Book Review on Pope Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth

Benedict XVI writing

Within the initial pages of his monograph on Christology, the emeritus pope delineates his aim in writing as simply to unite the Jesus of history with the Christ of faith (xiv). In a post-Enlightenment world, a seemingly ubiquity of scholars appear to be employing an exclusive use of historical-critical methods on the biblical texts in terms of answering the questions of faith. Not denying the usefulness of such methods, the German pope states, “The historical-critical method−let me repeat− is an indispensable tool, given the structure of Christian faith” (xvi). But it is important to understand the arena by which such a tool should be used, namely− in conjunction with and adherence to Magisterial teaching. The underlying presupposition of Benedict XVI’s Christology is a trust in the Gospels. I will later demonstrate how the retired pope maintains this stance throughout his prose.

Baptism of Jesus

Jesus' Baptism

Embarking on his journey toward an authentic portrait of Jesus, the former Tübingen professor presents a lucid and biblical approach to Christology in his book. Benedict XVI’s first chapter outlines the Baptism of Jesus. Here he stresses the importance of Jesus’ inaugurating his public ministry by wading in the place of sinners (p. 18). Moreover, the pope mentions the symbolism of the baptismal waters− as a sign of death and re-birth. Succinctly put by Ratzinger, “Jesus’ Baptism anticipated his death on the Cross, and the heavenly voice proclaimed an anticipation of the Resurrection” (p.23). This linkage to the Paschal Mystery is the cipher by which Benedict XVI situates the Baptism of the Lord. It is here he dismisses any liberal exegetical view that reduces this event to a mere vocational experience (pp. 23-24).

Temptation in the Desert

The second chapter in his book concerns the Temptation of Jesus. In the following pages, the German pope discusses the three temptations in depth. He compares the similarities and differences in the Matthean and Lucan accounts. Perhaps the most salient point to be taken from this section regards the second diabolical enticement. According to Benedict XVI, the Devil tries to use the Bible as a tool to tempt mankind. “The whole conversation of the second conversation of the second temptation takes the form of a dispute between two Bible scholars,” purports the pope (p. 35). Ultimately, what one can garner from this chapter is that the pope’s Christology admits to Jesus being submitted to the devil’s test like all mankind, but never succumbing to it due to his perfect obedience to the Father.

Jesus the New Moses

Jesus the New Moses

            The following three chapters relate primarily to the content of Jesus’ teaching. With regards to the Gospel of the Kingdom of God, Benedict XVI charts various interpretations and tries to harmonize any “seemingly divergent” flow of the content of the Kingdom of God to Christ (pp. 48-49). His section on the Sermon on the Mount is rich in detail and quantitatively the pope’s second longest chapter. Here he portrays Jesus as the New Moses and describes the Beatitudes as “a sort of veiled interior biography of Jesus” (p. 74 ). Subsequently, the German pope spends some time on the Lord’s Prayer and systematically goes through the structure of the “Our Father”. Maintaining the tradition from Nicaea, Benedict XVI affirms Jesus is “Son in the strict sense− he is of one substance with the Father” (p. 138).

Pontifical Proof

In chapters six and seven, Ratzinger focuses on the ecclesial structure Christ had in mind when he chose the Twelve and gives an erudite rendition of Jesus’ three most famous parables. Being the lengthiest and arguably the most sublime chapter of his monograph, Benedict XVI’s eighth chapter spends nearly seventy pages portraying the principal images in John’s Gospel. He candidly refutes any scholarship, in particular Bultmann’s, that attaches a Gnostic cipher to the Johannine text (p. 228). With careful acumen, the former pontiff lists the key passages and meanings of the images of water, vine and wine, and bread within the Fourth Gospel. He also gave an especially detailed account on the motif of shepherds and showed how Jesus is the prime Good Shepherd (pp. 275-284).

Who Exactly is Jesus?

Who is Jesus

            The penultimate and final chapters represent decisive events in Jesus’ life. Marking Peter’s Confession as a pivotal act in the Gospels, Benedict XVI shows that previously people were simply guessing at Jesus’ identity (i.e. Elijah or John the Baptist) and interpret him solely in terms of the past (p. 292-293). Furthermore, it is at the Transfiguration that Peter recognizes that the messianic times have begun (p. 315). Lastly, the emeritus pope focuses on the two appellations by which Jesus referred to himself as− “Son of Man” and “Son”. He covers these titles by providing Old Testament context and delineation of New Testament sayings for the “Son of Man” and juxtaposed the ancient political referent of “Son” with Jesus’ meaning of the term (pp. 336-345).

