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Thoughts on the retirement of the Professor Pope

February 26, 2013 9 Comments

Pope Benedict XVI

by John Stephenson

After publishing three book-length interviews with his fellow-countryman in the Vatican (two with the cardinal prefect responsible for doctrine, the third with the Pope himself), German journalist Peter Seewald is now working on the biography of Joseph Ratzinger. After his last meeting with his subject, held in the closing weeks of 2012, and in light of the impending abdication of Benedict XVI on February 28, Seewald has written movingly of a frail old man, blind in his left eye, increasingly deaf, painfully emaciated, drained of all energy after a lifetime of unremitting labour.

Before making the acquaintance of Joseph Ratzinger, Seewald was one of the millions of contemporary Germans who had drifted away from the church; he now attributes his return to the faith in no small measure to the quiet and thoughtful witness of his interviewee. The famous Reformed theologian Karl Barth once bitingly remarked that he knew of no one who had come to “joy and peace in believing” (Romans 15:13) through the work of Rudolf Bultmann, a radical New Testament scholar who considered the Gospels as works that belong to the category of “myth.” The fact that many will join Seewald in coming to a different conclusion concerning the ministry of Joseph Ratzinger constitutes perhaps the highest compliment one could make to the retiring Bishop of Rome.

A deep divide now exists among the theologians of all Western confessions between those who profess the truth of revelation and those who do not. If Joseph Ratzinger is not the “dean” of the worldwide guild of theologians who belong in the first camp, I don’t know who else could be nominated for the honorific position. Going on three decades ago already, my mentor the late Robert Preus (who was sharply critical of most things Roman Catholic) had considerable respect for him. In Lutheran circles, only Hermann Sasse springs to mind as a figure of comparable stature.

Since the Second World War, a variety of theologians have enjoyed the spotlight of their colleagues’ attention. In the realm of Protestantism none has gained the stature of Karl Barth. Among Ratzinger’s fellow Roman Catholics, Karl Rahner and Hans Urs von Balthasar enjoyed their season of fame, but Rahner’s thought is governed by philosophy, while Balthasar (though he had some good things to say) took off into flights of unwarranted speculation. What has impressed many Lutherans about Ratzinger is his rootedness in Scripture and the ancient Fathers and his quiet Christocentric focus. It is not without reason that, in his official reaction to Benedict XVI’s laying down the papal office, Bishop Hans-Jörg Voigt of the Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church in Germany (SELK) noted that many of Ratzinger’s positions have been “startlingly close [durchaus nahe] to those of confessional Lutheranism” (selk_news February 11, 2013).

What has impressed many Lutherans about Ratzinger is his rootedness in Scripture and the ancient Fathers and his quiet Christocentric focus.

The works of Joseph Ratzinger have featured noticeably in the text and footnotes of my own writings over the past three decades, oftentimes in the context of agreement, but not seldom in a setting of debate (Auseinandersetzung) where the Lutheran dogmatician (understandably) fails to see eye to eye with his Roman Catholic counterpart. Yet, although some big issues remain to be ironed out (and perhaps they will remain unresolved this side of eternity), a major fruit of the Ecumenical Movement has been the advent of greater charity in theological debate, and Ratzinger himself has been exemplary in the courtesy he displays to those who disagree with him.

Whenever I speak at Brock University (St. Catharines, Ontario), I aim to accomplish two things in any specific address: first, and obviously, to express something distinctively Lutheran; and, secondly (especially given that Concordia Lutheran Theological Seminary—the institution with which I am a professor—is the only Christian institution on campus), I aim to say something that speaks for and to all believing Christians, and that therefore belongs under the heading of C. S. Lewis’s “Mere Christianity.”

As Ratzinger (especially during his quarter century as chief doctrinal spokesman for his church body) has himself said much that is distinctively Roman Catholic, I find it remarkable that he has crowned his tenure as Pope with the publication of a trilogy—Jesus of Nazareth—that represents a beautiful, clear, and powerful witness to Mere Christianity.

A couple of years ago, a seminarian from our German sister church who was having supper at our home with his wife, told me of the positive reception the first two volumes of Ratzinger’s Jesus of Nazareth was having in the SELK, with Bishop Emeritus Jobst Schöne leading the charge of appreciation. But, this student said, many professional New Testament scholars were upset that a non-specialist had made an uninvited foray into their discipline. After all, surely the subject-matter is too complicated and obscure, something inaccessible to the man in the street…

Well, as I recently argued in a review published in the journal of our two Canadian faculties, Ratzinger’s Jesus of Nazareth is a product of sterling scholarship that represents a literary triumph of Mere Christianity, a work in which believing Christians of all confessions may rejoice. Remarkably, just a few months ago the now retiring Pope held a copy of Lutheran Theological Review 24 (in which my review appeared) in his hands. He asked an American prelate working in the Vatican’s State Department to write me a letter of appreciation, noting especially Benedict’s thanks at my remark that he had “provided an ecumenical solution to an ecumenical problem.”

Ratzinger’s Jesus of Nazareth is a product of sterling scholarship that represents a literary triumph of Mere Christianity, a work in which believing Christians of all confessions may rejoice.

