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"God Is The Issue" | The Temptation in the Desert and the Kingdoms of This World | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. on Benedict XVI's Jesus of Nazareth | June 29, 2007

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"The alleged findings of scholarly exegesis have been used to put together the most dreadful books that destroy the figure of Jesus and dismantle faith." -- Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, 35.

"Earthly kingdoms remain earthly human kingdoms, and anyone who claims to be able to establish the perfect world is the willing dupe of Satan and plays the world right into his hands." -- Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, 44.


Somehow, I find it refreshing to have a Pope who, gentle man that he is, can still alert us to the presence of "most dreadful books" produced by "allegedly scholarly exegesis" and, at the same time, of "willing dupes of Satan," who promise us a "perfect world." I still remember with something of a thrill the first time that I ever fully realized the meaning of the observation that very little about politics is found in the New Testament. The thrill comes with the insight that the New Testament was not designed to be a political treatise or handbook. Though this same Testament speaks rather frequently of "the Kingdom of God," it has significantly little to say about politics. What it does say is that there are "things of Caesar" circumscribed by the "things that are God's."

Why is this important? It is often charged against Christianity that, since it has been around for a couple of thousand years and the world is still full of pain, toil, corruption, and angst, it therefore must be either ineffective or untrue--or both. This is not quite Nietzsche's problem with Christianity. He thought it preached a doctrine fit for patsies and thus practiced by a bunch of weaklings, unworthy of nobility. In fact, as the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church seeks to spell out, if we practice what we are taught in the Gospels, the world will indeed be better--not perfect, but better. On the other hand, the New Testament also warns us that we will be most persecuted precisely when we do practice what Christ teaches, something that seems to be an historic fact, beginning with the Crucifixion.

But why did not God reveal to us everything that we must know and do so that we would just have to follow directions for everything to be fine? It would have saved Him a lot of trouble. The main reason was that God was aware that He created us with a brain and was rather anxious that we try it out by ourselves before He got around to telling us a couple of things we could probably not figure out by ourselves. He knew that if we used our brains for a while by ourselves, we would be a bit more open than Adam and Eve were to the possible consequences of eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. I am always struck by how paradigmatic the account in Genesis of the Fall is to every actual sin that we human beings commit. Aristotle actually had it pretty much right in the seventh book of the Ethics. We always have a "reason" and we always have an end that justifies the reason. When we err or sin, we always prevent ourselves, with some awareness of what we do, from seeing the whole picture. This clouding of the whole context justifies in our own minds what we want in this or that particular case.

Here I want mainly to talk about the Chapter on the Temptations of Christ in the Desert in Benedict XVI's Jesus of Nazareth [Editor's note: Chapter 2, pp 25-45]. In his earlier discussion of the baptism of Christ, Benedict had carefully shown that Christ was Himself the "Kingdom of God," the one who actively rules as Logos, now Incarnate. His baptism by John, His being the Father's Son in whom He is well-pleased, is an anointing--a priestly and kingly anointing to do the work for which He is sent into the world. It is significant that it is immediately after this baptismal scene that Christ is praying in the desert and is tempted there. An abiding theme in the Pope's book is how Christ is a man with no sin, but who can be tempted so that He is like unto us in all things. Plato had already said in the Republic that it is helpful for a doctor himself to be sick so that he can appreciate the sickness of others, but that a judge should not commit crimes so that he knows what crimes are. He can know this and suffer from crimes and from this knowledge; he also can know, though not practice, what is sin or crime.


We are "surprised," Benedict tells us, that the first command of the Spirit after Christ's baptism is to lead Him to the desert to be "tempted" (p. 26). Christ is to be "faithful" to a task assigned to Him by the Father, the dimensions of which assignment He knows. He has to struggle against "the distortions to the task that claim to be its true fulfillment." Human existence is a "drama" that Christ must know. Christ must take into Himself man's whole history of sin. This is what caused Him to descend into Hell, as the Creed says. He had to be like us in all things, a high priest like us in all things but "sin," as the Letter to the Hebrews states. Jesus' baptism is His solidarity with the reasons why we need baptism. Even at the Mount of Olives He struggles with the burden of temptations. "We will see Jesus wrestling once again with his mission during his agony on the Mount of Olives" (p. 27).

