Towards an Apocalyptic Catechism
What would an ecumenical, Reformed, and apocalyptic exposition of the Christian faith look like?
On the subjective character of most catechetical writing
Ursinus wrote that
A Christian catechism is a brief and clear explanation of Christian doctrine, adapted to the intellectual capacity of the uninstructed, drawn from the writings of the prophets and apostles, and divided into definite questions and answers.1
The Heidelberg Catechism (1563), one of the Three Forms of Unity, consists of 129 questions and is divided into three parts: Of Man’s Misery, Of Man’s Redemption, and Of Thankfulness. Calvin’s 1541/1545 Catechism saw the innovative use of the question and answer sequence, which had been used earlier by Luther in 1529 and by Bucer in 1534 and 1537. A small introduction crowns 373 questions arranged into four sections: Faith, the Law, Prayer, and Word & Sacraments. The first question, posed by a “Minister,” is “What is the chief end of human life?” The response, supplied by a “child,” is “To know God.”2 The Anglican Catechism of 1549/1559, a “generic document emphasizing the Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer” in fact begins by asking the candidate what their name is, followed by asking who it was that gave the candidate this name:
My Godfathers and Godmothers in my Baptism; wherein I was made a member of Christ, the child of God, and an inheritor of the Kingdom of heaven.
The third question poses yet an even more interesting inquiry: “What did your Godfathers and Godmothers then for you?” To which the candidate responds:
They did promise and vow three things in my name. First, that I should renounce the devil and all his works and pomps, the vanities of the wicked world, and all the sinful lusts of the flesh. Secondly, that I should believe all the Articles of the Christian Faith. And thirdly, that I should keep God’s holy will and commandments, and walk in the same all the days of my life.
Finally, the fourth question asks “Dost thou not think that thou art bound to believe, and to do, as they have promised for thee?” The candidate then responds:
Yes verily; and by God’s help so I will. And I heartily thank our heavenly Father, that he has called me to this state of salvation, through Jesus Christ our Savior. And I pray God to give me his grace, that I may continue in the same unto my life’s end.3
In all three documents, we see an emphasis on the subjective character of the Christian life and the personal, even ontological, state in which people find themselves before the eyes of God and one another. In Calvin’s case (as in the WLC), the first question is about teleology: the chief end of human life is the knowledge of God.
The Heidelberg Catechism famously begins with
Question 1. What is thy only comfort in life and in death?
That I, with body and soul, both in life and in death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ, who with His precious blood has fully satisfied for all my sins, and redeemed me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me, that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head; yea, that all things must work together for my salvation. Wherefore, by His Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me heartily willing and ready henceforth to live unto Him.4
It is my individual comfort, in life and in death, that is at stake here vis-à-vis my relation to God. The word for “comfort” in the question—Was ist dein einziger Trost im Leben und im Sterben? in German—can also be understood in the sense of consolation. I am affectively consoled by the truth that I belong to Christ, who is my faithful savior. The Anglican Catechism referenced above links the catechumen to a family lineage, a genealogical reception. One’s identity as a Christian is therefore connected to concepts of familial piety and the obligations of blood ties.
Even in the 1979 (rev. 2007) “An Outline of Faith Commonly Called the Catechism,” in the Book of Common Prayer (published by the Episcopal Church), the first section focuses on “Human Nature.” The six questions under this rubric usher in concepts that, left undefined, would raise problems, both for theological thinking in general and for the most recent scholarly findings in New Testament studies, studies on Paul the Apostle, and “apocalyptic” as a literary genre.
Q. What are we by nature?
A. We are part of God’s creation, made in the image of God.
Q. What does it mean to be created in the image of God?
A. It means that we are free to make choices: to love, to create, to reason, and to live in harmony with creation and with God.
Q. Why then do we live apart from God and out of harmony with creation?
A. From the beginning, human beings have misused their freedom and made wrong choices.
Q. Why do we not use our freedom as we should?
A. Because we rebel against God, and we put ourselves in the place of God.
Q. What help is there for us?
A. Our help is in God.
Q. How did God first help us?
A. God first helped us by revealing himself and his will, through nature and history, through many seers and saints, and especially through the prophets of Israel.5
Christian disciples in the twenty-first century, who have not been adequately catechized, without a firm grasp on the precise connotations and denotations of terms like “nature,” “image of God,” “freedom,” or “help in God,” risk entertaining ideas about God, about themselves, and about the world that do not lead to an increase of the gifts of the Spirit, the flourishing of the world, or “tikkun olam” (the repair of the world).
