Now that I Know to Teach, What Do I Teach? In Search of the Unity of Faith in Religious Education

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The 1971 Directorium Catechisticum Generale of the Sacred Congregation for the Clergy dedicates two of its six parts to expounding the Christian message (part three) and catechetical methodology (part four).1 Though treated in different parts, the content and the method by which it is com­municated cannot be considered independently of each other since to be effective, the method must be tailored to what it is supposed to convey. Hence, the title of this essay is not intended to suggest a dichotomy between content and method in religious education, as if the content of faith does not determine the way in which it should be transmitted in catechesis.

Nevertheless, if by method are meant merely the techniques of commu­nication derived from psychological, sociological, and pedagogical sciences,2 it is possible that one can be an expert in the use of the inductive and de­ductive methods, learning activities, group dynamics, and audiovisual aids and still be at a loss to know what to teach. Indeed, one sometimes admires the wizardry of rhetorical tricks and technical gadgets of a lecture or a hom­ily and still wonders whether what has been served is “lean cuisine” or a hearty fare.

Besides this jejune understanding of method as technique, which sepa­rates it from content, there is another difficulty peculiar to the teaching of Christian doctrines. As anyone who has made use of theCatechism of the Catholic Church with its 2865 paragraphs on religious education is painfully aware, one can be overwhelmed by the sheer number of beliefs and practices to be taught and of formulas to be memorized. Wandering among these doctrinal trees one runs the risk of missing the proverbial forest. The question facing the religious educator then is how to present the Christian faith in such a way that the learner can perceive it not as a confusing aggregation of disparate beliefs and practices but as a living unity with a central core giving these beliefs and practices cohesiveness and consistency.

To achieve this goal two complementary approaches may be adopted. One is methodological, by focusing onhow to present the Christian faith in a unitary way; the other substantive, by selecting a particular doctrine as the central truth to which all other truths are related. In this essay, after a review of the first approach, I will explore how the doctrine of the Trinity can func­tion as the architectonic principle with which to build the cathedral of faith, or, to vary the metaphor, as the thread to weave all the Christian doctrines into a patterned tapestry.

Methodological Approaches to the Unity of Faith

In a sense the message of Jesus' preaching has already been given a unifying core by the Synoptic Gospels when they make the kingdom/reign of God/heaven its central theme (Mt 4:17; Mk 1:14; Lk 4:43).3  Jesus, life and death, his preaching (in particular, his parables) and his miracles can all be understood as a prophetic proclamation and realization of the imminent coming of the kingdom of God.

This concern for the unity and cohesiveness of the Christian message was also evident in the early church's formulation of the “canon of truth” or “rule of faith” (regula fidei). The purpose of the rule of faith is not to offer a compelling list of the tenets of the Christian faith propositionally formulated but to show the contents of the faith as an ordered understanding of God's dealing with humanity as creator, savior, and sanctifier of the whole creation.4

Among contemporary theologians, several ways have been proposed to achieve a unified presentation of the contents of the faith. The first is by means of short credal formulas. It is well known that creeds or symbols serve a multiplicity of functions in the life of the church. Originally a bap­tismal formula (either in the interrogative or declarative form), the creed tended to become an elaborate norm of orthodoxy and a means of communio among the churches. Despite its growing complexity, however, the unity of the creed was never lost sight of. Thomas Aquinas insisted that all the diverse articles should be seen as implicitly contained in the primordial truths of God's existence and providence.5As faith's fundamental tenets are explicated, the number of the articles of beliefs naturally increases; but Thomas argues that the ultimate object of faith is not the multitude of the articles but God as the prima Veritas.6

Nevertheless, as the language and categories of the creed have become unfamiliar and its complexity forbidding to most contemporary Christians, several theologians, foremost among them Karl Rahner, have argued for a simpler and shorter version, focusing on the essentials of the Christian faith and highlighting their unity. As Rahner puts it, “without this kind of a creed the fullness of Christian faith very quickly becomes amorphous, or a believer very easily places too much value on his religious practice on things which are only secondary” (Rahner 1978: 448; 1972: 117-22; 1970: 230-44). Rahner suggests that given the theological and cultural pluralistic situation of our times, there should be several different formula­tions of this brief creed which would “only have to contain what is of fun­damental importance and what provides a basic starting point for reaching the whole of the faith” and “has to have an explicit Christological structure in this profession” (Rahner, 452-3). Rahner himself attempted a brief three‑part formulation of his own on the basis of his transcendental theology: a theological, anthro­pological, and future‑oriented creed (454-7).7

The second approach, intimately connected with the project of formu­lating a shorter creed, is dictated by the hierarchy‑ of‑truths doctrine. As Vatican II puts it, “In Catholic doctrine there exists an order or 'hierarchy' of truths, since they vary in their relation to the foundation of the Christian faith.”8 Though all dogmas are true and binding, their importance and rele­vance vary according to how close their contents are to the trinitarian and christological foundation of the Christian faith.9 Needless to say, the prin­ciple of hierarchy of truths proves a helpful tool not only in understanding the development of dogmas, in ecumenical and interreligious dialogues, and in evangelization and inculturation, but also in catechesis.

