Hans Urs von Balthasar: Have "We Done Everything" for Unity?

Feast of St Pappias the Martyr

PRECISELY in a real confrontation will we be forced to spell out our differences in all their clarity and consequences. In such an honest encounter, any apparently well-meaning attempt to overlook differences, any hasty effort to buddy up to one’s partner, any merely psychological empathy, will only compound the rift by bandaging the wound without healing it. In other words,

we must listen to Christ and through Him engage once more in an orderly, sober, strict and effective theology. It is remarkable but true: it is not those who are seriously interested in and care about theology who do not understand each other across church divisions but the idler, the amateur, the dilettante and historian on both sides. Whereas it is precisely those people who must respond to each other with a clear, logically developed and necessary Sic et Non who tend to find, despite the way they refute each other, a real encounter and community spirit beginning to develop. This arises from the very concern they both share for the cause over which they struggle from such different sides and in such painfully different ways. This cause, however, could be Jesus Christ Himself, the very unity of the Church (Karl Barth, The Church and the Churches, 1935).

Why this paradox? Because unity cannot be found in some neutral no man’s land between the confessions: it can only be found within the respective ecclesial spaces of each denomination. Theology is church theology or it is nothing at all. But if each church really “thinks through to the end” (Barth, The Church and the Churches) her own doctrines in obedience to revelation, it could happen that both sides might discover they share a common position. Barth’s challenge is for “the Roman Church to think through her own doctrine on nature and grace and the dogmas on justification developed by Trent!” And we say to him in reply: “Let Reformed theology really think through to the end its doctrine of the visible Church, of obedience and Law, and also its dialectic of man simul justus et peccator!” Then new life will at last begin to flow again through the Church’s limbs, grown so sclerotic over the centuries. At least the question will once more be posed; and we can never find the right answer unless someone first asks the right question.

Of course, this whole project must begin with the admission that unity can only be the grace of the Church’s Founder: this is no human product. We must admit that we are “unprofitable servants” whose sins once shattered the unity of the Church and who must not be allowed to rest until we have “done everything.” And only the faith that can move mountains will be weapon enough for such a task. For this faith knows that even the mountains obey the Word of God, the God who wants to involve us in His own work. Both sides in the division share in the knowledge of this great mystery; and this unity in faith is the very promise of unity in faith.

~Hans Urs von Balthasar, “House Divided” in The Theology of Karl Barth


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