The Key to Understanding God

There is a movement from thought to action and from action to thought, in every philosophical or theological tradition, and cultic action in particular has been both a major generator of thought and a confirmation that thought is in tune with the world as it actually is.[1] While true in a particular way for Christianity, a quick glance at Iamblichus’ theurgical speculations or the commentaries on the Vedas by the Hindu school of Pūrva-Mīmāṁsā will confirm that thinking in general is intimately bound up with cult and that cult demands systematic inquiry and even suggests its eventual conclusions. Irenaeus of Lyon, recently named a doctor of the Church by Pope Francis, expressed this with a particular clarity. In his argument against the various heretical forms of Christianity then regnant in the second century, Irenaeus not only appeals to the so-called regula fidei, a quasi-creedal formulation of the Christian kerygma, but equally to sacramental practice as a means of sorting theological claims, as Ignatius of Antioch had also done earlier in the second century. Against the Docetism of Marcionism, which denies both the real corporeality of Christ and the future corporeal state of the resurrection, Irenaeus wrote: “But our understanding is in harmony with the Eucharist, and the Eucharist confirms our understanding.”[2]

The celebration of and theoretical reflection on the Eucharist have thus functioned throughout theological history as something like a regula fidei, dissuading the liturgical actor from either a crass materialism or an ethereal spiritualism. Yet, it is no little exaggeration to suggest that this Eucharistic regula fidei has only rarely been carried out with the speculative rigor and thematic breadth that it entails, and perhaps only pursued explicitly and systematically quite recently in the twentieth century. Sergius Bulgakov (1871-1944) and Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-1988), undoubtedly among the most influential and theologically ambitious thinkers from the previous century of their respective traditions, Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism respectively, are also the two theologians who can be said to have attempted to carry out this Eucharistic maximalism to its limit, to a surprisingly similar effect.

There are of course proximate precedents for these thinkers, some of whom are direct influences, such as Antonio Rosmini-Serbati, Matthias Scheeben, and Maurice de la Taille, and more distant ones, such as Irenaeus, Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and Maximus the Confessor, but only with Bulgakov and Balthasar do we have attempts to read every aspect of Christian faith within a Eucharistic light. One could certainly say that every aspect of the theology of an Augustine or an Aquinas or a Palamas is consonant with sacramentality, but there is not the explicit attempt to see how the Eucharist reshapes every central doctrinal point, to its very core, from Christology to Trinitarian theology to ecclesiology and Mariology.

A major claim of Bulgakov’s Lamb of God was that although the Chalcedonian definition is formally true, only rarely have theologians attempted to understand its import and its implications. As he writes, the Christological question that needs to be asked is the following: “What is the Divine-Humanity? Or, how is the Incarnation possible? What does it presuppose?[3] This leads him, of course, to his sophiology and to his argument about how the incarnation is not a voluntaristic expression of a colorless Absolute, but a manifestation of what is eternally true about the Triune life.

I argue here that The Eucharistic Sacrifice, recently translated into English, represents Bulgakov’s attempt to ask this same question about the Eucharist. Yes, the churches of East and West have theorized and polemicized about the nature of the transformation of the bread and wine, and Bulgakov is not here free from engaging in polemics against transubstantiation.[4] Yet, the real value of this book is how it asks, and attempts to answer, the following: “how is the Eucharist possible? What does it presuppose?” This is also precisely the question that Balthasar attempts to answer throughout his sprawling corpus, to ask what must be true about God and the incarnation if the Eucharist is his ultimate self-manifestation and mode of dwelling with the Church.

That is to say, although there are important differences in their conclusions, both theologians are interested in seeing every aspect of Christian dogma conform to Eucharistic experience and speculation. For both the Swiss Catholic and the Russian Orthodox, theology is to be done from within the Eucharistic chalice, which means more than a simple non-contradiction between doctrinal formulations and liturgical texts, but more profoundly it means that the Eucharist functions as that to which all other ideas are submitted.

Balthasar was certainly influenced by Bulgakov, and both owe major debts to Vladimir Solovyov, but regarding Eucharistic theology, there is no evidence to suggest that Bulgakov’s sacramental writings in particular made any impression on Balthasar, and we can be certain that Balthasar would not have had any access to the explicitly Eucharistic texts of Bulgakov, including The Eucharistic Sacrifice. How to account for the remarkable congruence between their sacramental conclusions, then? As just noted, they ask the same question about the presuppositions of sacramentality, and their common interest in the Greek Fathers would also suggest to them a sort of eucharistic maximalism, and likewise they prioritize the same scriptural texts, which in this case are the books of Hebrews and Revelation.

