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The Inflated Reputation of Hans Urs von Balthasar

by Rev. Regis Scanlon, O.F.M. Cap.

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  • Description:
    In this article Regis Scanlon investigates the widely revered theological ideas of Hans Urs von Balthasar, the late Swiss Catholic theologian, especially concerning the notion of universal salvation.
  • Larger Work:
    New Oxford Review
  • Pages: 17-24
  • Publisher & Date:
    New Oxford Review, Inc., March 2000

The theological ideas of Hans Urs von Balthasar, the Swiss Catholic theologian who died in 1988, have captured the imagination of Catholic scholars throughout the Church. Both "conservative" and "progressive" churchmen have hailed him as one of the century's pre-eminent theologians. He has been called one of "the twentieth century's outstanding Catholic thinkers," and compared to Augustine and Aquinas. Clearly, Balthasar's opinions carry considerable weight among Catholics today.

Balthasar's "Hope" For Judas & All Men

Balthasar, in Dare We Hope "That All Men Be Saved"? claimed there was no certainty that anyone is in Hell or ever will be in Hell. He stated that "the Church ... has never said anything about the damnation of any individual. Not even about that of Judas." Thus, he declared, every Christian has the "obligation" to hope that all men are saved, including Judas.

It seems compassionate to desire that all men be saved and to be horrified at the thought of anyone suffering eternal punishment -- even Judas. But this feeling must not cloud the intellect to the point of undermining the Gospel or the natural law and truth itself. The problem with Balthasar's "hope" is that it conceals an implicit doubt about the Church's philosophy of truth and her doctrine on Jesus Christ.

A hope is absurd unless there is the possibility that it will be realized in the future. But, if Balthasar's "hope" would come to fruition and everyone would in fact be saved, what would then be said about the fact that this situation contradicts statements in sacred Scriptures, Tradition, and the Magisterium of the Church? If these sources clearly teach that Judas or someone else is in Hell (or will be in Hell), then to hope that everyone will be saved is to hope either that these sources of revelation are in error or that the natural law with its principle of noncontradiction is in error. A hope like this really seems to be a doubt that the natural law and "unchangeable truth" exist and can be known by the Church. It seems to be a doubt about one's faith and the sources of revelation. And if Jesus Christ Himself taught that Judas or anyone else is in Hell (or will be in Hell), then to "hope" for universal salvation is to hope that Jesus made erroneous statements. The most disconcerting feature of Balthasar's hope for universal salvation is that its logic appears to require an assumption of Christ's ignorance and fallibility.

But the question is: Do Scriptures, Tradition, and the Magisterium clearly teach anything about the end of Judas and the possibility of universal salvation? Let's investigate.

The Gospel Of John 17:12

The certainty of Judas's damnation does not primarily rest on Matthew's statement: "It would be better for that man if he had never been born" (Mt. 26:24). Rather, as St. Augustine demonstrated in his Homilies on the Gospel of John, it is John 17:12 that indicates Judas's eternal punishment:

The Son therefore goes on to say: "Those that thou gavest me, I have kept, and none of them is lost, but [i.e., except] the son of perdition, that the Scripture might be fulfilled" (Jn. 17:12). The betrayer of Christ was called the son of perdition, as foreordained to perdition, according to the Scripture, where it is specially prophesied of him in the 109th psalm" [in some Bibles 108th Psalm] (Tractate cvii, No.7, ch. xvii. 9-13).

When Jesus stated, "that the Scripture might be fulfilled," He was referring to Psalm 109. St. Peter applied Psalm 109:8 to Judas, when he said: "It is written in the Book of Psalms, ... 'May another take his office"' (Acts 1:20). By applying Psalm 109:8 to Judas, Peter also pointed to Judas's damnation, because Psalm 109:6-7 says of the very same person mentioned there: "Set thou the sinner over him: and may the devil stand at his right hand. When he is judged, may he go out condemned and may his prayer be turned to sin." Verse 7, "May his prayer be turned to sin," or "May his plea be in vain," foretells Judas's (the betrayer's) final impenitence. So, John 17:12, Acts 1:20, and Psalm 109:7 together indicate the betrayer's eternal damnation.

