What the Pope Said That Upset So Many

The next time George Bush is watching Fox News and sees himself being burned in effigy in a foreign country, one of his staff needs to tell him, “Don’t take it much to heart, Mr. President. They do the same thing to the Pope!” At the risk of writing for little interest on this website, I thought I would explain what all the fuss is that the Pope stirred up in Regensburg and what that means to Bible-believing Protestants.
photo courtesy of Norbert StaudtPope Benedict is the most astute German Catholic theologian alive today. He was speaking to Catholic theologians and theology students at a German university when he struck such a negative chord. Picture a host of conservative Evangelicals gathering at Westminster Seminary to hear D.A. Carson, who happens to quote a passage on Jihad from the Koran, and you have the idea. Pope Benedict was speaking as a theologian to theologians. The controversial part of his lecture was a quote from the Byzantine emperor, Manuel II Paleologus (1394-1402), as follows: “Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” Benedict was using parts of a discussion recorded centuries earlier to argue for the fact that the Christian faith (including conversion) is not irrational but rather based on what is rational. God is rational, so conversion must be reasonable, not forced (for the entire text, see this link).

The first reactions to this quote came a full two days later. There just are not that many news people who sit alert through theological lectures, much less get excited about their content. But come the reaction did, and it has in part been violent. The Vatican has since apologized three times, saying that the Pope had no intention to offend the sensibilities of the Muslim world. Joseph Ratzinger, the theologian, well understands the importance of intellectual accuracy and the blending of ancient problems with contemporary events. As a theologian, he was masterful in Regensburg, but as Pope Benedict he should have known he would arouse a reaction with his quote. Perhaps he did.

To the Germans, Dr. Ratzinger is the most human of all popes they have known. On the one hand, the German Catholic bishops pronounced to him on his throne that he is “the Successor of Peter” and “the Visible Representative of Jesus Christ.” On the other hand, in the cathedral the German people saw him as a quiet, smiling intellectual, robust for his age, standing without his miter before a lectern. To the delight of everyone, he said that his sermon would depart from his written text, which they could all get a copy of anyway when it is printed. As much as the liberal wing of the Catholic Church opposed the election of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger to Pope, they have to admit that they now have an affable, convinced, charmingly modest, intellectual heavyweight at the helm. He will gather many of the wandering back into the Catholic fold and perhaps a good many Protestants with them: controversy or no.

As a conservative, one cannot help but be pleased to hear Dr. Ratzinger argue for the reasonableness of the Christian Faith. He does so not from the authority of his papal chair but as a thinker, summoning a host of arguments. His grasp of philosophy and theology, all the way from Plato through Harnack to Jacques Monod, and his ability to synthesize concepts are indeed impressive. Dr. Ratzinger is a leading apologist for Christian thinking. Since he is Pope Benedict, atheists and secularists are going to have fits with him for the rest of his tenure.

But lest we smile too broadly, we need to know what Dr. Ratzinger believes. In his lecture, he explains true Christianity as a blending of purified Greek thought with biblical faith. The first departure from this, what he calls the true form of Christianity, was the Protestant Reformation with its emphasis on sola scriptura. Though nicely and respectfully stated, Pope Benedict could not have been farther from the truth. As Tertullian addressed the matter of Greek thinking and biblical faith, he asked, “What does Jerusalem have to do with Athens?” The Bible alone is the way to Jesus, the Son of God.

I am afraid much of modern-day Protestantism has little grasp of the error I mention and will be fully persuaded toward approachment with Rome–from the German Protestant bishops who so highly praised Pope Benedict, to the “Jesus-never-did-a-miracle” theologians of Liberalism, to the average American Evangelical, so nurtured in Gospel light, cheap grace, and experience-dominated faith. The charming German intellectual heavyweight, with his 1.2 million adherents, who truly believes in the teachings of his church and is not afraid to say it, will outdo any appeal of the market-oriented church, spawned in and from North America. People know it. Protestant preachers worldwide, if they care at all, if they have the courage at all, are going to have their work cut out for them in the years ahead. They will have a difficult task explaining that the Bible alone, faith alone, and grace alone will get sinful man into heaven, especially when so many of them have carefully avoided the topics of sin and hell altogether.

One German Lutheran clergyman was recorded in the press as saying that the tour of Pope Benedict in Germany “is surely making Jeff BrownMartin Luther turn over in his grave!” but he had it wrong. A seismograph placed near Luther’s tomb, that has been recording increasingly severe rumblings from within for decades, has registered a sudden and sustained pause. And though the old man hasn’t spoken since his homegoing in 1546, I would interpret him thus: “This fellow Benedict is giving us the same papal doctrine that I fought against so hard for so many years. But at least he is intellectually honest, and I have been waiting a long time for that.”


Jeff Brown was born in Muncie, Indiana and studied Biology at Ball State University (Muncie, IN). After college, he trained for the ministry at Central Baptist Theology Seminary (Plymouth, MN). He is also pursuing a Ph.D. at Central. He has served as a teacher, a pastor in Michigan for seven years, and a church-planting pastor in Germany for 17 years. He and his wife, Linda have four grown children.

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