The Protestant thinkers who love Benedict XVI

The Theology of Benedict XVI: A Protestant Appreciation
Edited by Tim Perry
Lexham Press, 272pp, £20.99/$25.89

The theology of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI is not the easiest thing to get a handle on. There is, first, the sheer volume of it. During his tenures as a theology professor, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and pope, Benedict wrote more than 70 books, three papal encyclicals, three apostolic exhortations, and countless articles, addresses and homilies. Second, there is such a wide variety of themes treated that it is difficult (if not impossible) to peg Benedict’s theology to any of the traditional categories. Is he a biblical theologian? A political theologian? An ethicist? A liturgist? He is all of these, of course, and more.

The Theology of Benedict XVI does a fine job of giving us several handles with which to grasp the whole of the retired pope’s work. The book is edited by Anglican pastor and professor Tim Perry, whose previous publications, The Legacy of John Paul II and Mary for Evangelicals, reveal a strong interest in things Catholic. This new book consists of 16 essays by Protestant thinkers, sandwiched between a foreword and afterword written by Catholic theologians. In two main divisions – dogmatic theology and liturgical theology – the essays address such themes as faith versus reason, biblical hermeneutics, theological anthropology, Christology, the Trinity, Mary, the Eucharist, prayer, and liturgy. The writing varies from the truly brilliant (the chapters on theological method by Katherine Sonderegger and liturgy and the Bible by Peter Leithart are worth the price of the book) to the superficial. But even the weaker essays inspire the reader to turn to the former pope’s writings.

The overall tone is surprisingly sympathetic. Uniquely Catholic doctrines, such as the sacrificial nature of the Eucharist and Mary’s Immaculate Conception, are explained, even defended, as from Benedict’s point of view, but criticism is rare. More often, we find authors praising the Pope Emeritus, particularly for his Christocentrism and fidelity to Scripture. Readers will even note a certain wistfulness for what one author called “the beautiful strangeness of Catholic Christianity”.

Particularly attractive, it seems, is the Catholic reliance on the Magisterium as having the final say on doctrine. Protestants want the Bible alone (sola Scriptura) to play that role. But as Sonderegger laments, this “has made authority in modern dogmatics a complex and unfinished task”.

Two major themes emerge from the book. First, “the most urgent theological task” for Benedict is the rehabilitation of reason as essential to the ordering of faith. Faith without reason, he teaches, is a faith without truth. The book points out that Protestant theologians like Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultmann, following Kant, put limits on reason, wanting to keep it separate from faith. They aim to make the Gospel less a matter of objective truth and more a matter of personal encounter. On the contrary, says Benedict, what is needed is not a reduction of reason but “a more expansive rationality”, even a “re-Hellenisation” of the Christian Gospel. For him, reason is essential to faith for it grounds faith in “the truth of being”.

The second theme is a question of special interest to Catholic readers, particularly in this age of digital debate: is the Pope Emeritus a theological progressive or a traditionalist? Most of the authors, quite rightly, locate Benedict closer to the more conservative edge of that spectrum. This especially becomes clear in the former pope’s reaction to Vatican II. The Council documents, according to Benedict, place man and human community, not Christ and the Trinity, at the centre of the Church’s reflection. Benedict wants to reverse that priority. The Church, he says, must be guided by the scriptural revelation of Christ, not the secular sciences. And it’s the inner life of God – the “immanent Trinity” of contemplation rather than the “economic Trinity” of history – that should be the starting point of theology, not the social needs of man.

Benedict as a champion of orthodoxy shines in this book. The whole line from Hegel through Marx to liberation theology – which, he argues, “is not a theology of liberation but a liberation from theology” – comes under attack.

Particularly poignant are discussions of the failure of materialist and relativist ideologies to reveal a true understanding of Scripture because “they are no longer interested in ascertaining the truth, but only in whatever will serve their own particular agendas”.

Readers eager to understand the sources of Benedict’s theological passions – his Augustinianism, his complicated relations to Thomism, the Pauline influence which seeps into so much of his thought – will be disappointed. But those interested in a broad brushstroke portrait of the whole, and especially interested in the Protestant reception of that whole, will be well served by Tim Perry’s fine collection of essays.