Benedict’s Jesus

It has been said that while writing the Summa, Saint Thomas Aquinas was, among other things, engaging in a dialogue with Saint Augustine across the cen­turies. In his extraordinary Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict XVI also seems to regard, in his mind’s eye, a number of interlocutors, living and dead.

It has been said that while writing the Summa, Saint Thomas Aquinas was, among other things, engaging in a dialogue with Saint Augustine across the cen­turies. In his extraordinary Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict XVI also seems to regard, in his mind’s eye, a number of interlocutors, living and dead. There are, for example, the great 20th -century biblical exegetes who shaped the teaching of Scripture when he was a seminary student. It is as though he still needs to clarify exactly where he — and the Church — stands in rela­tion to the “his­torical-critical” method. Then there are thoughtful Jews who still await the Messiah, but regard Chris­tianity as a dangerous solvent of what holds them together as a people. Then again, there are the intellectual elites, especially in Eur­ope, who think that whatever may have happened 2,000 years ago in Palestine is no longer even historically relevant.
But the pope is mainly addressing the modern world, which may in some respects still be “religious,” but has tragically missed “what the Messiah Jesus actu­ally brought.” As such, this richly suggestive book deserves the widest pos­sible readership. It had an encouraging start near the top of the best-seller list, but soon lost ground to Princess Diana and Ronald Reagan. It may be that potential buyers sampled the first pages in Bar­nes & Noble and got the impression they’d wan­dered into a gradu­ate semin­ar on biblical exegesis, complete with esoteric German names. Bene­dict’s intro­duction, like the rest of the book, is notable for its brilliance and clarity. But readers expecting the first leg of an easy tour of the New Testament won’t find it here. Instead, they are plunged into a scholarly debate they prob­ably didn’t know exist­ed in the first place.
Be that as it may, Benedict’s opening point could not be more import­ant: If the modern world is going to rediscover Christ, it has to come to terms with what the “scientific” method has done with the Bible. Since the Enlighten­ment, there has been a re­lent­less search for the “historical” Jesus, and the pope is not the first to point out how this Jesus often bears a curious resem­blance to the person writing the book. Nine­teenth-century lib­eral schol­ars produced a 19th-century liberal Jesus, and so forth. At the same time, the pope is addres­sing a prob­lem that has ex­ist­ed in the Catho­lic world since the mid-1940s, when Pope Pius XII, with the encyclical Divino Af­flante Spiri­tu, cautiously opened the door for the historical-criti­cal me­th­od in Catholic theo­logy.
That encyclical was a risky but necessary move by a pope who was often a moder­ating “liberal” influence in ways for which he is seldom given credit. To understand its importance, some history is in order. For centuries, ration­alist critics had been at­tacking Christian belief in the inerrancy of Scripture. This scholarly assault had long since turned mainline Protestantism into a hotbed of skep­ticism. Until the early 20th century, the Catholic Church remained largely unscathed; but then priest-scholars like Alfred Loisy and George Tyrrell be­came intoxi­cated with the new methods and arrived at con­clusions about the per­son of Christ identical to those of agnostic German professors. To con­tain the damage, Pope Pius X issued the famous syllabus Lam­entabili (1907), list­ing errors mostly extract­ed from Loisy’s works, along with the encyclical Pas­cendi Gregis, which not only con­demned all forms of Modernism, but called for a vigilant — some would say inquisitorial — hunt through­out the Church for its disciples.
These harsh measures were no doubt neces­sary, but the resulting pur­ges of semin­aries and universities had elements of both tragedy and comedy. When John XXIII became pope, he made the inter­esting discovery that the Holy Office had once kept a file marking him as a suspected modern­ist. With typical good humor, he pulled out a fountain pen and entered a post­script declaring, with the authority of the Office of Peter, that he was not a heretic.
But for decades Catholic scholars had to be careful about what they wrote about Scripture, and Pius XII’s tentative endorsement of the historical-cri­ti­cal method opened a rich world of biblical theology. Accordingly, Benedict XVI expresses his “pro­found gratitude” for the find­ings of modern scrip­tural ex­egesis. He goes even fur­ther: The faith “must expose itself to the histor­ical method — indeed, the faith demands this.” Bene­dict, the great apostle of reason, does not want Catholics re­treat­ing into any kind of fideism when confronted with biblical passages that elude simple interpretation.
The prob­lem is that in the second half of the 20th cen­tury, certain Catholic scho­lars, under the influence of Protestant exegetes like Rudolf Bultmann and Adolf von Harnack, set about deconstructing the Gospels with questionable results. The Belgian Domin­ican Edward Schillebeeckx, for example, argues in his best-selling books that the Apostles’ “Easter experi­ence” was largely sub­jective — they did not “see” Christ the way I see my wife just now at the other end of the kitchen table. Christ’s resurrection should not be under­stood as an actual histori­cal event. Rather, it was a “con­version process,” in which the disci­ples “saw,” or came to believe, that Jesus is the “living One.”{mospagebreak}
With an eye on this brand of corrosive scholarship, the pope warns that “the highly scientific approach” is no protection against “fundamental mistakes.” A true understanding of Scrip­ture, the pope writes, in­volves more than intel­lec­tual exertion and wide read­ing; it demands a prior act of faith; it cannot be “the conclusion of a purely histori­cal method.” At the same time, this act of faith is based on “historical rea­son” and so avoids the pitfalls of funda­mentalism.
So the pope is asking us, like F. Scott Fitzgerald in one of his essays, to keep two si­mul­taneous ideas in our heads and keep functioning. Catholic­ism, after all, is usually about “both/and,” not “either/or.” When approach­ing the Word of God, we need both faith and reason. Neither can operate in­de­pend­ent­ly of the other. And, as we might expect, in Jesus of Nazareth we find both in abundance; a deep piety wedded to a stra­to­spher­­ic intellect. This book will take its rightful place among the great modern spiritual clas­sics about Christ, alongside such names as Guardini, Karl Adam, Sheed, Goodi­er, and Fulton Sheen.
A Trinitarian Christ
The pope begins with a simple point about the biography of Jesus: Scrip­ture give us “no window” into Jesus’ inner life. “Jesus stands above our psycho­logizing . . . . [He] does not appear in the role of a human genius subject to em­otional upheavals, who sometimes fails and sometimes succeeds.” In other words: Don’t write a novel about Jesus. The per­son of Christ — the divine “I” — is Wholly Other and so beyond all available cate­gories (not to mention the grasp of writers like Norman Mailer and Anne Rice, who both attempted Jesus novels with predictable results). The Incarnate Son is wrap­ped in my­stery — a fact nicely made by Ches­terton, who in The Everlasting Man writes that Christ’s behavior leaves

