Interview with Anthony C Sciglitano — Balthasar on Judaism

A decade ago Pope Benedict published a new two volume life of Jesus loosely based on recent Catholic scholarship but at its core the book was a new theological reading of the gospels. In the volumes, he paints the Jewish background of Jesus, how Jesus fits into first century Jewish traditions and how his early audience was Jewish.  Benedict condemned prior anti-Judaism and wrote that the anti-Judaism of the patristic period, including the deicide charge, was not Christian. There should be no mission to the Jews and the gospels never thought otherwise. But more strikingly, he proclaimed a continuity of priestly, ritual, and monarchal elements of Judaism in the Church, the works of Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy are the core of the Catholic message.  He also gave validation to the Rabbinic tradition, “we now see it as our task to bring these two ways of rereading the biblical texts—the Christian way and the Jewish way—into dialogue with one another, if we are to understand God’s will and his word aright.

Because of this latter view, Pope Benedict directly attacks the older German approach of Lutherans such as Adolf von Harnack (d. 1930) who paints a radical discontinuity of Judaism and Christianity, in which Jesus is not Jewish and not based on Jewish teachings, the Church and Synagogue have nothing in common and the late and final period of Judaism was the first century. This was, in turn, picked up and accepted in Jewish circles as a supposed truism that Judaism is deed and Christianity is creed.   Some of these Christian anti-Jewish views go back to the second century Christian thinker, whose views were rejected as heresy, Marcion, whom Harnack sought to rehabilitate. Benedict forcefully emphasized the continuity of the Church with Judaism and rejected Harnack and any Marcionite thinking.

Balthasar bookcover

The ideas of Pope Benedict are not unique but part of a sea-change in Catholic thinking over the last seventy years.  Recently,  Anthony Sciglitano , my colleague and head of the religion department at Seton Hall University,  published his book Marcion and Prometheus: Balthasar Against the Expulsion of Jewish Origins from Modern Religious Dialogue, a revision of his dissertation on Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905 –1988), a leading and prolific Catholic theologian of the late 20th century.  Balthasar was a co-founder of the journal Communio, publishing the conservative circle of theologians to which Cardinal Ratzinger also belonged.  Balthasar’s own work focused on reflection on the analogical relationship between Divine and human beauty, goodness, and truth. (resource page on Balthasar)


To return to the subject, Balthasar condemned the modern anti-Judaism and Marcionism in Catholic thought. The Lutheran thinkers of the late eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth, Kant, Schleiermacher, Kierkegaard, Harnack painted a dichotomy of Christian ethics  (or devotion) and Jewish legalism. Harnack went further and even sought to rehabilitee the rejected thinker second century Marcion who wanted to sever all ties with Judaism and to reject entirely what Christians call the Old Testament. Balthasar rejects that Marcion approach and Anthony Sciglitano is the first English presentation of Balthasar’s arguments. His next book will be an overview of this topic over the last two hundred.

One final point is needed for my Jewish readers to make sense of this interview. Jews know less about Christianity than Christians know about Jews. Even supposed well informed Jews tend to be misinformed and confuse medieval with modern or Protestant with Catholic.  The most significant issue for  this interview is that Catholics do not still think in medieval or Neo-platonic categories, just as Jews do not still think in Platonic-Aristotelian terms or Kavod theories.  A corollary is their thinking on the Trinity.  Nineteenth century Christian thought tended to desiccate, if not scoff, at the Trinity as vestigial metaphysics. Twentieth century thinkers have rehabilitated the Trinity with opinion ranging from a modalism (close to but a little beyond an attribute theory) to theories of the interpersonal.  Current Catholic belief tends to be formulated in existential terms as a past event, an ever-present reality and an unrealized promise. Balthasar formulates a Trinitarian dramatics in which the Father undergoes kenosis and the Passion of the Son bears creation and history.

If all of this is foreign then try and thoughtfully enter these new ideas before commenting.

1. What is the Marcion trend in Christian thought?

The Marcionite strain of modern Christian thought trends against the God of Israel’s covenant, the claim of a special and ongoing relation with Israel, law, and God as both judge and transcendent (that is, not reducible to any immanent sphere whether human being, the nation, a particular race, nature, etc.). All of these claims of Israel’s covenant are seen as either (a) too particularistic and/or (b) interfering with human autonomy. The assumption here is that a God who legislates, judges, or “intervenes” (for instance, in granting grace) in human affairs interferes with human freedom and/or moral responsibility.

