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.