St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, also maintained that Judas suffered eternal punishment because he died without final repentance and forgiveness. St. Ambrose in his Concerning Repentance said: "For I suppose that even Judas might through the exceeding mercy of God not have been shut out from forgiveness, if he had expressed his sorrow not before the Jews but before Christ." St. Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theologica stated: "Thus; as men are ordained to eternal life through the providence of God, it likewise is part of that providence to permit some to fall away from that end; this is called reprobation" (1a, q. 23, art. 3). And in De Veritate St. Thomas said: "Now, in the case of Judas, the abuse of grace was the reason for his reprobation, since he was made reprobate because he died without grace" (vol. 1, q. 6, art. 2). St. Thomas certainly judged that "Judas was reprobated." ("Reprobated" means rejected by God and beyond hope of salvation.)

Again, according to St Catherine of Siena, God the Father pointed out Judas's eternal punishment when He explained to Catherine the meaning of the sin against the Holy Spirit. God said:

This is that sin which is never forgiven, now or ever: the refusal, the scorning, of my mercy. For this offends me more than all the other sins they have committed. So the despair of Judas displeased me more and was a greater insult to my Son than his betrayal had been. Therefore, such as these are reproved for this false judgment of considering their sin to be greater than my mercy, and for this they are punished with the demons and tortured eternally with them (No. 37, emphasis added).

Thus, Judas perished not simply because of his part in Jesus' trial, but because of a final act of "despair" or "blasphemy against the Holy Spirit" (Mk. 3:29) at the "moment of death," says St. Catherine.

Finally, other saints taught that Judas's perdition was certain. For example, the great scholar St. Thomas More in The Sadness of Christ said: "The place of Scripture which predicts that Judas would perish is in Psalm 109, where the psalmist prophesies in the form of a prayer: 'May his days be few, and may another take over his ministry."' More explained:

the fact that this prophetic utterance applies to Judas was suggested by Christ [Jn. 17:12], was made clear by Judas's suicide, was afterwards made quite explicit by Peter [Acts 1:20], and was fulfilled by all the apostles when Mathias was chosen by lot to take his place [Acts 1:26] and thus another took over his ministry.... He [Christ] has spoken: "Father, I have guarded those whom you gave to me, and none of them has perished except the son of perdition." I think it worthwhile to consider here for a moment how strongly Christ foretold in these words the contrast between the end of Judas and the end of the rest, the ruination of the traitor Judas and the success of the others. For He asserts each future outcome with such certainty that He announces them not as future happenings but as events that have already definitely taken place....

St Thomas More referred to Judas's act as one of "refusing to be saved." He also stated: "Infallibly certain about the fate of the traitor, Christ expresses his future ruin with such certainty that He asserts it as if it had already come to pass."

The Gospel Of Luke 13:23-24

A second scriptural passage that abolishes the possibility of universal salvation, and with it Balthasar's hope that all men be saved, is Luke 13:23-24. Luke states: "But someone said to him, 'Lord, are only a few to be saved?' But he said to them, 'Strive to enter by the narrow gate; for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able"' (Lk. 13:23-24). Now, "many ... will not be able ... to enter" means that "many" will not be saved.

Jesus' words in Luke 13:23-24 cannot be false. Pius X "condemned" the statement that "Divine inspiration does not so extend to all Sacred Scripture, that it fortifies each and every part of it against all error." (Enchiridion Symbolorum [Denzinger] 30th edition, Nos. 2011, 2065 [a]. Texts from this standard work will be cited as Denz.) And the Second Vatican Council states that "the books of Scripture" "teach" the "truth" of God "without error" (Dei Verbum, No. 11). Thus, there is divine, infallible, or absolute certainty that many will not enter the Kingdom of God.

