N.T. Wright Reviews Pope Benedict

Wright reviews Pope Benedict’s JESUS OF NAZARETH Holy Week: From the entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection here. Excerpts follow:

Benedict’s venture has already been dismissed by many (including Casey) on the grounds that it treats the four canonical gospels as more or less straightforwardly “true”, whereas the entire modernist “quest for the historical Jesus” has wrestled with the challenges posed by H. S. Reimarus in the eighteenth century and a multitude ever since. The attempt to place Jesus historically (or the assumption of a particular answer to that question) has been a significant element within European and American modernism. But you would hardly know that from the Pope’s books, which proceed (as he says) more after the manner of Thomas Aquinas’s “theological treatise on the mysteries of the life of Jesus”. Reading Benedict feels more like being on retreat, pondering ancient and subtle wisdom, than attending a seminar to struggle with questions of history.

Yet he has not simply ignored history. He has read the great German exegetes of the past generation, Protestant as well as Catholic, and draws on them for particular points even though the format of his work does not make for detailed discussion. He denies the suggestion that he is producing a “Christology from above” (in which the orthodox theological cart is placed before the historical horse) by arguing that scholarly exegesis of the New Testament “must see itself once again as a theological discipline, without abandoning its historical character”, forswearing popular but shallow positivism and combining a “faith-hermeneutic” with “a historical hermeneutic” so as “to form a methodological whole”.

The Pope suggests that this is a step forwards. Many, though, will inevitably see it as a step backwards, to a pre-modern, pre-critical reading which simply pushes the problems to one side and allows the great ecclesial tradition to rumble on as if there had been, after all, no real cause for concern about the reliability of the New Testament in the first place. The parallels between this approach and the stance that the Church is perceived to take on some other issues will, naturally, raise eyebrows. The business of whether theology and history can actually meet without a serious explosion is of course a question which, in one form or another (whether through debates on science and religion, or on faith and politics), has stood behind a good deal of intellectual conflict in the West over the past two centuries. Many will take more convincing than is provided in Jesus of Nazareth before they will readily accept such a marriage.

Benedict’s book, for all that, is full of surprises. There is a welcome emphasis on the rootedness of Jesus and his followers in Israel’s Scriptures, something which older exegesis, both Protestant and Catholic, often passed over. The heart of the volume is an exposition of Jesus’s vocational understanding of his own death in terms of the Psalms and Isaiah, particularly the “servant songs” of Isaiah 42–53, leading to a clear statement of the cross as the moment of vicarious, substitutionary atonement. This, Benedict writes, “constitutes the most profound content of Jesus’ mission”. This is not a view that Protestants normally expect popes to hold. Some Roman theologians, I suspect, will be surprised as well.

There are plenty of details to keep the reader alert. Benedict’s own tradition shows through here and there, for instance on Mary. It is fascinating to watch him treading carefully through minefields: “the Jews” who demand Jesus’s death are not the nation as a whole, but only the Temple hierarchy on the one hand, and the supporters of Barabbas on the other. And the historical detail sometimes needs attention: first-century Jewish corpses were anointed for burial not (as Benedict suggests) to keep corruption at bay, but in order to offset the stench of decomposition as more bodies were placed in the same cave-tomb before secondary burial of the fleshless bones.

Two major linked emphases indicate the underlying strength and weakness of this book. First, Benedict stresses that Jesus believed he was constituting himself and his followers as, in some sense, a new Temple. This, I believe, is historically correct, and is near the heart of the Christology of all four gospels. But, second, Benedict insists that, with this, Jesus “achieved a separation of the religious from the political, thereby changing the world”. This, he says, “is what truly marks the essence of his new path”. Jesus “had inaugurated a non-political Messianic kingdom”. The cross indicates a radical stripping away of all power. This results in “the new community”, which Benedict describes as “the new manner of God’s dominion in the world”.

The problem with this is that the Jesus of the gospels (which, on Benedict’s principles, ought to be determinative) insisted that through his own work, Israel’s God was becoming King “on earth as in heaven”. The Pope’s proposed disjunction (reflecting, perhaps, a measure of penitence for earlier ecclesial power politics?) plays into that modernist split-level world which Benedict’s whole project is designed to outflank. The integration of history and theology that the Pope is proposing at the level of exegetical method stands in tension with the separation of politics and religion he is endorsing at the level of meaning.

Benedict offers, inevitably, an exegesis of the gospel passages that deal with Daniel 7, and the strange prophecy of “one like a son of man” who “comes on the clouds of heaven”. He takes the normal view, that these passages are predicting the “second coming”.

Catholics as Just Another Denomination

Mark Horne says:

But what if Roman Catholics are sectarians dreaming they constitute the historic and perpetual center of the identity of the Church?

What if the real Catholic Church is simply continuing on and the Roman Catholic Church is pretending that it is not lacking that full communion because it has created without warrant autistic conditions for fellowship?

Evangelicals have many issues to work on as they continue through history. But there is nothing to rejoin. If the Roman Catholic Church and another denomination join and receive, then that is simply two denominations uniting together. And if they join and receive under the shared assumption that the Roman Catholic Church is some kind of perpetual “center” that all others are “peripheral” to and must come “back” to, then all that would mean is that the Christian people of the other denomination have become persuaded of sectarian superstitions.

