Readers will no doubt remember the recent heated exchange in the pages of First Things. Alyssa Lyra Pitstick summarized her analysis of Balthasar’s provocative and dramatic (and by her reading unorthodox) vision of the depths of the paschal mystery. Balthasar scholar Edward Oakes, S.J., rose to defend the orthodoxy of the great Swiss theologian, adducing a cloud of witnesses on his behalf, not least of whom is the current pope. Then there was a counter-response, followed by a counter-counter-response. And did I mention the cascade of letters?
I think it’s fair to say that a lot of dust was kicked up. We shouldn’t be surprised. The passions of faith, magisterial authority, theological speculation: The mix has always been volatile. Truth matters, and the truth about Christ matters most of all.
Enter Paul Griffiths. The current issue of the theological journal Pro Ecclesia features a helpful essay by Griffiths, a Duke professor and First Things contributor: “Is There a Doctrine of the Descent into Hell?" (Summer 2008). With his usual care, Griffiths assesses the main claim about the orthodoxy of Balthasar’s theology put forward by Alyssa Lyra Pitstick in Light in Darkness: Hans Urs von Balthasar and the Catholic Doctrine of Christ’s Descent into Hell (Eerdmans, 2007).
Griffiths brackets the thorny question of how to interpret Balthasar, whose vivid biblical imagery and brilliant conceptual formulations do not lend themselves to easy summary. His focus is formal. He wishes only to query whether or not there is a magisterial teaching on Christ’s descent that can be used to assess the orthodoxy of Hans Urs von Balthasar.
Griffiths focuses on two elements of Pitstick’s distillation of the tradition. One has to do with the purpose of Christ’s descent, while the other has to do with the mode. By Pitstick’s reckoning, the Church teaches that Christ's descent was to “the limbo of the Fathers,” which is to say, to the patriarchs of the Old Testament, in order to liberate them. Moreover, this descent was “glorious” and involved no suffering on Christ’s part.
There can be no doubt that Balthasar’s own theology of Holy Saturday teaches otherwise. Inspired by the mystical visions of Adrienne von Speyr, Balthasar developed an extraordinarily vivid account of Christ’s descent into hell. Instead of entering hell in triumphant splendor so as to rescue the Israelites of old whose faith was awaiting completion, Balthasar envisions the crucified Son of God as a depth charge of divine life tossed into the abyss of dissolution. The more deeply the Son sinks into death, the more profoundly does the eventual, inevitable, and triumphant explosion of divine life reverberate.
So what are we to make of the obvious differences? Balthasar has Christ descending to what really amounts to the metaphysical depths of nothingness, while, according to Pitstick, the tradition teaches that Christ descends to “the limbo of the Fathers.” Balthasar goes to great lengths to dramatize the agony of separation as the dead Son descends ever farther from the everlasting life of the Father, and again the tradition seems to go in a different direction, emphasizing the invulnerable, triumphant divinity shared between Father and Son.
But hold on. Griffiths searches magisterial documents, and he finds that the term “the limbo of the Fathers” occurs only in a text by Pius VI from 1784. As he notes, “The term is not found in the 1992 Catechism, nor in the Catechism of the Council of Trent.” So, it turns out that “the limbo of the Fathers” may have a fine theological pedigree, but it has no obvious or stable place in the Catholic hierarchy of truth. In short, the idea that Christ descends to “the limbo of the Fathers” is part of a venerable Catholic theological tradition that invites reflection, discussion, and debate rather than compels assent.
The same holds for Pitstick’s claim that the Church’s magisterium teaches that Christ’s descent was glorious and without suffering. As Griffiths notes, Christ’s work in overcoming the power of the devil is surely glorious, and calling it so “is deeply rooted in that tradition.” “But,” he continues, “the idea that calling the descent glorious excludes suffering from it, I take to be on much less solid ground.” Aside from a passage from the Catechism of the Council of Trent, he observes that “there is nothing else in the tradition of which I am aware (or of which Pitstick is aware: if she had been she would have told us) which suggests the possibility that her preferred construal of the glory of the descent should be elevated to doctrinal status: nothing creedal, nothing conciliar, and nothing magisterial.”
Where does this put us? At the minimum, Griffiths helps us understand why both John Paul II and Benedict XVI felt no reservations celebrating Balthasar’s intellectual contributions to the Church. Balthasar may have been wrong or one-sided when he was bold and unconventional, but he was not rejecting or undermining magisterial teaching.
More broadly, Griffiths sheds light on the difficulty we all face as the generation after the generation after Vatican II. For a long time now, critique has reigned supreme, and “orthodoxy” has been an empty standard in academic theology. Alyssa Lyra Pitstick’s trenchant analysis of Hans Urs von Balthasar represents an effort to recover a functional standard of orthodoxy for Catholic theology. Griffiths makes a very convincing case that she fails. She both overestimates the precision of the tradition on the destination and nature of Christ’s descent into hell, and underestimates the scope for speculation and debate on this theological topic.
At the end of his essay, Griffiths gives the impression that Pitstick should have limited herself to a school debate with Balthasar over the merits of his theology of Christ’s descent rather than raising the formal question of orthodoxy. I find myself disagreeing.
The estimable precision of Paul Griffith’s critical reflection on Pitstick’s treatment of Balthasar points out weaknesses. But Pitstick’s impulse is surely correct. There have been many remarkable achievements in Catholic thought and practice since Vatican II. Yet there have also been losses, and without a doubt one area of confusion has been about the boundaries of church-loyal theology. In the decades before the Council, a painfully narrow vision prevailed, which had the effect of enshrining a neo-scholastic pattern of thought as obligatory. In the decades after, the pendulum swung toward an overly lax approach.
In this context, Pitstick’s focus on the formal question of the orthodoxy of Hans Urs von Balthasar moves us in a helpful direction. She may overestimate the authoritative status of traditional accounts of Christ’s descent, and she may be wrong about the great Swiss theologian. But she’s right about something very important. We need a functional standard of orthodoxy: one supple enough to do justice to the sorts of nuances Griffiths introduces, but one real enough to help us understand when theological speculation, novelty, and critique undermine rather than enrich the faith of the Church.
R.R. Reno is features editor of First Things and associate professor of theology at Creighton University.
"Balthasar, Hell and Heresy: An Exchange" by Alyssa Lyra Pitstick and Edward T. Oakes, S.J. (December 2006)
"More on Balthasar, Hell and Heresy" by Alyssa Lyra Pitstick and Edward T. Oakes, S.J. (January 2007)
Correspondence (March 2007)