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Christ's representation of sinners in Hans Urs von Balthasar and Thomas Aquinas

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 September 2021

Zane E. Chu*
University of Toronto Regis College, Toronto, ON Canada
*Corresponding author. Email:


In his dramatic approach to the redemption, Balthasar takes seriously Christ's exchange of places with sinners. Christ upon the cross takes on sin itself, and not only its consequences, while remaining innocent. Balthasar critiques Aquinas for maintaining that Christ accepts only the consequences or punishments of sin. Aquinas strictly distinguishes between guilt and punishment, with Christ accepting only the latter out of charity to make satisfaction for sin. I argue that Balthasar does not get beyond Aquinas’ distinction between guilt and punishment but dramatises it for a more dynamic representation of the seriousness of sin and its redemption.

Research Article
Copyright © The Author(s), 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press

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1 Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Action, vol. 4 of Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory [hereafter TD], trans. Graham Harrison (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1994), p. 317. The motifs are summarised on pp. 240–44.

2 Ibid., p. 243. See also p. 318.

3 Ibid., pp. 317–18.

4 Ibid., p. 332. Karen Kilby explains that the ‘dramatic approach’ and ‘trinitarian substructure’ are not unrelated, for only with the latter can one be genuinely dramatic, by avoiding the one-sidedness found in historical systems. Balthasar: A (Very) Critical Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012), p. 99.

5 Ibid., p. 317.

6 Ibid., p. 253–4. I recognise that ‘sin itself’ is an ambiguous term. While Balthasar contrasts it with the consequences or punishment due to sin, suggesting its equivalence to guilt or fault, as in Aquinas, he also seems to distinguish within sin itself the darkness of sin from the sinner.

7 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae [hereafter ST] 3.48. Citations are from Summa Theologica, 5 vols, trans. the Fathers of the English Dominican Province (Westminster: Christian Classics, 1981). While I use the word ‘redemption’ in a broad sense, referring to the whole salvific work of Christ, Aquinas’ motif of redemption has a restricted meaning. It is a metaphor that indicates Christ's passion and death as a certain ‘price’ for removing sin. See Jean-Pierre Torrell, Encyclopédie Jésus le Christ chez Saint Thomas d'Aquin (Paris: Cerf, 2008), p. 810.

8 Torrell suggests that sacrifice and redemption express the manner in which satisfaction is accomplished: Le Christ en ses mystères: La vie et l'oeuvre de Jesus selon saint Thomas d'Aquin (Paris: Desclée, 1999), p. 396.

9 ST 3.48.2.

10 ST 3.50.1. See also 3.14.1.

11 ST

12 Anselm, Cur Deus Homo? 1.13. For an overview, see Burns, J. Patout, ‘The Concept of Satisfaction in Medieval Redemption Theory’, Theological Studies 36 (1975), pp. 285304CrossRefGoogle Scholar, especially pp. 287–8.

13 See Schönborn, Christoph, God Sent His Son: A Contemporary Christology, trans. Taylor, Henry (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2010), p. 288Google Scholar. He cites John Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion 2.6.10: Christ ‘had truly to feel the whole harshness of the divine judgment in order to turn away his wrath and to give satisfaction for his just sentence’. See also Balthasar's discussion of Luther, cited below at n. 43.

14 Patout Burns, ‘Concept of Satisfaction’, p. 300, suggests that Aquinas provides a bridge between Anselm's concept of satisfaction and later substitution theories.

15 ST See the Prima pars 5.1, 5.3, 22.2, 44.1, 44.4.

16 ST 1.48.5.

17 Ibid. Note that culpa is translated both by ‘guilt’ and ‘fault’.

18 ST 1/2.87.6. See also ST

19 ST 1/2.87.7.

20 ST 3.14.1. I suggest that, for Aquinas, punishment has a certain equivalence with suffering.

21 ST 1/2.87.6.

22 ST 1/2.87.7.

23 ST 1/

24 ST 3.48.2.

25 ST See also

26 ST

27 ST 3.14.1.

28 ST 3.19.1.

29 See ST and

30 ST 3.49.1.

31 ST 3.49.5.

32 ST 3.49.4.

33 ST 3.49.1. See ST 1/2.113.8. Torrell stresses the connection between charity in Christ's passion and the justification of the ungodly in Encyclopédie, p. 815. The apparent circularity of charity provoked by the passion and receiving the effect of the passion through charity underscores the priority of God's initiative in giving grace and charity. Christ is the univocal cause of grace and charity as head of the mystical body. Torrell, Encyclopédie, p. 213.

34 ST 3.46.6. In TD IV, p. 264, Balthasar approves of the formulation that Christ ‘ascribes’ sins to himself, but immediately downplays its significance for dramatic soteriology. He also laments in Aquinas that ‘[t]here is no emphasis whatsoever on Christ's abandonment by God as the center of the Passion’. However, Aquinas cites scripture metonymically, ‘where the “part” that is cited calls the student to retrieve from trained memory the “whole” of the res’ to function as an enriching interpretive context. Gilles Mongeau, Embracing Wisdom: The Summa theologiae as Spiritual Pedagogy (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 2015), p. 98. The citation of Ps 21:2 recalls its entirety, particularly its incipit: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ Aquinas explicitly connects Christ's abandonment to his suffering and sorrow: ‘when anyone is exposed to an evil he is called abandoned, in the same way when the Lord has left a man to fall into the evil of punishment, or of guilt, he is called abandoned’. Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, chapters 13–28, 27.2.2383, trans. Jeremy Holmes (Lander, WY: Aquinas Institute for the Study of Sacred Doctrine, 2013), p. 445.