Review of Benedict’s Analysis

Standing in lieu of the recent bifurcation of the Christ of faith from the historical Jesus, Benedict XVI’s Christology opposes this approach. His goal in writing this book was to portray Jesus in light of his communion with the Father. Benedict XVI constructed this book in the context of Scripture. I  found that the German pope achieved this objective and can give a copious amount of evidence to support it.

Pope Benedict XVI

            Firstly, Benedict XVI does a masterful job of showing Jesus’ awareness of the Old Testament and how a proper understanding of God’s events in Israel’s history is fulfilled by Christ. He shows that Jesus perfects and encapsulates the tripartite Old Testament offices of priest, prophet, and king. Furthermore, the pontiff in his chapter on Beatitudes portrays Jesus’ recapitulation and perfection on the Mosaic Law.

Dovetailing from the prior point, the pope also provides implicit critiques to the one-handed nature of modern scholarship regarding Christology. He goes on to refute the possibility of the Bible being viewed in an exclusively historical way. The word of God is not limited to the space-time continuum of history. Because of this, “The saints are the true interpreters of Holy Scriptures,” the German theologian asserts (p. 78). One learns about Christ not only through academics, but an active living of the faith.  A mere horizontal gaze at Jesus leads to a type of cynicism regarding his Sermon on the Mount teaching. In stark contrast to Nietzsche seeing Christ’s attitude toward the poor as a religion of resentment and envy, the emeritus pontiff rightly understands this novel teaching as God’s revelation of himself descending in love (95-97).

Interpreting Jesus’ Parables

Within the chapter on parables, Benedict XVI talks of the ever-present struggle in interpreting Christ’s parabolic messages. Once again he overtly points to the limits of historical-critical exegesis and says, “[it] cannot give us any definitive information” (184). After presenting his view to properly interpret Jesus’ words, his argument culminates by stating the hermeneutic of unlocking the parables is the Cross.

Ultimately, for Benedict, Jesus’ messages are a portent of the Paschal Mystery (p. 191). In his outline of the parable of the Good Samaritan, the former theology professor gives a laconic layout of various interpretations of Luke 15:11-32, and goes on to show an implicit Christology can be gleaned from the text through “attention to the historical context” (p. 207). This is because Jesus himself is a revelation of the Father.

Christology of B16

Along with his amicable refutations of modern scholarship, it is reading Benedict XVI’s final chapter that one can truly appreciate his contribution to Christology. Here he provides a meticulous delineation of occurrences and frequencies of the appellations Jesus attributes to himself− Son of Man and Son. With the former title, he shows its connection to the Old Testament (book of Daniel) and the latter portrays the relationship Jesus had to God. In fact, Benedict XVI shows that Mark’s Gospel alone uses this designation fourteen times and with the exception of Stephen in Acts 7:56, all references of “Son of Man” come from Jesus’ lips (pp. 321-322).

As an authentic Nicene theologian the German pope points out “Only the Son truly ‘knows’ the Father…Truly to know God presupposes communion with him [as Son]” (p. 340). Benedict XVI further fleshes out the consubstantiality of the Son with the Father in his outline of the Johannine “I AM” sayings in his concluding pages.

Jesus I am Statements

Finally, in brief fashion he shows how Nicaea’s term homoousios was not a Hellenistic infiltration of the faith or a jettisoning of biblical authority, but provided a stable foundation for theology and ultimately Christology (p. 355).

In sum, I found  Jesus of Nazareth to be a well-written and digestible read for both lay and scholar alike. Benedict XVI remained steadfast in his goal to portray Jesus from the Bible while using historical science to augment his points. This work is a hailing back to patristic Christology which trusted the Gospels and did not separate faith from history. Finally, he provided a salubrious and professional critique to the modern approach to Christology and any student of Catholic theology should be sure to check this monograph out.   