The desert where Christ is tempted is the opposite of the Garden. Adam and Christ in their missions are related. "Once sin has been overcome and man's harmony with God restored, creation is reconciled, too." Benedict mentions the great Benedictine tradition of the reconciliation of nature and work, craft and prayer, of angels and animals who no longer are subject to the consequences of the Fall, something also found in St. Paul. Benedict notes that the accounts of the temptation in Matthew and Luke tell us of Jesus' inner struggle "over his own particular mission." Why does Christ, Word incarnate, have to be the one to reconcile these things? Can it be done in any other way? If not, why not?

Benedict begins by telling us what is common to all three temptations of Christ in the desert. "At the heart of all temptations ... is the act of pushing God aside because we perceive him as secondary, if not actually superfluous and annoying, in comparison with all the apparently far more urgent matters that fill our lives" (28). This reasoning about why God is not important is very Marxist and Nietschean. We have more important things to do. God stands in our way by taking our time and energy. "Constructing a world by our own lights, without reference to God, building on our own foundation; refusing to acknowledge the reality of anything beyond the political and material, while setting God aside as an illusion--this is the temptation that threatens us in many varied forms." Modernity, in its negative sense, is largely the claim to build our own free world based on our own ideas with no other criterion of their truth but our own positing or measuring what we do by ourselves. Hardly a day goes by without some politician or academic stating precisely this view to justify his own actions and thoughts. Contrariwise, we see at work in the world another standard of our good that we might discover and understand but which we did not make, one that is better in fact for us.

Benedict has an uncanny way of getting to the heart of issues. I entitled this reflection: "God Is the Issue," which is a quotation from Benedict. How is "God" precisely the issue? First, Benedict remarks that "moral posturing" is the essence of "temptation." What does this moral posturing mean? Basically, it means that we cover our evil deeds with the glow of an apparently plausible reason. We do not set out bluntly to do "evil," that would be "far too blatant." No, we pretend to have a "better way." We abandon "pious illusions," as we call them. We throw ourselves in the work of "making the world a better place." We claim to be the true "realists," like Machiavelli. "What is real is what is right there in front of us--power and bread." Things of God are unreal and secondary.

It is at this very point that Benedict puts his finger on the heart of the problem: "God is the issue." In a question that overshadows his whole book, Benedict inquires of the central issue that we have to ask ourselves of God: "Is he real, reality itself, or isn't he? Is he good, or do we have to invent the good ourselves? The God question is the fundamental question, and sets us down right at the crossroads of human existence" (p. 29). That is a striking phrase--"the crossroads of human existence." The Pope draws the alternative starkly but does so in terms of precisely the key alternatives that are being presented by modernity (at least in the West). He appreciates that the challenge of Islam is over the understanding of what God is--Logos or Voluntas--not over whether we are the fabricators or receivers of our own existence. Yet, there is a certain cryptic relation between the notion that we can construct our own world and the notion that God, if He chooses, can will evil to be good or good to be evil. This "freedom" to make good evil and evil good is the consequence of the Deus sola voluntas thesis. Both the thesis that God is pure will and that he does not exist end up in the same place, as the Pope indicated in the "Regensburg Lecture." They allow us to do what we want and to justify it on theoretic grounds.


The three temptations in the desert have a rich subtlety to them. They are presented in the Gospels as proposals or offerings that the Devil gives to Christ as a better way of accomplishing His mission than the one assigned by His Father. Implicitly, Christ is tempted to reject the way of the Cross, the way in which the Father had directed Him in obedience. Though the way of the Cross is a "better" way, still the other ways are more humanly attractive, ones most of us would prefer.

In the first temptation, Christ is challenged to turn stones into bread. That way, He could feed the hungry. Dostoyevsky had also prophesized that, in the end, men would choose bread to the word of God. It seems so logical. "Isn't the problem of feeding the world--and more generally, are not social problems--the primary, true yardstick by which redemption has to be measured?" (p. 31) This is the elevation of the second commandment, to love our neighbor, over the first commandment, to love God first. It is probably in our time the primary temptation of religious people and political people who have a "morality" that sets itself against the commandments. It lies at the root of not a few theories of "social justice," however noble that name. The whole attraction of Marxism was in this line, and still is.

