Marcion and Prometheus

Front Cover of Marcion and Prometheus

Marcion and Prometheus

Balthasar Against the Expulsion of Jewish Origins from Modern Religious Dialogue

This study points to the dangerous tendency among humanist critics of Christianity to dismiss of "debunk" the religious claims of historic Judaism—reinventing, according to von Balthasar, the historical heresy of Marcionism. Interreligious dialogue requires more respect for Jewish origins.

This incisive, accessible study highlights Hans Urs von Balthasar’s response to ‘Promethean’ critics of Christianity from romantics such a Shelley to the philosophical likes of Feuerbach and Marx, focusing on these critics’ unrelenting rejection of the religious claims of historical Judaism. The attributes of the Christian God which such humanists find most unpalatable-such as fatherhood, authority, and transcendence—are precisely those that were inherited from Judaism. According to von Balthasar, such critics have inadvertently reinvented the patristic-era heresy of Marcionism, which posits a radical and false dichotomy between the message of the Hebrew bible and that of the New Testament.

Sciglitano's book defends the specialness of Jewish revelation, and builds a bridge between conservative Christians and faithful jews.

Table of Contents

    Introduction
  1. An Anti-Marcionite Theological Aesthetic
  2. Against the Idols: Divine Encounter, Prophetic Covenant
  3. Balthasar and the Encounter with Post-Biblical Judaism
  4. Judaism, the Nations, and the Christological Hospitality
  5. Conclusion
Reviews and endorsements

In this volume Sciglitano offers a wide-ranging investigation of Balthasar’s theology of religions, with particular focus on his understanding of Judaism. At the most fundamental level, S. argues that Balthasar offers “a remarkably hospitable and capacious Christian theology of religions without sacrificing Christian content” (ix). Given Balthasar’s reputation, the former claim of hospitality may seem odd or suspect; yet S. demonstrates this point with great clarity and force, particularly in the final chapter’s excellent discussion of Balthasar’s positive valuation and engagement with non-Christian myth, philosophy, and religious thought. Balthasar resists any overarching, a priori theological evaluation (positive or negative) of other religions and instead advocates and enacts an a posteriori approach that engages other cultures and religions with an expectation of finding seeds of the truth, goodness, and beauty of God. This basic move is what S. fittingly describes as “Christological hospitality,” and he demonstrates well how hospitable Balthasar can be.

This fine discussion of theology of religions opens and closes the book, but the heart of the text is an exploration of the anti-Marcionite structure of Balthasar’s thought. The book begins with Balthasar’s discernment of a transformed Marcionism in modern thought and within modern anti-Semitism in particular. In view of the Third Reich and other manifestations of anti-Semitism, Balthasar judges Marcionism as not only the “first systematic form of theological anti-Semitism” but also “the primary demon of modern anti-Judaism” (6). Such a reading gets right Balthasar’s reading of modernity and puts S. in line with other genealogies of modernity that recognize the reemergence of anti-Jewish and quasi-gnostic thought patterns.

The next step in S.’s argument is a portrait of Balthasar as a deeply anti-Marcionite theologian who resists this modern deformation with a maximal affirmation of the OT’s revelatory character. Put simply, “for Balthasar one requires an Old Covenant education to rightly apprehend the form of Christ” (81). In this way, the Old Covenant has an irreplaceable “pedagogical role,” both apophatically in Book Reviews 923 tearing down idols and demythologizing the cosmos, and cataphatically in offering a preliminary sketch of the fullness to come in Christ (37–40). Balthasar accordingly rejects the use of any other prehistory as primary for understanding the truth of Christ—whether in aggressive forms inspired by anti-Semitism or in seemingly innocuous forms shaped by dialogue with other religions and cultures. Echoing Romans 11, Balthasar argues, “there can be no Christianity which is not, a priori and inwardly, related in a deeply sympathetic manner to the ‘holy tree,’ as the branch is related to the root” (106).

