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).

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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Book Review on Pope Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth

Benedict XVI writing

Within the initial pages of his monograph on Christology, the emeritus pope delineates his aim in writing as simply to unite the Jesus of history with the Christ of faith (xiv). In a post-Enlightenment world, a seemingly ubiquity of scholars appear to be employing an exclusive use of historical-critical methods on the biblical texts in terms of answering the questions of faith. Not denying the usefulness of such methods, the German pope states, “The historical-critical method−let me repeat− is an indispensable tool, given the structure of Christian faith” (xvi). But it is important to understand the arena by which such a tool should be used, namely− in conjunction with and adherence to Magisterial teaching. The underlying presupposition of Benedict XVI’s Christology is a trust in the Gospels. I will later demonstrate how the retired pope maintains this stance throughout his prose.

Baptism of Jesus

Jesus' Baptism

Embarking on his journey toward an authentic portrait of Jesus, the former Tübingen professor presents a lucid and biblical approach to Christology in his book. Benedict XVI’s first chapter outlines the Baptism of Jesus. Here he stresses the importance of Jesus’ inaugurating his public ministry by wading in the place of sinners (p. 18). Moreover, the pope mentions the symbolism of the baptismal waters− as a sign of death and re-birth. Succinctly put by Ratzinger, “Jesus’ Baptism anticipated his death on the Cross, and the heavenly voice proclaimed an anticipation of the Resurrection” (p.23). This linkage to the Paschal Mystery is the cipher by which Benedict XVI situates the Baptism of the Lord. It is here he dismisses any liberal exegetical view that reduces this event to a mere vocational experience (pp. 23-24).

Temptation in the Desert

The second chapter in his book concerns the Temptation of Jesus. In the following pages, the German pope discusses the three temptations in depth. He compares the similarities and differences in the Matthean and Lucan accounts. Perhaps the most salient point to be taken from this section regards the second diabolical enticement. According to Benedict XVI, the Devil tries to use the Bible as a tool to tempt mankind. “The whole conversation of the second conversation of the second temptation takes the form of a dispute between two Bible scholars,” purports the pope (p. 35). Ultimately, what one can garner from this chapter is that the pope’s Christology admits to Jesus being submitted to the devil’s test like all mankind, but never succumbing to it due to his perfect obedience to the Father.

Jesus the New Moses

Jesus the New Moses

            The following three chapters relate primarily to the content of Jesus’ teaching. With regards to the Gospel of the Kingdom of God, Benedict XVI charts various interpretations and tries to harmonize any “seemingly divergent” flow of the content of the Kingdom of God to Christ (pp. 48-49). His section on the Sermon on the Mount is rich in detail and quantitatively the pope’s second longest chapter. Here he portrays Jesus as the New Moses and describes the Beatitudes as “a sort of veiled interior biography of Jesus” (p. 74 ). Subsequently, the German pope spends some time on the Lord’s Prayer and systematically goes through the structure of the “Our Father”. Maintaining the tradition from Nicaea, Benedict XVI affirms Jesus is “Son in the strict sense− he is of one substance with the Father” (p. 138).

Pontifical Proof

In chapters six and seven, Ratzinger focuses on the ecclesial structure Christ had in mind when he chose the Twelve and gives an erudite rendition of Jesus’ three most famous parables. Being the lengthiest and arguably the most sublime chapter of his monograph, Benedict XVI’s eighth chapter spends nearly seventy pages portraying the principal images in John’s Gospel. He candidly refutes any scholarship, in particular Bultmann’s, that attaches a Gnostic cipher to the Johannine text (p. 228). With careful acumen, the former pontiff lists the key passages and meanings of the images of water, vine and wine, and bread within the Fourth Gospel. He also gave an especially detailed account on the motif of shepherds and showed how Jesus is the prime Good Shepherd (pp. 275-284).

Who Exactly is Jesus?

Who is Jesus

            The penultimate and final chapters represent decisive events in Jesus’ life. Marking Peter’s Confession as a pivotal act in the Gospels, Benedict XVI shows that previously people were simply guessing at Jesus’ identity (i.e. Elijah or John the Baptist) and interpret him solely in terms of the past (p. 292-293). Furthermore, it is at the Transfiguration that Peter recognizes that the messianic times have begun (p. 315). Lastly, the emeritus pope focuses on the two appellations by which Jesus referred to himself as− “Son of Man” and “Son”. He covers these titles by providing Old Testament context and delineation of New Testament sayings for the “Son of Man” and juxtaposed the ancient political referent of “Son” with Jesus’ meaning of the term (pp. 336-345).

Review of Benedict’s Analysis

Standing in lieu of the recent bifurcation of the Christ of faith from the historical Jesus, Benedict XVI’s Christology opposes this approach. His goal in writing this book was to portray Jesus in light of his communion with the Father. Benedict XVI constructed this book in the context of Scripture. I  found that the German pope achieved this objective and can give a copious amount of evidence to support it.

Pope Benedict XVI

            Firstly, Benedict XVI does a masterful job of showing Jesus’ awareness of the Old Testament and how a proper understanding of God’s events in Israel’s history is fulfilled by Christ. He shows that Jesus perfects and encapsulates the tripartite Old Testament offices of priest, prophet, and king. Furthermore, the pontiff in his chapter on Beatitudes portrays Jesus’ recapitulation and perfection on the Mosaic Law.

