I’ve long thought that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has never received full (if any) credit for something that shines through in his many splendid writings: a keen, dry sense of humor.
One of my favorite examples is found in his first “Jesus of Nazareth” book (Doubleday, 2007) in the chapter on the temptations of Jesus. Remarking on the second temptation proffered by the devil to Jesus, Pope Benedict notes how the devil “cites Holy Scripture in order to lure Jesus into his trap.” He points out that the “devil proves to be a Bible expert who can quote the Psalm exactly,” and then wryly observes, “The whole conversation of the second temptation takes the form of a dispute between two Bible scholars.” What a great image!
Rather unexpectly, he refers to the short story “The Antichrist” by the Russian philosopher Vladimir Soloviev, which describes the Antichrist receiving an honorary degree in theology from the University of Tübingen and being “a great Scripture scholar.” Readers familiar with Pope Benedict’s personal history know that in 1966, after serving as a theological expert at the Second Vatican Council, then-Father Joseph Ratzinger accepted a position teaching theology at Tübingen — the epicenter of the historical-critical movement of the 19th century. Historical criticism is an approach to studying Scripture with roots in the Protestant Reformation that emerged in full force in the 17th and 18th centuries; it uses various scholarly and scientific tools (source criticism, form criticism, redaction criticism, etc.) to ascertain the original, or “primitive,” meaning of an ancient text — especially biblical texts. Father Ratzinger, then, was well acquainted with scholars who used historical-critical methods. He also knows how many scholars used these methods to undermine, question and even directly attack Christianity. “The alleged findings of scholarly exegesis,” he wrote, “have been used to put together the most dreadful books that destroy the figure of Jesus and dismantle the faith.”
For example, in 1835, the polemical liberal Protestant writer David Strauss (1808-74), drawing upon the Tübingen school’s work, wrote Das Leben Jesu, kritisch bearbeitet(“The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined”), the most influential “life of Jesus” of the 19th century. He presented Jesus as a fanatical Jewish preacher with delusions of messianic grandeur and insisted the Gospels were mostly legend and folklore. The influence of his bare-bones story of an itinerate preacher who proclaimed the Kingdom can be seen in the work of the modern-day Jesus Seminar, which has rejected as unhistorical or wildly exaggerated nearly every narrative in the Gospels.
Pope Benedict gets right to the heart of the matter: “The common practice today is to measure the Bible against the so-called modern worldview, whose fundamental dogma is that God cannot act in history — that everything to do with God is to be relegated to the domain of subjectivity.”
A perfect poster theologian for this dogmatic subjectivity is the former episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong, who has authored numerous books explaining that nothing in the Gospels can be taken literally or at face value, and that Protestant and Catholic understandings of God as Triune are “heretical.” For Spong, echoing Strauss, everything is about subjective, mystical experience. Oddly enough, this doesn’t stop him from uttering endless judgments on orthodox Christianity with an authoritative arrogance that would make a pope cringe in shame. Spong insists that orthodox Christianity is, in fact, “fundamentalist.” I don’t know if Pope Benedict has read Spong, but he does state that the Antichrist, “with an air of scholarly excellence, tells us that any exegesis that reads the Bible from the perspective of faith in the living God, in order to listen to what God has to say, is fundamentalism.” This entire dispute over interpreting Scripture, he notes, is really “about who God is.” Scholarship is a good thing, of course, but reason without humble faith in the living God can lead to serious error, or ruin. After all, the devil is a Bible scholar — and “he is a liar and the father of lies” (Jn 8:44).
Carl E. Olson is the editor of Ignatius Insight (www.ignatiusinsight.com). He and his family live in Eugene, Ore.