Typology of Views on Charismatic Movements, Part 3b: Balthasar’s Christological Constellation

Hans Urs Von Balthasar’s The Office of Peter and the Structure of the Church presents the most intriguing accounts of charismatic movements in the Church I’ve encountered thus far.     Balthasar provides an interesting example of an attempt to create legitimate space for radical movements of the Spirit within a robustly catholic ecclesiological framework.  The particulars of his argument are strange, and difficult for a protestant to digest, but his approach is sophisticated, and deserves engagement.  I include it under the “charismatic in legitimate tension with institutional” type, along with Rahner, but as a bit of an aside, given that the form of Balthasar’s argument is so idiosyncratic.

For Balthasar, the tension between stable orthodox Church structures and movements of renewal is inherent in the very nature of the Church.  This is seen most clearly in his use of the concept of the “christological constellation.” Balthasar’s argument is that just as Christ cannot be understood apart from his relation to the Father and the Spirit, so also he cannot be understood apart from the human relationships which were central to his historical life on earth.  John the Baptist, Mary, Peter, John, James, and Paul are all essentially related to Jesus and are therefore integral to christology (The Office of Peter, 136-137).  As the historical foundation of the Church, the members of the constellation are interpreted by Balthasar as “Realsymbols” or structural principles on which the church is founded, and through whom the presence of Christ is mediated to the Church (Office of Peter, 226-227).  Each member of the constellation is described according to their relationship with Jesus: the Baptist as a herald; Mary as the all-embracing perfect response to the grace of the Lord; Peter as one who participates in the authority of Christ in a singular way; John as the beloved who in love mediates between Peter and Mary; James as the one who takes Peter’s place in Jerusalem and represents continuity between the Old and New covenants; and finally Paul, the one untimely born who nevertheless takes the lion’s share of Christ’s mission, even though there seems to be no place for him among the college of the apostles.

Because the Church did not emerge en bloc, but is founded on the prophets and apostles, the particular relationship of each of the members of the constellation is prototypical for the Church.  Specifically, after Pentecost, Balthasar argues that there is a fourfold structure of the Church which emerges: the Pauline, Jacobite, Johannine, and Petrine aspects of the Church.   He sketches the constellation like this:

These are the four ways in which the Church is embodied in the world, and every community and every individual Christian life takes shape amid the tension and dynamism that exists between these poles. The Church “expresses itself concretely in the dynamic interplay of her major missions and in the laws inherent in her structure” (Office of Peter, 314-315).

In Balthasar’s scheme, the orthodox structures of the Church are interpreted as the Petrine and Jacobite aspects, while the movements of renewal are interpreted as Pauline.  Obviously the Petrine aspect of the Church is seen in office, and the Jacobite aspect is seen in Church law and tradition.  What is specific about the Pauline aspect is precisely Paul’s uniqueness, his supernumerary relationship to the apostles, and the unpredictable way in which he was chosen for his task directly by the Lord.  Because Paul is unique, his “successors” can only be identified by remote analogies as those who have charismatic vocations, whose recognition by those in office is compelled by divine evidence (Office, 159).  The founders of religious orders are examples of such direct divine vocations, according to Balthasar.  These movements of renewal are never founded by those in office, but by unexpected the founders of renewal movements, whose lives of sanctity “fall into the garden of the Church like a meteor” (The Laity and the Life of the Counsels, 67).  Their divine vocations must be tested by those in authority, but once tested, their unique missions and “charisms” cannot be suppressed.  These saints, “struck by God’s lightning,” ignite a blaze in those who gather around them, offering the Church hope of renewal and reform (The Laity, 42).  The religious orders that have arisen unexpectedly in response to these movements are able to radiate their light into the whole Church, moving outwards in concentric circles from the point at which lightning has struck (The Laity, 88).  The Petrine office is indispensable, but it is conceived by Balthasar as one aspect of the christological constellation, and must be seen in relation to the whole.  Because the Spirit works in unpredictable ways as well as through the official structures of the Church, Peter’s task is limited to making judgments and rendering verdicts amid the tensions that arise in the life of the Church.  He represents unity, but in so doing he must make space for others.

