Obstacles to Reading Scripture in Modernity: Von Balthasar’s Response

Hans Urs von Balthasar’s theological aesthetics {are} a remedy for the breakdown in modern biblical exegesis and the groundwork of an approach to revelation that allows the glory of God to show forth in all of its splendor.

In the first book of the first part of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Trilogy, The Glory of the Lord: Seeing the Form, von Balthasar lays out his plan for a theological aesthetics. He envisions his project as a reversal of the ordering of the transcendentals in the works of Immanuel Kant. Kant began with his critique of pure reason (truth), then moved to a critique of practical reason (good), and finally a critique of judgment (beauty). Thus, von Balthasar begins where Kant ends and affirms that without beauty as the starting point, the other transcendentals are lost.

In a world without beauty—even if people cannot dispense with the word and constantly have it on the tip of their tongues in order to abuse it—in a world which is perhaps not wholly without beauty, but which can no longer see it or reckon with it: in such a world the good also loses its attractiveness, the self-evidence of why it must be carried out. Man stands before the good and asks himself why it must be done and not rather its alternative, evil. 1

This is precisely where we have arrived in modernity. Beauty has been tossed out of every sphere of modern society as evidenced by modern art, music, literature, and manner of dress. All types of vulgarities affront us when we turn on a television set, radio, or take a stroll down a city street. A perusal of the daily news headlines reveals that goodness is slipping away. As with the good, so also with the truth. Relativism is an imposing beast that no longer tries to conceal itself, but instead walks out in the open and produces more spawn than rabbits in mating season. Eventually, Being itself is questioned. Without beauty, nihilism is the final frontier. “The witness borne by Being becomes untrustworthy for the person who can no longer read the language of beauty.” 2 Thus, for von Balthasar, beauty must be restored to its fundamental place at the head of the transcendentals. Not only is this restoration needed for the survival of culture, it is likewise necessary for the renewal of modern biblical studies with its destructive approach to reading Sacred Scripture. In this article, I will present von Balthasar’s theological aesthetics as a remedy for the breakdown in modern biblical exegesis and the groundwork of an approach to revelation that allows the glory of God to show forth in all of its splendor.

The starting point of von Balthasar’s aesthetics comes from the Christmas preface of the Roman rite:

Quia per incarnati Verbi mysterium nova mentis nostrae oculis lux tuae claritatis infulsit: ut dum visibiliter Deum cognoscimus, per hunc in invisibilium amorem rapiamur3

This preface gives von Balthasar the two key elements of his aesthetics: form (Gestalt) and expression. These two elements correspond to the vision and rapture found in the preface. It is essential for von Balthasar that, although they can be distinguished in order to clarify, these two elements must not be separated. To uphold one in isolation from the other is to destroy the project of a theological aesthetics. The Gestalt is the outer appearance that is first seen. Yet, if it is truly seen as Gestalt, it must reveal its inner depth, which grasps the seer and manifests itself in such a way as to paradoxically remain a mystery.

Admittedly, Gestalt would not be beautiful unless it were fundamentally a sign and appearing of a depth and a fullness that, in themselves and in an abstract sense, remain beyond both our reach and our vision. 4

In this way, the Gestalt unifies the sign and the thing signified. The Gestalt points to the inner depth, which expresses itself through the outer appearance.

The appearance of the Gestalt, as revelation of the depths, is an indissoluble union of two things. It is the real presence of the depths, of the whole of reality, and it is a real pointing beyond itself to these depths.   5

Implicit in this structure of a theological aesthetics is the centrality of the Gestalt as a whole. Even though the Gestalt presents itself in its wholeness, the modern tendency is to enter into a process of fragmentation and focus on the parts to the exclusion of the whole. Each part is isolated from the whole without any notion of putting it back together. In order to avoid this tendency, von Balthasar states that the “indissolubility of Gestalt” must be the first principle of aesthetics. 6  Those who uphold the whole of the Gestalt will have eyes to see the transcendentals.

… only the few who…bear the weight of the whole on their shoulders, will receive eyes to behold the primal form of man-in-existence, and…their courage to embrace this primal form will raise everything else into the light along with itself: the true, the good, and the beautiful.  7

The essential characteristic of the Gestalt as a whole is made manifest when we consider the Gestalt of revelation.

