Balthasar, Barth, Sonderegger and Divine Spatiality

Hans Urs von Balthasar opens his seminal study on Gregory of Nyssa with a chapter on the idea of ‘spacing’ – or, more precisely, he opens his study with an observation of an apophatic nature: the creature is not God. This seems somewhat obvious and perhaps even trivial, but it’s fundamental in his concept of spacing. Space, for Balthasar, is roughly the character of the creature that establishes quantity and number. It denotes the non-identity of the material world – non-identity being another way of denoting the material worlds created-ness. To think in terms of space is, then, to think apophatically. The world and the creature are created and this is set against God, who is uncreated. This is the sharpest possible distinction that can be drawn. The creator/creature distinction, Balthasar says, is a ‘fact of creation’ that is the ‘limit’, as it were, of finite being:

‘The first essential characteristic of the creature is therefore negative. It consists of the very fact that the creature is not God. In taking its referential bearings entirely from him, the creature distinguishes itself from him by this self-same referential relationship: “It is precisely through its comparison and union with the creator that it is other than him,” (Balthasar citing Gregory of Nyssa). The abyss that separates the two forms of being is the fact of creation, which in and of itself surrounds that which is created with a magic circle, which it will never escape…our being reveals to us the fact of creation and how it is “in every way ineffable and incomprehensible.” (Balthasar, ‘Presence and Thought’, pp. 28-29)

For Balthasar there is no space in God, since space is ultimately a way of stating the non-identity of the creature marked out by the fact of creation.

Barth takes a different route. In a fabulous essay, ‘Divine Spatiality’, Murray Rae traces the concept of spacing in Barth’s theology – where the concept effectively refers to the condition by which persons are differentiated from each other. Space is, then, an attribute of God in himself, since God is three distinct persons in the Trinity. Barth is able to reach this conclusion reasoning in roughly the following way: whatever God is in revelation he is antecedently in Himself, in the economy of revelation he is distinct (we see space, in other words, in the economy), therefore space is an attribute of the immanent Trinity. Rae argues, against John Webster and Ian MacKenzie that this does not represent a reading of the economic back into the immanent, since Barth is not reasoning from the economic to immanent, but arguing that if God is one way in the economy, he is antecedently that way in himself:

‘The basis upon which Barth speaks of God having his own space is the differentiation of the persons of the Trinity, revealed in the economy as belonging to the being of God in himself. The triune differentiation of God as Father, Son, and Spirit is not an accommodation of God to the demands of revelation, but belongs to the character of the eternal God who is before all things.’

‘Barth’s contention that God has his own space, that God is spatial in himself, is not based upon considerations of space in general but upon the particular divine action in space by which God reveals himself as Father, Son and Spirit. On this basis we may develop a relational and differential account of what space is in accordance with God’s disclosure in space and time of his eternal being as Father, Son, and Spirit.’ (‘Divine Spatiality’, in ‘Trinitarian Theology After Barth’, pp. 78-79)

A difficulty here: if we are basing the notion of divine space on God’s revelation and developing a concept of space in accordance with that revelation, but that revelation takes place in space and time, have we really avoided reading the economic into the immanent?

Rae goes on to argue an anthropological point: the divine spatiality, the distinction and differentiation of the persons of the Trinity, is the ground for creaturely space:

‘…what is given to the creature in the act of creation is distinct being, that is, being in distinction from God…the creature is given space by God, space that enables it to live freely in relationship with that which is other than itself.’ (pp. 82-83)

Creaturely space, for Rae, cashes out to mean being that is distinct from God. Creaturely being is ‘at a distance’, as it were, from God’s being (an infinite, qualitative distance, we have to add), and in creating the creature, in creating this distinct being that is not his own, God gives the creature its own space. Thus the distance between the creature and God is a gift from God, but for Rae greater weight is given to the proximity of the creature to God:

‘The creature exists in proximity to God. The space of creation is, as Barth puts it, the external basis of the covenant. It is given to the creature precisely so that there may be a covenant relationship between the creature and God.’ (pp. 82-83)

The parallels and contrasts here should be apparent. Balthasar and Rae/Barth all see space as a creaturely concept, but for Balthasar space is purely dealing with created being while for Rae/Barth created being has its own ground in divine space. A good deal here turns on whether or not Barth can successfully avoid reading the economy back into the immanent Trinity – Paul Molnar has argued that Barth does exactly this when it comes to the eternal subordination of the Son and I have similar feelings here, as I noted above. Given this as well as Balthasar’s argument that space and spacing belong to creation and not to the divine being, I think we have cause to at least question whether or not the concept of divine spatiality, as argued by Rae, is coherent. In short, we have here two problems: (1) Balthasar makes a compelling case that space is purely creaturely and (2) it doesn’t seem that Rae/Barth can avoid reading the economic into the immanent.

Perhaps, if not a rapprochement, a kind of compromise can be had with the help of Sonderegger, who argues that in the economy it is God’s hiddenness that is revealed, and not a ‘direct local visibility’:

‘The presence of the One God takes place in the Mode and form of invisibility: when He is disclosed, He is not seen. When He draws near in great power, He gives rise to the agency of His servants, who act as His heralds, His “placeholders” – as lieutenants. This, we may say, is the very odd feature of the God of Israel: as He approaches, He appears to withdraw; His nearness takes the form of hiddenness.’ (‘Systematic Theology’, p. 74)

She is quick to note that God is not present in the same way an extended object is (p. 52). He is indirectly present, such that when he is disclosed he is not seen. Though God ‘descends’ (to use Sonderegger’s term) with and into creaturely categories he is not exhausted by this descent:

‘…I believe it is more properly and justly said that God descends down through the earthly categories, humbling Himself in this way of His, all the while remaining the Lord, the Holy and Transcendent one…the Divine Nature is not exhausted nor circumscribed by its decent down into creaturely truths and goods; but rather, in the admixture of God with creature, the divine reality remains transcendent and sovereign.’ (‘Systematic Theology’, p. 452)

We can take a methodological cue from Sonderegger’s discussion of divine omniscience as well:

‘As the Omniscient Lord, that is, God is admixed into human knowing – God Himself! – without being reduced or identified with any. In scholastic idiom: God utterly transcends all categories of thought and predication, while being exemplified with them all.’ (p. 463)

Though he is exemplified in all of these categories into and with which he descends, he transcends them all, and the relation between God and the categories He descends with/into is not one of identity. Thus we can say that, on Sonderegger’s account, divine space is real, but in his indirect presence and hiddenness which God communicates to us, we also have to say that though the spatiality of God is real – God is truly and really present as spatial – the differentiation of the persons of the Trinity is not a spatial kind of differentiation. Though this is more of a variation on Sonderegger’s theme (I can’t say for sure if she’d agree with how I made use of her work), I believe that this is a way in which we can affirm God’s spatiality without identifying him with creaturely concepts.


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