Balthasar, Universal Salvation, and Ralph Martin’s "Will Many Be Saved?"

The Catholic blogosphere is atwitter with discussion of a recent dustup between Mark Shea and Michael Voris regarding the latter’s criticism of Fr. Barron, over Barron’s continued receptivity toward a theory advanced by Hans Urs Von Balthasar that it is acceptable to have good hope that Hell may be empty. Boniface at Unam Sanctum has the blow-by-blow for those interested.

Appropos of the topic, I have just finished reading Ralph Martin’s Will Many Be Saved?: What Vatican II Actually Teaches and Its Implications for the New Evangelization (Eerdmans, 2012).


The question of whether and how people who have not had the chance to hear the gospel can be saved goes back to the beginnings of Christian reflection. It has also become a much-debated topic in current theology. In Will Many Be Saved? Ralph Martin focuses primarily on the history of debate and the development of responses to this question within the Roman Catholic Church, but much of Martin’s discussion is also relevant to the wider debate happening in many churches around the world.

In particular, Martin analyzes the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, the document from the Second Vatican Council that directly relates to this question. Contrary to popular opinion, Martin argues that according to this text, the conditions under which people who have not heard the gospel can be saved are very often, in fact, not fulfilled, with strong implications for evangelization.

I was very impressed by Martin’s survey of the subject and the praise from Timothy Dolan, Francis Cardinal George, Peter Cardinal Turkson and Archbishop Augustine Di Noia, O.P. seems to me warranted.

After a detailed explication of the doctrinal development and scriptural basis of section 16 of Lumen Gentium, Martin proceeds with a detailed analysis and criticism of Rahner’s “anonymous Christian” and the larger part of his book to Balthasar’s Dare we Hope that all may be saved?.

Martin’s negative evaluation of Rahner’s theology was to be expected, howbeit what I found interesting was how Rahner in his later years admitted to some critical reservations about his earlier position — as well as a “too euphoric” evaluation of humanity and the human condition at the Council. Likewise,

So the Council’s decree Gaudium et Spes can be blamed, despite all that is right in it, for underestimating sin, the social consequences of human guilt, the horrible possibilities of running into historical dead-ends, and so on.

Martin’s devastating critique of Balthasar, however, comes as more of a surprise. For even with figures as highly esteemed as Avery Dulles, Pope John Paul II, and Pope Emeritus Benedict giving a stamp of theological toleration (and/or approval) to Balthasar’s hope for universal salvation — Martin’s detailed exposition of Balthasar’s tendency to ignore, misquote or mischaracterize his sources (whether from the Scriptures, the Fathers or the mystics) as well as his questionable theological reasoning should give pause for all.

Consider for example:

At this point we can no more than mention that patristic scholars have raised serious questions about the accuracy of Balthasar’s interpretation of these Fathers, particularly his attempts to enlist them as sympathizers or teachers of universalism. Brian Daley, for example, challenges Balthasar’s assertion that Methodius was a universalist. He traces both Origen’s thought and its influence on Methodius and Gregory of Nyssa and he concludes that, not only does Methodius not teach this openly, but he does not even hold it secretly. […]

O’Connor identifies instances where Balthasar clearly misrepresents the teachings of the Fathers in order to claim precedents for his own theory. For example, Balthasar claims: “Let us return to the Church Fathers. At first, the view still existed among them that no Christians, even if they had sinned grievously, end up in hell. Cyprian already seems to suggest this; Hilary as well; Ambrose remains formal on the matter, and Jerome no less so.”137

O’Connor comments: “This statement is disappointingly inaccurate. . . . There is no Father of the Church, up to the time of Origen, who teaches that all Christians, even those who sinned grievously, are saved.” He finds Balthasar’s citation of Cyprian particularly egregious, for the actual text of Cyprian teaches the very opposite; the Christian sinner who sins grievously and then repents can be saved.138 He also points out that, contrary to Balthasar, the earliest Christian writing outside of the NT that attests to the reality of hell was not the Martyrdom of Polycarp (c. 156) but the even earlier Second Epistle of Clement …

Manfred Hauke also raises questions about Balthasar’s invocation of various Fathers in support of his theory, noting that it is precisely those ambiguous teachings of various Fathers that were never accepted by the Church that Balthasar cites for support.

