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Holy Saturday: What Kind of Harrowing?

This weekend, I was at my church’s covenant retreat when all members of the church go away together to celebrates the Lord’s covenant with us, and our commitment to one another as members of Christ’s body. And, as we do every year each of us was given the name of a sister of brother to bring a gift for. I was happy to receive a book I have been waiting for for some time, Light in Darkness by Alyssa Pitstick in which she rigorously examines Hans Urs von Balthasar’s doctrine of Christ’s descent into hell. Essentially, Pitstick argues that Balthasar’s doctrine of Christ’s descent is unavoidably in contradiction to the totality of the Catholic tradition’s teaching on the descent into hell. For her, Balthasar’s view that Christ’s descent into hell entails his experience of the fullness of alienation, sin and death, which he then absorbs, transfigures, and defeats through resurrection is untenable. She insists that the totality of the tradition holds that Christ in fact descends only to the “limbo of the Fathers” in which the righteous, justified dead of the Old Testament awaited the coming of the Messiah. Christ’s descent is not in any way soteriological, rather it is…well, we’re not quite sure what it’s for. At best it seems that he goes to an already-redeemed bunch of Old Testament saints to let them know that he’s defeated death. He certainly doesn’t descend into hell and experience the depths of alienation between God and man opened up by sin. In fact, he doesn’t come in contact with sin whatsoever in his descent, only those saints of old who were already justified.

Now, this book has already set off something of a debate among Balthasar enthusiasts, and I’m sure you can tell that I’m among them. I think Pittstick has written a flawed book on a number of levels. First, it is a decidedly one-sided reading of the tradition on Christ’s descent into hell. She pretends that the Fathers were unanimous about this, when in fact they varied in opinion on this as much as they did on every other doctrine. Second, while Pitstick is bold in her theological claims, as any young theologian should be, she ends up letting her ideas run away with her and manages to turn boldness into outright arrogance. She directly questions Balthasar’s orthodoxy, accusing him point blank of formulating a theology that is a “conscious rejection of Catholic tradition.” Apparently she considers her newly Ph.D-crowned intellect the superior of the previous and current popes in determining the orthodox status of Cardinals of the Catholic Church! Third, her engagement of Scripture is very shallow, brief, and selective. She doesn’t touch Romans, probably because it entirely contradicts her case. While I am not a Catholic, I think most Catholics, including the Magisterium insist that they would rather be at variance with the tradition than with Scripture, for according to Vatican II’s decree on revelation, Dei Verbum, the “teaching office of the Church is not above the word of God, but serves it”. However, this seems to have no clout with Pitstick.

For those interested, there is a spirited exchange between Pitstick and Edward Oakes, available in First Things. There is both an initial, and follow up interchange between them available online. Oakes, I think demolishes Pitstick’s case, particularly showing how it is decidedly biased against protestant theological insights, Scripture, and bears extreme Christological problems, chiefly Pitstick’s monophysite tendencies.

Now, I do think Pitstick’s book is important in that it calls attention to the stream in the tradition of the Harrowing of Hell, in which Holy Saturday is the beginning of Christ’s triumph over death. I think this is an important image that must be held dialectically in tension with Balthasar’s biblical emphasis on Christ’s descent into the fullness of death, so as to be “Lord of both the dead and the living” (Romans 5). Christ does indeed break down the gates of Hell, and as the Icon powerfully shows, pull Adam and Eve from their graves, ripping all of sinful humanity from the clutches of death. But he does this not from without, or even from within Pitstick’s rather immaculate limbo. He does it precisely from within, descending into the depths of our sin and alienation from God, and only thusly, by plumbing the depths of hell does he suffuse all that is lost and sinful with the radiance of divine goodness, joy, and light. Christ is indeed the Harrower of Hell, but his harrowing takes place in the mode of cruciformity, not crusade. This is the shape of our redemption, of divine Triune abundance that is the living union of power and powerlessness. In short, it is the superabundance of life that flourishes always, and only through the practice of life poured out.


  1. bobby grow wrote:


    good article. Where did “Dr.” Pitstick earn her PhD?

    Monday, April 2, 2007 at 2:30 am | Permalink
  2. Halden wrote:

    She got her doctorate from the Angelicum in Rome. I certainly didn’t mean to question her academic credentials, only the actual content of her case, which I find lacking much substance.

    One huge problem that she has is that she assumes that Balthasar’s theology of Holy Saturday is somehow the dominating motiff of his thought, when it is not. That theology rather emerges from his Trinitarianism and Christology — which I would contend come from the Bible and the best of the tradition.

    Monday, April 2, 2007 at 4:07 am | Permalink
  3. Deep Furrows wrote:

    I wouldn’t get too melodramatic about all this. Balthasar says many, many provocative things – and provocative statements make one cry out and respond (pro-vocare). In the forum of reason, there is no rank. Pitstick can and should examine what Balthasar taught. He produced it – it’s going to take the rest of us an awful long time to digest it.

    Pitstick’s book is part of this digestion, but then so are the works of David Schindler, Edward Oakes, Raymond Gawronski, and others.

    It’s true, however, that one can’t pull one thread from Balthasar’s tapestry without disturbing the whole. That characteristic alone makes challenging him arduous…


    Tuesday, April 3, 2007 at 3:47 am | Permalink
  4. Ben wrote:

    My non-systematic comment on this:

    If hell is where God-is-not, and Jesus is God, then his decent into hell pushes back hell’s boundaries, kinda like a drop of soap will push back the oil on water. (I was washing the dishes last night, thinking of this.)

    Christ, in decending into hell, re-claims this zone for life, pushing back the gates of death (where God-is-not) to the farthest possible limits possible (while still respecting freedom. In other words, hell is now a volunteer state.)

    Tuesday, April 3, 2007 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

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