In regards to the revelation of God, the Gestalt would not be a thing, but the Divine Person of Jesus Christ, whose mission is to definitively reveal God the Father. In God’s sending of the Son to become Incarnate, the Father likewise gives testimony to the Son. Yet, in the Father’s testimony to the Son, the Son in return gives testimony to the Father. This is what we are confronted with in the vision of the Gestalt of Christ. If one perceives this Gestalt correctly, in seeing the Son, they will be pointed to the inner depth, and the Father will be revealed. This revelation of the Father in the Gestalt of the Son, however, does not exhaust our knowledge of the Father. How could it, since the infinite is inexhaustible? A mystery remains, but it is a mystery that seizes us in rapturous desire to want to know the Father more and more. Yet, this is only possible to the extent that we grow in knowledge and love of the Son.

As we can begin to see, the vision of the Gestalt of Christ is inaccessible to those without eyes of faith. Faith is understood as a “self-surrender to the incarnate Beloved” which is synonymous with love. 8  It is here were the Johannine experience of the Logos is decisive for von Balthasar. In this regard, the Johannine notion of abiding is the distinctive character of Christian experience. Abiding and seeing are the aesthetic dimensions found in 1 John 1:1:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of Life…

This abiding and seeing are not merely a glancing while at rest, but a loving contemplation of the Being Who is Being itself. It is at the same time both personal and ontological. The infinite God has poured himself out in the gift of his Son, which is the ultimate gift of love since the Father withholds nothing of himself in this gift. The only response to such a gift is a life lived in loving obedience to God. It is a life that stems from being born from above (John 3:3) by the Holy Spirit and partaking in the sacramental life that sprang forth from the blood and water from the side of Christ on the Cross. Hence, it involves nothing less than being a member of the Body of Christ, his Church, of which he is the head.

It is here where the modern, if he is able to make it this far, will turn from Christ in rejection of the hard saying of being obedient to the Church, which in essence is obedience to Christ himself. Yet, for John, obedience is necessary for love.

John, as lover, speaks so much about law and command, since for him “pliancy” (or submissiveness) is a criterion for love. That it is “law” follows necessarily from our sinfulness: law is the stern countenance which love shows the person who does not yet possess it. For John does not know any command other than love’s, which integrates all the commandments. 9

The proof that we love Christ is that we follow his commandments. In doing so, we grow ever more in our self-surrender to the Son who makes known the Father. In this surrender of love, we perceive at the same time both the Gestalt of the Son and the expression of the Father, which is a prelude to the definitive abiding in God when we shall see him as he is.

Von Balthasar speaks eloquently of the importance of the scriptural witness of salvation history and its gradual unfolding toward the definitive revelation in Jesus Christ:

Only “Scripture” itself possesses the power and the authority to point authentically to the highest figure that has ever walked upon the earth, a figure in keeping with whose sovereignty it is to create for himself a body by which to express himself. But a body is itself a “field,” and it requires another ‘field’ in which to expand, a field part of whose form it must already be if it is to stand in contrast to it. Christ’s existence and his teachings would not be a comprehensible form if it were not for his rootedness in a salvation-history that leads up to him. Both in his union with this history and in his relief from it, Christ becomes for us the image that reveals the invisible God. Even Scripture is not an isolated book, but rather is embedded in the context of everything created, established, and effected by Christ—the total reality constituted by his work and activity in the world. Only in this context is the form of Scripture perceivable.” 10

Thus, Scripture must not be read in isolation from the Gestalt of Christ, a Gestalt that ultimately points to the Father. There is no hint of a Protestant sola scriptura in von Balthasar’s work. Scripture is but one expression of the Gestalt of Christ, which is also expressed in the Church’s living Tradition. 11 As von Balthasar reminds us, “It is not Scripture which is the sacrament of God, but rather Christ.” 12 Consequently, the proper place for the reading of Scripture is within the sacramental life of the Church, with its definitive place being in the Liturgy alongside the Eucharist. 13

