Commentary: Theology:


Christian Faith, Philosophy and Science

Against the Background of the Present Ecumenical Discussion

By Dr. Arnd Hollweg

Berlin, Germany



[Editor’s Note: The Journal of Global Issues & Solutions presents academic and scholarly papers covering a broad range of disciplines, including Theology. This paper is oriented toward the Christian faith and the Editor welcomes additional papers discussing other faiths for publication in this Journal].



God’s Presence in our Life on Earth.


“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” (Matth.13: 44)


Every biblical word connects innumerable people on all continents with each other, and at the same time with their concrete local congregations. The Greek word for oikumene really means “the inhabited earth”. The word of God therefore is a social word in a global setting.  It does not belong to any one church alone but to all people.  There are no divisions in the word of God. It concerns everyone in his or her concrete situation; the eternal God speaks in it through the working of his Spirit.  Those who open their hearts to it will find the treasure mentioned in the parable.


I myself have discovered this treasure under rather unpleasant external circumstances, when I was a prisoner of war and was reading the Bible with a simple old man in a ragged uniform.  All at once I heard God’s voice in me, which changed my life. That was all.  There was no priest, no church, no doctrine, and no sacrament.  I do not even remember what we talked about.  And yet this meeting is permanently etched into my memory.  I felt freed from the demonic bonds in which the war and the Holocaust had entangled me.


When I returned home from my captivity fanatic Nazis had all of a sudden turned into whiter-than-white democrats who ruled over us in their offices as professors, judges, teachers etc. They no longer remembered what had happened earlier. Through my family I had earlier belonged to the Confessing Church and, even as a 12-year-old, had known what had been happening in the concentration camps. Jewish fellow pupils had been expelled from our school.  In my class we discussed our experiences with the Nazi “Reich” (empire) every day.  Together with Catholic friends I distributed the sermons that the bishop of Muenster, von Galen, had preached against euthanasia. In the daily struggle to survive I became a perfect liar and, as an anti-aircraft auxiliary and front-line soldier, participated in the killing of people.


God’s Place in the History between the Generations.


When the next generation asked us what had happened earlier, they didn’t get an answer.  Later, social sciences explained that, during the reconstruction of their country, the Germans simply didn’t have the time to deal critically with their past. But from the point of view of social psychology it was quite a different matter.  It was suppression. The student revolution of 1968 grew out of the search for historic truth. As leader of student self-help groups at the time I tried to help deal with the generational problems on a psychoanalytical basis. It was astonishing what our generation expected of the one following it.  Everything continued as if nothing had happened.


I was born in the same year as Joseph Ratzinger, some of whose early life was similar to mine: student, anti-aircraft auxiliary, soldier, and prisoner of war.  We all marched in step into death, with the inscription “God with us” on the buckle of our belts.  But thought, also, had to march in step in the time of the Hitler dictatorship, or else we would have had to face concentration camps, torture and execution. Joseph Ratzinger has probably never given much thought to the relation between the religious dictatorship of the middle Ages and the secular dictatorships of the 20th century. His address in Auschwitz deplored the seduction of the Germans by the Nazis. He did not see what the Holocaust meant for its victims, or how Christians had been implicated in it.  His journey to Latin America also served to play down the bloody history of the church.  Hadn’t the church brought the Indians the message of the Kingdom of God, which they had been waiting for?  So why bother about colonialism?


Without the Pope’s claim to domination there never would have been any inner-Christian wars of religion in Europe, which later had their secular extension in the ideological wars of the last century.  In the post-war period the churches started seriously to think about their implication in the European history of domination and violence.  There followed the Second Vatican Council under John XXIII, which opened wide the doors of the church to other churches and to the world.  A dialogue of reconciliation was started, which made it possible for me to celebrate an ecumenical Eucharist in a Catholic church, without any consequences in canon law. That would be impossible today.


Faith and Dogmatic Metaphysics.


