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God Made Visible: On the Foreword to Benedict XVI's Jesus
of Nazareth | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | June 18, 2007
"Through the man Jesus, God was made visible, and hence
our eyes were able to behold the perfect man."
-- Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth,
"Thou hast said, 'Seek ye my face.' My heart says to
thee, 'Thy face, Lord, do I seek.' Hide not thy face from me." -- Psalm 27:8.
"It goes without saying that this book is in no way an
exercise of the magisterium, but is solely an expression of my personal search 'for
the face of the Lord' (cf. Ps 27:8)." --
Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth,
A nice man gave me an on-line gift certificate for Barnes
& Noble. I thought that I would use it by going down to the Barnes &
Noble store on "M" Street in Georgetown to find a copy of Jesus of Nazareth, Benedict XVI's new book. I had tried to purchase it
at a book shop called "The Mustard Seed," across Sheridan Road from Loyola
University in Chicago. They told me that it would be in the next afternoon, but
it wasn't. When I arrived back to Washington, armed with a print-out of the
Barnes & Noble gift certificate, I asked at the B&N desk if they would
cash this on-line credit. They wouldn't. Why not is to me an economic mystery.
Though it seems like it all ends in the same pot, maybe B&N does not want
their on-line sales to compete with their book stores. But I could not find the
book in the store anyhow, which also surprised me.
So I returned home. Next day, I tried to follow the
instructions for ordering the book on-line, to avoid having to do which was the
reason I walked down to the "M" Street store in the first place. Amazingly, it
worked. In two days I had the book. I was struck by the irony of being able to
get the book from my room but not from the company's book store when I appeared
in person. This may say more about Schall's personality than he may want to
What to say about this book? It so happens that while I was
in Chicago, I found in the Jesuit Community Library a copy of Romano Guardini's
book, The Humanity of Christ. It turned
out to be one of the best books I had ever read. Why I had never seen it before
I do not know. I know that Guardini is a favorite of the Pope, whose book, The
Spirit of the Liturgy (Ignatius Press,
2000), was written in honor of Guardini's book by the same title written some
fifty years before. The year before during my retreat (2006), I also had read
Karl Adam's book, The Son of God.
Thus, I was struck to read the second sentence in Pope Ratzinger's Foreword:
"When I was growing up--in the 1930's and 1940's--there was a series of
inspiring books about Jesus: Karl Adam, Romano Guardini, Franz Michel William,
Giovanni Papini, and Henri Daniel-Rops were just some of the authors one could
name." Ages ago, I read Papini and Daniel-Rops, but not William, a name I do
Here, I want to say some things about the most interesting
"Foreword" to Jesus of Nazareth. Above,
I have cited Pope Ratzinger's disclaimer that this book is not an "exercise of
the magisterium" In this sense, it is not unlike his
"Regensburg Lecture" or
his Interviews. Just at the time that everyone is prepared to reject out of
hand anything pronounced in the name of authority, especially religious or
papal authority, we suddenly have a pope who gives academic lectures and writes
a book telling what he thinks about Jesus just so that we would know his
general views. We tend to suspect, usually wrongly, that if something is
"official," it cannot be "sincere." We prefer sincerity to truth, a dangerous
position. Suddenly, we have a pope who explains, with evident frankness, just
what he holds about Jesus. But he tells us that we need not accept it unless,
perhaps, we might agree with his reasoning. The burden is on us. We may be the
ones who are not sincere in our search for the truth, especially the truth
about who is Jesus of Nazareth.
The whole area of censorship in the Church was designed to
protect the reader from those who claimed to speak in the name of the Church
but who were in fact espousing something dubious or heretical. In a way, the
effect of this much criticized system made it seem that no one could really
tell us what he actually believed or thought. If a work was "censored" and we
as readers knew it was censored, it might (or might not) be safe doctrinally.
But the reader, knowing that the work in front of him was censored, remained,
as a result, unsure whether the words he was reading were actually those of the
author or whether the author really believed them even if they were valid from
a doctrinal viewpoint. Following the example of the several books of John Paul
II and the several Interviews that he himself had while he was a Cardinal, Pope
Ratzinger has put something quite refreshing onto the intellectual table of our
time, a book about what and who he thinks Jesus of Nazareth was and is.
