171. The Theology of Pope Benedict XVI: Looking for a Deeper Protestant Evaluation

Pope Benedict XVI (Joseph Ratzinger) is one of the towering figures in twentieth-century Roman Catholic theology. Born in 1927, his impressive biography includes having been a theological expert at the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), holding various professorships in Munich, Bonn, Münster, and Regensburg (1957-1977), being Archbishop of Munich (1977-1981) and Cardinal, then Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (1981-2005), to eventually becoming Pope (2005-2013), and since 2013, Pope Emeritus. His Opera Omnia consists of 16 volumes and covers virtually all aspects of theology and church life with scholarly depth. Needless to say, one cannot think about seriously dealing with present-day Roman Catholicism without coming to terms with his work.

His stature makes his reputation spillover from the Roman Catholic world. So a book on The Theology of Benedict XVI: A Protestant Appreciation, ed. T. Perry (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2019), is no surprise and is a welcome contribution to approaching the work of Joseph Ratzinger from the outside. The volume contains 15 articles written by Protestant authors who cover various aspects of his work, especially in the areas of dogmatic and liturgical theology, offering an entry point into his theological vision. The overall tone of the articles is generally informative and understandably appreciative, as the subtitle indicates.

Tim Perry, the editor of the book, is not new to initiatives aimed at building an ecumenical bridge between Evangelicals and Catholics. One can think of his editorship of The Legacy of John Paul II: An Evangelical Assessment (2007), in which Pope Wojtyła was assessed in extremely generous terms– so generous that the analysis seemed to be selective and forgetful of major critical points of his legacy (e.g. see my review asking questions about John Paul II’s alleged but idiosyncratic “Christ-centered legacy”). Other volumes by Perry (e.g. Mary for Evangelicals, 2006, and with D. Kendall, The Blessed Virgin Mary, 2013) also show his desire to wet the evangelical appetite for Roman Catholic doctrine and spiritualità (e.g. Mariology) while not always indicating what is biblically at stake in them. His chapter on Mary in the book (pp. 118-135) confirms his desire to find ways to “redeem” the Catholic Marian dogmas and practices for evangelical readers, even when they should be simply rejected from a biblical standpoint.

In his introduction, Perry looks at the (ecumenical?) future and singles out four ways in which Ratzinger’s theological wisdom can be useful for tomorrow’s church. Learning from Benedict, the church will:

1. find her strength in holy Scripture;
2. affirm that Christian faith is reasonable;
3. depend much more on the visible holiness of her members; and
4. be humble (pp. 7-9).

These are all important points. However, on either side of the Tiber (Protestant or Roman Catholic), who can be against them? They are so generic that even along the liberal-conservative dividing line within various Christian groups, who could say anything contrary? The problem is: does this list fairly and accurately represent, if not the whole, at least the heart of Ratzinger’s theology? Would Benedict himself summarize his work in these points? Are we sure that his message to the churches can be separated from the sacramental, hierarchical, and institutional nature of the Roman gospel and Rome’s “thick” claims on ecclesiology, soteriology, the papacy, Mariology, etc.?

The intention of “appreciating” Ratzinger’s theology is evident, but what about the ability to penetrate it? The impression of a similar gap is confirmed in other chapters of the book. For example, Ben Meyers and Katherine Sonderegger helpfully discuss the relationship between faith and reason in Ratzinger (11-25 and 28-45). The rationality of faith is certainly a theme dear to him, but as clearly demonstrated in his famous 2006 Regensburg Lecture “Faith, Reason and the University”, Benedict builds this rationality on the “synthesis between the Greek spirit and the Christian spirit” and firmly rejects what he identifies as the “programme of dehellenization” of the faith. According to him, this programme took place on the 16th century “Scripture Alone” Protestant principle, continued through 19th and 20th century theological liberalism, and eventually resulted in present-day relativistic multi-culturalism. One would have thought that in a book that presents a “Protestant” voice, someone would take issue with Benedict for his totally negative assessment of Sola Scriptura, one of the pillars of classic Protestantism, which he considers to hold the main responsibility for the wreckage of the Christian faith. Instead, the overall “appreciation” for Ratzinger’s defense of the rationality of faith over and against the “Scripture Alone” principle takes precedence over a truly Protestant analysis, thus skipping the opportunity to engage in constructive dialogue (which involves biblical critique done in a gracious yet firm way).