Balthasar in Dare We Hope admitted that St. Augustine's belief that many go to Hell was clearly held by the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, such as "Gregory the Great... Anselm, Bonaventure, and Thomas [Aquinas]," and by Church scholars such as the Venerable Cardinal Newman. Balthasar blamed St. Augustine for misleading the Church about the "numerous inhabitants" of Hell. But in fact it was Jesus, not Augustine, who first said that "many" would be lost (Lk. 13:23-24). Also, Jude 1:7 says that, "Sodom and Gomorrah ... have been made an example, undergoing the punishment of eternal fire." The Council of Quiersy in 853 stated that, "not all will be saved" (Denz. No. 318); the Third Council of Valence in 855 referred to those "who from the beginning of the world even up to the passion of our Lord, have died in their wickedness and have been punished by eternal damnation" (Denz. No. 323); and Pius II in 1459 even condemned the opinion "That all Christians are to be saved" (Denz. No. 717[b]).

Thus, even though the Magisterium has not yet condemned Judas by name or the mere "hope" for universal salvation, the Church is not in doubt about this matter. Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium certify that Judas and others have perished. Consequently, Balthasar's "hope" for universal salvation would necessarily be a "hope" that contradicts Scriptures, Tradition, and Magisterium.

Balthasar's Philosophical Reasons

A look at Hegelian philosophy will help us understand why Balthasar thought that he could contradict Jesus' statement that Judas is "lost" by hoping that Judas is saved. Eighteenth-century philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel claimed that no religious statement or concept is absolutely true. All are false or relative in some way. Only God is absolute truth. Therefore, according to Hegel's understanding, religious statements, concepts, or dogmas can be contradictory and only find their resolution or synthesis in God who is Absolute Truth. Hegel said that every concept contained a "Negative, which it carries within itself." For Hegel this positive-negative opposition within the concept was called the dialectic and it was "a necessary procedure of reason." Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary defines "dialectic" as "the Hegelian process of change in which a concept or its realization passes over into and is preserved and fulfilled by its opposite." Thus, Hegel maintained "the Necessity of Contradiction" for all thought to develop toward the Absolute, which is God.

Similarly, Balthasar believed that contradiction is a part of truth. As he explained in Word and Revelation, he believed that expressions of' "worldly truth," like "worldly Being," can be "contradictory" and even expressions of scriptural truths can be opposites or "contrary." Balthasar agreed with Hegel that "only God is 'the absolute truth'" and "'all truth is not, negation itself is in God' " (emphasis added). Thus, statements in the Bible are not absolutely true but each is relative and in some way negative or false, and these statements will find their synthesis only when we come to the Father who is absolute truth. But, for now, one cannot have complete confidence even in the words of Christ. Balthasar stated: "The word of Christ, who spoke as no other had spoken, who alone spoke as one having power, is nonetheless an insecure bridge between the wordlessness of the world and the superword of the father" (emphasis added).

Thus, Balthasar argued in Dare We Hope, beside the condemnatory scriptural statements that teach that there are people in Hell, there are also redemptive scriptural statements that "hold out the prospect of universal redemption." He used this example: "God wills that all men be saved" (1 Tim. 2:4). Balthasar claimed that these redemptive scriptural statements are "seemingly opposed" to the condemnatory scriptural statements such as "many ... will not be able... to enter." He maintained that, "we neither can nor may bring [them] into synthesis." Since these "contradictory" statements can only be resolved in eternal life, we don't know the outcome. So, for Balthasar, we can still hope that Judas is saved.

But these statements appear contradictory only because Balthasar interpreted God's statements of desire, such as "God wills that all men be saved," as if they were statements of future realities, like "many ... will not be able ... to enter." But, we cannot treat God's statements of desire as if they were statements about future realities. Just as we know that God willed or desired Adam and Eve not to eat of the "fruit of the tree in the middle of the Garden" (Gen. 3:3), so we know for certain that God desires that no one sin. But, Adam and Eve ate of the tree and sinned. Consequently, hoping that all will be saved -- when Scripture says that some are lost -- is like hoping that no one ever sins when we know that Adam and Eve have sinned. The hope is an absurdity.

