Kneeling Theology: Believing in Order to See Scripture

At the very center of the thought of Joseph Ratzinger, both as pope and as a private theologian, is an awareness of the absolute necessity of the conversion of one’s whole self to Christ within the wider communal life of the Church. According to Lieven Boeve, conversion is for Ratzinger “the most fundamental structure of the Christian faith . . . In almost all of his writings from the 1960’s to the 1980’s this theme surfaces over and over again.”[1] It is an essential element of the Christian state of life, because at the heart of Christianity stands the person of Jesus Christ, the Christian’s recognition that he is not Christ, and the incessant clarion call that one must become more and more subsumed into Christ’s very life and person. And, if one hears and accepts the call to conversion and commits the whole of one’s self to God time and again, then by the grace of God one acquires a certain holiness of life.

Faith, conversion, and holiness, then, all go hand-in-hand with one another. A faith without conversion is a dead faith, a shell of its true form, and is incapable of attaining its proper end of sanctification and divine life, which begins even now here on earth in baptism and the life of sanctifying grace. Without the believer committing herself to undergoing the at times harrowing process of spiritual purification and growth in selfless love, there is no assimilation to the life and person of Christ; there is no holiness.

The holiness to which all are called is surprisingly simple and is end to which all are called by God, which is not to say that it is easy for any given person. But, nonetheless, it is resplendent and sublime in its simplicity and universal calling.

Holiness, the fullness of Christian life, does not consist in carrying out extraordinary enterprises but in being united with Christ, in living his mysteries, in making our own his example, his thoughts, his behavior. The measure of holiness stems from the stature that Christ achieves in us, in as much as with the power of the Holy Spirit, we model our whole life on his.[2]

Although all Christians are called to assimilate their life to Christ, this calling pertains especially to the person of the Catholic theologian precisely because the nature of his work depends immediately upon it. The theologian’s task touches directly and explicitly upon the very reality that the call to transformation in Christ is ordered, which entails entering ever more deeply into the Divine Economy of Salvation, “the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things” (Eph 3:9). Theologians do not have a greater dignity than non-theologians, nor is their task any more objectively important than the fundamental call to love God above all else and others in God, which is the universal calling of all Christians. Rather, it is incumbent upon the theologian to actually believe in Christ, to have divine faith, and to grow in holiness for all of the same reasons as every other baptized member of Christ’s faithful in addition to the fact that the nature of the theologian’s work demands it.

To know and to live the mystery and plan of God revealed in Christ does not directly pertain to the civil engineer’s ability to calculate the weight limitations of a given structure, for example, or to the doctor’s ability to heal his patient of whatever ails him, although it certainly is important for his ability to consecrate the good work that he does to God so as to become the saint that God created him or her to be. However, to know, live, and develop a certain connaturality with the mystery of God revealed in Christ is directly pertinent to the theologian’s ability to theologize well with respect to the divine mysteries because it is itself the very object of his work. And, so, it is incumbent upon the theologian to do theology “on one’s knees,” as Hans Urs von Balthasar once famously wrote. Ratzinger expresses this same fundamental truth in his own way by writing:

Theology is based upon a new beginning in thought which is not the product of our own reflection but has its origin in the encounter with a Word which always precedes us. We call the act of accepting this new beginning “conversion.” Because there is no theology without faith, there can be no theology without conversion.[3]

Without conversion there is no theology because theology springs from the life of faith, and there is no faith without conversion. Because holiness is the end goal of faith and conversion, one can readily see that there exists an intrinsic relationship between the requisite conversion and holiness of the theologian and the work of theology that she performs for the good of the Church and the world. To put the matter simply: theologians must be spiritually conformed to Christ in order to truly do the work that theology demands both well and fruitfully.

In the remainder of this essay I outline this fundamentally Christian and Ratzingerian idea, which has, broadly speaking, come under some scrutiny recently in the work of Paul Griffiths[4], by examining the manner in which Ratzinger sketches his own account of this basic truth in various places throughout his theological corpus. This theme can be found in those parts of his work wherein he examines the centrality of prayer and conversion, the nature of theology and its dependence upon faith, and, finally, the Bible and its relationship to Christ and the Church. In short, because prayer is that act by which we come to know most fully who Christ is and can thereby be assimilated into his life. To truly do theology in the fullest sense, that is, to “think with assent,” entails undergoing a constant conversion and growth in holiness so as to enter more deeply into the very mystery of the Divine Economy revealed in Christ, which is the central mystery that the theology examines, the scriptures manifest, and the Church proclaims.