In his commentary on the book of Genesis, Bonhoeffer writes that
There is no possible question that could go back behind this God who created in the beginning. Thus it is also impossible to ask why the world was created, what God’s plan for the world was, or whether the creation was necessary. These questions are exposed as godless questions and finally disposed of by the statement: In the beginning God created heaven and earth. The statement declares not that in the beginning God had this or that idea about the purpose of the world, ideas that we must now try to discover, but that in the beginning God created. No question can go back behind the creating God, because one cannot go back behind the beginning.6
Furthermore, he writes that
The world exists in the midst of nothing, which means in the beginning. This means nothing else than that it exists wholly by God’s freedom. What has been created belongs to the [free] Creator. It means also, however, that the God of creation, of the utter beginning, is the God of the resurrection. The world exists from the beginning in the sign of the resurrection of Christ from the dead. Indeed it is because we know of the resurrection that we know of God’s creation in the beginning, of God’s creating out of nothing. The dead Jesus Christ of Good Friday and the resurrected κύριος of Easter Sunday—that is creation out of nothing, creation from the beginning. The fact that Christ was dead did not provide the possibility of his resurrection but its impossibility; it was nothing itself, it was the nihil negativum. There is absolutely no transition, no continuum between the dead Christ and the resurrected Christ, but the freedom of God that in the beginning created God’s work out of nothing.7
Using our imaginations, we ought to contemplate the radical freedom of God to be who he is, principally as the one who creates in sovereignty, freedom, and loving-kindness. Paradoxically, the Christian who would “begin at the beginning” errs, primarily because we, as human beings, “cannot speak of the beginning.” The thinking human being begins in media res: in the midst of anxiety. Even though “the desire to ask after the beginning is the innermost passion of our thinking,” we come to the conclusion that “[where] the beginning begins, there our thinking stops; there it comes to an end.” We can never truly grasp the beginning because “the beginning is the infinite, and because we can conceive of the infinite only as what is endless and so as what has no beginning.”8 Bonhoeffer tells us that “Humankind knows itself to be totally deprived of its own self-determination, because it comes from the beginning and is moving toward the end without knowing what that means. This makes it hate the beginning and rise up in pride against it.”9
My suggestion is that much theological prolegomena beholden to Lutheran soteriology and traditionally Reformed notions of “creation/fall/redemption” attempt to begin “with the beginning” (even though this is impossible) rather than with the Christ-event. We learn what “[coming] from the beginning and…moving toward the end” means only in the measure that we are commanded and commissioned by God in the address of love from the vantage point of the cross.
Inspired by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Karl Barth, and the “apocalyptic turn” in New Testament studies (particularly by the work of Martinus C. de Boer, Beverly Roberts Gaventa, and Douglas A Campbell), I seek to collaboratively construct a new catechism that avoids giving pride of place to subjective, anthropological responses to what are primarily cosmic phenomena.
The groundwork for this project has already been accomplished by cutting-edge scholarship in New Testament studies. I am thinking in particular of these works:
Matthew Thiessen’s Jesus and the Forces of Death: The Gospels’ Portrayal of Ritual Impurity within First-Century Judaism
Matthew Croasmun’s The Emergence of Sin: The Cosmic Tyrant in Romans
Douglas A. Campbell’s Pauline Dogmatics: The Triumph of God’s Love; The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul; and Framing Paul: An Epistolary Biography; among other publications.
