Covenant and Communion:
The Biblical Theology of Benedict XVI
By Scott W. Hahn
We have to enter into a relationship of awe and obedience toward the Bible, which nowadays is frequently in danger of being lost. — Pope Benedict XVI
1 Ignorance of Scripture
is Ignorance of Christ:
2 The Critique of Criticism:
Beginning the Search
3 The Hermeneutic of Faith:
4 The Spiritual Science
5 Reading God’s Testament
6 The Theology of the Divine
7 The Embrace of Salvation:
9 The Authority of Mystery:
Unless otherwise noted, all documents of Benedict's pontificate can be found at www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/index .htm.
The following abbreviations are used for the works of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger / Pope Benedict XVI that are frequently cited. When available, the original publication date appears in parentheses next to the publication date of the English translation.
Ignorance of Scripture is Ignorance of Christ:
The Theological Project of Joseph Ratzinger
The Most Urgent Priority
Never before in the history of the Catholic Church has a world-class biblical theologian been elevated to the papacy. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s election on April 19, 2005, brought to the Chair of St. Peter one of the world’s finest theological minds. He was a public intellectual long engaged in dialogue over the crucial issues of the modern period, especially the crucial relationships between faith and reason, freedom and truth, history and dogma.
The pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI, to a degree not seen perhaps since the medieval papacy of Gregory the Great, has borne the stamp of a distinctive biblical theology. There is an intensely biblical quality to his pastoral teaching and he has demonstrated a keen concern for the authentic interpretation of sacred Scripture.
For Benedict, the Church lives, moves, and takes its being from the Word of God––through whom all things were created in the beginning, through whom the face of God was revealed in the flesh of Jesus Christ, and through whom God’s new covenant is witnessed to in the inspired texts of Scripture and made present in the divine liturgy.
Benedict’s command of the biblical
texts, the patristic interpretative tradition, and the findings of historical and literary scholarship represents
the full flowering of the Catholic biblical renewal which culminated in Dei Verbum, the Second Vatican Council’s
constitution on divine revelation. Ratzinger himself, as a young theologian, had a hand in drafting that Vatican
More than any other theologian in his time, Benedict has articulated a biblical theology that synthesizes modern scientific methods with the theological hermeneutic of spiritual exegesis that began in the New Testament writers and patristic commentators and has continued throughout the Church’s tradition. In fact, there has been no other Catholic theologian in the last century, if ever, whose theology is as highly developed and integrated in explicitly biblical terms.
Yet these facts have gone largely unnoticed in the growing body of secondary literature on Benedict’s theological thought and vision. He himself has characterized his theology as having a “biblical character.” 2 Nonetheless, even the best of these recent studies pay little if any attention to this dimension of his work.3 When, in early 2007, he published Jesus of Nazareth, the first of a projected two-volume work of spiritual Christology, many were genuinely surprised at the note of urgency sounded by the 80-year-old pontiff:
Jesus of Nazareth is a significant contribution to biblical Christology and a deep expression of Benedict's theological vision. To those of us who have been studying Benedict closely for many years now, Jesus of Nazareth came not as a curious surprise, but as a fitting dénouement. It is the culmination of his theological method, pastoral concerns, and ardent sense of the needs of the hour in the Church.
That is why I have written this essay. I have had the privilege of introducing two of Joseph Ratzinger’s works to the English-speaking world, 5 and in recent years have grown increasingly aware of how profoundly my own work has been influenced by my encounter with his thinking over nearly a quarter-century. In the pages that follow, I hope to offer an appreciation of how and why Benedict engages in theology and biblical interpretation. I also hope to present a kind of synthesis of his work, suggesting the main outlines of his biblical theology. I write as a professional theologian and exegete, and as one who believes that Benedict’s vision has much to teach those of us in this privileged guild. It is a theology of great power and beauty.
I stress that what I offer here is an essay. In these pages I want to listen to Benedict, to follow his patterns of thought, and to carefully attend to his priorities and concerns. I want to allow him to speak as much as possible, which is why what follows might be called an exercise in explanatory theology. In some places, I have had to resist the temptation to present a simple catena of his thoughts. While I have resisted that temptation, I have still tried to assist in the presentation of Benedict’s own ideas, not simply advance my own understandings of these issues.
This is not, then, a treatise or a dissertation. Such works will need to be written on the many facets of Benedict’s wide-ranging theological project. But before that work can be done adequately, I believe that we need to understand the foundations of his project, which rest in his approach to and appropriation of sacred Scripture.
Benedict is less a systematic thinker than he is a symphonic thinker. This essay will undoubtedly reflect that. His writings show a cast of mind that is more comparable to that of the Church Fathers than to that of traditional dogmatic and systematic theologians such as a Thomas Aquinas or Matthias Scheeben. In the Fathers we find the notion that truth consists of a unit of diverse elements much as a symphony brings into a single, harmonious whole the music played on a variety of instruments. This is how it is with the biblical theology of Benedict. Even his occasional writings, which make up the bulk of his oeuvre, are usually composed like a polyphonic melody from many differentiated strains—scriptural, historical, literary, liturgical, and patristic.
