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The Systematic Thought of Hans Urs von Balthasar: An Irenaean Retrieval [Hardcover]

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Pages   246
Est. Packaging Dimensions:   Length: 9.34" Width: 6.16" Height: 0.76"
Weight:   0.9 lbs.
Binding  Hardcover
Release Date   Jun 1, 2002
Publisher   Herder & Herder
ISBN  0824519272  
EAN  9780824519278  


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Is there a single driving force unifying the diverse writings of Hans Urs von Balthasar? Kevin Mongrain points to von Balthasar's retrieval of Irenaeus of Lyons. In Irenaeus, von Balthasar found inspiration for a genuinely Christian theology that resists the recurring danger of gnosticism while honoring the Mystery of God.

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Well Planned introductory Work to von Balthasar's Theology  Apr 10, 2006
The Systematic Thought of Von Balthasar by Kevin Mongrain (Herder & Herder)
In 1984 John Paul II bestowed on Balthasar the prestigious Inter?national Paul VI Prize, and then, in 1988, named him a cardinal. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s he received numerous awards and honorary degrees from several Catholic universities in Europe and America. Nevertheless, the mainstream theological academy has been slow to engage his works in serious study. As David Tracy observed over twenty-five years ago, Balthasar's proposals received a "stunningly silent response" from his theological contemporaries. It is remarkably difficult to interpret the exact motives for this "stunningly silent response." As Tracy's point suggests, theologians did not write about Balthasar, not even to fault or chastise him. Hence we can only guess at the reasons why he was ignored. There are several possibilities. First of all, his central proposals were not widely known in the English-speak?ing theological academy because most of his books were not translated.
At the time of his death only about a quarter of his trilogy had been translated into English. Several of his shorter books and essays were available in translation, but they gave only a fragmentary picture of his complex theology. Second, he wrote too much to be assimilated during his lifetime. He produced an absurdly massive body of writings-he published tens of thousands of pages of text-which displays such a vast range of scholarly interests that the central point often becomes sub?merged. His vertigo-inducing level of erudition does not easily yield anything as straightforward as a core thesis or a self-evident thread of logic. De Lubac praised him as "perhaps the most cultivated man of his time." This was certainly meant as a compliment, but it was precisely his highly cultivated, omnivorous intellect that prevented him from communicating his best theological ideas clearly and directly. Moreover, because he was an independent scholar who never earned a doctorate in theology or held a university professorship, Balthasar did not have a cadre of graduate students to explain and defend his theological sys?tem in the theological academy. During his life only a small number of Catholic theologians took on the challenging task of working through his dauntingly immense works.
Third, although it is impossible to make certain claims on this matter, it seems reasonable to assume that, given the general unpopularity within the theological academy of the positions Balthasar took on certain controversial issues, there might have been an unspoken consensus among some Catholic academic theologians that he had betrayed the reformist cause which he had espoused before Vatican II, and that he was now too "conservative" to bother reading. In addition to his appar?ently "traditionalist" interest in retrieving premodern theologians, after the Council he began writing books and essays stridently opposing many "progressive" causes in the church. For example, he suggested there were anti-Catholic ideological motives behind such popular causes as libera?tion theology and ecumenism among world religions. Moreover, he sided with the Vatican in opposition to women's ordination, artificial contra?ception, and optional clerical celibacy. In arguing his positions on all these issues he sometimes demonstrated self-righteous contempt for the?ological opinions different from his own; when his intellectual advice was not heeded, he could be a nasty and bitter polemicist. Suspicion of his ideas only grew as self-styled "conservatives" nostalgic for Tridentine Catholicism appropriated Balthasar as an intellectual champion of their causes. His image as a reactionary was also fostered by the fact that most of the English translations of his books were published by a com?pany whose catalogue is filled with books written by theologically, polit?ically, and culturally conservative Catholics.
In the fifteen years since Balthasar's death, most of his trilogy was translated into English, and several fine expository studies of his work have appeared. These studies tend to be primarily exegetical and descriptive overviews of his work. Nevertheless they represent an impor?tant step forward in Balthasar studies. These studies make it obvi?ous that his thought is far too intellectually complex and theologically sophisticated to classify simplistically according to the partisan labels of postconciliar Catholicism. The virtue of these expository studies, how?ever, is also their vice. They limit their scholarly usefulness by either pre?senting a pastiche of themes from Balthasar's work or by simply describing sequentially the contents of his trilogy. Their failure to rank themes according to a hierarchy of importance and then to systemati?cally analyze the whole in light of this hierarchy is a major flaw. Failure to identify the dominant themes in his theology that conceptually regu?late the entire system make it impossible to raise critical questions about its overall coherence, internal consistency, and rhetorical balance.
