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Modern Theology 22:4 October 2006

ISSN 0266-7177 (Print)

ISSN 1468-0025 (Online)




Genealogical discourse is a recurring intellectual phenomenon in a post-
Enlightenment situation in which the search for patterns in the past that
might reveal where we are and where we are going goes hand in hand with
a heightened sense of the novelty and the real difference of the modern.
The phenomenon is widespread, despite the fact that the validity claims
of any or all genealogical proposals are problematic given the historicist
sensibility that marks much contemporary analysis of intellectual systems
and the historicist arguments that can be marshaled against discourses that
emphasize the continuity between the texts, symbols, practices, and nar-
ratives of different periods characterized by different basic agendas and
different urgencies. Genealogy belongs to the regime of naming through
analogy in which the conceptually underdetermined modern or contempo-
rary discourses come to be known by means of the putatively better known
pre-modern discourse, since the past is thought to provide a stability that
makes knowing possible in a way not matched by the evanescent present
and the unknown and even unthinkable future. Although its mode can be
more or less dramatic, the stress evolutionary or dialectical, genealogy
tends to support the regime of repetition and haunting: modern discourses
in their entirety, or more modestly, a specific band of modern or contem-
porary discourses, both reveal and hide a less variegated and less complex
ancestor discourse (or discourses). Importantly, genealogy is not coexten-
sive with intellectual history. It goes beyond the analysis of the proximate
conditions for the emergence of a discourse, for example, a consideration
of German Idealism as an outgrowth of the Kant’s epistemological turn, or

Cyril O’Regan
Department of Theology, 130 Malloy Hall, University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, IN46556,

© 2006 The Author

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610 Cyril O’Regan

a consideration of Romanticism as both a continuation and correction of the

Enlightenment. Genealogy often—perhaps even usually—concerns the phe-
nomenon of more ancient discourses inscribed in, or incised on, an ap-
parently exemplary modern or contemporary discourse—although this
inscription may functionally be illegible and the incision functionally
invisible. Genealogy then—to borrow Jacques Derrida’s image in “White
Mythology”—behaves palimsestically.1 It brings up or sets in relief the
writing covered over, almost but not quite erased, in bands of discourses
which, superficially at least, have impeccably modern, even Enlightenment,
As an attempt to explain modern or contemporary discourse by appeal to
its ancestor discourse or discourses, genealogy is often critical, although not
always so. For example, as shown in different ways in the work of Gilson and
Marion,2 the reduction of Descartes to his medieval sources is not in principle
a destructive enterprise, for the “reduction” may in every sense be a reducere,
a “leading back” in which the true originality of Descartes is seen as
exercising some philosophical possibilities while rejecting others. By contrast
the uncovering by Nietzsche and Heidegger of the latent Platonism of the
entire history of philosophy,3 or the exposure by Pickstock and Cunningham
of the nominalist inflection of modern thought, clearly is critical.4 Now
“Gnosticism” too has had its share of genealogical use in the modern period,
especially since the eighteenth century.5 It should be pointed out at the
outset, however, that there has been considerable difference with respect to
range of attribution and what specific features of modern or contemporary
discourses justify the suspicion of being “Gnostic”. At the limit of its
range—here the exemplar is Eric Voegelin in one mood6—the application of
the term “Gnosticism” threatens to become coextensive with the sum total of
modernity’s intellectual expression and representations. This has called
down invective upon its genealogical head.7 But even outside reactive set,
such sweeping application of the genealogical category of “Gnosticism” has
provoked serious questions of utility and conceptual determinacy.8 More
usually, however, the range of attribution of “Gnosticism” is considerably
more restricted, even if there are vast differences respecting what is taken to
be “Gnostic” about even more narrow bands of modern discourses.
While current genealogical use of “Gnosticism” presupposes earlier
heresiological use, strictly speaking it neither logically depends on it nor
historically derives from it. There are two conditions that mark off genea-
logical from heresiological use. First, a background assumption of genea-
logical use of “Gnosticism” is that modern discourses differ in important
respects from ancient discourses in terms of function and meaning. The
application of “Gnosticism”, therefore, can neither be straightforward nor
incontestable. Second, the discourses that are objects of genealogical
concern and analysis may not necessarily be ecclesial. For example, the
discourses of G. W. F. Hegel and Karl Marx, which have been two of the
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Balthasar and Gnostic Genealogy 611

most frequently targeted discourses, are not ecclesial, whatever we might

think of their basic religious inspiration. A fortiori, this is so in the case of
the political thought of John Locke,9 or the depth-psychology of C. G.
Jung.10 A the same time, it is not as if there is no continuity between
heresiological and genealogical use. Unsurprisingly, given the ecclesial
history of their use, the terms “Gnosticism” and “Gnostic”, or the even
more determinate terms “Valentinianism” and “Valentinian”, have typically
been deployed to diagnose the depth structure of religiously inflected
intellectual systems whatever their discursive genre, whether philosophi-
cal, political, or psychological. This is particularly true of nineteenth-
century German genealogy, which continues to have a degree of currency
in contemporary thought. The work of Ferdinand Christian Baur in general,
and especially, his Die christliche Gnosis (1835),11 is exemplary here. Criti-
cized or accepted,12 Baur’s classic text sets the terms of debate in the
twentieth-century with regard to what defines legitimate genealogical use.
Other nineteenth-century German thinkers who brave using “Gnosticism”
and “Gnostic” as genealogical categories include two theologians associ-
ated with the Tübingen School, that is, Johan Adam Möhler (1786–1838)
and Franz Anton Staudenmaier (1800–1856).13 The latter is especially
important, since the terms “Gnosticism” and “Gnostic” are linked much
less closely to heresiological use than is the case in Möhler. Following Baur,
Staudenmaier suggests that it is Protestantism that provides the main
vehicle of “Gnostic” haunting in the modern period. Staudenmaier repeats
Baur also in his demonstration that as the Hegelian system is the telos of
Protestant Christianity, it is the quintessential modern realization of ancient
gnosis.14 Staudenmaier, however, uses the terms “Gnosticism” and
“Gnostic” not only to define religious discourses such as those of Hegel and
Feuerbach, but also the political discourses of Marx and the utopian trend
in political theory.15 In doing so he sets the stage for Eric Voegelin’s
extension of the field of analysis in Science, Politics, and Gnosticism and other
texts16 which not only applies these terms to the field of political theory, but
suggest that they might in principle apply to the discourses of modernity
without qualification.
As a genealogical counter, “Gnosticism” behaves fairly typically. While
similar to the attribution of Platonism (e.g. A. N. Whitehead, Voegelin, Leo
Strauss) and nominalism (e.g. Hans Blumenberg)17 in that “Gnostic” can be
used positively (Thomas Altizer, Arthur Versluis) in a genealogical dis-
course,18 no more in the modern than in the ancient world is it generally
used as a term of approbation. While no longer the heresiological counter
it was in Tertullian, Irenaeus, and Eiphanius among others, “Gnosticism”
often refers negatively and polemically. This negativity has prompted the
“death of God” theologian Thomas Altizer to speak of “Gnosticism” being
deployed as a “demonological” category, and a defender of esotericism,19
Arthur Versluis,20 to adduce that as deployed with negative valence, if not
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612 Cyril O’Regan

logically, then at the very least non-accidentally, the ascription of “Gnos-

ticism” legitimates exclusion and implicitly sanctions violence.
Although genealogical use is not determined by heresiological use, it can
be said that genealogical deployment of “Gnosticism” tends to accentuate
one or other of the two poles of heresiological usage, as these can be seen
in such a classic text as Against Heresies.21 The first pole is that of a
particular experience or particular kind of experience. Gnosticism is
defined by a discourse that intimates an experience that denies the finite
and historical conditions of experience. Eric Voegelin and Hans Jonas
provide two differently accented accounts of the experiential model that
either assert or imply a negative judgment on this fact or ambition.22 By
contrast Georges Bataille proposes that Gnosticism provides a model for
deviance and transgression that leads us beyond the cul de sac of moder-
nity, instrumental reason, and its lure of absolute knowledge.23 The second
pole accentuated in modern usage is the ancient view that “Gnosticism” is
defined by a peculiar narrative conjugation. While on occasions both Jonas
and Milbank tend to define “Gnosticism” existentially or experientially,24
importantly one can also find in both cases a sense that if modern forms of
Gnosticism exist, then they are constituted by speculative metanarratives
with an emphasis on the generation of the conditions of absolute knowl-
edge and total irrefutability.25 However the relation of “Gnosticism” to the
biblical narrative is defined—and unlike the heresiologists neither Jonas
nor Milbank expressly define this relation—both are clear that modern
intellectual systems, which are regulated by a latent Gnostic subtext,
compete on the modern stage with Enlightenment, Christian, and post-
Christian metanarratives. Of course, while both Jonas and Milbank are
equally conscious of the agonism, it is only Milbank who is interested in
how communally-formed Christian discourse fares.26 The suggestion made
is that there is a double crisis. First, there is a general crisis of narrative
potency, in which rival narratives articulate determinate views of the world
that call forth and justify particular practices, and attempt to out-narrate
each other by making their stories more comprehensive and persuasive.
Second, there is a more specific crisis, which concerns the reliability and
integrity of Christian narrative discourse. Milbank has said much less about
this second more specific crisis, although his more recent reflections on the
trinitarian narrative with its agapic foundation suggest that he is anxious
to rule out speculative takeover of the Christian narrative that ultimately
ends up inscribing Christianity in a model of capitalistic exchange.27 Most
certainly, he has not called attention to the intrinsic link between the two
crises, or investigated the possibility that a motive and advantage of a
speculatively adapted Christian narrative is that it may more easily accom-
modate and defeat the rival narratives of the Enlightenment.
It is tempting to think that the second crisis is meretricious, because the
antagonist is less transparent and culturally less exigent. For surely it is
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Balthasar and Gnostic Genealogy 613

Christianity’s battle with secular culture that is real, for this is the battle
that matters, for on its outcome depend the intelligibility of Christian
dispositions, practices, and forms of life. But it is possible that this second
crisis is no less urgent, however less in plain sight. In the event of the
Christian narrative been intensively and comprehensively re-arranged,
would it be possible to deny that Christian dispositions, practices, and
forms of life are undermined and replaced? What would a narrative
recoding do to our understanding and practice of discipleship, to our
understanding of baptism and eucharist, to our understanding of ourselves
and our relationship to the church?
In this essay I present Hans Urs von Balthasar as a genealogist, and more
specifically a genealogist of “Gnosticism”. In particular, I suggest that in
his voluminous work the genealogical dimension is both exemplary and
constitutive. It is exemplary in that, arguably, Balthasar sees more clearly
than any other twentieth-century theologian the relation between the
general crisis of Christianity, forced on the defensive by rival systems with
rival symbols and practices, and the more specific crisis, constituted by a
recoding of the Christian narrative that is put into play and called on to
defeat the rival narratives, especially those generated by the Enlightenment
as it celebrates its escape from the dark past towards the light of reason.
Genealogy is constitutive for Balthasar in that it is neither a superficial nor
a historically contingent feature of his thought. On the one hand, it is
genealogical examination rather than constructive theological argument
in the strict sense that represents the complementary pole to Balthasar’s
symphonic articulation of the catholic tradition. On the other hand, the
sense of the internal crisis of Christianity brought about in modernity
through the narrative recoding of Christian discourse and the practices it
invents, informs, and legitimates is a constant theme in Balthasar’s work.
It is not difficult to infer a determinate Balthasarian judgment: whatever the
appearances, the internal crisis of Christianity is every bit as chronic as the
external crisis that incites—even if it does not shape—all of nouvelle

Balthasar and Genealogical Rumination

As deployed genealogically in the texts of Balthasar, the term “Gnosticism”
refers to a relatively restricted range of religiously aspirated modern
discourses of a broadly Christian character towards which he takes a
negative attitude. And while Balthasar occasionally strikes an experiential
note, his use of the term “Gnosticism” is largely narratively based. This
puts him firmly in the tradition of nineteenth-century German construc-
tions, and especially Staudenmaier who, if he depends on F. C. Baur for the
outline of his genealogy, nonetheless, strikes out Baur’s positive appraisal
of the return of metanarrative discourses whose substantive and formal
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614 Cyril O’Regan

commitments push in the opposite direction to the biblical narrative and

the doctrinal tradition. At his best, then, Balthasar expands the theological
horizon beyond nineteenth-century parameters,28 and sees more deeply
than Baur and Staudenmaier what is theologically at stake. For him, as for
them, this is nothing less than everything: the substance of what is
believed, the status of the biblical text, the nature and limits of faith, and
the nature and limits of authority. At the outset, it is important to point out
that Balthasar does not have a general theory about “Gnostic return”, nor
does he expostulate on how the category could be expanded beyond
theology to touch on the return of speculative forms of ancient thought in
modern literary, philosophical, or political texts. Moreover, like Baur before
him, Balthasar focuses almost exclusively on modes of non-confessional
theological discourse and religiously aspirated modes of philosophy within
the German cultural sphere.
It should be held to Balthasar’s account, however, that narrowness is at
least partially offset by the importance of the major identified courier, that
is, German Idealism. And it is worth stating up front that Balthasar is not
primarily interested in German Idealism for its own sake, or in arguing for
a particular historical reading that cuts against the standard historiography.
Balthasar does, indeed, offer a counter-reading. His work challenges the
convention that German Idealism is constituted by the discovery of a
philosophical discourse that completely transcends the immediacies of its
Enlightenment and Romantic contexts, as it discloses as fiction the claim
that German Idealism is a pure philosophical discourse that rises com-
pletely above its complex negotiations with other cultural discourses and
the discourses of art and religion in particular. Ultimately, however, Bal-
thasar is much more interested in the history of its effects, and especially
its theological effects. These effects, he believes, remain currently in play.
While theologically these effects are most nearly seen within the German
sphere, in his divagations concerning “death of God” theology and the
cross-fertilization of kenotic theologies,29 Balthasar has at least a peripheral
awareness that they transcend the immediate German cultural boundaries.
Although narrow, then, Balthasar’s genealogical deployment of “Gnosti-
cism” and “Gnostic” is by no means parochial. Still, it is clear that even
on the explicitly theological level Balthasar’s reflections on the return of
Gnosticism in modern discourse could do with a theoretical make-over. A
fortiori, further correction and significant amplification would be in order
were “Gnosticism” and “Gnostic” to be made appropriate as loan-words to
a genealogy of literary, philosophical, and political theory discourses in
I will have much more to say about all of this in due course. Of more
immediate import is the presentation of how Balthasar genealogically
deploys “Gnostic” and “Gnosticism” in his more important texts. I begin,
however, with a difficulty in Balthasar’s account in excess of the criterio-
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Balthasar and Gnostic Genealogy 615

logical difficulties facing the “Gnostic” genealogical enterprise in general,

which demands as an irreducible minimum respect for the unrepeatability
of Hellenistic Gnosticism.30 I am referring here in particular to two obstacles
peculiar to Balthasar’s theological discourse. First, every Balthasar com-
mentator is obliged to admit that it is by no means evident that genealogy
is the most important aspect of Balthasar’s multi-faceted discourse, or even
a truly important facet. Speaking most generally, Balthasar’s discourse
seems to be constituted by the herculean effort at retrieving the Christian
tradition as a symphony of responses to the primary phenomenon of the
glory of God revealed in Christ.31 Understood in this way Balthasar’s
orchestration of unique chords of response is positive all the way through.
Anamnesis of the rich polyphony of the Christian tradition, scripture,
doctrine, theology, liturgical and ascetic life makes available modes of
perception, thought and feeling, action and life that are compelling because
they are persuasive. Of course, even when the positive virtues of anamnesis
are to the forefront, Balthasar is aware that anamnesis, considered either as
a project or a set of acts, is implicitly at least directed against the modern
age characterized by amnesia. As a distinguished exponent of nouvelle
théologie, Balthasar is prepared to grant that anamnesis is quite explicitly
directed against forgetfulness within the church as well as in culture in
general. The operative mentality of modernity presents, he believes, par-
ticular difficulties for a rich and full-blown Christianity. Much of what is
significant, indeed defining in Christianity, its ease with heteronomy and
authority, its ecstatic yet communal nature, its profound joy even in death,
the sober excess of its rendition of love, its incarnationalism that is a fruit
of its experience of the divine who is the incomprehensible one, is unavail-
able in significant part not only culturally but also ecclesially. Here Bal-
thasar is quick to add with Rahner—although in a less individual key—that
unavailability still represents or endorses a decision. For both, freedom is
ineluctable even when denied. At no point does Balthasar feel tempted to
give a council of despair with respect to the prospects of memory. Memory
can function in the modern world as “the gaiety that transfigures all that
dread”, to recall the famous lines of Yeats’s “Lapis Lazuli”. Balthasar
considers his exercise of memory not only to be properly ecclesial, but to
represent the church, which is best understood as an extended apologia.
Memory is a witnessing whose aim is persuasion, and whose motor is hope
rather than knowledge. Moreover, there is a need for surrender, since the
effect of apologia is not in our hands but in the hands of the Holy Spirit.32
Balthasar makes a preventive strike against nostalgia and its attendant
prophetic exaltation by reminding throughout his voluminous works, but,
perhaps, nowhere more successfully than in The Glory of the Lord, that as
amnesia has been a problem throughout the entire history of Christianity,33
anamnesis has been an equally perennial need. At the same time that
Balthasar’s work represents, arguably, the most extended act of anamnesis
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616 Cyril O’Regan

