Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.

“Through the man Jesus, God was made visible, and hence our eyes were able to behold the perfect man.” — Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, Foreword.

“Thou hast said, ‘Seek ye my face.’ My heart says to thee, ‘Thy face, Lord, do I seek.’ Hide not thy face from me.” — Psalm 27:8.

“It goes without saying that this book is in no way an exercise of the magisterium, but is solely an expression of my personal search ‘for the face of the Lord’ (cf. Ps 27:8).” — Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, Foreword.


A nice man gave me an on-line gift certificate for Barnes & Noble. I thought that I would use it by going down to the Barnes & Noble store on “M” Street in Georgetown to find a copy of Jesus of Nazareth, Benedict XVI’s new book. I had tried to purchase it at a book shop called “The Mustard Seed,” across Sheridan Road from Loyola University in Chicago. They told me that it would be in the next afternoon, but it wasn’t. When I arrived back to Washington, armed with a print-out of the Barnes & Noble gift certificate, I asked at the B&N desk if they would cash this on-line credit. They wouldn’t. Why not is to me an economic mystery. Though it seems like it all ends in the same pot, maybe B&N does not want their on-line sales to compete with their book stores. But I could not find the book in the store anyhow, which also surprised me.

So I returned home. Next day, I tried to follow the instructions for ordering the book on-line, to avoid having to do which was the reason I walked down to the “M” Street store in the first place. Amazingly, it worked. In two days I had the book. I was struck by the irony of being able to get the book from my room but not from the company’s book store when I appeared in person. This may say more about Schall’s personality than he may want to know!

What to say about this book? It so happens that while I was in Chicago, I found in the Jesuit Community Library a copy of Romano Guardini’s book, The Humanity of Christ. It turned out to be one of the best books I had ever read. Why I had never seen it before I do not know. I know that Guardini is a favorite of the Pope, whose book, The Spirit of the Liturgy (Ignatius Press, 2000), was written in honor of Guardini’s book by the same title written some fifty years before. The year before during my retreat (2006), I also had read Karl Adam‘s book, The Son of God. Thus, I was struck to read the second sentence in Pope Ratzinger’s Foreword: “When I was growing up–in the 1930’s and 1940’s–there was a series of inspiring books about Jesus: Karl Adam, Romano Guardini, Franz Michel William, Giovanni Papini, and Henri Daniel-Rops were just some of the authors one could name.” Ages ago, I read Papini and Daniel-Rops, but not William, a name I do not know.

Here, I want to say some things about the most interesting “Foreword” to Jesus of Nazareth. Above, I have cited Pope Ratzinger’s disclaimer that this book is not an “exercise of the magisterium” In this sense, it is not unlike his “Regensburg Lecture” or his Interviews. Just at the time that everyone is prepared to reject out of hand anything pronounced in the name of authority, especially religious or papal authority, we suddenly have a pope who gives academic lectures and writes a book telling what he thinks about Jesus just so that we would know his general views. We tend to suspect, usually wrongly, that if something is “official,” it cannot be “sincere.” We prefer sincerity to truth, a dangerous position. Suddenly, we have a pope who explains, with evident frankness, just what he holds about Jesus. But he tells us that we need not accept it unless, perhaps, we might agree with his reasoning. The burden is on us. We may be the ones who are not sincere in our search for the truth, especially the truth about who is Jesus of Nazareth.

The whole area of censorship in the Church was designed to protect the reader from those who claimed to speak in the name of the Church but who were in fact espousing something dubious or heretical. In a way, the effect of this much criticized system made it seem that no one could really tell us what he actually believed or thought. If a work was “censored” and we as readers knew it was censored, it might (or might not) be safe doctrinally. But the reader, knowing that the work in front of him was censored, remained, as a result, unsure whether the words he was reading were actually those of the author or whether the author really believed them even if they were valid from a doctrinal viewpoint. Following the example of the several books of John Paul II and the several Interviews that he himself had while he was a Cardinal, Pope Ratzinger has put something quite refreshing onto the intellectual table of our time, a book about what and who he thinks Jesus of Nazareth was and is.

Into our world, then, we suddenly have Pope Ratzinger telling us that what we are reading in his book is “solely an expression of my personal search ‘for the face of the Lord.'” This approach startles. We don’t expect it. We might think that Ratzinger’s views are silly or erroneous, but it is difficult to maintain that he does not hold what he professes and tells us about. Certainly he will let us know when he speaks under the aegis of official papal authority. Meantime, he understands that the modern world, before all else, is in search for authenticity and sincerity. Thought he is not saying that official statements are not useful and sometimes necessary, no longer is it possible to write off what this Pope says as if it were somehow merely “official doctrine,” held only for bureaucratic reasons. How often in recent decades have we read idiotic positions taken by some theologian or critic justified on the grounds that he was opposing Vatican bureaucracy or dogmatism? If we think we can “write off” the positions of Benedict found in this book, we can in honor only do so if we have better reasons, reasons that he too can examine. He does not ask anything else of us.

