Responses to 'Balthasar, Hell, and Heresy'.

Position:Hans Urs von Balthasar

In the exchanges between Alyssa Pitstick and Edward Oakes, S.J., on the thought of Hans Urs von Balthasar (December 2006 and January 2007), Fr. Oakes unfortunately misrepresents the teaching of Pius XII and Vatican II on the primacy of Scripture. Readers of FIRST THINGS should not be misled. Plus XII told exegetes that they must seek out not only the literal meaning "intended and expressed by the sacred writer" but also the spiritual sense "intended and ordained by God." Vatican II did indeed teach (as Oakes mentioned) that the Magisterium is not above the Word of God--but the Word of God was not Scripture alone; Scripture, said the council, cannot stand apart from tradition and the Magisterium of the Church. Exegetes, according to Vatican II, must take account of living tradition and the "analogy of faith." These directives undermine Oakes' critique of Pitstick's use of Scripture.

In her replies, Alyssa Pitstick mentions that, in promulgating the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Pope John Paul II taught a position opposed to Balthasar's on the descent into hell. He did so again in Crossing the Threshold of Hope, where he affirmed, against Balthasar, that Christ clearly revealed that some will in fact "go to eternal punishment." Also, in his Catechesis on the Creed, John Paul explains that Christ did not go to the hell of the damned but that his soul entered the beatific vision from the very moment of his death. Christ's preaching to the spirits in prison (1 Pet. 3:19), according to John Paul, indicates "metaphorically the extension of Christ's salvation to the just men and women who had died before him." These positions of the pope have nothing to do with double predestination, a red herring brought up in Oakes' critique of Pitstick.

Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J.

Fordham University

New York, New York

Alyssa Lyra Pitstick argues that Balthasar's theology, which has Christ suffering in the hell of the damned during Holy Saturday, is inconsistent with what the Catholic Church has traditionally taught, which was that Christ descended not in suffering but in triumph, entering only the abode of the righteous dead in order to lead them to the beatific vision of heaven.

As Pitstick points out, the Church's traditional teachings are normative for Catholics. More precisely, following the First Vatican Council as confirmed by the Second Vatican Council in Lumen Gentium, Catholics are required (a) to believe with theological faith everything contained in the Word of God, whether written or handed down in tradition, which the Church, either by a solemn judgment or by the ordinary and universal Magisterium, sets forth to be believed as divinely revealed; (b) to accept firmly and hold each and every thing definitively proposed by the Church regarding teaching on faith and morals, even when such things are not proposed as divinely revealed; and (c) to adhere with religious submission of will and intellect to the teachings that either the Roman pontiff or the College of Bishops enunciate when they exercise their authentic Magisterium, even if they do not intend to proclaim these teachings by a definitive act. Truths in the first two classes the Church teaches infallibly; those in the third, while still normative in the sense indicated, are not taught infallibly.

The issue, therefore, is how the Church has taught its traditional doctrine about the descent into hell. The traditional teaching has an impressive pedigree: Among the ancient fathers, St. Ignatius of Antioch arguably mentions the doctrine, and St. Irenaeus and St. Cyril of Jerusalem certainly teach it. St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas explain it at length, expressly rejecting the view, subsequently adopted by Balthasar, that Christ suffered in the hell of the lost. The Roman Catechism contains an elaborate presentation of the traditional doctrine. Such theological manuals as Tanquerey's Theologia Dogmatica and the Sacrae Theologiae Summa, which bishops used in seminaries to educate generations of priests, likewise give the traditional teaching. Throw in the modern Catechism of the Catholic Church, which repeats the traditional teaching at length, and it seems clear that the Roman pontiff and the College of Bishops have certainly enunciated this teaching in the exercise of their authentic Magisterium and may well have taught it by their ordinary and universal Magisterium as something to be believed as divinely revealed. Even if only the former is true, the traditional teaching is binding on Catholics.

