Not long ago, Pope Benedict XVI made a personal donation to the restoration of the Basilica of St. Augustine in Annaba, Algeria, the site of the ancient town of Hippo Regius, where the greatest theologian of the ancient church served as bishop from 395 to 430. It was here on September 26, 426, that Augustine met with his flock to name his successor as the bishop of Hippo, the presbyter Heraclitus.
Looking back over his long life of service in the church, Augustine ruminated, “How long old age may be prolonged is uncertain . . . . I came to this town—for such was the will of God—when I was in the prime of life. I was young then, but now I am old” (Ep. 213, 1). He wanted to spend the rest of his days, Augustine said, in prayer and the study of the Scriptures (Ep. 213, 6).
Popes are not allowed to choose their successor, though Benedict and his predecessor have chosen all the people who will choose his successor. However, one suspects that the precedent of Augustine’s retirement was not absent from the pope’s thinking as he considered how he could best fulfill his calling during his remaining days on earth.
Pope Benedict was once asked which two books he would take with him to read on a deserted island. His answer was the Bible and Augustine’s Confessions—precisely the two I would choose (though I would also like to sneak in Luther’s two catechisms and Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, and maybe a Baptist hymnal).
As he retires to his monastic retreat near St. Peter’s to devote himself to meditation, prayer, and reflection, the Holy Father—we can still call him that until February 28—will not be restricted to such a limited canon. With the Vatican library at his fingertips, its inventory increasingly online for the newly computer-savvy pope, Benedict will perhaps continue to serve the church by fulfilling his first calling as a theologian, a vocation he received prior to his summons to serve as bishop, cardinal, and pope.
Soon after Benedict emerged as the surprise choice of the most recent papal conclave in 2005, I wrote an essay on why Evangelical Protestants, among orthodox believers of all persuasions, should be pleased at his election. I summarized the promise of his new pontificate in five points. I emphasized that:
• he takes truth seriously, an antidote to what he called on the eve of his papal election “the dictatorship of relativism”;
• his theology is Bible-focused, building on the declaration of Vatican II that “easy access to sacred Scripture should be provided for all the Christian faithful”;
• his message is Christocentric, boldly asserting that Jesus Christ is the divine Son of God and the only Redeemer of the world;
• he is a fierce champion of the culture of life, advocating for the most vulnerable members of the human community, the children still waiting to be born.
To these four items I added a fifth: Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger is an Augustinian. Those familiar with his intellectual biography will find no surprise in this statement. As he himself noted, “I have developed my theology in a dialogue with Augustine.” His doctoral dissertation was on “The People and the House of God in Augustine’s Doctrine of the Church.” His Habilitationsschrift was on the great medieval Augustinian Bonaventure, whose theology he found more agreeable than that of Thomas Aquinas. His bent toward Augustine was early and deep, arising in part from his encounter with the thought of Martin Buber, whose personalism he found both winsome and in keeping with the gospel.
Benedict’s Augustinian orientation has led him to emphasize the triumph of grace in God’s salvific work in Jesus Christ. If St. Augustine is the doctor gratiae (doctor of grace) then Pope Benedict has been the papa gratiae par excellence. As Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Joseph Ratzinger played a key role in the historic Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (1999), the most important ecumenical statement since Vatican II.
The Joint Declaration was a statement of differentiated consensus that left many important issues remaining to be resolved. However, for the first time since the sixteenth century, Catholics and Protestants were able to say together, “By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and received the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works.”
Other motifs from St. Augustine that have marked the pontificate of Benedict XVI are the priority of love (the theme of his first encyclical) and the coinherence of faith and reason. Protestants, especially those with Barthian proclivities, might want to ask whether the pope’s emphasis on reason has fully taken on board the reality of human sinfulness and the (other) Augustinian idea that concupiscence corrupts not only the body and the will but also the mind.
Theological anthropology is one of the loci on which confessional Protestants and traditional Catholics still have different emphases. But who can deny the pope’s understanding of reason as a good gift of God, something to be harnessed in the service of faith, and used to advance the common good including the stewardship of creation. The churches of the East have found a common platform with “green” Pope Benedict on this point.
St. Augustine is the granddaddy of us all. Pope Benedict has done the entire church a great service by inviting us to become a “traveling companion” with the most contemporary of the ancient Fathers. Benedict is the greatest theologian to become pope since the Reformation. The only other pope to come close in comparable depth and breadth is Leo XIII (1878–1903). When we become students in the school of Pope Benedict we sit at the feet of St. Augustine.
The New Evangelization to which he has called the church includes a strong focus on Christian unity, a renewed commitment to religious freedom, and the unshackled proclamation of God’s good news, news that the world is literally dying to hear afresh: that the almighty Creator of all that is has acted in space and time to reveal himself in nature and history and to redeem the world through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. For his bold advocacy of this truth, Evangelical Christians, with all believers everywhere, must say Grazie Santit!
As Augustine lay dying in August 430, the Vandals had already reached the coasts of North Africa and were pillaging the city of Hippo. Augustine had the penitential Psalms printed in large letters, and he prayed them constantly as his eyes dimmed and his world fell apart. The world has grown old with age, he said.
This is something Augustine’s disciple, Pope Benedict, also knows. He affirmed this on Ash Wednesday by receiving the mark of the cross on his forehead, a sign of true humility and mortality—but also a confession of the deepest meaning of the paschal mystery: that if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17). In this Lenten moment, both Benedict and Augustine admonish the church, in the words of the great saint: “Do not refuse to be rejuvenated, united to Christ, even in the old world. He tells you: Do not fear, your youth will be renewed like that of the eagle” (Serm. 81, 8; Is. 40:30–31).
Timothy George is the founding dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University, general editor of the Reformation Commentary on Scripture, and a fellow for the Center of Baptist Renewal.
Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.