Into our world, then, we suddenly have Pope Ratzinger
telling us that what we are reading in his book is "solely an expression of my
personal search 'for the face of the Lord.'" This approach startles. We don't
expect it. We might think that Ratzinger's views are silly or erroneous, but it
is difficult to maintain that he does not hold what he professes and tells us
about. Certainly he will let us know when he speaks under the aegis of official
papal authority. Meantime, he understands that the modern world, before all
else, is in search for authenticity and sincerity. Thought he is not saying
that official statements are not useful and sometimes necessary, no longer is
it possible to write off what this Pope says as if it were somehow merely
"official doctrine," held only for bureaucratic reasons. How often in recent
decades have we read idiotic positions taken by some theologian or critic
justified on the grounds that he was opposing Vatican bureaucracy or dogmatism?
If we think we can "write off" the positions of Benedict found in this book, we
can in honor only do so if we have better reasons, reasons that he too can
examine. He does not ask anything else of us.
The Pope's statement is mindful of what Chesterton wrote a
hundred years ago in the Preface to Orthodoxy: "It is the purpose of the writer to attempt an explanation, not of
whether the Christian Faith can be believed, but of how he personally has come
to believe it." Both Chesterton and the pope, however, spend most of their time
telling us precisely why the Christian Faith "can be believed." That is, why
there are reasons for believing it.
And yet, both the Pope and Chesterton are much more
persuasive because we know that both really hold what they tell us they hold.
Neither requires our assent unless we are persuaded by their arguments. Both
are for this reason, I think, doubly dangerous to the doubter or unbeliever who
has comforted himself with the thought that no believer "really" holds what the
Church teaches or that what is held does not make sense.
Christoph Cardinal Schönborn, in his presentation of the
English translation of the Pope's book, remarked that, in his many encounters
over the years with Josef Ratzinger, he almost always found near-by a
well-thumbed copy of the Greek New Testament. (L'Osservatore Romano, May 30, 2007, English).The basic thesis of the Pope
is that, by all accounts, after all examination of modern critical methods and
philosophic suppositions have been themselves put to the test, the picture
presented of Christ in the New Testament is, from every point of view, the more
credible one. The earlier scholars like Guardini, Adam, and Papini were right.
Jesus was "a man living one earth who, fully human though he was, at the same
time brought God to men, the God with whom as Son he was one. Through the one
man Jesus, then, God was made visible, and hence our eyes were able to behold
the perfect man" (xi). An Incarnation of the actual Son of God, in other words,
did take place within this world, at a definite time--the "fullness of time"--and in a definite place.
This correct understanding of Christ was widely challenged
beginning in the 1950s, the Pope points out, by theories that divided the
"historical Jesus" and the "Jesus of Faith." There seemed to be two different
Jesuses: the one that scholars tried to find and the one the Church presented
as true. The Pope often in this and other writings returned to the question of
the use of "historical-criticism scholarship" (xii). In the "Regensburg
Lecture," he referred to Adolf von Harnak's effort to return Jesus to the
university by eliminating any divine aspect from his being and therefore
admitting only what could be examined by modern scientific methods. Such
methods, of course, have their own presuppositions and yield only what the
method allows them to yield. Such methods are valuable, the Pope recognizes.
But they cannot by themselves reach the faith or the being of God in Christ.
Unless a theologian or biblical scholar himself believes, his method will not
assist him in finding the Jesus actually presented in the Gospels.
The Pope can be amusing on this point. "If you read a number
of these reconstructions (of who Jesus was) one after the other, you see at
once that far from uncovering an icon that has become obscured over time, they
are much more like photographs of their authors and the ideals they hold"
(xii). Thus, Harnak's Jesus was a sort of good man, a prophet, but definitely
not God. The Pope cites the great Catholic biblical scholar, Rudolf
Schnackenburg, who at the end of his life concluded that "a reliable view of
the historical figure of Jesus of Nazareth through scientific effort with
historical-critical methods can be only inadequately achieved." (xiii). The
Pope is not wholly satisfied with Schnackenburg's view on "how far the
'historical ground' actually extends." Yet, the final view of Schnackenburg is
one the Pope makes his own starting point for this book. It is that Jesus'
relatedness to God is a genuine "historical insight." That is to say,
historical fact does tell us something true. Pope Ratzinger cites Schnackenburg
again: "Without anchoring in God, the person of Jesus remains shadowy, unreal,
and unexplainable." (xiv). One can say, that without this anchor, the pictures
of Jesus presented in the scholarly and popular world have been precisely shown
this shadowy, unreal, and unexplainable about them.