Adolf von Harnack is one of the rare figures who explicitly promotes Marcion’s vision (albeit in a slightly modified form), but interestingly Harnack also names Immanuel Kant and Schleiermacher as would-be Marcionites and thinks Luther nearly eliminated the Old Testament, but could not completely do so for his time given other pressures.

Of course Catholic tradition holds Marcionism to be a heresy.

2. Most Jews still see Christian thought as the faith based Lutheran theology of Kant, Kierkegaard, and Harnack. How has the current state of Christian/Catholic thought changed?

Wow. Big question, but you hit on a key demarcation for the book that is left unstated. I am a Catholic theologian and all the people you list above are, in some sense, Lutheran.

Contemporary theology often wants to envision a cooperation and dialogue between Jews and Christians. But recall that for Kant, in Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone, Judaism does not count as a religion, but only as a past theocratic cultural formation. The only pure moral religion is Christianity. But “Christianity” is subject to the philosophical-moral scouring he puts it through. Whether Kant’s religious views are faith-based is an open question because for him “faith” really is something like practical reason.

Harnack would get rid of the entire Old Covenant; he agrees with Marcion that the God of Jesus and the God of the Old Covenant cannot be the same. The remarkable lack of argumentation of this point, incidentally, should give us pause and suggest the extent to which he was in harmony with his cultural moment.

Contemporary Christian theologians (i.e., Richard Kendall Soulen, Jurgen Moltmann, Pope Benedict XVI, Elizabeth Johnson, Pope John Paul II, Hans Urs von Balthasar, John Pawlikowski) generally try to see the commonalities among Jewish and Christian thought, ethical practice, worship and the continuities between the God of Israel, Israel’s praise and devotion and the God of Jesus Christ and hope for the full redemption of the world.

Having said that, relapses often take place. They are usually of the subtle variety where a thinker’s system torques their thought in ways they do not necessarily intend. So, for example, if one determines that history moves in three epochs towards autonomy and away from law, it is likely one will end up in a Marcionite place whether that was desired by the author or not. Someone like Hans Kung tries “paradigms” rather than “epochs” and, in my view, makes of any Judaism interested in Halakah a paradigm consigned to the past along with the Old Covenant.

Key here, though, is that Catholic theology rejects replacement supersessionism. Contemporary Catholic theology sees that Jews remain God’s people and that Christianity has its roots in Jewish belief and practice. Monsignor Oesterreicher of Seton Hall University was central to acknowledging these roots in the mid-twentieth century and helping the Church overcome replacement supercessionist views. Whether we are speaking of Eucharistic prayers, metaphors of salvation, or the traditions dear to Mary and Jesus, we are implicitly or explicitly calling upon the holy Jewish root of our faith.

3. Traditionally, Trinity and Christology were seen as the major break between Judaism and Christianity. How can Balthasar possibly see continuity in the Trinity between Judaism and Christianity?

This is perhaps one of the more provocative and counter-intuitive notes in my book. The first thing to realize is that Balthasar is writing a theology as a Catholic from and for the Church. He certainly expects to be and was in dialogue, but his ecclesial location is his starting point. He dialogues as a Catholic theologian.

What is important here is first the patristic or early Christian context. The point is made by several major scholars of early Christian writings (Robert Louis Wilken, Jaroslav Pelikan, Alois Grillmeier) that the doctrinal/theological discussions of Trinity and Christology were caught in a tensional relation between trying to reflect the God of the Bible in a Greek idiom. What this means, concretely, is that the God of the Bible, as opposed to the One (Hen) of Plotinus, is profoundly involved in human history, creation, being. The One of Plotinus is not or only is involved with the help of intermediaries who, in a sense, keep its (his) hands clean.

When Christians formulated the doctrine of the Trinity (3 co-equal persons/one God), they rejected the intermediaries of Neo-Platonism and decided that the One God in three persons is deeply involved in Creation, Covenant, History, Salvation and is both Transcendent and Immanent, etc. In addition, it is this One God in three persons who unites the one divine plan from Creation through Covenant to Eschaton/End so that Christians find deep continuity in the nature of God, God’s way of relating to humanity, humanity’s proper disposition before God and towards others, especially the poor.

