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Pope Benedict XVI on Sola Scriptura

I recently found the following lengthy excerpt from the book Pilgrim Fellowship Of Faith: The Church As Communion by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (aka Pope Benedict XVI). There are a few typos in the text, but since I do not own this particular book I am unable to correct them. This represents the current pope’s stance on Sola Scriptura, so while it takes a few minutes to read, it is important to digest.

From here until further notice you’re reading the words of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger.

“Beside this essential authority of theology [Scripture], can there be any other? The answer would seem to have to be No: this is the critical point in the dispute between Reformed and Catholic theology. Nowadays, even the greater part of evangelical theologians recognize, in varying forms, that sola Scriptura, that is, the restriction of the Word to the book, cannot be maintained. On the basis of its inner structure, the Word always comprises a surplus beyond what could go into the book. This relativizing of the scriptural principle, from which Catholic theology also has something to learn and on account of which both sides can make a new approach to each other, is in part the result of ecumenical dialogue but, to a greater degree, has been determined by the progress of historico-critical interpretation of the Bible, which has in any case learned thereby to recognize its own limits. Two things have above all become clear about the nature of the biblical word in the process of critical exegesis. First of all, that the word of the Bible, at the moment it was set down in writing, already had behind it a more or less long process of shaping by oral tradition and that it was not frozen at the moment it was written down, but entered into new processes of interpretation–”relectures”–that further develop its hidden potential. Thus, the extent of the Word’s meaning cannot be reduced to the thoughts of a single author in a specific historical moment; it is not the property of a single author at all; rather, it lives in a history that is ever moving onward and, thus, has dimensions and depths of meaning in past and future that ultimately pass into the realm of the unforeseen.

“It is only at this point that we can begin to understand the [?] of inspiration; we can see where God mysteriously into what is human and purely human authorship is transcended. Yet that also means that Scripture is not a meteorite fallen from the sky, so that it would, with the strict otherness of a stone that comes from the sky and not from the .:earth, stand in contrast to all human words. Certainly, Scripture carries God’s thoughts within it: that makes it unique and constitutes it an “authority”. Yet it is transmitted by a human history. It carries within it the life and thought of a historical society that we call the “People of God”, because they are brought together, and held together, by the coming of the divine Word. There is a reciprocal relationship: This society is the essential condition for the origin and the growth of the biblical Word; and, conversely, this Word gives the society its identity and its continuity. Thus, the analysis of the structure of the biblical Word has brought to light an interwoven relationship between Church and Bible, between the People of God and the Word of God, which we had actually always known, somehow, in a theoretical way but had never before had so vividly set before us.

“The second element that relativizes the scriptural principle follows from what we have just said. Luther was persuaded of the “perspicuitas” of Scripture—of its being unequivocal, a quality that rendered superfluous any official institution for determining its interpretation. The idea of an unequivocal meaning is constitutive for the scriptural principle. For if the Bible is not, as a book, unequivocal in itself, then in itself alone, as a book, it cannot be what was given in advance, which guides us. It would then still be leaving us again to our own devices. Then, we should still be left alone again with our thinking, which is helpless in the face of what is essential in existence. Yet this fundamental postulate of Scripture’s unambiguousness has had to be dropped, on account of both the structure of the Word and the concrete experiences of scriptural interpretation. It is untenable on the basis of the objective structure of the Word, on account of its own dynamic, which points beyond what is written. It is above all the most profound meaning of the Word that is grasped only when we move beyond what is merely written. Yet the postulate is also untenable from its subjective side, that is to say, on the basis of the essential laws of the rationality of history. The history of exegesis is a history of contradictions; the daring constructions of many modern exegetes, right up to the materialistic interpretation of the Bible, show that the Word, if left alone as a book, is a helpless prey to manipulation through preexisting desires and opinions.

“Scripture, the Word we have been given, with which theology concerns itself, does not, on the basis of its own nature, exist as a book alone. Its human author, the People of God, is alive and through all the ages has its own consistent identity. The home it has made for itself and that supports it is its own interpretation, which is inseparable from itself. Without this surviving and living agent, the Church, Scripture would not be contemporary with us; it could then no longer combine, as is its true nature, synchronic and diachronic existence, history and the present day, but would fall back into a past that cannot be recalled; it would become literature that one interpreted in the way one can interpret literature. And with that, theology itself would decline into literary history and the history of past times, on one hand, and into the philosophy of religion and religious studies in general, on the other.

