Review on Christ’s Descent into Hell: Theology of Holy Saturday

Jesus descends to hell Holy Saturday

In this book, Lyra Pitstick tackles the doctrine of Holy Saturday in Christ’s descent into hell.  Pitstick, seeks to answer the question concerning the approval of Balthasar’s general theological contributions, by Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

Balthasar on Holy Saturday

Hans Urs Von Balthasar

Chapter one contains Balthasar’s treatment on the significance of Holy Saturday, and his theology of this creedal event. Pitstick highlights four main points that underpin the priest’s theology: Christ’s descent completes redemption; Christ’s suffering increases in his descent; Christ became sin and literally underwent the Father’s wrath; and sin is expiating within the Trinity. To quote Balthasar, “Holy Saturday is…a kind of suspension, as it were, of the Incarnation…” (p. 4). Pitstick will focus on this point that Christ suffered after the descent as a major difference between John Paul II and Benedict XVI’s theology, using this approach throughout the rest of the book.

Ratzinger on Holy Saturday

Joseph Ratzinger

The next chapter relates to Joseph Ratzinger’s theology of Holy Saturday prior to his papal election in 2005. Pitstick shows that the German theologian moves away from the extremity of Balthasar’s theology. Using evidence from Introduction to Christianity (1968), Eschatology (1977), “Meditations on Holy Week,” Introduction (1997), The Spirit of the Liturgy (2000), Mediations on Holy Week (1967) and Behold the Pierced One (1981), Ratzinger’s Holy Saturday theology distances itself from his mentor, Balthasar. According to Pitstick, the major differences between the two theologians is that Ratzinger focuses on God’s apparent, but not real, abandonment of Christ during his descent, while maintaining that there is no suspension in the Incarnation.

Continuing with the theology of Ratzinger, chapter 3 examines his view of the descent, after Ratzinger’s papal election. Here, the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas graduate makes use of homilies, encyclicals, and books Benedict XVI wrote to survey his theological development on Holy Saturday. Like his view prior to becoming the Vicar of Christ, Benedict XVI continues to diverge from Balthasar by stressing the apparent abandonment of God in the descent.

How Ratzinger Differs from Bathasar

Another difference Pitstick found is “Ratzinger never asserts as Balthasar does, that the redemption was incomplete on the Cross, that Christ’s suffering intensified after his Death into abandonment in His filial relationship to the Father, that He was literally made sin in His descent, and that the whole Trinity experienced that event” (p. 53). Many times throughout the pages on Ratzinger, Pitstck points out that he utilizes metaphorical language to refer to the descent, and is not quite as clear as he could be with his descent theology (p. 41).

Socks Religious

Pope John Paul II on Holy Saturday

John Paul II

Chapter four charts out John Paul II’s Holy Saturday theology. Similar to Benedict XVI, the Polish pope diverges from Balthasarian thought. Where John Paul II differs from Ratzinger is that the former is more direct. According to Pitstick: “John Paul II’s clarity makes his beliefs about Christ’s descent easy to see” (p. 59).

Three specific aspects of John Paul II’s descent theology are highlighted:

  • The meaning of “descended into hell” relates to Christ experiencing a separation of body and soul
  • Christ’s descent begins his glorification
  • Commentary on 1 Peter 3:19 refers to a non-metaphorical salvation of the just men and women.

Safest Theological Interpretation on Holy Saturday

Holy Saturday

Referencing the Catechism of the Catholic Church heavily in this chapter, Pitstick maintains that John Paul II’s descent theology remains the closest to the official church teaching. His belief that Christ experienced a separation of body and soul after death is in line with the Catechism number 632. Pistick states, “The RC [Roman Catechism and John Paul II] is also explicit that Jesus did not suffer in His descent” (p. 69). This is in stark contrast to Balthasar’s view that Christ suffered during the descent.

Between the analysis of chapters six and seven is a brief tangential section on Cardinal Christoph Schönborn in regards to a parenthetical mention of Balthasar in the Introduction to the The Catechism of the Catholic Church. Pitstick provides the content of what Schönborn said about Balthasar, the cardinal’s Holy Saturday theology, and the possible impacts that it has for Balthasar’s theology moving forward.

To be honest, this chapter was a “red herring”. It didn’t add much to the rest of the book. In her comparison of the three theologies of Holy Saturday, Pitstick focuses again on the differences. She provides a clear standard of measurement as she details definitions about the Church’s varying degrees of teaching authority.

Finding Theological Consistency 

In chapter seven, Pitstick handles the popes’ praise of Balthasar, and provides ways to reconcile such accolades with the conflicting thought on the descent of Christ. She concludes her analyses with the following position: “There is certainly praise of the theologian, but there is no approbation of specific theses, least of all his theology of Holy Saturday, with which Ratzinger explicitly said he could not concur, and with which John Paul II took an incompatible position in his papal audiences, and promulgation of the CCC” (p. 106).

Summary

Christ's Descent into Hell: John Paul II, Joseph Ratzinger, and Hans Urs von Balthasar on the Theology of Holy Saturday

Pitstick presents a clear and concise summary of the entire book. She reiterates how the three theologians differed on the doctrine of the descent. John Paul II ‘s theology aligned closest to traditional Catholic doctrine, as outlined in the catechism; Balthasar’s view of the theology was the most controversial, and Ratzinger’s theology landed in the middle.

Despite the unnecessary chapter on Schönborn, this treatment on the theology of Christ’s Descent into Hell was an enjoyable and insightful read. Pitstick did a great job of focusing on each theologian individually. She contrasted the differences in their theology well too. Priests and deacons will acquire a new depth and understanding of the Mystery of Holy Saturday. This book will be invaluable to any homiletic and theological toolbox. 

Click on this link to purchase Christ’s Descent into Hell: John Paul II, Joseph Ratzinger, and Hans Urs von Balthasar on the Theology of Holy Saturday

 

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