Saving Beauty: Form as the Key to Balthasar's Christology. By Veronica Donnelly


O.P. Pp 269 , Peter Lang , Oxford , 2007 , $65.95 .

Hans Urs von Balthasar, arguably one of the most influential Catholic theologians of the twentieth century, is a complex and intriguing figure whose trilogy—The Glory of the Lord, Theo-Drama, and Theo-Logic—displays enormous range as it interacts in an integrative, or better said, a symphonic fashion with a host of material. As such, we find numerous instances of biblical exegesis, snippets of historical criticism, and large swaths of church history, both ancient and modern. Moreover, Balthasar interacts extensively with the history of ideas, including metaphysics, ethics, literature, and spirituality.

Veronica Donnelly wades into this vast array of material, endeavoring ‘to find a hermeneutical key to open the door to his Christological methodology.’ Taking her cue from Balthasar, she surmises that ‘Gestalt… provides a key to the whole’ (p. 11). As such, she divides her work into three parts—Gestalt, Übergestalt, and Ungestalt—in order to elucidate her thesis while attempting to explicate the meaning of Gestalt, the origins of Balthasar's usage, and why he employs the term to expound his Christology.

Part one focuses on the meaning and derivation of Balthasar's understanding of Gestalt and its relationship to being. Donnelly summarizes Balthasar's conception of Gestalt: ‘Form is more than the parts we see; it is the outer expression of an inner depth. It is this inner depth manifested … [and] in its highest and most significant sense is expressive or revelatory of the mystery of Being, one could say that it proclaims Being—expresses Being’ (p. 12). She aptly notes the influence of Johann Wolfgang Goethe and the rarely mentioned Christian von Ehrenfels. Goethe's influence stems from his morphological method that seeks to synthesize the parts of an object in light of the whole. Ehrenfels' influence resonates with Balthasar's love of music such that Gestalt possesses dynamic melodic like qualities that contain a certain unity whereby the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Balthasar contends that being presents itself in and through Gestalt, which serves, according to Donnelly, as a philosophical preamble to Balthasar's theological aesthetics that acts ‘as a vehicle for the revelation of God in Christ’ (95).

Donnelly turns in part two to explicate the notion that Jesus Christ is the Übergestalt—the form above all forms. Noting the inadequacy of the philosophical categories to articulate God's self-revelation in Christ detailed in part one, ‘Jesus Christ is [still] a “legible” form and not just a sign’ (p. 12). As such, the Gestalt Christi is an objective, indissoluble, revelatory form that manifests the trinitarian nature of God, although God in Christ, ‘in order to be God, must remain hidden even as he reveals’ (p. 125). The appearance of Christ reveals, then, the eternal triune life of God such that ‘the mission of Jesus is a mission originating in the Trinity’ that reveals ‘the Triune love and self-giving for humankind’ (p. 139). Christ's mission is located in three kenotic movements, according to Donnelly's read of Balthasar. First, the primal kenotic event emanates from the immanent Trinity as the divine Urdrama in which the Father totally gives himself over to the Son. In doing so, the Son and the Spirit respond in kind, giving everything back to the Father. This divine eternal kenosis is paradigmatic for all others. Second, creation becomes a form of kenosis in that ‘this self-emptying consists in the bestowing of a relative (but not secondary) freedom on humankind’ (p. 159). Finally, the Incarnation, including Christ's death and descent, serves as the third kenotic movement that demonstrates to the utmost degree the love of the triune God pro nobis.

Part three of Donnelly's work concentrates on this final kenotic movement and the veiling of the Gestalt Christi in the Ungestalt. In becoming Ungestalt, Christ acts in solidarity with us as a substitute for our sin. Balthasar, Donnelly argues, focuses on Stellvertretung or vicarious substitution as the key concept for explicating Christ's mission that resonates with the Servant Songs and prophets of the Old Testament, the hyper formulas in the New Testament, and the patristic theme of commercium or exchange. As such, this notion of substitution is indispensable for the Catholic faith, the reality of the Eucharist, and the divinity of Christ because the motif of substitution demonstrates the depths of God's love, the costliness of redemption, and the seriousness of sin. The traditional Catholic understanding of the atonement as solidarity fails to account for these reasons while concentrating primarily on Jesus' humanity and his sharing in our fate. Balthasar contends then, according to Donnelly, that Catholic theology is better served by bringing the concepts of solidarity and substitution together under the rubric of pro nobis.

Saving Beauty is primarily a descriptive work that offers little critical interaction with Balthasar, although Donnelly ventures, at times, into the intricate web of explaining the rudiments of Balthasar's thought (e.g., the influence of Erich Przywara, etc.). Although her work is primarily descriptive, it serves as an important secondary source for introducing readers to Balthasar's Christology because of Balthasar's symphonic and complex theological method. As such, Donnelly provides readers with a point of debarkation into the vast sea of Balthasar's thought, supplying us with the compass of Gestalt to embark upon the Balthasarian adventure. Her interaction with several untranslated works of Balthasar also enhances the value of her work as she provides a valuable service to the English speaking world.

The subtitle and thesis of her work, the idea that Gestalt is the key to Balthasar's Christology, is somewhat misleading. Gestalt is the leitmotiv that unlocks Balthasar's Christology but not in its entirety. Gestalt is largely explanative of the Christology in The Glory of the Lord while the notion of ‘mission’ is the central motif for understanding Balthasar's Christology in Theo-Drama and ‘Logos’ in Theo-Logic. Donnelly all but acknowledges this when she says that ‘the central concept of mission gives a unified portrayal of the mysteries of and person of Christ’ (p. 142). Yet, she makes no attempt to explain how Gestalt might be foundational to the missional Christology of Theo-Drama nor does she mention Balthasar's Logos and Spirit Christology in his Theo-Logic. Saving Beauty is better served by amending the subtitle to read ‘Form as the Key to Balthasar's Christology in his Theological Aesthetics.’ In doing so, she does justice to Balthasar's theological method that weaves together two other important Christological themes for explicating his Christology.

Donnelly's work is to be commended for identifying the key motif for understanding Balthasar's Christology in his theological aesthetics, namely Gestalt. Although Saving Beauty is laced with a plethora of editorial errors that, at times, detracts from Donnelly's writing, it serves as a fine introduction for those interested in wading into Balthasar's theological aesthetics. It should be read along side other works like Edward Oakes's Pattern of Redemption and Aidan Nichols's The Word Has Been Abroad.