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“Descended into Hell”: Rowan Williams on von Balthasar on Holy Saturday and the Trinity

“Descended into Hell”: Rowan Williams on von Balthasar on Holy Saturday and the Trinity February 13, 2012

…God’s ‘hiding’ of God in the dereliction of the Cross and the silence of Holy Saturday is in fact the definitive revelation. ‘It is precisely the unsurpassable radicality of this concealment which turns our gaze to it and makes the eyes of faith take notice’ (MP, 52). This does not mean, as one kind of modern theology would have it, that Holy Saturday establishes that the transcendent God is dead, emptied out into the pathos of the crucified; quite the opposite. Transcendence, in the sense of radical liberty from the systems of the created world, is given definition by God’s enduring, as God, the depths of godlessness. Equally. this is not some privileging of human vulnerability over impassibility,as if, pace the German Protestant theologian Jurgen Moltmann, God can only become truly or fully God by incorporating human suffering into divine activity (MP, 65-6). The emptiness of Holy Saturday is precisely the fullness, the already actual fullness of God: God can only be in humanity’s hell, because of what God already and eternally is (MP, 137).

God must be such as to make it possible for divine life to live in the heart of its own opposite, for divine life to be victorious simply by ‘sustaining’ itself in hell. But this directs us clearly to the conclusion that the divine identity cannot be a straightforward sameness or self-equivalence. God’s freedom to be God in the centre of what is not God (creation, suffering, hell) must not be grounded in an abstract liberty of the divine will (such a contentless liberty would only divide the divine will from any coherent account of divine consistency and thus personal dependability), but in the character of God’s life. If God can be revealed in the cross, if God can be actively God in hell, God is God in or even as what is other than God (a dead man, a lost soul). Yet that otherness must itself be intrinsic to God, not a self-alienation. If we are serious in regarding God as intrinsically loving, this otherness  must be something to do with divine love. Once again, we cannot think of God’s presence in the otherness of death and hell as if God initially lacked something which could be developed only through the process of Jesus’  experience.

But if the otherness within God is true otherness and if it is in no way conditioned from beyond, then it can only be imagined as the action of love and freedom; and an act of love and freedom that causes real otherness to subsist can in turn only be imagined as a self-emptying, a kenosis. Balthasar several times draws on the theological writings of the great Russian thinker Sergii Bulgakov for this language of an eternal kenosis in the life of God which itself then makes possible the kenosis involved in creation (MP, 35: GL7, 213-14; TD2, 264, note 27): God the Father pours out his divine life without remainder in the Son; his identity is constituted in this act of giving away, which Bulgakov dramatically describes as ‘self-devastationand Balthasar as a ‘divine godlessness’:

In the Father’s love there is an absolute renunciation of any possibility of God being for himself alone, a letting-go of the divine being, and in this sense a (divine) godlessness (a godlessness of love, of course, which cannot be in any way confused with the godlessness found within  this world, although it is also, transcendentally, the ground of the possibility of this worldly godlessness). (TD4, 323-4)

Rowan Williams. ‘Balthasar and the Trinity’, in The Cambridge Companion to Hans Urs von Balthasar. edited by Edward T. Oakes S.J. and David Moss


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