In a sense it is not surprising that Evangelicals would find an intellectual and spiritual kinship with Pope John Paul II, given his doctrinal and ethical conservatism and his deep bible-based spirituality. Tim Perry, a professor of theology at Providence College in Otterburne, Manitoba, Canada, and who has raised some Evangelical eyebrows with his 2006 book on Mary (Mary for Evangelicals: Toward a Theology of the Mother of our Lord), has gathered an all-star team of twelve Evangelical and one Methodist theologians beside himself to gauge the possible impact of the late pope on Evangelicals. The book is graced with two forewords—by J. I. Packer and Avery Cardinal Dulles.
The Legacy of John Paul II is divided in three parts, the first setting the context for Evangelicals’ evaluation of John Paul II, the second examining the doctrinal teachings of the pope, and the third his teachings on Christian praxis. Except Mark Noll’s introductory essay (“Evangelicals and John Paul II”), the other essays summarize and discuss John Paul II’s twelve encyclicals and one apostolic constitution (.i.e., Ex corde ecclesiae).
In his introductory overview Mark Noll, who also contributes another essay on John Paul’s Ecclesia de Eucharistia and who is now Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame, chronicles the change of attitude among a great number of Evangelicals as evidenced in the pages of Christianity Today, from a wholesale condemnation of the supreme leader of the Roman Catholic Church as the antichrist to a deep and sincere appreciation of John Paul II as the moral and spiritual leader of Christianity and of the world.
The remaining essays discuss each of John Paul II’s writings, pointing out where Evangelicals would appreciate the pope’s teaching and where they would respectfully disagree with him. Derek S. Jeffreys evaluates John Paul II’s first encyclical Remptoris hominis, focusing on John Paul’s personalistic philosophy which affirms the human person as self-possessing and self-determining and his challenge to the current dominance of biotechnology. Michael Beaty and C. Stephen Evans examine at great length and with deep sympathy Fides et ratio and its position on the role of faith and reason in the Christian university. Clark H. Pinnock studies John Paul’s theology of the Holy Spirit in Dominum et vivificantem. Tim Perry reprises his reflections on Mariology in his evaluation of Redemptoris mater. Mark Noll shows how Ecclesia de eucharistia is very close to the Lutheran Augsburg Confession of 1530 and yet can sound strange to Evangelical ears. William J. Abraham presents an insightful critique of the doctrine of papal infallibility as an epistemological problem in connection with Ut unum sint. Andrew J. Goddard studies Veritatis splendor, especially its bible-based methodology. Nancy R. Pearcey examines Evangelium vitae, especially in dialogue with Herman Dooyeweerd. Mark Charlton carries out well the task of evaluating two encyclicals rather than one, Dives in misericordia and Solicitudo rei socialis. Ronald Sider also examines two encyclicals, Laborem exercens and Centesimus annus, focusing on their teaching on work and economics. Terrance L. Tiessen examines John Paul’s teaching on mission in Redemptoris missio. Peter Kuzmic studies the concept of inculturation as proposed by John Paul’s less-known Slavorum apostoli celebrating the legacy of Cyril and Methodius. Finally, David Lyle Jeffrey examines John Paul’s apostolic exhortation Ex corde ecclesiae and compares it to the Baylor 2000 and notes the common hostilities to both documents. The book ends with a short epilogue by Timothy George who very generously accords John Paul the title of “Our Common Teacher.”
By any measure The Legacy of John Paul II is an extraordinary book. It is not only an eloquent tribute to John Paul II’s philosophical and theological acumen, charismatic leadership, and deep spirituality but also a testament to his powerful influence on ecumenical unity. Another quality that is rare in collections of essays by different authors is that all the essays in this volume are without exception distinguished by fairness, rigor, and depth. Those wishing to understand John Paul’s thought will find here a reliable guide. Unfortunately, because the book limits itself to John Paul’s encyclicals, it has not taken into account the pope’s arguably most significant achievement, namely, his dialogue with other religions, in particular Judaism and Islam. Of course, John Paul’s “legacy” that the authors examine is exclusively theological in the broad sense of the term. It does not cover his pastoral impact on the life of the Catholic Church as a whole. Those critical of this aspect of his legacy—and these are mostly Catholics—may note how his episcopal appointments during his long pontificate were not to the best interests of the church, how his handling of the clerical sex abuse left much to be desired, and how his theological understanding of women has stymied a full deployment of their gifts and roles in the life of the church. There is a Vietnamese proverb which says that only those lying under the blanket can know if there are bedbugs. Evangelicals who may be tempted by this justly admiring portrait of John Paul II “to cross the Tiber” would do well to pause and listen to the voices of those Catholics who have suffered under his pontificate. Then they will come in with eyes wide open and will help the Catholic Church become truly catholic.