Thursday, February 14, 2013

Some Thoughts on the Resignation of Benedict XVI


Ruth Moon at Christianity Today has a nice little article entitled "Why Evangelical Leaders Love Pope Benedict XVI (and His Resignation," in which she quotes several prominent evangelicals (Russell Moore, Carl Trueman [though he no doubt would prefer to be called a "Confessional Presbyterian"], Leith Anderson, Rich Mouw) and ex-evangelicals (Francis Beckwith) reflecting on the brief tenure of the most recent Bishop of Rome. Benedict's predecessor, John Paul II, was a hard act to follow (Trueman calls him "the first celebrity pope"), and one can only conclude that Benedict, in large measure, performed his duties well.

I, of course, am not a Roman Catholic (I am a good Scots-Irish boy, after all). Like the august Jim Packer, I could never submit myself or my conscience to the authority of the Bishop of Rome or the church's magisterium. Several of the church's official teachings—not least those concerning the doctrine of justification still enshrined in the documents of the Council of Trent—are, in my view, demonstrably wrong and potentially damaging to the life of the church. Nevertheless, like Packer, I acknowledge the genuine Christianity of my brothers and sisters in the Roman church who, like I, "confess 'Jesus is Lord'" and "believe that God raised him from the dead" (Romans 10:9). For years I have been of the opinion that, whereas we Protestants who walk in the footsteps of Luther, Calvin, and Cranmer may understand better how one becomes a Christian, it is to Catholics like the former Joseph Ratzinger that we can often look to show us better how to be Christians in the world. Whereas so many evangelical Protestants of my acquaintance have an almost exclusive obsession with "getting in" by faith (salvation as fire insurance), Catholics—who indeed are muddled in their understanding of justification—often seem to have a more healthy emphasis on what it means to love one's neighbor as oneself. One example is their emphasis on the culture of life, one that not only opposes abortion but advocates for the poor and opposes war as well.

In my view, Benedict is a greater theologian than his illustrious predecessor (on which, see Scott Hahn's Covenant and Communion: The Biblical Theology of Pope Benedict XVI). His first papal encyclical, Deus Caritas Est ("God Is Love"), contains the following affirmation, with which I, as a Protestant, heartily agree:
We have come to know and to believe in the love God has for us. We have come to believe in God's love: in these words the Christian can express the fundamental decision of his life. Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction. Saint John's Gospel describes that event in these words: "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should … have eternal life" (3:16). In acknowledging the centrality of love, Christian faith has retained the core of Israel's faith, while at the same time giving it new depth and breadth. The pious Jew prayed daily the words of the Book of Deuteronomy which expressed the heart of his existence: "Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God is one Lord, and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your might" (6:4–5). Jesus united into a single precept this commandment of love for God and the commandment of love for neighbour found in the Book of Leviticus: "You shall love your neighbour as yourself" (19:18; cf. Mk 12:29–31). Since God has first loved us (cf. 1 Jn 4:10), love is now no longer a mere "command"; it is the response to the gift of love with which God draws near to us.
Particularly significant is Benedict's theology of the covenant (not to be confused with Reformed "covenant theology," of course), which is based on a narrative understanding of the Bible centered on the fulfillment of the Abrahamic Covenant of Genesis 12 in Christ. Once again, as a Protestant I would not draw many of the conclusions Benedict does. But, as always, it is best to heed our Lord's warnings about dislodging the sequoia tree out of my own eyes before quibbling overmuch about the measly theological splinters residing in his. And, considering the prevalence of Moral Therapeutic Deism and silly, irreverent "worship" in much evangelicalism today, American Protestants in that tradition should think a bit before donning their judicial robes and ascending a theological high horse to sit in judgment against him. Humility, the recognition of our own fallen intellectual and moral inadequacies, must govern our attitudes here as in all areas of life.

In short, I mark the end of Benedict's tenure with a bit of sadness. He is likely the last major theologian to inhabit the office for a while. The Roman church, at least in the West, remains in a crisis largely of its own making. Benedict did a lot to stanch the bleeding. Our Lord, as the Shema says, is "One." He is also sovereign. I pray that Benedict's successor will likewise be one with the same love of his Lord that he has, and indeed one who will move the church toward reform more and more in keeping with the gospel as proclaimed by the apostles.

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