Surprising to many readers will be the final move regarding Balthasar’s understanding of Judaism. Balthasar, as early as 1957—seven years before Vatican II’s Nostra aetate—argues that God’s covenant with the Jews is not forsaken, rejects a Christian mission to the Jews (for “such a mission would suggest that the Jews are no longer God’s people” [98]), and calls for genuine dialogue. This position, though not significantly developed further, remained Balthasar’s for the rest of his life. 

Let me express one nitpicky addition and one main reservation. First the addition: Balthasar on several occasions appeals to the image of the 24 elders standing before the throne in the Book of Revelation and specifically emphasizes that these are not uniformly Christian figures. The twelve elders of Israel represent a covenant that “has not, in fact, been superseded” (Theo-Drama, vol. 5, p. 419), nor is it entirely clear how this affirmation fits with Balthasar’s overall thought, but it remains a fruitful opening to be explored. 

Now my reservation: S. presents a convincing case that a Marcionite tendency has returned in modernity, but the question of more classical supersessionism remains. Although it is clear that Balthasar would reject the form of supersessionism in the Epistle to Barnabas and the harsh rhetoric of John Chrysostom, S. rightly notes that Balthasar is a “soft supersessionist” in that he still holds to fulfillment of the Old Covenant in Christ (107) and that Israel is “predestined to find its fulfillment in the Church” (140). Given this, it is unsurprising that Balthasar has trouble actually putting much detail into his formal affirmation of the ongoing mission of the Jewish people; it is hard for him to name its ongoing purpose apart from Christ. This is the problem, of course, of any classical trinitarian and Christocentric theology. S. does helpfully develop some aspects of what this might look like (154), but more needs to be done if Balthasar’s thought can provide a clear way forward for Christian understanding and engagement with Judaism. 

S. has done great service to all who are interested in Balthasar’s thought, Jewish–Christian relations, and Christian responses to modernity. The book is a very good introduction to Balthasar and also offers a clear vision of what a robustly trinitarian and Christocentric theology looks like when it is authentically hospitable to Judaism.

—Theological Studies Review

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The Second Vatican Council famously called upon Christian theologians to read “the signs of the times.” However, as such luminaries as Brad Gregory, Charles Taylor and Cyril O’Regan know well, the signs of modernity are frequently obscure and require careful cryptography.  Hans Urs von Balthasar knows these signs better than most and concerns himself with the ways in which modernity offers sophisticated opposition to a God who is other, transcendent, free, sovereign and law-giving on behalf of radical human autonomy, what he (and others) labels Prometheanism.  Such opposition simultaneously polemicizes against the God of Israel, the God of the Jews and their covenant and so resembles the ancient heresy of Marcionism in a modern key. Sciglitano reads Balthasar’s theology as a contemporary response to the revitalization of Marcionism in modern religious discourse and thus as providing deep support for the primacy of Judaism as Christian dialogue partner advanced by the Second Vatican Council’s Nostra Aetate

—Anthony C. Sciglitano, author

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In four substantial chapters, an introduction, and a brief conclusion, this volume supplies a much-needed account of Balthasar’s potential contribution to a theology of religions, centered primarily around his hospitality to Judaism. The first major move in the argument—intersecting methodologically with but certainly not repeating Cyril O’Regan’s work in Gnostic Return in Modernity (2001) or The Anatomy of Misremembering (2014)—is the presentation of Balthasar’s diagnosis of modern thought as a pathological reassertion of Marcionism and Prometheanism. This return would disenfranchise the revelation of the Old Covenant, eliminate divine transcendence and judgment, and idolize human being at the expense of the divine. Further, ancient and modern versions of Marcionite or Promethean anti-Judaism extract the person of Jesus from his proper historical context, a sundering that invites manipulation “to suit whatever cultural predilections are to the fore” (3). Where Marcionism severs, dismantles, and empties, however, Balthasar would unite, arguing for a fundamentally necessary continuity between Judaism and Christianity. 

