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  • Retrieving the Goat for Azazel:Balthasar's Biblical Soteriology
  • Richard Barry

Aaron shall take the two he-goats and let them stand before the Lord at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting; and he shall place lots upon the two goats, one marked for the Lord and the other marked for Azazel [the "scapegoat"]. Aaron shall bring forward the goat designated by lot for the Lord, which he is to offer as a sin offering; while the goat designated by lot for Azazel shall be left standing alive before the Lord, to make expiation with it and to send it off to the wilderness for Azazel.

—Leviticus 16: 7–10 (New Jewish Publication Society Tanakh)

The question is: Was he the one, great and final scapegoat for mankind? Did mankind load him with all its guilt, and did he, the Lamb of God, carry this guilt away?

—Hans Urs von Balthasar

Balthasar's Biblical Soteriology

Hans Urs von Balthasar's soteriology, including especially his theology of Christ's descent to hell, is one of the most biblical theologies of the cross to be written in the last century. Balthasar retrieves themes from ancient Jewish and Christian theological traditions that are essential to an adequate understanding of Jesus's saving work, even though these themes have been underappreciated (at least, in Catholic theology). While his approach is sometimes eccentric, no doctrine of atonement can wholly neglect the profound truths re-dis-covered [End Page 13] and re-articulated in Balthasar's great trilogy precisely because these teachings are so deeply woven into biblical revelation. Because Balthasar's theology of the Cross is often identified as one of the most problematic aspects of his theological legacy, my assertions may themselves seem eccentric. I hope to support them by first enumerating the metaphors and images that Balthasar uses for sin and then appealing to the recent studies of Gary A. Anderson and Jacob Milgrom to outline the necessary role of the "two goats" in priestly atonement theology, after which I will finally show how Balthasar retrieves the essential work of the "goat for Azazel" for modern Catholic theology.

Unspeakable Sin

Sin creates special problems for language. Of course, a great army of theologians is in place—now and always—ready to emphasize the challenge of "God-talk" and the related importance of an apophatic approach to theology. Even as academics spin their words into tome after tome, an infinite God is never caught in linguistic webs; this point is always worth repeating. But David Bentley Hart reminds us of another essential truth: "God's speech in creation does not, then, invite a speculative nisus toward silence—the silence of pure knowledge or of absolute saying—but doxology, an overabundance of words, hymnody, prayer."1 The same God who spoke our world into being invites us to join the angelic choir, even becoming the incarnate Word for us. In this sense, nothing is more natural than to speak joyfully of God. Creation has a doxological origin and destiny.

But sin is a special problem for language. Every word that tries to understand the meaning of "sin itself" is a word in mourning because all such words speak to a loss, to what might have been. None of them come close to the thing itself because—from the traditional metaphysical perspective—sin has no substance of its own. It is being inclined toward nothingness, and "nothing" is the truly unthinkable thought. Yet the psalmist says "my sin is ever before me" (Psalm 51:3): sin is our constant companion, and we have a pressing need to talk about it.

Especially in this unhappy situation, we lean on metaphors.2 Thus, in Sin: A History, Gary Anderson begins by pointing out how [End Page 14] unavoidable metaphors are in the quest to portray sin and how the metaphors we choose affect the way we conceive of corresponding positive ideas, such as forgiveness. As examples, he points out that "stained hands are cleansed, burdens are lifted, and debts are either paid off or remitted."3 By way of metaphor, words and images are given on loan to abstract and impossible subjects like "sin...


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