Book Review: The Apostles – by Pope Benedict XVI


The actual full title of this book is “The Origins of the Church, The Apostles and Their Co-Workers.” It was actually a fairly light read compared to most Benedict XVI books that I’ve read. Very profound, but not as academic. Which was nice for the average fella’ like me.

It gives you all the good stuff on each of the Apostles – which was cool. For the most part, when we read scripture and other historical accounts of the early Church, we get fragmented bits about each of the Apostles. This book dedicates a separate chapter to each of these men and pulls all of these fragments together to paint as clear a picture as we can of them.

Additionally, Benedict offers some great insights into what we uniquely learn from each of the Apostles and how we can apply it to our own lives in Jesus Christ.

My favorite part about this book, though, was not how much we get to know about each of the Apostles personally (which is essential), but how it places the Apostles into the context of salvation history. And it explains how that salvation history is not something from the past that we study – it’s something in the present that we experience and share in.

If we study the Apostles as simply holy men called by Jesus to kick off this whole “Christianity” thing in the past then we’re missing out. And if we only see them as important because they happened to be inspired to write the New Testament of the Bible then we’ve missed the entire point.

The story of the Apostles is the greatest reminder that Jesus did not transcribe a book of scripture for us. He did not simply leave an instruction manual for future generations to just pick up and read. Yes, scripture is one way we come to know Christ, but it is inevitably (in a sense) secondary to the source from which it sprang – the Church.

Jesus gave us a Church – a Church bound to Himself in the most intimate of ways. So intimate that we can not take one without the other. So intimate that the Church mysteriously is His Body. Benedict speaks to it this way:

“In a certain sense we can say that the Last Supper itself is the act of foundation of the Church, because he gives himself and thus creates a new community, a community united in communion with himself.

In this light, one understands how the Risen One confers upon them, with the effusion of the Spirit, the power to forgive sins. Thus, the Twelve Apostles are the most evident sign of Jesus’ will regarding the existence and mission of his Church, the guarantee that between Christ and the Church there is no opposition: despite the sins of people who make up the Church, they are inseparable. Therefore, a slogan that was popular some years back, “Jesus yes, Church no,” is totally inconceivable with the intention of Christ. This individualistically chosen Jesus is an imaginary Jesus.”

So our connection to Jesus is not simply an ambiguously spiritual one that occurs between the individual and Jesus in isolation from everybody else. It is a real human one, connected by our very humanity all the way back to the Apostles and to Jesus himself. It is only through that human connection that we receive the sacraments. It is only through that human connection that we receive Sacred Scripture. It is only through that human connection that we receive Sacred Tradition. It is this human connection that is the Church. This is what Jesus founded.

So when the Church talks about “Tradition” this is what it means. Benedict speaks to it beautifully:

“Tradition is not the transmission of things or words, a collection of dead things. Tradition is the living river that links us to the origins, the living river in which the origins are ever present, the great river that leads us to the gates of eternity. And since this is so, in this living river the words of the Lord are ceaselessly brought about: ‘I am with you always, to the close of the age.'”

Apostolic succession took on a whole new depth for me after reading this book because it’s not just about how we can historically trace our current pope back to Peter the Apostle (which we can). It’s about even more than that. Apostolic succession is about the literal, unceasing communion of the Holy Spirit with the Church over time. This is a key part of the mystery of Christ being present with us “always, to the close of the age.”

Hence, another cool part of this book is the way that Benedict connects the Apostles to the rest of us. First, he shows the mysteriously bound relationship between Christ and his Church – built upon Peter and his Apostles. Then he explains how these Apostles shared their mission with the rest of us – through us, in fact. Of course, many of them have interesting stories of how they did this individually. But Benedict devotes the final third of the book to the “Co-workers” of the Apostles.

The Apostles did not live in a bubble. They recruited helpers along the way, started churches and preached the Gospel to others…who then shared it with others. So we see the continuation of the Church in this way. It is only through such continuation that we are able to know Jesus as we do today – through our communion with the Church and therefore with each other.

“[The Church] could grow not only thanks to the Apostles who announced it. In order to take root in people’s land and develop actively, the commitment of these families, these spouses, these Christian communities, of these lay faithful was necessary in order to offer the ‘humus’ for the growth of the faith. As always, it is only in this way that the Church grows.”

2 comments Add comment

Joe Jordan December 19, 2008 at 10:08 am

Thanks for the suggestion Matt. I was looking for a good book for a stocking stuffer for Valerie this Christmas and after reading your recommendation, I ordered it yesterday. I’m hoping she’ll let me read it when she’s finished. It sounds great.
Thanks & have a very blessed & merry Christmas!

Becky December 19, 2008 at 10:14 am

This really is a great book! Jason used it a lot as a resource when he was teaching the youth group about the Apostles.

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