Starbucks, Balthasar and Protestant Tradition.

Yesterday Justin and I did what any good husband should do. We went birthday/Christmas shopping for our wives. I won’t give away what we bought, in case they read this blog. Suffice to say, we were patting ourselves on the back, congratulating ourselves on what good shoppers we are.
While I waited at the Starbucks in Indigo Books for Justin (who’s a better shopper than I), I picked up the recent issue of First Things. I know, I know. I’m a good ole Protestant boy – why wasn’t I reading something else? I considered The Western Standard, The Economist, The National Review, even O Magazine. But something in First Things caught my eye. No, it wasn’t the ad on the back for the recent book edited by Peter Seewald documenting his interviews with Pope Benedict XVI – though that surely looked intriguing. It was the article “Balthasar, Hell, and Heresy” by Alyssa Lyra Pitstick and Edward Oakes. We live in a post-Barth age where Hans Urs von Balthasar is the new non-orthodox-neo-orthodox-orthodoxy. I thought I should brush up on him so I can be cool with my friends at Wycliffe College. Only, now I find that Bernard Lonergan is the new non-orthodox-orthodoxy.
What caught my eye, and made me want to read (with a Starbucks mild blend [Grande of course] in hand), was a question posed by Pitstick about Balthasar and Catholic orthodoxy. She did her PhD on Balthasar at the Angelicum in Rome, looking at the Catholic doctrine of Christ’s descent into hell. And this was what her article was on. The question she posed, quite emotionally I might add, was how does one reconcile Balthasar’s Catholicism with his unCatholic understanding of the descent?
I thought that this was a very interesting question, especially in light of the Roman church’s understanding of the authority of tradition and the solidarity with it required for one to be considered a Catholic. It was just as enlightening for me, as a Protestant, to read in light of our own reverencing of tradition over doctrine (tut, tut – that wasn’t a typo). Although ours is not official, so often Protestants, especially the Reformed, hold traditional standards on a level almost akin to Scripture. When a beloved tradition is questioned, out comes the Inquisition.
Pitstick recalls a statement by von Balthasar saying, “It is quite clear that anyone who practices theology as a member of the Church must profess the Church’s Creed (and the theology implicit in it), both formally and materially. This profession is made formally, by positing the ecclesial act of faith; materially, by accepting the ecclesial contents of the faith.” In layman’s terms: put up or shut up. If you can’t both believe and teach the Creed (or another such statement) you’re out.
The problem is, at least for Pitstick, Balthasar had a wonky (at least according to Rome) view of the descent of Christ into hell (this is a statement in the Apostles Creed). Wonky to a certain extent that is. He could affirm the “form of the profession of faith” – namely that Christ descended into hell – but he interpreted it as “something radically different.” I won’t get into the nature of how he interpreted the descent (you’ll have to buy First Things for that), but I will give Pitstick’s four possibilities as to why her heroe broke with the Magisterium. As a side note, Balthasar’s understanding of Christ’s descent reveals his utter inability to rightly comprehend the cross and what occurred there, but as I said, you’ll have to ponder that over a Starbucks and a First Things.
1) Balthasar was ignorant of the Church’s profession, 2) he knew it but didn’t think it normative, 3) he knew it as normative but saw his view as a development of it and 4) he knew it was normative but proposed something in its place.
From what little I know of him, Hans Urs von Balthasar was no slouch. He was a well respected theologian who was in line to become a Cardinal, but died unexpectedly three days before it was to happen. Karl Barth claimed that von Balthasar was the only theologian who really understood him (for a guy like Barth, who wrote a Church Dogmatics, you would think it would be helpful if more than one person understood it!). So, considering Balthasar’s stature as a theologian, it is unlikely that points 1 or 2 are plausible. Quite frankly, he’d have to be an idiot to think either one of them.
That leaves 3 or 4. As Pitstick explains, Balthasar’s theology of the descent is so far from the Catholic understanding, that it can hardly be seen as a development of the doctrine, flowing from the already existing dogma. Therefore, that leaves us only with option 4 as the only viable answer.
And even though I differ radically with Balthasar on not only his doctrine of Christ’s descent into hell (not to mention a whole host of his other views), I do want to give him some credit as a theologian with integrity. Having recognised the authority of tradition within the Catholic communion, he eventually trumps it with what he believes to be Scriptural teaching. Although Balthasar’s understanding of the descent is off the mark, his conviction to remain true to what he believed was biblical is admirable. He risked his standing as a theologian in the Church for the sake of his belief. Surely there is something to be said for that!
What this article shows is that even for a theologian like Hans Urs von Balthasar, Scripture must be the authoritative norm, even over Church tradition. We Protestants stand with thumbs bitten, glaring at the Catholics for their putting tradition on par with Scripture. But don’t we so often do the same thing? Do we not so often allow those great men of the faith who have gone before us judge us according to our theology, when we even may be right and they wrong. Of course, I’m speaking hyperbolically to make a pedagogical point. I don’t think Protestants are as bad as the Catholics on this. But it is a healthy reminder for us to always keep Scripture as the normative law for life and faith.
So be like von Balthasar and don’t be like him. It’ll be the best decision going with and against Church Tradition that you’ll ever make!

1 Comment

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One response to “Starbucks, Balthasar and Protestant Tradition.

  1. David Shedden

    Great post, Ian. Today I should be attending a precept on the second half of Mysterium Paschale but I haven’t done the reading. One of my friends here at Princeton is an RC scholar researching von B’s use/appreciation of Barth. Von B was a phenomenon, that’s for sure.

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