Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Marriage of Scripture and Reason: THe Pope Reflects on the Church Fathers

The Church Fathers: From Clement to Augustine by Pope Benedict XVI (Ignatius Press, 2008)

This book is a collection of talks which Pope Benedict XVI gave between March of 2007 and February of 2008. Each talk deals with one of the Church Fathers, that group of seminal early Christian figures whose achievement is difficult to over-estimate: nothing less than a marriage between Scripture and reason. The first talk is devoted to St. Clement of Rome, one of the most important Christian figures of the first century, while the final five talks are devoted to St. Augustine of Hippo (d. 430), generally acknowledged to be the greatest of the Church Fathers. In between there are talks on such important figures as Origen of Alexandria (the Church's first systematic theologian), St. Athanasius of Alexandria, St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory the Theologian, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. John Chrysostom and St. Jerome.

This book can be read profitably on three distinct levels. First, it can be read as an introduction to the men who quite literally made Christian theology and Christian biblical interpretation. In each talk, Benedict is focused on telling his audience why these figures are not simply "dead white men" (of course, while they are all dead they were not all "white") but, rather, part of the Church's living connection to the apostles. For Benedict, these ancient bishops and teachers are not mere museum piece curiosities to be gawked at; they are, rather, integral to the living mind of the Church. In this book, Benedict subtly reminds us that biblically rooted theology and theologically oriented biblical interpretation did not begin with Luther or Calvin or even (this will come as a shock to some) the twentieth century. Here is an introduction to the Church Fathers from a mind which has pondered them long and deeply and understands their significance.

Second, this book can be read as Benedict's attempt to enrich Christian theology by bringing it back into contact with its living source. As he discusses each Church Father, he is careful to show ways in which contemporary theology can be reoriented and renewed (and it desperately needs both). A few examples will make the point. Speaking of St. Ireneaus of Lyons (d. 202-203), he draws this lesson: "There is no superior Christianity for intellectuals. The faith publicly confessed by the Church is the common faith of all. This faith alone is apostolic". Benedict is an intellectual who refuses to allow any intellectual elite to create its own "superior" form of Christianity, one which is (pick your phrase) "more spiritual," "more relevant" or "more biblical". In commenting on Origen of Alexandria, Benedict sees the whole method and substance of theology already laid out: "Theology to him [Origen] was essentially explaining, understanding Scripture." As it turns out, this is what theology essentially is for Benedict as well. It is more than suggested here that there is a point on which Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant theology may converge, if they are willing to put aside their prejudices: "He [Origen] reminds us with deep insight that in the prayerful reading of Scripture and in consistent commitment to life, the Church is ever renewed and rejuvenated." In the context of reflecting on the important figure of Tertullian (d. 225) there is this comment about theologians (possibly directed at Hans Kung and some of the more strident Protestant voices): "The essential characteristic of a great theologian is the humility to remain with the Church, to accept his own and others' weaknesses, because actually only God is all holy. We, instead, always need forgiveness." In an incisive discussion of St. Cyril of Jerusalem (d. 387), whose catechetical lectures allow us to see how seriously the early church took her teaching mission, Benedict comments upon St. Cyril's method of instruction that it reflects the fact that the relationship between the Old Testament and the New Testament is symphonic.

Third, these talks can be read as a window into the mind of Benedict himself. In the talk on the crucial figure of St. Basil the Great (revered by Roman Catholics and Orthodox), Benedict offers this interpretation of St. Basil's ministry as a bishop/theologian: "As the Bishop and Pastor of is vast Diocese, Basil was constantly concerned with the difficult material conditions in which his faithful lived; he firmly denounced the evils; he did all he could on behalf of the poorest and most marginalized people; he also intervened with rulers to alleviate the sufferings of the population...he watched over the Church's freedom, opposing even the powerful in order to defend the right profess the true faith" One could, without too much effort, simply substitute "Benedict" or "Basil" here with little change in meaning. But the most revealing statements come in the five talks on St. Augustine, who is clearly Benedict's spiritual and intellectual model (he wrote a doctoral dissertation on Augustine's doctrine of the Church). What does Benedict see as central to his own work? His summary of Augustine's work provides the answer: "The harmony between faith and reason means above all that God is not remote: he is not far from our reason and our life; he is close to every human being, close to our hearts and to our reason, if we truly set out on the journey." Joseph Ratzinger, Benedict XVI, has clearly set out on the journey.

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