Further, both are attempting to provide theological responses to German idealism, and in particular Hegel’s philosophy of cult and Schelling’s recuperation of mythos. Is theology itself capable of rendering sacramentality as intellectually coherent as these philosophers? Bulgakov and Balthasar answer in the affirmative, showing that the Eucharist is not an embarrassing artifact that has somehow managed to survive into modernity, a living anachronism, but is a source of thought and practice that actually remains before us, rather than behind. Perhaps the ultimate reason for the consonance of their positions is their shared confidence that the mode by which God communicates his life to creatures, which is to say in the Eucharist, is the most articulate expression of who God is, that God is essentially a eucharistic God, and that all of his creation is destined to become sacramental matter.

We can now turn to some of the more salient consonances between their theologies. First, both agree that what in the economy of salvation is ultimus in executionem must also be primus in intentionem, which is to say that the Eucharistic conclusion to the Incarnation is not simply a cultic postlude, but the entelechy and goal of the Incarnation from the start. For Balthasar this means that the Incarnation is not complete until Christ becomes Eucharistic, and thus the goal of the incarnation was to make Christ’s humanity pneumatic, plastic, and thus Eucharistically available. Balthasar says summarily, “It is only the Eucharist of the Son [of God] that really completes the Incarnation.”[5]

Likewise, Bulgakov writes, “The Incarnation is not exhausted by taking on a particular, limited, earthly body, but stretches out to corporeality in general, which includes the possibility of unlimited extension.”[6] Both are again here under the sway of Irenaeus, intent as they are on showing that the recapitulation (ανακεφαλαίωσις) of all things in Christ includes not only the various stages of human development and history, but equally material creation itself, which is refashioned in Christ and returned to creation Eucharistically. This will have major implications for eschatology, to which we will return in a moment. But what this hermeneutical principle of Eucharist as the regula ridei does to a theology of the Incarnation, and even to a staurology, is to show the sacramental contours of both Bethlehem and Golgotha, to show that Incarnation and cross exist for the sake of Christ becoming Eucharistic. This leads both theologians to prioritize somewhat the Eucharist over the cross, or to state it more exactly, to note that the cross exists for the sake of Christ becoming Eucharistic, and thus that the cross itself must be read in a cultic, liturgical manner.[7]

Theologians have long placed the treatise on the sacraments after that of Christology, showing that it is widely accepted that Christology is somehow completed or perfected in the Eucharist. In the words of Leo the Great, “What was visible in the Lord has passed over into the mysteries.”[8] Thus, the strong Eucharistic reading of the Incarnation that Balthasar and Bulgakov provide, though expressed with more insistence, has a strong precedence within theological tradition. What I take to be the most daring and likely most fruitful aspect of this Eucharistic regula fidei goes a step further than this: it is the way in which both Balthasar and Bulgakov speak of God as eternally Eucharistic, and thus that the ecclesial Eucharist is a participation in and a reflection of a God who is Eucharistic by nature.

In the usual presentation of both East and West, no matter how highly valued the Eucharist might be, there is rarely a claim that that which is most central to Christian piety, namely Eucharistic communion, might have something to say about the God who established the economy of salvation in precisely this way. Not only is there hardly a mention of the sacraments in Aquinas’s Prima Pars discussing the nature of God, but even in sacramental texts such as Aquinas’s Tertia Pars or even Nicholas Cabasilas’s Life in Christ or Commentary on the Divine Liturgy is there any reflection on how liturgical experience would be a locus for understanding the tri-hypostatic God, not only in his relations to creation, but in the eternal, subsistent relations of the Divine Persons. Adrienne von Speyr articulates exactly what is the presupposition of both of our thinkers:

We must use what experience we as Christians have of God as access to his nature, as a means of interpreting his being. To renounce this would be to shut ourselves in our earthly world and reject the most precious gifts which give access to God. It would be to hold the strange opinion that God had given us something perfectly good which, on entering heaven, we found to be earthly, temporal, ephemeral and useless.[9]

According to Balthasar, for instance, if we trust the data of revelation as it has been given to us, we should not say that the whole biblical motif of blood, of blood as a symbol of life and of Christ’s blood as redemptive and Eucharistic, tells us nothing about God. Instead, human blood, and Christ’s theandric blood, are physical analogues of what can be called divine blood, or an eternal Eucharist. The Eucharist, for Balthasar, is precisely the self-gift (Hingabe) of each Hypostasis to the Others, it is the “blood circulation” in God.[10] The Eucharist was always a matter of God’s “blood,” though it is only shed violently due to sin. Thus, in God there is an eternal Eucharist whereby each Person becomes “food” and “nourishment” for the Others, in that no Person claims anything as a unique possession, but rather hands everything over to the Others in a total gift of self.[11] The ecclesial Eucharist is an earthly translation of an eternal Eucharist. We do not move then from a eucharistic economy of salvation to a “non-Eucharistic” God, but to a God who is himself the res sacramenti, the Eucharist without the veil of sacramental forms.