Benedict then "sees Jesus in light of his communion with the
Father, which is the true center of his personality." This centrality is also
the point of the Guardini book. The Pope continues his reflection on
Schnackenburg, "The problem with Schnackenburg's account" is that he thinks the
Gospels, as some sort of outside influence, want to "clothe" Jesus, the Son of
God, with flesh. The Pope makes clear that his own position is that it is not
the Gospels that do this. They report but do not create what they know; namely
that the Jesus they describe is already "clothed" with flesh.(xiv).
Both the Pope and Schnackenburg recognize the value of Pius
XII's encyclical, Divino Afflante Spiritu
(1943), which approved use of the "historical-critical method" in studies of
the Bible. But Pope Ratzinger thinks that subsequent Church teachings about
biblical studies in the Council and from the Biblical Commission have shown
further critiques of this method that need to be taken into account to make it
more complete and usable (xv). Any scientific method, as such, is itself
subject to critique particularly in its philosophic origins--in what it can do.
With this background, the Pope wants frankly to state "the
outlines of the methodology" that he used in writing Jesus of Nazareth. As we read in Aquinas or in Fides et Ratio, philosophy is the search for knowledge of what
is. When we read scripture or when we
consider the revelation found in it, our final question is: "Did what is
described really happen?" Against this background, Pope Ratzinger's explanation
of his position on this famous method is of especial interest. This method is
an "indispensable dimension of exegetical work." Why? It is "because of the
intrinsic nature of theology and faith." What does this mean? "It is of the
very essence of biblical faith to be about real historical events. It does not
tell stories symbolizing supra-historical truths, but is based on history,
history that took place here on this earth" (xv). The account of Christ is not
a good story. It is a good story because it is true; it really happened to the
real Son of God.
A method that eliminated the facticity of the life of Christ
cannot explain who he was. The utter realism of Christian philosophy and of the
Greek mind behind it is a much better ground for explaining what actually
happened and who Christ actually was. "The factum historicum (historical fact) is not an interchangeable symbolic
cipher for biblical faith, but the foundation on which it stands: Et
incarnates est--when we say these words, we
acknowledge God's actual entry into history." Thus if Christ is indeed "Word"
made flesh and is present beginning in a particular history, we will find
witnesses of this fact who will record what they saw and heard. This recording
is what both Testaments are about. As Christians, we do not have an a
priori theory that forbids such events from
taking place. We do not therefore feel constrained to explain them away as if
they did not or could not happen. God entered into history. No method of
historical analysis ought to be based on a denial of the evidence for it.
There are religions that acknowledge no "history" of the
divine dealings with men. Christianity is not one of these (xv). So the Pope
repeats that this method is an "indispensable tool, given the structure of
Christian faith" (xvi). However, the Pope adds, two further considerations that
must be borne in mind when we use such a method. When we have used the method,
it does not "exhaust" our "interpretative" task. The Bible must be seen "as a
single corpus of Holy Scripture inspired by God." That is, we cannot see it as
a series of single, disparate documents or parts of documents with no relation
to each other. What went before and what came after can be and are used to
explain each other.
What are the "limits of the historical-critical method?"
This method is a modern method and bears its own time-frame, which is not the
past. "The one thing it cannot do is make it (the past) into something present
today." The method also presupposes a "uniformity of context within which the
events of history unfold" (xvii). It must treat biblical words as "human
words." Thus, it can sense perhaps that something deeper is occurring. "But its
specific object is the human word as human." In treating each book separately,
moreover, following the notion of the word of God behind the human words, the
method cannot see "the unity of all of these writings as one 'Bible'..." The
method cannot see the Bible as a single datum. "We have to keep in mind the
limit of all efforts to know the past: We can never go beyond the domain of
hypothesis, because we simply cannot bring the past into the present." Some
hypotheses no doubt, are better than others, the Pope tells us.
