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  • Damnation and the Trinity in Ratzinger and Balthasar
  • Joshua R. Brotherton (bio)

Introduction: A Crucial Difference

The formative influence of the thought of Hans Urs von Balthasar on the theology of Joseph Ratzinger is common knowledge. Ratzinger pays tribute to him on more than one occasion.1 There are two theological novelties that rush to the mind of any student attempting to characterize Balthasar’s peculiar thought: (1) his doctrine of Holy Saturday, or the descent of Christ into the hell of the damned,2 and (2) his quasi-universalist argument in favor of a theological hope for the salvation of all men. There is a third dimension of Balthasar’s thought that takes up these two features into a higher plane, as it were: the infinite love of the Trinity itself is ur-kenotic. In other words, central to his theology is the dual claim that the descent of Christ into hell is the most perfect reflection of the self-surrender that constitutes the trinitarian life and that it is most fitting for the triune God to embrace (by first “undergirding”) hell in all its New Testament horror (i.e., the “second death” of Rev 20–21), freely surrendering impassibility in the economy of salvation, wherein the Second Person of the Trinity “becomes sin.”3 [End Page 123]

Ratzinger also reflects on the painful descent of Christ and its impact upon the reality of damnation, but it remains to be seen to what extent he may agree with the most radical points of Balthasar’s theology and how much (or little) influence the trinitarian thought of the latter had upon him. I will assert that even if Ratzinger is likewise reticent to proclaim divine impassibility unqualifiedly, the descent for him, although understood in a very similar way to Balthasar, relates to damnation and the Trinity in a way that is fundamentally different from the way these three elements interact functionally in Balthasar’s theology.

Rather than attempt to summarize Balthasar’s detailed treatment of each of the terms in this relation and then develop Ratzinger’s relationship to that treatment, I will briefly take up in chronological order what in each of their major works directly pertains to damnation and its relationship to the triune God.4 It will become clear that while Balthasar’s eschatological concerns cause his understanding of the triune God to center on the hellish passion of Christ and his “being-dead” on Holy Saturday, Ratzinger understands Christ’s vicarious descent on the Cross in terms of the Son’s economic “being-for,” which proceeds from his own “being-from” the Father (and the two are one in the unifying gift of “being-with” that is the Holy Spirit). Ratzinger’s trinitarian thought is therefore an ontology of relation, comprising at once a “negative theology” and a foundation for a more disciplined soteriology and eschatology than is exhibited in Balthasar. This contrast is a significant one that no one, to my knowledge, has exposed as of yet, given that many of Ratzinger’s admirers also, if not primarily, consider themselves disciples of Balthasar and therefore do not wish to drive a wedge between the two thinkers. While some may want to turn a blind eye to differences between the two thinkers, it is imperative to recognize Ratzinger’s theology for what it really is, namely, something entirely distinct from, even though very influenced by, the theology of his senior theological confrere and close friend, Hans Urs von Balthasar. [End Page 124]

Ratzinger’s Nuanced Relation to Balthasar’s Controversial Theses

Many may not realize that not only did Balthasar’s thought on these matters not receive definitive shape until the 1980s with the publication of the final volumes of the Theodramatik, but it is not at all clear that Balthasar’s earliest formulations of the significance of Christ’s descent preceded Ratzinger’s earliest comments on the same, as is commonly assumed by those who emphasize Balthasar’s influence on Ratzinger.5 Therefore, I will turn first to Ratzinger’s Introduction to Christianity before I compare its remarks to Balthasar’s Mysterium Paschale. Commenting on a thought presented by Jean Danielou,6 perhaps the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-791X
Print ISSN
1091-6687
Pages
pp. 123-150
Launched on MUSE
2015-06-19
Open Access
No
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