord’s supper because even the administration pronouncements end up being continuation of the sermon which was already too much of what God’s been telling him(devotional) in the text. Anyway, I’m sure it’s not always that off, just seems like it sometimes.


  6. Since I put it out there, I should say he’s still living, though they don’t know what’s wrong yet. Everything gets dicey when you’re over 80 and 1 triple bypass later.


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