The Christ-Form in the body of Christ

Table of Contents:

In order to see the Christ-Form, one has to become the kind of person who could see the form of Christ. One has to become the kind of person to whom self-giving love instinctively makes sense and hangs together. To see God’s crucified love as the most solid form of love, one has to become like Christ. So ‘seeing the form’ of God in Christ crucified and becoming ‘another Christ’ are inseparable: one will not come to see and know the form of God in Christ without becoming like Jesus. Theory (or seeing and aesthetics) cannot be separated from practice (or doing and ethics). For von Balthasar, this is part of the meaning of St. Paul’s idea that the Church is the ‘body of Christ’: every member of Christ’s body receives the form of Christ, and goes on to continue Jesus’ own mission of love in the unique way intended for each particular person. Von Balthasar states,

For Paul, this contemplation of the image of Christ is both theoretical and practical: it is the im-pressing of the form upon the memory and the understanding (gnosis) of the believers, so that it will determine ... their life, which must come to bear the form of Christ. The relative invisibility of the Head has its ground in the divine economy, to the end that he might become visible in the body of the Church (‘it is good for you that I go’, Jn 16.7); the person who truly lives through Christ’s Holy Spirit sees Christ.[1] [2]

Faith consists in receiving the form of Christ into one’s life, abandoning one’s desires and plans for how to shape one’s own life and instead letting the form God wants take shape through one’s life. Faith is entrusting one’s life to God to shape it through and through with the form of the crucified Christ.

[F]aith is nothing other than this: to make the whole man a space that responds to the divine content. Faith attunes man to this sound; it confers on man the ability to react to this divine experiment, preparing him to be a violin that receives just this touch of the bow, to serve as material for just this house to be built, to provide the rhyme for just this verse being composed.10 11

In the lifelong act of faith, God acts on us like a potter, remaking us in the image of Christ, sculpting human beings to ‘correspond totally to God according to the archetype of Christ and in imitation of him’.11

Von Balthasar sees Christ both as the object of our faith and as the model for faith, who by example teaches us how to have faith in God the Father. The Scriptural motif behind von Balthasar’s thinking about faith is Paul’s saying, ‘I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me’ (Gal. 2.20). So faith is ‘kenotic’: the believer empties himself or herself in order to make room for Christ, taking like him the ‘form of a servant’ (Phil. 2). Faith means dispossessing ourselves of our imagined selves in order to become our real selves, so that God’s love can be expressed through us, as it is expressed through Christ. Christ is absolutely, divinely trustworthy in the testimony to God which he gives on the Cross. He perfectly and genuinely represented the truth of which he spoke: he was that truth. Since Christ is faithful to the end in the mission his Father gave him in sending him to empty himself, become Incarnate and die for human sin, so human faith is a sharing in Christ’s own faithfulness to the Father.

Faith has an objective and a subjective side to it. The self-giving love which generates our faith is objectively ‘out there’, and external to us. But this love is also internal to us, shaping our relationship with God the Father, through Christ the Son. When we know an object, our objective knowledge is interiorized, becomes part of us and thus ‘subjective’. The Holy Spirit is the objective love of God, outside of us, binding the Father to the Son. But it is also the Holy Spirit who gives us the interior, subjective convincing vision of the crucified Son as the very heart of God. The Holy Spirit is both the ‘objective’ love of God and the means of our corresponding, subjective love for God. Faith in God is thus objective and subjective love of God: it is the love of God (the objective Spirit) and the love of God (the Spirit as subjective, speaking within us).

Von Balthasar’s conception of faith is ‘kenotic’ because he conceives of faith as self-giving, other-directed love. Seeing the form of the crucified Christ is nothing else than loving God. And this love for God is enabled by the outpouring of love for us by Christ, in his Incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection. So faith, as von Balthasar explains it, is the mutual love of God and his creatures, the wedding of God and his bride, the Church.

Study questions

  • 1. Does it make sense to define faith as love?
  • 2. In what ways does von Balthasar treat God as analogous to human persons? Is this legitimate?
  • 3. Is God really beautiful? How can we say God is beautiful if God is non-material and therefore invisible?
  • 4. What is the relation between faith and reason according to von Balthasar?
  • 5. Read Phil. 2 and say what you think it tells us about God and about faith.

Further reading

Balthasar, Hans Urs von, Does Jesus Know Us? Do We Know Him? (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1983).

-, Truth Is Symphonic: Aspects of Christian Pluralism, trans. Graham Harrison (San

Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1987).

-, Love Alone Is Credible (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005).


  • [1] Von Balthasar, Glory I, p. 319.
  • [2] Von Balthasar, Glory I, 220.
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