Another example of this weakness of the book has to do with Ratzinger’s Trinitarian theology. In his chapter on the topic, Fred Sanders commends his “powerful set of Trinitarian commitments” (p. 136), a common theological foundation that is often praised in the book as something that Ratzinger shares with Protestants. Because of his Trinitarianism, Ratzinger is presented as an ecumenical theologian from whom Protestants must learn. Staying on the surface of Trinitarian theology, this might be true, but as soon as one begins to dig deeper, things significantly change. In presenting his liturgical vision, Peter Leithart quotes Ratzinger talking about the Eucharist:

The Eucharistic Prayer is as entering into the prayer of Jesus Christ himself, hence it is the Church’s entering into the Logos, the Father’s Word” (p. 197).

The Church enters into the Logos! This is a view of the Eucharist that is heavily embedded in a Trinitarian framework and implies that there is an organic “Christ-Church interconnection” (an expression used by Gregg Allison, p. 63), which is biblically disputable. Ratzinger’s Trinitarian theology demands that the Church enters into the Logos, thus becoming one with Him and claiming to prolong (so to speak) His incarnation in her teaching and her sacramental and ruling offices. This view is based on a Trinitarian argument, but runs contrary to the standard Protestant view of the Church and her relationship with Christ.

Or again, in skillfully dealing with Ratzinger’s theology of the Word of God, Kevin Vanhoozer quotes Benedict saying:

As the Word of God becomes flesh by the power of the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mary, so Sacred Scripture is born from the womb of the Church by the power of the Holy Spirit” (p. 69).

The theology of Scripture is set in the context of Trinitarian theology, and the Church is embedded in this Trinitarian dynamic as if she were the mother of the Word because the presence of the Spirit is intrinsically tied to her. The link between the Holy Spirit and the Church is so organic that “for Benedict, Scripture, tradition, and the Roman magisterium always coincide because they are guided by the same Spirit” (p. 85). His Trinitarian theology leads Ratzinger to “dismissing” (p. 68) and “explicitly” denying Sola Scriptura (p. 75), which is one of the tenets of the evangelical understanding of the gospel.

The question is: if Catholics and Protestants have the same Trinitarian foundation (as many chapters of the book assume), how is it that they come to very different accounts of Revelation, the Bible, the Church, the sacraments, salvation, … the gospel? If we have this foundational commonality, why does Ratzinger argue in (his) Trinitarian terms that “Scripture Alone” is – for example – the main cause of the departure from the rationality of faith (e.g. in the above mentioned Regensburg Lecture) and is to be rejected in order to embrace a proper view of the Eucharist and Revelation? Are we not dealing with gospel issues that stem from different Trinitarian views, which look similar in language and on the surface but are undergirded by different core commitments and result in ultimately different accounts of the gospel?

The “appreciative” tone of the book shies away from asking the question, let alone responding to it, with exceptions and with some interesting hints. The chapters by Allison and Vanhoozer point to the idea that something deeper than acknowledging generic commonalities runs in the Roman Catholic and Protestant theological basic orientations. As Carl Trueman rightly observes in his chapter “Is the Pope (Roman Catholic)?”,

Roman Catholicism is not simply Protestantism with a different set of doctrines. It is a different way of thinking about Christianity, a way that draws a very tight connection between Scripture, tradition, and the doctrine of the church in a manner alien to Protestantism” (p. 153).

“A different way of thinking”. Finally, someone in the book indicates what is at stake in dealing with Roman Catholicism in general and with Ratzinger in particular. “A different way of thinking” that has some overlap in the use of biblical and theological language but is constructed with a different blueprint and results in a different answer to the ultimate questions about God, the world, and eternity. “A different way of thinking”. This is a clue that helps us to appreciate Benedict’s theology much more than lazily praising what we Protestants have in common with it. I think Ratzinger would agree more with this “different way of thinking” type of appraisal than with words of praise that do not go deep enough in the analysis of his theology. Trueman quotes him saying:

The way one views the structure of Christianity will necessarily affect in some measure, great or small, one’s attitude to various particular matters contained within the whole” (n. 26, p. 163).

