The Problem of Christian Prophecy
Christianity always carries within it a structure of hope
"It is increasingly urgent that the authentic structure of promise and fulfilment inherent in the Christian faith be presented in a comprehensible and liveable way".
Interview with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger
by Niels Christian Hvidt
To most theologians, the word "prophecy" suggests the prophets of the Old Testament, John the Baptist or the prophetic dimension of the Magisterium. The theme of prophets is only rarely addressed in the Church. And yet the history of the Church is packed with prophetic figures, many of whom were not canonized until later though during their lives they had transmitted the Word, not as their own but as the Word of God.
There has never been any systematic reflection on the particularity of the prophets, on what distinguishes them from the representatives of the institutional Church and how the word revealed by them is related to the Word revealed in Christ transmitted to us by the apostles. No theology of Christian prophecy proper has ever been effectively developed. Indeed, there are very few studies on this problem2.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger addressed the concept of Revelation very early on in his activity as a theologian and to considerable depth. His abilitation thesis on Die Geschichtstheologie des hl. Bonaventura (Saint Bonaventura's Theology of History)3 had had such an innovative impact at the time that it was initially rejected4. At that time, the Revelation was still conceived as a collection of divine propositions. It was primarily considered a question of rational pieces of knowledge. But in his research, Ratzinger found that in Bonaventura the Revelation refers to the action of God in history in which the truth is gradually unveiled. The Revelation is the continuous growth of the Church in the fullness of the Logos5. It was only after this text was notably cut back and re-drafted that it was accepted. Since then, Ratzinger has sustained a dynamic understanding of the Revelation in the light of which "the Word (Christ) is always greater than any other word, and no other word could ever fully express it. Indeed, words partake of the inexhaustible fullness of the Word. For the Word, they open up and therefore grow in the encounter with every generation"6.
Any theological definition of Christian prophecy may only be arrived at within the context of this dynamic concept of Revelation. As far back as 1993, Cardinal Ratzinger was saying that "in-depth research was urgently needed to establish what being a prophet means"7. And this is why we asked the Cardinal to meet us to discuss the theme of Christian prophecy.
In the history of the Revelation in the Old Testament, it is essentially the word of the prophet that paves the critical way for the history of Israel, accompanying it throughout. What is your thinking on prophecy in the life of the Church?
JOSEPH RATZINGER: First of all, let's dwell for a moment on prophecy in the Old Testament. To avoid any misunderstanding, it should be clearly established who the prophet really is. The prophet is not a soothsayer. The essential element of the prophet is not the prediction of future events; the prophet is someone who tells the truth on the strength of his contact with God; the truth for today which also, naturally, sheds light on the future. It is not a question of foretelling the future in detail, but of rendering the truth of God present at this moment in time and of pointing us in the right direction. As far as Israel is concerned, the word of the prophet has a particular function in that, in the sense that the faith is essentially understood as hope in Him who will come. For, a word of faith is always the realization of the faith especially in its structure of hope. It leads hope on and keeps it alive. It is equally important to underline that the prophet is not apocalyptic, though he may seem so. Essentially, he does not describe the ultimate realities but helps us to understand and live the faith as hope. Even if, at a moment in time, the prophet must proclaim the Word of God as if it were a sharp sword, he is not necessarily criticizing organized worship and institutions. His mandate is to counter the misunderstanding and abuse of the Word and the institution by rendering God's vital claim ever present; however, it would be wrong to reconstrue the Old Testament as antagonistic dialectics between the prophets and the Law. Given that both come from God, they both have a prophetic function. This is a very important point to my mind because it leads us into the New Testament. At the end of Deuteronomy, Moses is presented as prophet and he too presents himself as such. He tells Israel: 'God will send you a prophet like me'. What does 'a prophet like me' mean? Again according to Deuteronomy - and I think this is the decisive point - Moses' particularity lay in the fact that he spoke with God as with a friend8. I tend to see the node or the root of the prophetic element in that 'face to face' with God, in 'talking with Him as with a friend'. Only by virtue of this direct encounter with God may the prophet speak in moments of time.
How can the concept of prophecy be related to Christ? May Christ be described as a prophet?
RATZINGER: The Fathers of the Church conceived of the above prophecy in Deuteronomy as a promise of Christ, something I agree with. Moses says: 'A prophet like me'. He transmitted the Word to Israel and he made it a people; with his 'face to face' with God he fulfilled his prophetic mission by leading men to their encounter with God. All the other prophets are in the service of this prophecy and must always deliver the Law anew from rigidity and transform it into a pathway of life. The true and greater Moses is, therefore, Christ himself, who really does live 'face to face' with God because he is his Son. In this bond between Deuteronomy and the event of Christ we can glimpse a very important point for understanding the unity of the two Testaments. Christ is the definitive and true Moses who really does live 'face to face' with God as Son. He no longer simply leads us to God through the Word and the precepts but brings us with him by his life and his passion and by the incarnation he makes us Body of Christ. This means that prophecy is also radically present in the New Testament. If Christ is the definitive prophet because he is the Son, then the Christological-prophetic dimension also enters into the New Testament because of the communion with the Son.
How do you think this emerges in a concrete way in the New Testament? Doesn't the death of the last apostle put a definitive stop to further prophetic claims, excluding any such possibility?
