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Pope Weighs In on Jesus Debate


The Bible 'in Today's Context'
He's the Pope
Inspiration Within

About a year ago, Pope Benedict XVI chose the topic of love for his first encyclical. Now we are seeing the first of two books about Jesus. Once again, Pope Benedict is proving not to be so much the “circle up the wagons” leader that some feared, but rather a deeply pastoral theologian.

This new book is a project that then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had hoped to finish after concluding his term as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. But the Church, led by the Spirit, had other plans. He found a way to squeeze in writing time anyway, and divided his Jesus writing project into halves to move things into print faster. The first book, released in the United States by Doubleday some weeks ago, is Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration.

The topic of Jesus, especially in light of new approaches to Scripture scholarship and historical studies, has garnered much popular attention in recent decades. Joseph Ratzinger the theologian, even before he became pope, wanted to weigh in on the debate.


The Bible 'in Today's Context'

The pope realizes the Church needs to hear and proclaim a bold, simple message about Jesus. In a late-April audience, at the time his book was first released in Europe, he told those gathered that he followed a three-pronged approach to catechesis inspired by Origen (185-254), a Church Father.

Following this approach, Benedict says that he tried to highlight what the Bible says about Jesus, the moral principles of his teaching, and how reading the Scriptures can lead to a real relationship with Jesus—all “in today’s context.”

Benedict also says Origen made a great contribution by teaching us that prayerful reading of Scripture is to be combined with concrete application of the fruit of our prayer in daily life.

Before saying anything else, it seems helpful to note that the pope stressed that this book is not “magisterial” in nature—his conclusions are not authoritative Church teaching, but rather are open for review and theological debate. That may be easier said than done.

He's the Pope

One need only remember Regensburg where, last September, the pope made a comment about Christian-Muslim relations that reverberated violently worldwide for months. Joseph Ratzinger the theologian has a much-amplified voice as Pope Benedict XVI. Also, within the past few years, he has taken corrective action against a number of theologians and Catholic journalists. Critics of this book may want to debate him publicly.

Nonetheless, a few comments are in order. First, we applaud the pope for continuing this “back to the basics” approach in his teaching. Topics such as love and Jesus help us to remember what the Church is most deeply about.

This book, though, which surely will sell by the droves in shopping malls across the land (admittedly less than the Harry Potter sequel), is not easy reading.

In a scholarly way, Benedict takes his rightful role as a German theologian. He counters some of the widely influential German intellectuals who have shaped modern biblical criticism and our understanding of the person of Jesus. If the reader is somewhat familiar with these debates, the book is a good read.

Novices, however, may find themselves skimming from section to section, searching for inspirational nuggets in the midst of textbook-like prose.

That’s not to undercut the book’s importance. Perhaps the most important message of the book, one which the pope defends as a scholar, is that, contrary to many scholars’ published opinion, Jesus was not merely a moralist, or merely a social reformer, not just the “historical Jesus” to be distilled from Gospel accounts, apart from his Church. Rather, Jesus is truly the “Christ of faith,” the Son of God. Benedict spends much of 355 pages showing, in theological argument, the excesses and mistakes of his fellow scholars.

Inspiration Within

Then there are the nuggets. They appear from time to time among his comments on the Temptations, Beatitudes (including the humility of St. Francis of Assisi), the Lord’s Prayer, the Bread of Life.

Of special interest to St. Anthony Messenger readers might be the pope’s comments on Francis. “The saints are the true interpreters of Scripture,” says the pope, who uses Francis’ devotion to humility and poverty as a way to explain the meaning of the first beatitude, about poverty.

“For Francis, this extreme humility was above all freedom for service, freedom for mission, ultimate trust in God....” Benedict also highlights the value of the Secular Franciscan Order in blending the commitments of life in the world with the depths of faith.

In another section the pope, in putting the Christ of faith next to all manner of theories about the historical Jesus, puts a deep question to all believers: If we had to choose today, between “a Messiah who leads an armed struggle, promises freedom and a kingdom of one’s own, and this mysterious Jesus who proclaims that losing oneself is the way to life,” how would we choose?

In the pope’s words, would “Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Mary, the Son of the Father, have a chance? Do we really know Jesus at all? Do we understand him? Do we not perhaps have to make an effort, today as always, to get to know him all over again?” What better question could a pope ask?—J.F.

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