Wright on Rome

Over at Christianity Today there is an article on Protestants who defect to Rome. Bishop N.T. Wright is quoted in the article, but his full quote is not provided. Here is his full quote:

a. I’m on sabbatical writing Volume IV of my big series, on Paul; so I don’t have time for more than a quick response.

b. ‘Sacramental, transformational, communal, eschatological’? If you gave me that list and said ‘Where in the Christian world would you find that?’ I could easily and truthfully answer: (i) in the best of the Reformed tradition — spend a couple of days at Calvin College, or read Jamie  Smith’s new book, and you’ll see; (ii) in much of the best of the  charismatic movement, once it’s shed its low-church prejudices and discovered how much God loves bodies; (iii) in the best of… dare I say it… Anglicanism… ; (iv) in some bits (not all) of the Emerging Church movement . . .

c. Trent said both much more and much less than this. Sacramental, yes, but in a muddled way with an unhelpful ontology; transformational, yes, but far too dependent on unbiblical techniques and practices; communal, yes, but don’t let the laity (or the women) get any fancy ideas about God working new things through them; and eschatological?? Eschatology in the biblical sense didn’t loom large, and indeed that was a key element in the Reformers’ protest: the once-for-allness of the events of Jesus’ death and resurrection as producing, not a new system for doing the same stuff over and over, but a new world. Trent, and much subsequent RC theology, has had a habit of never spring-cleaning, so you just live in a house with more and more clutter building up, lots of right answers to wrong questions (e.g. transubstantiation) which then get in the way when you want to get  something actually done. In particular, Trent gave the wrong answer,  at a deep level, to the nature/grace question, which is what’s at the  root of the Marian dogmas and devotions which, despite contrary  claims, are in my view neither sacramental, transformational,  communal nor eschatological. Nor biblical. The best RCs I know (some  of whom would strongly disagree with the last point, some would  strongly agree) are great conversation partners mainly because they  have found ways of pushing the accumulated clutter quietly to one  side and creating space for real life. But it’s against the grain of the Tridentine system, in my view. They aren’t allowed to say that but clearly many of them think it. Joining in is just bringing more of your own clutter to an already confused and overcrowded room…

d. I am sorry to think that there are people out there whose Protestantism has been so barren that they never found out about sacraments, transformation, community or eschatology. Clearly this person needed  a change. But to jump to Rome for that reason is very odd. It reminds  me of the fine old German NT scholar Heinrich Schlier, who found that the only way to be a Protestant was to be a Bultmannian, so, because he couldn’t take  Bultmann, became a Roman Catholic; that was the only other option in  his culture. Good luck to him; happily, most of us have plenty of  other options. To say ‘wow, I want that stuff, I’d better go to Rome’ is like someone suddenly discovering (as I’m told Americans occasionally do — sorry, cheap shot) that there are other countries in the world and so getting the first big boat he finds in New York to take him there . . . when there were plenty of planes lined up and waiting at JFK. Rome is a big, splendid, dusty old ocean liner, with lots of grand cabins, and, at present, quite a fine captain and some excellent officers — but also quite a few rooms in need of repair.  Yes, it may take you places, but it’s slow and you might get seasick  from time to time. And the navigators have been told that they must never acknowledge when they’ve been going in the wrong direction . . .

e. I spent three very happy weeks as the Anglican observer at the Vatican’s Synod of Bishops last October. They were talking about the Bible: about how for so long they have more or less banned the laity from reading or studying it, and how now they want to change all that, to insist that every Catholic man, woman, child, cat and dog should have the Bible in their own mother tongue and be taught to read it, study it, pray with it, individually and together. Hallelujah! Who knows what might happen. Question: why did nobody say this in 1525? If they had, we’d have been saved a lot of bother.
Let’s engage cheerfully in as much discussion with our Roman friends as we can. They are among my best ecumenical conversation partners, and  some of them are among my dear friends. But let’s not imagine that a renewed biblical theology will mean we find ourselves saying ‘you guys were right after all’ just at the point where, not explicitly but actually, they are saying that to us . . .

Aside from what may be an implicit endorsement of women’s ordination in there, that’s pretty good stuff! I particularly like his rejection of Mariolatry in Rome. Perhaps Rowan Williams should listen to Bishop Wright more.

Muddle

Can someone tell me how it makes sense for Rowan Williams to on the one hand endorse Anglicans moving to Rome which does not ordain women or homosexuals, while on the other hand allowing these same errors in his own church? I guess praying to Saints and bowing to images is fine to him, it’s just the man sleeping with man thing that Rome needs to catch up on.

Catholic Inclusion ~ Catholic Exclusion

The logic of the Roman Catholic Church is that you are better off not ever hearing the gospel or knowing about the Church than you are in knowingly refusing to enter her. In other words, pagans who have not heard are better off than those who hear and do not join the Church. Current Catholic theology bumps up against universalism while at the same time magnifying the necessity of Rome for salvation, [as an aside, this is also the position of the Latter Day Saints, something I hope to write about soon].

The Catechism of the Catholic Church makes this astounding statement:

“The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place amongst whom are the Muslims; these profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind’s judge on the last day.” (§841)

Also, if someone ‘through no fault of their own’ does not know of Christ and the Church, he is good to go. “Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience–those too may achieve eternal salvation.” (§847)

But if you have the misfortune of having heard about Christ and the Church and you stay outside, you’re in trouble:

“Hence they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it or to remain in it.” (§846)

Writing in the February, 2008 edition of First Things, the late Avery Cardinal Dulles confirms this line of thought:

“Piux IX and the Second Vatican Council taught that all who followed their conscience, with the help of the grace given to them, would be led to that faith that was necessary for them to be saved. During and after the council, Karl Rahner maintained that saving faith could be had without any definite belief in Christ or even in God…[but] In Christ’s Church, therefore, we have many aids to salvation and sanctification that are not available elsewhere.”

I take this view to be a dangerous delusion that provides false comfort to people in contradiction to what God has told us in the Scriptures. The Bible tells us, “For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” We are told by Jesus that, “No one comes to the Father except through me.” Saint Peter says that “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.” Hopefully, the living Word of God will work its way in the Catholic Church and in time she will revert to her more ancient views on this subject.