With respect to the handing on of the faith in religious education, the issue is twofold: first, objectively, the revealed truths are seen in their vary­ing relations to the core truths, thus highlighting their intrinsic unity; and secondly, subjectively, the ordered relationships among God's revealed truths are seen in the context of the faith of the individual and the commu­nity as an existential response to God's self‑communication. The question in religious education is how, granted the legimate possibility that an individual and a community may choose to focus on a particular truth in living out their faith, the teacher can enable the students' subjective faith to be guided by the objective nexus of the doctrines so that the students should not place at the center of their faith something that is objectively peripheral. The Cate­chism of the Catholic Church emphasizes the hierarchy of truths by affirming the “organic connection between our spiritual life and the dogmas” and “the mutual connections between dogmas, and their coherence ... in the whole of the Revelation of the mystery of Christ.”10

A third way to achieve the unity of the Christian faith is by way of nar­rative theology. This theology, of recent vintage, privileges narratio over appellatio and argumentatio as a mode, though not exclusive, of theological discourse. It views Jesus as primarily the Storyteller and the kerygma as the proclamation of lived events and experiences. Indeed, for narrative theolo­gians, the core of the faith of the apostolic church, namely, that Jesus is risen, is basically a story. Doing theology in this vein is not primarily arguing doctrinal conclusions (e.g., in the mode of neoscholastic theology) or mak­ing moral exhortations but retelling and recreating by means of narratives the events of God's intervention in history, especially in Jesus' life, for con­temporary listeners. The memory, at times “dangerous,” of these events will call forth responses of faith from the hearers who become personally in­volved as actors in these stories.11

In narrative theology, catechesis is made to assume a mainly narrative form and structure. Its overriding purpose is to arouse, by means of narra­tives, faith or conversion in the listeners in the form of memory of past events, awareness of God's present summons and demands, and anticipation of God's future total redemption. What gives unity and consistency to catechesis is the story proclaimed, celebrated, lived, and prayed.12

A fourth way to give coherence and cohesiveness to the Christian doc­trines is to present them as divine answers to human questions. This method of correlation, popularized by Paul Tillich (1951: 59-66 and Clayton 1980), need not be conceived merely in the question‑and‑answer mode, with God's revelation serving as the response to humanity's existential questions. It may and must also be prac­ticed as a critical correlation and confrontation between the two poles of Christian theology and catechesis, namely, Christian experience and pres­ent‑day experience.

In Edward Schillebeeckx's formulation, the first pole (Christian experi­ence) includes four structural principles: the theological‑ anthropological principle (God wills the salvation of all), the christological mediation (Jesus is the definitive self‑disclosure of God), the ecclesial mediation (Jesus' story and message continue in the church), and the eschatological dimension (the story of salvation cannot be fulfilled within time and space). The second pole (contemporary experience) includes the two contrasting elements of Western utilitarian individualism: an excess of suffering and injustice and a hopeful tension toward the future. The purpose of the correlation and con­frontation between the first and the second poles is to enable the Christian experience with its four basic structures to bear on the present experience of suffering and hope. In so doing theology and catechesis achieve a certain unity between Christian truths and contemporary experience.13

Whereas the first four approaches attempt to create the unity of the faith by focusing primarily, though not exclusively, on the objective doc­trines, the fifth approach does so by concentrating on the internal disposi­tions of the students. Transcendental theology, as proposed by Karl Rahner and Bernard Lonergan, seeks to identify and facilitate the existential condi­tions of possibility for Christian faith. For Rahner, such conditions are the person's “transcendental experience,” that is, the subjective, unthematic and necessary consciousness of God as the Absolute and Holy Mystery in each of his or her particular or categorical acts of knowledge and freedom (Rahner 1978: 20-23). For Lonergan, it is the experience of “being‑in‑love” with God unrestrict­edly as a result of God's pouring God's Spirit into our hearts (Lonergan 1972:105-7). With this experience comes a threefold conversion which Lonergan describes as intellectual, moral, and religious and which sets up a new horizon “in which the love of God will transvalue our values and the eyes of that love will transform our knowing” (1972:237-44).

In this transcendental approach catechesis seeks to produce a unified understanding of the Christian faith on the basis of the interior experiences of faith in the students either by unveiling the dynamic tension toward and anticipation of God in all our acts of knowledge and love (Rahner's notion of Vorgriff and mystagogical method) or by disclosing the reality of conver­sion brought about by divine grace by which we experience, understand, judge, and decide about the data of our consciousness (Lonergan's explica­tion of the four levels of consciousness or intentional operations).

A sixth approach to achieve unity in the teaching of Christian doctrines consists in linking them with practice. The starting point of catechesis is not Scripture or doctrines but a “praxis,” that is, a personal commitment to and struggle with those who are poor, oppressed, and marginalized for their lib­eration. The sought‑after unity is not the intrinsic coherence among the various doctrines demonstrated intellectually but the subjective coherence in the believer between his or her knowing and doing, faith and life, prayer and socio‑political action. Religious education in liberation theologies is not primarily a communication of doctrines but a conscientization of the poor and the oppressed about their being exploited and discriminated against and an interpretation of the Scripture and Tradition in light of this situation. In this process, religious education involves a critique of ideology (“herme­neutics of suspicion”), a rediscovery of forgotten or suppressed religious doctrines and practices (“hermeneutics of retrieval”), and an elaboration of different formulations and practices (“hermeneutics of reconstruction”) to achieve an integral liberation.14

Each of these six methodological approaches to achieve the unity of faith has its own strengths and weaknesses.15 Fortunately, it is not necessary in catechesis to choose anyone of them at the exclusion of the others, since they all can be helpful in achieving unity and coherence in the presentation of the Christian faith. Moreover, besides methodological approaches, there have also been attempts at creating unity and cohesiveness by focusing on a particular doctrine or belief as a fulcrum around which catechesis is organ­ized and the contents of faith are presented. To some of these I now turn.

Particular Doctrines as Foci to Achieve Unity in Catechesis

Vatican I (1869‑70) has already indicated three ways in which a fruitful understanding of the Christian doctrines can be achieved: by elaborating the analogy between the mysteries of faith and natural things, by connecting these mysteries with each other, and by highlighting the connections of these mysteries with our ultimate end.16 While not explicitly following the method recommended by Vatican I, some contemporary Catholic theologi­ans have sought a unified understanding of the Christian faith by focusing on a particular doctrine and making it the lynchpin of their theologies. The choice of this doctrine is often dictated by the objective centrality of the doctrine itself or by its immediate relevance to the needs and demands of a particular age and situation.

