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Testing the spirits

May 2011 | by Guy Davies

Testing the spirits


In an online Fleabytes broadcast entitled ‘No pope of Rome?’ David Robertson, editor of the Free Church of Scotland’s Monthly Record, ponders the significance of Pope Benedict XVI’s state visit to the UK in September 2010.


It is a thoughtful piece, reflecting on the dangers of religious prejudice and sectarian bigotry. As a prominent minister in one of Scotland’s most avowedly Protestant denominations, Robertson was careful to say that he disagreed with some of the main tenets of the Roman Catholic Church: ‘I’m not going to defend the papal office.


      ‘I think that Catholic soteriology is wrong and confusing, their view of baptism is wrong, and their view of the Mass is at best nonsensical and at worst, blasphemous. And to be honest, I don’t even think that there should be a pope’.

      However, brandishing the book under review, Robertson said that reading Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth made him warm to the pope as a ‘Christian brother’. Surprising words from a man in his position!




Robertson attempts to justify his stance towards ‘brother Ratzinger’ by quoting what Robert Murray M’Cheyne wrote concerning the Bavarian Roman Catholic priest, Martin Boos: ‘If dear Martin Boos were alive, pastor of the Church of Rome though he was, he would have been welcome too; and who that knows the value of souls and the value of a living testimony would say it was wrong?’

      Boos was an unusual Roman Catholic clergyman in that he believed in justification by faith alone. Ratzinger, however, doesn’t.

      When Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (1981-2005), Ratzinger’s initial response to the Joint declaration on justification by the Holy See and World Lutheran Federation was to pronounce Lutheran doctrine of justification incompatible with the Roman Catholic teaching on the consequences of baptism.

      In his book on Saint Paul (Ignatius Press, 2009), Ratzinger looks at Paul’s teaching on justification by faith. He says that ‘Luther’s phrase faith alone is true, if it is not opposed to faith in charity, in love’ (p. 82). While it is right that the faith which alone justifies ‘works through love’ (Galatians 5:6), it is not the case that we are justified on account of our love to God and man, so that: ‘And thus transformed by [Christ’s] love, by the love of God and neighbour, we can truly be just in God’s eye’ (p. 83). That is in keeping with erroneous, classic post-Tridentine Roman Catholic teaching on justification, in which faith and works are merged as the basis of the sinner’s justification before God.

      Given what Paul wrote in Galatians 1:6-9 concerning false teachers who denied justification by faith alone, I wonder whether Robertson was wise to suggest that the current pope might be welcome in a Free Church of Scotland pulpit.




And so to the book that made David Robertson so warm to Joseph Ratzinger. Given the often heard Protestant complaint that Rome pays little attention to the Bible, it is refreshing that the current leader of the Roman Catholic Church has devoted sustained and serious attention to Scripture’s witness to Jesus Christ.

      Ratzinger makes it clear that this study is in no way an exercise of the magisterium (Rome’s official interpretation of the Bible). Rather, it is, ‘solely an expression of my personal search “for the face of the Lord” (cf. Psalm 27:8)’.

      The book gives a portrait of the life and teaching of Jesus from baptism to transfiguration. In his approach to the Bible, Ratzinger practises ‘canonical exegesis’ — attempting to read individual texts of Scripture in the light of the whole, and deploys a ‘Christological hermeneutic’ — recognising that Jesus is the key to understanding the Bible as a unity.

      Ratzinger’s handling of Scripture is often insightful and shot through with telling practical application. His interpretation of the Bible is informed by the rich heritage of patristic exegesis. However, his indebtedness to critical scholarship is betrayed by his use of the label ‘Deutero-Isaiah’ for Isaiah 40-55, which he dates at the end of the Babylonian exile (p. 347).




In his role as Prefect, Ratzinger was a scourge of liberal theologians who wished to overturn the faith of the Church. Here he has little patience with the view that Jesus was little more than a great teacher and a good example for us to follow. 

      He makes it clear that Jesus of Nazareth, as the only Son of the Father, is fully God and truly man. Working from that standpoint, he discusses the key events of Jesus’ earthly life. He also gives attention to Jesus’ teaching and devotes a chapter to the principal images of John’s Gospel — water, vine and wine, bread and the shepherd. Finally in a concluding essay, he looks at three Christological names — the Son of Man, the Son and I AM.

      There are things in this work that could warm the hearts of evangelical Christians. Commenting on Jesus’ self-identification as ‘I AM’, he writes: ‘On the cross, his Sonship, his oneness with the Father becomes visible. The cross is the true “height”. It is the height of “love to the end” (John 13:1). On the cross, Jesus is exalted to the very height of the God who is love. It is there that he can be “known”, that the “I am he” can be recognized’ (p. 349).

      While Roman dogmas don’t unduly protrude in the text, they are nevertheless present as a reminder that the author of this study is indeed Pope Benedict XVI. Being ‘born of water and the Spirit’ (John 3:5) is explained in terms of baptismal regeneration (pp. 239f).

      The Bread of Life discourse in John 6 is interpreted sacramentally, in language suggestive of transubstantiation (pp. 267-272). While Ratzinger does not spell out the Roman teaching on papal primacy in his handling of Matthew 16:18, a note in the back of the book (p. 373) shows that he still holds to this dogma. 

      As the most recent ‘successor of Peter’, Benedict XVI believes that he has ‘full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered’ (Catechism of the Catholic Church, Para. 882).




In commending Ratzinger as a ‘Christian brother’ on the basis of this work, David Robertson has fallen into a similar trap to evangelicals involved in Evangelicals and Catholics Together.

      In their book Is the Reformation over? Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom argue that as evangelicals agree with around two thirds of the teaching in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, that we should regard Roman Catholics as ‘Christians’ without qualification.

      That is clearly problematic, as the differences concern serious, gospel-defining issues. Similarly, while we might agree with many things that Benedict XVI has to say in Jesus of Nazareth, his teaching must be taken as a whole.

      We must also take into account his views on baptismal regeneration, the Mass, justification by faith, Scripture and tradition, and so on. Whether the pope should be regarded as a ‘Christian brother’ who should be made welcome in Protestant pulpits should be on the basis of his theology in the round, not simply on evidence selectively culled from this book.

      Let us never forget that in claiming ‘universal power over the whole Church’, the pope has usurped the unique role of Jesus of Nazareth as the head of the Church.

      In his broadcast, David Robertson quotes Ratzinger’s words on page 260 of this book and urges him to apply them to himself as pope: ‘When man and his institutions climb too high, they need to be cut back; what has become too big must be brought back to the simplicity and poverty of the Lord himself’.


On guard


That is precisely the problem. The papacy grandly claims the right to exercise unhindered power over the people of God. If Ratzinger really meant what he said regarding returning to the simplicity and poverty of the Lord, he would resign from office forthwith and become a simple preacher of the gospel.

      His book was first published in 2007. As yet there is no sign of the current pope renouncing his claim to be the ‘Vicar of Christ’ and vacating the Vatican so that Jesus of Nazareth can take centre stage in the Roman Catholic Church.

      That in itself speaks volumes and should put us on our guard before evangelical Protestants start enthusiastically hailing Ratzinger on the strength of this volume.

Jesus of Nazareth: From the baptism in the Jordan to the transfiguration, Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI), Bloomsbury Publishing, 2008; paperback, 374 pages, £14.99; ISBN: 9780747592785

Guy Davies
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