Covenant and Communion:  The Biblical Theology of Pope Benedict XVI by Scott W. Hahn (Brazos Press, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2009)

I read this book quickly, because it's a book to be read slowly.  I should have guessed from the names on the dust jacket quotes—names like David L. Jeffrey, Hans Boersma, and Tremper Longman—that Covenant and Communion would be more like a book from a seminary library than the local Christian bookstore.  There's a lot of heavy theology here, and I currently have neither the time nor the inclination to do it justice.  However, that didn't stop the text from grabbing me occasionally and slowing me down enough to pull a few quotes.  Quotation marks set off Pope Benedict's actual words.

The church is the living voice, the viva vox, of the Word of God....  Scripture is at the center of the Church's tradition, but tradition is properly understood as the whole of "the responsive Word of the Church"—a living dialogue in which the Church constantly listens to the Word addressed to her and responds to the claims the Word makes on her through her preaching, teaching, doctrine, and liturgy.   More than that, tradition is a participation in the power of God promised to the Church by Christ.  It is nothing other than the fulfillment of Christ's promise to be with his Church in the Spirit until the end of the age....  Tradition, then, is nothing less than Christ's living and saving and interpretive presence in the Church.

It is important to keep in mind...that revelation for Benedict is not limited to the written word of Scripture.

"A God who cannot intervene in history and reveal himself is not the God of the Bible."

The Christian faith is not faith in a series of propositions but faith in a historical person.

What is important for us is to recognize that Benedict's theology and exegesis presume as absolutely vital the unity of salvation history—reflected in the unity of the Old and New Testaments—and the principle that Jesus Christ is both the culmination of that history and the interpretive key of God's revelation in the Scriptures.

As the words of Scripture, by their very nature, must admit of more than their literal meaning, the same is true of the historical events recorded in Scripture....  Thus while the events recorded in the Bible are factual, their meanings far transcend "historical facticity" because God in his Spirit is their author.  Indeed, because God is acting in the biblical narrative, "...the events carry within themselves a surplus them significance for all time and for all men."

Benedict rejects as unbiblical the sharp dialectic between Law and Gospel introduced by Martin Luther....  Benedict establishes from his close readings of the texts "the inner continuity and coherence of Law and Gospel" and the "deep unity between the good news of Jesus and the message of Sinai."  The hinge on which this unity depends is...the figure of Jesus Christ.

"The church is there, not for her own sake, but for mankind." 

"We can see in [Acts 2:42] a sketch of the primitive Christian service of worship, which starts with the teaching of the apostles, that is, with the proclamation and hearing of the faith of the Church, of the Word of God that is alive in her and that thus becomes the basis for liturgical and living fellowship:  it reaches a climax in the eucharistic encounter with the Lord, who gives himself to us as bread, and resounds in songs of praise.  The Church is adoration."

Benedict demonstrates that the New Testament portrait of Jesus is that of a person in constant prayer.  The prayer of Jesus is not abstract or monologic.  Rather, the prayer of Jesus is an intimate, intense, and sustained dialogue with the God he calls "Father." The Church's earliest confessions and hymns, which profess faith in Jesus as the Son of God, only confirm the witness of the apostles and the testimony of the Scriptures—that Jesus lived in unbroken "primal conversation with the Father."

The Father that Jesus prayed to was "the God of the fathers," the patriarchs of Israel, and Jesus prayed as a child of these patriarchs, as a son of Abraham.  He was part of this ancient family, this people of God.  This, too, is vital to Benedict's theological understanding.  Jesus prayed with his people, in conversation with the Scriptures of Israel, as is vividly depicted in the Transfiguration, where he talks personally with Moses and the prophet Elijah.

We can speak to God bcause God has spoken to us—because he has come to us as a Word and because in his inmost life in the Trinity he is a relationship.  The prayer of Jesus reveals that the heart of the Trinity is a familial, filial relationship of love.  God in his inner essence is a dialogue of love, and our prayer, both corporately in the liturgy and privately, is a participation in this filial and familial dialogue.

[The Lord's Prayer] illuminates this point.  Even when the believer prays the "Our Father" privately, he or she prays as a member of the family of God.  It is never my Father.  The prayer of Jesus is always personal and simultaneously the prayer of one who knows himself to be part of a family.  "Prayer is always praying with someone," in the communion of the Church, in the body of Christ, in the family of God.

As our prayer is never alone, neither is it something we can do of our own initiative.  Prayer and worship are our response to the God who has first spoken to us.  God's Word to us is a gift, the gift of himself; it is the opportunity to participate in his familial dialogue of love.

"What had always been intended and could never be achieved in the Old Testament sacrifices is incorporated in [Christ].  God does not desire the sacrifice of animals; everything belongs to him.  And he does not desire human sacrifice, for he has created man for living.  God desires something more:  he desires love, which transforms man and through which he becomes capable of relating to God, giving himself up to God.  Now, all those thousands of sacrifices that were always presented to God in the Temple at Jerusalem and all the sacrifices performed in the whole course of history, all this vain and eternal striving to bring ourselves up to God, can be seen as unnecessary and yet, at the same time, as being like windows that allow us, so to speak, a glimpse of the real thing, like preliminary attempts at what has now been achieved.  What they signified—giving to God, union with God—comes to pass in Jesus Christ, in him who gives God nothing but himself and, thereby, us in him."

The Liturgy of the Word in the Mass presumes the unity of salvation history and in fact tracks and unfolds that history, beginning with readings from the Law and the prophets, a song from the psalms, and then readings from the Gospels and the apostolic writings.  Yet it is a mistake to regard the Scriptures used in the liturgy as historical readings or even ethical lessons.  They are the Word of God, the voice of revelation that speaks to us in the present with creative and life-changing power.

Divine worship implies that we ourselves have become beings of the Word, that we conform ourselves to the creative Intellect.  But once more it is clear that we cannot do this of ourselves, and thus everything seems to end again in futility—until the day when the Word comes, the true, the Son, when he becomes flesh and draws us to himself in the exodus of the cross.  This true sacrifice, which transforms us all into sacrifice, that is to say, unites us to God, makes of us beings conformed to God, is indeed fixed and founded on an historical event, but is not situated as a thing in the past behind us—on the contrary, it becomes contemporary and accessible to us in the community of the believing and praying Church, in its sacrament:  that is what is meant by the "sacrifice of the Mass."

"Just reading [Scripture[ does not mean necessarily that we have truly understood the Word of God.  The danger is that we only see the human words and do not find the true actor within, the Holy Spirit.  We do not find the Word in the words.... We stop at the human words, words from the past, history of he past, and we do not discover the present in the past, the Holy Spirit who speaks to us today in the words from the past.  In this way we do not enter the interior movement of the Word, which in human words conceals and which opens the divine words.  We must always look for the Word within the words."

As one whose religious beliefs and experiences have been either atheistic or Protestant, I found it startling to read arguments about where Luther went wrong.  That's not at all the focus of the book, but the few instances caught me by surprise.  However, Pope Benedict's focus on Christ, his obvious knowledge of the Bible, and the marriage of his impressive intellect with his strong faith, make Covenant and Communion a book worthy of serious Protestant attention.  It's probably not a good place for an atheist to begin, unless he's seeking evidence that intellectual, rational, academic thought is not incompatible with Christian faith.

Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, July 24, 2010 at 3:48 pm | Edit
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