The Pope’s statement is mindful of what Chesterton wrote a hundred years ago in the Preface to Orthodoxy: “It is the purpose of the writer to attempt an explanation, not of whether the Christian Faith can be believed, but of how he personally has come to believe it.” Both Chesterton and the pope, however, spend most of their time telling us precisely why the Christian Faith “can be believed.” That is, why there are reasons for believing it.

And yet, both the Pope and Chesterton are much more persuasive because we know that both really hold what they tell us they hold. Neither requires our assent unless we are persuaded by their arguments. Both are for this reason, I think, doubly dangerous to the doubter or unbeliever who has comforted himself with the thought that no believer “really” holds what the Church teaches or that what is held does not make sense.


Christoph Cardinal Schšnborn, in his presentation of the English translation of the Pope’s book, remarked that, in his many encounters over the years with Josef Ratzinger, he almost always found near-by a well-thumbed copy of the Greek New Testament. (L’Osservatore Romano, May 30, 2007, English).The basic thesis of the Pope is that, by all accounts, after all examination of modern critical methods and philosophic suppositions have been themselves put to the test, the picture presented of Christ in the New Testament is, from every point of view, the more credible one. The earlier scholars like Guardini, Adam, and Papini were right. Jesus was “a man living one earth who, fully human though he was, at the same time brought God to men, the God with whom as Son he was one. Through the one man Jesus, then, God was made visible, and hence our eyes were able to behold the perfect man” (xi). An Incarnation of the actual Son of God, in other words, did take place within this world, at a definite time–the “fullness of time”–and in a definite place.

This correct understanding of Christ was widely challenged beginning in the 1950s, the Pope points out, by theories that divided the “historical Jesus” and the “Jesus of Faith.” There seemed to be two different Jesuses: the one that scholars tried to find and the one the Church presented as true. The Pope often in this and other writings returned to the question of the use of “historical-criticism scholarship” (xii). In the “Regensburg Lecture,” he referred to Adolf von Harnak’s effort to return Jesus to the university by eliminating any divine aspect from his being and therefore admitting only what could be examined by modern scientific methods. Such methods, of course, have their own presuppositions and yield only what the method allows them to yield. Such methods are valuable, the Pope recognizes. But they cannot by themselves reach the faith or the being of God in Christ. Unless a theologian or biblical scholar himself believes, his method will not assist him in finding the Jesus actually presented in the Gospels.

The Pope can be amusing on this point. “If you read a number of these reconstructions (of who Jesus was) one after the other, you see at once that far from uncovering an icon that has become obscured over time, they are much more like photographs of their authors and the ideals they hold” (xii). Thus, Harnak’s Jesus was a sort of good man, a prophet, but definitely not God. The Pope cites the great Catholic biblical scholar, Rudolf Schnackenburg, who at the end of his life concluded that “a reliable view of the historical figure of Jesus of Nazareth through scientific effort with historical-critical methods can be only inadequately achieved.” (xiii). The Pope is not wholly satisfied with Schnackenburg’s view on “how far the ‘historical ground’ actually extends.” Yet, the final view of Schnackenburg is one the Pope makes his own starting point for this book. It is that Jesus’ relatedness to God is a genuine “historical insight.” That is to say, historical fact does tell us something true. Pope Ratzinger cites Schnackenburg again: “Without anchoring in God, the person of Jesus remains shadowy, unreal, and unexplainable.” (xiv). One can say, that without this anchor, the pictures of Jesus presented in the scholarly and popular world have been precisely shown this shadowy, unreal, and unexplainable about them.

Benedict then “sees Jesus in light of his communion with the Father, which is the true center of his personality.” This centrality is also the point of the Guardini book. The Pope continues his reflection on Schnackenburg, “The problem with Schnackenburg’s account” is that he thinks the Gospels, as some sort of outside influence, want to “clothe” Jesus, the Son of God, with flesh. The Pope makes clear that his own position is that it is not the Gospels that do this. They report but do not create what they know; namely that the Jesus they describe is already “clothed” with flesh.(xiv).

Both the Pope and Schnackenburg recognize the value of Pius XII’s encyclical, Divino Afflante Spiritu (1943), which approved use of the “historical-critical method” in studies of the Bible. But Pope Ratzinger thinks that subsequent Church teachings about biblical studies in the Council and from the Biblical Commission have shown further critiques of this method that need to be taken into account to make it more complete and usable (xv). Any scientific method, as such, is itself subject to critique particularly in its philosophic origins–in what it can do.