It is in this context that Christianity sides with the God of the Jews against these other options and maintains a positive connection to the content of the Old Covenant. Christ, on this view, is the realization of the two sides of the Covenant: God’s faithfulness to his people, to creation and to the covenant relation itself and Israel’s humble faithful obedience drawn forth by the Glory of God. Irenaeus’s Proof of the Apostolic Preaching (2nd century CE) is particularly concerned to see the covenants of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible in continuity with that in Christ.

Now none of this means that Jews can accept the “Trinity” as doctrine obviously. What it means is that in the historical context, the doctrine of the Trinity, and even the formulation of Christology, supported much greater continuity between the Old and New Covenants than did other options (i.e., Marcionism, Gnosticism, neo-Platonism) of the time and often options proposed today.

4. How is there a continuity between old and new covenants according to Balthasar? Was this a major leap of Catholic theology?

This covers a lot of the book! In a sense, Catholic theology of the higher end sort has always envisioned continuity. So, for instance, if it is prima facie the case in liberal protestant circles that the freedom of the Christian should mean freedom from the law, in Catholic circles, law is typically viewed as a pedagogy for freedom. Likewise, liturgical ritual/sacrament/obligation is not seen in Catholicism as antithetical to the “spiritual” life, but rather as its fundamental support and orientation. In brief, Catholic theology rejects the antitheses between law and freedom, religion and spirit, divine transcendence and human autonomy so prevalent in our culture.

Moreover, freedom of will for Catholic theology is not vanquished as it is in classical Protestant formulations of original sin and so supports more continuity between a Jewish and Catholic views of sin (although clearly not identical). But the main continuities have to do with the fundamental relation of Divine and human freedom, experience of God as just judge and loving kindness, care for the poor and outcast, and humility before God that nevertheless begets a dynamic mission to make God’s love and justice real in the world (and, of course, in ourselves).

What is a major leap, I think, is for Catholic theology to recognize explicitly and consistently all it receives from its holy root rather than pretend as if either there is no Judaism after the biblical period or that Judaism’s impact on Christianity is marginal at best. Rather, this influence is thorough, and to grasp this helps Christians understand their own faith much more deeply and exist in a position of gratitude rather than prideful accusation. Nostra Aetate, of course, is tremendously important for this. For all its brevity, it covers a lot of ground.

resume thought

5. How is there no longer hard supersessionism but still a form of soft supersessionism about truth claims for Christianity?

Hard Supersessionism means that Jewish rejection of Jesus as the Messiah leaves the Jewish people rejected by God and replaced as God’s people by Christianity.

Balthasar, and any Catholic theologian I can think of currently, rejects this approach.

Balthasar rejects prior hard supersessionism on the basis of Romans 9:4 and Romans 11. He believes that Israel remains God’s beloved people. He also rejects a Christian mission to the Jews for the sake of “conversion,” which, given the continuity of the God worshipped would not quite make sense.

Now, it gets complicated. When I say “soft supersessionism,” I am referring to truth claims not to replacement or rejection of a people.

The formal expression of God comes to be for Catholics indexed by the Trinity and doctrine of Jesus Christ (Christology), focused through God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ. Catholics believe there is continuity among the covenant of Israel and Christ. Christ fulfills God’s Covenant with Israel and all creation. In addition, Catholics believe Christ is God incarnate/become human. Insofar as this is the case, in the end, all people will encounter Christ in his Glory.

Given that Christians believe this is true and Jews do not, Catholics believe they are right and Jews are wrong (and, of course, Jews would believe Catholics are wrong on these points and they are right). The only reason this is “supersessionistic” is because Christians emerge from Israel, from Judaism and interpret the scriptures differently in light of Christ. Apart from this historical linkage, this would simply be a difference in religious views like any other philosophical schools would differ. But given the historical linkage and the difference in truth claims, the term seemed correct and forthright, but perhaps not felicitous in the end given historical weight and the likelihood of misinterpretation.

