Hans Urs von Balthasar on the Assurance of Faith

by Brother Ignatius Schweitzer, O.P.

Among the topics addressed by the Lutheran Catholic Accord document, “Joint Declaration on Justification,” is section 4.6 on “Assurance of Salvation.” Assurance of salvation normally denotes two things: first, a certainty that at the present moment a believer is in the saving grace of Jesus Christ through faith and, second, that such a believer will remain in that grace forever. In light of the Council of Trent’s condemnation of an absolute assurance of salvation (ch 13), the Catholic ecumenist may seem a little hamstringed in dialoguing about an assurance of salvation. So, perhaps a better phrase for ecumenical dialogue would be “Assurance with respect to Salvation” since it implies neither a distinctively Protestant nor Catholic conclusion but remains a neutral starting point. A Catholic can respond to the two elements of an assurance of salvation with two corresponding assurances with respect to salvation. As to the first: at a given moment the Catholic generally cannot know with certainty that he is in a state of grace, yet he can be assured of God’s faithful power to save and that God intends his salvation. This I will describe as relational. For the second: although a Catholic generally cannot be assured that he will persevere in grace, he can be assured that God will provide the grace needed at this moment to take the necessary next step toward attaining salvation. This I will describe as dynamic. How compelling one finds these two assurances with respect to salvation will depend on one’s understanding of faith in the work of salvation. To consider a conceptual framework that does exploit the force of these two assurances, in what follows, I will turn to the Christian attunement model of Hans Urs von Balthasar. I will show how it supplements the two assurances as found in the LCA’s Joint Declaration and accentuates their relational and dynamic character.

The Self-Surrender of Faith

Von Balthasar’s Christian attunement model treats the believer as one who is becoming attuned to Christ. This attunement with Christ is a work of grace (including man’s graced cooperation) and can be considered salvation in the full sense—not merely saved from hell but also saved for an adoption that climaxes in resemblance. The disposition of one seeking attunement—whether a violinist or a believer—is a posture of open docility toward the standard of attunement. In varying degrees this demands surrendering oneself to the standard of attunement. The violinist will have to turn his attention from himself to the lead pitch and renounce whatever does not resonate within his own sphere; likewise, the believer will have to turn from himself and fix his contemplative gaze on Christ and renounce whatever does not correspond. Von Balthasar sees the self-surrender of attunement as essential to faith. He says:

Faith in the full Christian sense can be nothing other than this: to make the whole man a space that responds to the divine content. Faith attunes man to this sound; it confers on man the ability to react precisely to this divine experiment, preparing him to be a violin that receives just this touch of the bow, to serve as material for just this house to be built, to provide the rhyme for just this verse being composed. This was the reaction already envisaged when the Covenant was made on Sinai: “Be holy, because I am holy.” (Glory of the Lord: Seeing the Form, I:220)

What von Balthasar calls “faith in the full Christian sense” could more specifically be rendered the “obedience of faith” as found in Romans and described by Vatican II as “an obedience by which man commits his whole self to God, offering the full submission of intellect and will to God who reveals, and freely assenting to the truth revealed by Him” (Dei Verbum 5). Christian attunement, with faith conceived as the disposition of one who is being attuned to Christ, provides a framework to consider the two assurances with respect to salvation.

Relational

As for the first: assurance of God’s faithful power to save is an assurance of who God is (God’s character if you will) and hence is an assurance appropriate to a personal relationship. In the self-surrender of attunement, a Christian can be assured that the One to whom he entrusts himself is faithful to his promise. This same orientation of the believer away from self and toward God is proposed as pivotal by both the Lutherans and Catholics of the LCA. The Lutherans describe it in this way:

In the midst of temptation, believers should not look to themselves but look solely to Christ and trust only him. In trust in God’s promise they are assured of their salvation, but are never secure looking at themselves. (35)

For the Lutherans, even an assurance of salvation is had only with such an orientation away from one’s sinful self toward the merciful God. The Catholics in the dialogue resound the same disposition of attunement:

Catholics can share the concern of the Reformers to ground faith in the objective reality of Christ’s promise, to look away from one’s own experience, and to trust in Christ’s forgiving Word alone. With the Second Vatican Council, Catholics state: to have faith is to entrust oneself totally to God. (36)

The Catholics emphasize an assurance with respect to salvation appropriate to a personal relationship—“to have faith is to entrust oneself totally to God.” In entrusting oneself to God, the believer can rest in the assurance of God’s mercy and “that God intends his salvation” (36). That the believer does not personally possess an assurance of salvation is not so disconcerting in the movement of entrusting himself to the good God in Jesus Christ.

