St. Irenaeus of Lyons repeatedly speaks of this divine pedagogy using the image of God and man becoming accustomed to one another: The Word of God dwelt in man and became the Son of man in order to accustom man to perceive God and to accustom God to dwell in man, according to the Father's pleasure.5
This is a particularly rich paragraph from the Catechism in terms of its content, and it serves as the starting point for a number of paragraphs to follow. The focal point is the manner in which God reveals His truth, or more specifically, his divine truth or what we call Revelation. Pedagogically speaking, the Catechism is moving forward from the earlier paragraphs that talk of what man is naturally created to know, to the region of what we would never deduce without the direct intervention of God.
The very opening term, “divine Plan,” is synonymous with God’s oversight. Everything that is recorded in the Hebrew and Christian Testaments is a component of that plan, though one of the most critical parts of Jesus’ ministry was “connecting the dots,” as in his lengthy Easter Sunday discussion with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. “Did not the Messiah have to undergo all this so as to enter into his glory?” (Luke 24: 13-35)
This divine plan is realized simultaneously by deeds and words which are “intrinsically bound up with each other” and shed light on each other. The footnote (4) for this quote is Dei Verbum, para. 2, the decree on divine revelation approved at Vatican II in 1965, which describes God’s desire to reveal himself to man as his pleasure, his love, and his friendship. Both documents make the point that God’s revelation is a perfect interweave of word and deed; we are saved, that is, by what we see and hear, our ultimate example being Jesus himself. Jesus expelled demons (deeds) and then explained his expulsions as signs that God’s Kingdom was at hand (words). No one could say—then or today—that Jesus was just a magician, or worse, an agent of Beelzebub; nor could he be identified as solely a wise man or philosopher. His acceptance of an ignominious and painful death was the final and lasting union of divine word and deed.
Before progressing to the next points, I should note here that both the Council and Catechism are making a strong statement of belief, that Divine Revelation resides in the total Christ we have received in the Scripture. In 1943 Pope Pius XII, in Divino Afflante Spiritu, changed the direction of the Church’s biblical studies by allowing, among other things, greater freedom to Catholic scholars to analyze the sacred texts in numerous ways. Prior to Pius XII, the Scriptures more often than not served as “proof texts” for Catholic teachings. Pius must receive some credit for changing the pastoral and catechetical mindsets of those who teach and proclaim the Scripture, so that today we work to connect the dots instead of highlighting a few.
Paragraph 53 goes on to speak of God’s graduating steps in his process of Revelation. There are multiple ways to understand this. The obvious one—and the one I think was intended by the editors—is that God revealed his truth in stages through the ages of the Hebrew Scriptures, a process that would be culminated in the person and mission of Jesus. This understanding was stated by Jesus himself in so many words; “I have not come to destroy the Law and the Prophets [the Hebrew Scriptures] but to bring them to fulfillment.” In this reading of the text there is a historical and moral merging of Judaism and Christianity that embodies God’s own sense of saving work while on a practical level delivering a death blow to lingering Christian anti-Semitism.
This formulation may also reflect a pastoral concern by the Council and the Catechism in terms of understanding the image of God that comes through the earlier Hebrew texts. The enduring picture of a wrathful God who destroyed the earth with a flood and struck poor Lot’s wife with an eternity of sodium seems to be the prevailing one in the popular mind, reinforced by a draconian elaboration of the Jewish Law in the Pentateuch. Although the violent nature of God depicted in some texts is countermanded by numerous other word portraits of a passionately loving God in the Psalms, Prophets, Wisdom Literature, and yes, the Song of Songs, para. 53 carries within it the instruction to interpret the Scripture as a whole, leading to the words of deeds of Jesus. Remember Jesus’ words to the Apostle Phillip, “He who sees me sees him who sent me.”
The sub-paragraph or elaboration under para. 53 comes from St. Irenaeus (exact lifespan uncertain, perhaps 130-210 A.D.), one of the Church’s earliest doctors of theology. He was a bishop in Gaul, now France (Lyon to be precise) who led his church through multiple crises, including a particularly cruel Roman persecution in the 170’s, and a serious heretical problem in his region involving denial of the humanity of Christ. I mention the latter because it helps to explain the logic of his teaching on divine revelation. Irenaeus speaks of the process in a way that could be misunderstood as reciprocal.
For Irenaeus the Incarnation occurred in such a way that man could become accustomed to perceive God, and then to accustom God to dwell in man. As it stands, this sentence is ripe for misunderstanding. God learning humanity from the human experience? But Irenaeus was confronting Gnosticism (from the Greek for “knowledge), a heresy with a long-shelf life: the idea that salvation was won possession by a secret wisdom, independent of a corrupt human body. It is no surprise then that Irenaeus will consistently emphasize the marriage of the “Godness of God” with the “Manhood of Man,” a precondition for understanding Jesus as truly God and truly man.
Irenaeus is one of the outstanding figures of the early Church, something of a bridge between Apostolic times and the later, more complex church structure of, say, the fourth century. It is unfortunate that he is not better known. In his lifetime he is credited with defending the most basic doctrines of the Church while developing the role of the bishop, the canon or body of books that compose the New Testament, and even the role of the Virgin Mary in the Church.
Irenaeus is appropriately cited in para. 53 (as well as in 28 others throughout the Catechism) because there is one lingering question from #53 that deserves attention: if God revealed his divine plan in stages, is He still revealing? The answer is no and yes. Paras. 65 and 66 of the Catechism state that all Revelation is complete with Jesus, or as we learned in school, with the death of the last apostle, John. However, Paras. 74-95 describe the divine authority passed from the apostles to the bishops, who preach in new circumstances and elaborate the message of Christ in new idioms and philosophical frameworks. The technical term for the Church’s accumulated wisdom is Tradition. We will address this more thoroughly as we move along. But Irenaeus is an excellent case in point of how Tradition works. He expanded the Church’s understanding of the Incarnation, Redemption, the Scriptures, Church governance, and Mary, among other components of faith. But he was always careful to cite his pedigree; he was a disciple of St. Polycarp, who had been a disciple of St. John, and thus Irenaeus could always claim with legitimacy his place in the Apostolic Tradition.