Thoughts on the retirement of the Professor Pope
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.
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