by an individual modern theologian, it presents a highly individual and

comprehensive visionary theology characterized by emphatic christological
focus and thoroughgoing trinitarian aspiration. However replete the cho-
reography and orchestration, Balthasar does not replace the church. Rather,
he displays what it would be like to be an ecclesial theologian against the
backdrop of the church’s worship, reflection, and practice. Specifically,
Balthasar wants to intercalate himself as theologian only in the context of
this faithful memory that constitutes the church as church, for only against
the backdrop of this tradition, or to change the metaphor, through its
“thickness”, is theology possible. Thus, it is necessary to say that whatever
the genealogical depth in Balthasar’s work, with some justification a good
reader could render the verdict that genealogy is not only secondary, but
truly marginal to Balthasar’s basic method, which is best understood in its
original Greek as met-hodos, that is, as a way or space rather than a
ground,34 a way towards the God who comes to meet us, a space in which
self-transcendence happens in response to a gift.
This brings me to the second difficulty, even if it is granted that there
is a decided genealogical tendency in Balthasar’s oeuvre, it cannot be
assumed that in his main works anything like a “Gnostic” genealogy is to
the forefront. It is true that “Gnosticism” is deployed as a genealogical
category very early in Balthasar’s career, specifically in the third volume of
Apokalypse der deutschen Seele (1939),35 and is prominent in Balthasar’s great
trilogy, especially in its second and third parts, Theodramatik and Theologik.
But it is equally true that over the course of Balthasar’s career “Gnosticism”
shares space with a number of other attributions that appear to have
credible genealogical bone fides. “Neoplatonism” and “apocalyptic” are
particularly important, and their deployment is essentially of the same
vintage as “Gnosticism”. “Apocalyptic” is in fact the central genealogical
category of Balthasar’s first major text, Apokalypse, and bears comparison
with Löwith’s analysis of eschatological discourse From Hegel to Nietzsche.36
Moreover, “apocalyptic” is a major genealogical counter in the trilogy in
which Hegel’s own discourse, those thinkers Balthasar takes to be Hegel’s
theological successors such as Moltmann and Jüngel (TD 3, p. 390; TD 5,
pp. 168, 175, 224–229),37 as well as various stripes of “death of God”
theology (TD 5, p. 224), are judged to be insufficiently christological
and deficiently trinitarian. Similarly, “Neoplatonism” gets genealogically
deployed early on in Balthasar’s career. It is ingredient in Balthasar’s
worries in texts from the 1940s and even before about whether in its
adoption of Neoplatonism Christianity successfully masters either the
ontological and anthropological dualism of Neoplatonism, and whether
the exit-return narrative of Neoplatonism exercises a debilitating effect on
the biblical narrative which has its starting point as well as pivot in the
incarnation.38 The judgment that a modern or contemporary theological
discourse shows traces of Proclus (GL, 5, pp. 214, 228, 334–335) carries with
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Balthasar and Gnostic Genealogy 617

it no less a certificate of invalidity than would be implied if the Christian

discourses were those of Denys or Evagrius, as these thinkers serve not so
much as presuppositions for but as foils for Maximus’s splendid orthodoxy.39
It is worth noting that the way in which “apocalyptic” and “Neopla-
tonic” mark invalidity in Balthasar’s work in general differs from the ways
“Gnosticism” and “Gnostic” do so. “Gnosticism” or “Gnostic” unambigu-
ously mark invalidity. Not so “Neoplatonic” or “apocalyptic”. While in
their genealogical deployment, “apocalyptic” and “Neoplatonic” usually
function critically, they do not always do so. For example, Balthasar does
not think that “apocalyptic theology” is a contradiction in terms. Indeed, in
Theo-Drama 4 (pp. 15–67) Balthasar makes it perfectly clear that he takes the
book of Revelation to provide the contours of a visionary and dramatic
theology that is truly adequate to the Christian mysterion. At the risk of
over-statement, it could be said that only apocalyptic forms of theology are
genuine, even if Balthasar means something different by this than that
averred by either Johannes Baptist Metz or John Milbank.40 At issue for
Balthasar is whether a theology remains visionary and dramatic or, on the
contrary, becomes explanatory and non-dramatic. Thus of concern to him
are forms of theology that suffer from the hypertrophy of method. These
include explicitly rationalistic forms of theology, and to a lesser extent
transcendental forms of theology.41 But of even more concern are forms of
theology that appear to emphasize vision and apparently have a dramatic
character. For Balthasar, Hegel and his epigones provide examples of an
“epical” mode of apocalyptic, that is, of a mode of apocalyptic which takes
a divine-like view of the putative tragedy of historical and worldly exist-
ence that demands to be resolved. Although difficult to distinguish from
the genuine article (e.g. Daniel, Revelation), it is imperative that these
species of “apocalyptic” be marked off in terms of the capacity of vision
asserted and the degree of explanation of narrative proposed. Strictly
speaking, in epical modes of apocalyptic there are no limits to the capacity
of seeing; the seer plumbs the depths of God to unveil the secret mecha-
nisms of history, whose articulation constitutes explanation.
It should be agreed, then, that both Balthasar’s primarily constructive
theological concerns and his multiple genealogical schemes complicate
matters. Still, to agree that genealogy is secondary does not mean either
that genealogical characterization is marginal to Balthasar’s theological
enterprise, or that Balthasar thinks this to be so. The duration of Balthasar’s
genealogical production, which in fact is coextensive with his literary
production, and its conspicuousness in his historical works as well as his
great trilogy, give the lie to this. From the beginning, genealogy points to
dangers that are the obverse of the ever available opportunities for spe-
cifically Christian vision and discipleship. There are dangers in the first
instance of attenuation by concession to the Enlightenment criticism and
hollowing out of the meaning of Christian symbols, narratives, and prac-
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618 Cyril O’Regan

tices, and dangers in the second instance of a renarration of Christianity

that confounds spectacle with vision.
Nonetheless, multiple genealogical schemes do not necessarily indicate
incoherence. Balthasar is hardly unusual in presenting multiple genealogi-
cal schemes. For instance, Baur, who provides the nineteenth-century’s
classic “Gnostic return” account, also argued for Platonic or Neoplatonic
return.42 Staudenmaier follows Baur in this regard and adds apocalyptic.43
In this century, Eric Voegelin avails of the category of “apocalyptic” as well
as “Gnosticism”.44 Needless to say, the commonness of multiple genealogi-
cal attribution does not make it legitimate. Multiple attribution suggests
indeterminacy of attribution, and at least raises the possibility of sheer
nominalism. Now, obviously the difficulty would be immediately resolved
if in their deployment the attributions of “Gnostic”, “apocalyptic”, and
“Neoplatonic” covered different discourses in modernity or different ter-
rains of discourse. This would represent a nice analytic-style resolution in
that the problem would be dissolved. But in Balthasar’s case, as in the
modern tradition of genealogy to which he belongs, while there may be
gestures in this direction, this is hardly the overall drift. If we put in
parenthesis Balthasar’s positive use of the categories of “apocalyptic” and
“Neoplatonic”, it becomes clear that all three categories are applied to the
same band of speculative discourse, specifically to the discourse of German
Idealism and its theological fallout in the nineteenth and twentieth centu-
ries. This is certainly the case in the trilogy as a whole, and two or more
genealogical attributions can be made within a particular part of the trilogy,
indeed within a particular volume. Again while the nineteenth-century
German precedents for this in Baur and Staudenmaier help to contextualize
Balthasar’s problem of category management, they cannot alibi it. No more
than they, however, can Balthasar avoid the questions of order and ranking.
If all three genealogical terms apply, do they apply in the same way and to
the same extent? Does simultaneous attribution make sense, and if so,
under what conditions? Is one attribution primary? Relatedly, is one
attribution regulative?
In order to handle these issues, however, it is important to say more
about Balthasar’s essentially narrative criterion for identifying the
“Gnostic” haunting of German Idealism and its successor theological
discourses. This is non-trivial, for any decision about subordinate or
superordinate genealogical categories necessarily will be adjudicated in
terms of narrative capability, that is, the degree to which a genealogical
category accounts for the individuating narrative features of speculative
discourses that both acknowledge and correct the Enlightenment while
suggesting formal and material continuity with the governing symbols and
practices of the Christian tradition. As I have already indicated, Balthasar
follows in the footsteps of Baur and Staudenmaier not only in focusing
upon German Idealism and its theological fallout, but also in presuming
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Balthasar and Gnostic Genealogy 619

that in its various forms, and especially in its influential Hegelian form,
German Idealism presents an inclusive metanarrative.
If not with quite the same elemental horror as Staudenmaier and in a
different respect Kierkegaard,45 Balthasar also sees clearly that German
Idealism disguises its metanarrative predilection in and by a self-
authenticating conceptual framework. Indeed, it is an implication of Bal-
thasar’s diagnosis that the disguise, which attends the Aufhebung of
narrative representation (Vorstellung) into concept (Begriff ) (TD 1, p. 61),
is constitutive of its metanarrative status. For it is in conceptual elevation
that one moves from faith to knowledge, from the risk of affirmation and
assent based on the authority of Christ and the church, to the self-
legitimating network of concepts that suspends Yes (or pronounces an
altogether different kind of yes) and makes No impossible. Balthasar is
aware in a way that Jean-Francois Lyotard, for example, is not, that it is
the metalinguistic function that is decisive for metanarrative status rather
than the inclusiveness of the story.46 Balthasar sees with Milbank that
inclusive narratives can and will compete, but that no narrative can itself
provide universal rules for adjudication. Thus, all narratives are vulner-
able, and it is vulnerability to contestation and refutation rather than
limited narrative extent—being a petit recit—that prevents imperialism. If
the agon of narratives is inevitable, violence is not. Agon and persuasion
are compatible.47
Throughout the trilogy, but perhaps most saliently in Theo-Drama, Bal-
thasar raises an issue, with which given his agenda Lyotard has no reason
to deal, and which Baur in Die christliche Gnosis ignores. The issue: What is
the relation of this speculative narrative, to which one is affixing the label
of “Gnostic”, to the biblical or Christian narrative of salvation history? Here
it is the somewhat plodding Staudenmaier who provides the proximate
precedent for Balthasar. Thinking specifically of Hegel’s religiously
inflected thought, in his Hegel book, Darstellung und Kritik des hegelschen
Systems (1844) and elsewhere,48 Staudenmaier believes that a “Gnostic”
metanarrative is not free-standing, but rather represents a comprehensive
and intensive transformation of the salvation-history narrative. While
Staudenmaier does not appeal to the authority of Irenaeus to make his
point—although it is clear from his work in general that Irenaeus is an
important figure for him49—it was Irenaeus who classically pointed to this
transformation or metharmottein as the key for understanding Gnosticism as
essentially a parasitic discourse.50 In Against Heresies (1.8) transformation
refers to the figuration of God as God is displayed in the history of
salvation. Thus metharmottein in the final analysis refers to the narrative in
and through which God renders God-self. Ignoring momentarily that for
Irenaeus this divine self-rendition or narration is trinitarian, it is important
to underscore that for him the basic “madness” of Gnosticism is not
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Madness, for Irenaeus, is narratogical. Gnostic narratives—and there

exist a huge variety of them—madden the biblical or Christian narrative of
salvation history, and thus generate a simulacrum. Balthasar attends to the
point explicitly in his essay on Irenaeus in Glory of the Lord 2: A Gnostic
narrative comes into being in and through a comprehensive disfiguration
and refiguration of the biblical narrative (see GL, 2, p. 39). In a structural—
and not simply chronological—sense, then, Gnosticism is “post-Christian”.
Balthasar in fact makes this point quite explicitly a number of times, for
instance, in Apokalypse and in his trilogy. Of course, Balthasar’s debt to
Irenaeus is considerably more significant than his debt to Staudenmaier.
The totally determinate influence of Irenaeus on Balthasar’s constructive
articulation in the areas of biblical hermeneutics, theological dramatics,
christology, and trinitarian articulation of history is not matched in the
constructive theological work of Staudenmaier.52 For Balthasar, the classic
status of Irenaeus as a constructive and not simply polemical theologian
cannot be gainsaid; his thought represents a constantly renewable resource.
At the same time, the classic status of Irenaeus means for Balthasar that the
heresiological side of Irenaeus also is of moment. It encourages the creation
of a genealogical discourse that helps us to come to terms with, and to find
the capacity to, transcend the invidious intellectual environment of moder-
nity with its eclipse of glory, reification of false dramatics, and its leveling
of the self in which “sainthood”, for instance, comes to be understood as
paranormal or abnormal.
In Glory of the Lord 2 and elsewhere Balthasar is so positive about
Irenaeus that he tends to repress some fairly obvious questions that would
have significant effect on the viability of a “Gnostic” genealogical thesis. Is
Irenaeus positing something like a Gnostic or Valentinian Urnarrative?
Would the variety of narratives also avowed by Irenaeus not cut against
this? Would not the plurality of genres, points of view and style, and
narrative predilection vouchsafed by the texts of Nag Hammadi cut against
any claim to unity in “gnosis so called”? Since Irenaeus does not ask these
questions, we do not receive answers. Nor does Irenaeus pose or answer
the question just how permissive of difference and variation the rule of
faith is in theory and practice.53 Balthasar’s commitment to the polyphony
of the Christian tradition suggests, however, that he would affirm differ-
ence and variety in the Christian tradition much more unambiguously and
amply than the historical Irenaeus.54 Interestingly, in availing of Irenaeus to
make the point about the tradition, and especially his view of recapitulation
(anakephailosis), Balthasar uses Irenaeus to counter Irenaeus’s own worst
instincts, indeed, refigures him in a polyphonic key. While, arguably, more
focused on making the positive recommendation regarding the christologi-
cally generated pluralism of the Christian tradition, Balthasar does not
entirely neglect the issue of plurality in Gnosticism, a plurality that can
only be given in and through narrative structure or its inflection. In Glory
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Balthasar and Gnostic Genealogy 621

of the Lord, 2 (p. 59), Balthasar deals obliquely with the issue of plurality of
Hellenistic forms, the “mushrooming” of which so alarms Irenaeus.55
In a preliminary move, whose importance cannot be overestimated,
Balthasar puts to genealogical advantage an Irenaean insight, namely, the
tension between the surface and depth tendencies of Valentinian narratives.
Whereas the former is rendered in terms of the static ontological contrasts
of perfect and imperfect, immaterial and material, the latter suggests a
dynamic, dramatic, and unitive ontotheology in which perfection is ulti-
mately perfection gained in and through the detour of loss of perfection
and exile in imperfection (GL, 2, pp. 41, 58–59). Put synoptically, Balthasar
suggests that one of Irenaeus’s fundamental insights is that the figure of
felix culpa in an ontological key is a latent principle of structuring in
Valentinian narratives. It is this quite original reading of Irenaeus, made
in such a matter of fact way in Glory of the Lord, 2, that seems to justify
Balthasar’s casual linking of Hegel with Gnosticism in the introduction to
his anthology of Irenaeus’s writings, called, in translation, The Scandal of the
Incarnation.56 In making the point Balthasar is addressing the issue of
diachronic rather than synchronic plurality, that is difference over time,
indeed difference endemic to different periods. Only by courtesy—but
definitely with courtesy—is plurality transferable into the Hellenistic field
of Gnostic narrative formation. With respect to the modern period, Bal-
thasar suggests, that were Gnosticism to return, were it to function as a
ghost haunting Enlightenment or post-Enlightenment discourses, it would
present a much more dynamic, dramatic and evolutionist complexion than
it did in its original habitat. For Balthasar, two sets of conditions come
together to constitute the real possibility of “Gnostic return”. On the one
hand, invidious as the Reformation and the Enlightenment appear to be
with respect to speculative thought, they provide the proximate historical
conditions for the elevation of the promethean other to the confessed
humility of both regimes.57 On the other, the fracture within “Gnostic”
narratives leaves it open as to which of its two tendencies will be taken up
in a later discursive regime. Given the dynamic, developmental, and
agonistic complexion of metanarratives of the German Idealist ilk,
“Gnostic” or “Valentinian” attribution is possible if and only if this dra-
matic narrative tendency can be shown to be at least a recessive feature of
ancient Gnostic narratives.58