Fortunately a new, critical phase of Balthasar studies is under?way. This new phase is analytical in the sense that it attempts to make decisions about Balthasar's conceptual priorities, regulative themes, and privileged theological, philosophical, and literary sources. These decisions allow for the possibility of an internal critique that evaluates Balthasar's thought on its own terms. Several Balthasar schol?ars are already moving Catholic theology in this direction with impres?sive results. Of course not all attempts at internal critique are equally successful. Success in such an endeavor depends on the degree to which one's analysis of the whole is accurate. Many attempts at internal cri?tique fail to persuade because their analyses either overlook or misun?derstand the core theological commitments animating Balthasar's intellectual project. At the risk of overgeneralization, Mongrain classifies the erroneous interpretations into two basic sets.
The first set of erroneous interpretations claims that Balthasar's theological system is monistic, and the second set claims that it is dual?istic. Those who assert the former tend to read his theology as being primarily committed either to the totalizing circle of Plotinus's exitus?reditus metaphysics, or to the monological system of Hegel's pan?theistic-trinitarian theory of history. In either case this type of interpretation can only maintain its claim that Balthasar's theology is monistic by explaining away a large amount of textual data. As Mongrain argues throughout this book, there are many passages in which he con?trasts his theology with Plotinian and Hegelian systems and asserts an irreducible difference between God and world, eternity and time, infinity and finitude, the trinitarian persons, human persons and human communities, Christian and non-Christian, male and female, and so on. For the monistic interpreters, doing an internal critique means sys?tematically reading all of Balthasar's claims for difference either as signifying only that difference has a provisional status before the escha?ton or as the presence of a dissembling rhetoric that must be expunged from his theology before it can make sense.
Those who assert that Balthasar's theology is primarily commit?ted to dualism tend not to expunge data from his writings to frame their argument for internal coherence. But like the monistic interpreters, their starting point is the assumption that Balthasar's theology is mired in Neoplatonic assumptions. In this case, however, "Neoplatonic" means not speculative monism but static Gnostic dichotomies between matter and spirit, time and eternity, body and soul, individual and com?munity, reason and faith, earth and heaven, and so on. In this interpre?tation internal critique means the process of demonstrating how consistently Balthasar's dualism leads him into asserting difference and then reneging on his assertion by collapsing one pole into the other. Hence these interpreters frequently assert that his thought "minimizes" or "fails to do justice to" some essential theological theme. In some cases those who argue this case grant that Balthasar's intentions are pro?foundly antidualistic. They might even acknowledge that he intends to affirm the sacramental potential of matter, the spiritual aspects of bod?ily existence, the centrality of faith to human reason, the inescapably dramatic nature of salvation history, the inevitably political mission of the church, the indispensability of community in the development of the self, the real autonomy of earth in its interrelation to heaven, and the complementarity of the different genders. Yet when these interpreters grant these points, they usually then add that that there is a dichotomous logic driving his system that is incongruent with his good intentions. Balthasar subverts his own intellectual goals, the argument goes, because he is simply too fascinated by Gnostic mysticism, too obsessed with the apolitical piety of private, individual souls, too fixated on the interior life of the eternal Trinity, and too concerned with the timeless life of heaven above the temporal earth. Some authors soften the critique by avoiding the claim that his theology actually is dualistic, and instead assert only that his theology "risks" or is in "danger" of falling into some kind of dualism. Analyses that assert dualism yield internal cri?tiques that present his theology as a confused, crypto-Jansenism. It can only be salvaged by radically rewriting it to inject the balanced perspec?tive it cannot generate internally.
The aim of this book is to offer a different analysis of von Balthasar, that, in turn, yields a different internal critique. In other words, the aim is to understand how von Balthasar's mind works, and thereby create the possibility of evaluating his theological claims by his own standards. The working assumption of Mongrain's analysis is that de Lubac's theology is the general source of the internal logic in von Balthasar's theology in the sense that it determines his conceptual priorities, regulative themes, and privileged theological, philosophical, and literary sources. His assimila?tion of de Lubac's belief that the pedagogical mission of the church in history is to train humanity in the monotheistic-sacramental paradox accounts for both the wide-frame perspective noticed by the monistic interpretation and the binary tendency noticed by the dualistic interpre?tation. Mongrain thesis is that Balthasar came to see Irenaeus of Lyons's theology of the mutual glorification of God and humanity in Christ as the best articulation of the theological vision presented by de Lubac. Irenaeus, read through de Lubac's lens, therefore became von Balthasar's primary critical resource from the patristic archive for reforming con?temporary Catholic theology and challenging various modern intellec?tual movements in theology, culture, and politics.