True as all this may be, the unique contribution of a theological aesthetics to this discussion comes in considering more closely the believer’s orientation to Christ. In beholding the Lord, the believer is no neutral observer, no casual onlooker. If that were the case, God’s mercy would remain a mere detached fact unappropriated by the believer. Rather, in beholding Christ through contemplating him in the Scriptures, liturgy, and truths of the Faith, the Christian is personally engaged in beholding the supreme Beauty, the Lord of Glory. Such a gaze cannot remain impartial because through a spiritual eros the beautiful attracts. The Divine Beauty impels a response of genuine human freedom buoyed up by grace. It is the magnetism of the Lord of Glory that gives such a firm confidence to the attuning movement of entrusting oneself to the Lord. The beauty of the Lord attracts the believer to the final goal of salvation: union with God.

This aesthetic principle of beauty’s magnetism can be illustrated on a natural level with our violinist. In tuning before the symphony, the lead pitch exerts some influence on the docile violinist and impels him to match the pitch, but this influence is miniscule compared to the magnetism of the whole orchestra in the midst of a symphony. The greater the beauty, the greater the magnetism. In playing with the orchestra, the violinist may even forget himself, being so absorbed in the beauty of the standard with which dynamic consonance is shared. The awed violinist is completely handed over to the standard of attunement. Von Balthasar describes this principle of attunement:

Before the beautiful—no, not really before but within the beautiful—the whole person quivers. He not only ‘finds’ the beautiful moving; rather, he experiences himself as being moved and possessed by it. The more total this experience is, the less does a person seek and enjoy only the delight that comes through the senses or even through any act of his own; the less also does he reflect on his own acts and states. Such a person has been taken up wholesale into the reality of the beautiful and is now fully subordinate to it, determined by it, animated by it. (247)

In this fine specimen of Balthasarian-prose we see that what may begin as a gaze can quickly become an ecstasy of sorts (a standing outside oneself). If this is the case for natural beauty, how much the more for divine. For Christian attunement, the “standing outside oneself” is accomplished by a grace-filled eros and is more specifically an “ecstasy of service” in attunement with the One who came to serve. While stressing the relational, the magnetism of the beautiful Beloved supplements the LCA’s description of the orientation away from self toward Christ. It shows that in entrusting oneself to Jesus, the Christian not only receives the objective promise of salvation, but through contemplation opens himself to being drawn into consummate union with Christ; he opens himself to the appropriation of God’s work of salvation. For, Christ’s whole life (but especially the Paschal Mystery) is a living icon of the merciful and saving God. Beholding this icon in contemplation imparts saving grace so that the believer may be transformed into this same image in a Christ-like life—or in other words, that he may be attuned to Christ’s form. This transformation will be completed in heaven where as St John says, “we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 Jn 3:2).

Dynamic

That the Beautiful Lord draws the believer more deeply into the mystery of salvation reveals the dynamism of attunement. This brings us to the second assurance with respect to salvation: God will provide the grace needed at the present moment to take the necessary next step in the journey to heaven. The LCA says:

We confess together that the faithful can rely on the mercy and promises of God. In spite of their own weakness and the manifold threats to their faith, on the strength of Christ’s death and resurrection they can build on the effective promise of God’s grace in Word and Sacrament and so be sure of this grace. (34)

The language of “building” on God’s promise implies the dynamism of moving forward in the journey of salvation. Assurance is had only in moving forward; it is not grasped in a standstill. Von Balthasar considers this movement in terms of the Christ-form. The final goal of salvation is to be formed into Christ’s image, attuned to the Christ-form. Yet the movement toward the final goal of salvation is already itself Christoformic (that is, marked by what is most characteristic of Christ and his Paschal Mystery). At the final resurrection of the body, the Christian will resonate completely with an essential mark of the Christ-form: Christ’s victory over sin and death in the resurrection. Yet already on earth, the believer can experience God’s power working in his weakness as a seminal death and resurrection foreshadowing the resurrection in glory.

