74 God "desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth":29 that is, of Christ Jesus.30 Christ must be proclaimed to all nations and individuals, so that this revelation may reach to the ends of the earth:
God graciously arranged that the things he had once revealed for the salvation of all peoples should remain in their entirety, throughout the ages, and be transmitted to all generations.31
Paragraph 74 opens a new section entitled “God comes to meet man.” The next segment will examine the content of Revelation and the way it is passed down. Specifically, the nature of the Sacred Scripture and the unique authority of the Church to transmit the truth of Christ—known technically as Tradition with a capital “t.”
The opening sentence encompasses two bedrock beliefs: (1) that God “desires all men to be saved” and (2) that God desires “all men to come to knowledge of the truth.” It is important to reflect separately on each point, because the second is meaningless without the first. For the work of teaching the knowledge of truth rests upon the belief that there is something inherently wrong with the human species that needs fixing or completion. The term for that “fixing” is salvation, and the description of the “fixing” in theological terms is soteriology.
Soteriology is a very slippery eel to grasp hold of, and my early morning research raised more questions than answers. Every religion worth its salt has its own formula to describe what it is that man needs from God. I did learn that Calvinists have an interesting catechetical mnemonic for the salvific process known as TULIP: Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, and Perseverance of the Saints. In the Calvinist-Presbyterian tradition, man is utterly depraved. He can do nothing at all on his own behalf to improve his lot. God elects certain individuals unconditionally, for no corresponding human reason. The saving merit of Jesus’ death, an act of reparation for human depravity, is limited to those already elected by God. God’s grace is irresistible; man does not have the power to resist it, though only the elect receive the grace. Once elected, it is impossible to lose the election, as the overriding power of God keeps the elected on the straight and narrow. The familiar word “predestination” flows from this tradition.
I suspect that if I had coffee with a professional theologian of the Calvinist tradition, he or she would kindly point out how I have mangled several key points of TULIP. A Calvinist attuned to Catholic theology and worship might ask me why, in 2011, the English Mass translation of the consecration of the cup was changed such that Jesus’ blood was shed not “for all” but “for many.” (A good discussion here for another day.) Yet the basic principles of Calvinist tradition on the nature of salvation do in fact contrast with several Catholic beliefs that we have covered in previous Thursday posts, such as man’s natural gifts to come to knowledge of a supreme being and a natural order of goodness.
The poor man’s summary of Catholic salvific history (soteriology) holds that God created man in pure generosity as a free subjective being able to engage in the give-and-take of a love relationship with his maker. This same gift of freedom enabled man to violate the loving relationship in acts of rebellion, symbolized in Jewish Scripture by the deeds of Adam and Eve, the youngest son of Noah, etc. In God’s good time he sent his son (essentially himself) in one final offer of full unity and love, with a new covenant or marriage that man remained free to embrace through baptism and a life of holiness. Enduring faithfulness would lead to full union with the loving God for all eternity. (Acts 2 is considered a very early summary of how the Apostolic era would have laid out the soteriological plan.)
I realize, of course, that most of everything I wrote in the previous paragraph is an object of profound complexity to any thoughtful individual, Catholic or not. Plato’s maxim about the emptiness of thoughtless living, void of reflection, applies here as elsewhere. Roman Catholicism, to this day, continues to refine its understanding of creation, the nature of “man’s fall,” the full dimensions of free will, the language of God’s revelation, the precise moral implications of the new covenant, and the nature of evil, to name but a few areas of energetic research. The prime purposes of such exploration are better comprehension of fullness and mystery of God, greater self-understanding, and the formation of a missionary message.
“Coming to the knowledge of the truth” is an adventure that never ends, at least in our human lifetimes. If indeed knowledge of our awesome God is the end of our quest, there is no point at which I can say I mastered it. Living as I do near Cape Canaveral, I am used to seeing rockets heading into space, some with telescopes that peer further and further into the universe. For all the knowledge garnered by these space telescopes, and despite the spectacular beauty of the pictures from Mars to Pluto, more knowledge brings more questions, humbling us by what we do not know. God is indeed “other.” Those of us in the educating and catechizing business must avoid the temptation to serve up “propositional religion” because of the danger of serving up idolatry, i.e., a God who is definable, predictable, and easily mastered.
The language of para. 74 is a launching pad (continuing the rocket metaphor), an invitation to be saved and to come to divine knowledge. This paragraph intimates that the quest for knowledge of God and the invitation of other to join this search is not a quest for a verbal creed or indisputable propositions, but a risk-taking venture more like entering a life-long relationship with a spouse. Little wonder that marriage is a sacrament of God’s presence.