RATZINGER: Yes, there is a thesis whereby the fulfilment of the Revelation marked the end of all prophecy. I think this thesis harbors a double misunderstanding. First of all, it harbors the idea that the prophet, who is essentially associated with the dimension of hope, has no further function for no other reason than Christ is now with us so that hope has given way to presence. This is an error, because Christ came in the flesh and then rose again 'in the Holy Spirit'. This new presence of Christ in history, in the sacrament, in the Word, in the life of the Church, in the heart of every man is the expression and beginning of the definitive advent of Christ who 'fills all things'9. This means that Christianity always tends towards the Lord who comes, in an interior movement. This still happens now though in a different way because Christ is already here. However, Christianity always carries a structure of hope within it. The Eucharist was always conceived as our going to the Lord who comes. It therefore represents the whole Church. The concept that Christianity is already a totally complete presence and that it does not carry any structure of hope within it is the first error to be rejected. The New Testament has a different structure of hope within it but it is still always a radical structure of hope. In the new people of God it is therefore essential to be the servant of hope. The second misunderstanding is the reductive intellectual-type of conception of the Revelation, seen as a treasure of pieces of knowledge transmitted, to which nothing more can be added, totally complete. The authentic event of the Revelation consists in the fact that we are introduced to this 'face to face' with God. The Revelation is essentially God who gives himself to us, who constructs history with us and who reunites us gathering us all together. It is the unfolding of an encounter which has also an inherent communicative dimension and a cognitive structure. This also carries implications for knowledge of the truth of Revelation. Understood in the proper way, the Revelation has attained its goal with Christ because - in those beautiful words of Saint John of the Cross - when God has spoken personally there is nothing more to add. Nothing more about the Logos can be said. He is among us in a complete way and God has nothing greater to give us, to say to us than Himself. But this very wholeness of God's giving of himself - that is, that He, the Logos, is present in the flesh - also means that we must continue to penetrate this Mystery. This brings us back to the structure of hope. The coming of Christ is the beginning of an ever-deepening knowledge and of a gradual discovery of what, in the Logos, is being given. Thus, a new way is inaugurated of leading man into the whole truth, as Jesus puts it in the Gospel of John when he says that the Holy Spirit will come down10. I believe that the pneumatological Christology of Jesus' leave-taking discourse11 is very important to our theme given that Christ explains that his coming in the flesh was just a first step. The real coming will happen when Christ is no longer bound to a place or to a body locally limited but when he comes to all of us in the Spirit as the Risen One, so that entering into the truth may also acquire more and more profundity. It seems clear to me that - considering that the time of the Church, that is, the time when Christ comes to us in Spirit is determined by this very pneumatological Christology - the prophetic element, as element of hope and appeal, cannot naturally be lacking or allowed to fade away.
How is this element present? How does it present itself, for example, in Saint Paul?
RATZINGER: In Paul it is particularly evident that his apostolate, being a universal apostolate directed at the entire pagan world, also incorporates the prophetic dimension. Because of his encounter with the risen Christ, he unlocks for us the mystery of the resurrection and leads us into the profundity of the Gospel. Because of this encounter he develops a new understanding of the Word of Christ, highlighting the aspect of hope and bringing out its critical potential. Being an apostle is, of course, something unrepeatable. The question here is, then, what happens in the time of the Church when the apostolic epoch ends. A passage from the second chapter of the letter to the Ephesians is very important in answering this question. Paul writes that the Church is founded 'upon the apostles and prophets'12. It was once thought that the 'apostles' here meant the Twelve and the 'prophets' those of the Old Testament. Modern exegesis tells us that the concept of 'apostle' must be understood in a broader sense and that the concept of 'prophet' should be referred to the prophets in the Church. The 12th chapter of the first letter to the Corinthians teaches us that the prophets of those days constituted a college. The same thing is mentioned by the Didaché in which this college is still very clearly present. Later the college of the prophets dissolved as institution and certainly not by chance since the Old Testament already shows us that the function of the prophet cannot be institutionalized. The criticism of the prophets is not just directed at the priests but also against the institutionalized prophets. This emerges very clearly in the book of the prophet Amos where he speaks out against the prophets of the kingdom of Israel. The prophets often speak out against the 'prophets as institution', because the place of prophecy is eminently the place God reserves for Himself to intervene personally and anew each time, taking the initiative. Therefore this space cannot properly subsist in the form of a college institutionalized once again. I think it should subsist in a dual form, as has always been the case, after all, in the history of the Church. As far as the first form is concerned, the prophetic claim should always be acknowledged in the apostolic college in the same way as the apostles themselves were prophets, too, in their own way; this, so that it is not just the present that is highlighted in the Church but so that the Holy Spirit proper may always have the possibility of action. This can be observed in the history of the Church in great figures such as Gregory the Great and Augustine. We could mention other names of great personages who held office within the Church and who were also prophetic figures. For this we see that the institutional figures themselves hold the door open for the Holy Spirit. It was only by so doing that these men were able to fulfill their office in a prophetic way, as the Didaché puts it very well. The second form envisages God who, through charisms, reserves for himself the right to intervene directly in the Church to awaken it, warn it, promote it and sanctify it. I believe that this prophetic-charismatic history traverses the whole time of the Church. It is always there especially at the most critical times of transition. Think, for example, of the birth of monacheism, constituted in the beginning by the retreat of Anthony Abbot to the desert. The monks were the ones who saved Christology from Arianism and Nestorianism. Basil is another of these figures, a great bishop and, at the same time, a true prophet. Later, it is not hard to see a charismatic origin in the movement of the mendicant orders. Neither Dominic nor Francis prophesied the future but they did understand that the moment had come for the Church to shake free of the feudal system, to give new value to the universality and poverty of the Gospel, and to apostolic life. By so doing, they gave the Church its true face back, that of a Church fired by the Holy Spirit and led by Christ himself. They represent a new beginning and they thus brought about the reform of the ecclesiastical hierarchy. Other examples are Catherine of Siena and Brigid of Sweden, two great female figures. I think it is very important to stress how, at a particularly difficult time for the Church such as the Avignon crisis and the schism that ensued, female figures rose up to emphasize Christ's claim, Christ who lives and suffers in his Church.