Genealogical Agon and the Primacy of Gnosticism

As I indicated above, Balthasar forces the question of the ranking of
genealogical schemes because, as they are usually deployed in his trilogy,
the categories of “Gnosticism”, “Neoplatonism”, and “apocalyptic” cover
the same discourses, or same band of discourses, that is, German Idealism
and its twentieth-century theological manifestations in Moltmann and the
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“death of God” theology. This is not to say that the categories of “apoca-
lyptic” and “Neoplatonism” are not applied to other bands of discourse in
other contexts. Interestingly, however, “Gnosticism” or “Valentinianism”
are not. As Glory of the Lord, 5 in particular makes clear, Balthasar is as
persuaded, as Blumenberg is in The Legitimacy of the Modern Age,59 that
Renaissance forms of Neoplatonism contribute to the emergent authority of
the cosmos, and even more importantly to the authority of the human
subject, both of which in various ways deplete the transcendence of God
conceived as the totally other (das ganz Andere). What makes Balthasar’s
point truly genealogical, and not simply a matter of intellectual history, is
that he thinks that the two Blumenbergian heroes, Bruno (GL, 5, pp.
260–264, 578), and to a more limited extent Cusanus (GL, 5, pp. 50, 288), still
depend largely on a hegemonic Proclean code (GL, 5, pp. 214, 228, 234–235).
With the Proclean exit-return code in operation, because of ontological
continuity and a literalistic view of participation that valorizes likeness,
Neoplatonism will almost inevitably prove invidious with respect to the
biblically based Christian vision of agapaic God who gives selflessly to
what is incommensurable with respect to him, indeed, gives himself to
what is not, indeed gives what is not.60 Thus, Balthasar’s early worries
about Gregory of Nyssa and Denys, and his somewhat later concerns about
Eckhart and Cusanus in Glory of the Lord, 5.61
Resolutely refusing any version of the “acute Hellenization” hypothesis,
Balthasar is not as cavalier as Milbank in assuming that Christian thought
should constitutively embrace Proclus,62 on the grounds that he provides
a view of ontological participation that the modern secular world needs.
For Balthasar, some cures are as bad as the disease. In this case, both a
saeculum emptied of the sacred and a cosmos that is completely sacralized
represents two sides of an inability properly to think participation, which
in order to be identifiably Christian requires that participation be a func-
tion of the incommensurability of the creator and the created. This is
precisely what is not tolerated by Proclus’s taxis of the sacred, which
logically (if not historically) supports theurgy, and in doing so effectively
undercuts sacrament. In any event, for Balthasar, history provides the
ongoing lesson that a “Neoplatonic” strain of thought can function mis-
chievously in Christian discourses. Agreeing with the need for resacral-
ization, and in particular the aesthetic tutoring of a theological sensibility
open to divine glory, Balthasar puts out an advisory that too much as well
as too little sacrality represents the eclipse of the Christian kerygma and
the theological tradition, including the Christian Neoplatonic tradition that
translates and defends it. The Christian subject can asphyxiate in a world
devoid of the sacred. But the same subject can drown in a world drenched
in the sacred.
“Apocalyptic” malfeasance can also be asserted independently of a
routing through German Idealism and its theological “history of effects”.
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Balthasar and Gnostic Genealogy 623

As Apokalypse demonstrates, Balthasar thinks that a radical eschatological,

even messianic mentality, pervades a large and heterogeneous swathe of
modern thought. Schiller, Nietzsche, and Heidegger and not simply Hegel,
Feuerbach and Marx are shot through and through with this mentality.
Radical eschatological thought or feeling gets articulated largely as a
response to the Enlightenment contraction of knowledge and its foreswear-
ing of unverifiable, thus essentially “mythic” constructions of reality. In
both Glory of the Lord and Theo-Drama Balthasar thinks of Marxism and
Liberation theology as fundamentally apocalyptic and messianic.63 With
respect to Marx, Balthasar does not entertain for a moment either Althus-
ser’s concern with or belief in the scientificity of Marx’s program.64 As with
a host of modern interpreters of Marx, Balthasar is persuaded that not-
withstanding Marx’s avowal of his overcoming of Hegel and Hegel’s
left-wing critics, Marx’s entire thought represents a secularized eschatology
(TD, 5, pp. 90–91). One extremely interesting facet of Balthasar’s reflection
in the trilogy on the recurrence of apocalyptic discourse in modern thought
is his two-source theory of origin. The proximate origin for modern
eschatological discourses, which are also heavily spiritualized, is, he
argues, the twelfth-century apocalypticist, Joachim of Fiore (TD, 3, pp. 400,
512; TD, 4, pp. 428, 446). In making this move, Balthasar all but canonizes
de Lubac’s La postérité spirituelle de Joachim de Fiore, in which a map is
drawn from the Reformation in which Joachim becomes basically a Prot-
estant asset in the envisaging of a church that is not regulated by sacrament
and institution.65 The ultimate origin, however, is to be found in the
non-canonic apocalypses, that is, the apocalypse discourses of the Second
Temple period, which include 2 Enoch and 4 Ezra (GL, 6, pp. 324, 333,
342–343). Balthasar absolves Daniel (GL, 6, pp. 320–324), largely on the
grounds that unlike the Ezra and the Enochian literature (GL, 6, pp.
326–328) and arguably also Qumran (GL, 6, pp. 327–328; 319–320; GL, 7, pp.
285, 301), it remains basically continuous with prophecy.
For Balthasar, not only is Revelation not the theological embarrassment
it often appears to be, particularly given its sectarian uses, it represents
nothing less than a metabasis in allos genos of the apocalyptic genre which
in effect deconstructs its speculative tendency. In doing so, Revelation
brings out its close relation to prophecy both as a discursive genre and a
particular mode of existence defined, as Balthasar memorably depicts in
part two of The Glory of the Lord, 6, as “the stairway of obedience”. In the
opening pages of Theo-Drama, 4, Balthasar argues that canonic apocalypses
and Revelation in particular represent the indispensable source not only of
his own theology, but of any truly adequate theology. Revelation suggests
that all theology is at once visionary and dramatic, offers a panoramic view
of reality in which the vicissitudes of history represent a foreground to their
eternal meaning provided in the Lamb crucified from the foundation of the
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Needless to say, Balthasar’s prioritization of Revelation is vulnerable to

criticism from a number of angles. Most obviously, it is vulnerable from
historical-critical perspective with its tendency not only to read the text as
metaphorization of a disenfranchised Christian community’s perspective
on its historical location and its political prospects, but also to read the text
in terms of an apocalyptic genre defined by intertestamental literature. Both
in Theo-Drama, 4 (pp. 15, 38, 47, 51) and Glory of the Lord, 7 (p. 240),
Balthasar argues against the reduction to intertestamental literature, and
judges it to be an instance of the genetic fallacy. In both texts also Balthasar
inveighs against reading the text as if it were a document of a Christian
community coding its very particular history of persecution in the Roman
empire in a metahistorical language (TD, 4, pp. 38, 46; also p. 31 n.3). But
Balthasar’s privileging of Revelation also exposes him to the more system-
atic charge that his allegiance to Revelation signals that his ultimate
commitments are to the speculative, panoptical view, floating above and
totally disengaged from the historical existence of Christian and of the
church. In short, Balthasar’s privileging of Revelation makes him vulner-
able to the charge that in the end he is a kind of epic apocalyptic theologian
of the same ilk as Hegel.
Now, the reading of Balthasar in radical orthodoxy circles as an “epic”
theologian,66 and the reading of Balthasar as an instructive failure in the
effort to articulate an apocalyptic theology by Steffen Lösel comes as close
as makes no difference to making this charge.67 Without here debating the
point, the outlines of Balthasar’s reply to his critics would be clear.
Revelation is not an epic text. Rather it provides the most perspicuous
crystallization of theodrama which, around the core of the Lamb sacrificed
at the foundation of the world, leaves human freedom and responsibility
intact. While Revelation provides an outline of the challenges and temp-
tations of history, it leaves the resolution of the drama of history in the
hands of God. This is precisely what apocalyptic in the Hegelian and
Marxist does not allow. Thus the need remains to distinguish clearly
between two types of apocalyptic, the one Hegelian, the other non-
Hegelian, the one the distant progeny of intertestimental or specifically
“Jewish” apocalyptic, the other the reflective repetition of canonic apoca-
lyptic discourse.
As categories, then, both “Neoplatonism” and “apocalyptic” can cover
domains of discourse different from each other and different from the
domain univocally covered by “Gnosticism”, and thus function in a
broader genealogical program in which Balthasar figures modern Western
religious thought as haunted by a number of ghosts in a discursive
environment, which is sanitized—although not totally successfully so—by
the Enlightenment. This position is coherent, even if one wishes that
Balthasar would have articulated it more amply and adequately. Still, as
I have suggested already, neither in Balthasar’s occasional pieces, nor in
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Balthasar and Gnostic Genealogy 625

his major work, do the categories of “Neoplatonism”, “apocalyptic”, and

“Gnosticism” typically cover different domains of discourse. All three are
used to describe German Idealism and its theological trajectory which, for
Balthasar, functions as a major derailment of Christian theology precisely
because it seems to be so respectful to Christianity and to speak its
language so well. So the question of ranking recurs. Does Balthasar provide
us with any clue as to which of the genealogical categories is more
disclosive, more alethic? Does Balthasar offer any arguments for preference,
or present any principles of preference? As one might expect, Balthasar will
be much clearer with regard to the first question than the second, and goes
a considerable way towards answering it. Matters are otherwise with
regard to the second question. To have the problem of multiple genealogi-
cal attribution already indicates that Balthasar is unlikely to be particularly
adept in making distinctions about relative validity of use, to be explicit in
assessing the relation between uses of categories, and to be methodologi-
cally self-conscious in constructing a unified genealogy which would show
that even those genealogical categories, which are only relatively adequate,
nonetheless assist in exposing and naming the peculiarity and complexity
of haunting in modern and/or contemporary discourses which have a
Christian accent.
Balthasar offers a number of clues to indicate that with respect to
German Idealism and its contemporary theological trajectory the category
of “Gnosticism” should be taken to be genealogically superordinate. First,
unlike his deployment of the categories of “apocalyptic” and “Neopla-
tonism”, Balthasar confines the genealogical use of “Gnosticism” to the
phenomenon of German Idealism and its theological fall-out. Second, in
doing so, he is able to make pertinent, in a negative as well as positive
way, Irenaeus, who provides the architectural outline of Balthasar’s own
constructive thought as well as a significant amount of its dynamic force.
Balthasar’s repetition of an essentially Irenaean reading of salvation
history and of Christ as axis and acme of history supports his commit-
ment to the church father’s understanding of the category of “Gnosti-
cism” as naming Christianity’s most dangerous other. The danger of
Gnosticism is that it alters everything of substance in Christianity (GL, 2,
p. 39), in fact effects nothing less than a total transvaluation of values in
which a new kind of revelation discourses comes into being as a Chris-
tian simulacrum (GL, 2, p. 41). Third, and relatedly, on the basis of his
assent to Irenaeus’s diagnosis of Gnosticism as essentially constituted by
a myth of a developmental and pathetic divine (S I, 1, 5),68 “Gnosticism”
is in a better situation genealogically than the categories of “Neopla-
tonism” and “apocalyptic” to identify German Idealism and its successor
theological discourses. The last point is the truly decisive one. Balthasar
sees, as Baur and Staudenmaier did, that Gnosticism is a theogonic myth,
although obviously of a much more reflected type than that represented
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626 Cyril O’Regan

by the Babylonian creation hymn, Enuma Elish, two millennia before the
common era.
“Gnosticism,” therefore, enjoys determinate advantages over “Neopla-
tonism” which, if it deposes an inclusive story that moves from divine
unity to divine unity through the interim of expression, does not suggest
that divine unity is compromised in and by its multiform expression and
disqualified by pathos. Equally “Gnosticism” enjoys advantages over
“apocalyptic”. Although canonic apocalyptic can put the suffering of the
divine at the center of the narrative, and does so in the numinous figure of
the Lamb, unlike Gnostic “myth”, which has truly explanatory ambitions,
it neither suggests that the divine develops through suffering, nor that its
speaking of the great fact of salvation has rendered the mystery of the
divine fully transparent. Both the predominance of symbolic language and
its promiscuousness indicates that the divine mystery is constitutively in

Gnostic Return and Trinitarian Discourse

Balthasar is not so naïve as to think that gnostically-haunted German
Idealism represents an exact replica of the second- and third-century
systems of Gnosticism exposed and condemned by Irenaeus. For one thing,
Balthasar is too much the intellectual and cultural historian to think this to
be plausible. He understands, as do most scholars of German Idealism, that
German Idealism is a complicated intellectual and discursive response to
the decline in authority of Christianity in the post-Enlightenment period
marked both by the work of Kant and the forays of Romanticism. Thus, his
treatment of German Idealism—after his treatment of Enlightenment phi-
losophers, Kant, and Romanticism—in Glory of the Lord, 5. Just as impor-
tantly, however, for Balthasar it is antecedently unlikely that modern forms
of Gnosticism could repeat exactly ancient forms, since the Christian
discourses that these modern “mythic” discourses mime and distort have
themselves ramified and complexified over the centuries.69 While the
biblical narrative continues to be fundamental for Christian theology, this
narrative is made accessible through creedal confession and through theo-
logical interpretation. In particular, the biblical narrative has served
throughout the centuries as the stimulus for an interpretation in which the
Trinity at once functions as one theologoumenon among others and the
organizing principle of interpretation of the biblical narrative as a whole.
For Balthasar, then, it is not an accident that in the modern period the battle
between Christianity and its “other” is centered on the vicissitudes of
trinitarian theology. As German Idealism, and particularly Hegel, brings
the Trinity back into theological circulation, after it having been made an
adiaphora by Enlightenment and Romantic thinkers alike,70 the battle is
now fought on the grounds of whether the Idealist or the more traditional
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Balthasar and Gnostic Genealogy 627

view as sketched in Irenaeus—and as fully elaborated in Augustine,

Anselm, Aquinas, and Bonaventure (especially the latter)—is the authentic
When Balthasar contends in Theo-Drama that Moltmann, unable to escape
Hegel’s influence (see TD, 5, pp. 227–228, 322–323; TD, 3, p. 390), destroys
the immanent Trinity-economic Trinity distinction (TD, 4, p. 320), he could
be thought to presuppose what he means to prove, namely the superiority
of the classical view. While in some respects this is a just criticism, it
neglects Balthasar’s critical intent, which is the same as Staudenmaier’s
in the nineteenth century. To stipulate that God is only virtually Godself
outside the context of relation towards an other fatally compromises both
the transcendence and the particular identity of God who renders rather
than constitutes self in creation, preservation, redemption, and sanctifica-
tion. For Balthasar, as for post-liberal theologians such as Hans Frei, George
Lindbeck, and David Kelsey, this is to make a mistake in theological
grammar. Balthasar’s specific genius consists in his ability to draw out how
Hegel, and those whom he takes to be his epigones, facilitate this break-
down in grammar by subjecting to developmental torsion a number of
dynamic figures, which Balthasar takes to provide the keys to theological
interpretation of the biblical narrative. The three most important such
figures are love, pathos, and kenosis.
With respect to Hegel’s and Moltmann’s recourse to the biblical trope of
love, Balthasar poses the question whether love is used in its properly
Johannine and agapaic sense. The answer, not surprisingly, is no. What has
happened rather is that eros becomes the regulative interpreting point of
view. This suggests that love is desire as aim for fulfillment rather than
pre-given ontological plenitude. In Theo-Drama, 2, Balthasar could not make
the point more urgently—if not necessarily more clearly given the need to
separate rather than unite Platonism and Gnosticism—when he suggests
that Plato’s discussion of “lack” (penia) provides the key to disclosing the
meaning of modern Gnosticism. He writes: “Nor does the poverty come
before wealth; it is not as if God must first go out in the trinitarian
processions in order to gain himself (as Idealism imagines)” (TD, 2, p. 257).
Making essentially the same point against Hegel as Pannenberg,71 Balthasar
suggests that Hegel and his successors have illegitimately projected what is
true in the specifically human experience of the becoming of consciousness
and self-consciousness onto the divine. Balthasar grants to Hegel, Molt-
mann, and even “death of God” theologians, that too often—although far
from univocally72—the Christian tradition has peremptorily dispatched
suffering or compassion from its figuration of the divine, and thereby
constructed an idol (TD, 2, pp. 9, 49, 62, 72, 105 inter alia). Nevertheless,
while it is true that the suffering of Christ is declarative of who God is, and
is indicative of a God who is superbly with and for us, straightforward
predication of suffering to the divine compromises the difference between
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628 Cyril O’Regan