More importantly, however, Balthasar's philosophy of truth violates the first self-evident principle of the speculative reason (the natural law), which states that the same thing cannot be affirmed and denied at the same time (the principle of noncontradiction). One cannot say that Judas is "lost" and that Judas is "not lost" (saved) at the same time. And to "hope" that Judas is saved when Scripture says that he is already lost is to hope for a contradiction in Scripture and in the Church's teachings. But, this violates the Church's defined teaching that "God cannot... ever contradict truth with truth" (Denz. No. 1797), which guarantees that the meaning of Jesus' teachings in the New Testament and the Church's dogmas can never be different but always remain the same (Denz. No.1818).

Let's look at the most probable theological reason why Balthasar would be so bold as to "hope" for universal salvation in flat contradiction to Jesus' words in John 17:12 and Luke 13:24.

The Most Likely Theological Reason

Balthasar did not believe that Jesus' omniscience (or his all-knowing attribute) kept Him from speaking error or functioned to make Jesus' statements infallible. In You Crown the Year With Your Goodness, Balthasar stated:

But is not the Son of God also God? As such, is he not omniscient? Yes, but that does not mean that he wished to share all his divine attributes with his human nature. Here, doubtless, there are mysteries we shall never fully penetrate. But one thing we can say: just as the Son, as God, eternally receives full divinity (and hence full omniscience) from his Father, so he eternally gives himself, all that he has and is, back to the Father in gratitude; it is at his Father's disposal. Thus, in some way, we can understand that, when the Son's eternal "procession" from the Father takes the shape of a "mission" to the world, the Son deposits his divine attributes (without losing them) with the Father in heaven. For we read that he "emptied himself" of his divine form (Phil. 2:27) precisely so that he could be humanly obedient unto death (emphasis added).

Balthasar implies that, though the "Son of God" has "omniscience," His "omniscience" is nonfunctional when He comes to earth on a "mission." For Balthasar, when the Son of God "emptied himself" for His mission to the world, He emptied Himself of His divine attribute of "omniscience" "without losing" it. But, how does the divine Son, Jesus Christ, have omniscience and at the same time not have omniscience? Balthasar seems to say in effect that, when the Son of God descended into the womb of Our Lady, He came down with a case of divine amnesia.

So, if the Son of God's divine omniscience was not operative while He was on earth, then He did not know more than any other human being. Consequently, for Balthasar, Jesus (like anyone else) could not know beyond His own human experience, and the infallibility of His eschatological statements about the hereafter cannot be guaranteed.

According to Balthasar, then, Jesus' nonfunctioning divine omniscience would surely have affected His knowledge of the last judgment. Balthasar stated:

he [Jesus] is strictly ignorant of the hour. "But of that day or that hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, not the Son, but only the Father" (Mk. 13:32). This is crucially important; we must take it absolutely literally (emphasis added).

But, the "hour" of Jesus' final coming is the "hour" of the last judgment, for the scriptural passage that speaks of the judgment of the "sheep" and "goats" begins: "When the Son of Man comes in his glory" (Mt. 25:31-46). If Jesus was "strictly ignorant of the hour" of His final coming, He was ignorant of the last judgment of Judas and others. So, Balthasar implies that Jesus was ignorant and fallible about the last judgment and the final end of Judas and others.

Because Balthasar's hope for universal salvation contradicts Christ's words in John 17:12 and Luke 13:23-24, the validity of Balthasar's hope logically depends upon the possibility of Christ's statements in John 17:12 and Luke 13:24 being erroneous. So, even though Balthasar nowhere explicitly states it, his "hope" is logically based upon his theory that Christ did not speak with omniscience and infallibility.

