By DON FIER
We left off last week reflecting on God’s motive for revealing Himself to us in a supernatural manner. In a word, His sole motive was that of boundless love for mankind. God gratuitously and unconditionally chose to “communicate His own divine life to the men He freely created, in order to adopt them as His sons in His only-begotten Son” (CCC, n. 52). In the words of St. Paul, “[God] destined us in love to be His sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of His will” (Eph. 1:5) in order that it might be possible for mankind to satisfy the innate desire for happiness that is written into our hearts and that can only be fulfilled in knowing and loving God far beyond what our natural capabilities permit.
To provide for this, the divine plan that God established “involves a specific pedagogy: God communicates Himself to man gradually. He prepares him to welcome by stages the supernatural Revelation that is to culminate in the person and mission of the incarnate Word, Jesus Christ” (CCC, n. 53).
First, a definition is in order. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, pedagogy is defined as “the art or profession of teaching.” Divine pedagogy, then, is the manner in which an all-loving, all-wise God teaches mankind. It might be thought of as an attribute of God’s wisdom whereby He communicates His salvific plan to mankind in a way that takes into account mankind’s social and cultural conditions, his stages and levels of maturity, his openness of heart, and many other factors.
In a sense, God spoon feeds mankind information about Himself and His loving plan of salvation, little by little, as man is able to assimilate it. Like a wise father raising his children, God “stoops down” to our level and adapts to our needs. As beautifully expressed in the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation Dei Verbum (DV), He teaches His people with divine condescension: “In Sacred Scripture . . . the marvelous ‘condescension’ of eternal wisdom is clearly shown, ‘that we may learn the gentle kindness of God, which words cannot express, and how far He has gone in adapting His language with thoughtful concern for our weak human nature’” (DV, n. 13).
God’s loving solicitude in teaching mankind is expressed in the General Directory of Catechesis (GDC) in the following way: “God, wishing to speak to men as friends, manifests in a special way His pedagogy by adapting what He has to say by solicitous providence for our earthly condition” (GDC, n. 146). The GDC goes on later to emphasize that “ineffable kindness, providence and care, and condescension are terms which define the divine pedagogy in Revelation. They show God’s desire to adapt Himself to human beings” (GDC, footnote 453). God has condescended and adapted to our humanity to express divine words in human language. The supreme manifestation of the divine condescension is that God, in the fullness of time, took on our human nature.
Paragraph 53 of the Catechism goes on to cite St. Irenaeus of Lyons, an Early Church Father and Doctor of the Church. He “repeatedly speaks of this divine pedagogy using the image of God and man becoming accustomed to one another,” a process that progressively took place during the entire period of the Old Testament. God, through Old Testament figures and events, lovingly prepares His people at a perfect pace, a pace only He in His infinite wisdom can comprehend, for the ultimate Revelation that would come in the person of Jesus Christ. The Liturgy of the Hours contains a beautiful reflection on the divine pedagogy from St. Irenaeus of Lyon’s treatise Against Heresies in the readings put before the Church during the second week of Lent that is well-worth meditating upon:
“From the beginning God created man out of His own generosity. He chose the patriarchs to give them salvation. He took His people in hand, teaching them, unteachable as they were, to follow Him. He gave them prophets, accustoming man to bear His Spirit and to have communion with God on earth. He Who stands in need of no one gave communion with Himself to those who need Him. Like an architect He outlined the plan of salvation to those who sought to please Him. By His own hand He gave food in Egypt to those who did not see Him. To those who were restless in the desert He gave a law perfectly suited to them. To those who entered the land of prosperity He gave a worthy inheritance. He killed the fatted calf for those who turned to Him as Father, and clothed them with the finest garment. In so many ways He was training the human race to take part in the harmonious song of salvation.”
Another Church Father, St. Augustine, also took up the theme of the divine pedagogy in his classic City of God: “The education of the human race, represented by the people of God, has advanced, like that of an individual, through certain epochs, or, as it were, ages, so that it might gradually rise from earthly to heavenly things, and from the visible to the invisible. This object was kept so clearly in view, that, even in the period when temporal rewards were promised, the one God was presented as the object of worship, that men might not acknowledge any other than the true Creator and Lord of the spirit, even in connection with the earthly blessings of this transitory life” (Book X, chapter 14).
Paragraphs 54 through 64 of the CCC walk us through, in an extremely abbreviated fashion, the “epochs or ages” of the Old Testament. Right from the beginning, God revealed Himself to our first parents and immediately manifested His love: “He invited them to intimate communion with Himself and clothed them with resplendent grace and justice” (CCC, n. 54). And even though Adam and Eve rejected Him through sin, God did not withdraw His self-manifestation. Rather, after the fall, God “buoyed them up with the hope of salvation, by promising redemption; and He has never ceased to show His solicitude for the human race” (CCC, n. 55).
The next stage in salvation history recounted in the Catechism is the covenant with Noah. As summarized by Fr. John Hardon, SJ, “after the flood, God made a covenant with Noah by which the stability of the course of nature against catastrophe was assured. . . . It paved the way for the covenant with Abraham and remained active until the coming of Christ.” The Lord later made His covenant with Abraham who became “the father of a multitude of nations” (Gen. 17:5). From him descended the people who “would be the trustees of the promise made to the patriarchs, the chosen people, called to prepare for that day when God would gather all His children into the unity of the Church” (CCC, n. 60).
“After the patriarchs, God formed Israel as His people by freeing them from slavery in Egypt. He established with them the covenant of Mount Sinai . . . [and] revealed His law to them through Moses” (CCC, nn. 62, 72). It was then through the prophets that “God forms His people in the hope of salvation, in the expectation of a new and everlasting Covenant intended for all, to be written on their hearts” (CCC, n. 64). And so, through a gradual and progressive process of Divine Revelation, God prepared mankind for the fulfillment of all the Old Testament prophecies and promises with the coming of the incarnate Word. As the Letter to the Hebrews tells us: “In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days He has spoken to us by a Son, whom He appointed the heir of all things, through whom also He created the world” (Heb. 1:1-2).
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(Don Fier serves on the board of directors for The Catholic Servant, a Minneapolis-based monthly publication. He and his wife are the parents of seven children. Fier is a 2009 graduate of Ave Maria University’s Institute for Pastoral Theology. With the full blessing of Raymond Cardinal Burke, Fier is doing research for writing a definitive biography of Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)