Most prominent among twentieth‑century theologians, Karl Rahner seeks to unify Christian theology with the concept of divine grace as God's self‑communication. Starting from a transcendental anthropology,17Rahner shows that at the center of Christian faith is the event of God the Father's self‑communication in grace to humans in two unified and complementary modalities: on the one hand as origin, history, invitation, and knowledge in Jesus and on the other hand as future, transcendence, acceptance, and love in the Spirit (Rahner 1967: 87-99).  For Rahner, there are not, strictly speaking, many mysteries but only one, namely, God as Absolute and Holy Mystery who communi­cates the divine self to us in the Incarnation (the Son) and in Grace (the Holy Spirit) [1966a: 36-73 and 1966b: 221-45]. The task of theology and catechesis, as Rahner conceives it, is a “mystagogy,” that is, a leading of the persons back to the Mystery, a reductio in mysterium.It is the doctrine of God as Mystery‑that‑communicates-self‑as‑grace‑in‑Word‑and‑Spirit that provides cohesiveness and unity to Christian doctrines.

For Hans Urs von Balthasar, another prominent contemporary theolo­gian, the central Christian doctrine is God as the Supreme Beauty, which has dramatically revealed himself in the cross of Jesus. In this event, Divine Beauty manifested itself as self‑emptying Love. Thus Being is not self‑con­sciousness but ecstatic love, or more precisely, the trinitarian love between the Father and the Son in the Spirit. In response to this self‑revelation of Divine Beauty, faith is an aesthetic contemplation of and being grasped by this Beauty in the form (Gestalt) of the crucified Jesus.18 But beauty is also goodness, and under this transcendental von Balthasar discusses the histori­cal drama of the interplay between divine and human freedom.19 Finally, beauty is also truth, and in this context von Balthasar focuses on the nature of truth, Jesus' claim to be the truth in person, and the role of the Holy Spirit as leading us into the truth of Christ.20

In von Balthasar's theological aesthetics,21 catechesis is primarily the process whereby persons are shaped into the form (Gestalt) of Jesus' obedi­ent self‑surrender to his Father through their participation in the Paschal Mystery. The central doctrine that confers unity and cohesiveness to the catechetical enterprise is that of God as Beauty revealing himself in the form of the crucified Jesus.22

Among most liberation theologians,23 the key doctrine around which other Christian beliefs are organized is the eschatological symbol of the kingdom of God. As Jon Sobrino has argued, whereas liberation as the lib­eration of the poor obtains “primacy” in reality in liberation theology, the kingdom of God (and not the resurrection of Jesus) is its “theological ulti­mate,” “the organizing and ranking principle of everything else.”24The rea­son why the doctrine of the kingdom of God can function as the pivot of liberation theology is threefold: first, it corresponds to the nature of libera­tion theology as a historical, prophetical, praxic, and popular theology; sec­ondly, it is capable to unify, without either separation or confusion, tran­scendence and history; and thirdly, it lays the emphasis on praxis as the ma­trix of doing theology which is the second act following the first act of the struggle for liberation (Sobrino 1993a: 352-57).

To determine the meaning of the symbol of the kingdom of God So­brino makes use of three ways: first, by analyzing the biblical notion of the kingdom of God as understood by the Old Testament, by John the Baptist, and by Jesus (e.g., by Jesus as being “at hand,” as purely God's gift, as good news); secondly, by looking at its addressees, that is, the “poor” in the eco­nomical and sociological sense, and finding that God is partial to them; and thirdly, by examining the practice of Jesus, especially his miracles, his cast­ing out of the devils, his welcoming sinners, his preaching in parables, and his celebrations of the coming of the kingdom of God (1993b: 70-104; 1993a: 358-71).

Around this concept of the kingdom of God derived from its use in the Bible, its addressees, and the practice of Jesus Sobrino, develops not only the basic premise of the Christian faith, i.e., the option for the poor, but also the dual principle of hope and praxis for interpreting the Bible (1993a: 374-79). Furthermore, ­Sobrino organizes the whole content of theology around the concept of the kingdom of God: God as the God jealous of other “idols” and the God of the poor and oppressed; Christ as truly divine and truly human and as the proclaimer and eschatological mediator of the reign of God; the church as not identical with the reign of God but as commissioned to serve the king­dom by evangelization and denunciation, proclamation of the word and his­torical realization of liberation; and spirituality as contemplation in action for justice (1993a: 382-86, see also Phan 1993: 25-41).

So far, the survey of how a particular doctrine can be made to unify Christian doctrines has been limited to Roman Catholic theologians. The scope of this essay does not include a discussion of non‑Roman Catholic theologians. However, it is important to note that the attempt to give cohe­siveness to Christian faith by means of a particular doctrine has also been made by Protestant theologians. Suffice it to mention here Karl Barth's doc­trine of the Word of God,25 and Jürgen Moltmann's doctrine of the cruci­fied God (Moltmann 1974 and 1981).

Whatever doctrine is selected to order the presentation of the Christian falth,26 it is important to observe the principles enunciated by the General Catechetical Directory with regard to catechesis. The document lists nine norms or criteria according to which the presentation of the Christian doc­trines should be made (GCD, 37-44). Of particular interest for our theme are what may be called the principles of totality, organicity, and hierarchical structuration. Totality means that the entire structure of the Christian message must be presented at every level of catechesis, of course in a way appropriate to the various cultural and spiritual conditions of the students. Organicity means that catechesis must demonstrate the harmony andinterrelation among the objects of faith. Finally, hierarchical structuration means that catechesis must show how certain truths function as the basis upon which other truths, no less pertaining to faith itself, are built. In the light of these principles, an attempt will be made in the last section of this essay to show how the doc­trine of the Trinity can serve as the pivot for a unified and coherent presen­tation of the Christian doctrines.

