Alyssa Lyra PITSTICK, Light in Darkness: Hans Urs von Balthasar and the Catholic Doctrine of Christís Descent into Hell. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007. pp. 458. $55.00 hb. ISBN-978-0-8028-0755-7.
Reviewed by Kathleen BORRES, Saint Vincent Seminary, Latrobe, PA 15650

In Light in Darkness, Alyssa Lyra Pitstick sets forth to prove that Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasarís approach to the Churchís teaching that Christ descended into hell and his subsequent interpretation is unorthodox. In her work, she defines what orthodox means both positively and negatively. That is, to be orthodox one must be consistently compliant with certain sources of the faith which she names and then defines; that is, scripture, ancient creeds, catechisms, Magisterial statements, liturgy, art and the works of such doctors of the faith as St. Thomas Aquinas. To be unorthodox is to impose oneís own interpretation onto the texts of the above-named primary sources or to draw upon other sources that are not in the mainstream of the tradition as so defined. This is appropriate, for one must scope out his or her work, define and delimit oneís analysis. This delimiting Pitstick also does in her chapter ďChristís Descent in Light of the Trinity: the FatherĒ when she writes that ďa thorough evaluation of Balthasarís Trinitarian theology cannot be undertaken in this context, which considers the Trinitarian theology only in order to aid an exposition of his theology of Christís descent. As it is the Word Incarnate who descends, however, such an examination cannot prescind absolutely from Trinitarian theology. We limited our consideration of these matters to their relation to the Word Incarnate, since the proximate cause of the Wordís descent is His incarnation, while His procession in the immanent Trinity is a more remote cause.Ē

I quote these words in particular because much about Pitstickís theology and her hermeneutic in this work challenges von Balthasarís Trinitarian theology itself, a theology that sees the pathos of God as cause of Christís suffering on our behalf even unto the depths of hell. As such, Pitstick seems to this reader not to appreciate that triumph and glory can be consistent with a love that is so passionate that one can say it almost hurts and that this passionate love is the very essence of God who can never cease being so and is, indeed, omnipresent in being love. To this reader, she holds reins tight on the meaning of triumph and glory when defining the doctrine of Christís descent into hell, not seeming to appreciate that Christís suffering for us, his being ďmade sinĒ for us, is a matter of unlimited triumph and glory for Christ and for us on the cross and beyond. This is so both objectively and subjectively speaking as we appropriate the very meaning of the incarnation and paschal mystery.

It should be noted that the quest to understand the meaning of Christís work has never ceased since the founding of the Church, even long before its founding. Pitstick is in good company in this regard. Indeed, many fine works have been written to enunciate the meaning and theology of redemption. Nevertheless, contrary to Pitstickís work, many of these works have drawn from the whole of the Judeo-Christian tradition, in ways that draw valuable insights from not so normative sources of faith, from philosophical reasoning, and from intimately related doctrines of faith. Many of them would not limit the place of reason to this side of the grave, as Pitstick does.

Still, her work is new and worth reading, insofar as the question of Christís work is put into dialogue with von Balthasar. The exception of course is von Balthasarís own works, especially Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved? in which he wrestled with the age-old question of the meaning of salvation and our hope of redemption. Since Pitstickís work is new, it is a worthwhile read in the on-going quest to engage the very heart and pathos of the Word which grounds all hope, is living and active, and working its way back to Eden so to speak in a very historical and real way. My only caution to the reader is that he or she be aware of too dogmatic of presentations. Indeed, the Tradition as many of us know it is capable of developing doctrine, of seeing new realities in the texts of Scripture and finding new applications and implications for a new day. I wouldnít want to limit the Tradition as Pitstick seemingly does in Light in Darkness: Hans Urs von Balthasar and the Catholic Doctrine of Christís Descent into Hell.

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