Who is the most widely-read Catholic theologian of our day? A look at Amazon’s best-seller list yields a clear answer: Scott Hahn. Thus, Hahn on Benedict may tell us a great deal about contemporary Catholicism. Hahn’s brief, accessible essay has a title that leads one to expect an overview of the Pope’s theology, or at least his approach to the Scriptures. While the book does highlight some key themes, the book seems to be about how the Pope’s theology supports the key emphases of Hahn’s theological corpus, rather than a careful study of Benedict’s own work.
The book roughly divides into three sections. The early chapters (1-5) focus on the form, rather than the content, of Benedict’s approach to Scripture. Chapters 6-8 provide an account of content, emphasizing “covenant theology” and the Eucharist as sacrifice for the world (which, interestingly, are also the emphasis of two of Hahn’s major works). Chapter 9 is a conclusion directed at the task of the academic theologian using the Bible the way Benedict does, centered on contemplation and being taken up into the beauty and mystery of God. Chapter 9 forms a coda that reiterates perhaps the primary theme of the entire work: the inadequacy of the historical-critical method as an approach to the study of Scripture. The criticisms of historical criticism’s limits are the standard ones: it is reductionistic, it claims to subordinate the text to a scientific methods when it in fact has philosophical presumptions, and it tends to read the biblical text as a set of fragments rather than as a unified whole. But Hahn adds to these the claim that “[t]he overarching error of the historical-critical method, as [Benedict] sees it, is the removal of the Bible from its natural ‘habitat’ in the Church” (35). Benedict, by contrast, emphasizes a “hermeneutic of faith” which “begins in the heart of the Church” (47) and recovers “the original unity of Word, sacrament, Church authority, and tradition” found in the early Church (47). This “Word always leads to the sacraments” which call people into “a covenant relationship with God” which the Church is “to extend…to the ends of the earth – through the preaching of the Word and the making present of that Word in the sacraments” (55). This basic approach is reiterated consistently in the early chapters – by page 91, at the beginning of chapter 5, we still haven’t gotten to content: “We are almost in a position to sketch the fundamental outlines of Benedict’s biblical theology.” In this chapter, we are told that “[t]he basic error of historical criticism here is the decoupling of Word and event” (107), and thus the loss of typology. Typology ends up being the key to Hahn’s explanation of the content, since the covenant relationship described in the Old Testament is eventually expanded and universalized through Christ’s sacrifice, which offers access to genuine worship and, ultimately, to the fullness of God’s Kingdom.
The presence of these themes in Benedict’s work, and especially the importance of reading the Scriptural testimony ecclesially and as a unity, cannot be denied. Moreover, any reader of Benedict’s Jesus of Nazareth will recognize that his approach to biblical scholarship is critical and nuanced, willing to grant insights and yet unwilling to allow such insights to produce some fissure in the theological tradition. The approach is seen even in the early work, Introduction to Christianity, where a young Ratzinger expounds the Creed with careful attention to the historical background of biblical texts.
Yet Hahn’s work here does not do some of the work it needs to, and so ends up feeling a bit like he went through Benedict’s corpus and brought forth abundant proof-texts to fit into his preconceived structure. The book pays scant attention to entire works by Benedict, preferring a method where quotes are drawn from multiple different texts, one after the other, with no context. Such a scattershot approach is constant throughout the book. No attention is paid (as in, say, Aidan Nichols’ excellent study) to the original development of Ratzinger’s work in his study, none at all to the idea that his work has a context within the nouvelle theologie and the reaction to Vatican II. The context-less Benedict then is ripe for an appropriation for Hahn’s project, which sometimes feels like a lot of Catholic-looking body parts dressing up a fundamentally Protestant pietist soul. The particular emphases of this work are clearly Hahn’s: the rejection of historical criticism and the re-linking of Bible to the sacramental life of the Church, as exemplified by the early Church. This is Hahn’s story. And it is surely part of Benedict’s work, but Hahn’s treatment omits key themes. For example, one of the key themes of Benedict’s corpus, from Introductionon to Spe Salvi, is the remarkable integration of the Pauline image of Christ as the “New Adam” or “New Man.” This New Man who is also God is marked most importantly by a going out from self, such that, in Introduction, Benedict can say “the real basic law of Christian existence is expressed in the preposition ‘for’” (Introduction, 251). This entire emphasis on love, which carries through Benedict’s work to the encyclicals, is ignored, save for one extended quote (160), in which Hahn’s comments focus not on love, but on (a) the unity of the Testaments, and (b) the notion of covenant. Yes, these are important notions. But surely the reading here of the extended quote Hahn offers might talk at least a bit about anthropology and about Benedict’s characteristic rejection of Christian individualism. After all, this rejection of pietist individualism and emphasis on love are the central theme of all three of the Pope’s own encyclicals.
None of this is to say that the book is a bad book, nor even to suggest that Hahn’s own project is not vitally worth engaging. It has been all too neglected in many Catholic circles. Hahn is an excellent writer (“verve and clarity” are rightly mentioned by one cover blurb), he has covered a vast and scattered corpus of work, and he makes excellent arguments against historical critics and in favor of connecting the Bible to the Church and her sacraments. Moreover, the book makes an excellent introduction to the theology of Scott Hahn. As an introduction to the shape of Benedict’s work and concerns, however, it is not as helpful.