the divine and what depends on it for its very existence. It is the analogy
of being (analogia entis) that simultaneously commands the gesture of
ascribing suffering to God, while disallowing any pre-given sense. Saying
and unsaying here are one. What determines the univocity of predication
in modern speculative forms of Christianity in the final analysis is the
commitment to something like a narrative becoming of the divine. For
Hegel, and following him Moltmann, the divine becomes all that it can be
in and through its alienation in finitude, and particularly in suffering and
death as finitude’s indelible marks.
A third indication of a declension that underwrites a Gnostic transfor-
mation of the Christian narrative is a peculiar use of the trope of kenosis,
classically expressed in Philippians 2:5–11 and 2 Corinthians 8:9, and so
heavily mined in the theological tradition. Commentators on Balthasar are
surely right to aver to Balthasar’s own place in the kenotic tradition.73
Balthasar, however, makes a crucial distinction between how kenosis
functions in Hegel and Moltmann and the “death of God theology” and
how it functions in his own work, as well as in the patristic and medieval
theological traditions with which he sides.74 Even if in the trilogy in
particular Balthasar radicalizes the tradition by imagining the operation of
kenosis at the level of the immanent Trinity itself (Urkenosis)75—here
Balthasar seems to follow Hegel76—he continues to presume that kenosis
admits of a morphological and not a substantialist interpretation.77
However we envisage “emptying”, however close we cleave to the view
of God undergoing genuine risk in unremitting giving, we are not, Bal-
thasar insists, to imagine that God has negated God, that God has in
some spectral romance become an anti-God. More specifically, Balthasar
refuses to think that either scripture or tradition license the view of the
emptying of the divine understood as a means in and through which to
realize the fullness of deity. This would in fact mean that kenosis is
improperly retailed, that what we are really dealing with is the operation
of plerosis,78 the operation of filling celebrated under the guise of “fulfill-
ing” in Hegel’s philosophy of religion, as indeed in his system as a whole.
While there is little of postmodern self-stylization in his essentially
retrievalist program, Balthasar’s argument bears at least a family resem-
blance to Georges Bataille’s much recycled complaint about Hegel’s
restricted economy,79 of how all giving is a taking, since all would-be gift
represents an investment that will yield profit—here absolute profit as the
profit of the absolute.
How is one to characterize the trinitarianism of these gnostically-haunted
speculative discourses? Commentators and critics on Hegel have provided
a clue by posing the question whether the upshot of a developmental and
pathetic trinitarian divine is a form of Sabellianism.80 Of course, if once
again the question is understood to imply some pure form of recrudescence
of a position in early Christian thought, then only a negative verdict can be
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Balthasar and Gnostic Genealogy 629

brought in.81 But if the question is taken to point—as it ought to—to

non-identical repetition, then Sabellianism can at least function as a place-
holder for a dialectical monism that cannot find a place for the irreducible
plurality of divine persons.82 It could be argued that Moltmann’s entire
trinitarian project, which sets itself against monism, whether of substance
or subject, whether non-dialectical or dialectical, represents a genuine
counter-factual to the Sabellian thesis suggested by Balthasar in TD, 1 (p.
67). In contrast to the Sabellian view, which Moltmann practically admits
defines Hegelianism,83 in Trinity and the Kingdom and elsewhere Moltmann
argues the Trinity is defined by relation between persons, who in turn,
however, are defined by relations. Clearly, Moltmann has seen the enemy,
and at first brush it is Hegel. However, it is the self-same Hegel’s devel-
opmental logic, which issues in a Sabellian trinitarianism, against which he
fights throughout what is, arguably his most generative text, that he
deploys when he comes to speak of “the logic of love” (TD, 1, pp. 57–60).
This logic prescribes the necessity of pathos, and the loss in kenosis that
betokens an eschatological and teleological gain. So, maybe under a Bal-
thasarian gaze, Moltmann might come to see that the enemy is not only
Hegel, but also himself!
The eros, pathos, and kenosis, which articulate and are articulated by, a
dynamic, trinitarianly scoped inclusive narrative, constitute, for Balthasar,
the uniquely modern form of Gnosticism or Valentinianism. Even if Bal-
thasar concentrates almost exclusively on German Idealism’s German theo-
logical trajectory, it is evident that his objections to German Idealism and
thus his “Gnostic” or “Valentinian” attribution would apply not only to
Altizer’s “death of God” theology, but also to his later work which
misleadingly proceeds under the banner of “apocalyptic”.84 And given the
dependence of the early work of Mark C. Taylor’s on this brand of
theology,85 it is possible that in at least a strain of postmodern thought—
much of which identifies itself as constituted by its opposition to Hegel—
Gnosticism continues to be fecund.86
It is important to underscore that Balthasar is not claiming that in
modern philosophical and theological discourse we are witnessing an
overproduction of trinitarian reflection. He understands, as well as J. H.
Newman, Karl Rahner, and even Karl Barth, that modernity does not
represent a particularly auspicious time for trinitarian reflection of any sort.
The point is at once cultural and historical. In the modern commitment to
understanding, defined by the task of an exhaustive explanation of the
material world, mystery is the first casualty. The mystery of the Trinity is
in a particularly vulnerable position, since it seems to be a totally unnec-
essary hypothesis. Gaps in explanation are more than satisfied by straight-
forward theistic appeal. Moreover, in Protestantism appeals to scripture
and to experience at the very least tend to marginalize the doctrine.87
Meanwhile, as Balthasar recognizes, in the eighteenth and nineteenth
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630 Cyril O’Regan

centuries Catholic theology is in such a state of arrest that the Trinity gets
reduced to a mere dogma to which the believer is expected to give assent
on the say-so of Church authority.
The dominant Catholic appeal to the Trinity as a mystery represents a
reaction-formation to its evangelical and more specifically Enlightenment
marginalization, yet at the same time it inscribes much of the very
rationalism it would rebut. For it accepts the reduction of the mystery of
the Trinity to a set of propositions which although clear are beyond the real
apprehension of the unaided finite intellect, and which, accordingly, require
church authority for their justification. In the nineteenth century, on this
unpropitious Enlightenment regulated terrain, trinitarian thought makes
a conspicuous come-back. For Balthasar, however, the trinitarianism of
German Idealism represents not a cure but a deepening of the disease. With
Staudenmaier he considers Hegelian trinitarianism to be the “mythologi-
cal” obverse of rationalism, correcting it only by replacing it by an aesthetic
holism that removes its worries about the incompleteness of its task and the
burgeoning sense of human smallness. Looked at with a cold eye, this
trinitarianism is a simulacrum of the traditional trinitarian view which sees
the Trinity as an articulation of agapic love and the unique subject of
address and worship. On the fallow terrain of the Enlightenment, and
literally as its dialectical accompaniment, a mythological species of trini-
tarianism emerges which has more than one life. The mythological con-
figuration, which ultimately will reduce to monism and thus a new
configuration of Sabellianism, outlives the death of its displacement in the
social-historical discourses of Feuerbach and Marx, its oblique overcoming
in Kierkegaard, and its studied refutation in Staudenmaier. In Balthasar’s
view it continues to be present in a theologian such as Moltmann who
considers himself to have bid adieu to Hegel.

From Rhetoric to Theory

Given Balthasar’s general tendency towards prolixity, and especially his
penchant for expansive cultural history, one should not expect the case for
the priority of “Gnosticism” or “Valentinianism” over its genealogical rivals
to be made with compactness or precision. A reader has to ignore much as
extraneous throughout the trilogy in order to get at even the outline of the
basic argument. That such an argument exists, however, is beyond doubt.
Still a question to be asked is, even if the case for “Gnostic” or “Valentin-
ian” priority has been accurately extracted, how much has really been
achieved? If my reading of Balthasar is correct, then I think it fairly safe to
say that he has answered the first of our two questions fairly well. That is,
he has offered—admittedly in bits and drabs—good reasons that force us
to decide which of the three genealogical categories best describes modern
Christian discourses of a speculative vintage; so we would be sensible to
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choose “Gnostic” or “Valentinian”. Some of the reasons he offers are more

general than others, and move towards a condition of being principles. Still
Balthasar provides little by way of determining the relation between these
genealogical categories. Has “Gnosticism” definitively trumped from a
genealogical point of view, essentially revealing the other categories as
mere contenders, and putting them out of work? Or rather does “Gnosti-
cism” simply do the lion’s share of the explanatory work, and we are forced
to deploy the categories of “Neoplatonism” and “apocalyptic” as explana-
tory supplements? Or again, is the genealogist encouraged to draw the
conclusion that modern forms of Gnosticism will turn out to be inflected by
“Neoplatonism” and “apocalyptic”?
Now granted that Balthasar puts Irenaeus to brilliant use, and indicates
just how pertinent this heresiologist is for understanding not only ancient,
but also modern forms of Gnosticism, in order for Balthasar’s case to be
truly persuasive, a knowledge of the texts of Nag Hammadi is a sine qua
non. Even if happily in historiography of Gnosticism Irenaeus is once again
a credible voice, still Irenaeus’s insights must to be tested against the
available texts that escape his interpretive voice. Certainly, it is true that
historical consciousness is not lacking in Balthasar. It is clearly evinced in
the following passage in Mysterium Paschale where the topic is German
At a level incomparably higher than that of Valentinian Gnosis, we find
repeated here the same process of turning the mystery of the Cross into
a piece of philosophy, and in both cases the God-man (the primordial
Man), by his self-revelation coincides in the last analysis with the
self-understanding of man himself.88
While Balthasar clearly understands that the modern form of Gnosticism
differs from the ancient, nonetheless, it would be flattering to say that he
exhibits sufficient angst with respect to the alterity of Hellenistic Gnosti-
cism, or that he plumbs the differences between modern and ancient forms
and styles of Gnostic discourse.
To say this is to admit that Balthasar’s attribution of “Gnosticism” or
“Valentinianism” to German Idealism and its theological dissemination is
conceptually underdetermined. Even operating broadly in terms of his own
theological articulation, Balthasar would have had to do much more in
order to bring it up to genealogical code. One way to look at my Gnostic
Return in Modernity, and the project it introduces,89 is to view it as engaging
in a conceptual rehabilitation of Balthasar. This is true even if the text
speaks of rehabilitating F. C. Baur, for Balthasar operates broadly in terms
of Baur’s nineteenth-century paradigm that refuses to be previous. Gnostic
Return in Modernity demands that a “Gnostic” genealogy be tempered in
the crucible of the kind of broad and generous historicism evinced in
Blumenberg’s The Legitimacy of the Modern Age.90 At the same time, the text
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632 Cyril O’Regan

requires as a sign of good faith that historical discontinuity as well as

continuity be respected, and that no more should be claimed—although
this is hardly trivial—than that speculative forms of modern and contem-
porary thought variously instantiate a Valentinian narrative grammar that
was itself plurally instantiated in Hellenistic texts. An implication is that
the “Gnostic” genealogist abandon any notion of an Urnarrative as provid-
ing the principle of continuity between speculative discourses of the
Hellenistic and the modern fields. As the differences between classical
instances of Gnosticism are very real, differences between the inflection of
the narratives from both fields are even more so.
To account for the plurality and difference, as well as unity and conti-
nuity, I deploy two pivotal concepts. The first, as I have already indicated,
is “Valentinian narrative grammar”. The second, minted with the help of a
cognate concept in Ricoeur’s great work on narrative, is “rule-governed
deformation of classical Valentinian genres”.91 The first concept, which has
both structural linguistics and Wittgenstein as prompts, suggests that
Gnosticism allows, in both the Hellenistic and modern spheres, a variety of
lexical instances, no two of which are exactly identical. The somewhat
barbarous second concept is the complement of the first. It marks off the
difference in historical terrain between modern and ancient forms of
Gnosticism, as these are reflected in the different register or modulation of
inclusive dramatic narratives that possess what Lyotard calls the “meta-
linguistic” function of discursive self-legitimation.92 As I have indicated at
some length already in this paper, the modern register is explicitly devel-
opmental and agonistic in a way the Hellenistic is not.
In addition, in a situation of competing genealogical claims, Gnostic
Return in Modernity determines that it was not sufficient to argue the
superiority of “Gnosticism” over “Neoplatonism” and “apocalyptic”, since
this would be to put the other two categories into an interpretive no-man’s-
land. Much better is to try the questions whether and how the categories
of “Neoplatonism” and “apocalyptic” assist not so much in detracting from
the genealogical priority of “Gnosticism” discourse, but rather in enhancing
it by illustrating how a Gnostic or Valentinian narrative can enlist these
different narrative forms in the service of its own totalizing narrative
program regulated by eros, pathos, and an ironic view of kenosis. In Gnostic
Return in Modernity (chapters 4, 5) I argued that the regulation of a
discourse by a Valentinian narrative grammar not only does not prohibit,
but even encourages the enlisting of these other narrative profiles that
allow Gnostic narrative to be more positive about matter, time, and history.
That is, modern forms of Gnosticism will tend to inscribe Neoplatonism
and apocalyptic into their narrative elaboration at a much higher level than
ancient Gnosticism.93 This in turn will effect a horizontal distention of
Gnosticism that superficially one might take as a disproof of its regulative
power given antecedent assumptions about the disposition of Gnosticism
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Balthasar and Gnostic Genealogy 633

towards the static realm of perfection and its hostility to time and history.
In the end, however, it indicates rather the opposite. If we take into account
both its recessive as well as dominant tendencies, Valentinian narrative
demonstrates enormous plasticity and power of absorption. Specifically,
Valentinian narrative grammar shows significant negative capability for
expansion along the horizontal axis and affirms—in a way classical Valen-
tinianism did not—matter, time, and history.
Much more could be said, and, arguably, needs to be said, but perhaps
the under-elaborated concepts I have introduced can usefully mark con-
ceptual work that I take to represent a supplement to rather than the
replacement of Balthasar’s genealogical reflections. The genealogical
vocabulary as well as discursive terrain covered by a theory of “Gnostic
return”, would still be defined in significant part by Balthasar, even if it
were forced to go beyond him. Still, intellectual honesty demands that we
would have to face the following difficulty. Even if the general lines of
supplementation were approved of, the up-graded Balthasarian genealogy
would still have to face a final objection: the conceptual refurbishing does
little to suggest that the Gnostic genealogical model could be of extra-
theological use. Of course, it would be possible simply to accept this
limited range of application, and insist that this particular range of theo-
logical application is utility enough. It is possible for the theologian to stop
here, perhaps it is even advisable. Nonetheless, in the remaining pages I
will advance the claim that not only does the conceptually emended
Balthasarian model admit of extension to fields of non-theological dis-
course, but that it provides the very conditions of truly meaningful
genealogical deployment of “Gnosticism” in the extra-theological sphere.

