K:JNWTS 28/3 (December 2013): 32-33

Book Review

Joseph Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives. New York: Image, 2012. 144pp. Cloth. 978-0385346405. $15.41.

Joseph Ratzinger (otherwise known among Roman Catholics as Pope Benedict XVI) presents his third book in a series on Jesus, though it is the first chronologically, about the birth of Christ. The book contains a number of interesting references to biblical scholars and their interpretations of the infancy narratives. We are told about various views of Isaiah 7:14, “the virgin shall be with child”. Ratzinger rejects all attempts to find the fulfillment of this prophecy in the historical period of Ahaz. Its only fulfillment is in Jesus of Nazareth. The biblical scholars he sights also open up possible echoes of the Old Testament in the New. Some of these are intriguing. And he speaks of the kingdom of God. Yet Ratzinger misses the semi-eschatological nature of the kingdom, especially its vertical transcendent character. This is no surprise, as the Roman Catholic “priesthood” and its sacerdotal form of worship repristinates the Old Testament economy. In fact, it makes it an end in itself, producing the idolatry of the mass. Ratzinger himself does not shy from suggesting continuity between the present priestly caste and the Old Testament priesthood.

Other elements of Roman Catholic piety are evident in the book such as his Mariolotry and his overemphasis on the internal moral disposition of the Biblical characters. Drawing on this focus, he also states that Jesus did not come to critique the piety of the Jewish people. Here he may be following the post-Vatican II embrace of various religions. Even if this is not the case, this claim is too simplistic. The Son of God did accept the worship of the faithful among Israel such as Simeon and Anna. Still, he brought that piety to its fullness with the sending forth of his Spirit at Pentecost. And Christ clearly criticized the false piety of many in Israel, such as the scribes and Pharisees, based as it was in human merits.

His Roman Catholic view of grace is also evident. When it comes to interpreting Luke 2:14, he rightfully notes the moralizing perspective of the translation of the Latin version, “men of good will”. However, with his appeal to free will, he then rejects the Augustinian approach to grace, leaving us with a form of Semi-Pelagianism. In fact, he even quotes Bernard to the effect that God was waiting on the response of Mary in faith to solidify the virgin birth through her womb. This is preposterous! And Augustine would have said so.

It may at least seem that Ratzinger defends the historical reliability of the gospels narratives for he reaffirms this several times. However, he then quotes Karl Barth to support the historical nature of the virgin birth and resurrection as unique miraculous acts. But Barth himself did not believe that these events look place in history, but only in the Kantian noumenal realm, here understood as a transcendent Geschichte.

Thus, while this book contains some interesting reflections on the infancy accounts from noted Biblical scholars, those insights can be found in standard commentaries. And because of our other reservations above, we do not suggest it for a lay audience. The king who came lowly in a manger did so because he was turning the cosmos upside down, bringing a kingdom in which the proud of this age would be humbled—and those humbled before Christ’s throne in heaven would be exalted. This king possessed in himself a transcendent kingdom—not of this age. From there he offers grace—both justifying and sanctifying— to lead those trusting it to heaven. And thus, he brings low all establishmentarian religions which boast in human merits. Glory be to thee alone, Lord Christ.

—Scott F. Sanborn