Looking at Ratzinger’s “Called to Communion”

I’ve accused Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) of being dishonest in his use of language and sources, and this is another example.

I plan to do a more complete examination of Ratzinger’s defense of the papacy in his 1996 work “Called to Communion,” but I wanted to point out a particularly egregious example of what I’ve called below, The Catholic Hermeneutic.

It occurs with the first piece of evidence that Ratzinger cites. Peter’s name appears first in the great pre-Pauline hymn given to the Corinthian church in 1 Cor 15:1-11. Peter is not in view here in any other way, but for Ratzinger, it is a foundational piece of evidence for (a) Peter’s importance and (b) a papacy:

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.

Ratzinger calls this a “weighty piece of evidence in the ancient formula of faith,” and suggests that “Paul is entitled to consider himself an apostle in the full sense because the risen Lord appeared to him and called him. We thus begin to grasp something of the weight of the fact that Peter had the privilege of being the first to see the Lord and that he entered into the confession formulated by the primitive community as the first witness.” (Called to Communion, 50).

In reality, this is nothing but eisegesis, that is, reading into a text something that is just not there. Ratzinger, in using this as a Petrine proof text, completely misses the genuine significance of the passage.

“We may even see in this circumstance something like a new installation in the primacy, in the first rank among the apostles. When we add to this that we are dealing with a very ancient pre-Pauline formula, which Paul transmits with great reverence as an unassailably secure part of the tradition, the significance of the text is plain for all to see” (ibid.)

First of all, note that this is the sum and total of Ratzinger’s argument. Peter is mentioned, and so “the significance of the text is plain for all to see.”

That is just an extremely weak (and even impertinent) observation from this passage. Because that is not “the significance of the text.” But it is typical of the Roman urge to usurp some mention of Peter where Peter is not the focus, to read pre-conceived notions of a papacy back into it, and to turn it into some weighty, significant evidence of something that is just not there.

Because in the first place, “as of first importance,” according to Paul, this is a passage about the Resurrection of Christ, and the surety of it. The first reason for the development of this passage, this pre-Pauline hymn, is that “an array of witnesses can testify to Jesus’ resurrection, which is inferred by his appearance to them (David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, p. 689).

Citing several writers, [Garland] says “it is altogether more satisfactory to admit, however much some deplore the fact, that in [this passage] Paul intends to guarantee the historicity of the resurrection by suggesting that doubters may check with the many eyewitnesses who are still living…The adverb [ephapax, describing 500 witnesses at the same time, at once] emphasizes that this was not a spiritual vision that each experienced over the course of time; it was an event that all witnessed together.”

For Ratzinger to see this as a significant Petrine text is further evidence of the self-absorption that Rome sees in itself.

In actuality, there are other elements to this text that are all still more important than the “Petrine” component.

Garland suggests that another reason behind this list of witnesses is “to form a chain from Cephas to the Twelve, to the five hundred, to James, to the Apostles, to Paul himself. It establishes a continuity in the message that he passed on to them that goes back to the very beginning.”

Most commentators on Matthew are adamant that absolutely no “succession” is hinted at in the New Testament. However, this is Paul’s version of a “petrine succession.” And it is a succession not of ordinations, but rather, it is a succession of the same message: Christ died for our sins, in accordance with the Scriptures, he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that He himself took the initiative of “appearing” to his disciples. This is the Gospel in its purest form. It is the same Gospel that Peter preached in Acts: “This Jesus God raised up, and of that, we are all witnesses.”

Further, this passage speaks to the fact that, as Irenaeus said, “What [the apostles” first preached they later, by God’s will, transmitted to us in the Scriptures so that they [the Scriptures] would be the foundation and pillar of our faith” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.1, citing 1 Tim 3:15).

For Ratzinger to take a mere mention of Peter in a context such as this one to say that it somehow suggested a Petrine primacy that led to the papacy, is the worst kind of way to read something into a text that’s just not there.

This is just one more example of how Catholic apologists — Ratzinger included — misuse Scripture and in doing so, deceive people into believing that they are the “one true church.”

Published by John Bugay

"We are His workmanship," His poiema, His "poetry." If you've ever studied poetry, or struggled to write a poem, you understand the care God takes to "work all things together for good" in our lives. For this reason, and many others, I believe in the Sovereignty of God. I have seen His hand working in my life, and I submit myself to His merciful will, with all my being.

