Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Review of Stephen D. Wigley, Karl Barth and Hans Urs von Balthasar: A Critical Engagement

Here's an excerpt from a new book review, the full version of which can be found on the Center for Barth Studies website.
Stephen D. Wigley, Karl Barth and Hans Urs von Balthasar: A Critical Engagement (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2007), 178 + xiv. $144.00

Toward the end of his life, Hans Urs von Balthasar said of his multi-volume trilogy, “I wrote it all for Barth – to convert him.” Stephen Wigley’s new book can be read as an exposition of this revealing statement. Wigley’s central claim is that Balthasar’s critical engagement with Barth shaped the deep structure of his trilogy. Barth is not merely one interlocutor among others for Balthasar, but rather is the key to understanding the whole of his theology. Although this is not a particularly original or controversial thesis, the enduring significance of Barth for Balthasar’s theological project is all too often forgotten or suppressed. So Wigley’s book contributes to the ongoing appropriation of Balthasar’s legacy by keeping his conversation with Barth in the foreground.

Wigley advances his argument by first discussing Balthasar’s book on Barth, followed by an overview of Balthasar’s trilogy that highlights the presence of Barth as the key conversation partner. This method has the advantage of showcasing the breadth of Balthasar’s engagement with Barth, as opposed to many previous studies that compare the two figures on a selected topic. Unfortunately, given the vastness of Balthasar’s output, this method consistently lends itself to mere summary even when the arguments call for closer examination. Wigley repeatedly acknowledges the limitation of such summarizing, but does not take any significant steps to mitigate its effects. Nevertheless, Wigley makes some crucial claims worthy of attention. I will identify and discuss three such claims, and then offer some more general criticisms of the book.

Read more here.

Any thoughts?


Tony said...

Just a brief comment. I find it objectionable that, in parsing the relationship of one theologian to another, the one is basically reduced to being an interlocutor of that other... Balthasar has repeatedly recognized the theological debts he owed Barth, but it won't do to reduce him to a mere interlocutor of Barth. In some ways, this belittles Balthasar's own theological achievement, something Barthians are terribly susceptible to doing, forgetting the important points where they diverge, something Barth himself has noticed. They are two giants of 20th century theology, but the one cannot be reduced to the other.

millinerd said...

I read this review with interest, and apart from the book's technical inaccuracies, the broader issue - raised by your wonderful intro line - persist for me:

Granted one remains as Christocentric as Balthasar, is it inherently misguided to make the transcendentals the guideposts to one's theology? Without them I may have a consistent Protestant theology, but I have a hard time making sense of the outside world.

I realize that takes us beyond the specifics of the review and the state of Barth/Balthasar scholarship, but that strikes me as the larger issue.

Anonymous said...

Hey John,
I know you are a prof. at somersetcc, and I was wondering if you knew anything about the greek and hebrew classes there. i want to study the bible and theology, but i want to learn hebrew and greek too---do other programs prepare one better to learn the languages or is somerset's standard prep. before postgraduate school?

-Kris H.

JohnLDrury said...

Tony - A good point. I agree that we ought not reduce Balthasar to his function as an interlocutor of Barth. That is one of the reasons why I wrote the following words in my review:

" is doubtful whether debates over who is the key influence on a figure are productive or even meaningful. The more important question is how a theologian creatively integrates many influences within his or her own constructive project. How Barth and Irenaeus fit together within the developing structure of Balthasar’s thought is far more interesting than which one is supposedly more influential. The mention of structure brings us to Wigley’s third claim."

JohnLDrury said...


I think you hit on a crucial systematic upshot of the material at hand: what role should the transcendentals play in theological construction? How do you answer the question and why?

millinerd said...

No tricking! I asked the question first!

But to be a good sport, I would say that as long as Christ remains the driving center, using the transcendentals as an organizational criteria has both an evangelistic appeal and general breadth that is hard to beat.

I would not say the transcendentals are revealed. I would say that thanks to the revelation in Christ we know that they are trustworthy. Perhaps they are even an essential connection point for non-Christian interlocutors.

Furthermore, the truth, beauty and goodness of Christ takes those initial categories light years further and fathoms deeper than the Greeks might ever have imagined.