Words of truth, words of Life
by Ken Myers
On Volume 152 of the Journal, Bishop Robert Barron and I talked about an essay by Hans Urs von Balthasar titled “Theology and Sanctity.” The essay was originally published in 1960 in Explorations in Theology, I: The Word Made Flesh. In it, Balthasar explored how a commitment to the truth and a commitment to holiness came to be assumed to be two separable tasks.
In the opening pages of this essay, von Balthasar observes that “since the great period of Scholasticism, there have been few theologians who were saints. We mean here by ‘theologian’ one whose office and vocation is to expound revelation in its fullness, and therefore whose work centers on dogmatic theology. If we consider the history of theology up to the time of the great Scholastics, we are struck by the fact that the great saints, those who not only achieved an exemplary purity of life, but who also had received from God a definite mission in the Church, were, mostly, great theologians. They were ‘pillars of the Church’, by vocation channels of her life: their own lives reproduce the fullness of the Church’s teaching, and their teaching the fullness of the Christian Church’s life. . . .
“From the standpoint of revelation, there is simply no real truth which does not have to be incarnated in an act or in some action, so that the incarnation of Christ is the criterion of all real truth (I Jn 2:22; 4:2), and ‘walking in the truth’ is the way the believer possesses the truth (2 Jn 1–4; 3 Jn 3–4, etc.). Since the Holy Spirit distributes offices in the Church according to his will, and gives to some the grace to be ‘teachers’ (Eph 4:11; I Cor 12:29), for which he imparts the gift of ‘knowledge in the spirit’ (I Cor 12:8), the office of teacher will consist in proclaiming and transmitting the truth of revelation, manifested in the life of Christ, in such a way that the hearer can recognize it through his ‘walking in the truth’ and thus verify it. For Christ, the exemplar of the truth, who designates himself as the truth, is for us the canon of truth only in that his existence manifests his essence, which is to be the ‘image of God’ (2 Cor 4:4). ‘I do always the things that please him’ (Jn 8:29).
“It was by virtue of this unity of knowledge and life that the great teachers of the Church were able, as was required by their special office, to be true lights and pastors of the church. For although the pastoral office is numbered by Paul in association with that of teacher (Eph 4:11), this does not mean that all pastors must be teachers, though their office involves their sharing the work of transmitting doctrine (2 Timothy 2:24, etc.). Likewise, the great teachers are not necessarily pastors, though, even if they are not bishops, they participate in the pastoral office. It is not surprising, therefore to find that, in the early centuries, the offices of teacher and of pastor (in the sense of Ephesians 4 and I Corinthians 12) were normally conjoined. Irenaeus, Cyprian, Athanasius, the two Cyrils, Basil, Gregory of Nazianzen, Gregory of Nyssa, Epiphanius, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Chrysostom, Theodoret, Hillary, Ambrose, Augustine, Fulgentius, Isidore — all were bishops, not to mention the two great popes, Leo and Gregory. Among the great doctors, exceptions to this rule were the two Alexandrians, Jerome, Maximus and John of Damascus; but these representatives of the monastic and ascetical life bring out still more clearly the union of doctrine and life. The same may be said, too, of most of the bishops and teachers mentioned above, who were either monks themselves or were closely associated with monasticism and promoters of it.
“In short, these pillars of the Church were complete personalities: what they taught they lived with such directness, so naively, we might say, that the subsequent separation of theology and spirituality was quite unknown to them. It would not only be idle but contrary to the very conceptions of the Fathers to attempt to divide their works into those dealing with doctrine and those concerned with the Christian life (spirituality). It is true that they wrote works of controversy and apologetics; but these, fundamentally, do not constitute a distinct branch, but served, at the time they appeared, as a spur to the development of doctrine. When Irenaeus, Basil, Gregory of Nazianzen or Augustine argue with their adversaries, they do not operate in the forecourt of theology, but in its very center. The answers they give express the fullness and depth of revelation in its central teaching. When they speak of those ‘outside’, their attitude is the same as when they speak of those within, though to the former they may have to explain certain things that are clear enough to the latter. And when they explain the Christian life to those within, it is always and exclusively in the form of an exposition of traditional doctrine. One might perhaps allow a distinction between the commentaries and homilies of Origen, the former being more speculative, and the latter more pastoral in interest; but if we look deeper, the distinction vanishes; in both, Origen is concerned with expounding the word of God, which is as much a word of life as a word of truth. One could, of course, list a number of works — chiefly shorter ones — of the Fathers as being more practical in scope, which could be classified under the heading ‘spirituality’; but, just as their works of controversy are, at the same time, doctrinal and theological, so too are those which treat of the Christian life.”
— from Hans Urs von Balthasar, Explorations in Theology, I: The Word Made Flesh (Ignatius Press, 1964)