. . . a good deal to be guessed at or explained. It is full of sudden gestures evidently significant except that we hard­ly know what they signify; of enigmatic silences; of ironical replies. The outbreaks of wrath, like storms above our atmosphere, do not seem to break out exactly where we should expect them, but to follow some higher weather-chart of their own.

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Instead of the jerry-built, somewhat confused Jesus found in recent best-sellers, the pope gives us a richly trinitarian Christ who can be understood only in re­lation to the Father. Jesus, the pope writes, “always speaks as the Son.” His “oneness with the Father is ever present and deter­mines every­thing.” It is “the core of his very being.” This radical openness to the Father is who He is — as is His openness to everyone whom He encoun­ters: the poor, the Pharisees, lepers, disci­ples, tax-collectors. If, as Vatican II (quoting Hen­­ri de Lubac) teaches, Christ is the revelation to man of what man is, then this also is the pattern of our lives, the great secret: Self-gift. The pope iden­ti­fies the Chris­­­tian voca­tion as an escape from the “closed circle” of the “I,” a strip­ping away “of what is merely our own,” so that, in imitation of Christ, we open our­selves without reservation to God and to others. Ev­ery sentence in the book resonates with this “relational” Christian anthro­pology.
The reverse side of this theme is what Benedict calls the “lie” of radi­cal autonomy. In a close reading of the Par­able of the Prodigal Son (which he suggests ought to be called the Parable of the Two Brothers), he points out that the younger son’s indulgent life amounts to a form of self-en­clo­sure that leads not to freedom but distortion. The young­er son learns the hard way that true liberty comes from living in accord with the norms and direc­tions planted in our nature. His “con­ver­­sion” in­volves finding within him­self “the compass pointing toward the father, toward a true free­dom of a ‘son’.” Like all of us on one level or another, he has to reject a “false emanci­pation” and dis­co­ver the authentic self put there by the Creator.
The pope then takes up the elder brother, who is often viewed as having a minor supporting role in the story. The older brother sees nothing but in­justice in the father’s welcoming of the prodigal. “And this,” the pope writes, “betrays the fact that he too had secretly dreamed of a freedom with­out limits, that his obedience has made him inwardly bitter, and that he has no awareness of the grace of being at home . . . . There is an unspoken envy of what others have been able to get away with.” This is obviously aimed at the Pharisees — but also at anyone who sees God as a lawgiver more than anything else. I dare say that Jacques Maritain was correct in understanding the clerical rebellion after Vatican II along these lines. In fact, we are all in need of constant conversion from what Benedict calls “the Law-God” to the “greater God, the God of love.”{mospagebreak}
Recovering Jewish Roots
Benedict’s detailed gloss of three parables from the Gospel of Luke con­sti­tutes spiritual reading of a high order. Other parts of his book tend more toward scholarship or apologetics. Yet somehow the whole adds up to a coherent volume that immensely deepens our approach to the Incar­na­tion, which in Benedict’s view was not only a deeply trinitarian event, but a deep­ly Jewish one. In this regard, Benedict’s extended “dialogue” with the great Jewish scholar Jacob Neusner over whether or not Jesus is the Messiah turns into a fascinating digression within the con­text of a discussion of the Beati­tudes.