To the extent that his response engages with Pitstick, Oakes does little more than note that then-cardinal Ratzinger wrote some things vaguely similar to what Balthasar said and later praised the man at his funeral. This is clearly inadequate. Having raised a serious and scholarly question, Pitstick deserves a serious and scholarly answer. Oakes merely dismisses Pitstick as an "anxiously orthodox" "uber-traditionalist," accuses her of having phobias about Protestants, and argues that Pitstick's views on various irrelevant issues are mistaken. Worse, Oakes sometimes implies that Pitstick's scholarship is shoddy, perhaps even fraudulent, as when he says that he was unable to locate, either in Books in Print or online, a book by Cardinal Ratzinger called The Sabbath of History to which Pitstick refers. In fact, it took me two minutes online to find and order a copy of the book from Alibris.

Robert T. Miller

Villanova School of Law

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

In his first article, Edward Oakes' theological objections focus on the issue of the breadth of redemption. He seems to think that Ms. Pitstick's view rules out the redemption of real sinners. But, even if we grant the existence of something like the limbo of the fathers, we don't know who might have been in it. Certainly it includes David, for example, whose sin against Uriah was carried out "with a high hand," and therefore not covered by the atoning sacrifices of the Old Covenant. He would stand in need of the redemption of a sinner. So would Manasseh, perhaps the most disastrously sinful of Judah's kings, who left repentance to the last minute. A number of the early Fathers suggest, at least obliquely, that some of those outside Israel who had died before the coming of Christ would also be saved. But does, or even can, Christ save the unrepentant?

In any case, it's not clear to me that even that question touches the most controvertible points in Balthasar's teaching. The pertinent points are exegetical, Trinitarian, Christological, and perhaps philosophical. In those areas, one could make the case that Balthasar's doctrine is not only novel but also problematic. How can it be that, within the undivided Trinity, the Father rejects the Son, and where in Scripture do we have any indication of that? How can it be that the Father rejects the Son even "as man," as some suggest, if indeed our High Priest is without sin, as Hebrews avers? Certainly the Father willed the sacrifice of the Son, the offering of his life that involved the horrors of his condemnation by sinful human beings and his abandonment by his own disciples. The question is whether the Father and Son were personally alienated from one another, even in virtue of the Son's human nature, and even for a limited time. The difficulties in that position, which is expressed quite audaciously in Mysterium Paschale, and more judiciously in the Theo-drarna, touch on the Trinity and the unity of Christ's Godhead and manhood in one hypostasis.

Though he fails to make good on the point, Fr. Oakes is right in his first response in calling for a return to the biblical text as the foundation of a debate, and it is a shame he chooses to take up other issues in his second response. If we are to be true to the tradition in such an engagement, we must enter a dialectic among its commentators. If we do so, we will discover, I think, that there are more-compelling interpretations of Christ's cry, "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?" which Balthasar makes the hermeneutical key to the Passion. Similarly, 2 Corinthians 5:21 ("he made him to be sin who knew no sin") is susceptible to interpretations more compelling than those Balthasar offers.

Balthasar's interpretations of these texts create further difficulties in reconciling them with other biblical texts, such as Hebrews' strong assertion of Christ's sinlessness and "separation from sinners." The reference to Christ as "having become a curse for us" in Galatians 3:13 does not in itself serve to substantiate the brief case Fr. Oakes is making. In short, in his first response, Fr. Oakes seems to suggest that Balthasar clearly has the New Testament, and especially St. Paul, on his side. I'm not so sure about that, and I wonder why so few figures in the Christian tradition have read Paul in that way. As for the significance of "the third day," an echo of many Old Testament passages, it certainly indicates a kind of hiatus, but why not the more traditional "rest" of Christ rather than his rejection?

The issues surrounding how to understand Christ's sacrifice (e.g., is it representative or substitutionary? is it an alienation from the Father? is "bearing" sin equivalent to being identified with sin?); what it might mean to say, as Balthasar does, that hell has "entered into" the holy Trinity; and the implications of our decisions on such issues for how we think about God and preach the gospel are the truly gripping matters. Much less important, and perhaps impossible to resolve, is the question of the state of Balthasar's mind and intentions when he formulated his conclusions. Fr. Oakes' worry about turning the gospel into "bad news" is fight on the mark. But then we have to ask: Is it good news to posit a paternal love into which we are adopted that includes, seemingly of its essence, rejection? Is a Trinity whose internal relations are, in any way, a function of sin good news?

John Yocum

Greyfriars Hall...

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