…Eucharist and Scripture belong most intimately together,…they can only be different aspects of the same thing, and this, furthermore, justifies the practice of the Church, as she remembers her Lord, of celebrating her liturgical memorial as Christ’s becoming present both in the Word and the Eucharistic Sacrament. But for this very reason it also becomes evident that the form of both word and sacrament points beyond itself to the form of the Church which is where they must be fulfilled… 14

Only one who is engaged in the life of the Church will be able to benefit from an encounter with the Gestalt of the Christ in Scripture. In this way, he will imitate the sacred authors of Scripture by entering into the very reality that is being studied. He will be a true theo-logian and not a mere scholar of the history of religions. As Balthasar has expressed elsewhere, only a kneeling approach to theology and Scripture is capable of avoiding the trap of relegating exegesis to some remote corner of academia as an obsequious bowing to the science department.

One of von Balthasar’s main targets for critique is the sort of “historical-critical method” characteristic of the Jesus Seminar. To practice this sort of “exegesis,” one does not even need to be a practicing Christian, let alone a member of the Catholic Church. 15 Thus, the game is lost from the very start. It is impossible for these scholars to see the Gestalt of Christ, because they deny that Christ is God. The Gestalt is destroyed thereby, and instead of the Father being witnessed to by the Son, he is reduced to some mythological figure representative of the patriarchal times gone by. The divinity of Christ is merely a relic of the unenlightened, uncritical past. Yet, there is still something drawing these scholars to the Gestalt of Christ, even though they fight it and deny its attraction.

It is impossible to look into his eyes and maintain that one does not see him. There is, first of all, the possibility of erecting a screen before his image, and then being convinced or convincing oneself that it cannot be removed. A modern example of this is the “historical-critical method,” which supposedly can go only as far as the testimonies of faith in Christ and which then sees these testimonies as a screen hiding the historical Jesus. Or one can place before the image all sorts of historico-religious schemas (such as the myths of the “salvation-bearer”), or simply a system of categories under which one assumes, perhaps in good faith, that the phenomenon will be subsumed. 16

But the Gestalt of Christ is more plausible than myth. As von Balthasar states, the Gospels have an uninventable character. 17 To splice them up into “historical” and “faith,” as if the two were opposed, is to lose their integrity. 18

The whole of the Gestalt of Scripture is something that von Balthasar is particularly concerned to guard. The final form of Scripture, the canonical form, should be the basis for our approach to reading Scripture, and thus von Balthasar provides a stinging critique of form criticism.

Scripture is not the Word itself, but rather the Spirit’s testimony concerning the Word, which springs from an indissoluble bond and marriage between the Spirit and those eyewitnesses who were originally invited and admitted to the vision. With such an understanding of Scripture, we can say further that its testimony possesses an inner form which is canonical simply by being such a form, and for this reason we can “go behind” this form only at the risk of losing both image and Spirit conjointly. Only the final result of the historical developments which lie behind a text—a history never to be adequately reconstructed—may be said to be inspired, not the bits and scraps which philological analysis thinks it can tear loose from the finished totality in order, as it were, to steal up to the form from behind in the hope of enticing it to betray its mystery by exposing its development. 19

Scripture, as a witness to the living Word, is itself living and active because it is inspired by God the Holy Spirit. To tear it apart into all sorts of fragments without any hope to reassemble it and once again find the unity of the whole is to destroy it, and take the life out of it. This dissection of Scripture is not suitable to the subject matter which it reveals, nor to the Divine Person by which it is revealed. “Anatomy can be practiced only on a dead body, since it is opposed to the movement of life and seeks to pass from the whole to its parts and elements.” 20 One should not try to “get behind” the Scriptures and posit hypothetical histories or communities in an effort to appear “critical.”