The Role of Prayer and Conversion

According to Ratzinger, it is axiomatic that like is known by like: “By nature, knowledge depends on a certain similarity between the knower and the known.”[5] What Ratzinger is speaking of here is a truth of extensive religious and philosophical heritage; it is the idea that in order to truly know a given aspect of reality, one must disciple oneself to it, so to speak, and develop an empathetic attitude toward it so as to allow the object of inquiry to manifest the depth of its nature in a manner that corresponds to its fundamental identity. This is in contrast to the Enlightenment myth of the autonomous self whose reasoning remains both impervious to all that would corrupt the integrity of “pure reason” and is wholly self-sufficient in its exercise of reason apart from tradition, sentiments, and revelation. In opposition to such an account of human reason, Ratzinger writes, “In matters of the mind and where persons are concerned . . . knowledge calls for a certain degree of empathy, by which we enter, so to speak, into the person or intellectual reality concerned, become one with him or it, and thus become able to understand.”[6]

For Christianity, the fundamental act by which we can develop this necessary empathy is prayer. This is because prayer is fundamentally an act of divine communion and relationship, and Jesus Christ is, as the divine Son of God, defined by his relationship and prayer with the Father and the Holy Spirit. So, then, it makes complete sense that in order to know Christ beyond what the contents of scripture and the Church’s faith can objectively convey, then one must enter into his prayer. Along these lines, Ratzinger once said the following in a 1982 address in Rio de Janeiro:

Where there is no relationship with God, there can be no understanding of him who, in his innermost self, is nothing but relationship with God, the Father – although one can doubtless establish plenty of details about him. Therefore a participation in the mind of Jesus, i.e., in his prayer, which… is an act of love, of self-giving and self-expropriation to men, is not some kind of pious supplement to reading the Gospels, adding nothing to knowledge of him or even being an obstacle to the rigorous purity of critical knowing. On the contrary, it is the basic precondition if real understanding, in the sense of modern hermeneutics – i.e., the entering-in to the same time and the same meaning – is to take place.[7]

What is significant to recognize here is that prayer and, by extension, the faith and conversion from which prayer springs, do not grant the believing theologian some new revelation that remains inaccessible to non-believers. This would be Gnosticism, and Ratzinger will have none of that. Instead, what the life of faith, conversion, and prayer provide for the believing theologian is “the basic precondition if real understanding . . . is to take place,” without which false renderings of Christ spread like weeds. In this regard Ratzinger is consistently quite critical of all re-constructions of the “real” historical Christ set in deliberate opposition to the Christ of faith, which oftentimes simply re-presents the face of the reconstructionist behind the endeavor.

For Ratzinger, then, it is only the converted and prayerful believer, the one who has allowed his life to become conformed to the life of Christ in holiness, that has the necessary foundation to acquire true understanding of he who is in himself the interpretive “key” to the whole of the scriptures and all of revelation. This is because to attain true knowledge of Christ requires that there exist the transparency of faith, without which Christ himself remains inaccessible and obscured by alien approaches, and with him the very nature of Christianity.

The Nature of Faith and its Relationship to Theology

What has been said above flows immediately over into Ratzinger’s understanding of the nature of theology and its relationship to faith, since all that was said of prayer, conversion, and holiness can be said of faith, which is the spiritual substructure underlying the whole of the Christian life. According to Ratzinger, theology is “thinking with assent” and the “path of theology is indicated by the saying ‘Credo ut intelligam,’”[8] which means “I believe so that I might understand.” In these descriptions of theology, Ratzinger is expressing the authoritative character of revelation and faith, which necessarily precedes any rational reflection upon it. This is because—contra rationalism—revelation entails a communication by God of the divine mysteries through words and deeds, which can never in themselves be made wholly transparent to unaided human reason. This is why revelation always necessitates the response of faith. It is only through trusting in the authority of God and believing in the revelation that he has made known that revelation as such becomes accessible without abandoning its inner nature to a foreign ideology or a merely human philosophical interpretation.