What has become of the promising results of the Second Vatican Council, and of the hopes attached to it?  Under the direction of Joseph Ratzinger as prefect of the Congregation for the Faith and as Pope Benedict XVI, small but deliberate steps backwards have been taken until the door to the Protestant churches has now been slammed shut. In the document issued by the Congregation for the Faith which he sanctioned, entitled: Answers to questions concerning some aspects of the doctrine of the church, it says that the Roman-Catholic Church is “the only Church of Christ that we confess in the Creed as the one, holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church”.  This interpretation falsifies the Latin expression used in the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium (Vatican II) “subsistit” and turns it into “est.”.  “Subsistit in Ecclesia Catholica” means that the Church of Jesus Christ is contained in the Roman-Catholic Church;  “est” however means that the Roman-Catholic Church is substantially identical with the Church of Jesus Christ, therefore the only one; outside it there only are some scattered “ecclesial elements”.


Earlier, in his paper Dominus Jesus of the year 2000 Joseph Ratzinger had maintained that the Protestant Churches were “not churches in the true sense because, for reasons of their lack of a sacramental priesthood, they had not preserved the original and complete reality of the Eucharistic mystery”, which is to this day essential for the continuity of the Catholic Church, which finds its unity in the primacy of the papacy.  But the Roman Church is no more identical with the “whole” (i.e. Catholic) Church of Jesus Christ than the word of God in Christ with the metaphysical doctrine by which the Pope tries to claim sovereignty of interpretation of the Bible.


In place of the Church’s readiness to reform itself through a critical inner-church debate about its recent history there is now the desire for absolute domination and exercise of power, together with exclusion.  But the message of God’s love does not mean infatuation with one’s own power and domination.  In his declarations, and the explanations of the contradictions contained in them which always follow, Joseph Ratzinger wants to maintain the sovereignty of interpretation in the life of the church and of society, and preserve an immaculate image of the church in the media.


The explanations of the North American curial cardinal William J.Levada, Joseph Ratzinger’s successor in the office of prefect of the Congregation for the Faith, are not entirely convincing either. Why is he “very surprised” by the opposition to the document on the understanding of the church?  He maintains that he is mainly against the idea, widespread amongst Catholics in the USA, that they could ”make” their own church themselves.  His answer is that “we cannot make the church ourselves.  God creates the Church.  We receive it as a gift”.  But God’s working, faith in Christ and the church as a secular institution are not the same thing.  The church is not God’s kingdom in the civil society of people on earth.



Christian Faith in all Cultures.


The intermingling of God’s rule and secular rule in the metaphysical and doctrinal thinking of the Roman-Catholic church means that Joseph Ratzinger is sweeping the true history under the table of his altar. His un-historical thinking is rooted in the idea of the timeless tradition of a cult in which the Pope acts as Christ’s deputy on earth. This makes it possible for him to assume the role of pioneer in matters that the church still was fighting against until last century. To the amazed public he presents himself as the champion of ecumenism, of freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, reasonableness, human rights, peace, reconciliation etc. whilst what is actually happening in his pontificate runs in the opposite direction.


All his arguments in the ecumenical discussion come down to the conviction that the whole fullness of God only exists in the Roman-Catholic Church. In order to share in this fullness the other Christians will have to return to the primacy of the Pope, which is constitutive for the all Christian life and faith. That is why Vatican II, in the decree Unitatis redintegratio, had introduced the expression “fullness”, which is to describe the unity and Catholicity of the Church.  The church possesses the “fullness of the means of grace” which will have to “become effective also in those sons who belong to her in Baptism but are still separated from her full communion.”  It will have to increase in them until the people of God will, one day “joyfully accede to the whole fullness of eternal glory in the heavenly Jerusalem.”  What is said here about the Roman Church under the papal primacy is, in the New Testament, solely attributed to Christ. John the Evangelist describes it in the prologue to his Gospel, where he writes that, in Christ “God’s word lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth…From his fullness we have received grace upon grace”. (John 1: 14 and 16). Here, as also elsewhere in the New Testament, we have an unequivocal statement of the difference between Christ and the Church.  This difference is abolished when the office of the papacy claims to be Christ’s deputy in its infallible magisterium.