By Way of a Conclusion
That the genealogical use of “Gnosticism” is at least provisionally restricted
to theological and philosophical texts with significant Christian aspiration
makes eminent sense, given the original context of use in the Hellenistic
world. Indeed, categorial determinacy is dependent in significant part on
the domain of application of “Gnosticism” being similar between Helle-
nistic and modern texts and discourses. At the same time, the application
of “Gnosticism” as a genealogical category over this fairly restricted
domain of modern Christian thought does not proscribe the application of
such categories to particular bands of modern literary and philosophical
discourse. It does suggest, however, that these categories are extended to
these domains, and that extended the same narrative criteria apply. Spe-
cifically, the category of “Gnosticism” applies only to those modern and
contemporary literary and philosophical discourses for which a reasonable
case can be made that however indirectly they recall the Christian
narrative, they recall it only to disfigure and refigure it.94 And such
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634 Cyril O’Regan

application is real rather than notional: there is the expectation that

it will in fact apply to some literary and philosophical discourses. For
instance, in the realm of literature there would be legitimate nineteenth-
and twentieth-century suspects of “Gnostic return”. Romanticism in
general falls under suspicion, given its tendentious relation to Christianity,
and specifically its tendency to re-narrate and not simply avoid the
Christian narrative.95
While it is antecedently unlikely, given the linguistic and symbolic
opportunism of Romanticism, to bring in a verdict of “Gnostic return” in
too many instances, the case of Blake would suggest itself for particular
attention, as would the historical and theoretical work of Harold Bloom,
one of Blake’s most vigorous defenders.96 Other nineteenth-century candi-
dates include the French symbolists Rimbaud and Mallarmé, and Lautréa-
ment’s fantastical Maldoror,97 which offers a sustained pastiche of the God
of the Old Testament. That trafficker in the esoteric, Borges, might also fall
under suspicion.98 Importantly, however, suspicion would not be cast on
any writer simply because his or her work appeals to the esoteric and/or
Hermetic tradition.99 Thus, excavating the debts of Emerson to the esoteric
tradition, and especially his debts to Swedenborg and Boehme, would not
be sufficient to label him a “Gnostic”. While he seems to be engaged in
constructing a humane religious alternative to confessional Christianity, it
might be sufficient simply to label him a recontructed Platonist with
pantheistic inclinations. Similarly, with the Irish poet, W. B. Yeats, whose
fondness for all things esoteric, is notorious. The weave of Blake and
Berkeley, Plotinus and Boehme would not obviously justify more than the
judgment that early and late Yeats is in the business of exploring every and
any non-transcendent alternative to Christianity.
Neither is philosophy without its candidates for “Gnostic” ascription.
Despite differences between Hegel’s work and that the late Schelling, which
the latter prides himself on, for example, the commitment to existence and
greater proximity to the tenets of traditional Christianity,100 it is not clear
that the differences are sufficient to disqualify Schelling’s later discourses
from sharing a common ascription with Hegelian thought in general.
Certainly, Kierkegaard was not so convinced that the distinctions in the end
were more than superficial.101 A significant factor in Schelling being a
suspect is his huge debt to the seventeenth-century protestant speculative
mystic, Jacob Boehme (1575–1624),102 whom Baur thought to be the site of
“Gnostic return” in the modern period,103 and thus the proximate source
of the “Gnostic” haunting of discourse in modernity. Since the Russian
religious thinkers Soloviev and Berdyaev rely so heavily on Boehme and
Schelling, they too can be regarded as suspects, although importantly no
more than suspects.104 In every case, “Gnostic” attribution ought to dem-
onstrated, not assumed. The range of extension of “Gnosticism” would not
necessarily stop here, but importantly, there would fairly strict limits.
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Balthasar and Gnostic Genealogy 635

Heidegger, for example, could possibly prove a test case for further
extension, although one would have to stick rigorously to the narrative
criteria of application. It would not be sufficient to repeat with Jonas and
Milbank that the existential ciphers of Being and Time are redolent of the
symbols of alienation to be found in Hellenistic texts.105 First, these symbols
are found in very different kinds of Hellenistic texts, for example, Neopla-
tonic, Neopythagorean, Hermetic, magical, as well as Gnostic texts. Lacking
a principle of differentiation, we are not justified in applying one label over
another. The decisive criterion would necessarily be the narrative one. As
Hellenistic Gnosticism distinguishes itself from these other Hellenistic
forms of thought in terms of its biblically decontructive narrative, so also
should modern forms. If we cannot identify a transformative narrative in
Heidegger, then it would be best to appeal to, and avail of, other categories
of analysis, both narrative and non-narrative. Perhaps Heidegger’s work
articulates a peculiar kind of apocalyptic, as Blanchot among others have
thought. Perhaps Heidegger’s thought represents a repetition of Greek
myth with critical leverage against the metaphysical tradition that follows
on it and thus is figured as fall.106
Now the fact that with respect to literary and philosophical discourses
the genealogical use of “Gnosticism” or “Valentinanism” is limited cannot
be adduced as an argument against it. Limitation is the price that has to be
paid for categorial determinacy. Categorial determinacy is a blessing a
number of times over. For one thing, it points to the need for other and
different genealogical categories of analysis for literary and philosophical
as well as theological discourses. For instance, suppose one concluded that
English and German Romanticism in general were involved in a hostile
relation to the Christian narrative, it would make a big difference whether
one judged that in its poetry Romanticism emended particular aspects of
the Christian narrative, or whether one determined that it disfigured the
Christian narrative entirely, and that on the basis of such disfiguration
wove a new metanarrative with entirely different commitments on the level
of ethos as well as vision. From a genealogical point of view only a verdict
of the dominant presence of the second kind of relation would justify the
ascription of “Gnosticism” or “Valentinianism”. By contrast, were the first
to be acknowledged as the more accurate description of Romantic dis-
courses in general, then a Romantic discourse might conceivably admit the
genealogical label of “Marcionism”, although “Marcionism” would once
again have to be regarded as a loan word or concept as it is extended
beyond the narrow confines of a decision made about the biblical text and
the narrative that it shapes or that shapes it.
Categorial determinacy is particularly a blessing when it comes to the
discourse of philosophy. In modernity, in the shape of Locke and Descartes,
philosophy weaned itself from the narrative predilection, which if not an
ineluctable in the history of philosophy, represents a watermark discernible
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636 Cyril O’Regan

in the historical Plato and all subsequent forms of Platonism as well as in

much medieval and Renaissance thought. And although there remain some
exceptions (e.g. Danto, Ricoeur), by and large contemporary thought is
largely anti-narrative, indeed, exceedingly so in analytic philosophy. Con-
temporary philosophy, both continental and analytic, remains basically
committed to the constitutive moment of its emergence from the thrall of
narrative to the open horizon of working on problems with some hope,
however quixotic, of solution. In this situation, it is unlikely that many
narrative specimens are to be found. Balthasar, however, has found some,
and dares to undertake an investigation into its narrative configuration.
Were he to have looked at the postmodern discourses of Georges Bataille
and Maurice Blanchot, for instance, maybe he would have found specimens
of Gnosticism, or Gnostic narrative grammar, quite other than that of
German Idealism and its theological elongation into the twentieth and
twenty-first centuries. I cannot be other than probative here. It would
require detailed and sophisticated analysis to adjudicate the hypothesis that
the ghost of Gnosticism haunts discourses that are not explicitly religious,
not even explicitly Christian.
The ability of a genealogical construction, minted within theology, to
extend beyond its original domain to name drifts in literary and philo-
sophical discourse provides evidence of its explanatory power. While the
conceptually refurbished Balthasarian model does not legislate in a unilat-
eral way the use of the term “Gnosticism” in other fields, it does put the
onus on these fields to come up with something better than “transgressive
hermeneutics” (Bloom), existential alienation (Jonas, Voegelin), and onto-
logical and/or anthropological dualism. Thus, while the kind of Gnostic
genealogy that can be extrapolated from Balthasar does not necessarily
demonstrate theology’s ability to “evacuate” philosophy, literary criticism,
or any other of the disciplines, it certainly witnesses its power, and reverses
the line of intellectual credit. As theology borrows methodologically and
conceptually from other disciplines, other disciplines can borrow from
theology. Both goods and necessities cut in both directions.
I have made it clear that Balthasar’s own Gnostic genealogy is in need of
the kind of theoretical and conceptual supplementation I supply in Gnostic
Return in Modernity. But, as I understand it, the supplementation is suffi-
ciently faithful to the main lines of Balthasar’s reflection on the Gnostic
character of influential modern discourses that it justifies the adjectival use
of “Balthasarian” to describe the emended model of Gnostic genealogy. In
any event, with respect to Balthasar, supplementation is almost always in
order, since the level of insight not untypically exceeds Balthasar’s ability
conceptually to articulate difficult subject matters. Balthasar’s genealogical
reflections are no exception to this rule. Balthasar clearly grasps that in
modernity Christianity experiences a crisis more internal to itself than the
Enlightenment. This is not to say, however, that one is justified in constru-
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Balthasar and Gnostic Genealogy 637

ing the Enlightenment as completely “outside”. In the end, Balthasar

recognizes as well as any modern theologian that the Enlightenment is the
paradox of the outside-inside: the barbarians at the gate have already
entered the city. Still, Balthasar senses in the line of German Idealism
another kind of crisis. This crisis is caused not so much by attenuation of
Christian vision or a diminution in the convictions behind its practices, nor
by the contraction of its scope due to steady encroachment of secular ways
of thinking and acting, but by the generation of a Doppelgänger, which deals
much more easily and successfully with the Enlightenment, because it both
presupposes it and compensates for its lack of visionary nerve. Balthasar
thinks he has seen this doubling before, and argues that, while any number
of ascriptions seem relatively adequate, in the final analysis we are wit-
nessing a “repetition” of Valentinianism, although obviously not a
re-duplication. The double is an uncanny guest, a ghost on a new and very
different historical stage of another double or doubling diagnosed by
Irenaeus. Importantly, Balthasar does reckon with the difference of the
modern age, even if unlike Blumenberg, he does not wish to isolate it from
contamination of ancient thought and ancient ways of thinking by insisting
that modernity is nothing less than a novum. Pure discontinuity is as much
a fiction as pure continuity.
In addition, Balthasar sees what many scholars of Gnosticism have not
seen, that is, the doubling is a narrative doubling. He cannot profess
disinterestedness. He agrees with Irenaeus that narrative doubling makes
Christianity other than it is, and in a truly etymological sense, it is a
dis-aster.107 The essential orbit of Christianity is not modified by a force that
interferes with it, but Christianity is taken completely out of its orbit and
in this shift an entirely new type of narrative discourse is constituted. Thus,
nothing less than everything is at stake. It is for this reason that he feels
entitled in Theo-Drama, 4, to fold the agon within history between Christ
and anti-Christ, disclosed by Revelation, with the battle between truth and
the lie figured in Against Heresies. Moreover, there is something systemic
about the battle between Christianity and what has to be classed as its
other. The reality of history suggests to Balthasar that latent in Christian
avowal is its opposite, that present potentially in the Christian narrative
that structures Christian discourse is its double. This doubling Balthasar
thinks troubles Christian discourse in the Enlightenment and the post-
Enlightenment period. Balthasar manages to lay bare the crisis constituted
by this doubling without a hint of the histrionic. This is difficult to do, as
his nineteenth- and twentieth-century precursors in Gnostic genealogical
discourse show ever so eloquently. Granting then that his views require a
more conceptually disciplined articulation, Balthasar has to be read as
providing a sound template for a viable Gnostic genealogy; one that has
both diagnostic and explanatory power and is not handicapped by apoca-
lyptic tone. Of course, it is true to say that Balthasar’s own divagations in
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638 Cyril O’Regan

Gnostic genealogy might not only have been more conceptually developed,
but also that the story of its return might have been more historically
extensive. Does the process of narrative doubling in modernity reemerge
with German Idealism, or is German Idealism itself the midpoint of a long
chain with roots that goes further back, perhaps to the sixteenth-century?
Again Balthasar provides hints as what the chain might be, but here,
arguably falls below the level of F. C. Baur, who sees Christian faith’s
replacement by a speculative metanarrative to exemplify the unfolding of
the Reformation.
Now while it is part of my main argument that Balthasar’s own short-
comings with respect to genealogy need not be “Balthasarian” shortcom-
ings, it is important once again to keep in mind the place Balthasar assigns
genealogy in his overall theology. Genealogy does not exhaust theology; at
best it is a complement to the defining task of theology. This task is
positive: conducting the symphony of tradition, as this tradition responds
to the glory of God revealed in Christ to which it can never be adequate;
as this tradition is faithful to the triune God who calls us to unrepeatable
discipleship in the hope of unsurpassable participation, and who provides
the stage in which we turn towards ourselves or transcend ourselves
towards the mystery of giving and receiving; as this tradition discloses by
the movement of God’s descent and ascent what truly living truth is to
which it is our task to correspond and outside of which we are in the far
country, the country of the would-be truth which is the lie, the country of
dissimulation, of simulacra.

1 See Jacques Derrida, “White Mythology” in Writing and Difference, translation and
introduction by Alan Bass, (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1978), pp. 207–271.
Of course, the operation of palimpsest is not the only way of representing the operation.
One might think of x-ray or magnetic resonance imaging as picking out depth-structures
that otherwise would not appear. And, of course, both of these metaphors are structural
rather than dynamic or kinetic. One can think of imaging techniques that map move-
ment rather than (as well as) structure.
2 Both Étienne Gilson and Jean-Luc Marion fully recognize that with Descartes something
new enters philosophy, or even that philosophy undergoes something of a mutation. For
all that Cartesian thought remains sufficiently anchored in classical, and especially
medieval thought, not to constitute an entirely new entity. The classic statement of
Gilson’s thesis is Études sure le role de la pensée médiévale dans la formation du système
cartésien (Paris: Vrin, 1930). The thesis had a long shelf-life and was recycled by Gilson’s
students. For example, Henri Gaston Gouhier articulated the Augustinian, Thomistic,
and Humanistic dimensions of Descartes’s thought in a number of monographs. See
especially, La pensée religiouse de Descartes (Paris: Vrin, 1972). Marion’s specific agenda in
all his four works on Descartes is the critical assessment of Heidegger’s claim that
Descartes remains fundamentally within the metaphysical tradition. While at some level
the critical assessment will bear on the question of whether Descartes’s method and his
epistemology have metaphysical commitments, Marion does not foreswear the kind of
literary-critical apparatus of the Gilsonian school that both contextualized Descartes’s

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Balthasar and Gnostic Genealogy 639

arguments and put them in the perspective of late medieval discussions and debates.
Typical of Marion’s work in this respect is Sur l’ontologie grise de Descartes: Science
cartésienne et savoir aristotélicien dans les Regulae (Paris: Vrin, 1975).
3 Nietzsche’s anti-Platonism is a constitutive feature of his work. Nietzsche inveighs
against the split between an upper and lower world, the one associated with eternity,
reality, and value, the other with time, appearance, and disvalue. For him, this Platonic
split is constitutive of the entire history of philosophy and replicates itself throughout,
having distinguished modern representatives in Leibniz, Kant, and Schopenhauer.
Nietzsche also insists that Christianity inscribes this split, even as it brings out much
more clearly the invidious and life-denying existential consequences. Heidegger simply
follows Nietzsche in this respect, and it is no accident that Heidegger’s most declarative
pronouncements on the history of philosophy being essentially its history of Platonism
occur in the context of his interpretation of Nietzsche. See especially Nietzsche. Volume 4:
Nihilism, Frank A. Cappuzi, translated and edited by David Farrell Krell, (San Francisco,
CA: Harper & Row, 1982), esp. pp. 151–161, 200–210.
4 Catherine Pickstock and Conor Cunningham articulate related versions of this view. For
Cunningham, see Genealogy of Nihilism (London and New York: Routledge, 2002), pp.
15–56 and for Pickstock, After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy
(Oxford: Blackwell, 1998), pp. 121–135. In different ways and to different extents Duns
Scotus’s commitment to the univocity of being is taken to be a precursor of nominalism
with its orientation towards the particular and its evacuation of the divine from the
visible universe. Both Pickstock and Cunningham are influenced by John Milbank on
the general point about Scotus and nominalism representing a rupture suffered by
medieval thought and the inauguration of modernity. For an example of this accusation,
see Milbank’s essay, “Only Theology Overcomes Metaphysics” in The Word Made
Strange: Theology, Language, and Culture (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), pp. 36–52, esp. pp. 41,
44. It should also be pointed out that Balthasar himself suggests that Scotus and
nominalism represent a rupture. This is so especially in The Glory of the Lord. A
Theological Aesthetics. Volume 5. The Realm of Metaphysics in the Modern Age, translated by
Oliver Davies, Andrew Louth, Brian McNeil C. R. V., John Saward and Rowan Williams,
edited by Brian McNeil C. R. V. and John Riches, (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press,
1991), pp. 16–21. Importantly, however, Balthasar makes neither of the following two
claims: (i) that the rupture represented by Scotus and Ockham represent is the only
important one; (ii) that nominalism is the regulative force of modernity. With these
qualifications, it is true to say that Balthasar’s view relates much more closely to the
distinct versions of radical orthodoxy than it does to Hans Blumenberg’s view of the
importance of nominalism for modern thought. The genealogical views of radical
orthodoxy and Balthasar are all in Blumenberg’s terms “substantialist” in that all of
them envisage some degree of actual continuity between nominalist ideas, and the
practices they support, and influential ideas and practice of the modern age. By
contrast, Blumenberg’s view is anti-substantialist or functional. There is no substantial
continuity between the ideas and practices of nominalism and the ideas and practices
of modernity. Rather there is a dialectical relation between modernity and the nomi-
nalist period. Nominalism, especially in the form of theological voluntarism, rather than
providing a set of ideas and attendant practices with which modernity works, is
understood as a position that demands to be overcome and is overcome in modernity.
The relation is functional in that nominalism is construed as a wrong answer to a
question of the relation between the divine and the world which continues to need to
be asked. And it is dialectical—although in a non-Hegelian way—in modernity’s vision
of nature as occupying the position held in nominalism by God. See Hans Blumenberg,
The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, Robert M. Wallace, trans., (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press,
1985), pp. 145–179.
5 The work of Johann L. Mosheim provides a good example. See especially his Intitutionem
historiae ecclesiasticae (Helmstedt: C. W. Weygand, 1755). Mosheim’s work had influence
in England as well as on the continent in the latter part of the eighteenth century.
Mosheim, however, had predecessors. It was Gottfried Arnold who made the alterna-
tives to mainline Christianity available to the general public almost sixty years before.
See Unparteiissche Kirchen und Ketzerhistorie (Hildesheim: Olms, 1967). Original publica-