Likewise, Bulgakov says in this book quite explicitly that the Eucharist is the tri-hypostatic love: “In this way, we can and should, in a reasonable sense, talk about the spiritual Body and Blood of the Divine, of the heavenly humanity of the Godman.”[12] Whereas Bulgakov will connect this divine Eucharist with his notion of Sophia, and Balthasar will rest content to speak of the eternal Eucharist simply as the self-gift of each divine Hypostasis, they are at one in understanding the Eucharist to be firstly a property of God and only secondarily one that takes on ecclesial form.

And this logic extends to the other key notions regarding the Eucharist: for both Balthasar and Bulgakov, again here reliant on the book of Hebrews, the life of God itself should be read as an eternal liturgy, and the sacrifice of the earthly liturgy is be seen as a mirroring of the eternal sacrifice between Father, Son, and Spirit. With the Eucharist here functioning as a regula fidei, only a God that is seen as supremely Eucharistic rather than deficiently so will pass the test of credibility.

A great many other themes that resonate between Balthasar and Bulgakov could be explored here, such as their similar presentations of the entire life of Christ as Eucharistic, their insistence on the particularly ecclesial and historical dimension of the Eucharistic sacrifice, and the way in which Mary is absolutely central to that, and the way in which they both speak about a uniquely sacramental mode of time. We could also point to key differences, some of which are quite substantial, but most of which stem from the polemical edge of Bulgakov’s text, and many of which are easily resolved.

Instead, I will conclude by exploring how they both arrive at a similar conclusion that runs against the grain of so much theological speculation, in both East and West, although a better reading is that their positions actually uncover what has been latent in Scripture, the thought of mystics, and in the texts of the liturgy all along. I am referring to the conventional notion that in the eschaton the sacraments as a whole will have run past their expiration dates, and thus that sacramentality is not only merely remedial in intention but also exists in inverse proportion to eschatological fulfillment, ideas that both Balthasar and Bulgakov wholly reject. Instead, both theologians consider the eschaton to be the perfection of sacramentality and liturgical experience, and thus the question of eschatology to be a subgenre of Eucharistic theology.

Bulgakov here criticizes the fact that most eschatologies, of both East and West, have become forms of criminal law, whereby our eschatological imaginations are limited to the merits and demerits to be doled out by the supreme judge. Instead, Bulgakov writes that “all eschatology can be understood and presented in light of eucharistic theology” and that “Eschatology is not criminal law but the ontology of our salvation.”[13]

Balthasar has an analogous complaint, saying that in the West eschatology has often only been a question of anthropology: not only the question of the judgment of the individual, but concerning questions of separated souls, the possibility of the beatific vision, and so on. Instead, and without discounting these questions, Balthasar says that eschatology must be understood theo-centrically rather than anthropocentrically,[14] which means reflection on the eternal Eucharist of the divine life and the eschatological Eucharist of Christ’s flesh communicated to redeemed creation.

Thus, both Bulgakov and Balthasar independently conclude that the transition from the time of the Church, the sacramentum et res, to eschatological fulfillment, the res tantum, is not a movement from sacramentality to a non-sacramental, non-communal, essentially bloodless contemplation, but is a movement from a partial Eucharist to a cosmic Eucharist. As Bulgakov writes, “For the Eucharist is the Incarnation itself, and its rays extend to the whole world, as a regenerating and saving power.”[15]

Balthasar similarly speaks of Christ’s eschatological state as one of Eucharistic ubiquity, whereby his flesh takes on and reflects the relationality and permeability that define the Divine Persons, making his flesh not a barrier towards the other, but the bond of union, the substantial bond, of the whole of the heavenly Jerusalem. Both theologians here realize that either the Eucharist is universally and eschatologically relevant or it is not what Christ instituted it to be. Christ said “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life,” and thus we should expect that eternal life will be precisely this communion not only with the Triune God, but with the God-man and his flesh and blood, which will circulate through the entire mystical body.