Balthasar's "Hope" Rested On A Condemned Theory

If one were to accept Balthasar's theory that Jesus was "strictly ignorant of the hour" of His final coming, one could hardly explain how Jesus could describe the events of His final coming in Matthew 24:15-42 ("the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light... they will see the Son of Man coming upon the clouds of heaven"). This is what St. Ephrem, the fourth-century Doctor of the Church, pointed out. In his Commentary on the Diatessaron he stated about Jesus: "He described the signs of his coming; how could what he has himself decided be hidden from him?" St. Ephrem said that the first reason why Our Lord did not make the time of His final coming plain, was "so all generations and ages await him eagerly" and "think that he would come again in their own day." St. Ephrem also said, "He has not made it plain for this reason especially, that no one may think that he whose power and dominion rule all numbers and times is ruled by fate and time."

Thus, this opinion, that there was ignorance in Jesus, was already rejected during the fourth-century Arian heresy by Church Fathers such as St. Ephrem (and St. Ambrose). It was officially condemned by Pope Vigilius on May 14, 553, when he taught that "If anyone says that the one Jesus Christ, true Son of God and true Son of Man, was ignorant of future things, or of the day of the last judgment ... let him be anathema." (Denzinger, 29th ed., No. 419).

This error was refuted most thoroughly in A.D. 600 when Pope Gregory I (St. Gregory the Great) rebutted the Monophysite sect known as the "Agnoetae" who also held that Mark 13:32 ("neither the Son, nor the angels know the day and the hour") indicated that Christ was ignorant (all cites in this paragraph are from Denz. No. 248). Pope Gregory taught that Christ knew by means of two natures, and what He did not know "from" His human nature, He knew "from" His divine nature. Thus, Pope Gregory maintained that, while Christ knew "the day and the hour of judgment" in His human nature, He knew this from His divine nature and not from His human nature. He said: "Therefore, that which in [nature] itself He knew, He did not know from that very [nature]." So, Christ knew all things "in His human nature." Pope Gregory stated: "so the omnipotent Son says He does not know the day which He causes not to be known, not because He himself is ignorant of it, but because He does not permit it to be known at all." And, he concluded:

For with what purpose can he who confesses that the Wisdom itself of God is incarnate say that there is anything, which the Wisdom of God does not know? It is written: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.... All things were made by him [John 1:13]. If all, without doubt also the day of judgment and the hour. Who, therefore, is so foolish as to presume to assert that the Word of the Father made that which He does not know? It is written also: Jesus knowing, that the Father gave him all things into his hands [John 13:3]. If all things, surely both the day of judgment and the hour. Who, therefore, is so stupid as to say that the Son has received in His hands that of which He is unaware? (Denz. No. 248.)

Obviously, if the Son received into His hands "all things," including "the day of judgment," surely He also knew who would, and who would not, be saved -- even Judas!

Again, there is only "one Person" in "Christ" and this Person is a divine Person -- namely, "God" (Denz. No. 282-283). We say that the divine Person Jesus Christ knows by means of His two natures. But, while Jesus Christ has a double consciousness, He has only one center or I (ego) of consciousness, which is divine. John Paul II puts it this way:

There is no gospel text, which indicates that Christ spoke of himself as a human person, even when he frequently referred to himself as "Son of Man." This term is rich with meaning. Under the veil of biblical and messianic expression, it seems to imply that he who applies it to himself belongs to a different and higher order than that of ordinary mortals as far as the reality of his "I" is concerned. It is a term, which bears witness to his intimate awareness of his own divine identity.

Although He has a fully human nature and a fully divine nature, Christ is a divine Person, not a human person. And, whatever we say about the knowledge of the Person of Jesus Christ we say about the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity. Thus, Jesus Christ had infinite knowledge "in" His human nature, but He had this knowledge from His divine Person.

