Evangelical theologian lauds “Christocentric legacy” of Benedict XVI

Also, three Evangelical NT scholars from North America will participate in symposium sponsored by Joseph Ratzinger Benedict XVI Vatican Foundation

Although he might not be well known outside of certain theological circles, Dr. Hans Boersma is one of the finer young Evangelical theologians writing today. He is the J.I. Packer Professor of Theology at Regent College, one of the best Evangelical schools in Canada, and he is the author of some books that engage deeply and thoughtfully with Catholic theology, notably Nouvelle Théologie and Sacramental Ontology: A Return to Mystery (Oxford, 2009), and Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry (Eerdmans 2011). As his bio on the Regent website states, Boersma’s “main theological interests are Catholic thought, the church fathers, and spiritual interpretation of Scripture.” (And in the words of a snide Amazon.com reviewer, he is “A Roman Catholic in evangelical clothing”.)

In the September/October 2013 edition of Books & Culture: A Christian Review, in an article titled, “The Real Presence of Hope & Love” (subscription required for full article), Boersma praises the “Christocentric legacy” of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and touches on how it should help fruitful ecumenical conversation between Catholics and Evangelicals. He notes that far too many discussions of theology begin with premises about “conversative” and “liberal,” which often derail matters before anything of substance is actually discussed. “With regard to Benedict,” writes Boersma, “what stands out is not his alleged ‘conservatism’ but his focus on Christ in matters both theological and moral. That is what will render him relevant for many years to come.” He then writes:

Protestants have long been afraid that Catholics take their starting-point in human realties. Human merit before God, Mary and the saints as objects of our adoration, the concrete materiality of Baptism and Eucharist—these, and other aspects of Catholic theology and spirituality, seem to Protestants attempts to place ourselves in the position of the risen Lord, as a move from Christocentrism to anthropocentrism. Oakes’ insistence, therefore, that Ratzinger’s theology is marked first and foremost by its Christocentrism, should make Protestants sit up and listen. And I think there is a sense in which it should make both Protestants and Catholics sit up and listen. If, after all, [Fr. Edward] Oakes is right that Christocentrism lies at the heart of Ratzinger’s thought, then this is the key also to how we can deconstruct the relativism of our culture that thinks only in terms of the binaries of “conservative” and “progressive.” To place Christ at the center is to gainsay the need to be “up-to-date” or “relevant.” To place Christ at the center is, therefore, also to stab at the heart of the relativism that underlies this division between “conservative” and “progressive.” There is good reason, I think, why Ratzinger’s most stringent rejection of relativism comes under the title of Dominus Iesus (2000). It is the Lord Jesus who sent us on a mission in the world, and it is his Lordship and the definitive character of his revelation that are ” ‘the true lodestar’ in history for all humanity,” as the document’s concluding paragraph puts it. Evangelicals and Catholics should be drawn together by this theological—that is to say, Christological—focus, which is the real antidote to so much non-theological humbug that typifies most media interest in Catholic thought and in the Christian faith in general. The insistence that Christ is the beginning, the center, and the end of theology has always served as reminder that in terms of theology and morality there is something more important to worry about than God’s relevance to us, namely, our relevance to God.

Beorsma then focuses on Benedict’s first two encyclicals—Deus caritas est (2005) and Spe salvi (2007)—highlighting “Benedict’s insistence that the love of God has become incarnate: ‘The real novelty of the New Testament lies not so much in new ideas as in the figure of Christ himself, who gives flesh and blood to those concepts—an unprecedented realism.'” Christianity, Benedict explained (in many other places as well) is not an intellectual system or even a collection of dogmas, but a transformative encounter with the living Christ. Benedict takes “the visibility of God seriously” and asks that we do the same.

This visibility results from the fact that God gives himself to us in Jesus. The visibility of God’s presence in Christ is something Catholics and evangelicals need to reflect on in dialogue, because it touches on Catholic sensibilities that evangelicals should perhaps appreciate more than they usually do. For Pope Benedict, the visibility of God in Christ immediately implies what he calls a “sacramental ‘mysticism.’ ” The visibility of God is meaningful for us precisely because we are drawn into Christ in the Eucharistic celebration.

Beorsma also spends time reflecting on the deeply sacramental core of Benedict’s theological project, and makes this very astute observation:

Both encyclicals know of sacramental presence. But the first encyclical sees the real presence of love in the Eucharist, while the second locates it in the real presence of hope in the narratives of the real lives of flesh-and-blood people such as Le-Bao-Tinh. He is but one instance of this real presence of hope. Spe salvi is filled with stories and examples of this real presence.

The “legacy of Pope Benedict,” Beorsma concludes, “is the witness of a thorough-going Christological focus. This Christocentrism should warm the heart of evangelical believers, for it is the centrality of Christ that enables us to overcome the narrow-mindedness of a culture whose only remaining norms are those of the flattened horizons of this world.” He encourages Evangelicals to really listen to Catholics and consider carefully the Catholic emphasis on “real presence.” He recognizes that serious disagreements still exist and so he does not appeal to a spirit of indifferentism, but to a shared belief in Christ, one that is radically opposed to the “relativism of a flat culture”. 

It’s worth noting, as a postscript, that the prolific Evangelical Scripture scholar, Dr. Ben Witherington III, has been invited to participate in the upcoming symposium, “The Gospels: Historical and Christological Research,” held in Rome and sponsored by the Joseph Ratzinger Benedict XVI Vatican Foundation. The press release states:

Dr. Witherington is one of only a handful of Protestant scholars who will be presenting, and the only New Testament scholar in the United States invited to speak at this prestigious event.

The conference sets out to study in depth the main themes of the thought of Josepth Ratzinger-Benedict XVI, taking its cue from his trilogy on Jesus of Nazareth, true man and true God. The three volumes were published during the period 2007-2012 while Benedict XVI was then the Roman Pontiff of the Catholic Church. Scholars and professors of different universities and Christian denominations will be gathered to study, discuss and dialogue in order to enrich the interpretation of the Gospels and to continue in the passionate search for the historical Jesus. Witherington states, “The detailed scholarly study of the historical Jesus has been going on for more than a century and a half, and it is a significant event when a theologian who has become a Pope and has now returned to his studies produces three significant books on the historical Jesus which receive critical acclaim and close study. This conference builds on that legacy while moving in new and fresh directions.”

At the end of the symposium Pope Francis will be awarding the “Joseph Ratzinger” prize, in recognition of those who perform promising scholarly research relating to or expounding upon Benedict XVI’s work.

From what I can glean from online searches, the two other Evangelicals scholars from North America are Dr. Craig Evans (Acadia University) and Dr. Stanley Porter (President and Dean of McMaster Divinity College), both Canadian, and both very highly regarded in the field of New Testament studies. The website for the Joseph Ratzinger Benedict XVI Vatican Foundation is available only in Italian.

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About Carl E. Olson 1220 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.