Monday, September 20, 2010

Joseph Ratzinger Doesn't Get the Augsburg Confession: Part 1

In spite of supposedly being our first Lutheran Pope (why he get this label is beyond me), I've been reading Joseph Ratzinger lately and I really don't think he gets Lutheranism.  In particular, I've been reading the Principles of Catholic Theology, a piece he wrote some time in the early 80s.  Surveying the book, it's interesting to observe how little these principles have to do with Jesus.  In fact, other than the crowing about Nicea as the definitive council of the Church, there wasn't much talk about Jesus at all.  Mostly a lot of talk about the Church and its tradition, and the plausibility of faith (in the Catholic sense) in the modern world.  

Throughout the book there's also a lot polemics against Luther.  I guess makes sense, because he's German, right?  Or perhaps he takes a special interest in Luther- he seems to have read him a great deal, even if he's misinterprets him frequently.

All that aside, I'd like to focus on one aspect of his critique of Lutheranism, that is, his criticism of the Augustana.  In particular, Ratzi thinks that the Augustana can't really function as dogma because it's simply based on the exegesis of Luther and Melanchthon.  What happens, says he, if better exegesis comes about?  Can you really hang your hat on the Augustana then or have certainty about the truth of its content?  Obvious not!  Because of this, the Augustana cannot create continuity with the Church-catholic and destroys any stability in truth.  So goes Ratzinger.

I would respond to Ratzi in a number of ways and make the following arguments.  I plan to divide these over several post since they are long and somewhat more complex than the average post.  So here's round one of my observations.

1. The Lutheran and the Roman Catholic positions equally rest on exegesis.  The Catholic tradition has lulled Protestant back to it with the claims of objectivity exegesis, opposed to the subjectivity which gives rise to so many sects.  The Church magisterium has the Spirit and so it can speak definitively, whereas Protestant never can.  This is an attractive claim when one swims in a sea of sects and in a western society in a state of moral anarchy.  The problem though with the Catholic claim to objectivity in the realm of exegesis is twofold.

A. Papal and conciliar documents are still documents.  If they're documents, then someone has to interpret them.  So you really haven't improved over the question of how one interprets Scripture, you've simply pushed it to a different level.  

Well, says the Papal apologist, the Church will do that as well!  Not so fast.  Obviously there are fairly profound differences in how different Bishops and Catholic theologians interpret the these documents.  Vatican II (for example) gave rise to several schools of thought, all claiming to be the true voice of the council.  Consequently, you don't really get uniform agreement or objectivity at the end of the day.  

Furthermore, it's also a bizarre claim to make because you're saying that the Pope or a council's word is intrinsically less ambiguous than God's own Word.  If that's the case, why didn't God just cut out the middle man and make his own Word clear enough for people to understand to begin with?  This all quite strange to me.

B. As I noted, both positions stand or fall on how good one's exegesis is.  Melanchthon does claim in the Augustana to be expounding Biblical truth and gives all sorts of arguments for this in the Apology.  But what is the basis of Catholic claims?  Matthew 16 of course!  In Matthew 16, Jesus supposedly establishes the Papacy.  Therefore Catholics have the right exegesis, because Jesus gave Peter the special ability to teach and preach infallibly and lead the Church.  Ah, but how do you know that your exegesis of Matthew 16 is the right exegesis?  Well, you can make the argument using word-studies and contextual clues and what not- in other words do exegesis just like Melanchthon.  So at the end of the day, the Catholic argument as to why their position is true is no better than the Lutheran in the sense that both have to make the exegetical argument.  Now, the Catholic come back and say "ah, but we have the Spirit, and therefore our exegesis of Matthew 16 is right!"- But again, the only reason to claim that would be a specific reading of Matthew 16.  Move past the exegetical argument and all you have is "We have the Spirit and magisterial authority, because we say we do."  

So much for objectivity.


  1. Jack,
    Maybe you should add tradition and history to your last sentence. It is more than magisterial authority and the Spirit, it is the tradition of the past that also helps the RC church maintain its claim.

    The thing the holds the Roman Catholic church back more than even Matthew 16 is its own history. It will stubbornly refuse changes because of its own weight of history.

    The Orthodox church denies that the Roman Catholic church is the church of the New Testament because it elevated the Pope and broke with that same tradition.

  2. Andrew- That's a good point. I would just add that Catholics have tended to move away from the reliance on unwritten tradition- although not totally. Whereas Trent suggest the "two source" theory of Scripture and Tradition, Vatican II teaches "prima scriptura." According to this theory, Scripture is not the only source of doctrine, but it's the main one and all other tradition and authority has show that there's at least some sort of basis for it (no matter how lose!) in the Bible.

    You do make a good point though about the tradition. The orthodoxy have made many good points about the innovation of papal primacy.

  3. It seems that his reference to "new exegesis" allows the development of the NPP, which is the rage in many Reformed circles. Obviously when someone claims that the Reformers got it wrong on justification (i.e. Wright), that fits neatly into the Roman insistence of the same critique over the last 500 years.

    Thanks for your writings; I just discovered your blog this morning.


  4. I am going to sound like I am Orthodox.*

    The Orthodox still hold on to scripture and tradition. (written and unwritten)The Orthodox fear is the innovation begets innovation and so on. In some cases this fear seems to be born out. The man innovation of the RC church, the problems in the various Lutheran churches, and the continued splintering of the Protestant churches. They will point to Scripture alone as the chief problem, not that scripture is the problem, but the continual reinterpretation of scripture is the heart and soul of the missteps the church has seen, especially during the last 200 years.
    To the Orthodox church, Luther missed an opportunity to help return it back to what it was in essence a faithful reboot and not a new version.

    The RC church continues with its own doctrinal struggles, because it has innovated so many times that it has lost sight of what it was, which is not unlike the Protestant churches.

    Hopefully the LCMS will continue to avoid innovations and remain confessional to scripture.

    * I grew up Orthodox before converting to the LCMS. Darn schools :)

  5. Oh, the irony!

    Sort of like how the post-modern view of no absolutes, is an absolute!

    And how liberalism tends to be tolerant until you disagree with it!

    You'd like to write a note to the Pope and say, "Pot, meet the kettle."

    Grace and peace,

    Pr. Benjamin Tomczak