Benedict XVI (B16) has written a book called “Principles of Catholic Theology.” It is something he published while a Cardinal and prefect of the “Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith” (the modern name of the Inquisition). This book raises several points of interest as to B16’s view of Luther and his view of the church fathers. The following post combines some thoughts of James Swan with a few derivative thoughts of my own. The surprising conclusion is that B16 comes out remarkably in favor of things that both Luther and Pastor David King have said.

James Swan (from whom I’ve essentially plagiarized this first part of this post, with permission – see his original post here) found this tidbit from the Catholic Answers Forum (give credit where credit is due). Cardinal Ratzinger discussed briefly Luther’s attitude toward the church fathers and allegory in his book, Principles of Catholic Theology (pp. 141-142):

Whereas the theology of the Eastern Churches has never aspired to anything but patristic theology, the attitude of the Reformation toward the Fathers was, from the beginning — and still is — ambiguous. Melanchthon strove emphatically to prove that the heritage of the ancient Church, which had been abandoned by medieval Catholicism, was restored in the Confessio Augustana; Flaccius Illyricus, the first great historian of the Reformation, followed in his footsteps, and the work of Calvin, with its radical reliance on Augustine, takes the same direction. By contrast, Luther’s attitude to the Fathers, including Augustine, was always more critical. The conviction seemed to grow even stronger in him that the defection from the Gospels occurred at a very early date. It will suffice to quote one typical text: “I say this because I myself wasted and lost much time on Gregory, Cyprian, Augustine, Origen. For the Fathers, in their time, had a remarkable attraction to and liking for allegories; they used them constantly, and their books are full of them. . . . The reason is this, that they all followed their own conceit, mind and opinion, as they thought right, and not St. Paul, who wanted to let the Holy Spirit act there from within.” Even here, the Fathers seem to be discredited for their use of allegory, and the study of them seems to be regarded as a waste of time by comparison with a direct attention to the word of Scripture.

– Benedict XVI (then Joseph Ratzinger), Principles of Catholic theology: building stones for a fundamental theology (2:1:D), pp. 140-41 (English edition, 1987 – Originally published in German in 1982)

The quotation from Luther is said to have come from Luther’s Sermons on the Second Book of Moses (Alleg. I, Wittenberger Ausgabe, 16.67). Mr. Swan (who has studied Luther much more than I have) doesn’t doubt the validity of the quote being used (which was taken by Ratzinger from a secondary source. Luther preached on Exodus in 1524, and I think the reference is to a sermon on Exodus 1). While Luther said both positive and negative things about the church fathers throughout his career, Mr. Swan considers this description of Luther’s view to be accurate.

As to discrediting the fathers because of their use of allegory, Mr. Swan explains that Luther likewise would often provide an allegorical interpretation of a passage of Scripture. Examples of this can be found in his sermons. Mr. Swan, for example, was surprised while reading a sermon from Luther’s church Postil, to come upon a section entitled, “The spiritual interpretation of this gospel.” It wasn’t that allegory automatically discredited the church fathers. Using allegorical interpretations as primary proofs was the issue. Luther complained that the papists and fanatics did this. Luther also fought against allegorizing as an accepted and recommended method of biblical interpretation prevalent in his day and previously. The primary proofs of the faith must be based on the clear exposition of scripture. Luther goes on in the very sermon Ratizinger cited to say of allegorical interpretation:

I too know well that hidden meanings do not have convincing power and should not be the ground on which we base ourselves. For we should and must rely on the clear, express, and plain word of God, such as that referring us to faith in Christ and love toward our neighbor. Thus one is saved. Other teachings and allegories you disregard. Such is also the allegory of St. Paul concerning Abraham, according to which his two sons signify the two testaments. For if this allegory were not grounded on this passage in Paul, my heart would doubt and constantly ask how I may be sure of it. For one would say: Who knows whether it be so? The heart must doubt in that case and cannot be sure. It dare not rest or rely on allegories. I must have the plain text and page of Holy Scripture (WA 16:72 cited in What Luther Says, 1:100-101).