The book The Theology of Benedict XVI: A Protestant Appreciation contains several “particulars” of Ratzinger’s theology from a Protestant viewpoint, but the “structure” of his view of Christianity is only touched upon by few of them and is left as a homework that is still to be done. The “appreciation” of the book should be heard, but not at the expense of neglecting the fact that Benedict and Protestants have different views of the “structure of Christianity” that impact the whole of their respective faiths.

P.S. On Ratzinger’s theology I have also written an “appreciative” (I hope) yet evangelically critical article: Progressive, Conservative or Roman Catholic? On the Theology of Joseph Ratzinger in Evangelical Perspective, “Perichoresis” 6.2 (2008) pp. 201-218.

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170. Totus Christus (The Whole Christ) or Solus Christus (Christ Alone)? On The Damages of Augustine’s Formula and the Correction of the Protestant Reformation

Solus Christus (Christ Alone) versus Totus Christus (the Whole Christ). If one wants to capture the difference between the evangelical faith and Roman Catholicism, here it is. On the one hand, the evangelical stress on the uniqueness of Jesus’s person (the God-man) and His atoning work;[1] on the other, the Roman Catholic insistence on the organic relationship between Christ and the Church.

Essential to Roman Catholicism is what Gregg Allison has helpfully termed the “Christ-Church interconnection.[2]” The Church is considered a prolongation of the Incarnation, mirroring Christ as a Divine-human reality, acting as an altera persona Christi, a second “Christ.” It is therefore impossible for Roman Catholicism to cry with the Reformers “solus Christus, for this would be seen as breaching the organic bond between Christ and the Church. The threefold ministry of Christ as King, Priest, and Prophet is thus transposed to the Roman Church—in its hierarchical rule, its magisterial interpretation of the Word, and its administration of the sacraments. There is never solus Christus (Christ alone), only Christus in ecclesia (Christ in the Church) and ecclesia in Christo (the Church in Christ).

A Misleading View of Totus Christus
The origin of the “Christ-Church interconnection” goes back to a faulty interpretation by the Church father Augustine (354-430 AD) as he understood the relationship between Christ and the Church. One of the most controversial points of Augustine’s theology is his conception of the totus Christus, the “total Christ”: the idea that the unity of Christ with the Church is so deep as to form a single mystery.[3] The Head of the body is so united with the body of the Head as to become a single Christ.

On this doctrine, Roman Catholicism built its own theology of the prolongation of the incarnation in the Church. It is as if there was such an intrinsic and profound union between Christ and the Church as to make it possible, indeed necessary, to see the Church as the sacramental extension of the incarnation of the Son of God. In fact, there are texts in which Augustine throws himself into one-sided statements in which, speaking of the Church united to Christ, he affirms “we are Christ” or “we have become Christ”. The whole Christ “is head and body”. At best, these would be ambiguous expressions if they had not been accompanied and supplemented by an orthodox Christology like that of Augustine. Besides the blurred statements about the totus Christus, speaking of Christ, Augustine writes that “even without us, He is complete”. Christ does not need the ecclesial body to be Christ. Elsewhere Augustine writes: “He is the Creator, we are the creatures; he is the craftsman, we are the work made by him, he the molder, we the molded ones”. His doctrine of the total Christ, however ambiguous and confused it is, does not break the distinction between Creator and creature and does not elevate the Church (the body) to a status of divinity.

Having said that, his interpretation of Colossians 1:24, Acts 9:4, and Ephesians 5 on the relationship between Christ and the Church in a spousal perspective led him to affirm the organic nature of that relationship and to go so far as affirming the “totality” of their being combined. The comments on the same texts also indicate the problematic direction of Augustine’s theology on the “deification” of the Christian, that is, his incorporation into the person of Christ becoming part of the mystical body.[4] Indeed, one can understand how Roman Catholicism was dazzled by the metaphor of the total Christ, going far beyond Augustine and developing it in the theology of the Eucharist (the “real presence” of Christ) and the priesthood (the priest acting in altera Christi persona, in the person of Christ), and in the development of dogma (the Roman Church being endowed with the authority of Christ in promulgating dogmas). The Augustinian interpretation on this point is therefore subject to different uses, depending on what one wants to see in his texts as the primary element: the blurred totus Christus or the preserved distinction between Creator and creature.