The Trinity as the Center of the Christian Faith and Catechesis

One of the encouraging signs in contemporary theology is that the doc­trine of the Trinity, after having been since Friedrich Schleiermacher relegated to the role of a mere appendix in dogmatic theology,27 has recently made a dramatic comeback to center stage, in both Catholic and Protestant theology.28 My intention here is not to review and critique contemporary de­velopments in trinitarian theology;29 rather it is to examine how the doctrine of the Trinity as elaborated by contemporary theologians can be used to or­der a unified presentation of the Christian faith.

Ever since Karl Rahner's trailblazing recovery of the trinitarian doctrine for theology (1970a), it is axiomatic to anchor theological reflections on the Trinity in the experiences of salvation history and to affirm the identity between the “economic Trinity” and the “immanent Trinity.”30 With this background in mind, we may begin our exploration into unifying catechesis by means of the trinitarian doctrine with an examination of how theCatechism of the Catholic Church is structured around this basic Christian doctrine.31

Catechism builds its presentation of the Christian faith on four “pillars”: the profession of faith, the celebration of faith, the life of faith, and prayer. It is intended to be “an organic presentation of the Catholic faith in its en­tirety. It should be seen as a unified whole” (USCC, no.18). To achieve this organic unity,Catechism, I suggest, self‑consciously makes use of the trinitarian doctrine as the thread linking its four parts together into a coherent whole. This trini­tarian leitmotif, I hope to show, resounds loud and clear in each part of Catechism. Catechism itself states most explicitly: “The mystery of the Most Holy Trinity is the central mystery of Christian faith and life. It is the mys­tery of God in himself. It is therefore the source of all the other mysteries of faith, the light that enlightens them. It is the most fundamental and essential teaching in the ‘hierarchy of the truths of faith.’ The whole history of salva­tion is identical with the history of the way and the means by which the one true God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, reveals himself to men ‘and recon­ciles and unites with himself those who turn away from sin.’“32

In the first part of Catechism, “the profession of faith summarizes the gifts that God gives man: as the Author of all that is good; as Redeemer; and as Sanctifier. It develops these in the three chapters on our baptismal faith in the one God: the almighty Father, the Creator; his Son Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior; and the Holy Spirit, the Sanctifier, in the Holy Church” (no.14,190). The second part “explains how God's salvation, accomplished once for all through Christ Jesus and the Holy Spirit, is made present in the sacred ac­tion of the Church's liturgy, especially in the seven sacraments” (no.15). The third part explicates Christian life as a life “in the sight of the Father” (no.1693); a life in which “incorporated into Christ by Baptism, Christians are 'dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus' and so participate in the life of the Risen Lord” (no.1694), and a life in which “the Holy Spirit renews us interiorly through a spiritual transformation” (no.1695). The last part presents Christian prayer as “a covenant relationship between God and man in Christ. It is the action of God and of man, springing forth from both the Holy Spirit and ourselves, wholly directed to the Father, in union with the human will of the Son of God made man” (no. 2564). In summary, for Catechism, “the ultimate end of the whole divine economy is the entry of God's creatures into the perfect unity of the Blessed Trinity. But even now we are called to be a dwelling for the Most Holy Trinity” (no. 260).

In addition to ordering each of its four parts on the basis of the trini­tarian doctrine Catechism also explicitly relates the main Christian doctrines to it. It is of course impossible to show here how Catechism does this in each doctrine; suffice it to give a few key examples. In its exposition of the creed, Catechism emphasizes the role of the Trinity in divine revelation,33 and stresses the nature of faith as the human person's response to each of the three divine Persons.34 Creation is presented as “the work of the Holy Trin­ity” and not of the divine essence.35 In Christ's transfiguration, Catechism sees the revelation of the Trinity.36 Jesus' resurrection is described as “the work of the Holy Trinity.”37 The trinitarian structure of the church is made clear when it is said to be “a plan born in the Father's heart,” “instituted by Christ Jesus,” and “revealed by the Holy Spirit” (nos. 759,763 and 767).  The Church is also de­scribed with a triple image as “the people of God,” the “body of Christ,” and the “temple of the Holy Spirit” (nos. 781-798).  Our own resurrection is said to be “the work of the Most Holy Trinity” (no. 989).  Heaven is defined as the “perfect life with the Most Holy Trinity” (no. 1023).

In its elaboration of the Christian celebration of faith Catechism stresses that the liturgy is “the work of the Holy Trinity”: The Father is the “source and goal of the liturgy;”65 “in the liturgy of the Church, it is principally his own Paschal mystery that Christ signifies and makes present”(no. 1085); and, in the sacramental economy “the Holy Spirit prepares for the reception of Christ” (no. 1093), “recalls the mystery of Christ” (no. 1093), and “makes present the mystery of Christ” (no. 1104);  In particular, the trinitarian nature of the eucharist is empha­sized: it is considered as “thanksgiving and praise to the Father; the sacrifi­cial memorial of Christ and his Body; the presence of Christ by the power of his word and of his Spirit” (no. 1358).

In its exposition of our life in Christ, Catechism is less explicit on its trinitarian structure, though by describing it as “life in the Spirit,”39 Catechism implies that it is a participation in the life of the Trinity. This aspect is made clear when Catechism explains justification and grace: “Grace is a par­ticipation in the life of God. It introduces us into the intimacy of Trinitarian life: by Baptism the Christian participates in the grace of Christ, the Head of his Body. As an 'adopted son' he can henceforth call God “Father,” in un­ion with the only Son. He receives the life of the Spirit who breathes charity into him and who forms the Church” (no. 1997).