Mongrain thesis is limited in two ways. First, he is not attempting to demon?strate that Balthasar's theology is in fact Irenaean. That claim would require a comparative analysis of Balthasar and Irenaeus's texts. Rather, Mongrain is arguing that Balthasar thinks his theology is Irenaean. In other words, he consciously identifies Irenaeus's thought as the purest expression of the patristic consensus and builds the theology of his tril?ogy around it. Mongrain isnot concerned with the question of whether his read?ing of Irenaeus is accurate or idiosyncratic. Mongrain's method will be to examine what Balthasar explicitly claims about Irenaeus's theology in several of his texts, and then, focusing primarily on his trilogy, ana?lyze how these claims closely match what he argues in his own voice about theological norms and the criteria for measuring theological deviance from them. Second, my thesis is limited by my distinction between the internal logic of Balthasar's theology, on one hand, and his philosophical theology of logic, on the other hand. Focus on the lat?ter would involve a close study of the three volumes that constitute the third part of his trilogy, Theologik. My interest in the internal logic of his theology, however, is broader and more general than the philosoph?ical theology of logic presented in Theologik. I contend that Balthasar advocates something that can be referred to as "doxa-logic," which is for him a normative theological discourse that can function as
a corrective for some trends in contemporary theology. In making this argument, however, my point is that Balthasar advocates a distinc?tive theological style with certain definite conceptual priorities, regula?tive themes, and privileged sources from the Christian tradition.
Reading Balthasar's theology as an attempted retrieval of Ire?naeus and an advocacy of a particular set of theological norms can provide an extremely useful hermeneutic resource for identifying the ele?ments of incoherence, inconsistency, and, possibly, heterodox rhetoric in his thought. Several commentators have noticed Balthasar's interest in Irenaeus, but few treat this interest as anything more than an expres?sion of his interest in patristic theology in general, and none treats it as a resource for internal critique. This is unfortunate because an Ire?naean reading of Balthasar can redeem the most salient aspects of many of the various criticisms of his work that have been offered, par?ticularly those that detect Gnosticism in some of his ideas. Mongrain's goal is to open the possibility of internal critique, and in the concluding chapter Mongrain suggests a few lines it might take.
The method of Mongrain's analysis differs from the general practice used by the expository scholars. Most of these studies read the trilogy sequen?tially, arguing that his theological aesthetics (beauty), theodramatics (goodness), and theologic (truth) ought to be read as a linear progres?sion. Balthasar chose this ordering of the transcendentals as a con?scious challenge to the ordering of Kant's trilogy (reason, ethics, aesthetics), and therefore it ought to be respected. This is a valid point, but its merit is limited. First, the three parts of the trilogy are not pure discussions of beauty, goodness, or truth. Each part does accent one of the transcendentals, but each covers the others in great detail as well. Second, von Balthasar himself insisted that he was not presenting a rigidly systematic account of the transcendentals. In volume one of The?ologic he writes,
The circumincession of the transcendentals suggests the necessity of, and therefore excuses, a new discussion of issues that, at least in part, we have treated in the previous panels of our triptych. After all, there is simply no way to do theology except by repeatedly circling around what is, in fact, always the same totality looked at from different angles. To parcel up theology into isolated tracts is by definition to destroy it.
Mongrain takes him at his word on this point. There is a great deal of repeti?tion, with various nuances, throughout the trilogy. Therefore Mongrain ranges around the trilogy to discuss a series of interconnected theological themes. Mongrain's argument that Balthasar understood his project primarily as a retrieval of Irenaeus determines the structure of Mongrain's analysis. Mongrain makes a detailed argument that Irenaeus--or Balthasar's reading of Irenaeus--should to be considered a major influence upon Balthasar, giving a basic theological structure to Balthasar's thought.
Mongrain argues that Balthasar reads all other theologians, for or against, according to the measure he derives from Irenaeus. One could also would argue that it is John the Evangelist, not Irenaeus, who gives the basic vision to Balthasar's thought. Still, I admit that Mongrain has a strong point in showing the ways that Balthasar follows Irenaeus' anti-Maricion and anti-Gnostic thought (Mongrain, like Balthasar and Irenaeus himself, tends to conflate them in unhelpful ways). It is possible to still assert Johannine priority and account for the very important anti-Marcionist and anti-Gnostic aspects of Balthasar's thought. In any case, Mongrain's argument is certainly worth taking seriously and should not be dismissed.
This book is highly recommend both for those beginning their explorations of Balthasar and for those who have already been reading him. It will inform the new-comers and challenge those who already read Balthasar to read him in a new light.
 