This worry about bread--there is much in the Pope's book about bread--does not mean that men do not need to learn how to make bread or to learn what is the best way to make and distribute it. Often, the demand for bread (or any other material good) is the justification of an ideology that is not particularly effective in producing it, but becomes useful as a means of control over those who eat it. Christ does multiply loaves and fishes, why not then do as the Devil asks him? "When this ordering of goods is no longer respected, but turned on its head, the result is not justice or concern for human suffering" (p. 33). Echoing a theme in his encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, on the need of a personal dimension to all our concern for the poor or others, the Pope adds, "The aid offered by the West to developing countries has been purely technically and materially based, and not only has left God out of the picture, but has driven men away from God." One must probably add that often the aid given is controlled within recipient countries by ideological governments that make any productive help deflected to their political purposes. In any case, the Pope thinks that, however we think of it, the "issue is the primacy of God." Christ tells Satan that "man does not live by bread alone." This is the very phrase that causes us to ask again, "what then doe he 'live' by?"

The Pope returns to the question, as we saw, that perplexes so many. "Why did God not leave the world with another sign of his presence so radiant that no one could resist it?" (p. 34). Indirectly, this concern recalls the manna that Yahweh gave the Hebrews wandering in the desert, when He did assist them by evidently transcendent gifts. After a couple of days, however, they did not think it tasted very good and longed for the onions and fleshpots of Egypt. If God would have provided food in a miraculous manner, we would not need to learn to grow or cook or produce lovely dinners by ourselves. We live in a world of "tangible things." That is, we live in the created world. "It is in this world that we are obliged to resist the delusions of false philosophies and to recognize that we do not live by bread alone, but first and foremost by obedience to God's world. Only when this obedience is put into practice does the attitude develop that is also capable of providing bread for all." Put in another way, God did give us a world with plenty of bread and abundance but He properly conceived its coming forth to be also our work. Our work depended on a right relation to God. "False philosophies" are really the main reason why all are not fed. An ongoing miraculous feeding of the human race will not cause any moral improvement in it, the achieving of which is the initial purpose of creation in the first place.


The second temptation in the desert, the Pope writes, is "the most difficult to understand." It is here that the Devil famously "quotes" scripture. Evidently, the Psalm cited by the Devil takes place in Jerusalem, the Holy City. Angels are said to protect anyone who falls on the stones. The Devil "proves to be a Bible expert," even, mirabile auditu, a "theologian" (p. 35). We cannot but smile at this remark. The Pope continues to be bemused by his own past. The Devil, in any case, seeks to deflect Jesus from His mission by challenging Him to do something spectacular for no real purpose given Him by the Father. It is mindful of Herod when Pilate sent Christ to him. Herod wanted Him to perform a show for his and the palace's entertainment.

The Pope next refers to the Russian writer Vladimir Soloviev's short story "The Antichrist," based on this incident in Scripture. In this story, the Pope, as a German theologian himself, amusingly recalls that, for Soloviev, "the Antichrist receives an honorary doctorate in theology from the University of Tübingen." He even wrote a book entitled The Open Way to World Power and Welfare, a title that should give all political philosophers considerable pause. The Pope does not here want to reject all "scholarly biblical interpretations as such" but he warns of "possible aberrations." It is here that the Pope uses the quotation that I cited in the beginning about "scholarly exegeses" that have been used to compose "the most dreadful books that destroy the figure of Jesus."

Interestingly, the Holy Father goes on to explain just how this classic instance still becomes a modern danger to faith. "The common practice today is to measure the Bible against the so-called modern worldview, whose fundamental dogma is that God cannot act in history--that everything to do with God is to be relegated to the domain of subjectivity." The issue could not be stated more succinctly. With this theory operative in our mind, we judge the facts that are recorded in Scripture as impossible. Therefore, they are presumed to have had a psychological or subjective origin. Note, the issue is no longer whether facts happened, but whether the theory by which we understand them is valid or not. The whole import of the Pope's book is that facts did happen and no "theory" has undermined them. Modern thinkers often love to reduce everything in the Bible that claims factual basis to "fundamentalism" (p. 36). This subtle rejection of facts is why the modern exegete wants to make us believe that only his own presuppositions are valid. The Pope's book is largely an analysis of such presuppositions and their dubious validity.

