Book Review

Point of Contact

Joel Garver
Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI
Thursday, November 6th 2008
Nov/Dec 2008

With a theologian's care and a pastor's concern, Joseph Ratzinger-now Pope Benedict XVI-desires us to behold the face of Jesus. Ratzinger's Jesus of Nazareth is the first volume of a projected two. As the subtitle indicates, this volume covers Jesus' life, from his baptism through his transfiguration. The second volume will reflect upon the infancy narratives as well as Jesus' passion, death, and resurrection.

Ratzinger works through the Gospel accounts in roughly chronological order: Jesus' baptism, desert temptations, kingdom message, Sermon on the Mount, calling disciples, parables, and finally Peter's confession prior to the transfiguration. While Ratzinger draws material primarily from the synoptic Gospels, his vision of Jesus is markedly Johannine in character, a perspective he further explicates in a chapter exploring principal images in John's Gospel: water, vine and wine, bread, and the shepherd. He concludes with Jesus' declarations of identity as Son of Man, Son of God, and the "I Am."

Ratzinger understands the Gospel stories christologically and typologically, unfolding Jesus' actions and teachings in terms of his own person and work, against the backdrop of the Old Testament. Thus, Ratzinger connects Jesus' baptism back beyond John's ministry to ritual purifications, life-giving waters, and the chaotic deep. In his own person, Jesus bears humanity's sin into the depths of the Jordan, only to rise up, inaugurating a new creation.

Likewise, Ratzinger reads the Sermon on the Mount as replaying the law's promulgation at Sinai, but now focusing upon Jesus as fulfilling all righteousness. Jesus himself is preeminently poor in spirit, meek, and pure in heart, who hungers and thirsts after righteousness, fulfilling the Old Testament's theology of poverty, Moses' meekness, and the psalmist's call to purity.

Ratzinger also interprets parables through Christ. Jesus is the Samaritan neighbor who rescues our bruised, broken humanity; the one who reveals the Father's love for prodigal children; the poor Lazarus scorned by the rich and powerful, whose resurrection is a sign to a faithless world.

Interwoven with these intriguing readings of the Gospel text, Ratzinger speaks to contemporary readers. He not only calls us to faith but also exhorts us to live the pattern of Jesus' life, and so to resist temptations to materialism, idolatry, and power that Satan continues to offer. Moreover, Ratzinger's Jesus comes to free our humanity to become all that God has always desired, and so transcend present secular agendas.

It is difficult, however, to pin down just what sort of book Ratzinger intends. Clearly, his overarching purpose is a theological reading of Gospel witness to Jesus. Yet along the way he delves into historical criticism, social implications of Jesus' ministry, the Gospels' relationship to the church's confession, and patristic exegesis, all while describing Jesus with deep devotion.

As a result, Ratzinger's book remains uneven. He is at his best as a spiritual theologian, illuminating Jesus in conversation with the Old Testament, the Epistles, and the Fathers. He thus vividly and movingly shows us the heart of Jesus, inviting us into God's own life, revealing how Christ's universal kingdom bursts the limits of Torah and merely a national hope for Israel. In Jesus, God draws near each and everyone one of us, calling us to follow.

But concerning historical criticism, Ratzinger seems content engaging with material from more than a generation ago, despite fruitful use of several contemporary figures (such as Jacob Neusner and Joachim Gnilka). While earlier historical criticism still haunts us, scholarship has moved on, not least in the English-speaking world-developments Ratzinger fails to note. Along with occasional clumsiness in handling historical criticism, Ratzinger's implicit sparring with ghosts of earlier scholarship leads him to miss the eschatological character of New Testament soteriology that Vos and Ridderbos rightly perceived. Thus, while professing a desire to engage historical issues, Ratzinger's treatment will likely remain unsatisfactory to the scholarly guild.

Regarding the character of New Testament soteriology, Ratzinger's oversight has implications for his Protestant readers, since it is Israel's eschatological hope that Jesus embodies when he undergoes judgment and vindication in his death and resurrection. Ratzinger rightly emphasizes Jesus fulfilling righteousness representatively on our behalf and does recognize a realized eschatology in the parables.

Moreover, speaking of Jesus as the "bread of life" in John, Ratzinger helpfully notes Jesus' hearers are "ready to work, to do something, to perform 'works,' in order to receive this bread. But it cannot be 'earned' by human work, by one's own achievement. It can only come to us as a gift from God, as God's work" (268). He correctly sees this as resonant with Paul's perspective.

Elsewhere, he interprets the poverty of spirit enjoined by the Sermon on the Mount in light of Paul's theology of justification, speaking of those who do not "flaunt their achievements before God," nor "stride into God's presence as if they are partners able to engage with him on an equal footing," nor "lay claim to a reward for what they have done" (76).

Yet, for all these salutary emphases, Ratzinger remains unclear concerning the fundamentally declarative character of biblical justification, grounded in Jesus' righteousness reckoned to us. Instead, he speaks a desire "to live in inner harmony with God's nature and word" and the empty hands of faith as ones that are also "open and give and thus are ready to receive from God's bountiful goodness" (76). When we receive God's gifts by faith, we "enter into the dynamic of that gift" and so have a "living relationship with the Father" whereby Jesus may "become Word and love in us as well."

Ratzinger is right, of course, to include such observations as part of a full-orbed understanding of biblical salvation. Yet, he misses out on the Pauline dynamic in which we become, through faith, what we already are by God's declaration.

Whatever the problems of Ratzinger's Jesus of Nazareth, it remains a profound reflection upon the Gospels that will encourage believers all the more to worship and follow Jesus, in whom God moves toward us. Furthermore, Ratzinger provides a rich resource for dialogue with our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers and for spiritual conversation with all who find themselves drawn to the figure of Jesus.

Thursday, November 6th 2008

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
Magazine Covers; Embodiment & Technology