Here, again, can be seen the connection between prayer-conversion-belief and the acquisition of a true understanding of Christian revelation. Faith must always precede theology, belief must always precede understanding, or else the very supernaturality of the faith is abandoned for something wholly natural and human, which can be comprehended by reason alone. If in fact the substance of revelation is truly of a divine character, then faith and the believer’s growth in holiness and love are the necessary prerequisites to growth in knowledge and understanding, which is ultimately the task of theology proper. As Ratzinger once wrote, “The person who prays begins to see; praying and seeing go together because – as Richard of St. Victor says – ‘Love is the faculty of seeing’. . . All real progress in theological understanding has its origin in the eye of love and in its faculty of beholding.”[9] And, so, as was mentioned above, “Because there is no theology without faith, there can be no theology without conversion,” that is, there can be no genuine understanding of the faith without love of God and faithful adherence to his Word.

The Person of Christ as the Interpretive Key of the Bible

This brings us to the final area of consideration of this essay. Revelation is not communicated to the believer through a direct illumination of the mind, but instead it comes to the believer only through the mediation of Christ through the Church. “Faith comes from what is heard” (Rom 10:17), as St. Paul wrote. Because Christ has ascended to the “right hand” of the Father and no longer walks the earth as such, the Christian’s access to Christ and the content of the New Covenant established in him is granted only through the living witness of the Church, her tradition, and the sacred scriptures. Each of these realities exists in a fundamental unity and has an essentially Christological form. Within this sacred triad, the scriptures occupy a place of central importance, since they are the words of God communicated by the divine Word of God and are the standard against which the whole substance of the faith must ultimately be measured on this side of the eschaton. The scriptures, then, taken as the Word of God speaking in and through the words of man, reside at the very center of the work of the theologian as that which the whole of his endeavor seeks to be but a commentary and a reasoned exposition.

The scriptures, however, are not self-interpreting. This is especially clear with respect to the writings of the Old Testament, which can only be understood rightly in light of the Christological hermeneutic found in the New Testament. However, according to Ratzinger, the New Testament itself requires a “rule” by which it alone can it be rightly understood. This is the hermeneutic of faith proclaimed by and found in the Church even before there existed the written books and letters of the New Testament canon. Concerning this Ratzinger writes:

Since the inner unity of the books of the New Testament, and that of the two Testaments, can only be seen in the light of faith’s interpretation, where this is lacking, people are forever separating out new components and discovering contradictions in the sources . . . It is the one who “gathers” with Jesus, who works against the process of scattering, ruin and dismemberment, who finds the real Jesus.[10]

This is because “On the basis of its inner structure, the Word [of Scripture] always comprises a surplus beyond what could go into the book.”[11] This “surplus” is the very reality of Christ that the Church proclaims and the scriptures speak of but are not in themselves, strictly speaking, identical. This is why Christianity is not a religion of the book but of the divine Word of God. The very idea that the scriptures are themselves wholly unambiguous, granting full and immediate access to the divine reality of which they speak and are oriented, has had to be abandoned, says Ratzinger, “on account of both the structure of the Word and the concrete experiences of scriptural interpretation.” “It is untenable on the basis of the objective structure of the Word, on account of its own dynamic, which points beyond what is written. It is above all the most profound meaning of the Word that is grasped only when we move beyond what is merely written.”[12]

To “move beyond what is merely written” means, for Ratzinger, to consider scripture within the wider framework of divine revelation. “For revelation signifies all God’s acts and utterances directed to man; it signifies a reality of which Scripture gives us information but that is not simply Scripture itself. Revelation goes beyond Scripture, then, to the same extent as reality goes beyond information about it.”[13] The reality that is “beyond” scripture is, of course, the divine Word of God who became incarnate in Christ. However, the risen Christ, who is the fullness of divine revelation, remains inaccessible to all who would approach the scriptures without faith precisely because the scriptures are themselves neither revelation tout court, nor are they self-interpreting. It is not that one cannot read about and comprehend in some manner the person of Christ as he is found in the gospels, but, rather, one lacks the ability to adequately apprehend him as the divine savior and the interpretive key of the whole Bible without faith.