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tion was 1697. Obviously as a critical term “Gnosticism” has had a long shelf-life in
Catholicism as a heresiological category.
6 Eric Voegelin has put into circulation more than one ascription of modern discourses,
and especially modern political discourses. He has spoken of modern discourses as
being messianic and apocalyptic, and drawn attention in a general way to Hermeticism.
But famously he has spoken of modern discourses as being “gnostic”. The following
represents only a selection of texts where “gnostic” attribution can be found. Science,
Politics, and Gnosticism: Two Essays (Chicago, IL: Regnery, 1968), pp. 40–44, 67–79–80; New
Science of Politics: An Introduction (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press,
1982), pp. 112–113, 124, 136; From Enlightenment to Revolution, John H. Hallowell, ed.,
(Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1975), pp. 240–302.
7 See, for example, Thomas Altizer’s critical review of Voegelin’s use in “The Theological
Conflict between Strauss and Voegelin” in Faith and Political Philosophy: The Correspondence
between Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin, 1934–64, translated and edited by Peter Emberley and
Barry Cooper, (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania University Press, 1993), pp. 267–277.
8 A number of Gnosticism scholars have complained about vagueness in definition.
Michael Allen Williams argues that the category is not only useless with respect to
modern texts, but with respect to texts of the Hellenistic period. See his Rethinking
“Gnosticism”; An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category (Princeton, NJ: Princeton
University Press, 1996). Two scholars more interested in the criteria of application to
modern discourses are Richard Smith and Ioan P. Culianu. See Smith, “The Modern
Relevance of Gnosticism” in The Nag Hammadi Library in English, edited by James
Robinson, rev. ed. (San Francisco, CA: Harper and Row, 1988), pp. 532–549; Culianu,
“The Gnostic Revenge: Gnosticism and Romantic Literature” in Religionstheorie und
Politische Theologie, Band 2, Gnosis und Politik (Munich: Wilhelm Fink/Ferdinand Schön-
ingh, 1984), pp. 290–306.
9 See Eric Voegelin, New Science of Politics: An Introduction (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana
State University Press, 1982).
10 Jung’s corpus is replete with discussion of the esoteric tradition, as this tradition bears
on the symbolism that is accessed in dreams and the psycho-therapeutic situation.
Arguably, Jung’s most important text in this regard is Aion. See The Collected Works of
C. G. Jung, Vol. 9, edited by Herbert Read, Michael Fordham, and Gerhard Adler (London:
Routledge, Kegan Paul, 1957). The importance of Jung for both an understanding of
ancient Gnosticism and its contemporary recovery has received widespread commentary.
See in particular, Gilles Quispel, “Jung und die Gnosis”, Eranos Jahrbuch Vol. 37 (1968),
pp. 277–298; see also Gerard Hanratty, “The Gnostic Psychology of C. G. Jung” in Studies
in Gnosticism and the Philosophy of Religion (Dublin, Ireland: Four Courts Press, 1997),
pp. 128–142.
11 F. C Baur, Die christliche Gnosis: Oder, Die christliche Religionsphilosophie in ihrer geschictli-
chen Entwicklung (Tübingen: Osiander, 1835).
12 In contemporary scholarship on Gnosticism, Baur is dismissed as antidiluvian. Baur does
not have sufficient knowledge of the sources—only some of this is his fault since the did
not have Nag Hammadi available; Baur does not sufficiently distinguish between ancient
thought forms, for example, Gnosticism, Neoplatonism, Neopythagoreanism, and his
legacy is mischievous in this respect; and Baur makes the fatal error of trying to explain
the modern by means of the ancient, which is decried as not taking Gnosticism’s
particularity seriously enough (by implication it is not to take the particularity of
modernity seriously enough). Historicism is the regnant orthodoxy in Gnostic studies as
it tends also to be in a thinker such as Hans Blumenberg who demands that modernity
be understood on its own terms.
13 Möhler’s reflection on Gnosticism predated that of Baur, but was significantly more
connected with heresiological reflection. See his 1825 text Die Einheit und der Kirche
recently translated as Unity in the Church or the Principle of Catholicism: Presented in the
Spirit of the Church Fathers of the First Three Centuries, edited and translated by Peter Erb,
(Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1996), pp. 161, 164, 288. See
Franz Anton Staudenmaier, Zum religiösen Frieden der Zukunft mit Rücksicht auf die
religiö-politische Aufgabe der Gegenwart, 3 Vols. (Tübingen: Minerva, 1846–1851), pp.

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14 For the Protestant identification of modern Gnosticism, see Staudenmaier, Zum religiösen
Frieden, pp. 109–116. For the identification of its apogee with Hegel, see pp. 360–367.
15 In Zum religiösen Frieden, in the light of the revolution of 1848, Staudenmaier suggests that
left-wing Hegelianism and revolutionary movements in general evince a Gnostic spirit.
16 See Voegelin, New Science of Politics, pp. 112–113. See also Science, Politics, and Gnosticism,
pp. 40–44, 67–70; and especially From Enlightenment to Revolution, pp. 240–302 which
deals with modern progressive ideologies such as Marxism.
17 See Blumenberg, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age.
18 See Thomas Altizer, Genesis and Apocalypse: A Theological Voyage toward Authentic Chris-
tianity (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1990); also The Genesis of God: A
Theological Genealogy (Louisville, KY: Westminister/John Knox Press, 1993). For Arthur
Versluis, see “Christian Theosophic Literature of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Cen-
turies” in Gnosis and Hermeticism From Antiquity to Modern Times, edited by Roelof van
der Broeck and Wouter J. Hanegraff, (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press,
1983), pp. 217–237.
19 See Thomas Altizer, “The Theological Conflict between Strauss and Voegelin”.
20 See Arthur Versluis, “Voegelin’s Anti-Gnosticism and the Origins of Totalitarianism”,
Telos No. 124 (Summer, 2002), pp. 173–182.
21 Irenaeus, Against Heresies in The Anti-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 9, edited by Allan Menzies
(New York, NY: Christian Literature, 1896).
22 Hans Jonas, The Gnostic Religion: The Message of the Alien God and the Beginnings of
Christianity, rev. ed. (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1963).
23 Georges Bataille, Inner Experience, translated and introduced by Leslie Anne Boldt
(Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1988), pp. 51–61, 101–111.
24 See John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason (Oxford: Blackwell,
1990), pp. 189, 302, 311.
25 See Hans Jonas, “Delimitation of the Gnostic Phenomenon: Typological and Historical”
in The Origins of Gnosticism, edited by U. Bianchi (Leiden: Brill, 1967), pp. 90–108.
26 Not to say that Jonas is totally disinterested in Christian discourse. Certainly he is very
interested in how classical discourse fares.
27 John Milbank, “The Second Difference” in The Word Made Strange, pp. 171–193, esp. pp.
180–183. In discussing what he takes to be a speculative take-over of the Trinity in
contemporary Protestant trinitarian thought of Moltmann and Jüngel, Milbank speaks of
this form of trinitarianism as “gnostic” in that it enacts a dramatic theodicy. Milbank’s
considerations in this essay are continuous with his reflections on Hegel in Theology and
Social Theory, pp. 147–176. There Milbank characterized Hegel’s religiously inflected
thought as reflective of the gnostic myth of the self-estranged and redeemed self (p. 160),
the most influential modern version of which is provided by the Lutheran German
mystic, Jacob Boehme (1575–1624) (see pp. 148, 170).
28 Balthasar expands in two different ways. The first is the somewhat trivial chronological
expansion. Balthasar looks at some twentieth-century discourses as candidates. The
second point is non-trivial. Balthasar is prepared to take a close look at certain kinds of
discourse that might well have been passed over by Baur or Staudenmaier, that is,
religious discourses that appear, like Moltmann’s, to be grounded in scripture.
29 Throughout Balthasar’s work are to be found scattered, critical references to the German
kenoticists G. Thomasius and F. H. R. Frank who support an essentialist view of divine
emptying. See Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory. Volume 5: The Last Act, translated
by Graham Harrison, (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1998), pp. 223–224.
30 Balthasar makes explicit the connection between Valentinianism and Hegelianism
outside as well as inside his trilogy. See especially Mysterium Paschale: The Mystery of
Easter, Aiden Nichols, trans., (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing
Company, 1990), p. 62; see also pp. 63–65.
31 The tradition as symphonic response is illustrated by Balthasar’s entire oeuvre, his
historical as well as his more systematic work. Balthasar’s historical work is animated by
the concern to put into play as many valuable perspectives on Christian mystery as
possible. Of course, it is the trilogy that gives the clearest demonstration of Balthasar’s
conviction that as the object of Christian faith Christ provokes multiple and endless
interpretations which at the same time avoids incoherence. The Glory of the Lord Volume

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1 lays this down as an essential rule, which is exemplified not only in the treatment of
clerical and lay styles in volumes 2 and 3, but also in volumes 4 and 5. The same can
be said about other two parts of the trilogy. The summary statement of the symphonic
pluralism of the Christian tradition is provided by Balthasar’s little text, Truth is
Symphonic: Aspects of Christian Pluralism, Graham Harrison, trans., (San Francisco, CA:
Ignatius Press, 1987). See my article, “Balthasar: Between Tübingen and Post-
Modernity”, Modern Theology Vol. 14. no. 3 (July, 1998), pp. 25–53.
32 There is any number of sites for this avowal in Balthasar’s work. Two of the most
pertinent are The Glory of the Lord. Volume 1 and Theologik 2. For references to the agency
of the Spirit as witnessing to Christ as the objective center of faith, see GL, 1, pp. 134,
166, 188, 196–197, 201, 231, 240–241, 248–250, 295, 355, 409–414, 493–494, 530, 541–556,
601, 605–606.
33 Balthasar’s division between “clerical” and “lay” styles of theology in volumes 2 and 3
of The Glory of the Lord suggest a genealogical thesis in which at the end of High
Scholasticism the banner was passed from ecclesiastic theologians to religious thinkers
who, working in numerous different genres, provide insight well beyond what is
achieved in forms of discourse that either continued the sedimented tradition or
emended it. These religious thinkers include poets Dante, Hopkins and Péguy, the
mystic, John of the Cross, and the Russian religious thinker Vladimir Soloviev. This
rupture is marked by an emergent rationalism that takes a number of different forms. In
GL, 5, while Scotus and Ockham are to the fore, even Meister Eckhart, who, however,
different in background and temperament he is to Scotus, is implicated, since he is taken
to endorse a form of the univocity of being that bleeds the world and self of a truly
transcendent horizon. Structurally this rupture is marked by amnesia. One should be
careful, however, of thinking that Balthasar has unequivocally endorsed the view that
forgetfulness ensued at a particular point in history. GL, 5 also makes it clear that certain
species of Christian Neoplatonism, specifically the form of Christian Neoplatonism
where the Neoplatonic narrative of exitus-reditus holds sway, may represent amnesia. If
in GL, 5, Balthasar is specifically troubled by the possibility that German Idealism
constitutes a repetition of Proclus, the worry is more general and concerns the discourses
of Evagrius and also Pseudo-Dionysius. Although in GL, 2, Balthasar actually exonerates
Pseudo-Dionysius, this represents a retraction of the position he articulated in his much
earlier book on Maximus the Confessor. Indeed, the problems of Christian adoption and
adaptation of Hellenistic discourses goes back even to the first four centuries. In GL, 1,
Balthasar offers a very appreciative estimate of Origen. Similarly, throughout The Glory
of the Lord references to Gregory of Nyssa are overwhelmingly positive. Still, this should
not disguise the fact that Balthasar is deeply concerned with Origen’s view of the
pre-existent soul and his anthropology in general, and he is also concerned with the
radicality of apophasis in Nyssa. Thus, forgetfulness shadows anamnesis from the very
34 Balthasar’s allergy to method as a discourse of foundations is general. It applies to
certain varieties of Scholastic thought (Scotus and Ockham), to Neo-Scholasticism, to
transcendental method in theology, and to experiential or political models of theology.
Moreover, the allergy is there from the beginning, and is reflected in a more hermeneutic
style of theology. In the trilogy, however, it could be argued that the allergy to method
as foundational discourse is more intentional, and reflects the influence of Barth. At the
same time, if it is understood that in The Glory of the Lord Balthasar is involved in a
concerted conversation with Heidegger who condemns the entire metaphysical tradition
as that which provides grounds, then not only Balthasar’s claim at the end of GL, 1 to
the effect that love goes beyond being, but also his style, represent indicators of the
overcoming of metaphysics. See GL, 1 and GL, 5; see also Cyril O’Regan, “Von
Balthasar’s Valorization and Critique of Heidegger’s Genealogy of Modernity” in Chris-
tian Spirituality and the Culture of Modernity (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans
Publishing Company, 1998), pp. 123–158.
35 Balthasar, Die Apokalypse der deutschen Seele: Studien zu einer Lehre von letzen Haltungen,
3 Vols. (Salzburg: Pustet, 1937–39).
36 Karl Löwith, From Hegel to Nietzsche: The Revolution in Nineteenth Century Thought, David
E. Green, trans., (New York: Doubleday, 1967).