A Brief Theological and Ecclesial Résumé
The former Joseph Ratzinger was
a young academic theologian with a very bright future when, in 1977, he was chosen to be archbishop of the historic
Bavarian diocese of Munich and Freising. He took for his episcopal motto a biblical expression: “cooperators in the truth” (3 John 8). This phrase expressed his sense of the continuity between his theological
work and his new service in the administrative hierarchy of the Church.
In practical terms, however, his election to the episcopacy brought to an end his promising career as an academic theologian. He would seldom again have the opportunity for sustained scholarly research and writing, a situation about which he still occasionally expresses regret. Writing of his calling to Munich, he noted: “I felt that . . . at this period of my life—I was fifty years old—I had found my own theological vision and could now create an oeuvre with which I would contribute something to the whole of theology.” 7
In forewords or afterwords to his books, he sometimes expresses disappointment that his professional obligations have made it impossible to develop his ideas with the depth and precision that he would like.8 Nonetheless, in the last quarter-century, Benedict has produced a substantial body of biblical-theological work––books, articles, speeches, homilies, and more. This work reflects the wide range of his study and interests, and the keen, symphonic turn of his mind. Close study of this body of writings suggests that, had Professor Ratzinger been left alone to pursue his scholarly passions, his achievements would have rivaled or surpassed those of the greatest Catholic theologians of the last century––figures such as Hans Urs von Balthasar and Karl Rahner. His opera omnia are anticipated to fill sixteen volumes, indicating the scope of his interests and the breadth of his accomplishment.9
It is beyond my scope here to provide
a complete résumé of Benedict’s career, but I should note a few highlights.10 He
received his doctorate in theology from the University of Munich in 1953, writing his dissertation on Augustine’s
exegesis and ecclesiology. He lectured in fundamental theology at several German universities before assuming the
chair in dogmatic theology at the University of Tübingen in 1966. He was an expert theological peritus, or adviser at the Second Vatican Council (1963–1965) and, as I noted
above, made important contributions to the council’s pivotal document on divine revelation, Dei
addition to hundreds of articles published in academic and ecclesial journals, he is the author of books of enduring
importance and influence on the nature and mission of theology,12 patristic theology and exegesis,13
liturgical theology,15 dogmatic theology,16 the Christian symbol of faith,17 and christology.18 He was the co-founder of an important theological journal, Communio, in collaboration with some of the last century’s most influential theologians, including Henri de Lubac
and Hans Urs von Balthasar.
The Crisis of Faith in Christ
Benedict’s theological training and career were shaped by his encounter with the historical-critical method of biblical interpretation, which by the late 1940s had become the dominant theoretical model in the academy.20 In autobiographical reflections, he has related how confident scholars were at that time that the method gave them “the last word” on the meaning of biblical texts. He relates a story, for instance, about a leading Tübingen exegete who announced he would no longer entertain dissertation proposals because “everything in the New Testament had already been researched.”21
Well schooled in its techniques and findings, Benedict has nonetheless emerged as a forceful critic of what he describes as the theoretical hubris and practical limitations of historical criticism. For him, the issues involved are far from merely academic. Indeed, the stakes in the debate could hardly be higher. How we read and interpret the Bible directly affects what we believe about Christ, the Church, the sacraments, and the liturgy.22
Benedict knows and often quotes the solemn truth expressed memorably by St. Jerome: “Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.”23 And he has gone so far as to suggest that a near exclusive reliance on the historical-critical method has resulted in widespread ignorance about the true nature, identity, and mission of Christ. Referring to the method, he has written: “The crisis of faith in Christ in recent times began with a modified way of reading sacred Scripture––seemingly the sole scientific way.”24
As we will see in the chapters that follow, for Benedict an exclusive reliance on historical-critical methods has resulted in a diminishment or reduction in the figure of Jesus—who is no longer believed to be the “Lord” or the Son of God, but is considered to be simply “a man who is nothing more than the advocate of all men.” This viewpoint, he adds, “has emphatically impressed itself on the public consciousness and has made major inroads into the congregations of Christian believers in all churches.”25
This concern for the distortion in the image of Jesus forms the wider context for Jesus of Nazareth, and explains the sense of exigency Benedict felt about its publication. It also explains why he took the unprecedented step of devoting a key passage to the issues to the issues of biblical interpretation in the Church in his inaugural homily as Bishop of Rome, Echoing many of the concerns and preoccupations of his theological career, Benedict stated:
These are most unusual words for a papal homily. However, these are unusual times in the Church. That Benedict chose these words in setting out the vision for his pontificate should tell us a great deal about his theology. In a sense, this essay will be an unfolding of these words.
