Fall 2005

The World as Gift

Nicholas J. Healy Jr.

“The gift that we bring is the reception of the divine self-communication in history by receiving the reality of the world as an expression of trinitarian love—that is, by receiving the world as a gift from God and for God.”

At the end of the final volume of the Theo-Drama, Hans Urs von Balthasar tentatively proposes that we consider the question of eternal damnation not so much from the anthropological perspective—“What does man lose if he loses God?”—as from the standpoint of God: “What does God lose if he loses man?”1 The obvious difficulty with this question is that it seems to presuppose both that something can be lacking to God and that God can receive something from the world. How can God, who is the fullness of being without any admixture of potency, receive something from finite creatures? Following St. Thomas Aquinas, Balthasar conceives God’s perfection in terms of pure actuality (actus purus).2 Balthasar also concurs with Aquinas in affirming the absolute gratuity of God in creating the world. “God alone,” Thomas writes, “is the most perfectly liberal giver, because he does not act for his own profit, but only for his own goodness.”3 How, then, can Balthasar claim that God receives from the world

an additional gift, given to the Son by the Father, but equally a gift made by the Son to the Father, and by the Spirit to both. It is a gift because, through the distinct operations of each of the three Persons, the world acquires an inward share in the divine exchange of life; as a result the world is able to take the divine things it has received from God, together with the gift of being created, and return them to God as a divine gift.4

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1. Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory [=TD], vol. 5: The Last Act, trans. Graham Harrison (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1998), 506.

2. Cf. Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord [=Glory], vol. 5: The Realm of Metaphysics in the Modern Age, trans. Oliver Davies et al. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1991), 636.

3. ST I, q. 44, a. 4 ad 1.

4. TD 5, 521.