Testing the spirits

Guy Davies Guy Davies BA (Hons) Theology, originally hails from Newport, South Wales. He trained for the Ministry at the London Theological Seminary and obtained his degree from Greenwich School of Theology. He
01 May, 2011 5 min read

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

Guy Davies BA (Hons) Theology, originally hails from Newport, South Wales. He trained for the Ministry at the London Theological Seminary and obtained his degree from Greenwich School of Theology. He
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