Analogia Entis

Although he is considered a nouveau theologian, Balthasar’s work reserves a central place for Scholastic teachings (or “doctrines”). Chief among these is Aquinas’ “analogy of being” or analogia entis.[2] “Analogia Entis” is a latin term meaning “the analogy of being.” In the Scholastic understanding, analogia is a technical term describing a phenomenon that is found both in language and in life. Medievals thought our linguistic patterns can teach us something about reality in general; in this way, they were closer to contemporary linguistic philosophers, even deconstructionists, than many people realize.

Analogy is defined in opposition to two extremes, univocity and equivocity. Words referring to only one meaning are univocal, like “animal,” which has one meaning which can be said of many different things. When the same word has multiple meanings, referring to completely different things, it is equivocal, like the word “bear,” which can be either an animal or the act of carrying something. Analogous concepts apply to things that have some similarities and some differences, but are related by a proportion. In the Summa Theologiae question 13, article 5, Aquinas writes that we say an animal is “healthy,” but “healthy” is also said of medicine “as the cause of health in the animal body.”

The term “analogia” has a theological application because when we speak about God, we are talking about someone so far beyond us that our words are not really adequate to the task. The medievals were careful to acknowledge that words like “good” or “wise” are related to God and creatures analogically, not univocally or equivocally. Both God and man are “good” in some sense, but not in the same sense; God’s goodness is infinitely greater than, but related to, the goodness of human beings.

I think the concept of analogy would be helpful for many people struggling with the idea of God today. Sometimes people who identify as atheist or agnostic talk about how they can’t understand a god who “does” or “allows” certain evils. I also hear people judging God, questioning his love or his goodness. It is really wonderful for people to think about the nature of God and to realize that common conceptions of God are often weak projections of our own humanity. The god-objectors are on the right track. If the idea of analogy were better known, it would give people a tool for speaking about God and his actions in a fairer light.

Aquinas’ contribution was a special application of analogia. “Analogia entis” refers to how earthly “being” in a general way is differentiated from the “being” of God. Reality includes this thing and that thing: you, me, rocks, cats. Aquinas called this “ens commune” or common being. God’s “I am who am” kind of being is analogically related, but different. Here Balthasar articulates Aquinas’ insight about the difference between God and being:

“the first created reality proceeding from God, by participating in which all beings really are, something ‘abundant, simple, not-subsisting’, ‘universal’, ‘flowing’, participating in an infinite manner and thence in itself infinite, lending form inexhaustibly, which however is distinguished from God by the fact that God subsists in himself, while being only subsists in finite beings. This being which Thomas uniquely discerned with his sharp sight and comprehensively defended . . . this being is creaturely reality in so far as it is seen and conceived as the all-embracing manifestation of God.” (GL IV, 374)

Aquinas recognizes the analogical relation between “Being” in this more inclusive sense and the specific “beings” we encounter daily. This distinction is directly related to aesthetic experience:

“It [esse or being] is therefore a theophanic being, in the classical but also in a thoroughly Pauline sense (Rom 1.18-21; Acts 17.22-29), to which unity, truth, goodness and beauty do not belong as properties possessed at one’s own disposal—how could they, since this being does not subsist as such?—but with which it rather, in so far as they adhere to it, refers to the primordial ground of being which replicates itself in it like an image.” (GL IV, 374)

Since esse, created being, is a true image of God, it is beautiful, good, true, and one. Insofar as it is God’s image, it is the transcendentals (rather than a being with some property of goodness or beauty). Balthasar loves this insight because it secures a certain “objectivity” for beauty, placing it on a theological plane: beauty is important because it directly reflects God’s glory.


Educating a theologian

In my project of studying Balthasar’s aesthetics, a couple of his theological influences are especially important. These are generally known as Scholasticism and la nouvelle théologie. 

Balthasar’s formal theological formation didn’t start until he began his novitiate with the Jesuits. All seminarians in the early twentieth century were primarily taught medieval Scholasticism. You might think “scholasticism” means reading St. Thomas Aquinas, but this was not the case. The academic practice of reading Aquinas himself was a development of the mid to late twentieth century. Instead, theology students learned from scholastic “manual textbooks” based on interpretations of Aquinas. These manuals tended to be reductive in content and doctrinaire in tone. Balthasar said of his years in the seminary,

“My entire period of study in the Society was a grim struggle with the dreariness of theology, with what men had made out of the glory of revelation. I could not endure this presentation of the Word of God. I could have lashed out with the fury of a Samson. I felt like tearing down, with Samson’s strength, the whole temple and burying myself beneath the rubble.” (Balthasar’s Prüfet alles qtd. in Henrici 13)[1]