Martin devotes a substantial amount of his book to exposing what appears to be, from a standpoint of academic integrity, a rather questionable treatment by Balthasar of myriad sources — the Scriptures, the Fathers, the mystics, in support of a position that is squarely at odds with the weight of Catholic tradition. Indeed, my experience o Martin was not unlike that of reading the late Ralph McInerney’s “Praeambula Fidei”: Thomism And the God of the Philosophers, in which he laid bare Henri De Lubac and Etienne Gilson’s (mis)interpretation of Cajetan and Aquinas.

Is Martin (and Daley, and O’Connor, and Hauke, et al.) correct in his assessment of Balthasar? Balthasar strikes me as being neither ignorant nor a fool,
and Martin’s portrayal imputes an element of brazenness in advancing his position, at once professing his orthodoxy and repudiating apokatastasis while covertly hinting at it:

O’Connor describes the situation like this:

Although he rejects the theory of apokatastasis, von Balthasar is so categorical in denying that we know that there are or will be humans who are to be eternally damned, and so forceful in defense of a hope for the salvation of all that he appears to be saying that, in fact, no one will be eternally lost.

Roch Kereszty makes a similar observation:

Does his understanding allow for a definitive free refusal of God’s love on the part of any human being? He repeatedly insists on this possibility, but the inner consistency of his thought does not seem to admit it. . . . My reservation regarding his position comes from the suspicion that the logic of his thought leads not just to hope, but to a (consciously denied but logically inescapable) certainty for the salvation of all.142

The charges practically scream for a rebuttal. (Paging qualified Balthasar scholars …).

For a theological movement that styles itself Ressourcement must be, if anything, honest in the treatment of its sources. If Martin’s critique of Balthasar is correct (as McInerney is in his criticism of De Lubac) — if their scholarship on this particular subject is simply not to be trusted, and found wanting — it casts some doubt upon the integrity of their work as a whole. Where else could they have gone wrong?

At the very least, I do find myself reading the work of both De Lubac and Balthasar with a more cautious eye, and a more attentive ear to those sounding the alarm.

* * *

One final piece of theological trivia worth noting — Balthasar ends Dare we Hope with a lengthy citation from the unpublished theological speculations of Edith Stein, ““which expresses most exactly the position that I have tried to develop.” Stein asserts that while the possibility of the soul’s refusal of grace and consequent damnation in principle cannot be rejected, “In reality, it can become infinitely improbable — precisely through what preparatory grace is capable of effecting in the soul.” According to Stein,

The more improbable it becomes that the soul will remain closed to it. . . . If all the impulses opposed to the spirit of light have been expelled from the soul, then any free decision against this has become infinitely improbable. Then faith in the unboundedness of divine love and grace also justifies hope for the universality of redemption, although through the possibility of resistance to grace that remains open in principle, the possibility of eternal damnation also persists.

But here’s the catch: While Balthasar identifies himself completely with this passage from the saint, Stein herself moved beyond it and revised her position in later years:

Schenk, “Factical Damnation,” p. 150, n. 35, points out that while Balthasar makes this his final position, it was not the final position of Edith Stein herself. Schenk points out that these were passing comments in a work that she herself never published, and that in 1939 in her spiritual testament, she significantly modifies. “The possibility of some final loss appears more real and pressing than one which would seem infinitely improbable.” Hauke, “Sperare per tutti?” pp. 207-8, makes the same point as well as the additional point that not everything a saint or Doctor wrote is honored when they are recognized as saints or Doctors.