Jesus could experience suffering in His human nature as something new to His Person, which He had never experienced. And, surely, as Fr. John Harden says, Christ had "sense perception and derive[d] corresponding knowledge from such experience" -- i.e., "experiential knowledge" (The Catholic Catechism). Once more, the Son of God (Jesus Christ) could "conceal" some property manifested by His Person, like the manifestation of His glory or the immensity of His majesty (see Phil. 2:7, "he emptied himself), and this would account for a lack of consolation flowing to His human nature from His beatific vision. But He could not give up something intrinsic to His divine Person or His divine Being. And God's self-knowledge is intrinsic to His divine Being, for St. Thomas Aquinas says that, "God understands Himself through Himself." And, he says: "the act of God's intellect is His substance" and "His act of understanding must be His essence and His existence" (Summa Theologica, 1a, q. 14, art. 2).

It is not surprising, then, that Pius X "condemned" any statement that denies "the infallible knowledge of Jesus Christ" or any statement that denies that Jesus had "knowledge circumscribed by no limit" (Denz. Nos. 2032, 2034, 2065[a]). Nor was it surprising that under Benedict XV the Church taught that "Christ was ignorant of nothing, but from the beginning knew all things in the Word, past, present, and future, or all things that God knows by the knowledge of vision" (Denz. Nos. 2184, 2289). So, Balthasar's "hope" for universal salvation rested logically on a theory of Christ's ignorance and fallibility, which had been often and variously condemned.

Compassion To A Fault

If Jesus suffered from divine amnesia, then there is more in doubt than just the eternal whereabouts of Judas. If Jesus' omniscience and infallibility were nonfunctional, then Christianity itself is in doubt. Mark 13:32 ("neither the Son, nor the angels know the day and the hour") can be explained in harmony with the Fathers and the Tradition of the Church. One should note that when Mark uses the term "Son" he is not referring to Jesus as Son of God, with an emphasis on Jesus' divine nature, but as "Son of Man," with an emphasis on Jesus' human nature (Mk. 8:31, 9:9, 10:33, 13:26). Thus, when Jesus refers to His own knowledge or act of knowing (neither the Son ... knows), this is most probably a reference to the origin of this knowledge, or Jesus' human act of knowing through His human consciousness. In other words, Jesus is saying that "the Son" (of Man) does not "know" the day or the hour of His coming "from" His human nature (although He knew these things from His divine nature). This is in harmony with the Fathers and the popes of the Church who have consistently interpreted Mark 13:32 down through the ages to mean that Jesus knew the day and the hour but chose not to reveal it to mankind. And, if a scriptural passage can be interpreted in harmony with the rest of the Church and Scriptures, the Catholic must accept this interpretation. When Balthasar interpreted Mark 13:32 apart from the Tradition and Magisterium of the Church, especially in flat contradiction to Pope Vigilius's "anathema," he sided with Nestorians, Arians, and other heretics.

St. Teresa of Avila stated about a doubt or "thought" against a Church teaching, even a "small truth" of the Church: "just to pause over this thought is already very wrong." Similarly, the Venerable John Henry Newman, in Discourses to Mixed Congregations, stated that, "no one should enter the Church without a firm purpose of taking her word in all matters of doctrine and morals, and that, on the ground of her coming directly from the God of Truth." Moreover, he said about a Catholic who "set out about following a doubt which has occurred to him": "I have not to warn him against losing his faith, he is not merely in danger of losing it, he has lost it; from the nature of the case he has lost it; he fell from grace at the moment when he deliberately entertained and pursued his doubt" (emphasis added). From this perspective the most disquieting feature of Balthasar's "hope" for universal salvation is that it smuggles into the heart of the Catholic a serious doubt about the truth of the Catholic faith under the guise of one of the most beautiful and natural aspects of love, namely, compassion.

Fr. Regis Scanlon, OFM Cap., is the Archdiocese of Denver's prison chaplain, and is spiritual director for Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity who run a personal-care home in Denver for people suffering from AIDS.

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