6. Why is Tzedek, Mishpat, Chesed, Emet, and Shalom important for Balthasar’s theology?

Balthasar thinks that in and through Israel’s covenant God reveals God’s identity, that is, God’s virtues or character traits, in the covenant the “Who” of God, not the “what,” gets disclosed.

Events like the burning bush reveal that God is not reducible to but Lord of creation, that God’s will is effective, etc. God’s relation over time with Israel reveals God first as true, that is, true to himself and his promises (especially in liberating Israel from Egypt) (of course, trustworthy, faithful here are all related to Emet).

Now this notion of truth is crucial for Balthasar later on in his philosophical work as well and, as an aside, brings him in proximity to the great Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas and his book, Totality and Infinity. Then, each virtue (Tzedek, Mishpat, Chesed, Shalom) speaks to God’s personal identity learned through Israel’s praise/confession of God’s deeds on their behalf. In this sense, Israel discloses who God is through their own literature, that is, God’s personal identity in and through God’s actions.

In addition, Israel— who are made in God’s image and elected by him —is asked to represent these traits in history through its prayer/worship, commandments, dealings with the stranger and poor, and life more broadly. That is, God is like this, you are made in God’s image, so you should, in your human way, image this God’s virtues: provide peace and well-being, act for justice and in loving kindness and be truthful. And, in all this, give glory to God. As God’s human incarnation through Israel, Jesus fully incarnates these traits as a righteous Jew.

7. How is Torah observance by Jews a dynamic trust in God for Balthasar? How is this new for Catholic thought?

Unlike many before him, Balthasar believes that Jews not only seek to incarnate/make real God’s virtues in the world, but also do so in the details of Torah observance. This is not to be looked upon, for him (or for me) as some retrograde obedience, but rather offers a view of a way to remember God in all details of life in a training for holiness and a model for the general disposition of the creature to the creator.

Now, as for all religious communities, the nature of Jewish observance may change from time to time: including some elements formerly forgotten, bolstering old elements with new interpretations, weighting some things differently given new experience, etc. This is part of the dynamism that belongs to Judaism as they confront different historical settings and situations and encounter God in these situations. In this way, God is truly the God who comes to us as Future.

But part of this dynamism is also in the struggle to make real God’s righteousness in a world that often rejects such concerns as those for the poor and the outcast or for loving kindness and justice more broadly. For example, justice will often be considered merely a contractual issue or an issue of “rights,” but we know that real justice goes well beyond a contract that might be signed under coercive circumstances or political rights that do not account for issues of poverty or human dignity.


8. According to Balthasar, how is Israel chosen and Judaism different than the rest of the nations?

Israel is expropriated by God for a unique mission in history, encounters God’s Word and is called to make it real in the world, and breaks open all fatalisms beyond cyclical views of nature-religions so that God and Israel interact in a dramatic relation of freedoms. The uniqueness of Israel’s relation to God is important for Balthasar and, given his experience in Europe, he rejects any attempts to substitute some other historical tradition (i.e., Teutonic mythology) for Israel as the context for the messiah or to make any other context (philosophical or historical/cultural) equal to Israel’s for understanding Christ.

9. What is the role of Biblical criticism in Balthasar and for your own theology?

Biblical criticism is crucial for Balthasar for opening up a kind of symphonic plenitude of interpretive lenses on the scripture whether this involves historical, literary or sociological content.

Of course for him the final form of Scripture is more authoritative than any putative authorial intent. Scholarship ought to contribute to grasping the meaning of the final form which includes the resurrection. We might compare this to reading a Shakespeare play. If one were to rearrange the first and third acts and/or read each act separately and without relation to the whole, a completely different play and meaning would result. Balthasar thinks something like this results in modern readings that exclude the resurrection or break up the text and then cannot figure out how to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. A more aesthetically holistic reading is ultimately more helpful, but can include the insights of modern methods within its broader scope.

He is particularly fond of Gerhard von Rad and Martin Hengel. An important person to think about for comparison would be Paul Ricouer and his notion of second naivete. A good book on his biblical reading is that of W.T. Dickens, Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Theological Aesthetics: A Model for Post-Critical Biblical Interpretation (South Bend, IN: UND Press, 2003). He would be suspicious of historical critical readings that see a faith perspective as an obstacle to getting to the meaning of the text. I would agree with him on this.

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