In this regard, von Balthasar turns to St Paul’s defense of his ministry and the very genuineness of his faith in 2nd Corinthians 10-13. St Paul defends himself by recounting instances of God’s power working in his weakness. Paul’s Christoformic movement toward the goal is his proof of the Crucified-and-Risen-Christ living within him. Interestingly, the emphasis of Paul’s testimony is on his weakness in identification with the weakness of Christ-Crucified. (As I will show later, this element of the Christ-form will give even the struggling Christian confidence.) Paul challenges the Corinthians to test their own faith in the same manner, giving a general scope to this methodology. For von Balthasar, this comprises a “new form of Christian certitude which can be called ‘Christian experience'” (225). The distinctive Christian experience of death and resurrection in nascent form—God’s power in weakness—only makes sense, as such, in reference to the final resurrection. Von Balthasar insists that during our earthly pilgrimage the goal of salvation “is grasped only in flight and not in itself, and, therefore, it cannot be translated into a static ‘certainty of salvation'” (228). This static certainty of salvation I take as akin to the absolute certainty rejected by Trent. What, then, would a “dynamic assurance” mean?

Von Balthasar proposes that since self-surrender is essential to a saving faith, the oft-used (inward turned and static) psychological approach to the question of whether or not I have faith is lacking (for instance, trying to discern within myself the saving act of faith either presently or in the past). Any individual basis for this judgment has been surrendered. In a system of works-righteousness, such as Paul experienced under the “Old Law,” one might perhaps try to gauge his faith to be sure it measures up to the mark. Yet a faith that entrusts itself to God would betray its self-surrender in trying to measure itself according to an individual basis. Von Balthasar insists that having surrendered oneself has implications on the nature of hope: it cannot be static (228). For such a self-surrender, there is no longer any solid ground on which to stand in order to judge oneself (such as my act of faith or my experience of faith). Assurance with respect to salvation can be grasped only with respect to the standard to which the believer is being attuned and not with respect to any individual basis. Being swept off his feet, as it were, by the dynamic movement of attuning grace, the only way that the Christian can catch his footing at all is with reference to the goal to which he is moving. The final goal of sharing in Christ’s glorious resurrection, as the epitome of God’s power made in weakness, illumines every next-step along the journey. By fixing his gaze on Christ-Crucified-and-Risen the believer opens himself to receiving the fruits of the Paschal Mystery. In pressing on in this way, he can be assured that at the present moment God will provide the needed grace to take the necessary next step toward the goal of salvation. He cannot be assured of his salvation in the static moment, but in the open orientation toward Christ’s redemption—in the movement of attunement—he can have such a dynamic assurance with respect to salvation. The sphere of assurance for the pilgrim believer is like the pillar of cloud and fire which truly accompanied Israel in the desert though it always hovered just the next step ahead: “Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people” (Ex 13:22).

The more the Christian adopts the orientation of the subject being attuned through self-surrender, the more compelling this dynamic assurance becomes. Yet, it should be noted that this open disposition to attunement does not exclude self-reflection. The violinist must hear his own pitch along with the lead’s. Furthermore, the Catholic participants of the LCA did mention that every person “may be concerned about his salvation when he looks upon his own weaknesses and shortcomings. Recognizing his own failures, however, the believer may yet be certain that God intends his salvation” (36). Self-reflection is necessary but it must occur in a particular way. As with the violinist, the key is relativizing one’s own state in light of the standard of attunement. The violinist hears his own pitch but subjectively gives precedence to the lead pitch in docile consonance. Likewise, the believer sees his sins but the greater mercy of Christ’s redemption casts them in a new light.

This is how Paul’s test of faith in 2nd Corinthians can be helpful even for the struggling Christian who lacks Paul’s impressive resume. A characteristic mark of the Christ-form is the Paschal Mystery of God’s power in weakness. Assurance is needed most of all in trials of various sorts, whether in external events, spiritual desolation, or the struggle to overcome sin. Instead of despairing, the Christian must grasp the true Christ-form. According to Paul’s formulation (12:9-10), it is precisely weakness that God transforms into power through Christ’s death and resurrection. Christ’s victory over sin is certainly the apex of power made perfect in weakness. Rather than seeing one’s weakness in and of itself—isolated within one’s own standard of judgment—part of what it means to be a Christian believer is to see one’s weakness in the context of the Paschal Mystery. This is relativizing one’s own state in the Paschal light of the standard of Christian attunement. The very weakness of the believer, whatever the cause, is an occasion for God’s power to be made perfect through the Christ-form of death and resurrection, yet only in pressing on. In moving forward toward the final goal of the glorious resurrection, the Christian can rest in the assurance that God’s grace is at work.

Whether one accepts all the trappings of von Balthasar’s model is secondary, although I do think a theological aesthetics is especially helpful in elucidating the believer’s fundamental orientation away from self to God and his fixed-gaze on Christ. My primary intention, however, is to intimate the full force of the relational and dynamic assurances with respect to salvation that Catholics are privileged to possess. However it may be articulated, in man’s assurance in relation to God, the center of gravity ought to drastically be tipped toward God. The two assurances with respect to salvation, which are appropriate to our relationship with God and the dynamism of our journey to him, stress just this thrust. It is the magnetic beauty of the divine Bridegroom that entices us to make haste along our journey. We are, hence, one in spirit with the bride’s plea in the Song of Songs: “Draw me: we will run after thee to the odour of thy ointments” (1:3).