Lastly, in the Catechism's teaching on prayer, the trinitarian emphasis returns powerfully. First, Jesus' own prayer is described as a “filial prayer, which the Father awaits from his children” (no. 2599)  and which Jesus performed in “the action of the Holy Spirit” (no. 2600). Secondly, the prayer of the church, espe­cially that of blessing and adoration, is said to have a double movement: “our prayer ascends in the Holy Spirit through Christ to the Father ‑ we bless him for having blessed us; it implores the grace of the Holy Spirit that descendsthrough Christ from the Father ‑ he blesses us” (no. 2727).  Thirdly, it is said that we address the Lord's Prayer to the Father but “by so doing we do not divide the Godhead... The Holy Trinity is consubstantial and indivisible. When we pray to the Father, we adore and glorify him together with the Son and the Holy Spirit” (no. 2789).

From the above cursory survey of both the structure of Catechism and the way it elaborates certain key Christian doctrines, it is abundantly clear that Catechism has used the doctrine of the Holy Trinity as the architectonic principle to give catechesis unity and coherence. In this way it may be said that Catechism has incorporated (consciously or not, it is impossible to tell) the insights on trinitarian theology of contemporary Catholic theologians such as Karl Ralmer and Hans Urs von Balthasar, to name only two most in­fluential thinkers. Rahner's lament that Christians are “monotheists” has be­come something of a mantra among theologians writing on the Trinity, and Catechism's attempt to place the Trinity at the center of the Christian faith and to use it as the link to unify catechesis can be regarded as a long over­due corrective.

This does not mean that Catechism's own exposition of the doctrine of the Trinity is beyond criticism.40 In at least two respects it needs improve­ment. First, while it is undeniable that Catechism anchors its teaching on the Trinity in the experiences and events of the history of salvation,41 its placing of the exposition on the Trinity right after its exposition on the one God and the Father42 undercuts its rootage in the history of revelation and salva­tion. Such a presentation of the Trinity would be more understandable after the works of Jesus and the Holy Spirit in history have been considered.43

Secondly, though Catechism is aware of the development of the doc­trine of the Trinity, its actual exposition of it follows exclusively that of the western church with all its mind‑numbing metaphysical vocabularies. One shudders at the thought of how to make such concepts as substance, es­sence, nature, person, hypostasis, relation, and real distinction as applied to the Trinity understandable to even highly educated Catholics.44 Fortunately, Catechism does speak of the “omissions” of the Trinity, and though it affirms that “the whole divine economy is the common work of the three divine persons”, it clearly emphasizes that “each divine person performs the com­mon work according to his unique personal property”(no. 258). Hence, it can make the enormously important affirmation that “the whole Christian life is a communion with each of the divine persons, without in any way separating them”(no.259). But even this statement is incomprehensible without an explicit ac­knowledgment that the doctrine of the Trinity can and perhaps should be formulated in terms other than those of Greek metaphysics.

In the remaining pages I shall attempt to suggest (and no more than suggest!) how insights from contemporary theology of the Trinity can enrich Catechism's presentation of the Trinity, and more importantly, how they can be related to other Christian doctrines.

1. In the first place it would be useful to summarize the universally agreed principles of contemporary theology of the Trinity, the terra firma as it were in our voyage of exploration into the mystery of the Triune God, in addition to the classical rejection of tritheism, subordinationism, and moda­lism: (a) The theology of the Trinity must begin with and be rooted in the Trinity's self‑ communication to humans in the history of revelation and sal­vation (the oikonomia).45 (b) The Incarnation of the Word and the gift of the Holy Spirit in grace are the two distinct, related, and mutually interdepend­ent ways of the one self‑communication of God the Father to us.46 (c) There is an identity between the “economic Trinity” and the “immanent Trinity” and vice versa (“Rahner's Rule”).47 (d) In knowledge and love humans have a specifically different relation to each of the three divine “persons” and not to the divine essence or nature or substance.48 (e) The doctrine of the Trinity must be related to each and every important theme of Christian theology, from systematic to moral to pastoral theology.

2. With regard to the structure of our treatise on the Trinity, I suggest that we reverse its traditional order. Rather than beginning with the Father, then moving to the Son, and ending with the Holy Spirit, given the principle that we should root our trinitarian theology in our experiences of salvation, we should begin with our present‑day experiences of the Holy Spirit, and then show how this Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus, and end with Jesus' revela­tion of the mystery of God the Father.49 This procedure has several advan­tages: (a) It shows convincingly that the Trinity is a mystery of salvation for us today. (b) It incorporates into trinitarian theology not only charismatic but also ordinary, daily experiences of grace. (c) It highlights the indispen­sable role of the Holy Spirit in Christian life, thus making pneumatology, long lamented to be neglected in western theology, a central theme of Chris­tian theology, and opening a venue for a dialogue with Orthodox theology.50 (d) It shows that the experiences of the Trinity are not limited to Christians but can also be found outside of Christianity and hence can promote inter‑religious dialogue. (e) It confirms the way we have access to God: from the Spirit, through the Son, to the Father.51

3. Besides the many themes, which Catechism has already related to the doctrine of the Trinity as mentioned above, others must be brought into its orbit. First of all, the paschal mystery, in particular the event of Jesus' cross, must be brought into relation with the life of the Trinity. Among Protestant theologians Jürgen Moltmann has offered bold speculations on the cross as an intratrinitarian event in which the Son offers himself to but is abandoned by the Father and in which the Father leaves the Son, offers him up, and suffers the death of the Son in the pain of love and in which the Father and the Son are reconciled by the Spirit (Moltmann 1974: 235-49; 1981: 75-83). Among Catholics von Balthasar sug­gests that the cross is the manifestation of the trinitarian love.52 and that Holy Saturday represents the mystery of the Son's descent into hell in obedience to the Father to experience the full weight of abandonment and rejection by the Father in solidarity with sinners.53 Even if one finds Moltmann's and von Balthasar's reflections on the Trinity and the cross of Jesus too adventure­some, especially for catechesis, still their insight that the cross is a trinitarian event deserves serious consideration and further development.