The unity of the Church is maintained when these major missions are understood in relation to the whole constellation.  The challenge is to achieve a reintegration of the elements which are isolated, in order that the tensions inherent between them may be lived out fruitfully within the mystery of the Church as Body and Bride of Christ.  In fact, the tensions between the principal figures of the constellation “all point to the mysterium; they are its necessary expression, not shortcomings on the part of the Church that need to be corrected by “changing its structure”” (Office of Peter, 24).  The history of the church can even be described by Balthasar as “an evident contest,” between the various poles of the christological constellation (Office, 314).  This process of contesting, for Balthasar, has a legitimate and community-creating value for the Church.  The church as ecclesia semper reformanda takes shape as various poles in the constellation are put back in their place, and a proper balance between the various aspects of the Church is established (Office of Peter, 314). The tension between the members of the constellation is the “force field” which generates apostolic missions.

What I like about Balthasar’s approach is that he avoids a simple opposition between “institutional” and “charismatic” without giving too much ground in one direction or the other.  His christological constellation is an innovative way of attempting to conceive of the complex human and divine reality which is the people of God.  It provides a way for discussing the history of the Church as it relates to charismatic movements, without smoothing out the conflicts that have often ensued between the movements and the established Churches.   The conflicts themselves are not so much a “problem” but an inherent part of what it means to be the Church.  This means we don’t need to “resolve” the conflicts between movements of renewal and established structures by siding with one side or the other (as has often happened in Church history).  The Church in her total reality needs both stable orthodox structures and unpredictable movements of renewal.

In the end, however, the particulars of Balthasar’s argument are a bit too idiosyncratic to be useful across ecumenical lines. The obvious problem (for protestants) with his approach is the high place which is afforded to the four apostolic figures in the ongoing life of the Church – even to the point of speaking of their “mediation” of Christ.  To be sure, Balthasar absolutely upholds the uniqueness of Christ, and is not assigning salvific value or merit to the apostles.  However, he argues (and I will grant that it is an interesting suggestion) that Jesus, fully divine but also fully human, cannot be understood apart from the human relationships he established during his life on earth, especially his relationships with those who were very close to him.  Historically speaking, we can also see how these primary persons in Jesus’ inner circle became the nucleus of the primitive Church.  Fair enough, but it is a stretch to move from these affirmations to four foundational principles for the Church in her continuing historical life.   While Balthasar’s theory is loosely grounded in the biblical narrative, the connection to the actual scriptural witness is quite tenuous, and leaves us wondering if he’s reading Church history back into the character of the four apostles.  Has he simply used these four biblical figures as a convenient means of conceptualizing what he believes are essential aspects of the Church?  I suppose if you begin from a Roman Catholic perspective, and you already accept the special role assigned to Peter as an essential aspect of the Church for all time, then it is not too much of a stretch to discuss similar principles of ecclesial life as grounded in other apostolic figures.  If that is the case, could his approach retain some merit, independently of the somewhat novel theory of these four apostles as Realsymbols of the Church?  Can we gain anything from his approach, without buying into the mediating role that Balthasar assigns to Peter, James, John, and Paul?   What would be left?  A set of “principles” which are inherent to the life of the Church?  On what foundation could such a set of principles be identified, if not on the basis of the apostles?  On strictly historical grounds, we can see how the history of the Church, interpreted from a broadly catholic point of view, supports these affirmations.  Should the lessons of Church history regarding renewal movements provide us with a normative basis for conceiving of the Church’s nature?  I want to say yes, but I’m still sorting out the details of how the argument can be made.