“It is perhaps helpful to express this interrelationship in a more concrete way for the New Testament. Along the whole path of faith, from Abraham up to the completion of the biblical canon, a confession of faith was built up that was given its real center and shape by Christ himself The original of existence of the Christian profession of faith, how was the sacramental life of the Church. It is by this criterion that the canon was shaped, and that is why the ‘Creed is the primary authority for the interpretation of the Bible. Yet the Creed is not a piece of literature : for a long time, people quite consciously avoided writing down the rule of faith that produced the Creed, just because it is the concrete life of the believing community. Thus, the authority of the Church that speaks out, the authority of the apostolic succession, is written into Scripture through the Creed and is indivisible from it. The teaching office of the apostles’ successors does not represent a second authority alongside Scripture but is inwardly a part of it. This viva vox is not there to restrict the authority of Scripture or to limit it or even replace it by the existence of another — on the contrary, it is its task to ensure that Scripture is not disposable, cannot be manipulated, to preserve its proper perspicuitas, its clear meaning from the conflict of hypotheses. Thus, there is a secret relationship of reciprocity. Scripture sets limits and a standard for the viva vox; the living voice guarantees that it cannot be manipulated.

“I can certainly understand the anxiety of Protestant theologians, and nowadays of many Catholic theologians, especially of exegetes, that the principle of a teaching office might impinge upon the freedom and the authority of the Bible and, thus, upon those of theology as a whole. There is a passage from the famous exchange of letters between Harnack and Peterson in 1928 that comes to mind. Peterson, the younger of the two, who was a seeker after truth, had pointed out in a letter to Harnack that he himself, in a scholarly article entitled “The Old Testament in the Pauline Letters and the Pauline Congregations”, had for practical purposes expressed the Catholic teaching about Scripture, tradition, and the teaching office. To be precise, Harnack had explained that in the New Testament the “authority of the apostolic teaching is found side by side with … the authority of ‘Scripture’, organizing it and setting limits to it”, and that thus “biblicism received a healthy correction”. In response to Peterson’s pointing this out, Harnack replied to his younger colleague, with his usual nonchalance: “That the so-called ‘formal principle’ of early Protestantism is impossible from a critical point of view and that the Catholic principle is in contrast formally better is a truism; but materially the Catholic principle of tradition wreaks far more havoc in history.” What is obvious, and even indisputable, in principle arouses fear in reality.

“Much could be said about Harnack’s diagnosis of where more havoc has been wreaked in history, that is, where the advance gift of the Word has been more seriously threatened, This is not the time to do so. Over and beyond any disputes, it is clear that neither side can dispense with relying on the power of the Holy Spirit for protection and guidance. An ecclesiastical authority can become arbitrary if the Spirit does not guard it. But the arbitrary whims of interpretation left to itself, with all its variations, certainly offers no less danger, as history shows. Indeed, the miracle that would have to be worked there in order to preserve unity and to render the challenge and stature of the Word effective is far more improbable than the one needed to keep the service of the apostolic succession within its proper bounds.

“Let us leave such speculation aside. The structure of the Word is sufficiently unequivocal, but the demands it makes on those called to responsibility in succession to the apostles are indeed weighty. The task of the teaching office is, not to oppose thinking, but to ensure that the authority of the answer that was bestowed on us has its say and, thus, to make the truth itself to enter. To be given such a task is exciting and dangerous. It requires the humility of submission, of listening and obeying. It is a matter, not of putting own ideas into effect, but of keeping a place for what the Other has to say, that Other without whose ever-present Word all else drops into the void. The teaching office, properly understood, must be a humble service undertaken to ensure that true theology remains possible and that the answers may thus be heard without which we cannot live aright.”


This ends the excerpt.

Now as you may have noticed, there is not much there that has not been said before. This passage contains many of the standard fallacies people use to warn against Sola Scriptura. One thing I found particularly offensive, as a Protestant, was the assumption that biblical interpretation not made by “the teaching office” is arbitrary. “But the arbitrary whims of interpretation left to itself, with all its variations, certainly offers no less danger, as history shows.” While he does not say “all Protestant interpretation is arbitrary,” he might as well for that is certainly what he wishes to convey. He has earlier warned “the daring constructions of many modern exegetes, right up to the materialistic interpretation of the Bible, show that the Word, if left alone as a book, is a helpless prey to manipulation through preexisting desires and opinions.” Clearly this is meant to serve as a warning against those who misuse God’s Word. But what of the “careful constructions of biblical exegetes?” What of the men - men like Luther, Calvin, Hodge, Edwards (to name just a few) - who have labored over the Scripture, being ever-so-careful not to manipulate it, but to allow God to guide their interpretation? Do they merit no more attention or appreciation than those who manipulate it with their preexisting desires and opinions? Does not the Church itself cast preexisting desires and opinions on the Scripture?

Remember, that this is the pope many Protestants feel may be the bridge to ever-greater unity between Catholics and Protestants. Yet he clearly, unequivocably denies Sola Scriptura (as indeed a pope must to maintain consistency with his office and his faith). If Protestants wish to build bridges with the Catholic Church, they must know in advance that it will be on the terms of the papacy, not on their terms.

Incidentally, I’d like to see James White make a response to Ratzinger’s book (or this portion of it). Seeing as White has written extensively about Catholic doctrine and Sola Scripture I’m sure he would have many interesting things to say. So Dr.O - there’s a challenge for you.