Minding the Gap: Gregory of Nyssa, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and the Hermeneutics of Historical Theology

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Since his death in 1988, Hans Urs von Balthasar has become one of the 20th century’s most widely read theologians. His constructive theological work has won recognition among an ecumenically diverse array of scholars, especially in the Anglophone world. But his name has long been just as familiar to the field of early Christian studies. That guild remembers Balthasar less for his later works of speculative theology than his triptych of early studies on the Greek Fathers: Origen of Alexandria, Gregory of Nyssa, and Maximus the Confessor. These books remain important monuments in the history of modern scholarship on patristic literature, but they are just as often remembered for betraying more about their author’s own thought than that of their ostensible subjects. Judging by their current reputation, Balthasar’s patristic studies would seem to represent little more than artifacts of a bygone era in which eisegesis could still pass for historical research.

This dissertation limns a portrait of Balthasar at once more charitable and more critical than such recent scholarship has been able to sketch. More charitable because it mounts a defense of Balthasar’s habit of bringing his own theological convictions to bear upon the task of interpreting (late) ancient texts, and does so by showing that such prejudices are not only inescapable but indispensable to understanding the past. More critical because it does not simply cavil at the supposed anachronism of interpreting (late) ancient texts in light of theological commitments often far removed from the historical context in which the sources were situated, but rather questions the content of Balthasar’s convictions themselves.

Chapter 1 makes progress toward a more charitable reading of Balthasar’s early work by outlining a “dialectical” theory of tradition in dialogue with two bodies of literature: 1) modern scholarship on the 4th century Greek theologian Gregory of Nyssa; 2) the philosophical hermeneutics of Hans-Georg Gadamer, whose concept of “historically effected consciousness” (wirkungsgeschichtlichen Bewußtseins) proves essential to a specifically Christian account of tradition but ultimately inadequate to the content of its most peculiar confessions. Chapter 2 moves toward a more critical reading of the same by first identifying the particular set of theological prejudices in light of which Balthasar practiced his retrievals of the Christian past, before then demonstrating that and how these commitments to a broadly Thomistic metaphysics of the “analogy of being” (analogia entis) shaped his several essays on Gregory of Nyssa himself. Chapter 3 questions whether Gregory’s texts can really bear such a theological burden, or whether—as Balthasar himself worries at crucial moments throughout his career—the Greek patristic tradition doesn’t tend in precisely the opposite direction. Away from an “analogical” model of the relationship between God and world, that is, towards a more “dialectical” account of Christ’s retroactive transfiguration of creation as a whole. So it is that Chapter 3 substantiates the metaphysical vision broached in Chapter 1, but does so in response to the hermeneutical program assayed in Chapter 2. The result is a more or less coherent argument about the form and content of historical theology in the Christian tradition.






Ross, Taylor C (2022). Minding the Gap: Gregory of Nyssa, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and the Hermeneutics of Historical Theology. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/26843.


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