Again, both Bulgakov and Balthasar are trying to take the insight of Irenaeus to its ultimate conclusions: “But our understanding is in harmony with the Eucharist, and the Eucharist confirms our understanding.” After looking at the confidence with which Balthasar and Bulgakov take the Eucharist to be the central locus of theological speculation, so much of ecclesial history seems to evince of a strange dichotomy: the Eucharist is simultaneously the unquestionably central means of union between Christ and the Church, and thus the center of ordinary Christian piety and ecclesial life, and often treated rather secondarily in theological writing, with the speculative rigor given to topics like Christology and Trinitarian theology rarely given to the Eucharist. It has often been central to piety and peripheral to theology.

With every good reason Bulgakov and Balthasar have been compared to one another on a whole host of theological themes. They are also often united when one wants to critique an overly ambitious theology that tries to say too much, that seems to disregard the safeguards that the tradition of negative theology has established, and thus both Bulgakov and Balthasar are seen as fertile minds with perhaps overly active imaginations, leading to non-falsifiable claims that transgress the limits of traditional theological discourse and the parameters of divine revelation.

In my reading, however, especially when considering Eucharistic theology, Bulgakov and Balthasar, for all their differences, are united in their trust that what is central to faith and piety must also be central dogmatically. For Bulgakov and Balthasar, not only is the Eucharist central as the regula fidei, it is what gives coherence to all else, it is the key to our understanding of God as infinite self-gift, to our reverence for the Cross as the means by which Christ is made universally accessible, and to our hope in the ultimate, Eucharistic resolution of the cosmos in the eschaton.

[1] “In ritual, the world as lived and the world as imagined, fused under the agency of a single set of symbolic forms, turn out to be the same world.” Clifford Geertz, “Religion as a Cultural System,” in The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books, 1973), 112.

[2]Ἡμῶν δὲ σύμφωνος ἡ γνώμη τῇ εὐχαριστίᾳ, καὶ ἡ εὐχαριστία βεβαιοῖ τὴν γνώμην” and “Nostra autem consonans est sententia Eucharistiae, et Eucharistia rursus confirmat sententiam nostrum.” Adv. haer. IV.xxxi.4 (from the W. W. Harvey edition), Adv. Haer. IV.XVIII.5 in the modern numbering.

[3] The Lamb of God, 4. Italics added.

[4] Which I take to be an overall distraction from his more consequential positions. It is clear that Bulgakov is not reading transubstantiation in a charitable light, and his own position is very much in accord with what Thomas Aquinas teaches about the substantial conversion, despite his protestations.  

[5]die Eucharistie des Sohnes, die seine Inkarnation erst wirklich vollendet.” Theodramatik. Dritter Band. Die Handlung (Einsiedeln: Johannes Verlag, 1980), 325.

[6] The Eucharistic Sacrifice, 48.

[7] And thus both note the importance of the Last Supper occurring before the crucifixion, thus showing both the freedom with which Christ goes to the cross, and his ultimately eucharistic intention.

[8] Sermo 74, 2. Cited in The Mystery of Christian Worship (New York: Crossroad, 1999), 7.

[9] Von Speyr The World of Prayer (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1987), 35.

[10] See Bulgakov, TD V, 245.

[11] “While the will of the Father and the completion of his work were the continuing ‘eucharistic’ food for the earthly Jesus (Jn 4:34), in inter-trinitary life all the divine hypostases are ‘eucharistic’ food for each other.” Balthasar, Life out of Death, 70.

[12] The Eucharistic Sacrifice, 36.

[13] The Eucharistic Sacrifice, 74-75.

[14] Balthasar, TD V, 244.

[15] The Eucharistic Sacrifice, 75.

Featured Image: Photo by Raúl Alfredo Artero Moreno, Entrada al Santísimo Sacramento en el Santuario de Nuestra Señora de Fátima; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.


Jonathan Martin Ciraulo

Jonathan Ciraulo is assistant professor of systematic theology at Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology. His first book, The Eucharistic Form of God: Hans Urs von Balthasar's Sacramental Theology, is now available. 

Read more by Jonathan Martin Ciraulo

On the Particular Grace of Palm Branches

Drew Denton, Director of Faith Formation at Immaculate Heart of Mary in Atlanta, delves into Terrence Malick and the complex symbolism of Palm Sunday.

Denton Palm Sunday Crop