Thursday, March 24, 2011

Jesus of Nazareth by Joseph Ratzinger

In an online "Fleabytes" broadcast entitled No Pope of Rome?, David Robertson, editor of the Free Church of Scotland's Monthly Record pondered the significance of Pope Benedict XVIth's state visit to the UK in September 2010. It was a thoughtful piece, reflecting on the dangers of religious prejudice and sectarian bigotry.

As a prominent Minister in one of Scotland's most avowedly Protestant denominations, Robertson was careful to say that he disagreed with some of the main tenets of the Roman Catholic Church, "I'm not going to defend the papal office. I think that Catholic soteriology is wrong and confusing, their view of baptism is wrong, and their view of the Mass is at best nonsensical and  at worst, blasphemous. And to be honest, I don't even think that there should be a pope".

However, brandishing the book under review in this post, Robertson said that reading Benedict XVIth's Jesus of Nazareth made him warm to the pope as a "Christian brother". Surprising words from a man in his position. Robertson attempted to justify his stance towards "brother Ratzinger" by quoting what Robert Murray M'Cheyne wrote concerning the Bavarian Roman Catholic priest, Martin Boos,
...the living servant of Christ is dear to my heart, and welcome to address my flock, let him come from whatever quarter of the earth he may.... If dear Martin Boos were alive, pastor of the Church of Rome though he was, he would have been welcome too; and who that knows the value of souls and the value of a living testimony would say it was wrong?
Boos was an unusual Roman Catholic clergyman in that he believed in justification by faith alone (see here and here). Ratzinger, however, doesn't. When Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, his initial response to the Joint Declaration on Justification by the Holy See and the World Lutheran Federation, was to pronounce that Lutheran doctrine of justification is incompatible with the Roman Catholic teaching on the consequences of baptism. In his book on Saint Paul, Ignatius Press, 2009, Ratzinger looks at Paul's teaching on justification by faith. He says that "Luther's phrase: "faith alone" is true, if it is not opposed to faith in charity, in love." (p. 82) While it is right that the faith which alone justifies "works through love" (Galatians 5:6), it is not the case that we are justified on account of our love to God and man so that, "And thus transformed by [Christ's] love, by the love of God and neighbour, we can truly be just in God's eyes." (p. 83). That is in keeping with classic post-Tridentine Roman Catholic teaching on justification. Faith and works are merged as the basis of the sinner's justification before God. Given what Paul wrote in Galatians 1:6-9 concerning false teachers who denied justification by faith alone, I wonder whether Robertson was wise to suggest that the current pope might be welcome in a Free Church of Scotland pulpit.

And so to the book that made David Robertson so warm to Joseph Ratzinger. I can certainly understand what Robertson means, as there are many good and helpful things in this work. Given the often heard Protestant complaint that Rome pays little attention to the Bible, it is refreshing that the current leader of the Roman Catholic church has devoted sustained and serious attention to Scripture's witness to Jesus Christ. Ratzinger makes it clear that this study is in no way an exercise of the magisterium (Rome's official interpretation of the Bible). Rather, he says it is, "solely an expression of my personal search 'for the face of the Lord' (cf. Ps. 27:8)."

The book gives a portrait of the life and teaching of Jesus from his baptism to the transfiguration. In his approach to the Bible, Ratzinger adopts the practice of "canonical exegesis". He attempts to read individual texts of Scripture in the light of the whole. He deploys a "Christological hermeneutic", which recognises that Jesus is the key to understanding the Bible as a unity. He has a fine sense of the redemptive-historical flow of biblical revelation. Ratzinger's handling of Scripture is often insightful and is shot through with telling practical application.  He thoughtfully relates teaching of Jesus in 1st century to important issues in the 21st. His interpretation of the Bible is informed by the rich heritage of patristic exegesis. However, Ratzinger's indebtedness to critical scholarship is betrayed by his use of the label "Deutero-Isaiah" for Isaiah 40-55, which he dates at the end of the Babylonian exile (p. 347).

Ratzinger's handling of Jesus' parable of the vinedressers in Mark 12:1-12 is a good example of his overall approach. He sets the parable against the backdrop of Isaiah 5 and Psalm 80 and carefully unpacks its message before saying of the words, "Come, let us kill him [the son], and the inheritance will be ours." (Mark 12:7),   "Isn't this precisely the logic of the modern age, of our age? Let us declare that God is dead, then we ourselves will be God.... At last we can do as we please." (p. 257).