Does it not make one suspicious when Biblical philology’s first move in its search for an “understanding” of its texts is to dissect their form into sources, psychological motivations, and the sociological effects of milieu, even before the form has been really contemplated and read for its meaning as form? For we can be sure of one thing: we can never again recapture the living totality of form once it has been dissected and sawed into pieces, no matter how informative the conclusions which this anatomy may bring to light. 21

The solution to this problem, for von Balthasar, is to engage and take seriously the canonical form of Scripture, the inspired form. “We must return to the primary contemplation of what is really said, really presented to us, really meant. Regardless of how distasteful this may be to some, we must stress that, in the Christian realm, such contemplation exactly corresponds to the aesthetic contemplation that steadily and patiently beholds those forms which either nature or art offers to its view.” 22

In regards to viewing Scripture as a whole, it is important to remember that Sacred Scripture is made up of both the Old and the New Testaments. Too often, these two Testaments are treated in isolation of one another, as if the Old in no way pointed to the New and the New was a stand alone project that did not intend to fulfill anything. Yet, to affirm the Gestalt in its entirety is to recognize that Jesus Christ is the center and subject of Sacred Scripture. The Two Testaments are really one whole that witnesses to the Father’s divine plan and preparation for sending the Son into the world. This approach to Sacred Scripture was the air in which the Church Father’s breathed.

The concept for the relationship between the Old and the New Testament which the tradition of the Fathers coined and modified unceasingly—is that of συμφωνία, consonantia, “consonance,” described by Augustine as a concert of beauty (concinere, consonare, concitare) which surpasses the harmony of the spheres because in the latter only an inner-worldly melody resounds. 23

Sacred Scripture is a symphony that unfolds from the Old into the New, from figure to archetype. In this way, every page of Scripture concerns Christ! That is the beauty of Scripture, which grasps us as we read it from the Old and moves us to follow along in loving anticipation of the revelation and glory of the Son. He has become incarnate and pitched his tent among us, making known the Father. Thus, through the Holy Spirit dwelling within, we may become adopted sons and daughters conformed to the image of the Son, who is the image of the invisible God.

The Fathers and the medieval contemplatives never tire of celebrating the delectatio of this manner of considering Scripture, and they find in it a foretaste of eternal bliss. This kind of Scriptural meditation, moreover, was always practised in the context of an existence that longed for the vision of God and that was constantly dying to this world in order to rise up with Christ unto God. In this, the great contemplatives are but realising in themselves the movement of all history, which bears witness to Christ merely by dying to itself and tending towards a form which transcends it. 24

This manner of approaching Scripture may seem “unscientific” or “uncritical” to moderns. However, it is an approach that takes seriously the Holy Spirit’s role as primary author and seeks to read and interpret it in the same spirit in which it was written. 25

It is clear to see that the modern approach diverges greatly from the Patristic and Medieval approach, which saw the totality of the Gestalt and therefore had reverence and awe of the text.

The older contemplators of Scripture possessed the art of seeing the total form within individual forms and of bringing it to light from within them. But this naturally presupposes an understanding of totality that is spiritual and not literary and philological; that one accomplishes in the obedience of faith the decisive step from word to spirit, from earthly form to resurrected form; and that, in so doing, one relinquishes all abstract short-hand formulas about the ‘essence’ of Scripture or the ‘essence’ of the Synoptic, Johannine, or Pauline principles (for in the realm of Scripture there are no legitimate abstractions) and keeps one’s eyes set on that universal concrete reality which is Christ himself, universalised in the Holy Spirit and witnessed to by Scripture. 26

With all that has been said above, we do not intend (and should not intend) to say that all that has been done with regards to Scripture in modernity has been bad. When, however, modern approaches to Scripture diverge from the theological aesthetics set forth by von Balthasar, they do so to their detriment. Only an approach that takes the Gestalt of the revelation of Christ expressed in Scripture as a whole—with eyes of faithful and loving obedience to the Magisterium of the Church—will be able to recognize all the beauty contained therein and produce work that is truly fruitful.

