Pope Benedict XVI and Biblical Renewal

COMMENTARY: The pope emeritus’ study of Scriptures was a hallmark of his spiritual life.

Pope Benedict XVI addresses a gathering at the Lutheran Church of Rome on March 14, 2010. Ever the teacher, Benedict spoke about the relationships between the different Christian churches.
Pope Benedict XVI addresses a gathering at the Lutheran Church of Rome on March 14, 2010. Ever the teacher, Benedict spoke about the relationships between the different Christian churches. (photo: Franco Origlia / Getty Images)

From his first moments as pope, Benedict XVI established biblical renewal as a key theme of his pontificate. In fact, he spoke at length about the proper reading and interpretation of sacred Scripture during his homily for the Mass in which he was installed as Bishop of Rome.

This was unprecedented, and yet it arrived as a surprise to no one who knew the man’s earlier work.

Joseph Ratzinger was a product of his times, and his times were tumultuous and productive in the sacred sciences. In the years of his priestly formation, the Christian world was enjoying a renewal of biblical studies. Many of its leading academic lights, both Catholic and Protestant, were active in Germany and writing in German. An intelligent seminarian couldn’t avoid the conversation.

As he pursued advanced studies, he immersed himself in the scriptural interpretation of the early Church Fathers, particularly St. Augustine — as well as the medieval masters, especially St. Bonaventure.

But his study of the sacred page was not simply an academic exercise. It informed his preaching and his worldview; indeed, it became a hallmark of his spiritual life.

He served the Church as a professor of theology and then as a theological consultant (peritus) at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). In this role, he helped to shape what was arguably the Council’s most important and authoritative document, Dei Verbum, the dogmatic constitution on Divine Revelation (1965).

Dei Verbum was the mature fruit of a decades-long Catholic biblical renewal. It was debated intensely and redrafted repeatedly. Many historians credit Father Ratzinger as the greatest influence on the document’s final form. And, more than any other document, Dei Verbum set the agenda for Catholic biblical studies and theology in the decades ahead. 

After the Council, Father Ratzinger returned to academic life, eventually taking positions at various German universities, during which time he published the works that established his international reputation. In constant dialogue with his Catholic and Protestant colleagues, professor Ratzinger developed skills and virtues that would serve him well as a scholar, bishop, Vatican official and pope.

He was able to find what was good and useful even in the works of those with whom he disagreed.

He published books and articles in many subdisciplines of theology: spiritual theology, fundamental theology, liturgical theology, historical theology, catechetics, systematic theology. He wrote a few specifically biblical studies, including an account of the Genesis creation narratives.

But all his works bear a characteristic biblical stamp. He was fully engaged with the scriptural text and the history of its interpretation. He was a Catholic biblical theologian.

Then he became an archbishop, and then he was made prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Yet always he worked as a biblical theologian.

In 1988 came a defining moment, when he visited New York City and delivered the prestigious Erasmus Lecture. His address, “Biblical Interpretation in Crisis,” was eventually published as a book — and it became a manifesto for a movement. He called for a “critique of criticism” and a renewed appreciation for what he called “a hermeneutic of faith.” For too long, Scripture study had been subject to the reductionist methods that had only limited effectiveness when applied to sacred texts that are divinely inspired.

Some professionals, in both theology and biblical studies, found Cardinal Ratzinger’s address refreshing and even inspiring. Others vehemently opposed it. No one could ignore it, however, and it remained a matter of active and lively debate for decades.

Thus, when the man was elected pope in 2005, the cries from the guilds were heard round the world. Some were cries of joy. Others were just cries.

The timing could not be more perfect. As pope, Benedict XVI would be able to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the promulgation of Dei Verbum, the Vatican II text he had done so much to shape. The man who had every natural reason to be the document’s definitive interpreter now had the supernatural munus (office) for the task.

The celebration, begun in 2005, found its most complete expression five years later in Benedict’s 2010 post-synodal apostolic exhortation Verbum Domini (The Word of the Lord), which is arguably the most important and authoritative document on Scripture produced by the Church in more than 40 years, since Dei Verbum. It is a masterpiece, almost 200 pages in book form, and there are no weak words.

Echoing Dei Verbum, in it he affirmed: “The Bible is the Church’s book, and its essential place in the Church’s life gives rise to its genuine interpretation.” Likewise, “the primary setting for scriptural interpretation is the life of the Church. This is not to uphold the ecclesial context as an extrinsic rule to which exegetes must submit, but rather is something demanded by the very nature of the Scriptures and the way they gradually came into being …” And for scholars, clergy and laity alike, “authentic biblical hermeneutics can only be had within the faith of the Church, which has its paradigm in Mary’s fiat. …”

In hindsight, it’s clear that no pope in over a millennium could match Benedict’s knowledge of Scripture and theology. 

This may explain, in part, why in the midst of his very busy pontificate, Pope Benedict made it a high priority to publish his landmark trilogy of biblical theology, Jesus of Nazareth (2007-2012), as he put it, “in my spare time.” Not surprisingly, close followers of the most recent pontificates observe how, just as the “theology of the body” represents the theological legacy of Pope St. John Paul II, so Pope Benedict’s “biblical theology of Christ” will be an essential part of Benedict’s lasting legacy for future generations.

One more observation along these lines: In my opinion, Pope Benedict XVI was, throughout his pontificate, nothing less than a modern master of mystagogy — biblical-theological catechesis about the sacraments as sacred mysteries. He deliberately sought to renew the art not only in its theory, and in his official documents, but especially in his pastoral praxis. I’m thinking of his yearly baptismal homilies, each one a model of mystagogy, which unfortunately have been thus far neglected (if not overlooked), but are awaiting rediscovery, close study, admiration and emulation.

One last observation: Because his writings and papal teaching were so thoroughly grounded in sacred Scripture, they had great appeal to Protestant scholars and teachers. Indeed, it was Protestant scholars and clergy who led us in establishing the Cardinal Ratzinger Society of Biblical Theology in the United States; just as it was a Protestant publishing house that brought out The Theology of Benedict XVI: A Protestant Appreciation in 2019. Likewise, it was the leading evangelical Protestant publisher (Baker Academic) that brought out my book, Covenant and Communion: The Biblical Theology of Pope Benedict XVI.

When he resigned the office of Peter in 2013, I was among those who deeply grieved at the silencing of his voice. Today, my mourning goes deeper still.

I hope that in his years as emeritus pope he was writing still, perhaps daily. I know that all his writing was profoundly biblical, and I wait in hope for some of it — any of it — to be published, for it’s unlikely that we’ll see a pope like him for at least another thousand years.

Scott Hahn, Ph.D., founder and president of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, serves as the Father Michael Scanlan, TOR, Professor of Biblical Theology and the New Evangelization at Franciscan University of Steubenville (Ohio).