14 replies on “Looking at Ratzinger’s “Called to Communion””

  1. I recently listened to a discussion featuring Drs. Beckwith and George. When the discussion moderator asked Beckwith what exactly the Gospel is, he referred directly to Dr. George. Dr. George then recited St. Paul’s words here. Yes, both Catholics and non-Catholic Christians can affirm the clear exposition of the Gospel hear. This degree of unity, despite all of our philosophical disagreements, is wonderful and beautiful. thank you.


  2. I misspoke. My post should read “… he referred directly to St. Paul’s words in 1st Corinthians 15:1-11. Dr. George then recited St. Paul’s words here.” oops.


  3. I would suggest that, before you exert so much effort in trying to rebut Ratzinger’s (succinct) book “Called to Communion” you first recognize that, as he says multiple times in the book, his purpose in the book is not to delve into deep exegesis of the relevant biblical passages. It’s a brief book; I read it in few hours I recall.

    It’s more like N.T. Wright’s popular books about justification vs. his long, scholarly, exhaustive books on the New Perspective on Paul.

    Finally, I would encourage you to take a dose of humility and realize that Pope Benedict is not some armchair theologian who can be so cavalierly dismissed and “rebutted.”

    It would be like me saying I was rebutting N.T. Wright: the man could run circles around me with the Scriptures, history, the original languages, academic and theological breadth of knowledge, etc. etc. I may think he is wrong and could point out where I think he might be going off, but to dig into his actual exegesis of Greek and of the OT is beyond my ability. He is, to put it mildly, out of my class by a few orders of magnitude. Humility.


  4. Devin Rose: Why don’t you comment on the substance of what I had to say?

    Ratzinger’s being a “professional theologian” is not what makes his point. His point must stand or fall on its merits, don’t you think?

    Whatever Ratzinger’s purpose was in writing this, it seems to me to be a pretty weak point, in support of what is for you, a pretty important doctrine.


  5. Hi John,

    I am commenting at the very idea of you trying to rebut a theologian like Ratzinger in the first place (not to mention by only examining one of his short, popular works).

    N.T. Wright is an Anglican Protestant bishop with strong Calvinist influences. He is firmly Protestant, so I am not surprised by any of his beliefs about the Catholic Church. But what authority does he have anyway? He, like you and me, is just another human being.

    He says that an Ecumenical Council is wrong. So did Luther and so he follows Luther in his rejection that God has guided his Church into all truth (John 16:13). “Welcome to Protestantism!”


  6. Devin — in the first place, this item may be “short” and “popular,” but in it, Ratzinger talks to peers and others who represent the official Magisterium that we all have to “receive with docility.”

    This work was published popularly, but that was not its original intent.

    The first three chapters “were written for a theology course” and there were “around a hundred bishops” in attendance. In a way, this represents a “Magisterial” peer review, wouldn’t you think? All individuals who will go out and disseminate what Ratzinger says, officially, in the name of the church. The two other chapters were addressed to another Synod of Bishops on the topic of “priestly formation.”

    This is a far cry from Bryan beating up on Wilson. (Or Mathison, for that matter).

    I’m concerned to show Protestants how Catholics think — not just individual Catholics, but how Catholic doctrines are arrived at. And this is “a primer of Catholic ecclesiology.” Now, in your experience, isn’t one of the main differences that we face the very definition of “church” that we’re dealing with? It would seem as if I’ve decided to focus on a thing that will be very helpful for individuals on both sides of the discussion.

    Until people know what the differences are — and how they’re arrived at — it’s pretty hard to go forward with a discussion. (Unless you intend on wholesale deceiving someone about what they’re getting into).

    And, as I’ve written elsewhere, it is wrong to say “Protestants are disunified, therefore, the Catholic system is right.” It is necessary first to assess whether Catholicism has got its system right. If not, then you’ve got a whole bunch of lemmings running off a cliff in the same direction. That’s not a good thing, is it?

    As for Wright, you easily dismiss him now, but you’ve got Taylor Marshall crowing in Christianity Today saying what a great theologian he is, how NPP is just one step from Catholicism. You can do one of three things with this. Admit that Wright’s almost Catholic, as Marshall says — and show your unity here. Or else tell Marshall he’s wrong, and in the process admit that you don’t have as much “unity” as you think you do.


  7. When you come down to it, saying “There’s a pope, because Peter gets mentioned in a couple of lists” is a very poor bit of reasoning. And yet millions were slaughtered over the centuries for not accepting the papacy. Welcome to Catholicism!


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