Balthasar’s creative mind, fed for years on the poetry and philosophy of the entire western tradition, balked at the narrowness of manual scholasticism. I want to be careful in what I say here. Some read Balthasar as a kind of anti-scholastic, but I don’t think this characterization is fair. Balthasar consistently uses the work of scholastic thinkers, especially Thomas Aquinas, throughout his masterwork the Great Triptych. He honored their crucial place in the great theological tradition of the Church, and he wrote about them in his survey of Catholic thought in his Glory of the Lord, vol. IV. Vol. II of the same work includes full-length monographs on Anselm and Bonaventure.According to Angelo Campodonico, Balthasar “offers an original interpretation of Aquinas’ thought variously marked by the influence of other Thomistic scholars of diverse orientations, namely, Przywara, Rahner, de Lubac, Gilson, Pieper, and Siewerth” (Campodonico 34). I  will have to write another post about the centrality of Aquinas’ concept, analogia entis, for Balthasar’s thought.

Despite this respect for individual Scholastic thinkers, Balthasar’s distaste for the manuals left him ripe to join a sort of revolution in Catholic theological studies now known as la nouvelle théologie. At a later point in his Jesuit formation, Balthasar had the opportunity to share a house with the famous nouvelle théologian Henri de Lubac. Balthasar recounted,

“He showed us the way beyond the scholastic stuff to the Fathers of the Church and generously lent us all his own notes and extracts. And so, while all the others went off to play football, Daniélou, Bouillard, and I and a few others (Fessard was no longer there) got down to Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and Maximus. I wrote a book on each of these.” (qtd. in Henrici 13)

Balthasar was fired with enthusiasm as he studied the works of the early Church. The Fathers introduced Balthasar to a theology that was both interested in the beautiful and written in a beautiful style. His early encounter with these writings prepared Balthasar for a project combining his theological interests with his aesthetic inclinations.



[1] Henrici, Peter, S.J. “Hans Urs von Balthasar: A Sketch of His Life.” In Hans Urs von Balthasar: His Life and Work. David L. Schindler, ed. Communio Books. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1991. 7-43.

[2] The crucial influence of his Neo-Thomist teacher and friend Erich Przywara on Balthasar’s idea of analogy will be discussed in the next section of this chapter.


the man, the legend

A little background about Balthasar’s relevance for aesthetic study. There is a good, short biography here, and I encourage you to read it, but I’ll also select a few facts. His dates are 1905-1988, and he was from Switzerland. He began his education as a literature major, and his dissertation “Apocalypse of the German Soul” concerned the philosophical and theological context for German literary authors like Goethe. Balthasar’s student days were full of the love of music, poetry, and art. During his final years of graduate school, he felt God’s call on a retreat and entered the Jesuit order. He received training in theology during his seminary years.

Although incredibly learned, he was never a professor. His order allowed him to work as a chaplain for University students in Basel and to spend the rest of his time writing. After leaving the Jesuits to found a lay-religious group, he continued to write and to serve in a priestly function. His work as an author was intense and consuming; he worked every day and was known to absorb the complete works of authors he treated in his own books. At the same time, Balthasar was known as an incredibly generous friend and host. It was typical of him to leave his work aside completely when someone came to his door and sought him out. He devoted himself to the students he served, founding clubs for discussion and leading retreats.

I have heard a literary critic question the use of Balthasar’s work for examining literature. He was, after all, a theologian. However, Balthasar was also a critic in his own right. In addition to his literary dissertation, he wrote a full length study of Reinhold Schneider and translated Paul Claudel’s Satin Slipper four times for fun. And, as I hope to discuss in the future, his great triptych includes literature often.

Beauty, the first word

Beauty is the starting point for Hans Urs von Balthasar when he begins his life’s masterpiece, a multi-volume work usually referred to as “the Great Triptych.” It’s a surprising theme for this beginning, since the books are mostly theological and concern themselves with serious topics like truth and morality. But, as Balthasar knows, beauty was historically a serious interest for intellectuals. He challenges our modern tendency to consider beauty unnecessary. It’s easy to associate beauty with shallowness or even lies, as in the “beauty industry” of makeup and clothes. Beauty, in the form of art or music, is the first item to be cut from a budget or a school curriculum. Our public discourse does not consider it, and our public art often rejects it. Even academics in the humanities are embarrassed to mention the word. Balthasar has a prophetic warning for our times:

“We can be sure that who ever sneers at [beauty] as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past–whether he admits it or not–can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love” (GL I, 18).

How can beauty, that extra thing, be the key to our relationship with God? to love itself? Part of the answer is the wholeness of the human person. Our thinking selves, our minds, are not separate from our bodily selves: the parts that see and hear and taste the world in its aesthetic dimension. Nor is it possible to act with moral perfection with our minds alone; the goodness of love and prayer require a motion of the heart, the kind inspired by beauty.