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37 While Balthasar links Jüngel with Moltmann, it is interesting that he does not offer the
kind of sustained analysis of Jüngel that he does of Moltmann. This could be purely
accidental. More likely, however, it reflects his sense of their very different agendas.
Arguably, it is Jüngel’s significantly greater commitment to the theological tradition and
his proximity to Barth that makes Balthasar somewhat uncomfortable in labeling him a
disciple of Hegel. This despite Jüngel’s very positive account in God as the Mystery of the
World of the possibility of Hegelian thought to frame a theology in which the appearance
of God sub contrario is brought to a new level of explicitness.
38 Balthasar makes it clear that this is an important concern in his important 1939 article,
“Patristik, Scholastik und Wir” in Die Theologie der Zeit (Vienna) Vol. 3 (1939), pp. 65–104.
See translation by Edward T. Oakes S. J., “The Fathers, the Scholastics, and Ourselves”,
Communio Vol. 24 no. 2 (Summer, 1997), pp. 347–396). This concern applies in a very
obvious way to Evagrius and Origen, both of whom Balthasar writes on in the late
thirties and early forties. Evagrius remains a concern throughout the forties, while the
reading of Origen is complicated. On the one hand, Origen is sufficiently Christian and
sacramental to justify an anthology. See Origenes: Geist und Feuer Ein Aufbau aus seiner
Schriften (1941), trans. Robert J. Daley, Origen, Spirit and Fire: A Thematic Anthology of his
Writings (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1984). Balthasar also
has concerns as to the christological density of both Gregory of Nyssa and Pseudo-
Dionysius. See his Présence et pensée: Essai sur la philosophie religiouse de Grégoire de Nysse
(Paris: G. Beauchesne et ses fils, 1942). See English translation by Marc Sebanc, Presence
and Though: Essay on the religious thought of Gregory of Nyssa (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius
Press, 1995). For example, in Kosmiche Liturgie: Das Weltbilt Maximus’ des Bekenners
(Einsiedeln, Switzerland: Johannes-Verlag, 1941), Pseudo-Dionysius is contrasted unfa-
vorably with Maximus on a whole range of issues, the low christological index being
especially problematic. See the English translation by Brian Daley, Cosmic Liturgy: The
Universe according to Maximus the Confessor (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2003).
39 One of the most salient features of Kosmische Liturgie is how Pseudo-Dionysius is read
as contrasting unfavorably with Maximus across the board (creation, Trinity, church,
theological language, etc.) but especially with respect to christological index. By contrast,
in Glory of the Lord, 2, Pseudo-Dionysius is presented as an exemplary christological
theologian. On the tension between views, see Cyril O’Regan, “Von Balthasar and Thick
Retrieval: Post-Chalcedonian Symphonic Theology”, Gregorianum Vol. 77 no. 2 (1996), pp.
227–260, esp. pp. 226–245.
40 The apocalyptic predilection of Metz lacks the speculative and trinitarian framework of
Balthasar. Positively it represents his commitment to the Christian vision of salvation in
and through the passion and death of Jesus Christ. Negatively, the visionary element
represents a break with Rahner’s non-apocalyptic theology while at the same time it sets
itself against any and all forms of eschatological discourse with a strong teleological and
thus theodicy orientation. Metz expressed his appreciation for Balthasar’s mode of
thought on more than one occasion. See “Theology versus Polymythicism: A Short
Apology for Biblical Monotheism” in A Passion for God: The Mystical-Political Dimension
of Christianity, Matthew Ashley, trans., (New York, NY: Paulist Press, 1998), pp. 72–91.
The basic difference remains, however, that epistemologically Metz continues to be more
or less Rahnerian even in—or especially in—his narrative-praxis commitments. He is
worried about the gnoseological ambitions that go with trinitarian configuration of the
paschal mystery. For a sensible reflection on the relation-difference between Balthasar
and Metz relation, see Kevin Mongrain, The Systematic Thought of Hans Urs von Balthasar:
An Irenaean Retrieval (New York, NY: Crossroad, 2002), p. 231. The difference between
Balthasar and Milbank, however, depends on a different relation to Augustine’s apoca-
lyptic as this is focused in Books 20–22 of De civitate dei and distinct ratios of allegiance
to the iconic dimension. As is well-known from Theology and Social Theory on, Milbank’s
basic ideational framework is the vision of tension between civitas terraenae and civitas
dei provided by Augustine as his reading of the biblical narrative from the perspective
of Revelation. From Milbank’s point of view, Augustine provides a determinate and
coordinating vision which can be asserted as true, even if it cannot be justified as such.
The difference here between Milbank and Balthasar is small but important. Although
Balthasar has some difficulties with the particulars of Augustine’s eschatology, he

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embraces the agonistic profile. What he has problems with is the implied claim to
knowledge, which it happens is so exigent in Milbank. The other issue is the difference
between the iconic and the poetic. For Balthasar, Revelation is important because of its
iconism not despite it. For it is precisely its brand of iconism that frames and legitimates
drama. If there are hints in Milbank’s work that he thinks that Balthasar is reductively
aesthetic, Ben Quash makes explicit the objection of the historical and poetical deficit of
Balthasar’s mode of apocalyptic theology. See Ben Quash, “ ‘Between the Brutely Given,
and the Brutally Banally Free’: Balthasar’s Theology of Drama in Dialogue with Hegel”,
Modern Theology Vol. 13 no. 3 (July, 1997), pp. 293–318.
41 Throughout Theo-Drama Balthasar uses “epic” in two different senses. The narrower and
more precise sense is that of a narrative or metanarrative configuration that has as its
subject the self-constitution of the divine. The broader sense refers to any theology that
abstracts from and stands above the dramatic and existential situation in which com-
munities and individuals find themselves. In this sense, theologies of a transcendental
stripe are “epic”. While the language here is specifically Balthasarian, the objections
mirror similar objections made by Metz and Milbank against transcendental theology.
Arguably, the second volume of Theo-Drama makes the point with the greatest clarity. See
Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory: 2: Dramatis Personae: Man in God, Graham
Harrison, trans., (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1990), pp. 9, 46–47, 62, 125, 302.
42 Baur connects Hegelianism with Platonism in Die christliche Gnosis. See also Die christliche
Lehre von der Dreieinigkeit und Menchwerdung Gottes in ihrer geschictlichen Entwicklung. Vol.
3. Die neuere Geschichte des Dogma, von der Reformation bis in der neueste Zeit (Tübingen:
Osiander, 1843).
43 See Staudenmaier, Die Philosophie des Christenthums, oder Metaphysik der heiligen Schrift als
Lehre von den göttlichen Ideen un ihrer Entwicklung in Nature, Geist und Geschichte, Band 1:
Lehre von der Idee (Giessen: Minerva, 1840), pp. 222–242; 176–226.
44 Without acknowledgment Voegelin follows on Staudenmaier’s Zum religiösen Frieden,
vol. 3, pp. 116–137 in this respect. The affirmation of apocalyptic is a constant
throughout Voegelin’s work, and he makes little attempt to distinguish it from
“Gnostic”. Voegelin’s treatment of Hegel and Marx in From Enlightenment to Revolution
(pp. 240–302) gives a particularly good example of this blurring of boundaries. This
blurring has been noted by political philosophers such as Gregor Sebba and David
Walsh who are admirers of Voegelin. See Gregor Sebba, “History, Modernity and
Gnosticism” in Peter-Joachim Opitz, Gregor Sebba, Eric Voegelin, The Philosophy of
Order: Essays on History, Consciousness, and Politics, (Stuttgart, Germany: Klett-Cotta,
1981), pp. 190–241, esp. p. 232; David Walsh, After Ideology: Recovering the Spiritual
Foundations of Freedom (San Francisco, CA: Harper and Row, 1990), pp. 108, 194. See
also Gerard Hanratty, Studies in Gnosticism and the Philosophy of Religion (Dublin,
Ireland: Fourcourts Press, 1997), pp. 47–54.
45 Balthasar does not enlist Kierkegaard in his genealogical project. The explanation for this
is plausibly because Kierkegaard himself has been implicated in a deformation of the
aesthetic in GL, 1. But Kierkegaard’s attack against Hegelian Vermittlung in Philosophical
Fragments and elsewhere must be regarded as an attempted overcoming of the Hegelian
system, since Vermittlung is essentially a synecdoche for the system as a whole. In this
sense, Kierkegaard really is on the same level as Baur and Staudenmaier.
46 See Jean François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, Geoff
Bennington and Brian Massumi, trans., (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota
Press, 1984).
47 In Balthasar the connection between theology and rhetoric is more or less implicit. The
connection is made with considerably more force in the work of John Milbank, who
adduces Hamann and Vico as exemplars. It is especially interesting that Hamann, who
unlike Kierkegaard did not separate the aesthetic from the religious, is a pivotal figure
for both. For Balthasar, see The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics. Volume 3: Studies
in Theological Styles: Lay Styles, translated Andrew Louth, John Saward, Martin Simon
and Rowan Williams; edited by John Riches (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), pp.
239–278. For Milbank, see his essay, “Pleonasm, Speech and Writing” in The Word Made
Strange, pp. 55–83, esp. pp. 74–79. Interestingly, in the case of both Balthasar and
Milbank, Hamann’s inclusive but deeply Christian thought in which Christ is the

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principle of concentration of all reality and discourse is suggested to be just the opposite
to German Idealism which succeeds him.
48 See Darstellung und Kritik des Hegelschen Systems: Aus dem Standpunkte der christlichen
Philosophie (Mainz: Kupferberg, 1844). See also Zum religiösen Frieden der Zukunft, Band
3, pp. 360–367.
49 See Zum religiösen Frieden der Zukunft, Band 3, p. 415.
50 I have discussed this point at some length in Gnostic Return in Modernity (Albany, NY:
SUNY Press, 2001), pp. 148–159.
51 At the same time, in Against Heresies Irenaeus does not spare the so-called gnostikoi. For
example, they are “liars” (1. Preface), “depraved”(3.2), “riddled with pride” and “per-
verse.” (2.1.1.).
52 By far the most comprehensive account of Balthasar’s general debt to Irenaeus is
provided by Kevin Mongrain, The Systematic Thought of Hans Urs von Balthasar (2002). It
is not Mongrain’s brief to argue that Irenaeus is mentioned more than other patristic
writers or that he exercises more influence on a particular topic. Rather what he wants
to argue is that the essential architecture of Balthasar’s thought is Irenaean in that it is
committed to a salvation history narrative that is extracted from scripture as the text of
the church and as this narrative is pitted against rival speculative narratives that pretend
to be Christian. For a succinct outline of the overall thesis, see chapter 1, “True Gnosis
and the Corpus Triforme,” pp. 27–52.
53 See my discussion of what I consider to a blind-spot of Irenaeus in Gnostic Return in
Modernity, pp. 159–167.
54 The polyphony of the tradition is such, however, that it constitutes a symphony.
Balthasar has recourse to the image of symphony on a number of occasions. There is,
therefore, something like resolution into unity. See his small text Truth is Symphonic. See
also Cyril O’Regan, “Between Tübingen and Postmodernity”, Modern Theology Vol. 14 no.
3 (July, 1998), pp. 325–353.
55 The “mushroom” image in book 1 of Against Heresies is intended to capture both the
sense of proliferation and the emergence from “dank” conditions. Moreover, mushrooms
can be regarded as essentially parasitic. All of this suits Irenaeus’s rhetorical as well as
diagnostic purposes.
56 The Scandal of the Incarnation: Irenaeus Against the Heresies. Selected with introduction by
Hans Urs von Balthasar. Trans. John Saward, (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1990),
p. 1.
57 Balthasar is unwilling to dissociate the Reformation from Hegelian thought. At one level,
he tends simply to hoist Hegel on his own petard with respect to an association Hegel
articulates in both Lectures on the Philosophy of History and The Philosophy of Right—
although, of course, Moltmann’s The Crucified God helps considerably here. Here Hege-
lianism represents nothing but the evolution of the Reformation principle of autonomy,
which becomes self-conscious in the Enlightenment. At another level, Balthasar wishes
to suggest more nearly a dialectical relationship between Luther’s nominalist fideism
(which he points to in GL, 1) and Hegel’s speculative panentheism, in which a
quintessentially non-aesthetic form of theology gives way to an aesthetic form of
theology which lacks christological ballast, betrays the analogia entis, and wrecks havoc
on the Christian narrative. Again, it is interesting that in pursuing both tracks Balthasar
once again repeats Franz Anton Staudenmaier, although with a decidedly more chris-
tological accent. As with any number of cultural critics and historians of Romanticism
and German Idealism (e.g. Hans Blumenberg), Balthasar thinks that both movements
represent self-aggrandizing and a correlative displacement of the theistic God found to
be defective on existential and moral grounds.
58 One of the primary tasks of Gnostic Return in Modernity is to show this. See especially
pp. 118–159.
59 Hans Blumenberg, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age. See especially the very important
part 4 of the text in which Blumenberg discusses the contribution of both Cusa and
Bruno with respect to modernity, specifically its understanding of the divinity of the
world and the potential divinity of the self (pp. 457–596).
60 Here I am availing of the language Claude Bruaire uses with respect to the divine as gift.
Bruaire elaborates his speculative theology of gift in a number of texts in the late 1970s

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and early 1980s. His exemplary text is L’être et l’esprit (Paris: PUF, 1983). Bruaire patterns
his language after that of Plotinus, even if Plotinus falls someway short of the kind of
gratuity that Bruaire recommends and that he professes to see in the idea of creation and
the articulation of the triune God. Bruaire has especially in mind the language Plotinus
uses in his reflection on the Good in Enneads 5.3.15. (See p. 100).
61 While these concerns recur, they are truly focused in GL, 5. See my discussion of
Balthasar’s concerns in “Balthasar and Eckhart: Theological Principles and Catholicity”,
The Thomist Vol. 60 no. 2 (April, 1996), pp. 1–37.
62 See, for example, Milbank’s reflection on the adaptation of Proclus by Pseudo-Dionysius
in his essay, “Ecclesiology: The Last of the Last” in Being Reconciled: Ontology and Pardon
(Oxford: Blackwell, 2003), pp. 105–137, esp. 127–130.
63 For Marx, see in particular, GL, 5, pp. 591, 599; TD, 4, pp. 440–441. For Liberation
theology, see TD, 4, pp. 440–442. In the context of Theo-Drama Balthasar brings out the
association of Liberation theology with Marxism, and via Marx with Hegel and Joachim.
Thus, Liberation theology becomes capable of being inserted into lines of deficient
apocalyptic (messianism) or Gnosticism. A somewhat less critical perspective, which
avoids plotting Liberation theology in a genealogical line, is illustrated in “Liberation
Theology in Light of Salvation History” in James V. Schall, ed., Liberation Theology in
Latin America (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1982), pp. 131–146. For good succinct
discussion of Balthasar’s reading of both Marx and Liberation Theology, see Mongrain,
The Systematic Thought of Hans Urs von Balthasar, pp. 144–149, 166–174.
64 Louis Althusser, For Marx, Ben Brewster, trans., (London: Allen Lane, Penguin Press,
1963); Louis Althusser and Etienne Balibar, Reading Capital, Ben Brewster, trans.,
(London: NLB, 1972).
65 See TD, 4, p. 458, but especially The Theology of Henri de Lubac: An Overview (San Francisco:
Ignatius Press, 1991), pp. 124–125. Of course, intellectual debts with respect to the
figuration of modern apocalyptic thought cuts both ways. De Lubac’s own reflections are
influenced by Balthasar’s Apokalypse der deutschen Seele. Interestingly, Balthasar touches
only very lightly, if at all, on a fundamental point of de Lubac’s thesis, namely, that
Protestantism is the main carrier of Joachimism from the sixteenth century on. Undoubt-
edly, however, such a thesis would be congenial to Balthasar. I comment on the Protestant
trajectory with specific reference to Jacob Boehme as an especially important conduit in
Gnostic Apocalypse: Jacob Boehme’s Haunted Narrative (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2002), pp.
161–176. As I endorse de Lubac’s reading, however, I also endorse that of Majorie Reeves.
See Reeves, Joachim of Fiore and the Prophetic Future (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1977),
pp. 136 ff. Like Ernst Bloch, whose eschatological ruminations Balthasar resists, Reeves
thinks that an important aspect of Joachim’s heritage is the Left-Wing of the Reformation,
which also has to be taken into account in modern messianic movements.
66 See J. B. Quash, “ ‘Between the Brutely Given, and the Brutally, Banally Free’ ”, Modern
Theology (1997), pp. 293–318; see also Quash, “Drama and the Ends of Modernity” in
Balthasar at the end of Modernity, edited by Lucy Gardiner, David Moss, Ben Quash, and
Graham Ward (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1999), pp. 139–171.
67 See Steffen Lösel, “Unapocalyptic Theology: History and Eschatology in Balthasar’s
Theo-Drama”, Modern Theology Vol. 17 no. 2 (April, 2001), pp. 201–225; see also Steffen
Lösel, “A Plain Account of Christian Salvation? Balthasar on Sacrifice, Solidarity, and
Substitution” in Pro Ecclesia Vol. 12 no. 2 (Spring, 2003), pp. 141–171.
68 The Scandal of the Incarnation: Irenaeus Against the Heresies, John Saward, trans., (San
Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1990), pp. 1, 5. Genealogy presupposes heresiology, yet
given the complexity of both Christianity and its simulacra, even when evaluation is the
69 See Balthasar, Mysterium Paschale, pp. 61, 63–65.
70 I have Kant of Religion and Schleiermacher of the Glaubenslehre particularly in mind. For
a lucid account of the trajectory of the Trinity in modern Protestant thought from the
Reformation to Barth, see Samuel M. Powell, The Trinity in Modern German Thought
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001). For Schleiermacher, see pp. 87–102.
71 Wolfhart Pannenberg, “Die Subjektivität Gottes und die Trinitätslehre. Ein Beziehung
zwischen Karl Barth und die Philosophie Hegels”, Kerygma und Dogma Vol. 23 (1977), pp.