Christian faith however is rooted in the working of God’ Spirit who comes in Jesus Christ to all people. Everybody in any denomination, institution or culture who can share this Biblical confession of faith belongs to the Church of Jesus Christ; this is also true for every Catholic Christian.  Christian faith is always ecumenical.  Therefore we must not assign absolute value to the ancient Greco-Roman culture and turn it into criteria for Christian faith.  In his address in Regensburg the Pope really wanted to establish the absoluteness of the concept of reason in ancient philosophy and not talk about the relation between Biblical and Islamic faith. Our thinking should not be dominated by doctrinal, philosophical or scientific ideas and concepts but by God’s good Spirit who, through His word in Jesus Christ, frees us from these powers and shows us the right way in history. No person, not even the Pope, has access to absolute truth.


We no longer have immediate access today to the historic Jesus. Therefore we cannot derive from Jesus a non-historic, doctrinal image of Christ as Ratzinger has attempted to do in his book on Jesus.  In it he turns Jesus into a God who walks over the earth. The historic Jesus died and, risen, returned to our life through God’s Spirit in order to open the door to our eternal home.  God Himself does this through his Spirit in Christ.  He does not need a pope with an institution of cult and priestly domination to do so.  A Platonic idea of God, a doctrinal Christ and an Aristotelian doctrine of the elements in ecclesiology have nothing to do with the historic Gospel.


Christian Faith and Modern Sciences.


We should not let ourselves be enticed to stray from history into a world beyond time, where we will find neither God nor humans who, on this earth, belong together in Christ.  We must not confuse the Absolute in God, who speaks the last word, with our efforts to give absolute validity to our ideas with which we put ourselves in the place of  God.  That leads to the abuse of the name of God.


The word of God in Christ is historic, social and personal in character, not mental, cultic or collectivist.  When the pope speaks he is not the church but a man who should say “I”.  That is the way the early Christian Apostles’ creed starts: “I believe”.  There follows the Trinitarian creed, which does not deal with metaphysical ideas of the nature of God but with his presence through the working of his Holy Spirit in Christ in our personal and social life in history.  No ecclesial magisterium and no dogma can take its place.  Our “self” with a conscience responsible to Christ and our maturity as Christians are essential in Christian faith.  Without an “I” there can be no “thou”, without a “thou” no “I”, and between them there is God’s Spirit in Christ who works in us and between us.  There we find our home on earth, in our communion with God and with our neighbours.  There is not only enmity but also love.


At the same time this self links us with the social history of modern times, which we often call “secularization”, understood as apostasy from the church and its message.  In reality modern social history developed from the dynamism of the faith of Christian lay persons and scientists who wanted to free themselves from the guardianship of, and intellectual slavery to, a church which ignored the truth of human conscience.  At the beginning of the Reformation there was Luther’s statement “I believe”; at the beginning of scientific understanding Galileo’s “I see”, at the beginning of the formation of theories in philosophy Descartes’ “I think”, and at the beginning of humanism the self of the human individual.  The self of the reformation, of science, philosophy and humanism are dimensions of the holistic and personal human self in its connection with God. For the biblically oriented theologian this raises the question of how these dynamic factors of human life can be brought together today in an anthropological theology.


Christian Faith and Human Projection.


Our self, however, is also powerless, tied up in itself, helpless, full of fear and hopelessness and constantly threatened in its body by pain, illness and death.  But for that very reason we have to resist the projections of people’s longing for salvation, for their sake as well as for ours. The longing for salvation can only be fulfilled in the eternal God.  Jesus and the Apostles already rejected such projections most emphatically, lest we turn ourselves into a deified and absolute authority and change the message of salvation into its opposite.  Jesus fought against such an understanding of leadership by calling the leaders the false shepherds of God’s people.  In leadership we have to distinguish between domination of the social reality and responsibility of leadership.  One can see already today how the media, often manipulated by Opus Dei, are beginning to paint for the public a timelessly divine image of the pope, in which one thinks to hear the voice of the Christian church.  We must declare most emphatically that this does not correspond to our Christian faith.  In the name of the oikumene we owe this to the Christian church.


The concrete local congregation grows beyond its geographical origin into worldwide Christendom on earth in a global setting. At the place where we live we ought to seek God’s presence in the world- wide human society, in his large oikumene.  We must oppose an ecumenical movement which takes the form of an incorporation of Protestant churches into the Roman Catholic Church.  Love cannot be without truth. At the grass-root level ecumenism is no longer a problem.  We can only hope that the official Catholic Church will one day give up its claim to hierarchic domination, which it derives from its notion of a timeless cult and timeless institutions, and return to the sisterly and brotherly nature of the Church of Jesus Christ in all its diversity.  The hidden treasure in Jesus’ parable is the love of the one Creator God for the whole earth inhabited by us human beings, to whom we all owe our life.