Excellent and Thought Provoking Interpretation  Dec 21, 2005
The above reader who called this book flawed didn't really understand it. Its an excellent study of Balthasar.

First, the above reviewer didn't really understand what Mongrain was saying about von Speyr. His point is only that von Speyr is not, as Balthasar claimed, the most important theological influence on him. Yeah its risky to contradict Balthasar. But authors are not the best interpreters of their own work. Besides, Mongrain then goes on to make a detailed argument that Irenaeus--or Balthasar's reading of Irenaeus--ought to be considered as the one who gives the basic underlying theological structure of Balthasar's thought. Balthasar was reading Irenaeus long before he ever met von Speyr. There is nothing in the author's argument that suggests Balthasar did not develop the ideas he learned from Irenaeus through his spiritual friendship with von Speyr. He only argues that the basic theological structure of this thought came from his reading of Ireneaus--it is the skeleton of the body, even if von Speyr later supplied the flesh.

Second, the above reviewer fails to understand the basic argument of the book. It is not that Irenaeus is the only relevant influence on Balthasar. It is, as I said a moment ago, that Irenaeus gives Balthasar the skeleton of his theology. Mongrain argues that Balthasar reads all other theologians, for or against, according to the measure he derives from Irenaeus. The above reviewer seems to think that there is something arbitrary in this claim Mongrain makes in the introduction, but he doesn't seem to be aware of the argument for the claim in the rest of book. If one doesn't think this Irenaeus reading works, then one should argue for a different way to make sense of the whole or argue that the whole doesn't have any underlying meaning or or sense.

I myself would argue that it is John the Evangelist, not Irenaeus, who gives the basic vision to Balthasar's thought. Still, I admit that Mongrain has a strong point in showing the ways that Balthasar follows Irenaeus' anti-Maricion and anti-Gnostic thought (Mongrain, like Balthasar and Irenaeus himself, tends to conflate them in unhelpful ways). It is possible to still assert Johannine priority and account for the very important anti-Marcionist and anti-Gnostic aspects of Balthasar's thought. In any case, Mongrain's argument is certainly worth taking seriously and should not be dismissed.

This book is highly recommend both for those beginning their explorations of Balthasar and for those who have already been reading him. It will inform the new-comers and challenge those who already read Balthasar to read him in a new light.
 
Good but flawed  Nov 29, 2003
A mostly competent but flawed study of von Balthasar. It's deformed by it's origin as a Ph.D. dissertation. He watches his ass a little too much, limiting the range of the study to manageable academic scope, claiming to show not that Balthasar's theology is "Irenaean" (because Mongrain would then be required to show us all of Irenaus), but that von Balthasar "thinks" it is. On the other hand -- presumably because mystic-stigmatics don't go over well in the academe -- we are told to dismiss von Balthasar's own "odd claim" that his greatest influence is Adrianne von Speyr. In other words, von Balhasar "only thinks" she is an influence.

How grand of this gentleman to rescue von Balhasar from his massive self-deception.

He isolates one influence in Balthasar and shows it permeating the whole. Fine. The same exercise, isolating De Lubac or Pryzwara or John the Evangelist or von Speyr would also be useful. Unfortunately, like Mongrain's study, it wouldn't make for a particularly illuminating general introduction to his thought.
Retitle it "The Influence of Irenaus on von Balthasar" and you have what it truly is, a good specialized study of one part of von Balthasar's work.

 

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