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72 See the exceptions Balthasar mentions in TD, 5, pp. 216–223. These include Origen,
Tertullian, Lactantius, Gregory Thaumatugos, and Maximus.
73 See in particular Graham Ward, “Kenosis, Death, Discourse and Resurrection” in
Balthasar and the End of Modernity, pp. 15–68.
74 This point has been made by a number of Communio Catholics. They include Xavier
Tillette and Emilio Brito. See especially Emilio Brito, La christologie de Hegel: Verbum
Crucis (Paris: Beauchesne, 1983), pp. 18, 551–552; Emilio Brito, Hegel et la tâche actuelle de
la théologie (Paris: Lethielleux, 1979), p. 10.
75 See, for example, TD, 3, pp. 300, 303. For a good discussion of urkenosis, see Lucy
Gardiner and Ben Moss, “Something like Time: Something like the Sexes: An Essay on
Reception” in Balthasar at the End of Modernity, pp. 69–138, esp. pp. 119–120.
76 See Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit ⱅ 770. In the context of his discussion of
“Revelatory Religion” (Die offenbare Religion) Hegel speaks of the three moments of a
triadic movement that grounds and accounts for the world of nature and finite spirit. At
this level, logically if not temporally prior to the physical world, the movement from the
first to the second moment is first understood according to the ancient metaphor of voice
and expression, and this in turn is understood as an emptying and leaving behind. The
passage reads: “It is the word, which expressed, leaves behind externalized and emptied
the one who expressed it, but which immediately heard, and only this hearing of its own
self is the existence of the Word.” The German reads: “es ist das Wort, das ausgesprochen
den Aussprechenden entäussert und ausgeleert zurücklässt, aber ebenso unmittelbar vernommen
ist, und nur dieses Sichselbstvernehmen ist das Dasein des Wortes.” It becomes immediately
clear in the next paragraph that such emptying is understood to undermine any sense
of hypostasis. Christian representation of Father, Son, and Spirit is naturalist and
requires philosophical correction. As an orthodox trinitarian theologian, Balthasar cannot
think of the kenotic relation between Father and Son as a relation without hypostases.
Nor can he think of this emptying as inaugurating a series of other emptyings whereby
in and through nature and finite spirit, Spirit (Geist) comes to itself. See Phänomenologie
des Geistes (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1986), p. 559.
77 See TD, 5, pp. 223–224 where Balthasar draws attention to the difference between the
tradition view of kenosis, which he supports, and that of nineteenth-century radical
kenoticists such as F. H. R. Frank and G. Thomasius.
78 See my account of plerosis in Gnostic Return in Modernity, pp. 69–70, 130, 171.
79 Georges Bataille’s reading of Hegel is in line with both his general view of “sacrifice” as
expenditure without reserve (thus unrestricted economy) and his view of “non-
knowledge” that represents the other of and the antidote to the absolute knowledge of
Hegel. For his view of sacrifice, see “The Notion of Expenditure”, in Visions of Excess, A
Stoekl, trans., (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1985); see also Theory of
Religion, Robert Hurley, trans., (New York, NY: Zone Books, 1989), pp. 43–61. It is not
accidental that the epigraph to this work is provided by a passage on desire from
Alexandre Kojève’s revisionist Introduction to the Reading of Hegel. The core of sacrifice is,
for Bataille, unconstrained and unrestrained desire. For attacks against a finally theo-
logical Hegel carried out in a program of a/theology and in the name of “non-
knowledge”, see Georges Bataille, Inner Experience, Leslie Anne Boldt, trans., (Albany,
NY: SUNY Press, 1988), pp. 43, 52–60, 108–111. Arguably, however, it is Derrida who has
made Bataille’s criticism of Hegel truly famous and made it available to theologians as
different as Marion and Milbank, whose work circulates around the view of the gift. See
Jacques Derrida, “From Restricted to General Economy: A Hegelianism without Reserve”
in Writing and Difference, translation and introduction by Alan Bass (Chicago, IL:
University of Chicago Press, 1978), pp. 251–277.
80 Albert Chappelle takes the charge rather seriously in Hegel et la religion 3 Vols. (Paris:
Éditions Universitaires, 1964–71). See especially Vol. 2, p. 92. The charge of modalism is of
long-standing and is suggested by Staudenmaier; it also has currency in much of
contemporary German reflection on the Trinity. See the discussion of Hegel’s trinitarian-
ism in Cyril O’Regan, The Heterodox Hegel, (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1994), pp. 137–140.
81 Chapelle points to the dynamic configuration of Hegel’s trinitarianism as proof positive
that Hegel is not Sabellian, since historically Sabellianism presupposed a static substance
ontology. Albert Chappelle, Hegel et la religion, Vol. 2, p. 92 n. 228. From a logical point

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of view, success on the historical point would not necessarily prove that the Hegelian
view of the Trinity had successfully avoided a form of modalism with entirely different
ontological commitments to classical Sabellianism.
82 Thomas Altizer thinks that de-hypostatization is defining of modalism rather than
ontological commitment. See his The Genesis of God: A Theological Genealogy, p. 108.
83 Moltmann’s suggests that despite substituting subject for substance or essence, Hege-
lianism is Sabellianism by other means. Jürgen Moltmann, Trinity and the Kingdom: The
Doctrine of God, trans. Margaret Kohl (New York, NY: Harper and Row, 1981), pp. 14–15,
18, 134–137.
84 Altizer’s preference for an apocalyptic ascription of the speculative discourse of Hegel
and the mythopoetic discourse of Blake is longstanding. If it is an implicate in his “death
of God” theology, it is explicit in his work on Blake. See Thomas Altizer, The New
Apocalypse: The Radical Christian Vision of William Blake (East Lansing, MI.: Michigan State
University Press, 1967). In recent years apocalyptic ascription of precisely these specu-
lative discourses is made even more emphatically, but with the interesting twist that
“apocalyptic” ascription is made in the interest of forestalling “Gnostic” ascription. This
is particularly evident in The Genesis of God, but it also marks and Genesis and Apocalypse.
See my critical discussion of Altizer on this point in Gnostic Return in Modernity, pp.
85 See Mark C. Taylor, Erring: A Postmodern A/Theology (Chicago and London: University of
Chicago Press, 1984).
86 I am thinking here especially of Bataille and Blanchot, both of whom were intrigued by
Gnosticism as a liminal language which destabilized the social self and opened up
prospect of a form of non-knowledge beyond ordinary knowing but also beyond the
absolute knowledge of Hegel. For Blanchot Gnosticism was a language of “excarnation”
in which one comes to experience the space of self that is undone, the space of disaster.
In the case of Bataille, the experience that is “non-experience” and “non-knowledge” can
be an experience in and through the flesh considered as ecstatic, considered as the
platform for an experience of the sublime or sublime experience. In his recent book in
Blanchot, Kevin Hart emphasizes the Gnosticism connection. Kevin Hart, The Dark Gaze:
Maurice Blanchot and the Sacred (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2004), pp. 10,
87, 102, 125, 142.
87 Needless to say the issue is complicated here. The exigent soteriological drive of Luther’s
theology in the short term issues in the marginalization of the doctrine of the Trinity.
Focus on the Trinity could smack after all of commitment to a theology of glory. Nothing
like consensus exists on this topic, and Luther has had significant twentieth-century
defenders on this score including Regin Prenter. Usually, however, defenses of Luther’s
trinitarianism will involve insistence on the salvation-history matrix of the Trinity. An
exception is Christine Helmer who believes a case can be made that Luther also speaks
of the immanent Trinity but does so not in the language of the Nicaea, but in the
language of William of Ockham. See Christine Helmer, The Trinity in Martin Luther: A
Study on the Relationship between Genre, Language and the Trinity in Luther’s Works
(1523–1546) (Mainz: Verlag Philipp von Zabern, 1999). The advent of Pietism at the end
of the seventeenth-century represented something of a paradigm shift in Lutheran
discourses away from the external word to self-authenticating experience. Schleierma-
cher can be seen as the logical conclusion of the pietistic line of exclusion of the external
word. This is especially so in the Glaubenslehre, in which the Trinity is taken to be an
adiphora in line with Kant of Limits within the Bounds of Reason Alone in that it is not
grounded in Christian consciousness. For a synoptic account of how the Trinity fares in
modern theological discourses from Luther to Barth and Pannenberg, see Samuel L.
Powell, The Trinity in German Thought.
88 Balthasar, Mysterium Paschale, p. 61 See also pp. 64–65.
89 Gnostic Return in Modernity is essentially the prolegomenon to a genealogy that is to be
distributed over a large number of volumes covering literary, religious, and philosophi-
cal discourses in Europe between the seventeenth and twentieth century. The volume on
the seventeenth century has already been published, and goes under the title of Gnostic
Apocalypse: Jacob Boehme’s Haunted Narrative (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2002).
90 See my discussion of Blumenberg in Gnostic Return in Modernity, pp. 50–65.

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91 Ricoeur speaks of modernist literature as representing a rule-governed deformation of

the classical novel regulated by plot. See Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative, 3 Vols., trans.
Kathleen McLaughlin and David Pellauer (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press,
1984–6), Vol. 1, pp. 69–70.
92 This is central to Jean-François Lyotard’s diatribe again “master narratives” in The
Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi;
foreword by Frederick Jameson (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1993).
See also Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Explained, edited by Julian Pefanis and
Morgan Thomas, translated by Don Barry, Bernadette Maher, Julian Pefanis, Virginia
Spate, and Morgan Thomas (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press,
1992), pp. 17–37, esp. pp. 17–21.
93 An important facet of the complex argument of Gnostic Return in Modernity is that
enlisting is in evidence in the texts of ancient Gnosticism. See esp. pp. 167–177.
94 This is what Irenaeus refers to as metharmottein in Against Heresies (1.8, 1.11, 1.20). In
Gnostic Return in Modernity I refer to this operation as metalepsis. I transfer the term from
literary criticism where it connotes a transgressive mode of interpretation and make it
essentially a figure of the transgression of the biblical narrative. If this application is not
compelled, it is encouraged by the fact that as it functions in the work of Harold Bloom,
the template of transgressive hermeneutics is Valentinianism. See Gnostic Return in
Modernity, pp. 108, 116, 118, 125, 135–136, 148–149.
95 I would not want to claim that every Romantic contests Christian narrative either by
selecting various aspects of it—often christological aspects which are interpreted both
ethically and aesthetically—or by taking it whole, submitting it to a transgressive
reading, and generating a simulacrum. Of these two modes of reading the Christian
narrative, the former is much more nearly in evidence in German and English Roman-
tics. Schiller, Hölderlin and Novalis, the early Coleridge and Shelley offer unique
specimens of the selection modality that is basically Marcionite in its orientation in that
it emphases redemption—now displaced onto art—and represses the biblical emphasis
of God as sovereign Lord and Lawgiver towards whom the posture of creatureliness
should always be in play and to whom one owes obedience. But there are also Romantics
such as the early Goethe, and such as Keats who, accepting the Enlightenment on its
own terms, are untroubled by Christianity and functionally ignore it as they offer an
aesthetic alternative.
96 Harold Bloom, The Flight to Lucifer: A Gnostic Fantasy (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus,
Giroux, 1979); “Lying against Time: Gnosis, Poetry, and Criticism” in The Rediscovery of
Gnosticism, Vol. 1, The School of Valentinus, edited by Bentley Layton (Leiden: Brill, 1980),
pp. 57–72; Agon: Towards a Theory of Revisionism (London: Oxford University Press, 1975).
97 Maldoror by Compte de Lautréamont (Isidore Lucien Ducasse) (1846–70) is a scatological
text in which the protagonist imagines himself transformed into a shark as a great beast
of prey beyond good and evil—a chthonic version of Gnosticism. On the other side, God
is regarded as an obscene old drunkard and lecher on the model of the arrogant archon.
98 Jorge Luis Borges’s interest in everything esoteric is well-known, and in his short stories
at least runs the gamut from Swedenborg, the Kabbalah, to improvisations on biblical
themes. While at one level, Borges’s appeal to the esoteric is thoroughly self-conscious
and often ironic, it is often the case that conventional, even corporeal identity, is
undermined. One could say that the short stories, in the manner of Blanchot, are
exercises in the hypothesis of excarnation, just the opposite of incarnation. The classic
example is “The Circular Ruins”, the story of the would-be creator of extra-mental
entities, that is the would-be archon, who in the end discovers that he himself is a mental
entity. See Jorge Luis Borges, A Personal Anthology, edited and a foreword by Anthony
Kerrigan (London: Pan Books/Picador, 1972), pp. 54–58.
99 The reason here is not the rule of charity, but the rule of categorial determination. It is
important that a discourse labeled as “Gnostic” or “Valentinian” satisfy the criterion that
it represents a metalepsis of the biblical narrative, as this can be observed in the classic
texts of Valentinian Gnosticism. Failure to do so means that the species of esotericism
admits of another label, or other sets of labels, since some species of esotericism are
hodgepots of heterogeneous marginalized discourses brought together by the notion of
secrecy and the incantatory power of language. To claim that a language belongs to the

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hermetic tradition may say no more than that a language is outside the main frame of
the Western tradition. It might, however, refer to a particular line of discourses based on
a corpus of speculative texts of the Hellenistic period and which centrally includes
Asclepius and Poemander. In the Western tradition later speculative Neoplatonic writings,
speculative alchemy, and adaptations of the Kabbalah (penchant for esotericism) are
added so that the tradition is extended. Especially important here is the work of Francis
Yates. Of course, it makes a big difference whether one refers to the grounding texts or
the larger stream of texts united by family resemblance, for in the latter case it might be
much more important to keep separate “alchemy”, “Neoplatonism”, and “Kabbalah”.
Any prosecution of a “Gnostic return” thesis depends on keeping all of these separate.
100 I am thinking in particular here of the Schelling of Die Philosophie der Offenbarung (1841),
which represents the definitive statement of Schelling’s “positive philosophy” which
takes leave of his earlier “transcendental philosophy”, which is defined as purely
negative and/or hypothetical. It also represents Schelling’s definitive statement about
the relationship between religion and philosophy, with Schelling trying to chart a
different kind of relation than that enacted in and by Hegelian Aufhebung. Of course,
Schelling has made a positive and realist (transcendental realist) turn quite early. One
could think of the famous “Essay on Human Freedom” (1809) as marking out a quite
different philosophical territory, moreover, one that allows religion to influence philoso-
phy in a much more determinate way than allowed by Schelling earlier and by Hegel
throughout his entire career. A major issue has been the issue of success (i) in making
the realist turn, and (ii) more importantly in allowing theism into philosophy and
providing it with conceptual sanction. The verdicts are various, but Schelling had his
supporters in the nineteenth century as he has now. These include, for example, Walter
Kasper (Germany), Claude Bruaire and Xavier Tillette (France), and Philip Clayton (US).
101 As is well-known, Kierkegaard studied with Schelling in Berlin in 1840, and became
disenchanted with the prospect of a Schellingian synthesis of Christianity and philoso-
phy. In fact, the failure at synthesis convinced Kierkegaard that no synthesis was
102 See Robert Brown, The Later Philosophy of Schelling: The Influence of Boehme on the Works
of 1809–1815 (Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 1977).
103 See F. C. Baur, Die Christliche Gnosis, p. 553.
104 In Glory of the Lord, 3 (pp. 272–352), Balthasar struggles mightily to exonerate Soloviev
from “Gnostic” attribution despite his acknowledgment of Soloviev’s debts to Hegel,
Boehme, the esoteric traditions, and above all historical Valentinianism. If finally
Balthasar is unconvincing, he shows, nonetheless, his profoundly “catholic” and inclu-
sive sensibility.
105 The Gnostic Religion, “Heidegger and Nihilism”; Milbank, Theology and Social Theory, pp.
106 Obviously, it has not escaped the attention of Heidegger commentators that the “later”
Heidegger appeals to the ancient hierogamy of earth and sky to gain leverage over the
ontotheological tradition which renders Being as some kind of entity and primarily
thinks of Being in terms of cause. Almost no commentator would claim that Heidegger
is involved in pure repetition, and almost all would acknowledge that the figure of
hierogamy has undergone a process of demythologization. The dispute concerns the
extent and depth of the demythologization.
107 Here I am availing myself of Blanchot’s sense of disaster. Maurice Blanchot, The Writing
of the Disaster, trans. Ann Smock (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press,

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