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Covenant & Communion: The Biblical Theology of Pope Benedict XVI

Author: Scott W Hahn
Published By: Darton, Longman and Todd (London)
Pages: 204
Price: £12.95
ISBN: 978 0 232 52775 9

Reviewed by Nicholas Tuohy.

Dr Scott Hahn is a Catholic theologian, speaker, prolific author, apologist and Professor of Theology and Scripture. In the first chapter of this book he states: “Never before in the history of the Catholic Church has a world-class biblical theologian been elevated to the papacy”.

The chapters unfold to provide an overview of Benedict’s insistence on the primacy of the Scriptures, a critique of historical-criticism, and advocating of a hermeneutic of faith, exploration of covenant, kingdom, and salvation history, and the beauty and necessity of the theologian’s task.

Benedict often quotes Jerome’s maxim: “Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.” He goes further: “The crisis of faith in Christ in recent times began with a modified way of reading sacred Scripture - seemingly the sole scientific way” (p.20). Benedict shows a commitment to the historical reliability of the Scriptures and challenges the assumption that Christian orthodoxy slowly emerged over time through the synthesis of differing ideas concerning Jesus. “I believe that this Jesus - the Jesus of the Gospels - is a historically plausible and convincing figure...As early as twenty or so years after Jesus’ death, the great Christ-hymn of the Letter to the Philippians offers us a fully developed Christology...” (p.98).

Benedict proposes a way forward between the fideism of conservative theology and the philosophical assumptions of liberal theology. Hahn notes that though “Well schooled in its techniques and findings, Benedict has nonetheless emerged as a forceful critic of what he describes as the theoretical hubris and practical limitations of historical criticism” (p.19). Benedict acknowledges the usefulness of the historical-critical method, but also its limitations and presuppositions, and calls for a “critique of criticism”. “The historic-critical method is essentially a tool, and its usefulness depends on the way in which it is used, that is, on the hermeneutical and philosophical presuppositions one adopts in applying it. In fact, there is no such thing as a pure historical method” (p.27).

Benedict asserts a new way forward that harnesses the fruits of historical-criticism, whist identifying its limits, then applying a “hermeneutic of faith”. “...[I]f a purely materialistic explanation of reality is presented as the only possible expression of reason, then reason itself is falsely understood...Faith itself is a way of knowing” (p.45-6). Benedict concludes that the “hermeneutic of faith” has superior explanatory power to an exegetical method based solely on historical-criticism. This is not “...some kind of slavish return to the ‘old ways’ of the ancient Church. It represents instead a deep apprehension of the inner logic and necessity of reading from the heart of the Church” (p.62).

As an evangelical, I serendipitously found an ally in my own weariness with liberal Protestant theology and the over exhaustion of the historical-critical method.  Reading about Benedict’s biblical theology was refreshing and stimulating. Some of the more inherently Catholic aspects I do not fully align with. However, Benedict’s critique of historical-criticism was worth it alone.

Hahn is glowing and uncritical of any aspect of Benedict’s theology, and being unfamiliar with the extent of Benedict’s theology, I cannot say whether Hahn’s generous treatment is overplayed. What is certain is that many Protestants may find the paradox of a Pope helping provide a way forward out of the tired and dull rut of liberal Protestantism. This was my experience. Catholics will certainly benefit from the overview of Benedict’s theological depth, but Protestant pastors and teachers will find much here to be encouraged about in their own exegetical and theological pursuits.

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You are reading Issue 50 of Ministry Today, published in November 2010.

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