The Pope finally wants to evaluate this method. It is very
necessary and useful when we understand what it is and what are its limits. But
we also see, because we recognize these limits, that the method "points beyond
itself and contains within itself an openness to complementary methods"
(xviii). Thus in Fides et Ratio, John
Paul II said that scripture scholars also had to know and be aware of
philosophy, just as philosophers had to have some awareness of the presence of
revelation in the intellectual sphere. "A voice greater than man's echoes in
Scripture's human words" is Benedict's way of stating that the words of
scripture do not only have human origins.
Pope Ratzinger, in his "Foreword," next approvingly refers
to a school of "American scholars," who, some thirty years ago, developed what
they called "canonical exegesis." What is that? "The aim of this exegesis is to
read individual texts within the totality of the one Scripture, which them
sheds new light on all the individual texts." This approach was recommended by
Vatican II's Constitution on Divine Revelation (#12). The Pope adds, following
a passage in Vatican I, that we also have "the need for taking account of the
living tradition of the whole Church and of the analogy of faith (the intrinsic
correspondences within faith)." This further addition, of course, implies, not
unlike Newman, the continued guidance of the Holy Spirit in the Church
throughout time and the intrinsic consistence of the whole of faith and reason.
The Pope dwells "for the time being on the unity of
Scripture." It is not just a series of books accidentally held together by the
accidents of time. "Modern exegesis has brought to light the process of
constant rereading that forged the words transmitted in the Bible into
Scripture." Thus, Isaiah appears in the New Testament. Paul repeats what he has
read. Christ himself cites incidents and passages from earlier scripture. What
is clear is that things weave back and forth in a sort of circular manner.
Still, "you can see that the Old and New Testaments belong together." This
subject of the relation of the Old and New Testament will come up again later
in the book when Benedict discusses Rabbi Neusner's book on Jesus. The Pope
continues: "This Christological hermeneutic, which sees Jesus Christ as the key
to the whole and learns from him how to understand the Bible as a unity,
presupposes a prior act of faith. It cannot be the conclusion of a purely
historical method. But this act of faith is based upon reason--historical
reason--and so makes it possible to see the internal unity of Scripture" (xix).
The Pope constantly is mindful that even an ordinary human utterance will contain
more in an uttered word than we might grasp at first. The human author of
scripture is not "simply speaking for himself on his own authority." (xx).
The author of scripture also speaks within a community that
remembers all these things. "He speaks in a living community, that is to say,
in a living historical movement not created by him, not even by the collective,
but which is led forward by a greater power that is at work." The bible is not
a "simple piece of literature." Each book of scripture has "three interacting
subjects." There is the individual author or authors, who are part of a
collective subject, the People of God, who knows that it is 'led and spoken to
by God himself, who--through men and their humanity--is at the deepest level
the one speaking" (xxi). Scripture is an account of God's leading his people at
all times and places.
Scripture is the "measure that comes from God." Man is not
the "measure" of all things, but they have a measure. The Church "is the living
subject of Scripture; it is in the Church that the words of the Bible are
always in the present." This comment refers back to what the Pope had cautioned
about method, that it is itself in the present. But there is a "place" as it
were wherein the words of scripture are always in the present. This is in the
Church. The metaphysics behind such statements take us to the notions of time
and eternity, the eternal now and the possibility of God's creation a reality,
an order, that exists in time which is not contradicted by the reality of
The Pope finally explains why he thinks the reader needs to
know about his views on methodology as he reads his book. They "govern his
interpretation of the figure of Jesus." The Pope, mind you, "interprets" Jesus
as the Son of God, the Word made flesh and understands that this is what the
scriptures actually say. What follows? "I trust the Gospels." Taking into
account an evaluation of all that historico-critical exegesis and other studies
have left us, the fact remains that Jesus existed in a definite history. In
this time and place, he presented himself as God, the Son of God. "This figure
is much more logical and, historically speaking, much more intelligible than
the reconstructions we have been presented with in the last decades" (xxii).
This observation enables Pope Ratzinger to state finally as
something he holds with evidence and reflection: "I believe that this Jesus--the
Jesus of the Gospels--is a historically plausible and convincing figure."