(Originally published on my old Pontifications blog on 13 August 2006)

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David B. Hart on the Metaphysics of Deity

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Justification as Eschatological Existence

Originally posted on Eclectic Orthodoxy:

For in Christ Jesus the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. (Col 2:9-12)

As noted in a previous article, Lucian Turcescu has proposed that Orthodoxy should explicitly integrate justification as the first step in its ordo salutis, with deification being the second and final step. I criticized Turcescu’s reduction of justification to forgiveness or reconciliation. Justification must also be simultaneously understood as regeneration into an eschatological mode of existence. I had hoped to elaborate further on this in…

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Cheap Grace, Costly Grace, and the Justification of the Ungodly

Originally posted on Eclectic Orthodoxy:

When preachers begin to be troubled by the many nominal believers in their congregations, or perhaps by their own nominal faith, they often begin to stridently declaim Bonhoeffer’s distinction between cheap and costly grace. Perhaps someone will be convicted and commit themselves to a deeper seriousness of faith. In Bonhoeffer’s oft-quoted words: “Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” Cheap grace is the easy word of absolution that we speak to ourselves as a way of justifying our personal status quo and protecting ourselves against repentance and spiritual transformation. Eastern Orthodoxy is often, and rightly, presented as a way of being Christian that eschews all forms of cheap grace. With its rich ascetical and liturgical tradition Orthodoxy is that “strong medicine” that every sinner needs and yearns for, a way that offers liberation from self-bondage, not through instant magical recipes…

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Becoming a New Creation with the Apostle Paul

Originally posted on Eclectic Orthodoxy:

Shortly after I graduated from seminary, I “tried on,” if you will, the penal substitutionary view of atonement, as articulated in the writings of J. I. Packer. Some of you may have read his classic book Knowing God. I read it on the recommendation of my evangelical friends. Packer is very persuasive on the atonement. So for a little while I appropriated the satisfaction theory into my preaching. But it never quite fit. While I felt comfortable preaching that, in some undefined sense, God has stood in our place and borne God’s judgment against our sin, I never felt comfortable proclaiming a full-blown presentation of penal substitutionary atonement. I couldn’t see a way to reconcile such a theory with my deep conviction that God is absolute and unconditional love … indeed, the two positions seem quite contradictory. God does not need to reconcile love and justice within himself. He…

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Israel and the Gospel According to St Paul

Originally posted on Eclectic Orthodoxy:

An increasing number of biblical scholars are finding the justification by faith model (JF) unpersuasive as a comprehensive way to understand the Apostle Paul. This first came to my attention early in my seminary education (back in the dark ages) when we were assigned Krister Stendahl’s important essay “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West.” JF is grounded upon a negative assessment of Torah and the Apostle’s alleged crisis of conscience: on the road to Damascus Saul realizes that, despite his vigorous efforts to obey the Law, he stood condemned by the Law and would always be condemned by the Law. “Cursed be every one who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, and do them” (Gal 3:10). No one can obey the Law perfectly, but it is precisely this perfect obedience that is necessary if anyone is to…

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David Hart on the Palamite Distinction and our Knowledge of God

“Both traditions [Eastern and Western], when they talk about the knowability or unknowability of the divine ousia or essentia, are for the most part talking pious nonsense. There is no such ‘thing’ as the divine essence; there is no such object, whether of knowledge or ignorance. It is ultimately immaterial whether we prefer to use the term ousia to indicate the transcendence and incomprehensibility of God in himself or to use the term ‘incomprehensibility of the essence’ instead. God is essentially Father, Son, and Spirit, and … there is no other reality prior to, apart from, or more original than the paternal arche, which perfectly reveals itself in an eternal and coequal Logos and communicates itself by the Spirit who searches the deep things of God and makes Christ known to us. There is no divine essence, then, into the vision of which the souls of the saved will ultimately be admitted, nor even from the knowledge of which human minds are eternally excluded, and any language that suggests otherwise—whether patristic, Thomist, or Palamite—is an empty reification. The question of the knowledge of God, properly conceived … is the question of how we know the Father in the Son through the Spirit, even as the Father infinitely exceeds our knowledge.”

(David B. Hart, “The Hidden and the Manifest,” in Orthodox Readings of Augustine, p. 214)

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