With this background, the Pope wants frankly to state “the outlines of the methodology” that he used in writing Jesus of Nazareth. As we read in Aquinas or in Fides et Ratio, philosophy is the search for knowledge of what is. When we read scripture or when we consider the revelation found in it, our final question is: “Did what is described really happen?” Against this background, Pope Ratzinger’s explanation of his position on this famous method is of especial interest. This method is an “indispensable dimension of exegetical work.” Why? It is “because of the intrinsic nature of theology and faith.” What does this mean? “It is of the very essence of biblical faith to be about real historical events. It does not tell stories symbolizing supra-historical truths, but is based on history, history that took place here on this earth” (xv). The account of Christ is not a good story. It is a good story because it is true; it really happened to the real Son of God.

A method that eliminated the facticity of the life of Christ cannot explain who he was. The utter realism of Christian philosophy and of the Greek mind behind it is a much better ground for explaining what actually happened and who Christ actually was. “The factum historicum (historical fact) is not an interchangeable symbolic cipher for biblical faith, but the foundation on which it stands: Et incarnates est–when we say these words, we acknowledge God’s actual entry into history.” Thus if Christ is indeed “Word” made flesh and is present beginning in a particular history, we will find witnesses of this fact who will record what they saw and heard. This recording is what both Testaments are about. As Christians, we do not have an a priori theory that forbids such events from taking place. We do not therefore feel constrained to explain them away as if they did not or could not happen. God entered into history. No method of historical analysis ought to be based on a denial of the evidence for it.

There are religions that acknowledge no “history” of the divine dealings with men. Christianity is not one of these (xv). So the Pope repeats that this method is an “indispensable tool, given the structure of Christian faith” (xvi). However, the Pope adds, two further considerations that must be borne in mind when we use such a method. When we have used the method, it does not “exhaust” our “interpretative” task. The Bible must be seen “as a single corpus of Holy Scripture inspired by God.” That is, we cannot see it as a series of single, disparate documents or parts of documents with no relation to each other. What went before and what came after can be and are used to explain each other.


What are the “limits of the historical-critical method?” This method is a modern method and bears its own time-frame, which is not the past. “The one thing it cannot do is make it (the past) into something present today.” The method also presupposes a “uniformity of context within which the events of history unfold” (xvii). It must treat biblical words as “human words.” Thus, it can sense perhaps that something deeper is occurring. “But its specific object is the human word as human.” In treating each book separately, moreover, following the notion of the word of God behind the human words, the method cannot see “the unity of all of these writings as one ‘Bible’…” The method cannot see the Bible as a single datum. “We have to keep in mind the limit of all efforts to know the past: We can never go beyond the domain of hypothesis, because we simply cannot bring the past into the present.” Some hypotheses no doubt, are better than others, the Pope tells us.

The Pope finally wants to evaluate this method. It is very necessary and useful when we understand what it is and what are its limits. But we also see, because we recognize these limits, that the method “points beyond itself and contains within itself an openness to complementary methods” (xviii). Thus in Fides et Ratio, John Paul II said that scripture scholars also had to know and be aware of philosophy, just as philosophers had to have some awareness of the presence of revelation in the intellectual sphere. “A voice greater than man’s echoes in Scripture’s human words” is Benedict’s way of stating that the words of scripture do not only have human origins.

Pope Ratzinger, in his “Foreword,” next approvingly refers to a school of “American scholars,” who, some thirty years ago, developed what they called “canonical exegesis.” What is that? “The aim of this exegesis is to read individual texts within the totality of the one Scripture, which them sheds new light on all the individual texts.” This approach was recommended by Vatican II’s Constitution on Divine Revelation (#12). The Pope adds, following a passage in Vatican I, that we also have “the need for taking account of the living tradition of the whole Church and of the analogy of faith (the intrinsic correspondences within faith).” This further addition, of course, implies, not unlike Newman, the continued guidance of the Holy Spirit in the Church throughout time and the intrinsic consistence of the whole of faith and reason.

The Pope dwells “for the time being on the unity of Scripture.” It is not just a series of books accidentally held together by the accidents of time. “Modern exegesis has brought to light the process of constant rereading that forged the words transmitted in the Bible into Scripture.” Thus, Isaiah appears in the New Testament. Paul repeats what he has read. Christ himself cites incidents and passages from earlier scripture. What is clear is that things weave back and forth in a sort of circular manner. Still, “you can see that the Old and New Testaments belong together.” This subject of the relation of the Old and New Testament will come up again later in the book when Benedict discusses Rabbi Neusner’s book on Jesus. The Pope continues: “This Christological hermeneutic, which sees Jesus Christ as the key to the whole and learns from him how to understand the Bible as a unity, presupposes a prior act of faith. It cannot be the conclusion of a purely historical method. But this act of faith is based upon reason–historical reason–and so makes it possible to see the internal unity of Scripture” (xix). The Pope constantly is mindful that even an ordinary human utterance will contain more in an uttered word than we might grasp at first. The human author of scripture is not “simply speaking for himself on his own authority.” (xx).