Rome’s Appropriation of the Totus Christus
Rome interprets the Augustinian reference to totus Christus as a union, which confuses the distinction between the Head and the body. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that “Christ and his Church thus together make up the ‘whole Christ’ (Christus totus). The Church is one with Christ” (§ 795). According to Subilia, in this mistake lies the “problem of Catholicism”.[5] In his unsurpassed study, Subilia deals with the reason why the Church of Rome has such a high and excessive view of herself and is inclined to claim divine prerogatives. According to the Roman Catholic appropriation of Augustine’s formula, the relationship between Christ and the Church is so organic and profound that the Church becomes part of the whole Christ. Subilia notes that Augustine, who had been a Manichean, and therefore a dualist, suffered the opposite temptation of “monism” (i.e. the reduction to one) in his thought. While emphasizing the distinction between the Head and the members, and therefore between Christ and the Church, in Augustine “the sovereignty of the Head on the body is disastrously lost sight of” (p. 146). Defending Augustine and the Roman Catholic interpretation of the Church father, Catholic theologian Gherardini summarizes the ecclesiology of the totus Christus as “Christ continued and identified in the Church”.[6]

Starting from Augustine, Roman Catholic ecclesiology became radicalized in emphasizing the theme of the unity between Christ and the Church in terms of a hierarchical-sacramental church representing Christ on earth. For Subilia, this is a “radical devastation that has changed the vital centers of the Christian organism and transformed it into a different organism” (p. 150). If this reading is plausible, the “problem of Catholicism” is not merely in one doctrine or in some superficial differences on secondary issues. Its problem lies at the very heart of its system and is pervasively present in all its expressions: from the Trinity to Mariology, from the sacraments to soteriology, from ecclesiology to the manifold devotions. All is infected by the totus Christus.

Back to Solus Christus
The Protestant Reformation was an attempt to face the damages of this inflated and distorted Christianity by putting the totus Christus back within its biblical boundaries. By arguing that the faith and life of the Church needed to be grounded on Scripture alone (Sola Scriptura), the Reformers wanted to reaffirm that the authority of God is exercised by Scripture over the Church. The totus Christus allowed the Roman Church to claim to have authority to promulgate new dogmas without Scriptural support and to endorse teachings and practices that went against the Bible. Sola Scriptura was a reminder that the Church is subject to the authority of God in the Bible.

By confessing that salvation comes to us by faith alone (Sola Fide), the Reformers wanted to recognize that we are saved by an external gift achieved by Christ alone and given to us by grace. There is nothing in us that deserves it. The Roman Catholic totus Christus had built a sophisticated system whereby the Church contributes to salvation through its sacramental system and the faithful merits it through his good works. Sola Fide was a reminder that the gospel is indeed Good News because Jesus Christ alone has accomplished what is needed for our salvation. Salvation needs to be received by faith alone.

Ultimately, the Protestant Reformation wanted to re-focus the whole of the Christian faith and life on Christ Alone (Solus Christus): the Son of God incarnate, the Lord Jesus Christ, Saviour of the world. The misinterpretation of Augustine’s totus Christus led the Roman Catholic Church to deviate from the biblical faith by endorsing an inflated view of Mary and the saints as mediators, an exaggerated view of the Church as the hierarchical and sacramental institution prolonging the incarnation, and an optimistic view of man’s ability to contribute to salvation. Solus Christus is the best corrective to a blurred understanding of totus Christus and the best safeguard against the intrusion of alien elements into the Christian faith. Whether or not this was Augustine’s intention (and this is disputed), this is nonetheless the biblical medicine to recover the evangelical, Trinitarian, orthodox faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people (Jude 3).


[1] S. Wellum, Christ Alone, The Uniqueness of Jesus as Saviour. What the Reformers Taught and Why It Still Matters (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017).

[2] G.R. Allison, Roman Catholic Theology and Practice. An Evangelical Assessment (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014) pp. 42-67.

[3] Here I rely on this collection of Augustine’s texts on the topic: Sant’Agostino, Il Cristo totale, ed. G. Carrabetta (Roma: Città Nuova, 2012).

[4] On this point see D.V. Meconi, The One Christ. St. Augustine’s Theology of Deification (Lanham, MD: The Catholic University of America Press, 2013).

[5] V. Subilia, The Problem of Catholicism (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1964).

[6] B. Gherardini, La Cattolica. Lineamenti d’ecclesiologia agostiniana (Torino: Lindau, 2011) p. 29.

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