Proclaiming and Explaining the Faith. A Follow Up.
Earlier this year The Wanderer published an article I wrote explaining the distinction the magisterium is now making between the way the faith is or should initially be “proclaimed” to arouse belief and assent in people who have never heard of it before, and then is subsequently explained when the new believers start to ask questiions, the two processes going under the names of kerygma and didache.
The idea that such a distinction would be a useful contribution to the new evangelisation arose in certain circles at the time of Vatican II and was later taken up by Popes Paul VI and St John Paul II . An important text is Pope Paul’s Evangelii Nuntiandi. It was felt that anyone hearing the Christian ‘good news’ for the first time should receive the basics as first proclaimed by the apostles. This would avoid giving the impression that the faith was a system of ideas dependent for assent on logic and reason rather than a message from heaven about a supernatural mystery or mysteries depending for acceptance on grace from God’s side and good will and faith on the part of the listeners.
As St Paul puts it in his 1st epistle to the Corinthians: “We teach what Scripture calls the things that no eye has seen and no ear has heard, things beyond the mind of man, all that God has prepared for those who love him. These are the very things that God has revealed to us through the Spirit.”
To some extent this has been how missionaries have first preached the faith to new peoples down the ages. They didn’t and don’t begin by explaining what St Thomas Aquinas had to say about the real presence, or Blessed Duns Scotus about the Immaculate Conception. As Bl. John Henry Newman puts it in his Apologia: “The apostles in the Acts… do not preach the high doctrines of Christianity but only ‘Jesus and the Resurrecton’ or ‘repentance and faith.’” He is explaining the principle of economy in preaching. You give as much or as little as is appropriate in the circumstances or to the audience. Also to be remembered is the fact that today those hearing the Christian good news for the first time include large numbers of the inhabitants of the once Christian west who are as ignorant about Christianity as Africans or Hindus would have been before the arrival of the first missionaries.
I therefore thought it might be useful to make a little survey of how we find the good news proclaimed in the Acts of the Apostles. The Epistles provide material too. But I shall only refer to them briefly, partly so as not to make this article too long, partly because the epistles already contain doctrinally developing material. In response to the neophytes questions, doctrine and theology are already beginning to take shape in them.
All this is worth a long and serious study by qualified experts which indeed may already be underway. This is just a brief introduction to the subject.
So here goes. In Acts, all or nearly all our examples of apostolic proclamation come from St Peter and St Paul and there is naturally a difference in the way they address Jews and Gentiles. Their relationship with the Jews, inevitably if tragically, tends to be more polemical, in a way that for the most part it is not with the Gentiles because of the organised opposition of the Jewish leadership. We see this particularly in the case of St Stephen.
For the Jews much or most of what the apostles were saying was not a novelty. They, the Jews, were expecting a Messiah. The novelty lay in the claim that Jesus of Nazareth, whom their leaders had just put to death, was the Messiah foretold by the prophets, and had proved it by rising from the dead, a fact of which they, the apostles, claimed to be the God-ordained witnesses.
All this was proclaimed by Peter to the crowds who witnessed the descent of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, and subsequently, after his arrest, to the Sanhedrin. When the people say to Peter ‘Brother, what must we do?’ he replies : ‘Repent and be baptised, everyone of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.….save yourselves from this corrupt generation.’ So a pre-condition for acceptance by the Messiah is repentance for sin followed by forgiveness. Just being a Jew is not enough.
Also worth noting is the degree to which, throughout the book of Acts, the apostles’ proclamation of the faith is backed up by miracles, just as it has continued to be down the ages right to the present. The discovery of this was a key factor in my own conversion. God is not embarressed by the idea of using miracles to confirm what he is saying or scared of scandalising sceptical universty professors by it, any more than he was of upsetting the Sanhedrin.
After healing the cripple at the Beautiful gate of the Temple and being taken before the Sanhedrin, Peter tells them : “It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth…. that this man stands before you healed. Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.” The Good News is in the first place a message about repentance, the forgiveness of sins and salvation, or eternal happiness after death with God in heaven, all of it worked for us by Jesus.
Later St Paul insists on the same point to the people of Antioch in Pisidia: “Therefore, my friends, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. Through him everyone who believes is set free from every sin, a justification you were not able to obtain under the law of Moses.”
In Chapter 10 of Acts we have the first account of the faith being brought to the Gentiles. I am referring to the story of how the devout centurion Cornelius of Caesarea had a vision of an angel telling him to send for St Peter who was at Joppa, while at the same time St Peter at Joppa was having a vision directly from God in which, to St Peter’s surprise, God tells him that He wants the ‘Good News’ to be proclaimed to the Gentiles as well as the Jews.