Ratzinger then goes on to make what Mr. Swan views as quite an interesting claim, a short while later. The claim is regarding the use of the church fathers as biblical interpreters and his earlier summation of Luther’s view. Ratzinger indicates that Luther’s “historical instinct is clearly proving itself right” and also that “there is nothing to be proved or disproved” by referring to their interpretations of Scripture:

In many respects, a decision about the role of the Fathers seems, in fact, to have been reached today. But, since it is more unfavorable than favorable to a greater reliance upon them, it does nothing to lead us out of our present aporia. For, in the debate about what constitutes greater fidelity to the Church of the Fathers, Luther’s historical insight is clearly proving itself right. We are fairly certain today that, while the Fathers were not Roman Catholic as the thirteenth or nineteenth century would have understood the term, they were, nonetheless, “Catholic”, and their Catholicism extended to the very canon of the New Testament itself. With this assessment, paradoxically, the Fathers have lost ground on both side of the argument because, in the controversy about the fundamental basis for understanding Scripture, there is nothing more to be proved or disproved by reference to them. But neither have they become totally unimportant in the domain, for, even after the relativization they have suffered in the process we have described, the differences between the Catholicism of an Augustine and a Thomas Aquinas, or even between that of a Cardinal Manning and a Cyprian, still opens a broad field of theological investigation. Granted, only one side can consider them its own Fathers, and the proof of continuity, which once led directly back to them, seems no longer worth the effort for a concept of history and faith that sees continuity as made possible and communicated in terms of discontinuity.

– Benedict XVI (then Joseph Ratzinger), Principles of Catholic theology: building stones for a fundamental theology (2:1:D), pp. 141-42 (English edition, 1987 – Originally published in German in 1982)

Having seen what Mr. Swan wrote and the quotations he provided from B16, I was struck by a startling similarity between what Ratzinger had written and what my friend, Pastor David King, had previously written.

I’m not sure Pastor King will be entirely pleased by comparison, but it is interesting to note that Joseph Ratzinger has confirmed something that Pastor King has been saying for a long time.

Ratzinger writes:

We are fairly certain today that, while the Fathers were not Roman Catholic as the thirteenth or nineteenth century would have understood the term, they were, nonetheless, “Catholic”, and their Catholicism extended to the very canon of the New Testament itself.

– Benedict XVI (then Joseph Ratzinger), Principles of Catholic theology: building stones for a fundamental theology (2:1:D), p. 141 (English edition, 1987 – Originally published in German in 1982) (see more of the context, above)

Pastor King has said:

We, as Protestants, are very content to let the ECFs be what they were. But it is the Roman apologist who, on the contrary, must read back into the ECFs the notions of modern day Rome and papal primacy that were never recognized by the eastern church. Again, for all this insistence on the ECFs being “catholic” I am in great agreement!


What is also interesting is that Ratzinger’s comment stands opposed to lay Roman apologists who claim things like “The Church Fathers Were Catholic” (meaning, of course, “Roman Catholic”) (Dave Armstrong, who has a book by that title, comes to mind, though he is not alone in making this sort of ignorant assertion).

Ratzinger goes on, of course, to insist that “only one side can consider them its own Fathers” but the admission that Ratzinger has made exposes one of the central weaknesses to much of the patristically-directed Roman apologetic effort in the English-speaking world today. We can agree with Ratzinger that the Fathers were “catholic” as that term is properly understood, and we can also agree with him that they would not be considered “Roman Catholic” by modern (or even medieval) standards. We too willingly acknowledge that the Fathers were not distinctly “Protestant” – they were who they were, often differing in significant ways from one another. As Pastor King explained it, we “are very content to let the [early church fathers] be what they were.”

These facts ought, however, to point us to the need for an even earlier source of authority – the written Word of God contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. By such an established authority we can evaluate the claims of apostolicity of the various competing claimants to the catholic and apostolic faith.

– TurretinFan

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