The author of scripture also speaks within a community that remembers all these things. “He speaks in a living community, that is to say, in a living historical movement not created by him, not even by the collective, but which is led forward by a greater power that is at work.” The bible is not a “simple piece of literature.” Each book of scripture has “three interacting subjects.” There is the individual author or authors, who are part of a collective subject, the People of God, who knows that it is ‘led and spoken to by God himself, who–through men and their humanity–is at the deepest level the one speaking” (xxi). Scripture is an account of God’s leading his people at all times and places.

Scripture is the “measure that comes from God.” Man is not the “measure” of all things, but they have a measure. The Church “is the living subject of Scripture; it is in the Church that the words of the Bible are always in the present.” This comment refers back to what the Pope had cautioned about method, that it is itself in the present. But there is a “place” as it were wherein the words of scripture are always in the present. This is in the Church. The metaphysics behind such statements take us to the notions of time and eternity, the eternal now and the possibility of God’s creation a reality, an order, that exists in time which is not contradicted by the reality of eternity.

The Pope finally explains why he thinks the reader needs to know about his views on methodology as he reads his book. They “govern his interpretation of the figure of Jesus.” The Pope, mind you, “interprets” Jesus as the Son of God, the Word made flesh and understands that this is what the scriptures actually say. What follows? “I trust the Gospels.” Taking into account an evaluation of all that historico-critical exegesis and other studies have left us, the fact remains that Jesus existed in a definite history. In this time and place, he presented himself as God, the Son of God. “This figure is much more logical and, historically speaking, much more intelligible than the reconstructions we have been presented with in the last decades” (xxii).

This observation enables Pope Ratzinger to state finally as something he holds with evidence and reflection: “I believe that this Jesus–the Jesus of the Gospels–is a historically plausible and convincing figure.” Notice that Benedict XVI does not say: “You Catholics and other doubters out there have to believe this affirmation or else.” Nor does he say: “Science has now, properly understood, proven that Jesus is God.” Rather he says that the view he presents is “historically plausible.” It makes sense, whatever else one might make of it. The Jesus of the Gospels is in fact more convincing than any of the alternatives designed to explain him. This is, in fact, what Chesterton already said in The Everlasting Man.

The Pope likewise gets into the question of how early were the testimonies of Jesus’ divinity within the documents of scripture. “As early as twenty or so years after Jesus’ death, the great Christ-hymn of the Letter of the Philippians offers a fully developed Christology stating that Jesus was equal to God …” That is, it was not something coming later and gradually put in place by people who were imagining things. It is right to try to find out what happened in the twenty years in the meantime, of course. But, “Isn’t it more logical, even historically speaking, to assume that the greatness came at the beginning, and that the figure of Jesus really did explode all existing categories and could only be understood in the light of the mystery of God?” Again here we have the Pope’s commonsense mind at work.

Frequent theories are invented, but not on the basis of any real evidence, to explain why Jesus was not God. The evidence that we have is thus interpreted in the light of a theory which a priori denies that such evidence could point to what he really was, namely, the Son of God. By contrast, Benedict states: “We take this conviction of faith as our starting point for reading he texts with the help of historical methodology and its intrinsic openness to something greater.” (xxiii). There is a harmony and unity to scripture.

The Pope repeats that his intention in writing this book is “not to counter modern exegesis.” He appreciates it. By his own affirmation, anyone is free to “contradict” the Pope about his evidence and analysis (xxiv). He only requires “initial good will.” This work is but the first part of a two-part reading of Christ’s life. Cardinal Ratzinger began this book during “summer holidays” in 2003. Since becoming Pope, he tells us, that he has used “every free moment to make progress on this book.” One is astonished both that a Pope has any “free moments” and, even more, when he does, that they are used so insightfully, and indeed, so wisely.

The world, I think, is not really prepared for this man. He is concerned with the rational and revelational foundations of all cultures. His “personal search” in Jesus of Nazareth, puts back in the center of things this one proposition: Jesus Christ is “a man living on earth who, fully human though he was, at the same time brought God to men, the God with whom as Son he was one.” He adds that “everyone is free to contradict” him. One wonders both how many will even try and what it says about them if they do not. Or to put it more positively, the papacy has not gone away and remains the Rock of Contradiction that persuasively explain itself in terms that reason can understand, make sense of, if it will.