4. In anthropology, the classical concept of person as “individual sub­stance of a rational nature” (Boethius) and the modern understanding of person as autonomy and self‑consciousness (Descartes' cogito ergo sum) must be corrected and enriched by the notion of “person” in the Trinity as relationality and mutuality,54 In this way, God is seen to be personal only through one or another of the three hypostases, not as a single ineffable en­tity or self‑conscious subject.55 Furthermore, God's unity is seen to consist in the unification of the relationships among the three divine persons or their communion in love rather than in the abstract oneness of a single di­vine substance.56

5. Another theme connected with anthropology is gender. Whatever validity is to be attached to the claim that the classical trinitarian doctrine fomented patriarchy and androcentrism, it is undeniable that contemporary trinitarian theology cannot evade the issues of exclusive language and sex­ism, both inside and outside the church. Contemporary trinitarian theology offers opportunities to reflect on the analogical and pluralistic character of our language about God and the affirmation of basic equality and mutuality inherent in the doctrine of the Trinity (see Johnson 1993; Boff 1987a, and Gelpi 1984).

6. This last point brings us to the implication and relevance of the Trin­ity as a model for church and society. While concrete ecclesiastical, socio­political and economic policies cannot be directly derived from the doctrine of the Trinity, it contradicts any system and policy that jeopardize the equality, freedom, and full participation of all members of the ecclesial and political communities.57 The Trinity shapes as well the forms of ministry in the church (Drilling 1991).

7. As mentioned above, pneumatology brings us into dialogue with other religions. Moreover, the whole Christian doctrine of the Trinity must be brought into conversation with beliefs of other religions in such a way that the divine trinity is seen to undergird reality as such.58

8. Finally, eschatology and ecology must be correlated with the doctrine of the Trinity. Heaven is not an individual's beatific vision of the divine es­sence but the entire human history and the cosmos brought into eternal communion with the Trinity. It is time made eternity and eternity realized in time. It is the kingdom or rule of God in which the material universe is not destroyed, human history not abolished, but both the cosmos and humanity are assumed into the life of the Trinity.59

In these ways, in addition to those described by Catechism, catechesis can bring unity and cohesiveness to the presentation of the Christian faith. It aims at not a static and permanent unity but a dynamic and ongoing unity, of both doctrine and personal appropriation of the Christian faith.


1. For the English translation of this document, see General Catechetical Directory 1971.

2. General Catechetical Directory does treat, besides method, of catechesis according to age levels (part five) and catechetical aids such as catechetical directories, programs, cate­chisms, textbooks, and audiovisuals (chapter IV of part six). By method is meant, as Loner­gan puts it, “a narrative pattern of recurrent and related operations yielding cumulative and progressive results,” (Method in Theology [New York: Herder and Herder, 1972], 4). Method in religious education is determined by four elements: the person to be formed religiously, the Triune God, the end of religious education, which is the loving union between the person and God, and the means whereby this union is achieved such as prayer, doctrine, liturgy, and ethical practice.

3. For the theme of kingdom of God in the New Testament, see Willis 1987 and Chilton 1981. For a brief history of the development of the symbol of kingdom God, see Viviano 1988).

4. For the notion of rule of faith, see Eynde 1933 and Hagglund 1958: 1‑44.

5. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae II‑II, q.1, a.7. Thomas makes it clear that the “act of the believer does not terminate in a proposition but in a thing” (“actus autem credentis non terminatur ad enuntiabilem sed ad rem “[ibid., q.1, a.2, ad 2]).

6. See Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae II-II, q. 1, a. 1; De veritate q. 14, a. 8, ad 5, ad 12.

7. For Rahner's brief creed, see 1978: 454-7. The search for a common creed is also one of the important agenda for ecumenical dialogue. See Rahner 1991.

8. Unitatis Redintegratio, No. 11. ET in Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post Con­ciliar Documents, ed. Austin Murphy (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1984). No. 12 of the same decree mentions the trinitarian and christological dogmas as the foundation of the Christian faith.

9. For studies on the hierarchy of truths, see Mohlen 1966: 303‑35; Valeske 1968; and Henn 1987: 439-71. It is to be noted that the point of the doctrine of the hierarchy of truths is not to rank the dogmas according to their importance but to create a substantial unity among the Christian doctrines by imparting to them a rationalstructure with a core or center.

10. Nos. 89 and 90. See also no. 234 for the assertion that “the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity is the central mystery of Christian faith and life.”

11. For expositions on narrative theology, see Navone 1984; Navone and Cooper 1981); Metz: 84‑96, and Bradt 1966. It is to be noted that narrative theology makes use of historical science and its critical methods and therefore has passed from the “first naiveté” of subjectivism and arbitrariness to the critical stance of the “second naiveté.” In a certain sense the theology of Johann Baptist Metz can be described as narrative theology. For Metz there are three her­meneutical principles in theology: first, narrative, in that Christian faith is not based on an idea but on the story of Jesus; secondly, memory, in that the church remembers the story of God's identification with the victims of history in the story of Jesus and in the light of this “dangerous memory” criticizes existing unjust structures; and thirdly, solidarity, in that the Christian basis for society is founded on solidarity rather on the principle of exchange of modernity. On the basis of his first two hermeneutical principles Metz is aligned with narrative theol­ogy, whereas the third principle groups him with political and liberation theologians. See Metz 1969 and 1980.

12. For a catechetical method in which story plays a central role, see Groome 1980).

13. See Schillebeeckx 1981: 50‑63. This method of critical correlation is further elaborated by Tracy 1975. For Tracy the two “sources” to be critically correlated are “Christian texts” and “com­mon human experience and language”. To investigate the religious dimension present in the common human experience and language the method to be used is phenomenology, whereas the method to be used in the investigation of the Christian texts is historical and hermeneuti­cal analysis. Finally, to determine the truth of the results of one's investigations into both common human experience and Christian texts, Trace suggests that an explicit metaphysics be employed.