He continues, “You can have Scripture without having revelation. For revelation always and only becomes a reality where there is faith . . . It is a living reality that requires a living person as the locus of its presence.”[14] Ultimately, what this means for Ratzinger is that the truth about which the scriptures are meant to speak remains inaccessible without the living faith and witness of the Church that is herself their co-author along with God. Scripture, the Church, and Christ, then, form an inseparable divine triad, each of which is necessary if divine revelation is to be communicated to Christians of every age. Without the faith of the Church, scripture remains a dead and unintelligible “letter.”

There is a duality of sorts at play here, which is in itself a dynamic and fundamental unity. This duality consists of the objective faith of the Church (the fides quae creditur) and the personal life of faith of the Christian (the fides qua creditur), which is the requisite disposition that is incumbent upon the theologian to have in order for him or her to accurately apprehend the true nature of the objective content of the faith. This has been made clear in light of what has been outlined above with respect to the understanding gained from prayer, faith, conversion, and holiness of life. For Ratzinger, it is only through a living fides qua creditur that the fides quae creditur is really made known and, by extension, that the scriptures are understood according to their true nature.

Only through the experience of a living faith, of a life of authentic belief, conversion, and holiness, can the theologian himself enter into the very reality about which she seeks to make more fully known and loved. Ratzinger recognizes that without faith one can “doubtless establish plenty of details about [Christ]” and can successfully undertake the task of contributing valuable historical, literary, and philosophical knowledge upon which theology proper depends. However, when performing the most central tasks of theology, it is essential that the theologian work from a believing heart conformed to the life and mind of Christ so that he or she can be free from any limitations that would handicap their work. “There can be no theology without conversion,” Ratzinger contends, because “Speaking about God and speaking with God must always go hand in hand.”[15]

[1] Lieven Boeve, “Conversion and Cognitive Dissonance: Evaluating the Theological-Ecclesial Program of Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI,” Horizons 40(2): 245. The majority of Ratzinger’s academic writings were completed during this time period, since in 1977 he was appointed as bishop of Munich and Freising and in 1981 as prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which greatly decreased his opportunities to publish scholarly work.

[2] Pope Benedict XVI, General Audience of April 13h, 2011, accessed on the Vatican website:

[3] Joseph Ratzinger, The Nature and Mission of Theology, trans. by Adrian Walker (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1995), 57.

[4] Paul Griffiths, The Practice of Catholic Theology: A Modest Proposal (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2016). Griffiths makes the point in a number of places that personal faith and holiness of life are not necessary attributes of the scholar who undertakes the work of theology. For example, he writes on pages 22-23 that “Those who aspire to do theology, to talk and write about the LORD, need not love the LORD; they need not even take what they say and write to be true. They may perform theology, with skill and passion, under the rubric of mention rather than use, as an enterprise that seems to them experimental or fictional. And they may do so with a high degree of skill.”

[5] Joseph Ratzinger, Behold the Pierced One: An Approach to Spiritual Christology, trans. Graham Harrison (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1986), 25.

[6] Ratzinger, Behold the Pierced One, 25.

[7] Ibid., 26.

[8] Joseph Ratzinger, “What in Fact Is Theology?” in Pilgrim Fellowship of Faith: The Church as Communion, trans. by Henry Taylor, eds. Stephan Otto Horn and Vinzenz Pfnur (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2005), 31.

[9] Ratzinger, Behold the Pierced One, 27.

[10] Ibid., 44.

[11] Ratzinger, “What in Fact Is Theology?,” 32.

[12] Ibid., 34.

[13] Joseph Ratzinger, “The Question of the Concept of Tradition: A Provisional Response” in God’s Word: Scripture-Tradition-Office, eds. Peter Hunermann and Thomas Soding, trans. Henry Taylor (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2008), 51.

[14] Ratzinger, “The Question of the Concept of Tradition,” 52.

[15] Joseph Ratzinger, “The New Evangelization” in Communio 44 (Summer 2017): 397. This article was originally an address given on December 12, 2000, during the Jubilee of Catechists and Religion Teachers.

Featured Image: Zurbaran, St. Lucy, c. 1640; Source: Wikimedia, PD-Old-100.


Jordan A. Haddad

Jordan Haddad, Ph.D., is a Professor of Dogmatic Theology at Notre Dame Seminary and the President of the St. Louis IX Art Society.

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