This integrative mode is especially evident in Sciglitano’s treatment of Balthasar’s biblical hermeneutics as anti-Marcionite and pro-Jewish. Balthasar considers the entirety of the Hebrew Bible as dramatic encounter to be revelatory and prophetic: this designation protects all the variegated forms of the Old Covenant, which for Balthasar have both a preparatory and a pedagogical function, as they make “legible” the glorious form of Christ (54). In chapter 3, Sciglitano continues to draw out Balthasar’s anti Marcionite interpretation of Scripture by noting that his uncompromising insistence upon the unity of revelation is undergirded by God’s consistently kenotic gift of love expressed in Creation, Covenant, Cross, and Eucharist. Here Balthasar’s version of kenosis as a Trinitarian phenomenon mitigates Marcionite iterations of kenosis in modernity (as in Hegel, Altizer, or Vattimo) that would dissociate Christianity from Judaism and thereby denature both religions. 

An important subtheme in this analysis is the apologetic insistence on the importance of clarifying targets of critique. First, because on Balthasar’s reading early anti-Judaism and its modern resurgences are essentially Marcionite, messianic Christology or the developments of Trinitarian doctrine in patristic Christianity are “co-victims” alongside Judaism rather than the primary offenders (3). Perhaps more important is the need to elucidate the proper targets of Balthasar’s criticisms in his own commentary, particularly vis-à-vis postbiblical Judaism. Our author is appropriately measured in his optimism concerning Balthasar’s reading of the postexilic period, but demonstrates convincingly that Balthasar’s critique can be understood primarily as self-critique, aimed more nearly at modern Western philosophical and Christian ecclesial culture than Second Temple Judaism itself (72-78). 

By my lights, the final substantive chapter is the most compelling in its suggestion of an Alexandrian profile in Balthasar’s “Christological hospitality”: evoking Clement or Origen by drawing on the tropes of the Logos spermatikos and the spolia Aegyptiorum, Balthasar accords theological meaning to human culture outside both scriptural and ecclesial borders. Here Sciglitano brilliantly connects discussions of Homeric epic poetry, classical philosophy, and the pneumatologically aspirated epistemology of Balthasar’s Theo-Logic with “covenantal ontology” (131) and the priority of the question of Christian- Jewish relations. Mirabile dictu, this presentation of Balthasar’s theology of religions does not recommend an evacuation of determinate religious content in order to heighten the likelihood of profitable dialogue but rather insists on the particular form of each religion. The book demonstrates throughout with agility and force that Balthasar’s theology of religions is grounded in a strong Incarnational and Trinitarian perspective that actually makes it more rather than less likely to respect the particulars of Jewish religion in a dialogue. Balthasar’s starting point is unrepentantly from the particular—namely, the covenant relation between God and Israel and the specific mission of Judaism in history, which, significantly, is for Balthasar ongoing after Christ. This text does well to note the perhaps surprising fact that as early as Balthasar’s book on Martin Buber—which predates Nostra Aetate by no less than eight years—he argues against a Christian mission to the Jews. Sciglitano writes with clarity, authority, intelligence, and often beauty, precisely summarizing complex arguments along the way. His text serves as an excellent introduction to Balthasar’s thought and will be profitable both for advanced undergraduates and in graduate seminars on Balthasar, Jewish-Christian relations, interreligious dialogue, and theologies of religion and/or culture.

—Horizon


"This brilliant book is a contribution not only to von Balthasar scholarship, but also to the wider world of interreligious dialogue. Professor Sciglitano aids all theologians to understand the value of von Balthasar for a Christian understanding of interreligious dialogue by focusing on von Balthasar's highly original and central theology of Judaism. A stunning achievement."
David Tracy, author, Dialogue with the Other: The Inter-Religious Dialogue

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"Sciglitano offers here a rich and penetrating interpretation of Balthasar's vision of the grandeur of creation. Philosophical and religious insights are deeply integrated into God's extraordinary action in the history of Israel and in the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. This powerful covenantal wisdom is opposed the Prometheanism of modernity which dissolves divine transcendence into anthropocentric immanence, depriving humanity of the very glory which is God's own reflection. With this timely and highly readable book, Sciglitano incisively displays both the vitality of Balthasar's vast biblical and theological vistas and, most importantly, their exceptional pertinence for contemporary thought and culture."
Thomas G. Guarino, Seton Hall University

9780824520168
Paperback / 256 pages
Dimensions: 6 x 9
HERDER & HERDER, 2014