Typology of Views on Charismatic Movements, Part 3: Charismatic in Legitimate Tension with Institutional

Karl Rahner provides a perspective on the place of charismatic movements which recognizes the tension that exists between the charismatic and institutional aspects of the church, without prioritizing the charismatic as more fundamental. In The Dynamic Element in the Church Rahner attempts to overcome the opposition between “charism” and “office” by reframing the question in terms of “the charisma of office” and “non-institutional charismata” (42-58).  The charisma of office must be affirmed, Rahner argues, if the Church is to be conceived as the one abiding historical entity which was has its foundation in the apostles, and continues to be “always the locus and visible manifestation of grace” by virtue of God’s promise (43). The church must be conceived of as charismatic, otherwise the Catholic affirmation of the Church’s visible continuity would be based on the juridical power of the institutions themselves.

“…because the grace of God is not only offered to mankind as a possibility, but is promised to the Church as a victorious grace more powerful than sin, it is certain from the outset from God’s side and from him alone, that ecclesiastical office in what most properly belongs to it, in its essence, will not, though it could, be used as a weapon against God.  To that extent, therefore, ecclesiastical office and ministry is charismatic in character, if we understand by charismatic, what is in contradistinction to what is purely institutional, administered by men, subject to calculation, expressible in laws and rules” (43-44).

For example, Papal infallibility must imply that, “in order to be what it is,” the papacy “passes into the charismatic sphere” (45).

However, in order to distinguish itself from totalitarianism, the Catholic church must affirm that the hierarchy is not the only vehicle through which the Spirit works, but that “there are charismata, that is, the impulsion and guidance of God’s Spirit for the Church, in addition to and outside her official ministry” (49).  Rahner posits that “a legitimate opposition of forces” arises as an unavoidable result of the “multiplicity of impulsions in the Church” (73). That is, these forces are felt and experienced by human beings on earth as disparate and opposed to one another, “precisely because they are unified by God alone.” (74)  This means that there will be conflict and tension in the Church, with both sides needing to be “protected” from the other:

“Now it is no doubt a rule, a normative principle and a law for the spiritual gifts themselves, that they should operate in an “orderly” way, that they are not permitted to depart from the order prescribed by authority…Yet this formal rule alone would not of itself guarantee the actual existence of harmony.  For although official authority might be sufficiently protected by the rule from merely apparent spiritual gifts, the charismata also need to be protected from the authorities” (52)

What is required for visible unity in the present Church is “the love which allows another to be different, even when it does not understand him” (74).

Rahner connects his perspective to the question of reform movements by speaking of “the possibility of institutional regulation of a gift of the Spirit” (58). Movements such as the Franciscans are examples of the “institutionally organized transmission and canalization” of the gift of their founder.

“Not only Francis but the Franciscans too are charismatics if they really live in a spirit of joyous poverty.  What would Francis mean to the Church if he not found disciples throughout the centuries?  He would not be the man of charismatic gifts in the sense we have in mind here, but a religious individual, an unfortunate crank, and the world, the Church and history would have dropped him and proceeded with their business” (59).

In this way the charismatic element in the church is passed on through institutional means, which are courageously received and approved by the Church, as the charismatic movement in question submits to her authority and law. This aspect of “regulation” of the Spirit is, for Rahner, an essential part of the reform movement’s vocation, in which the charismatic element of the Church shows that it truly belongs to the Church and its ministry. Speaking of submission to the Church’s regulation, Rahner writes, “It is precisely here that it is clear that the charismatic element belongs to the Church and to her very ministry as such” (59).

Rahner’s subtle argument has much to commend it from the perspective of the Church’s history, providing a way of affirming the essential place of both established structures and unpredictable movements of the Spirit that arise from outside the usual official ministries.   In particular, it is interesting to see how a Catholic thinker reflects on the role of a founder, and how the charismatic gift given to a founder can be institutionally preserved by the Church.  It is precisely this idea that I think needs to be looked at ecumenically, with particular reference to protestant charismatic movements.   How should such institutional regulation take place?  Could some protestant divisions have been avoided, if the establised church(es) had found a way to incorporate the movements in question (i.e., Methodism, The Salvation Army, the Christian and Missionary Alliance, Classical Pentecostalism), affirming their place and giving them a measure of autonomy while also maintaining structural ties?