Debate (Auseinandersetzung) will, of course, continue, and I hope that another Roman Catholic theologian of Ratzinger’s stature will emerge to carry on his work. But, as a frail and exhausted man stricken in years now passes into the annals of history while remaining for a while alive on earth, I express my appreciation, admiration, sympathy, and prayers. And if, as talks between the Vatican and the International Lutheran Council continue, a panel of our theologians should soon sit across from their Roman Catholic counterparts somewhere in the Eternal City and this aged churchman and scholar should shuffle into the room, I would be most interested in what he might yet have to contribute to the discussion.


Rev. Dr. John Stephenson is Professor of Historical Theology at Concordia Lutheran Theological Seminary (CLTS) in St. Catharines, Ontario. He is one of Lutheran Church–Canada’s (LCC) representatives on the Working Group for discussions between LCC and the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Dr. Stephensons’s review of Pope Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth appears in Volume 24 of Lutheran Theological Review (pages 109-122), a theological journal jointly published by LCC’s two seminaries: CLTS, and Concordia Lutheran Seminary in Edmonton. Read the issue online here.

Image used under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.


  • Nathan100 said:

    Dr. Stephenson,

    Nathan Rinne here, your former student here. What a great article from you – thank you for writing it, as I truly do appreciate your good words here. You model charity and conviction very well.

    Blessings to you and yours!


  • Paul T. McCain said:

    Fine words, indeed! Let us also be careful to remember the very safe and prescient warning Dr. Hermann Sasse made many years ago in a letter that could have been written yesterday. Permit me to refer readers to my blog for the whole post:


  • Cliff Pyle said:

    While I appreciate the comments on your above mentioned Blog, they are written in hard to understand language and do quote a dated report about “if things have changed in the Catholic Church. A 1949 assessment is not solid judgement of or if any change has occurred. Most people would agree that the Catholic Church of today (post Vatican two) is not the same Church as the one at the time of the Reformation.

    A 1949 analysis is hardly the pulse of todays world, and we are no longer fighting the battles of the 16th century. The legalism of the Missouri Synod seems to have penetrated sound judgement and understanding, and it seems there is “no forgiveness” in these archaic attitudes.


  • Henry Balasch said:

    Thanks for the article,

    Are we living in the last days? Is the office of the Pope the Antichrist or the false prophet?

    Will this be the last Pope?

    We need to be aware of what the last days is all about.

    Are we witnessing prophecy unfold?

    Down below are 3 links for you to find out for yourself and do your
    due diligence just as I have and find out what the Vatican is involved
    in today.

    This is today.

    You will come to your own conclusions.

    You will be surprised!!

    1- http://raidersnewsupdate.com/

    2- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k2dzhURdKNU&list=PLpJHGoCFJvI053si7W_kxSf2yzSExfeSM

    3- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eHsBbMBMiMY

    – Henry –

  • Richard Beinert said:

    @ Henry – so what ever happened to Sola Scriptura (by Scripture alone)? Last I checked, Saint Malachy was not included within the pages of the Bible – do correct me if I’m wrong. I’d rather stick with the firm words of our Lord rather than chase after shadows within obscure opinions of men. Itching ears are always a dangerous thing (2 Tim. 4:3). It seems to me that our Reformation forefathers staked their claim on Scripture alone because of just this kind of thing – where, on the one hand, the Roman hierarchy claimed that they had a special ‘take’ on the truth on the basis of a tradition built around visions and prophecies and popular devotional falacies – on the other, there were the host of ‘unapproved’ visions and prophecies which likewise harried the common man and distracted them from the simple Gospel. Don’t fall prey to chasing after ‘winds of doctrine’ which have the appearance of wisdom but have nothing to do with Christ, as Paul would say.

  • Silky Johnson said:

    A very gracious essay, sir. If only Catholics thought as highly of him as you do, the RCC would be in a lot better condition.

  • Cliff Pyle said:

    Great Article, Dr. Stephenson as I have just finished reading his book “Jesus of Nazareth” and it is indeed an excellent scholarly work that is devoid of the sentimentality and subjectivity of many Roman Catholics, especially in regard to Mary.
    As one who has been married to a Roman Catholic, quite often painfully enduring criticism and ridicule from well-meaning Christians from both sides of the theological spectrum. One has to walk in these shoes to fully understand the pain that our division has caused. We must be faithful to our faith traditions none-the-less. What we need to do is to have the compassion of Jesus in understanding and respecting the differences which cause so much contention.
    It is time we put away the “clubs and sticks” when we meet Jesus in these other Christians. We are no longer fighting a 16th century battle, but there is a new enemy among us in todays society.

  • The Loss of Benedict XVI as Bishop of Rome (and the future) | Apologia and the Occident said:

    […] Christ called “Jesus of Nazareth” should be read by all Christians, and in the words of one confessional Lutheran, the work is a victory for “Mere Christianity.” His defense of what has always been taught about life, marriage, and other moral issues are often […]

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    […] an average of more than 6,750 people per month read articles ranging from news and reflections on Pope Benedict’s resignation, praying the Psalms with the body of Christ, cooperation between confessing Anglicans and […]

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