35 ST

36 ST

37 ST 3.46.6. Aquinas’ position that Christ possesses the beatific vision upon the cross remains controversial. His point is that beatific knowledge does not take away from suffering or sorrow for sin, but in fact intensifies it. Bernard Lonergan explains, ‘[i]t was precisely this juxtaposition of the good he loved with the greatest of evils that was the root, source, and cause of his sorrow’. The Redemption, vol. 9 of the Collected Works of Bernard Lonergan, ed. Robert M. Doran, H. Daniel Monsour and Jeremy D. Wilkins, trans. Michael G. Shields (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2018), p. 547. See also Gilles Mongeau, ‘The Human and Divine Knowing of the Incarnate Word’, Josephinum Journal of Theology 12/1 (2005), pp. 30–42.

38 TD IV, p. 263.

39 Ibid., p. 336.

40 Ibid., p. 337.

41 Ibid., pp. 334–5.

42 Ibid., p. 336.

43 Ibid.

44 Ibid.

45 Ibid., p. 323.

46 Ibid., p. 362.

47 Ibid., p. 335. Balthasar cites Schwager here.

48 Ibid., p. 334.

49 Raymund Schwager, Must There Be Scapegoats? Violence and Redemption in the Bible, trans. Maria L. Assad (San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row, 1987), p. 206. See TD IV, p. 311, which references the original German.

50 Ibid., p. 209.

51 TD IV, p. 337. Aidan Nichols notes Balthasar's hesitation about using the language of punishment. No Bloodless Myth: A Guide through Balthasar's Dramatics (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2000), p. 169.

52 Ibid., p. 338.

53 Nichols, No Bloodless Myth, p. 169, notes the importance of the language of experience for Balthasar.

54 Ben Quash, ‘The theo-drama’, in Edward T. Oakes and David Moss (eds), The Cambridge Companion to Hans Urs von Balthasar (Cambridge: CUP, 2004), p. 150.

55 Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Dramatis Personae: The Person in Christ, vol. 3 of TD, trans. Graham Harrison (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1992), p. 149.

56 Balthasar directs this critique to Aquinas himself in The Theology of Karl Barth: Exposition and Interpretation, trans. Edward T. Oakes (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1951), p. 264.

57 See above, n. 34. The differences between Balthasar and Aquinas stand out here, especially the former's rejection of Christ's beatific vision and emphasis on Christ's abandonment by the Father and experience of hell. For concise summaries of these controversial points, see Kilby, Balthasar: A (Very) Critical Introduction, pp. 99–122, and Saward, John, The Mysteries of March: Hans Urs von Balthasar on the Incarnation and Easter (London: Collins, 1990)Google Scholar, especially pp. 55–8, 129–32. For a clarification concerning the actors of the Father and the Son, see Emerson, Matthew, ‘“The one Who Trampled Hades Underfoot”: A Comparative Analysis of Christ's Descent to the Dead and Trinitarian Relations in Second-Century Christian Texts and Hans Urs von Balthasar’, Scottish Journal of Theology 72 (2019), pp. 277–90CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

58 See ST 3.47.

59 Gilbert Narcisse gestures toward the inclusion of dramatics in Aquinas’ contemplation, presented in light of Balthasar's aesthetics. See Les Raisons de Dieu: Argument de convenance et esthétique théologique selon saint Thomas d'Aquin et Hans Urs von Balthasar (Fribourg: Éditions Universitaires Fribourg Suisse, 1997). Balthasar's aesthetics ‘n’était pas conçue comme la contemplation d'une unité statique. Sa perspective l'incluait d'ailleurs d'emblée dans l'histoire’ (p. 489). For Aquinas, ‘L'Esthétique de Balthasar tendue vers la Dramatique nous sert de transition pour envisage plus longuement comment la convenance intègre la dimension historique’ (p. 492).

60 Quash, ‘The theo-drama’, p. 143. See Hans Urs von Balthasar, Prolegomena, vol. 1 of TD, trans. Graham Harrison (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988), pp. 16–20.

61 TD I, p. 15.

62 ‘For the friars, Scripture was about God's revelation of God in and through the history centered upon Jesus Christ. It was their most fundamental desire to follow Christ's manner of life and teaching in obedience, humility, and poverty. So the exegetical task cannot be to penetrate beyond or beneath the history, but to stay with it in order better to understand him whom the text describes.’ Healy, Nicholas M., ‘Introduction’, in Weinandy, Thomas G., Keating, Daniel A. and Yocum, John P. (eds), Aquinas on Scripture: An Introduction to his Biblical Commentaries (London: T&T Clark, 2005), p. 9Google Scholar.

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