I’ll come back to this in discussing the fifth perspective in my typology, “Charismatic enlivens institutional” – a view which is very similar to Rahner’s perspective, but goes further in specifically discussing the role of charismatic movements in bringing life and renewal to the Church as a whole.

Charismatic Movements in the Church

I’m introducing a new series of blog posts on the topic of “charismatic movements” in the Church.  When I speak of ” charismatic” movements,  I don’t necessarily mean pentecostal movements, but those movements of renewal and reform which rise up spontaneously in the Church, and centre around particularly gifted individuals, who operate outside existing authority structures.  Such movements have existed throughout the history of the Church, and have always had a rocky relationship with the established Church authorities.

I developed this rough timeline as a teaching tool for a course I was TAing earlier this year.  We could debate whether some of these movements are “charismatic,” but I would argue that they were all charismatic in origin, meaning that they sprung up around individuals who were perceived to be specially gifted (the basic meaning of “charism” being “gift”).   The timeline gets really selective when it comes to the modern era, because at that point I had to be selective.  I’m not claiming the timeline is exhaustive at that point, but I hope it is representative.  My main purpose in creating the timeline this way was to contrast “catholic” movements (meaning those who were eventually accepted by Church authorities as legitimate) with “non-catholic.”

I should add also that I’m not addressing the issue of “heresy” here, as some of the movements in question were definitely preaching a message which was outside the boundaries of historic Christian orthodoxy. I think most people would agree that the Bogomils and Cathars were heretical, but assessing the orthodoxy of other individual movements on the list would require more of a discussion than I want to get into.

One of the questions I’m studying for my dissertation concerns how we account for these movements theologically.  How do we know if a charismatic movement is truly of God?  What do these movements represent? A return to the primitive purity of the Church?  A form of fanaticism?  A revitalizing force?

I’ve developed a typology of positions on the question of the place of charismatic movements in the Church, and this typology will form the basis for my series of posts, each of which will discuss one or two representative theologians:

  • Charismatic opposed to institutional. Here the work of Rudolph Söhm and early 20th century scholars such as Adolf von Harnack is important.  The theory of these writers is that the church was originally charismatic, but this was stifled by emerging catholicism (institutionalism in his mind) in the 2nd century.  The emergence of stable authority structures was therefore a failure on the part of early Christianity.
  • Charismatic more fundamental than institutional. I’d summarize Leonardo Boff’s work in Church, Charism, and Power along these lines.  Charism is more fundamental than institution, because it gives rise to the institution and keeps it alive. Therefore the charismatic gifts of the Spirit should be the structuring principle of the church.
  • Charismatic in tension with institutional. Karl Rahner tries to hold the two structures in tension by arguing that there are both institutional and non-institutional charismata. A Legitimate opposition of forces in the life of the Church is inevitable and should be accepted.  Hans Urs Von Balthasar’s “christological constellation” also fits under this category.
  • Charismatic complementary to institutional. More recent ecumenical work has attempted to overcome the duality of charismatic movements and institutional structures by stressing the complementarity of the two.  Joseph Ratzinger also wrote along these lines in his discussion of lay movements in the Church, even going so far as to reject the dichotomy of charism/institution as inappropriate for ecclesiology.
  • Charismatic enlivens institutional. Others stress the role of charismatic movements as enlivening forces for the institutional church.  So Howard Snyder argues that both institutional structures and charismatic movements can be seen as normal and valid in the Church’s history.  I’ll also discuss Catholic theologies of “the religious life” (religious orders, etc.) under this category.
  • Institutional over charismatic. It’s hard to find anyone who actually argues for this theologically, but it is common on a practical level, so I’ll still attempt a post on this perspective.
  • Charismatic gifts as justification for separation. Oscar Cullmann’s book Unity Through Diversity makes the argument that different the “confessions” in the Church have their own unique charisms, which need to be preserved.  Therefore he argues that continued structural separation of the churches is justified, so that these diverse gifts can be preserved.  Many denominationalist theologies proceed on similar assumptions.