Notice that Benedict XVI does not say: "You Catholics and other doubters out
there have to believe this affirmation or else." Nor does he say: "Science has
now, properly understood, proven that Jesus is God." Rather he says that the
view he presents is "historically plausible." It makes sense, whatever else one
might make of it. The Jesus of the Gospels is in fact more convincing than any
of the alternatives designed to explain him. This is, in fact, what Chesterton
already said in The Everlasting
The Pope likewise gets into the question of how early were
the testimonies of Jesus' divinity within the documents of scripture. "As early
as twenty or so years after Jesus' death, the great Christ-hymn of the Letter
of the Philippians offers a fully developed Christology stating that Jesus was
equal to God ..." That is, it was not something coming later and gradually put in
place by people who were imagining things. It is right to try to find out what
happened in the twenty years in the meantime, of course. But, "Isn't it more
logical, even historically speaking, to assume that the greatness came at the
beginning, and that the figure of Jesus really did explode all existing
categories and could only be understood in the light of the mystery of God?"
Again here we have the Pope's commonsense mind at work.
Frequent theories are invented, but not on the basis of any
real evidence, to explain why Jesus was not God. The evidence that we have is
thus interpreted in the light of a theory which a priori denies that such evidence could point to what he
really was, namely, the Son of God. By contrast, Benedict states: "We take this
conviction of faith as our starting point for reading he texts with the help of
historical methodology and its intrinsic openness to something greater."
(xxiii). There is a harmony and unity to scripture.
The Pope repeats that his intention in writing this book is
"not to counter modern exegesis." He appreciates it. By his own affirmation,
anyone is free to "contradict" the Pope about his evidence and analysis (xxiv).
He only requires "initial good will." This work is but the first part of a two-part
reading of Christ's life. Cardinal Ratzinger began this book during "summer
holidays" in 2003. Since becoming Pope, he tells us, that he has used "every
free moment to make progress on this book." One is astonished both that a Pope
has any "free moments" and, even more, when he does, that they are used so
insightfully, and indeed, so wisely.
The world, I think, is not really prepared for this man. He
is concerned with the rational and revelational foundations of all cultures.
His "personal search" in Jesus of Nazareth,
puts back in the center of things this one proposition: Jesus Christ is "a man
living on earth who, fully human though he was, at the same time brought God to
men, the God with whom as Son he was one." He adds that "everyone is free to
contradict" him. One wonders both how many will even try and what it says about
them if they do not. Or to put it more positively, the papacy has not gone away
and remains the Rock of Contradiction that persuasively explain itself in terms
that reason can understand, make sense of, if it will.
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Links/Articles:
Author Page for Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI
Pope Benedict XVI, Regensburg, and Islam | Essays and Commentary
A Shepherd Like No Other |
Excerpt from Behold, God's Son! | Christoph Cardinal Schönborn
Encountering Christ in the Gospel |
Excerpt from My Jesus | Christoph Cardinal Schönborn
The Church Is the Goal of All Things |
Excerpt from Loving The Church | Christoph Cardinal Schönborn
Reincarnation: The Answer of Faith |
Excerpt from From Death to Life: The Christian Journey | Christoph Cardinal Schönborn
The Truth of the Resurrection |
Excerpts from Introduction to Christianity | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
Seeing Jesus in the Gospel of John |
Excerpts from On The Way to Jesus Christ | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
A Jesus Worth Dying For |
A Review of On The Way to Jesus Christ | Justin Nickelsen
The Divinity of Christ | Peter Kreeft
Jesus Is Catholic | Hans Urs von Balthasar
The Religion of Jesus | Blessed Columba Marmion
| From Christ, The Ideal of the Priest
Are Truth, Faith, and Tolerance Compatible? | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
Why Do We Need Faith? | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown
He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture,
and literature including Another
Sort of Learning, Idylls
and Rambles, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs: Teaching, Writing,
Playing, Believing, Lecturing, Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing,
and A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning. His most recent books are
The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006), The Sum Total of Human
Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), and
The Regensburg Lecture.
Read more of his essays on his
the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by
IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies,
and news in the Church!
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