In his role as Prefect for the Doctrine of the Congregation of the Faith (1981-2005), Ratzinger was a scourge of liberal theologians who wished to overturn the faith of the Church.  Here he has little patience with the view that Jesus was little more than a great teacher and a good example for us to follow. He makes it clear at the outset that Jesus of Nazareth, as the only Son of the Father, is fully God and truly man. Working from that standpoint, he discusses the key events of Jesus' earthly life, his baptism, temptations, Peter's confession that Jesus is the Son of God, and his transfiguration. He also gives attention to Jesus' teaching as recorded in the Synoptic Gospels; the Gospel of the Kingdom, the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord's Prayer and the message of the parables. Ratzinger devotes a chapter to the Principal Images of John's Gospel; Water, Vine and Wine, Bread and The Shepherd. Finally in a concluding essay on Jesus Declares His Identity, he looks at three Christological names, The Son of Man, The Son and I Am.

There are many things in this work that will warm the hearts of Evangelical Christians. Commenting on Jesus' self-identification as "I AM", he writes,  
"When you have lifted up the Son of man, then you will know that I am he" (Jn. 8:28). On the Cross, his Sonship, his oneness with the Father becomes visible. The Cross is the true "height". It is the height of "love to the end" (Jn. 13:1). On the Cross, Jesus is exalted to the very height of the God who is love. It is there that he can be "known", that the "I am he" can be recognized. (p. 349).  
While Roman dogmas don't unduly protrude in the text, they are nevertheless present as a reminder that the author of this study is none other than Pope Benedict XVI. Being "born of water and the Spirit", John 3:5 is explained in terms of baptismal regeneration, p. 239f. The Bread of Life discourse in John 6 is interpreted sacramentally in language suggestive of transubstantiation, p. 267-272. While Ratzinger does not spell out the Roman teaching on papal primacy in his handling of Matthew 16:18, a note in the back of the book (p. 373) shows that he still holds to this dogma. As the most recent "successor of Peter", Benedict XVI believes that he has "full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered." (The Catechism of the Catholic Church, Para. 882).

In commending Ratzinger as a "Christian brother" on the basis of this work, David Robertson has fallen into a similar trap to Evangelicals involved in Evangelicals and Catholics Together. In their book Is The Reformation Over, Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom argue that as Evangelicals agree with around two thirds of the teaching in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, that we should regard Roman Catholics as "Christians" without qualification. That is clearly problematic, as the differences concern serious, gospel-defining issues. Similarly, while we might agree with many of the things that Benedict XVI has to say in Jesus of Nazareth,  his teaching must be taken as a whole. We must also take into account his views on baptismal regeneration, the Mass, justification by faith, Scripture and tradition, and so on. Whether the pope should be regarded as a "Christian brother" who should be made welcome in Protestant pulpits should be on the basis of his theology in the round, not simply on evidence selectively culled from this book.

Let us never forget that in claiming "universal power over the whole Church", the pope has usurped the unique role of Jesus of Nazareth as the head of the Church. In his broadcast, David Robertson quotes Ratzinger's  words found on page 260 of this book and urges him to apply them to himself as pope. "When man and his institutions climb too high, they need to be cut back; what has become too big must be brought back to the simplicity and poverty of the Lord himself." That is precisely the problem. The papacy grandly claims the right to exercise "unhindered" power over the people of God. If Ratzinger really meant what he said regarding returning to the simplicity and poverty of the Lord, and took his own words to heart, he would resign from office forthwith and become a simple preacher of the gospel. His book was first published in 2007. As yet there is no sign of the current pope renouncing his claim to be the "Vicar of Christ" and vacating the Vatican so that Jesus of Nazareth can take centre stage in the Roman Catholic Church. That in itself speaks volumes and should put us on our guard before Evangelical Protestants start enthusiastically hailing Ratzinger on the strength of this volume.

Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, by Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI, Bloomsbury, 2008 paperback edition, 374pp.


Jonathan Hunt said...

An erudite, considered and strong review, Guy. Thank you.

Exiled Preacher said...

Thanks, J.

wang.sejong said...

In the citation from "Jesus of Nazareth," "One the Cross" appears to be a typo. Does "One the Cross" appear in the quoted text?

Exiled Preacher said...

It was a typo. Now corrected.