When St Peter reaches Caesarea, conducted by Cornelius’s servants, he finds a large and devout gathering waiting to meet him.
“I now realise,” he says to them, “how true it is that God does not show favouritism, but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.” He then goes on to speak of the “good news of peace through Jesus Christ who is Lord of all” and how Our Lord commanded his witnesses, the apostles, “to preach to the people and testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead”, adding that ‘all the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” While he is still speaking the Holy Spirit comes down on all his listeners, making it impossible for St Peter’s Jewish companions to object to their being baptised.
Most of the rest of our knowledge of the apostolic kerygma in Acts comes from the accounts of St Paul’s three missionary journeys.
A point that has always interested me about the first two of these is how on two occasions he begins with a bit of natural theology to prepare the ground for his message of salvation. I refer to the incidents at Lystra in Asia Minor or what is now Turkey on his first missionary journey, and in Athens on the Areopagus during his second missionary journey. In the first he was addressing simple country people, in the second what was probably the most sophisticated audience in the Mediterranean of that time.
At Lystra, you will remember, when he worked a miracle his audience decided that he and Barnabus must be gods and tried to offer them sacrifice. The horrified St Paul rushes into the crowd shouting “Friends, why are you doing this? We too are only human”, and he follows this with a little discourse telling them to turn away from idols to the “living God who made the heavens and earth and the sea and everything in them.” If in the past “he let all nations go their own way” he has not left himself without testimony, giving them rain from heaven and food “to fill their hearts with joy”.
What seems to me most remarkable here is that the greatest Greek philosophers like Plato and Aristotle had difficulty in rising to a pure unequivocal concept of the Creator as we know himfrom divine revelation. Yet St Paul takes it for granted that with good will the simplest souls can know him from his works.
However, as you will remember, before he can get any further the local Jews turn the crowd against him. He and Barnabus are stoned, left for dead and the next day leave for Derbe so that for the time being the people of Lystra remain ignorant of the Good News.
In Athens things go better. He is taken to the Areopagus to explain what he has been preaching elsewhere in the city about Jesus and the resurrection. Addressing the Areopagus would have been a bit like being asked to address the Senate or Supreme Court in Washington today.
Here again he prefaces what he has to say about Our Lord with a little homily about “the God who made the world and everything in it and does not live in temples made by human hands”. It is one of the most perfect and beautiful summaries of what men of good will and upright heart can know about God without a supernatural divine revelation as well as about the absurdity of idolatry.
Only towards the end of his homily does he come to the kerygma. In the past, he says, God overloooked our ignorance. “But now he commands all people to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. And he has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”
This time, although some of his audience sneered, others said “We want to hear you again on this subject,” and became his converts.
Worthy of notice too is that the faith is by this time already spoken of as 'The Way'. Belief cannot be detached from practice.
However probably the best examples of the manner in which St Paul habitually proclaimed the faith are the three passages now used as canticles in the breviary from the epistles to the Philippians, Colosseans and Ephesians, They are so vivid you can almost hear the apostle speaking and together form the first and most perfect of all Christologies.
We must also remember that as time went by the apostles’ preachings would have included everything we know about Our Lord which eventually found its way into the Gospels; his parables, his discourses, all he said and did during his public life. This at least would have been true of the original eleven plus St Matthias, if less so of St Paul the ‘one born out of due time'.
To sum up we can perhaps say that chief characteristics of the apostolic proclamation are that it is above all Christ-centred, that it is about a supernatural mystery founded on verifiable historical facts, that it involves repentance and the putting on of the “new man”, that in spite of this, or even more because of this, it is a message of joy promising a reward of eternal happiness for ever in the next life for those who remain faithful,and that it is to be spread to all mankind.
What we do not find in the kerygmatic period, if such a term is allowable, is an unstructured free-thinking Christian community or a proclamation of the Good News which is a happy-go-lucky free-for-all. Indeed we see exactly the opposite. We see the apostles, particularly St Paul, engaged in a continual struggle to establish and maintain their authority as the divinely authorised guardians of the Good News and rulers and guides of the Christian community who are to spread it. Pardon me for saying so. Already there is orthodoxy and heterodoxy.
Equally we cannot, I think, say at this point whether the distinction between kerygma and didache, or the initial proclamation and subsequent teaching of the faith will become a permanent feature of the Church’s theology and practice, or whether it is merely an approach which she finds useful for the present. I incline to think it could be the former. It can be an antidote at any time to the faith being presented in well or long-established Christian communities in too rationalistic a way; in other words in a way that makes it sound like just another philosophy or ideology among the many competing today for the attention of our contemporaries.
Copyright © Philip Trower 2014
Version: 14th May 2014