I’m reading through von Balthasar’s seminal work on the theology of Maximus the Confessor. As the translator Brian Daley points out, this is a unique work, “combining historical interpretation with constructive argument” (11). Daley explains that von Balthasar intends “not to be a detached observer of Maximus in his own milieu” but to be both a critic and “an advocate, an impassioned promoter of the synthetic view of God and creation that he perceives in this seventh-century scholastic and monk, precisely because he sees there many elements of the theological synthesis he hopes to offer to his own world” (16).
In other words, von Balthasar is engaged in theological retrieval–not merely historical investigation as an end in itself, nor even merely historical theology as an detached enterprise–but retrieval for the sake of renewal, as Timothy George puts it. That’s a model worth following.
And as von Balthasar seeks to demonstrate, Maximus is one of the great luminaries of the shared Christian past worthy of imitation. As he introduces the life and theology of Maximus, von Balthasar reaches an almost poetic crescendo:
We search, with our lanterns, for models to imitate, but we do not like to look for them in the distant past. Here is one who seems extraordinarily contemporary: a spiritual world-traveler, who continued to work quietly while the waves of the Persian armies and the still more threatening waves of Islam drove him ever further from home and while ecclesiastical and political integralism captured him, put him on trial, attempted to seduce him, condemned him, and banished him, until–at the southern end of what was to be Holy Russia–he died a martyr (27-28).
In a destabilized world and in uncertain times, we need sturdy, reliable models from the past, not to dust off as ancient artifacts to be admired, but as living conversation partners (think, communio sanctorum), who inspire faithful obedience in our own time and place. Retrieval for the sake of renewal. The church of the Lord Jesus Christ needs this now more than ever.
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