Dovetailing from the prior point, the pope also provides implicit critiques to the one-handed nature of modern scholarship regarding Christology. He goes on to refute the possibility of the Bible being viewed in an exclusively historical way. The word of God is not limited to the space-time continuum of history. Because of this, “The saints are the true interpreters of Holy Scriptures,” the German theologian asserts (p. 78). One learns about Christ not only through academics, but an active living of the faith.  A mere horizontal gaze at Jesus leads to a type of cynicism regarding his Sermon on the Mount teaching. In stark contrast to Nietzsche seeing Christ’s attitude toward the poor as a religion of resentment and envy, the emeritus pontiff rightly understands this novel teaching as God’s revelation of himself descending in love (95-97).

Interpreting Jesus’ Parables

Within the chapter on parables, Benedict XVI talks of the ever-present struggle in interpreting Christ’s parabolic messages. Once again he overtly points to the limits of historical-critical exegesis and says, “[it] cannot give us any definitive information” (184). After presenting his view to properly interpret Jesus’ words, his argument culminates by stating the hermeneutic of unlocking the parables is the Cross.

Ultimately, for Benedict, Jesus’ messages are a portent of the Paschal Mystery (p. 191). In his outline of the parable of the Good Samaritan, the former theology professor gives a laconic layout of various interpretations of Luke 15:11-32, and goes on to show an implicit Christology can be gleaned from the text through “attention to the historical context” (p. 207). This is because Jesus himself is a revelation of the Father.

Christology of B16

Along with his amicable refutations of modern scholarship, it is reading Benedict XVI’s final chapter that one can truly appreciate his contribution to Christology. Here he provides a meticulous delineation of occurrences and frequencies of the appellations Jesus attributes to himself− Son of Man and Son. With the former title, he shows its connection to the Old Testament (book of Daniel) and the latter portrays the relationship Jesus had to God. In fact, Benedict XVI shows that Mark’s Gospel alone uses this designation fourteen times and with the exception of Stephen in Acts 7:56, all references of “Son of Man” come from Jesus’ lips (pp. 321-322).

As an authentic Nicene theologian the German pope points out “Only the Son truly ‘knows’ the Father…Truly to know God presupposes communion with him [as Son]” (p. 340). Benedict XVI further fleshes out the consubstantiality of the Son with the Father in his outline of the Johannine “I AM” sayings in his concluding pages.

Jesus I am Statements

Finally, in brief fashion he shows how Nicaea’s term homoousios was not a Hellenistic infiltration of the faith or a jettisoning of biblical authority, but provided a stable foundation for theology and ultimately Christology (p. 355).

In sum, I found  Jesus of Nazareth to be a well-written and digestible read for both lay and scholar alike. Benedict XVI remained steadfast in his goal to portray Jesus from the Bible while using historical science to augment his points. This work is a hailing back to patristic Christology which trusted the Gospels and did not separate faith from history. Finally, he provided a salubrious and professional critique to the modern approach to Christology and any student of Catholic theology should be sure to check this monograph out.   

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Finding the Creative Spirit of God in Play!

playing

According to G.K. Chesterton, “It might reasonably be maintained that the true object of all human life is play. Earth is a task garden; heaven is a playground” (From the essay Oxford from Without). There is so much theology packed into this quote. What stands out most to me in Chesterton’s thought is the word true. I think that while earthly life consists of toil and repeated work, God planted the seeds for true life to flourish in our earthly lives and hopefully culminating in the heavenly playground if we achieve sainthood. Let me explain.

The opening chapter in Genesis charts out the creation of the world by God. Creation occurred in six days [periods of time] and God rested on the seventh day. Why does God need rest? Is he not outside of time and space—thus He would never tire? The real purpose of the institution of the Sabbath rest on Sunday is because God knows that humanity needs time for rest and recreation! True joy and creativity oftentimes comes from our resting and recreational activities. Last summer I read a biography about St. John Paul II and it talked at length about the saint’s love of skiing. This playful activity was a unique way for the late pope to encounter God and to be recharged to continue his papal duties.

jpii skiing

Going back to the notion of God’s creative genius instituting the holiness of resting on the Sabbath, the Catholic Mass is considered the perfection and fulfillment of the Jewish Sabbath. The retired pope Benedict XVI says it best in his book Spirit of the Liturgy, “It is a ‘playful thing’ in which those gathered for the liturgy can be said to be at play— homo ludens—in the presence of God; it is like children’s play—it is ‘not there to achieve an end’ but is an end in and of itself (p. 2). To expand on this point, whenever I play with my children or friends it is out of love! It ultimately does not matter which game we play—board game, lawn game, basketball, football, or soccer. Within the creative activity of play, a joy arises similar to the joy I experience during a Catholic liturgy where I receive the gift of the Eucharist every week.

While work and toil certainly has its place in our earthly lives—and even is a means to holiness—we should not forget the importance of play as a means to holiness as well. As a person who tends to be more on the serious side, Chesterton’s words are a shot of theological medicine that thaw my impatient heart. This week my challenge to myself is to look for God’s creative Holy Spirit in playing with my young children!

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