While the work I’ll be discussing is scholarly, the issue of finding a place for charismatic movements in the Church has immense practical implications, and I’ll attempt to draw these out.  This has been a perennial issue for the Church, and it remains an important problem today.  Think of the controversy surrounding “emergent” and whether it is a legitimate movement of reform or a heretical offshoot of genuine Christianity.  How are these “new expressions” of church related to the established Churches?

It is also an important question for people of evangelical heritage, because move evangelical denominations began as charismatic reform movements (not as denominations or “churches”).  Does that have implications for our understanding of the Church and the place of “denominations” as they now exist?  I think it does, and I’m hopeful that reflection on the history of charismatic movements, as well as theological reflection on the nature of the Church and where they fit, can provide some direction for our life together as we seek to give faithful witness in the post-Christendom context.

The longest church name in the history of the world

This is a church that has a storefront in our neighbourhood.  The St. Francis National Evangelical Spiritual Baptist Faith Archdiocese of Canada.   Personally I like the acronym printed on the window below, the “St. Francis N.E.S.B.F.  Archdiocese of Canada.”

It makes you wonder about this history of this group.  How on earth did they come up with that name?   At first glance it seems like they’d have something to appeal to just about every kind of Christian.

  • St. Francis – well he appeals to everyone, but especially to Catholics
  • National – that appeals to established Church types
  • Evangelical – obviously appeals to…
  • Spiritual – maybe the charismatics?
  • Baptist – of course…

Some of these things don’t normally go together, notably “St. Francis” and “Baptist,” which makes it all the more interesting.   I found a website for the church, which explains that they are a group from Trinidad.  They seem charismatic – they are also called “shouters,” and the have three hour worship services – and they mix elements of Protestant Christianity with African religion.   It’s not clear from their site exactly what that looks like.   They themselves aren’t exactly clear on their origins.

What is interesting to me about this group is that they are charismatic, but they don’t seem to downplay the significance of ritual and symbol in their faith.   Actually their website lists candles, bells, swords, flags, uniforms and a whole host of other items as significant in their worship.    Most charismatically-oriented protestants (we could expand that to include most evangelicals) are wary of any kind of ritual.  They’ve got some obviously “catholic” elements in their worship (one page on the website has prayers of the saints), but they speak in tongues and have street preaching missions.

Then again, if you know the story of St. Francis and the mendicant friars, you’ll know that these things are not so distinct from one another after all.  Francis was the ultimate charismatic.  He was also completely committed to the Catholic faith, and to the task of preaching the gospel.   Maybe the St. Francis N.E.S.B.F people are on to something.  It’s the history of division in the Church since the Reformation that has caused us to see the various terms that go into their name as being at odds with one another.   The names that we have given to our denominations are there precisely to distinguish us from the other denominations and traditions.   Our particular denominational identities then become filters for the discernment of what is good, acceptable, and true.   For example, in my tradition, if someone says something is “Wesleyan” that automatically makes it acceptable, but if it’s “Calvinist” people assume it is wrong, without even really thinking about it.  Although strong denominational identities are fading fast, most of us have been formed in communities that make these kind of distinctions all the time. “St. Francis” and “Evanglical” seem an odd pairing to a contemporary evangelical, because St. Francis is seen as a Catholic figure. But actually Francis lived during what is rightly called an “evangelical revival,” a real flowering of the gospel, which included radical forms of discipleship, self-denial, and evangelistic preaching missions.   I really don’t know much about the St. Francis N.E.S.B.F., so I wouldn’t want to hold them up as a model of anythying, but maybe the fact that they seem to have developed in obscurity has allowed them to hold these things together without worrying that they were crossing traditional boundaries.