Joseph Ratzinger (Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI), 1: on the Ascension of Jesus, and on Heaven — against Bultmann

This is the twentieth follow-up to the post, “Gagarin and the Seven Heavens“.

The previous posts were not organized well before, so I ordered them; further, they were becoming so numerous, and the text block listing and introducing them was so large, that they were soon going to take up more space than the posts themselves. Thus, I organized and listed them here.

Before the previous Pope of Rome was Benedict XVI, he was Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. He was also the Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for over twenty years, until the death of Pope John Paul II. At the height of his powers, Ratzinger was not just a Cardinal Bishop, but a scholar. It should not be a surprise to find that he wrote an entry in the six-volume English-language reference work of Catholic theology, Sacramentum Mundi, which, as I understand it, was spearheaded & edited by the 20th century giant, Fr. Karl Rahner, SJ. There is a one-volume abridged edition of this reference work, published in 1975. Both contain Ratzinger’s entry on the Ascension of Jesus.

Ratzinger, following Lohfink, notes that the Lukan account of the ascension of Jesus contains the strong element of verification through testimony. The testimony is there for the sake of mission. Nonetheless, Ratzinger suggests that the imagery used to talk about the ascension is something of a painter’s dilemma:

the exaltation of Jesus is already beginning to be revealed, while at the same time including the further idea that this exaltation must of its nature be veiled from the eyes of the world. This Luke expresses [47] by the image of the cloud (Acts 1:9), familiar from the OT theology of the temple, while John includes it in his presentation by the device of fusing the theology of the cross with that of the exaltation both in their existential significance for the theology of history.
[Encyclopedia of Theology: The Concise Sacramentum Mundi, ed. Karl Rahner (New York: Continuum / Burns & Oates, 1975), 46-47, boldface type my addition]

Ratzinger is surely correct to connect the imagery of the cloud in the ascension in Luke-Acts to the temple theology of the Hebrew Bible, but that temple imagery was already cosmological, likely in its origins, and was received as having cosmological significance — even mytho-cosmological significance, as the garments of the high priest were understood to refer to the world serpent, &c.

On a note related to our recent posts on Luther & the ascension, I should add that Ratzinger seems, here, to advocate for something more akin to Luther’s notion of the ascended humanity of Jesus than Calvin & Karlstadt seemed to have affirmed. He writes that “The “sitting on the right hand of the Father” of which Scripture speaks (e.g., Acts 2:33; 5:31; 7:55; Rom 8:34; Eph 1:20; Col 3:1, &c.) signifies rather the human Jesus’ participation in the kingly power of God, and so precisely his authoritative presence in the world and among those whom he has made his own (cf. Mt 28:20).” Ratzinger wrote more on this that seems more in keeping with Luther than his opponents (or medieval predecessors), as we’ll see, below.

I am doubtful that the mythological can be banished as easily as Ratzinger would like. In this entry we also find Ratzinger engaged in the question of whether the Bible displays a tripartite cosmology, something that was brought to the fore of scholarly attention, explicitly and in a sustained way, not later than the early 1940s, in the work of Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976). Bultmann suggested that the preaching of the Gospel should be stripped of the mythology of an outdated cosmology, part of which entailed a tiered universe with the earth in the middle, She’ol and the deep beneath, and heaven above. Ratzinger flatly denies that this is the New Testament conception:

the message of the Ascension as presented in the NT is, so far as its central statements are concerned, completely independent of the so-called “three-storeyed mythical” picture of the world, and hence cannot be “dismissed” along with it (against Bultmann). On the contrary, it opens up a new and positive understanding of the reality called “heaven”, which is totally independent of any theories concerning the structure of the world. What the “Ascension” tells us about heaven is that it is the dimension of divine and human fellowship which is based upon the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus. Henceforth it designates the “place” (in the strictly ontological sense) in which man can live eternal life. Thus the Christian is aware that even in the present time his true life is hidden in “heaven” (Col. 3:3) because, by believing in Christ, he has entered into the dimension of God and so, already in the here and now, into his own future. [Encyclopedia of Theology: The Concise Sacramentum Mundi, ed. Karl Rahner (New York: Continuum / Burns & Oates, 1975), 47]

Heaven as the “place” where “man can live eternal life”, and the “dimension of divine and human fellowship” that is “based upon” the ascension — this is also strongly on Luther’s side against those who affirm a bounded body of Jesus in the sky.

I am skeptical that “hidden in heaven” in Colossians 3 means something other than “tucked behind the dome of the firmament, which is all that your eyes can see — that firmament is a screen for God just as the veil over the holy of holies in the temple is a screen for the ark of the covenant and the mercy seat”. I encourage the reader to look at Colossians 3, and tell me that there is not an ethical and ontological hierarchy that is at the same time a cosmological hierarchy there. It is an error to conflate these, for there is no such cosmological space, nor are there any such cosmological objects. Whether an ethical and ontological hierarchy can survive the death of the cosmological housing is a real question, but we need to be honest that they do not seem to have been separated for the Biblical writers, and, insofar as later fathers of the Church do begin the separation (such as denying that God has a body, even a body of “spirit”), they still engage in a strange cosmological locating of a metaphysical “object”. I fear that Ratzinger is, here, smuggling in a very cool, and still very believable-to-us eschatology (likely following Pannenberg & co.; Pannenberg published Revelation as History in 1968, and the first volume of his Basic Questions in Theology appeared in 1969), purely to obfuscate the defunct cosmology — first, to himself. I have no doubt that he is being sincere. He seems to want to say that the texts are using images and symbols to convey truths that are other than their literal sense. As we’ll see, however, despite claiming, in this entry, that “it would be a misunderstanding of the Ascension if some sort of temporary absence of Christ from the world were to be inferred from it”, he will still defend the location of Jesus’ body in another space besides our own in later writings.

As an afterthought, Ratzinger’s bibliography for this article entry was not terribly impressive, and I leave it here: As a second afterthought to this section, I should say that I own the book by Davies, have acquired the article by Stempvoort, and will likely hunt down both these pages in Rahner’s On the Theology of Death and the entry “Ascension” in the Theological Word Book of the Bible, because I am a compulsive completionist. The tentative plan is to write a review on Davies’ book after I’ve read it.


Header image found here

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