Jesus was (and is) a Jew, and, as Benedict points out, the great events of His life are invariably connected with the Jewish festival calendar. Jesus places Himself in the line of the prophets and often draws attention to the continuity of His mission with Hebrew Scripture. The pope naturally dwells on pro­phe­t­ic passages in the Old Testament that closely fit the reality of the In­carna­tion; but he makes a further interesting point: The Torah points to its own ongoing purification, which was the work of the prophets, and its final puri­fication is the “greater” prophet foretold by Moses: Jesus Himself. His pe­rson is the authoritative in­terpretation of the Law, be­cause He Himself is the “primoridal Word.” Jesus fulfills the Torah by uni­versalizing it, and only He can do this because, like Moses, He sees God “face to face,” but in an infin­ite­ly more direct way.
The late Jesuit scholar, Paul Quay, once spoke of Marcion’s revenge: The general ignorance of the Old Testament among the modern faithful. This book is a corrective. Benedict writes that we “constantly have to let the Lord draw us into his conversation with Moses and Elijah; we have to constantly learn from him, the Risen Lord, to understand Scripture afresh.” A deeper penetration of the Old Testament makes us more fully Chris­tian; it allows a more fruitful dialogue with not only Jews, but also those Reform churches that are consciously shaped by Old Testament theology. One notes in passing that Benedict has written elsewhere of his profound debt to the Jewish spiritual writer Martin Buber.
There is so much in this book that invites deep meditation, especially the extended unpack­ings of the Sermon on the Mount and the Lord’s Prayer. Along the way, we pick up many isolated gems. We learn, for example, that Solomon, strictly speaking, asked God for a “listening heart.” That Barrabas was not just some low-rent felon (as portrayed in the Mel Gibson movie) but repre­sented an alternative form of political messianism, one based on the use of coercive power — a temptation that the “kingdom of God” must always reject. And that the usual iconogaphy of John’s baptism of Jesus probably misses the point: “The real novelty is the fact that he — Jesus — wants to be baptized, that he blends into the grey mass of sinners waiting on the banks of the Jordan.”
The Real Benedict
Benedict came to the papacy with the reputation (at least in the media) of being a theological reactionary. That fanciful picture does not survive a reading of Jesus of Nazareth. He has nice things to say about Pierre Teilhard de Chardin; he takes a leftward stance on the “Johannine question,” entertaining the possibility that the fourth Gospel was redacted by John’s disciples and that the Book of Revelation may have been written by somebody else; and he repeatedly rejects all forms of legalism. In politics, Benedict is a kind of social democrat; in religion, a classical liberal who is open to truths wher­ever they may be found. He is the last of the great mid-century theolo­gi­ans — the generation of de Lu­bac, Baltha­sar, Wojtyla, Chenu, Congar — who were eager to move beyond neo-scho­last­icism in their search for a new Christian human­ism.
If the teaching of Benedict’s predecessor, John Paul II, could be summed up in a word, it would be “gift.” Benedict is likewise struck by the pure dynam­ic relationality of God, and therefore of the human person. But if you were to look for a word to sum up the pope’s message, it would be Logos, which the glossary of Jesus of Nazareth defines as the “Greek word for ‘reason,’ ‘ration­ality’, or ‘meaning.’” Man is a creature who searches for meaning, who is deeply impoverished if he does not find it. Christ is the Logos, the source of all meaning, and so everyone, no matter what they might think, is looking for Him. This book is a tremendous guide along that journey.

George Sim Johnston is the author of Did Darwin Get it Right? and a frequent contributor to
Jesus of Nazareth Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI; Doubleday; $24.95; 400 pages


  • George Sim Johnston

    George Sim Johnston is the author of “Did Darwin Get It Right? Catholics and the Theory of Evolution” (Our Sunday Visitor).

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