Somewhere in the personal library of the new Pope, Benedict XVI, is a leather–bound copy of Calvin’s Institutes, and (surprisingly) a copy of my article, “1 Corinthians 15:8: Paul, the Last Apostle.” In the hundreds of stories that will appear about the new pope, this trivial fact will not appear!
In 1988, representatives from the French Reformed Seminary of Aix–en–Provence in southern France where I taught for 18 years, were guests at the Vatican through the auspices of some very orthodox French priests who loved Christ and the Scriptures and who wanted us to visit Rome. We were shown the more protected tourist sites, such as Peter’s tomb and the pagan necropolis under St. Peter’s Cathedral. We were also received in the private quarters of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who at the time was serving his seventh year as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. This same Ratzinger is now Benedict XVI.
Who is Ratzinger? For liberal observers, he is Papa Ratzi, the polarizing, ruthless enforcer, the “papal rottweiler,” disciplining Latin American “liberation” theologians, denouncing homosexuality and gay marriage, and reining in Asian priests who see non–Christian religions as part of God’s plan for humanity. For Bible believers, his courageous positions, made in the light of a deep and informed commitment to biblical theism, have created a bulwark against rising world paganism,.
Who is Ratzinger? Here is my personal testimony, for what it is worth. This very powerful ecclesiastical figure, even then the No. 2 in the Vatican hierarchy, warmly received us, an unimpressive group of French orthodox Protestant/Reformed theologians, for two hours. In the first hour, in fluent French, he gave a magnificent overview of the state of theology and of the dangers of German liberal theology in particular. His critique of Bultmann was superb. We Protestants then took an hour to present the case for orthodox Protestant theology. Cardinal Ratzinger listened with rapt attention. Our time together was not a casual, nor perfunctory “audience,” but a genuine theological exchange. I was impressed by his intellect, by his linguistic ability (fluency in at least five languages), by his theological wisdom and by his openness to biblical theology. As we left, we gave him a bound copy of Calvin’s Institutes,and he graciously accepted my article on the apostle Paul as the last apostle (see photo). Clearly my article did not change his mind about the papacy, but I have it on good authority that he has been reading the copy of Calvin’s Institutes.
So that was that, I thought. However, the next day while sight–seeing in Rome I happened to meet his secretary, a French priest. “How did the Cardinal enjoy our visit?” I asked. Without hesitation he replied: “The Cardinal said he wished there was a seminary like that in the Catholic Church.”
I have rarely thought about that moment, until today. As the presiding Cardinal announced in Latin: “Habemus papam….Josephus…,” I knew it was Ratzinger and I stared at the photo I have had on my study wall for many years, drawn strangely in to an event of global proportions.
I began to put things together.
When Ratzinger said in his homily at a pre–conclave Mass in St. Peter’s, denouncing the essence of paganism: “We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as definitive and has as its highest value one’s own ego and one’s own desires”; when, in his first address from the Vatican balcony he spoke of the “joy in the risen Lord, trusting in his permanent help”; when, in his first papal homily in the Sistine Chapel, addressing all Christian churches, he said: I take this opportunity to send all of them my most cordial greetings in Christ, the only Lord of all”; I did think: “That’s the same Ratzinger I met for those two hours seventeen years ago.”
How do Protestants respond, seeing that Rome often masks the pure Gospel of grace and sometimes places Christ behind Mary and even the Pope? The massive glistening white marble statue of Mary on a hill dominates the city of Santiago, Chile, with the head of the Serpent under her feet, while a small figure of Christ on a little cross below, to the left, is hardly visible.
How do we respond? This morning, Robert Godfrey, historian and President of Westminster Seminary in California (where I am adjunct professor and scholar in residence), ended our daily chapel by announcing the name of the new pope. He then did something few Protestants do. He prayed that the Spirit might lead Benedict XVI into a deeper and fuller understanding of Scripture and the Gospel.
Knowing what I learned about this man in that short but meaningful encounter, surely this prayer is not in vain.