On Benedict’s resignation

I get sent updates now and again from these guys: Bonner Querschnitte: Bonn Profiles – Press Reports from a joint platform for various Bonn organizations of the Evangelical Alliance in Germany.

In this one, Thomas Schirrmacher, who is chairman of the Theological Commission of the World Evangelical Alliance, gives some interesting observations in an interview on the Pope’s decision to resign as compared to Pope John Paul’s highly sacramental understanding of the office.

You published a German book in 2002 entitled The Pope and Suffering: Why the Pope does not resign, which in 2005 was released with the title Pope John Paul II and Suffering: Why the Pope does not resign. What distinguishes Pope Benedict from his predecessor?

Pope Benedict has clearly understood his office to be less sacramental than his predecessor, who saw his suffering as a continuation of the suffering of Christ. In recent months it has been noticeable that Benedict has above all increasingly lost control over the governmental sector of the Vatican. The spiritual aspect of his office, as head of the church and as a theologian, has always been more of a priority than the political aspect as head of state of the Holy See. It is not by chance that the political significance and the political activity of the Vatican have been reduced at several points. Even in Germany in his farewell address in Freiburg he called for the Roman Catholic Church to loosen itself from being caught up with the world. It is completely in keeping with how Benedict became Pope and what his understanding of the papal office is, that he would give up the office if he can no longer guarantee its leadership.

 Less sacramental?

Yes. He once said to the cardinals that a pope is fallible most of the time. In most of his masses and addresses there are hints that he makes mistakes, that he seeks forgiveness from God and the Church, and that he can only hope that God will protect him from wrong decisions. That even applies to his short resignation announcement. This was not the case with John Paul II. That includes the continual indications made by Benedict that he is not head of the church but rather that Jesus is.

The Pope has made many an unusual decision substantiating this. Thus his three volume book on Jesus was written expressly as a private individual who makes mistakes, which anyone may freely communicate to him by email. No predecessor of his had ever done such a thing; in the past published papal writings were always official writings only. Within his annual meeting with former students, he was nothing more than the professor conducting discussions, and he was one who also willingly invited Protestant professors to join in the discussion. He abruptly did away with the status symbols of his predecessors, above all those of a political nature, such as head coverings symbolizing political power.  Stated another way, in contrast to his predecessors, Pope Benedict never gave up being the private individual Joseph Ratzinger, and thus it is only consistent that he may retire from participation in public affairs, becoming a private man again.


From the Evangelical point of view, which publications do you find to be his most significant?

First of all, I would mention the three volume book on Jesus. Not only because it fights for the historical credibility of the Gospels, but above all due to its argumentation. The Pope wanted to make it clear that Jesus is the epicenter of the Christian faith and he repeated this clearly at the synod: the Christian faith is a personal relationship with Jesus. He continually says that the future belongs to a Christianity of decision, based on a personal decision and a relationship with Jesus, not a Christianity of traditional or cultural membership.

Next to that I would mention his first encyclical God is love (Deus caritas est), which places something in the center which strangely has been missing for hundreds of years in church confessions, that is that love is God’s central characteristic in the Bible. In the center is a nonviolent Christianity which forces no one and devotes itself towards those who are weak.

The second encyclical Saved in Hope was actually almost only a Bible study, apart from the final chapter about Mary which comes off as attached in order to make the document ‘Catholic.’

 Hasn’t the Pope been a rather conservative hardliner?

With ethical questions he was much more conservative that he was with dogmatic questions. Since ethical questions above all occupy the secular public and liberal Catholics, the dogmatic side of things was given less attention. Viewed dogmatically, he brought movement and made approaches to other churches, also to Evangelicals. This was tangible from the abolition of ‘limbus’ early on in his term in office, to the book on Jesus in which he was to a certain extent exegetically generous and broke away from later typically Catholic interpretations, and all the way to the relationship with Orthodox churches. One notices that as a well-read theologian he thoroughly knew other positions from books and writings as well as from comprehensive conversations and that he took the dogmatic discussion and opinion of others seriously.


PS A good time to note that my wife and I had an audience with Pope Benedict in the Vatican a few years ago ….. a very interesting experience indeed. I should also say there were about another 5000 people in the hall!

PS to musings on the Bible: Kevin Vanhoozer

Blogging has been sparse of late, just too much going on but the scribbler’s itch is back so here goes ….

I spent 4 days of last week teaching a block week Masters module in Evangelical Identity, History and Theology at IBI. Lots of good discussion and interaction – which kickstarted this post, and a few more loosely related, on evangelicalism.

An article I went back to read as part of prep, partly in light of previous musings, was Kevin Vanhoozer’s ‘The Voice and the Actor: A Dramatic Proposal about the Ministry and Minstrelsy of Theology’, in John G. Stackhouse Jr (ed.), Evangelical Futures, (Leicester: Apollos, 2000), 61-106. [A forerunner to his 2005 The Drama of Doctrine]

Some angst about diverse interpretations of the Bible among evangelicals derives from the assumption that it should not (in theory) exist. The assumption is that the Bible itself speaks systematically and univocally and that this meaning can be uncovered by the attentive interpreter.

What Vanhoozer said back in 2000 was important and perhaps even more relevant in light of Christian Smith’s The Bible Made Impossible.

Vanhoozer talks about God being in discourse with us through Scripture and the living Word Jesus Christ. Discourse here is a living dynamic process of communication rather than a more static set of propositions. In addition, the triune God is in discourse with himself through the inter-relationality of Father, Son and Spirit.

A consequence for Vanhoozer is that Scripture has a certain inbuilt plurality. This is seen most obviously in the fact that there are 4 gospels telling the one gospel of Jesus Christ. There can be more than one ‘normative’ point of view that can disclose aspects of the truth.

Taking this more widely, Vanhoozer suggested that this plurality extends to different interpretative traditions within the church. If no single voice can capture all the truth of a text then the different voices need each other.

But this also means something else. ‘Final’ or absolutely complete interpretations of Scripture are (to coin an apt phrase) in the end only possible eschatologically. In the meantime, our interpretations are provisional, incomplete and culture-bound.

This does not mean for Vanhoozer that meaning is endlessly open and subjective. He uses the term ‘canonicity’ to emphasise the dual nature of Scripture. It is fixed and final and authoritative yet simultaneously it contains a multiplicity of genres, contexts, languages, theologies and authors.

The challenge for evangelical theology is to enter the ‘drama’ of the script, keeping within its intent while accepting that different ‘stagings’ of the play in different contexts can be complementary. The test of an interpretation’s authenticity will to a large extent be revealed through time and in dialogue with other interpretations. Without this creative hermeneutical dialogue, truth is reduced to a unitary concept. A richer alternative is a collaborative and complementary understanding of truth.

Some years ago I was part of a theology working group of the Evangelical Alliance Ireland who worked on a basis of faith for the organisation. It was deliberately diverse, across the evangelical spectrum. And it was a deeply enjoyable and rewarding experience as a group of us worked together to agree a document that captured a sense of our pan-evangelical unity. It was enriched by that diversity rather than weakened.

And it is here that us individualist Westerners can learn so much from other Christians who have a much more communal sense of identity and truth.

Comments, as ever, welcome.