Editor’s Note: This commentary was inspired by the publication of a recent paper by Dr. Boghos Zekiyan, as described in Dr. Hollweg’s cover letter to the Editor, as follows:


Dear John,


In your letter in the last-but-one issue of “Journal of Global Issues and Solutions” you wrote that you were looking for themes for the issues for September/October and November/December. Perhaps I can help you fill the gap in your planning for November/December.  I am therefore sending you the enclosed article. It is indirectly connected with the questions raised by Dr. Boghos Levan Zekiyan in his article in the Journal of July/August, which are, for various reasons, of particular interest to me. Dr. Zekiyan gives important insights into the history that led to the genocide in Armenia, which Turkey still hasn’t recognized to this day.


All my life, since the genocide of the Jews in Germany, I have studied genocides. In the missionary work of my church I had a lot to do with genocides in Africa.  The last genocide that I had to deal with was the extermination of the Oromo and, at the same time, the persecution of Christians in Ethiopia under Mengistu. This led to my health breaking down, which unfortunately is a great impediment to my literary work.


At the moment I am mainly studying the question of how much the three monotheistic religions contribute to wars and violence. In my essay I have a critical look at the recent announcements of Pope Benedict XVI on the background of our history. During the period of Nazi empire Protestants and Catholics, united at the grassroots, struggled together against this inhuman system.  Since that time I have always been very active in ecumenical work between Christians, between Christians and Jews and, lately, also between Christians and Muslims.  My criticism of Pope Benedict XVI is based on his denial of the fact that the consequences of the historic wars of religion are still evident today. In his paper on the Tridentine rite and in the statements of the Congregation for the Faith, which he sanctioned, maintaining that the Protestant churches are not “churches in the proper sense”, the Pope is now continuing the counter-Reformation.  My ancestors were Huguenots and were expelled from France by the Catholic Church.  Today I am a German. In the last century Germany and France fought two wars against each other. Today they are reconciled and closely allied in the EU. Therefore war and enmity can lead to peace and reconciliation. That is true also for relations between the USA and Germany. But how can it be that, in the secular world, we are able to overcome enmity and hatred whilst this is not possible within or between the monotheistic religions?


In order to understand the history of the genocides of our time I think that Dr. Zekiyan’s demands are of great importance: we should not see history only unilaterally in terms of enmity and war, but we should see it in a larger and more complex context. This means that enmity and hatred should not blind our understanding.  Dr. Zekiyan rightly reminds us of the many positive relations between Christians and Muslims in their daily lives, which we tend to forget today.  That is also true for his description of the relations between the “tribal family structure” of the Arabs who had migrated into Armenia and the particular feudal structures of the country where they settled.  The conflict between native population and immigrants included the same religious, cultural and social problems which exist worldwide today in a different historic context. In our Western hemisphere the feudal dynasties have been replaced by modern societies whose structures are determined by industry, technology and science.


This raises for me the question of how the Germany of the 19th century, a modern industrial nation with a modern culture and science, could so suddenly relapse into the ethnic phase of history of the distant past?  Scientific theories and theological doctrines were replaced by old Germanic myths that dominated religious instruction in my youth, all centered on an Arian Christ in the form of Hitler.  All these connections have not yet been really investigated. During all the events of that time, right up to the Holocaust, there were virulent conflicts of opinion about how to understand ethnic origins (Hitler’s slogan was: one nation, one empire, one leader).  What was the role of modern science in the historic, social, cultural and religious conflicts?  Today these problems do not only exist locally but also in the context of global development. They centre on the question of the relation between Christian faith, modern science and society in an historic, social and cultural horizon.  Dr. Zekiyan discussed some very interesting perspectives of these questions.


I would be very pleased if you could print my article in one of the future issues of the Journal.  You can use my letter as it seems fit to you, quote from it as needed and pass it on to Dr. Zekiyan.


With all best wishes for your personal well-being and your literary work,

Yours sincerely


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