top of page

Beauty and Strength: The Catechism: Part 5

Revelation moves in phases to its climax.

Written By Fr Aidan Nichols. Click here for his Biography.

The authors of the Catechism have just placed their enterprise (No. 53) under the patronage of St Irenaeus of Lyons, who has been called both the first Catholic theologian and the first systematic theologian – though his principal writing, the Against Heresies, is, I would warn prospective readers, far from systematic in its lay-out. Taking as their cue Irenaeus’ leading idea – which runs, God uses historical time to prepare the recipients of revelation for his great gift – the Catechism will lay out the principal stages in this story, a story whose culmination is found in the Incarnation of the Logos. For Irenaeus, I might add, the phrase ‘The Incarnation’ does not refer simply to the events of the Annunciation and the Nativity, the happenings the Church recalls each year on 25 March and 25 December respectively. ‘The Incarnation’, in Irenaeus’ usage, denotes everything that takes place – on the basis of the Annunciation and the Nativity – until the Parousia, the Second Coming of the Lord.

We might, however, wonder in what sense the first ‘phase’ (or ‘stage’) the Catechism records can rightly be called a matter of history. Its authors really do begin at the beginning – with the act of creation and the drama of the proto-parents, to whom the Book of Genesis refers as Adam and Eve. It is plain enough that the act of creation cannot be called in any ordinary sense of the word an ‘historical’ event. Rather it is the event – the primordial cosmic event – which makes possible, at an appropriate point in the development of the universe, the emergence of free agents who can take initiatives – creative initiatives – in what they do with the inherited and environing stuff of this world. To borrow a term from J. R. R. Tolkien (and use it in a sense he did not quite intend), history is when ‘sub-creators’ emerge – those who, like God himself, albeit on a fantastically diminished scale, can venture something entirely new.

But what about the appearance of the proto-parents, the first humans, and everything Genesis has to say about their inheritance and destiny? Can this be called ‘historical’ – in some ordinary sense of that word – if the act of creation cannot be called such? I would answer, Not in the ordinary sense of the word ‘historical’ it can’t, and for a comparable reason to what was adduced for the act of creation itself. The act of creation sets up the fundamental conditions on the basis of which ‘history’ will one day be possible. The emergence of the first human beings, their ‘clothing’ (in the Catechism’s chosen metaphor, No. 54) in grace and righteousness, and their subsequent Fall from such grace and righteousness, this creates the pre-conditions for all subsequent history: for history as we know it. Adam and Eve, therefore, are not un-historical. Rather, they are meta-historical.

The Catechism, however, is not in the business of discussing palaeontology – the study of our remotest ancestors – for its own sake. Its interest lies in how our first ancestors were placed in the perspective of the saving revelation, phased as it is to reach its climax in Jesus Christ. Taking their stand on Dei Verbum, the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation of the Second Vatican Council, the authors of our text speak of how God in his Word – the Logos, in whom all things are not only brought into existence but are conserved in their integrity (here I detect a covert reference to another of the Greek-speaking Fathers, Athanasius the Great) – invited the proto-parents to enter into a communion with himself. This communion, or sharing of life, exceeded (even) those possibilities of union with him (by love and knowledge, compare No. 52) that were given with their human nature in its first creation. For it is a matter of Catholic doctrine that the spiritual capacities – that ‘knowing’ and ‘loving’ again – with which our nature is endowed in its sheer humanity (‘pure nature’) were, from the very word ‘go’, further enhanced by a set of resources that exceeded the range of those capacities (and thus were ‘super-natural’), so that we might know and love God not simply as our Creator but know and love him in the way the blessed do – by entering intimately into the mystery of his own blissful Trinitarian life. The ‘blissfulness’ of that life, indeed, is why the saints are appropriately called ‘the blessed’.

In the ‘Proto-Evangelium’ – the promise, recorded in the third chapter of the Book of Genesis, that a way will be found to undo the Fall of the first parents, and not simply to neutralize it, but to reverse triumphantly its effects – the Lord stands by his initial deed in not only creating human nature but supernaturalising it. The first humans are not withdrawn, then, from the ‘economy’ of salvation, the provisions of God for his household, themselves essentially supernatural in force. They are, however, situated in a distinctly ambivalent place – the place that results from the way the meta-historical events of the engracement and Fall of Adam have set the scene for the rest of human history in its unfolding.

Here the Catechism makes good use of one of the Eucharistic Prayers added to the classic Eucharistic Prayer of the Roman Rite by Pope Paul VI. It is the Prayer ultimately based on the Anaphora of St Basil in its Egyptian (Coptic) form. Man was not ‘abandoned to the domain of death’ – but notice the implication, namely, that he does now belong to that domain. The offspring of the proto-parents were not, though, simply abandoned thereto. That is what the rest of the citation from the Fourth Eucharistic Prayer tells us. ‘Time and again you [God] offered them covenants.’

‘Covenants’: this is the first time we have heard that word, a word so important for much Protestant understanding of the historic revelation that it gave its name to a whole school of Reformed theology – ‘federal theology’, from the Latin word for a covenant foedus. The making of covenants is so vital a feature of the phasing of salvation, as attested in Scripture, that the term could not of course disappear from Catholic theology either. But in the biblical revival in twentieth century Catholic thought the concept of the covenant acquired a much more prominent place than it has historically enjoyed in Latin theology (that maye have been because its Greek name, diathekê, was generally translated by the Latins not as foedus but as testamentum – and hence entered into the European languages as ‘testament’, with its rather different connotations of the will of a testator). The covenant is the particular form that the offer of salvation made by God takes – an offer which consists of gifts both actual and promised, but also of obligations, which may be unconditional.

The ‘phases’ the Catechism will record are indeed defined biblically by their respective covenants – the covenant with Noah, the covenant with Abraham, the covenant with Moses, the covenant with David, all leading up to the ‘new and everlasting covenant’ made between Christ and his Church, and thus between God and the final form humankind will take in the plan of salvation: Ekklesia, the Bride of the Lord.

So far-reaching is the covenant concept for the periodisation of the divine plan that there would be nothing to object to (in fact, there would be a lot to commend) if we spoke of the initial moment in the making of man as likewise a covenant. That would be, then, the covenant with Adam: the most primordial of the covenants not just because it is the first of a series but because (in parallel with the status of the engracement and Fall of Adam as a ‘meta-event’), it is the foundational covenant which sets the scene for all the rest. The only covenant which can compete with it in this regard is the new and everlasting covenant – as St Paul will indicate by calling our Lord Jesus Christ the ‘New’ or ‘Second’ Adam’, the one who both restores the original covenant, made with the ‘Old’ or ‘First’ Adam but also surpasses it. ‘O happy fault of Adam’, sings the Church on Easter Eve in the Exsultet, ‘that earned so great, so glorious, a Redeemer’.

Investigation of those successive covenants, and the wider salvation history which they structure, will be the Catechism’s next task (nos. 56-66).

Fr Aidan Nichol OP

2 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page