Ecumenical Thinkers


   Hans Urs von Balthasar (by Dominic Robinson, SJ)

The theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar is a key figure in the recent history of ecumenical dialogue.  Balthasar’s life spanned the twentieth century and in itself represents an ecumenical journey which reflects his developing thinking on the relationship between Catholic and Reformation theology. 

He was born in Lucerne, in 1905.  From an early age he was steeped in religious culture which was distinctively Catholic.  By the time of his entry into the Society of Jesus at the age of 24 he was already formed in the culture of the German-speaking Catholic world.  In fact we might say that the young Balthasar was to an extent shielded from any other cultures, religious traditions and peoples.  In one sense his formation as a Jesuit would continue to be very sheltered.  His philosophy studies were in the fiercely traditional city of Munich, a city alive with art and music, steeped in cultural history, and very Catholic.  He then continued with his theology studies in the Jesuit centre Lyon-Fourvière. 

But this period of Balthasar’s formation as a theologian was one of great cultural change in the world and in theology.  In the middle of all the beauty and cultural tradition the seeds of German devastation and European disintegration were being sown.  The city where Balthasar spent a number of years as a Jesuit scholastic and young priest, Munich, had become one of the principal foci for Nazi rallies and propaganda.  In the midst of beauty was ugliness.  In the midst of worship of God was worship of human perfection and desire for supremacy.  Whilst this new secular gospel of human supremacy was being proclaimed across the German-speaking world of the 1930s the young Balthasar was embarking on an important course in his theological journey.  At Lyon-Fourvière Balthasar was thrust into a stimulating world of theological enquiry.  Here he found that two of his French Jesuit teachers, Jean Daniélou and Henri de Lubac, were also searching for new ways to recover a sense of the absolute primacy of God’s power in human lives.  With them he returned to a study of the Fathers of the Early Church, especially Augustine and Irenaeus. 

Then came a critical period of Balthasar’s life through an ecumenical encounter which would have a huge impact on his thought.  In the 1940s Balthasar moved to Basel.  It was here that he met and began to appreciate the theology of the great Reformed theologian Karl Barth.  Barth’s objection to any theological system which gave glory to human beings rather than gave the glory to God interested him greatly.  In Barth’s vision Balthasar took to himself, refined and moulded into his own theological anthropology an understanding of the God-human relationship rooted in Reformation thought. 

 For Balthasar human identity is also clearly rooted in the person of Christ and his involvement in human lives.  Balthasar’s theological anthropology is not working in the traditional Catholic framework of Trent, Aquinas and a more teleological interpretation of Augustine, all of which place great emphasis on our human striving for the beatific vision.  Rather he is placing his emphasis on how our lives are transformed through the appearance of Christ on the human horizon as the revelation of God.  Revelation is a human person Jesus, with real flesh and blood, who in the world here and now is immersed in our human condition.  We are not so much sinners who need to turn to God.  God comes to us in Christ as the beautiful immersed in the ugliness of our world.  We cannot but respond to Christ as actors in this drama of the beautiful amidst the ugly. 

So for Balthasar, as with Barth, all the glory is given to God.  Any philosophy or anthropology which tries to find a way to God is to be rejected.  Yet, at the same time, Balthasar’s multi-faceted view wants to allow for some kind of innate human quest for relationship with the infinite.  There is a journey which the human being is on, from finitude back to infinity, to God himself.  These latter themes are much more in keeping with the traditional Catholic understanding of grace co-operating with nature. 

It is in the meeting of these strands to his thought that we find in Balthasar a distinctive new ecumenical contribution.  In particular we find in his writings a new evaluation of the Reformed Tradition which enables him to appreciate the work of Barth and the Reformation within an ecumenical framework. 

Stephen B Clark (by Andy Pettman)

Steve Clark was born in New York in 1940 and began studies at Yale in 1958.  It was at Yale that he came to a personal faith, particularly through the influence of writings on the life of Saint Francis of Assisi.  He was baptised through the Yale Catholic chaplaincy, but gradually came to a conviction that Sunday church attendance alone, was not enough to sustain strong faith in the modern world, and the need for what was called Christian community.    

Graduating from Yale in 1962, Steve spent a year on a Fulbright scholarship studying philosophy at the University of Freiburg, and then began a doctorate at the University of Notre Dame in 1963.  It was here that he met the Cursillo renewal movement, and started leading part of their work.  This eventually led to him taking the radical step of leaving his doctoral programme, and giving himself fully to the charismatic and community renewal that was beginning at that time.  This led to the foundation of the Word of God community in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1970, and eventually to a network of about 80 communities worldwide called the “Sword of the Spirit”.

Steve’s early experience in the renewal, convinced him of its wholly ecumenical nature, and meant that from the beginning communities that started up were at a minimum ecumenically open, and wherever possible, very diverse in church membership, living out to the full what Pope John Paul II said in “Ut Unum Sint” (1995) “Relations between Christians are not aimed merely at mutual knowledge, common prayer and dialogue. They presuppose and from now on call for every possible form of practical cooperation at all levels: pastoral, cultural and social, as well as that of witnessing to the Gospel message.”

How Christians from different denominations can live and serve together day to day is underpinned by his writings, some published, some not.  Of his published works “Redeemer” (published in 1992) – a fully ecumenical understanding of the work of Christ – has probably had the most impact on my thinking.  However his greatest impact for the ecumenical cause has come through his personal work with the leaders of many renewal communities worldwide, through his speaking and teaching programmes, and through his founding of the Servants of the Word, an ecumenical brotherhood of men, of which I am a member.   The Servants of the Word make the traditional lifelong commitments to Obedience, Celibacy and Poverty (we call this Simplicity), living together in households of typically 5-12 men, and coming from different traditions wherever possible.  As an example, based in London we currently have 11 men: 5 Roman Catholics, 3 Maronites, 2 Anglicans and 1 Methodist. Steve’s thinking and practical wisdom have shaped our ecumenical life and made it possible.

Where are they coming from?


     Thomas Merton


          Tom Torrance 
          TOM TORRANCE

 "I am not asking on behalf of them alone, but also on behalf of those who will believe in Me through their message, that all of them may be one, as You,    Father, are in Me, and I am in You. May they also be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me."  John 17:21-22

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