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Book Review: God’s Human Face: The Christ Icon

Originally published in 1976, Christoph Schönborn makes some qualifying remarks in his book God’s Human Face: The Christ Icon. Firstly, this monograph was not an exclusively treatment on icons. The cardinal theologian explicitly states in his preface to the 1984 edition, “Yet the basic idea on which iconographic art primarily is built has seldom been studied: the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation of God” (p. xiii). From this vantage point Schönborn launches his academic outline of key patristic sources in the theological formulation of iconography. He also provides twelve illustrations in hopes to add further lucidity to the text.  Schönborn’s aim was to produce both a “book as academic as necessary, and as readable as possible” (p. xiv).

Christ the Pantocrator

Theology of Icons

The first section of the book provides the theological foundations for which a theology of icons can be built. With reference to the Trinitarian foundations, Schönborn’s prime goal is to show the “divine image as the archetype of all representation in image” (p. 4). After a deft delineation of Arius’ soteriology, the Austrian archbishop follows this with discussion on Athanasius’ solution to this diabolical theology. The great “Father of Orthodoxy” clarified the heretic’s misconception by saying that the Word was a consubstantial image of the Father (pp. 8-9). Safeguarded in this orthodox Trinitarian theology, the concept of images is not subordinated.

The second half of this chapter focused on the development in understanding of personhood as given by Gregory of Nyssa. An urgent task after Nicaea was a need for clarification of terminology. Vagueness in ousia and hypostasis led to more debates in the 4th century (p. 18). The Cappodociean father helped shift the understanding toward the individual being a higher reality than the essence of humanity (p. 21-22). After mapping out the various patristic definitions and a treatment of the theological approach to personhood (pp. 22-33), Schönborn gives a brief soteriology. Rejecting any notion of Christ as a passive instrument, he states, “To reduce the Son to a mere instrumental power would amount to denying him the freedom that distinguishes even man. It is not possible to speak of obedience without including freedom” (p. 42).

Early Schools of Christological Thought

Chapter two landscapes the Christological foundations for an authentic iconography. Spanning over ninety pages, the cardinal theologian limits himself to a detailed survey of four prominent patristic Christologies: Origen, Eusebius of Caesarea, Cyril of Alexandria, and Maximus Confessor. With the former two there is an iconoclastic tendency, while the latter were championed by the iconophiles. According to Schönborn, Origen denigrates the flesh to the realm of shadows (p. 48). He laconically sums up Origen’s position as heavy-laden by a spiritualism that tends to stress the “imageless” (p. 53). Eusebius’ Christology is even more explicitly anti-icon for he takes the term “image” as a subordination of the Logos to the Father (p. 60). Schönborn shows that the bishop of Caesarea went as far as jettisoning the body out of the definition of man, whereby true creation consisted of only formation of the soul (p.76).

Following in the footsteps of Athanasius, Cyril of Alexandria held fast to the notion of the eternal Logos being the perfect and consubstantial image of the Father. The Austrian theologian writes that Cyril opposed Eusebius’ belief that the body was a mere fleshly façade. For Cyril the flesh is intrinsic to the Word (p. 82). Though he presented an orthodox view of the Incarnation, Schönborn critiques the Alexandrian bishop’s theology as not being refined and containing Monoenergist jargon (p. 92-94). With Maximus the Confessor in the 7th century, this represented, says Schönborn, “the most wonderful christological synthesis of the ancient Church” (p. 102).

Both Maximus’ theology and argot presented a balanced approach to the Incarnation. He maintained the hypostatic union and asserted two wills and two actions in the One Person of Christ (p. 116). According to Schönborn, the novelty of his thought was purporting the Incarnation as entirely flowing from the Trinitarian will (p. 121).

History of Iconoclasm and Christology

The second half of the book shows how the iconoclastic controversies were inextricably tied to the early stages of Christological developments. In seeing the icon as a condensed creed, the red-capped theologian demonstrates the significance for studying iconography (p. 138). Chapter one outlines the Byzantine iconoclastic controversy. Here Schönborn delineates the main arguments and figures opposed to icons. Centering on Exodus 20:4, the iconoclasts took the prohibition on fashioning idols literally to mean a wholesale rejection of images (pp. 148-149). A leader in the charge against icons was Emperor Constantine V. His propaganda led to falsely calling the icon cult a Christological heresy (p. 168). While the emperor and iconoclast bishops differed on definition of personal countenance, their sinister ardor crystallized in the Council of 754 A.D. which tried to force iconophiles into a false dichotomy between Monophysitism and Nestorianism (p. 174).