  1. H. U. von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics I: Seeing the Form, 2nd ed., trans. E. Leiva-Merikakis (San Francisco; New York: Ignatius Press, 2009), 19 (emphasis in original).
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid., 117.
  4. Ibid., 115.
  5. Ibid., 115–116 (emphasis in original) .
  6. Ibid., 26.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid., 230.
  9. Ibid., 233.
  10. Ibid., 32.
  11. Cf. Ibid., 515: “…the Logos’ body of Scripture has no meaning in itself, but only as the vehicle that impresses the Christ-form in the hearts of men, as a ‘sacrament’ of the Holy Spirit which effects what Scripture signifies.”
  12. Ibid., 528
  13. Ibid., 527: “Scripture and Sacrament belong together and constitute the continual and unattenuated presence of revelation in the Church’s every age.”
  14. Ibid., 514-514.
  15. A prime example of this fact is that John Shelby Spong, the retired Episcopal Bishop of New Jersey, who denies the virgin birth, the resurrection, and the existence of God, is a member of the Jesus Seminar.
  16. Glory of the Lord, 500-501.
  17. Ibid., 458.
  18. Cf. Ibid., 455: “If we understand the Risen Lord as merely the ‘Christ of Faith’, without an interior identity with the Jesus of history, then once again the whole form becomes incomprehensible.”
  19. Ibid., 30-31.
  20. Ibid., 31.
  21. Ibid. (emphasis in original).
  22. Ibid. 31-32
  23. Ibid., 640.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Cf. Dei Verbum 12 § 3. Also Cf. Glory of the Lord, 73-74: “Historical theological research is scientifically exact research as presently understood in the ‘human sciences’ (Geisteswissenschaft), not as in the natural sciences. But such research can establish only what Augustine calls the historia and Origen the littera. The properly theological dimension, however, begins only with the intellectus (Augustine), the spiritus (Origen), the content of revelation, precisely God’s theo-logy discerned in and through human history: what the ancients call the sensus spiritualis and the intellectus fidei, which can indeed be fostered by a comprehensive understanding of history, but which can in no way be extracted from history by ‘exact scientific method’ (exaktwissenschaftlich). This we can see from the fact that, in spite of their very imperfect understanding of the littera, the ancients, by contrast with the moderns, had in many regards a far deeper knowledge of the spiritus. True theology begins only at the point where ‘exact historical science’ passes over into the science of faith proper—a ‘science’ which presupposes the act of faith as its locus of understanding. To regard such theology as a genuine science is fully in accord with St. Thomas. But, St. Thomas, however, attributed the character of a ‘science’ to theology, only in virtue of a concept of science which is unique and only analogously the equivalent of the other sciences, including philosophy. Theology’s exceptional position is seen by him to be founded on its participation through grace—directly in the personal act of faith but mediately by virtue of the authentic pattern of faith presented by the Church—in the intuitive saving knowledge of God himself and of the Church Triumphant. Only in this dimension is the vision of the distinctively theological ‘form’ and its specific beauty possible. Only here can that act be accomplished which the Augustinian tradition describes as fruitio: the act which alone can open up the theological content of such ‘form’ and which, in particular, constitutes an eschatological anticipation that occurs within faith and is demanded by faith. Few among today’s ‘exact’ Biblical scholars, however, make any room at all in their Biblical science for the fruitio of the sensus spiritualis, to say nothing of assigning to it the place of honor. I say ‘place of honor’ because this act is the central act of theology as a science. According to an unformulated but generally accepted opinion, this act is either banished from ‘scientific’ theology into the realm of unscientific ‘spirituality’, or it must remain suspended until ‘exact’ research has passed its more or less definitive judgment concerning the historical meanings and contexts of the littera.”
  26.  Ibid., 534–535.
Daniel M. Garland, Jr. About Daniel M. Garland, Jr.

Daniel M. Garland, Jr., is a Ph.D. candidate in Systematic Theology at Ave Maria University. He has taught theology at Ave Maria University, Christendom College, and for the Permanent Diaconate Programs of the Diocese of New Ulm, MN, Arlington, VA, and the Archdiocese of Washington. His articles have appeared in Homiletic & Pastoral Review, Maynooth Theological Journal, Heythrop Journal, Angelicum, and National Catholic Register. He is also the first English translator of St. Jerome’s Commentary on the Prophet Haggai, which is published with IVP Academic’s Ancient Christian Texts series.


  1. Good presentation of Balthasar, Daniel! It is interesting how this concept helps explain the blindness of the learned and the vision of the faithful who see the form. And I think these ideas on gestalt are more readily accessible to believers than they may realize. For instance, everyone who is appalled to hear on their Monticello tour of Jefferson’s hole-y bible understands–at least on some level–one thing the great deist statesman did not: the gestalt of Scripture.