Benedict XVI, the theologian Pope, holds strong views about the Bible
May 7, 2005
(AP) - Pope Benedict XVI has quite a paper trail: a large body of writings under his own name as Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, plus numerous documents of Pope John Paul II that he helped shape.
What’s left for Benedict to address? Might this pianist write about beauty and the fine arts? Another possibility is signalled by the title of his latest book: Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World Religions (Ignatius). A third pressing issue of interest could be Roman Catholicism’s changes and confusions regarding the Bible.
On that, Ratzinger isn’t the right-winger being portrayed in the media but rather a militant moderate who rejects rigid conservatism and fashionable liberalism alike.
He’s the first pontiff in modern times from a country with many Protestants (Martin Luther’s Germany), the first with full fluency in English and German, and the first in modern times who was an important university theologian. So he knows his biblical scholarship.
Ratzinger felt the Vatican was too repressive in the early 20th century. He recalls his beloved New Testament professor, Friedrich Wilhelm Maier, who had suffered previous Vatican banishment for asserting that Mark was the earliest Gospel, a view now widely taught on Catholic campuses.
The landmarks in papal teaching on the Bible are Leo XIII’s Providentissimus Deus (1893) and Pius XII’s Divino Afflante Spiritu (1943).
Leo declared, “It is absolutely wrong and forbidden either to narrow (biblical) inspiration to certain parts only of Holy Scripture or to admit that the sacred writer has erred.”
Pius reaffirmed the Bible’s total inerrancy, but cautiously opened the church to current techniques and study of the context to better understand the sacred writers’ intentions.
Ratzinger was a theological adviser for the Second Vatican Council’s 1965 decree Dei Verbum, which reframed this by stating that the Bible teaches “faithfully, and without error, that truth which God wanted put into the sacred writings for the sake of our salvation.”
In a 1988 lecture at a Lutheran church in New York, Ratzinger chided fundamentalism, saying it’s “useless to take refuge in an allegedly pure, literal understanding of the Bible.”
Ratzinger said a 1993 Pontifical Biblical Commission statement on Bible interpretation was “very helpful” and “advances” previous papal teaching “in a fruitful way.”
That paper denounced fundamentalism as “dangerous” and “a kind of intellectual suicide.” It said fundamentalists place “undue stress upon the inerrancy of certain details in the biblical texts” and naively confuse the Gospels as finally edited with “the words and deeds of the historical Jesus.”
So, then, what did the biblical authors originally intend, and what can we know about the actual historical events? As Ratzinger knows, many Protestant scholars, especially in his own Germany, question the Bible’s credibility at many such points, and those ideas have percolated into Catholic faculties.
In a paper that criticized the Vatican’s past clampdown on biblical scholars, Ratzinger also underscored the importance of the historical reality in Scripture. “A God who cannot intervene in history and reveal himself in it is not the God of the Bible,” he stated.
And in the New York lecture, titled Biblical Interpretation in Crisis, Ratzinger was less worried about fundamentalists than about liberals who impose alien philosophies upon Scripture, rule out God’s intervention in history and reject the possibility of miracles. Many Bible scholars, he complained, have too confidently made the “false claim” that historical-critical study of the Bible produces results as certain as those in natural science.
Too often, he said, “this procedure leads to the sprouting of ever more numerous hypotheses until finally they turn into a jungle of contradictions. In the end, one no longer learns what the text says, but what it should have said.”
Perhaps Ratzinger, as Pope, will further explore the jungle.