14. See Freire 1970. For an ex­position of the method of liberation theology, see Boff 1987.

15. For a critique of some of these approaches, see Fiorenza 1991: 35‑65.

16. See Vatican I's dogmatic constitution Dei Filius in Denzinger‑ Schönmetzer 1976, no. 3016: “Ac ratio quidem, fide illustrata, cum sedulo, pie et sobrie quaerit, aliquam Deo dante mysteriorum intelligentiam eamque fructuo­sissimam assequitur turn ex eorum, quae naturaliter cognoscit, analogia, cum e mysteriorum ipsorum nexu inter se et cum fine hominis ultimo.”

17. For Rahner's reflections on his theological method, see 1974: 68-114.

18. Von Balthasar treats of Divine Beauty in the seven volumes of the first part of his tril­ogy, Herrlichkeit: Eine Theologische Ästhetik (Einsiedeln: Johannes Verlag, 1961‑69).

19. See the five volumes of the second part of his trilogy, Theodramatik (Einsiedeln: Jo­hannes Verlag, 1973‑83).

20. See the three volumes of the third part of his trilogy, Theologik (Einsiedeln: Johannes Verlag, 1985‑87).

21. It is to he noted that von Balthasar contrasts theological aesthetics with aesthetic the­ology. The latter uses secular standards of beauty to judge the manifestation of the divine, e.g., when one evaluates the Bible as a great work of literature, whereas the former judges God's self‑revelation in the light of faith itself. In theological aesthetics the object of faith itself provides light and the conditions of possibility of its knowledge.

22. For excellent and readable presentations of von Balthasar’s theology, see O'Donnell 1992 and Oakes 1994.

23. By liberation theologians are included not only Latin American theologians but also African, Asian, Black and feminist theologians who make praxis, that is, reflected‑upon action and acted‑upon reflection, with and for the oppressed and the poor an essential part of their theological method.

24. Sobrino 1993b: 122, See also 1993a: 350‑51. Sobrino argues that the eschatological symbol of the kingdom of God rather than the resurrection of Jesus offers the point of view from which “to impose a qualitative, ordered organization of the entire content of theology” (1993a: 351). The theme of the kingdom of God is only implicit in Gutiérrez 1988 and 1991: 65‑139.

25. It may be plausibly argued that the doctrine of the Word of God as God's self­-revelation in Christ through Scripture is the undergirding structure of Barth's Church Dogmatics (1936‑69).

26. Aidan Nichols rightly suggests that the most important question that can be put about any theologian is: “What overall perspective on Christian faith did revelation suggest to this person?” (1991: 352).

27. Starting from the human experience of absolute dependence, Schleiermacher argues that the primary utterances of the Christian faith refer us to the one God (monotheism), and that the trinitarian discourse is secondary. Consequently, he places the doctrine of the Trinity as an appendix at the end of his systematic theology, Schleiermacher 1960 (also 1920). Carol Voisin, however, argues that the doctrine of the Trinity is central to Schleiermacher; see Voisin 1980.

28. Among Protestants, see the works of Karl Barth, Eberhard Jüngel, Jürgen Moltmann, Robert Jensen, Wolfhart Pannenberg, Ted Peters, Peter C. Hodgson, and Michael Welker; and among Catholics, see the works of Karl Rahner, Yves Congar, Heribert Mühlen, Walter Kasper, William Hill, Anthony Kelly, John J. O'Donnell, Leonardo Boff, Joseph Bracken, Catherine LaCugna, and Elizabeth Johnson.

29. For a useful survey of recent developments in Trinitarian theology, see Bracken 1979 and Peters 1993: 27-145.

30. See LaCugna 1991: 209‑32. Rahner's “axiom” that the economic Trinity is the im­manent Trinity and vice versa is widely accepted by both Catholic and Protestant theologi­ans.

31. The official English translation of this catechism for the United States of America is copyrighted by the United States Catholic Conference, published by Paulist Press, 1994. The unnecessarily exclusive language of this translation is to be strongly deplored. Henceforth, Catechism. For an introduction and critique of the Catechism,see USCC 1994a and 1994b. For an assessment of Catechism's presentation of the Trinity, see the excellent essay by Catherine LaCugna, “The Doctrine of the Trinity,” in Commentary on the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 66‑80.

32. USCC, no. 234. In speaking of the heart of catechesis, Catechism also emphasizes the cen­trality of the Trinity: “Catechesis aims at putting ‘people... in communion... with Jesus Christ: only he can lead us to the Father in the Spirit and make us share in the life of the Trinity’” (no. 426).

33. See no. 50: “God has fully revealed this plan by sending us his beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit.”

34. See nos. 150, 151, and 152. “Faith is first of all a personal adherence of man to God... For a Christian, believing in God cannot be separated from believing in the One he sent, his 'beloved Son'... One cannot believe in Jesus Christ without sharing his Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit who reveals to men who Jesus is.”

35. See no. 291: “The Old Testament suggests and the New Covenant reveals the creative action of the Son and the Spirit, inseparably one with that of the Father.”

36. See no. 555: “Christ's Passion is the will of the Father: the Son acts as God's servant; the cloud radiates the presence of the Holy Spirit. 'The whole Trinity appeared: the Father in the voice; the Son in the man; the Spirit in the shining cloud.'“

37. See no. 648: “Christ's Resurrection is an object of faith in that it is a transcendent in­tervention of God himself in creation and history. In it the three divine persons act together as one, and manifest their own proper characteristics.”

38. See no. 1082: “In the Church's liturgy the divine blessing is fully revealed and com­municated. The Father is acknowledged and adored as the source and end of all the blessings of creation and salvation. In his Word who became incarnate, died, and rose for us, he fills us with his blessings. Through his Word, he pours into our hearts the Gift that contains all gifts, the Holy Spirit.”.

39. No. 1699. See also nos. 1830‑1832 for the discussion on the gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit.