Beverly Roberts Gaventa’s Apocalyptic Paul: Cosmos and Anthropos in Romans 5-8 and Our Mother Saint Paul
John M. G. Barclay’s Paul and the Gift
Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen’s Christ and Reconciliation (vol. 1 of A Constructive Christian Theology for the Pluralistic World)
Martinus C. de Boer’s Paul, Theologian of God’s Apocalypse: Essays on Paul and Apocalyptic
Jonathan T. Pennington’s The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing: A Theological Commentary
Philip G. Ziegler’s Militant Grace: The Apocalyptic Turn and the Future of Christian Theology
The structure of an apocalyptic catechism
The first place my mind goes to when thinking about the structure of a new catechism is the constellation of theological priorities that would undergird a self-consciously ecumenical, Reformed, and apocalyptic outlook. Some of these include the following:
Beginning in media res: the first word of the first sentence of our new catechism is Christ, the key apart from whom the theological enterprise would be pointless
Affirming the absolute objectivity of the covenant of grace (Eph. 2:1, Col. 2:13)
As human participants in God’s story, we are collectively reconciled to Christ, our federal head, in an act of cosmic liberation that could best be described as monergistic reconciliation, or monergistic universalism
Boldly reaffirming the creator-creature distinction in the face of recent (and well-argued) attempts by some universalists to inscribe a metaphysics of panentheism
Rejecting theosis but affirming participation in Christ
Affirming the victory of Christ in this “present evil age”
In Jesus Christ the victory over the powers of darkness was forever secured and…the whole world is now claimed for his kingdom. […] [The] efficacy of this victory extends throughout human history in the ongoing struggle against sin and its consequences. Despite the unfaithfulness of every man, Christ ‘creates in the history of every man the beginning of his new history,’ the opening up of a new horizon to which man himself may still be oblivious.10
Affirming what the community of Christ knows in the “present evil age”
The Christian community knows (1) that it owes its origin and continuation to a very definite power, to the constant working of which it is totally directed for its own future. The power of its own human and creaturely being and action, which it also has, is not to be recognised in this basic power, nor is any other power which it might even partially control. It can only acknowledge, recognise and confess it as the free power of God which does in fact establish and direct it in superiority from without.11
The Christian community knows (2) that what it can do and effect and accomplish of itself in its human and creaturely spontaneity, as empowered by the power of the Holy Spirit, can consist only in its confession of Jesus Christ. To confess Him is its business. This includes many things in many different forms. The one thing which includes the many and by which it is established and nourished is the simple fact that it exists as the assembly of those who commonly confess Jesus Christ.12
The Christian community knows (3) that its confession of Jesus Christ as the distinctive action for which it is empowered by the Holy Spirit can only be, in all its human and natural spontaneity, a grateful response to the fact that first and supremely Jesus Christ has confessed it, does confess it, and will continually do so. It is its own free action, yet not an arbitrary but an obedient action. It is a venture of the first order, yet not an independent or unauthorised venture, if among all the many lords in question it confesses Him as the Lord of all lords, if substantially and decisively it chooses to remember and vindicate and proclaim Him alone.13
A subsequent post will include more concrete suggestions for the structure of this new catechism.
Otto Thelemann, An Aid to the Heidelberg Catechism, trans. M. Peters (Reading, PA: James I. Good, D. D, Publisher, 1896), ix.
Recall also the Westminster Larger Catechism’s (1647) first question. “Q. What is the chief and highest end of man? A. Man’ s chief and highest end is to glorify God, (Rom. 11:36, Cor. 10:31) and fully to enjoy him forever. (Ps. 73:24–28, John 17:21–23).” (cf. The Westminster Larger Catechism: With Scripture Proofs. (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1996)).
Compiled and introduced by James T. Dennison, Jr. in Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries in English Translation: Volume I, 1523–1552. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Reformation Heritage Books), 547.
Heidelberg Catechism, Heidelberg Catechism, Revised Edition (Cleveland, OH: Central Publishing House, 1907), 19.
The Episcopal Church, The Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments and Other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church (New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 2007), 845.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall: A Theological Exposition of Genesis 1–3, ed. Martin Rüter, Ilse Tödt, and John W. de Gruchy, trans. Douglas Stephen Bax, vol. 3, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004), 31–32.
Donald G. Bloesch, Jesus Is Victor!: Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Salvation (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2001), 60.
Karl Barth, Geoffrey William Bromiley, and Thomas F. Torrance, Church Dogmatics: The Doctrine of Reconciliation, Part 3.2, vol. 4 (London; New York: T&T Clark, 2004), 786.