The Pope actually calls the discussion between the Devil and Christ a "theological debate." It is something that constantly recurs throughout history. "The dispute about interpretation is ultimately a dispute about who God is." This latter issue, who God is, is directly related to who we think Christ is. If he is indeed what he says he is, the Son of Man, God made flesh, then a theory that disallows us from acknowledging such a fact must be based on a false or inadequate philosophy. This reasoning is basic to the notion that revelation itself presupposes a philosophy of realism, of what is. (The new book of Peter Kreeft, The Philosophy of Jesus, deals with this issue).

Continuing his analysis of the second temptation, the Pope brings in the old Roman notion of "bread and circuses." Why does he do this? If the world is indeed bereft of divine purpose and order, what is left to us can only be some form of keeping alive and keeping busy or entertained as the only meaning of man in the world. "Bread and circuses" was always the result of boredom about human life's insignificance. "Those who refuse to let God have anything to do with the world and with man are forced to provide the titillation of exciting stimuli, the thrill of which replaces religious awe and drives it away." The implication is that the worship of God itself is something that is incumbent on us to put into place and that how this worship is to be carried out is what Christ taught us. The only proper way to worship God is something that God must ultimately teach us. In worship, we are followers and beholders.

Christ deals with the second temptation by Himself citing scripture against the Devil. From Deuteronomy, Christ tells him not to "tempt" the Lord God (p. 37) The Pope always sees the Old Testament references within incidents in Christ's life. The Hebrews in the time of Moses also put the Lord to the "test." We men insist that God perform something for us before we will believe. "God has to submit to experiment," as Benedict puts it. We will believe--if, and only if--God does such and such. We demand that his ways follow our ways, which is what will not happen even though salvation is also directed to our comprehension. "We are dealing here with the vast question as to how we can and cannot know God, how we are related to God and how we can lose him. The arrogance that would make God an object and impose our laboratory conditions upon him is incapable of finding him."

We imply that the only way we will believe is if God submits to fulfilling our proof criterion. To do this submission would in effect make us gods. It would leave aside the question of whether the real God is or is not bound by our ways. "For it already implies that we deny God as God by placing ourselves above him, by discarding the whole dimension of love, of interior listening ..." Christ did not do as the Devil requested; He did not leap off the mount just to see if the angels would save him. But He did do what the Father required of him (p. 38). We are not to distrust God's providence, but we are to doubt whether our own demands of it are God's ways.


The third temptation takes place on a high mountain. Christ is shown all the kingdoms of the earth. The Devil tells Him, as if they belong to him, that he will give them to Christ if only He adores the Devil. Why is this a temptation? After all, Christ is supposed to bring all kingdoms to his Father. This is what the scene before the Ascension in Acts is about. In Matthew, Christ says that all power on heaven and earth is given to Him. The disciples are to go forth to teach "all nations." Benedict restates the divine order: "Without heaven, earthly power is always ambiguous and fragile" (p. 39). This principle again is the two great commandments taken together. We live in a world in which they are set against each other. God's way of salvation is via the Cross. The Devil's temptation is to set Christ against His Father. That is why it is a temptation. "The Kingdom of Christ is different from the kingdoms of the earth and their splendor, which Satan parades before him." There is a splendor to Christ and His kingdom, but it is not the earthly splendor of power over kingdoms. The constant temptation of religion to make it a political or economic power is not God's revelational teaching.

The Pope acknowledges, in a brief summary of Western history, that Christians have been tempted to make a Christian empire. "The temptation to use power to secure the faith has arisen again and again in varied forms throughout the centuries, and again and again faith has risked being suffocated in the embrace of power. The struggle for freedom of the Church, the struggle to avoid identifying Jesus' Kingdom with any political structure, is one that has to be fought century after century" (p. 40). This was the theme of the Regensburg Lecture also. The Pope saw the choice between Barabbas and Christ at his trial to be of this nature. Benedict goes into some detail about who Barabbas was, a political figure who took part in political uprisings. Barabbas, whose very name means "son of the father," was a "messianic figure." The choice between the two that Pilate presented the people was not an accident.

Most people today, had they been at the trial of Socrates, would have probably voted his guilt. The Pope likewise says that most people today, given a choice between Christ and Barabbas, would have chosen the latter (p. 41). "The tempter is not so crude as to suggest to us directly that we should worship the devil. He merely suggests that we opt for the reasonable decision, that we choose to give priority to a planned and thoroughly organized world, where God may have his place as a private concern but must not interfere in our essential purposes."