Regarding the defenders of images, Schönborn breaks this section into three eras. He focuses on three important figures for the initial period: Germanus I, George of Cyprus, and John Damascene. Among the salient points include John’s detailed categories of images (pp.192-199). Schönborn then goes on to outline the Second Council of Nicaea in 787 A.D. Here the orthodox bishops maintain an argument of tradition to support icons (p. 202). Finally, he writes about the Golden Age of icons with examples of Nicephorus and Theodore the Studite as among the most lucid and erudite authors on this topic during the ancient Church.

From the outset of his book, Christoph Schönborn stated that though the topic of icons is pervasive throughout his prose, relatively little specific attention is given to that subject. Indeed, recognizing the various historical treatments dealing with the aesthetic aspect of icons, the red-hatted theologian wanted to provide the theological cement upon which the edifice of icons could be built. It is in the author’s opinion that Schönborn in both a wonderful scholarly and readable way accomplished his task.

All Doctrine Originates from the Trinity

Doctrine of the Trinity

            Doctrinally speaking the cardinal theologian rightly began his theological foundations with the Trinity− the premise of all doctrines. In charting out the Nicene problem and ensuing Trinitarian developments, Schönborn does a masterful job of delineating the main characters (Arius, Athanasius, Eusebius, Gregory of Nyssa, etc) without succumbing to a lofty prose or bogging the reader down with a ton of periphery names. Another insightful item about this book was the topical headings and subdivisions within each chapter as well. For instance, regarding the Trinitarian Foundations, Schönborn divided the section into three parts: foundations on the eternal image, novelty of the Christian notion of personhood, and various patristic soteriologies. Glancing at the table of contents allowed me to better understand Schönborn’s definitions and logic.

In chapter two, the Archbishop presents both Christologies of the iconophiles and iconoclasts. He details Origen’s spiritual readings of biblical texts, viewing Jesus’ body as an instrument for his divinity. Some scholars purport his tendency to highlight the image-less places him in the iconoclast camp. However, Schönborn acknowledges that Origen’s teachings were preserved in mere fragments (p. 47). The cardinal speaks objectively when he warns of a false reductionism of Origen. He is also wary of viewing Origen as a spiritual Father for iconoclasm. Schönborn declares, “Origen is much too universal too biblical, too ecclesiastical, too “Catholic”, to allow the reduction of his work to only one of its dimensions” (p. 53-54).

Moreover, the Archbishop provides an in-depth sketch of the champion of the iconoclast Christology− Eusebius of Caesarea. Schönborn asserts that the crux of the anti-icon position pivoted around the “image of God” being a subordination of the Logos. Utilizing samples of Eusebius’ writings, Schönborn demonstrated the logic to such a view. From the pro-icon side, he did an adroit job showing the development of orthodox thought. He showed the gradual clarification in the term “hypostatic union” from the “unrefined” Cyril to the “more-polished” Maximus.

In the second half of the book, Schönborn clearly asks: May and should Christ be represented in an image? Yet, he makes sure to qualify the chronology of the icon controversy as not being exhaustive due to space restraints.

Analysis

The treatment of the theological outline of the Byzantine iconoclastic controversy illuminated  the reader because it showed the milieu by which this position germinated. In keeping with his contemporaries that the emperor (Leo III and later his son Constantine V) was the main impetus for the iconoclasts, Schönborn admits that what motivated the “purple” pronouncement remains unknown. What he does purport is that outside forces such as Monophysitism, Islam, and even Judaism may have contributed to iconoclasm. Lastly, Schönborn successfully simplified the pro-icon position by only focusing on the novelty and specific influence in advancing iconophile theology of the main players. Thus, he eliminated any unnecessary verbiage.

Broadly sketching out the theological scaffolding and also delineating individual patristic thoughts is important for an adequate understanding of a theology of the icon. Schönborn presented his prose in a lucid fashion while still writing with skilled acumen. His contribution to Christology was a return to seeing the icon as “a creed in miniature”. The twelve illustrations also allowed for a profound mediation on his prose. In sum, the author of this review suggests this book to any fan of Catholic Christology!

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