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Christ and Analogy: The Christocentric Metaphysics of Hans Urs Von Balthasar

Johnson, Junius. Christ and Analogy: The Christocentric Metaphysics of Hans Urs Von Balthasar (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013), xi + 213 pp. $59.00 (paperback).

Reviewed by Ross Jesmont (December 13, 2016)



Part of the Emerging Scholars series, Junius Johnson’s Christ and Analogy outlines the metaphysics that underlines the theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar. A significant revision of his Yale doctoral dissertation, Johnson has added over forty thousand words to his initial project. This book argues that the doctrine of analogy is the key concept that unlocks von Balthasar’s system: “For even though Christ is at the center . . . it quickly becomes apparent that Christology turns upon the doctrine of analogy” (ix). As Johnson comments, two significant difficulties in reading von Balthasar is the scope of his writings and his lack of a systematic method. In advancing his thesis, Johnson maintains that the doctrine of analogy provides an “index of interpretation” or an “organizational principle” for those seeking to navigate von Balthasar’s vast theological corpus. Consequently this book bridges the gap between introductory text and specialist study by presenting a scholarly reading of an under assessed aspect of von Balthasar’s thought that also provides an orientation to his writings.

By his own admission Johnson wrote Christ and Analogy as a preparatory work for a later in-depth study of von Balthasar’s theology; a work that is still to be published. The aim of the present volume is to explicate the metaphysics or logic which guides von Balthasar’s thought in order to enable a better comprehension of his treatment of the Trinity, Christology, and grace. Despite Johnson’s intended larger project, Christ and Analogy remains readable as a standalone explication of von Balthasar’s Christocentric metaphysics.

Although the focus of Christ and Analogy is metaphysics, Johnson is clear that for von Balthasar a strong separation between theology and metaphysics is not possible: “Metaphysics can only be discussed in conversation with theology” (2). This is because for von Balthasar metaphysics is fundamentally dependent on theology. Stated simply, “reality is only the way it is because God is the way God is” (5). Therefore, metaphysics is determined by God; “the immanent (Trinitarian) being of God as such is the ground of metaphysics (5). Thus while it is more precise to say that von Balthasar has a sacred metaphysics, by metaphysics this book primarily means the relationship between God and creation.

Distinctively the “point of departure” for von Balthasar’s metaphysics is not an ideal or a theory but the person of Jesus Christ. In attending to creation, created reality, metaphysics is only possible when done in reference to the archetype of all creation. Christ as this archetype stands at the center of metaphysics, mediating the relationship between God and his creation. Yet in placing Christ at the centre of his metaphysics Johnson notes that von Balthasar arguably has two metaphysics, “one based on the pre-Incarnate Christ, and one based on the Incarnate Christ” (107).

The structure of Christ and Analogy reflects this observation, as the book can be divided into roughly two sections: Chapters 2-4 concentrate on von Balthasar’s metaphysics prior to the incarnation, his “Ideal Metaphysics,” while chapters 5-8 address his metaphysics following the incarnation, the “Historic Metaphysics.” Like the earlier distinction between theology and metaphysics this later division is not absolute, as the Ideal and the Historic interact with one and other. The two sections of this book provide a means of outlining the movement of this work, given a detailed outline of its arguments is beyond the scope of a review.

The guiding question for the first half of Christ and Analogy is the nature of the God-creature relation; how the relationship between God and creation is to be understood. While acknowledging the over simplification of this approach, Johnson outlines three possible responses to the question. (1) God and creation are totally distinct: Pure Difference Thesis. (2) There is no difference between God and creation: Identity Thesis. (3) While God and creatures share a likeness there relationship is defined by an even greater unlikeness: Analogy Thesis. Chapters 2-4 present the reasons von Balthasar rejects the extremes of the Pure Difference and Identity Theses in favor of Analogy.

As a mediating approach to the relation between God and creation, the Analogy thesis promotes the positives presented by the alternative theses while overcoming their shortcomings; God is wholly yet still knowable through his creation. Drawing on Bonaventure, von Balthasar argues that the two poles of the analogy are present in Jesus Christ, as both the exemplar of all created beings and the complete expression of God. Johnson highlights that through this understanding von Balthasar sees the movement of analogy as controlled from the side of the Creator not creation. God makes Godself known in order that creation may participate in the divine nature.

In promoting a Christocentric metaphysics von Balthasar recognizes the impact which the incarnation has on his system, but as Johnson stresses the change which leads to the two metaphysics is to be understood as a change in Christ’s person not his divinity. In the incarnation the ideal becomes the historic and in doing so Christ becomes the norm of all history and creation. However, the creation of two metaphysics raises the question of how they relate to each other. Johnson outlines three possibilities: (1) identify a higher system to which both belong; (2/3) subsume one to the other or vice versa. He concludes “that while God may know what relationship holds between the Ideal and the Historical Metaphysics, the Balthasarian system must rest content with only the fact of each” (127). This comment reflects the lack of a critical edge in Johnson’s approach. Possibly a result of being a revised doctoral dissertation, Christ and Analogy leans towards describing the metaphysics of von Balthasar rather than challenging the validity of his presuppositions and conclusions.

The concluding chapters of the book are its most theological, with their attention given to understanding the relation between analogy, the trinity and kenosis. These chapters offer the reader illuminating commentary that requires particular care and attention. One noteworthy insight is that “there is otherness in creation because there is otherness in the Creator” (142). Creation is fundamentally an analogous reflection of its triune Creator who is made known only in the person of Jesus Christ.

Christ and Analogy is a lucid work on a dense topic. The book’s treatment of the relationship between theology and metaphysics, Christology, and place of analogy within theological discourse is pertinent to discussions far beyond the immediate sphere of Balthasarian studies. As an introduction to von Balthasar’s logic this work is commendable because Johnson presents a notably Balthasarian reading of von Balthasar; he quotes extensively from von Balthasar’s writings and uses his familiarity with the texts to succinctly explicate the thought of their author based on his own logic. Unfortunately this clarity is marred by a number of distracting typographical mistakes in the book. Christ and Analogy is a work that repays careful reading with enriching insights into the nature of God and creation. As a preparatory work one is left ready and waiting for Johnson’s future theological installment.

Ross Jesmont, Ph.D. Student, University of Durham

The views expressed here are strictly those of the author; they do not necessarily represent the views of the Center for Barth Studies or Princeton Theological Seminary.