The third temptation is the basic one. It asks: what do we expect from the "Savior of the World?" (p. 42). Peter's testimony that Jesus is the "Messiah Christ, the Son of the Living God" is the watershed. If this affirmation corresponds to what He is, and if the scholarship that denies it is itself dubious, then this fact of who Christ is becomes central for all history and for every personal life. The Messiah has to be understood in terms of the entirety of Scripture. He is not here dwelling among us to establish worldly power but to bear the Cross. No one would have really suspected that this was God's way, though the Greek poets did suspect that "man learns by suffering."

"The Christian empire or the secular power of the papacy is no longer a temptation today," the Pope tells us, "but the interpretation of Christianity as a recipe for progress and the proclamation of universal prosperity as the real goal of all religion, including Christianity--this is the modern form of the same temptation" (p. 42-43). How remarkably perceptive the Pope is. The world parliament of religions and the effort to make religion a sort of adjunct of the United Nations as a kind of cultural "spirituality" is very prevalent. The third temptation is still with us in this form. Religion is thus conceived at the service of our own world reconstruction. Left to ourselves, we do not choose to "construct" the world so that we might worship God as He has taught us in the Cross.

The heart of the Regensburg Lecture contained a query about Islam. It wanted to know whether "violence" was legitimately used to spread religion, whether Mohammed had brought anything good into the world. Here, the Pope asks the very same question of Christianity: "What did Jesus bring, then, if he didn't usher in a better world? How can that not be the content of messianic hope?" (p. 43). To explain his position, the Pope recalls two strands of hope in the Old Testament. One was prophetic depiction the famous wolf and lion lying down together, a worldly paradise in Isaiah. The other was the Suffering Servant tradition which came to be seen as the heart of Christ's own sacrifice on the Cross. What does Jesus teach on this matter?

First, Jesus teaches that no earthly kingdom is the Kingdom of God. "Earthly kingdoms remain earthly kingdoms." (p. 44). Whoever claims that some earthly kingdom is Christ's kingdom is a "dupe of Satan." Benedict again asks (of a topic, he says, that will be with him throughout the book): "What did Jesus actually bring if not world peace, universal prosperity, and a better world? What has he brought?" The "justification" of every contemporary rejection of Christianity can be reduced to precisely the assumption, namely, that Christ did not bring the things which all newspaper editorials and academic courses presume to be really the main effort of mankind.

The Pope's answer to this question will be, at least initially, shocking. Jesus did not "bring" any of these things as an automatic handout. What He brought was God. There it is, simply, frankly spelled out. This is what all the controversy is about. If Jesus is the Son of God--is God, the Word incarnate--then that is our hope. Everything else has to begin there. The veiled God is now present in Christ's person. God only revealed His face to Israel. "It is this God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the true God, whom he has brought to the nations of the earth." The Pope does not speak out of context or without having carefully examined the whole of the relevant issues when he arrives at this amazing conclusion.

If this is so, then the path we are to follow is not a path that we concoct independently of God. Jesus has "brought God and with God the truth about our origin and destiny: faith, hope and love. It is only because of our hardness of heart that we think this is too little." It is in fact an abundance of which we have too little appreciation. The earthly kingdoms that existed at the time which Satan presented to Christ that he would give him have, in the meantime, all "passed away." The glory of Christ has not. Satan, of course, could not have given Christ what he claimed. They were not his to give except in so far as they also rejected Christ.

The answer to the claim that worldly power is highest is simply "the fact that God is God, that God is man's true Good." "The fundamental commandment of Israel is also the fundamental commandment for Christians: God alone is to be worshiped" (p. 45). The affirmation of the first three commandments of the Decalogue about the worship of God is also an affirmation to the second seven, the love of God and neighbor. But the second commandment comes about only by knowing the first and its primacy. This is what the third temptation was about. Jesus is the Son, "the new Jacob, the Patriarch of a universalized Israel." The conclusion remains, behind everything that we think and do, "God is the issue."

Related IgnatiusInsight.com Links/Articles:

Author Page for Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI
God Made Visible: On the Foreword to Benedict XVI's Jesus of Nazareth | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
The Two (And Only Two) Cities | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Secularity: On Benedict XVI and the Role of Religion in Society | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
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
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

Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.

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 website.

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