If you’ve been following this blog for a little while, you may have noticed some recurring references to the work of Hans Urs von Balthasar (see here, here and here!). He writes wonderfully dense, yet beautiful prose and also happens to be a Catholic theologian. I have been reading several other Catholic writers (mostly related to the Nouvelle Theologians – a renewal movement leading up to Vatican II) as well, and so I thought it might be helpful to explain why, as an Evangelical, I find these Catholic theologians so beneficial.
While there are many other reasons I would recommend some of these Catholic theologians, the following three reasons lay at the center of why I would recommend exploring them further:
1. They write with a sense of tradition. There are a couple of benefits to their sense of tradition. Firstly, the Nouvelle Theologians in particular have a rich understanding of the Church Fathers, giving a greater perspective to the Christian heritage, something Evangelicals often are not as acquainted with. Secondly, a rich sense of tradition enables them to go deeper, faster. Resting on the past formulations and understandings means they do not always have to do the introductory biblical exegesis that allows them to explore theological ideas. As a result, they are able to dive more deeply into the theological concept set before them.
2. They have a rich ecclesiology. Most Evangelicals would not think to turn to Catholic theologians for some helpful pointers on ecclesiology. Granted, there are various things with which I fundamentally disagree, particularly regarding the papacy and the way authority is ultimately understood. Yet, for many Evangelicals, we struggle to vocalize what makes a Church a Church and how that differs from a gathering in someone’s home. Authors like Jean-Marie-Roger Tillard present ideas that could help us develop an ecclesiology that is not just based on hierarchy, but around the Eucharist and our communion with God and one another.
3. Reading them helps us have a more ecumenical perspective. I believe we ought to take Christ’s words seriously when he prays that his Church might be one. Many of us see the current state of the Church and throw in the towel, relegating unity to the eschaton. Yet, unity of the Church must be a primary concern for Christians who are concerned both about how we deal with modern culture, as well as how the Church is presented to the world for the sake of the Gospel. I have found that reading these Catholic theologians has made me not only more aware, but also more sympathetic, finding that we have much in common.
Admittedly, not everything on every page is always helpful. Sometimes there are excesses or points where these theologians fall short. But so do any Protestant theologians. The journey toward knowing God is just that, a journey. We would do well to recognize truth where it is, especially when our Catholic brothers and sisters have so much to offer.
Some starting places:
1. Flesh of the Church, Flesh of Christ (Jean-Marie-Roger Tillard) – Tillard’s book is particularly interesting because it starts off with extensive exegetical work in the Scriptures and presents, what I find, a compelling way of understanding the Church.
2. Dominum et Vivificantem (John Paul II) – Can’t have a suggested list without a Pope! Aside from its author, this might be one of the best pieces on the Holy Spirit I’ve read. I could say more, but I’ll leave it there. You can find the whole thing for free here.
3. Prayer (Hans Urs von Balthasar) – I’ve only read the first 100 pages, but can say that there are multiple ideas that have already had a practical affect on my personal prayer life.
4. Heavenly Participation (Hans Boersma) – Not a Catholic, but Boersma has been deeply influenced by the Nouvelle Theologians and this book might be a helpful place to see how some of that influence can be applied through an Evangelical understanding.