40. LaCugna's overall assessment of Catechism's presentation of the Trinity in terms of contemporary ways of thinking is accurate: “On this score, the Catechism mostly fails because its main thrust seems to be the repetition of conciliar statements, rather than a dynamic, vital restatement of what the doctrine of the Trinity really seeks to affirm, namely, that both God and human beings, and indeed all of creation, find their fulfillment in communion rather than solitariness” (“The Doctrine of the Trinity,” 71).

41. To put it in technical terms, Catechism begins with the “economic Trinity” rather than the “immanent Trinity,” and roots its theologia in the oikonomia. Catechism explains the mutual dependence between theologia andoikonomia in no. 236: “Through the oikonomia the theologia is revealed to us; but conversely, the theologiailluminates the whole oikonomia. God's works reveal who he is in himself; the mystery of his inmost being enlightens our un­derstanding of all his works.” This statement, though helpful, is ambiguous, because it does not say explicitly that we do not have any epistemological access to the theologia except through the oikonomia, or to God's “inmost being” except through “God's works.” This does not mean that we should not undertake a reflection on the “intratrinitarian” relations among the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit with the help of various analogies and metaphors beyond the (mostly narrative) biblical categories. Such a reflection is necessary not so much in order to gain a deeper understanding of a Trinity allegedly lying beyond or be­hind the Trinity we have experienced in the history of salvation (the so‑called-immanent Trinity, a kind of a double of the economic Trinity) but to ward off misunderstandings of the Trinity as it has given itself to us such as tritheism, Arianism, and modalism.

42. Catechism discusses the one God in nos. 200‑227. It is to be noted with commenda­tion that its treatment of the one God is not the usual treatise De Deo Uno. It is not based on the philosophy of the divine essence; rather it is deeply rooted in the biblical revelation of the divine name.

43. Catechism tries to make up for the absence of a thorough presentation of the works of the Trinity in the history of salvation With a brief description of how the Father was revealed by the Son and how the Father and the Son were revealed by the Spirit in nos. 238‑248.

44. Catechism explicates all these intricate concepts in two short paragraphs, nos. 251 and 252.

45. This point is forcefully argued by Catherine LaCugna, God for Us, 209‑32. I disagree, however, with her collapsing the immanent Trinity into the economic Trinity (she pre­fers the use of theologia and economiarespectively), by dispensing with the distinction be­tween God's life ad intra and ad extra.

46. Rahner argues convincingly for his point in his The Trinity, 83 ‑99,

47. Walter Kasper remarks that “what Rahner sets down as a basic principle reflects a broad consensus among the theologians of the various churches.” See Kasper 1984: 274. Kasper goes on making some useful warnings against misinterpreting “Rahner's Rule”. (275‑77). For a Protestant perspective on Rahner's Rule, see Jüngel 1976 with his “principle of corre­spondence.”

48. For insightful reflections on the implications of the doctrine of the Trinity for prayer and worship, see LaCugna,God for Us, 321‑68.

49. For kinds of experiences of the Holy Spirit today, see Rhaner 1979).

50. For an excellent essay on the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Christian, see Wong 1992: 57‑95. For recent important studies on the Spirit, see Congar 1983), Comblin 1989; and Welker 1994).

51. I am aware that the placement of the doctrine of the Trinity in systematic theology presents a notorious problem. While most theologians would abandon the traditional divi­sion of the treatise of God into two parts, De Deo Uno and De Deo Trino, some (e.g., Karl Barth) would begin the whole dogmatics with the doctrine of the Trinity, others would not give a particular treatment to it but make it the overall structuring principle, the inner ration­ale of all theology (e.g., the so‑called Dutch Catechism). My suggestion here is that at least as acatechetical strategy, it would be better to place the doctrine of the Trinity after christology and pneumatology and to reverse the order Father‑Son‑Spirit to Spirit‑Son ‑Father.

52. See von Balthasar 1993: 140, “The Son's Cross is the revelation of the Father's love (Romans 8, 32; John 3, 16), and the bloody outpouring of that love comes to its inner fulfillment in the shedding abroad of their common Spirit in the hearts of men” (Romans 5:5).

53. See von Balthasar 1993: 174‑76. In his speculations on the meaning of the cross and Holy Saturday von Balthasar was heavily indebted to the mystical experiences of Adrienne von Speyr. For an exposit on of von Balthasar's theology of the Trinity and the cross, see O’Hanlon 1990: 110-30.

54. The notion of person as relationality is well developed by LaCugna, God for Us, 243­-305. Influences on her in this respect include philosopher John Macmurray and Orthodox theologian John Zizioulas. For Macmurray, see 1957 and 1961; for Zizioulas, see 1985.

55. This idea is developed by Pannenberg 1991: 259-336.

56. For reflections on the unity of God as communion in love, see Kasper 1984: 290-99 and Boff 1988.

57. See Moltman 1981: 191-222 and Boff 1988: 123-54. Ted Peters (1993: 184-86) objects to using the doctrine of the Trinity as a model for society; he proposes the symbol of the kingdom of God instead.

58. See Panikkar 1970; Brück 1991 and 1990.

59. This thesis is forcefully argued by Ted Peters, in the wake of Pannenberg, (Peters 1993: 46‑87). I am in agreement with Peters' basic thesis regarding the eschato­logical incorporation of human history into the Trinitarian life, though I question the validity of the Moltmann‑ Pannenberg‑Jenson‑Peters conclusion that the immanent Trinity is there­fore “open” and that “God's self‑definition through the economy of salvation will become the immanent Trinity when God's work of creation and reconciliation is finally consum­mated” (p. 144) and that “God is in the process of constituting himself as a God who is in relationship with what is other than God” (p. 145). For an alternative view which also takes God's becoming seriously but does not collapse the immanent into the economic Trinity, see O’Donnell 1989: 159‑72.


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