Dr. Martin received his BA from the University of Notre Dame in Philosophy and did Graduate work on a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship in Philosophy at Princeton University. He received his MA in theology from Sacred Heart Major Seminary and has been on the faculty since 2002. He holds a S.T.L. degree from the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. and an S.T.D. in systematic theology from the Pontifical Faculty of St. Thomas Aquinas (The Angelicum) in Rome. He teaches in the areas of systematic theology, spirituality and evangelization and is Director of Graduate Theology Programs in the New Evangelization which includes the STL program as well as the New Evangelization concentrations in the MA and MAPS programs.

He has published widely and is engaged actively in Catholic evangelization through the non-profit organization Renewal Ministries, of which he is president. His latest books are Will Many Be Saved? What Vatican II Actually Teaches and Its Implications for the New Evangelization and The Fulfillment of All Desire: A Guidebook for the Journey to God Based on the Wisdom of the Saints.

In December of 2011 Pope Benedict XVI appointed Dr. Martin to a five year term as a Consultor for the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization. In 2012 Dr. Martin was appointed by Pope Benedict XVI as an “expert” for the World Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelization.

Book Reviews of Ralph Martin’s Will Many be Saved?

  • Who Will Be Saved, How Many and How?, by Fr. C. John McCloskey. National Catholic Register 9/28/13.
  • Review: Will Many be Saved?, by Peter A. Huff. Xavier University. Homiletic and Pastoral Review March 2013:

    Martin’s timely and provocative study is likely to shake up the theological and pastoral establishment. Critics will find a scholarship that is derivative in spots, and a prose that occasionally borders on turgid. Some will dismiss the work as biblicist. Historians will demand harder evidence to establish a link between professional theologians’ ideas, and a mood allegedly dominating a Catholic generation or two. The erosion of belief is overdetermined, as Freud would say. One can cease to believe in hell, without marching orders from a German-speaking theologian.

    The thrust of the book’s bold thesis, however, cannot be ignored, or easily denied. Universal salvation is an unofficial article of faith in the mainstream Catholic theological academy. Martin’s claim that it has no basis in the teachings of Vatican II demands a serious and self-critical response. His book restores evangelization to its proper status as a genuine Vatican II theme. Every seminarian, priest, college professor, and administrator should read it. It may not be the best book on Vatican II released during the Year of Faith, but it could be the most important.

  • Oh, Hell, by Dr. Philip Blosser. The Pertinacious Papist 12/14/12.
  • Review: Will Many be Saved?, by Rev. Andrew McLean Cummings. Archdiocese of Baltimore. Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly, Fall/Winter 2012.
  • Saving the Hell Out of You, by Fr. Robert Barron. RealClearReligion. 12/13/12.

    Responses to Fr. Barron

  • The Flight from Hell, by William Doino, Jr. First Things “On the Square” 10/08/12.
  • Will Many Be Saved?, by Dr. Jeff Mirus. Catholic Culture 9/19/12. “If you can read only one book on this topic, which is so critical for a continuing Catholic renewal and the salvation of souls, read Ralph Martin’s Will Many Be Saved?. You will find it a valuable exercise in spiritual growth, and a vital means of setting the record straight.”
  • “Blatant Censorship” and Ralph Martin’s Will Many Be Saved? – On Mark Brumley’s pulling of David Paul Deavel’s review from The Catholic World Report.

Related discussions of Dare We Hope?

Personal note — I found it refreshing to revisit the research of Avery Cardinal Dulles on this subject (referenced above), where he gives what I think is fair treatment to both sides. Cardinal Dulles had a calming presence about him, conveying a sense of both scholarly neutrality (letting the research speak for itself) as well as Christian charity (presenting each position in the best light and not imbuing the other party with dubious motives).

It seems to me that the voices in these times have gotten increasingly more shrill (Mark Shea and Michael Voris strike me as prime examples). As Catholic blogs renew these theological debates (at times ad nauseum), Dulles’ tone and presentaton is one worth emulating.

And Alyssa Pitstick vs. Balthasar over Christ’s descent into Hell

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