While Benedict has spoken of “the authority of mystery.”27 in the context of the liturgy, this expression is also helpful for describing his integral vision of the Church as the handmaiden of the Word of God. The Church, as he sees it, lives under the authority of mystery. It is in dialogue with the Word that revealed the mystery of God’s saving plan in history, and it is in obedient service to the Word as it seeks final accomplishment of God’s plan.
Benedict has a bold understanding of the mystery of the Word in history and in the human heart. As I write, he has just presided over a Synod of Bishops that brought to Rome more than two hundred and fifty bishops from around the world. For nearly a month, they met daily from morning to night to discuss a topic personally chosen by Benedict, “The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church.” To open the Synod, Benedict offered a beautiful meditation on Psalm 118, in which he laid out his vision in terms that can only be described as breathtaking. His words reflect a lifetime of contemplation and anticipate the themes we are about the study:
3. See for instance these important scholarly studies: Maximilian Heinrich Heim, Joseph Ratzinger: Life in the Church and Living Theology, trans. Michael J. Miller (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2007) and Tracey Rowland, Ratizinger’s Faith: The Theology of Pope Benedict XVI (New York: Oxford, 2008). While valuable in many respects, neither of these works engages at all with the foundations of Benedict’s theological vision in his interpretation of Scripture.
9. Publication of Benedict’s collected works began in late 2008 by the German publisher, Herder, and the Vatican’s Libreria Editrice Vaticana. As announced, the opera will include: vols. 1-2: his undergraduate and doctorate theses and other writings about Augustine and Bonaventure, the subjects of those theses; vol. 3: his inaugural lecture, “The God of Faith and the God of the Philosophers,” delivered at Bonn in 1959, along with other writings on faith and reason and the historical and intellectual foundations of Europe; vol. 4: Introduction to Christianity (1968), along with other writings on the profession of faith, baptism, discipleship and Christian life; vol. 5: writings on creation, anthropology, the doctrine of grace, and Mariology; vol. 6: works of christology, including Jesus of Nazareth (2007); vol. 7: writings on Vatican Council II, including notes and comments from that period; vol. 8: writings on ecclesiology and ecumenism; vol. 9: writings on theological epistemology and hermeneutics, in particular on the understanding of Scriptures, Revelation, and Tradition; vol. 10: Eschatology (1977) and other writings on hope, death, resurrection, eternal life; vol. 11: writings on the theology of the liturgy; vol. 12: writings on the sacraments and ministry; vol. 13: collected interviews; vol. 14: homilies from before his election as pope; vol. 15: autobiographical and personal writings; vol. 16: complete bibliography and comprehensive index of all the volumes. See Sandro Magister, “In the ‘Opera Omnia,’ of Ratzinger the Theologian, the Overture is All about the Liturgy,” available at: http://chiesa.espresso.repubblica.it/articolo/208933?eng=y.
10. For a good overview, especially of his early academic writings, see Aidan Nichols, The Thought of Benedict XVI: An Introduction to the Theology of Joseph Ratzinger (London: Burns & Oates, 2005). For comprehensive bibliographies, see Nichols, Thought of Benedict XVI, 297–330; Heim, Joseph Ratzinger, 539–563; Pilgrim, 299-379.
11. For an excellent window into his work at the Second Vatican Council, see Jared Wicks, “Six Texts by Prof. Joseph Ratzinger as Peritus Before and During Vatican Council II, Gregorianum 89 no.2 (2008): 233–311; see also Ratzinger, Milestones, 120–131.
22. See Song, 30: "The historical Jesus can only be a non-Christ, a non-Son [of God] .... As a result, the Church falls apart all by herself; now she can only be an organization made by humans that tries, more or less skillfully and more or less benevolently, to put this Jesus to use. The sacraments, of course, fall by the wayside—how could there be a real presence of this 'historical Jesus' in the Eucharist?"
23. Jerome, Commentary on Isaiah 1:1, quoted in Second Vatican Council, Dei Verbum, Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, (November 18, 1965), 25, in The Scripture Documents: An Anthology of Official Catholic Teachings, ed. Dean P. Béchard, S.J. (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2002), 19–31, at 30. For an example of Benedict’s use of Jerome, see his Address to the Participants in the International Congress Organized to Commemorate the Fortieth Anniversary of the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation “Dei Verbum,” (September 16, 2005), in L’Osservatore Romano, Weekly Edition in English (September 21, 2005), 7. As Pope, Benedict has devoted two public teachings to Jerome. See the General Audiences of November 7 and November 14, 2007.
26. Pope Benedict XVI, Homily, Mass of Possession of the Chair of the Bishop of Rome. (May 7, 2005), in L’Osservatore Romano, Weekly Edition in English (May 11, 2005), 3. Frequently in his teaching Benedict appears to be in “dialogue” with the ideas of influential exegetes, sometimes even referring to them by name. See, for instance, his criticism of Adolf von Harnack and the “the individualism of liberal theology,” during the course of his General Audience of March 15, 2006, in L’Osservatore Romano, Weekly Edition in English (March 22, 2006), 11.