Catholic Culture Liturgical Living
Catholic Culture Liturgical Living

The MOST Theological Collection: A Basic Catholic Catechism

"Part I: Salvation History"


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What do we mean by saying, "Salvation history? We mean the story of Our Father's dealing with the human race. At the start, He picked one people for special help, and planned later to offer this special help to all people. We can see this from what St. Paul says Ephesians 3. 3-6. Paul says that God has revealed to him the mystery that earlier times had not known. It was this: not only the Jews, but the gentiles too are called to be part of the people of God!

But even before Christ came, Our Father did provide for the gentiles, who were not among the chosen people. St. Paul reasons this way in Romans 3. 29: "Is He the God of the Jews only ? Is He not the God also of the gentiles?" St. Paul means that if God did not take care for the salvation of all, He would act as though He were the God of the Jews only. But, St. Paul insists, He did take care for all. He did this through faith. He did this even for those who had never heard of the future coming of Christ.

We can see this from what St. Paul tells us in Romans 2. 14-16. There Paul says that Spirit of God, who is of course the same as the Spirit of Christ, writes His law in the hearts of all. Those who accept that law, may not know that what they are accepting is the Spirit of Christ. Still, they really accept that Spirit of Christ, if they do what He tells them in their hearts to do. So they have what we could all an implicit faith. So, because they accept the Spirit of Christ - without knowing that that is what they are doing -- they can even be called Christians. For St. Justin the Martyr, around 150 A.D., in his First Apology 46 said that many in the past who even might have seemed to be atheists, were really Christians, because they followed the Divine Word. That is what we have just described. St. Augustine wrote about this, in his Retractations (1. 13. 3) where he answered the pagan Celsus. Celsus said it seemed as though God took no care of people in past times. St. Augustine said: "This very thing which is now called the Christian religion existed before. It was not absent from the beginning of the human race, until Christ Himself came in the flesh, and then the true religion, that already existed, began to be called Christian."

Scientists don't agree on how old the human race is. But in 1983 Allan Wilson of the University of California, Berkeley, wrote that all the human there are today descended from one mother, who lived 350, 000 years ago (Science News, August 13, 1983). Many scientists today think Wilson is right, but they now say the mother lived 200, 000 years ago (Newsweek, Jan 11, 1988).

The oldest religions for which we have good records are those of the Near East, especially, the Egyptians,

Assyrians, and Babylonians. The Pyramid Texts, carved on the walls and rooms of Egyptian pyramids, tell us much. They date from about 2800 B.C. These peoples all were polytheists, that is, they believed in many gods. However, many anthropologists tell us that the most primitive peoples we know about, seem to have worshipped only one God, and many of them called Him Sky Father. It is likely that our whole race was similar at the start, after the fall of Adam and Eve.

Abraham the Father of All Believers

Abram, later called Abraham, came from Ur, near the north end of the Persian Gulf. His father Terah moved the family north to Haran (Genesis 11:25-31). When did the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob live?, Educated guesses run from about 2000 to 1700 B.C.

When Abram was 75 years old, God told him to move to Canaan. He did that with His wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, and their followers (Genesis 12:4). In chapter 15 of Genesis we read that God promised Abram his descendants would be as numerous as the stars of the sky. Abraham believed God. The faith made Abram righteous: he became in the right with God, he received what we call sanctifying grace. St. Paul, in Galatians 3:6-9 and all of chapter 4 of Romans, says we become children of Abraham by imitating his faith, and in that way we too are justified. (Later we will see what St. Paul means by faith. Briefly, it includes belief in what God teaches, confidence in His promises, , obedience to God's commands, and love.

But St. Paul stresses that Abraham got this justification even before God commanded him to be circumcised, for God did not order that until later, in chapter 17 of Genesis. In that chapter, we read that God changed the name to Abraham from Abram, and changed his wife's name to Sarah. This happened when Abraham was 99 years ago, and Sarah was 90. She had been sterile, unable to have children, all her life. Yet God promised that in the next year she would have a son, Isaac, and that through him Abraham would be the father of many nations.

Sometime later, when Isaac was still a young boy, God ordered Abraham (Genesis chapter 22) to offer Isaac as a sacrifice on a certain mountain. Abraham did not hesitate, even though this seemed to clash with the promise that many nations would come from him through Isaac. He went ahead, and was on the point of actually killing Isaac, when an angel told him to stop. He then offered a ram, who was stuck in the bushes, in place of his son. This was magnificent faith which held on even when it seemed impossible to believe.

Toward the end of his life, Abraham arranged to have Isaac marry one of his kinsfolk, Rebekah (Genesis 24). Abraham left all his possessions to Isaac, and died at the age of 175 (Genesis 25).

Isaac had twin sons, Esau and Jacob. God changed Isaac's name to Israel, which became the name of all the Hebrew people (Genesis 32:29). Jacob had twelve sons, each of whom was the head of one of the twelve tribes of Israel.

One of the most beautiful and moving stories in Scripture was that of Joseph, the older of the two sons of Jacob by Rachel. Joseph was favored by his Father. So his brothers became jealous of him and sold him as a slave into Egypt. There he was put into prison for refusing the advances of the wife of his owner, for she charged him with exactly what he had refused. In prison he was able to interpret dreams of two of the Pharaoh's former servants. One was executed, the other restored to favor. The one who was restored forgot Joseph until the King himself had strange dreams. So they called Joseph was summoned. He said the dreams meant 7 years of great crops were coming, and then seven years of famine. Joseph said they should save grain in the 7 rich years. Pharaoh made him Vizier, that is, second in command in Egypt. When the famine came, Joseph's aged father had to send his brothers to Egypt for grain. They did not recognize Joseph, dressed as the powerful Vizier. He put them to some tests, but finally in a most dramatic scene said: "I am Joseph, your brother." Can we imagine the look on their faces! The Pharaoh invited Jacob and the whole tribe to move to Egypt, to Goshen. Jacob however had asked to be buried in Canaan with Abraham and Isaac. Joseph did as his Father asked.

Before dying, Jacob gave a blessing to each of his sons, and foretold about Judah (Genesis 49. 10): "The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler's staff from between his feet, until Shiloh comes ."Shiloh meant the Messiah, the one who was to be sent. This prophecy was fulfilled most dramatically! For there always was some kind of ruler from the tribe of Judah until 41 B.C. when Rome put Herod over them. Herod was supposed to follow the Jewish religion, but was not from the tribe of Judah. By birth he was half Arab, half Idumean.

The Messiah in Prophecy

At this point let us say something about the marvelous sweep of our Father's plans, and the prophecies over the whole time of the Old Testament. We are going to get help from some ancient Jewish documents called Targums, to understand the prophecies. These were old Aramaic translations of the Scriptures, which were free in their language, and filled in interpretations to show how to understand the prophecies. We know the Jews saw these things without seeing them fulfilled in Christ, for they rejected Him. We know that after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. the Jews lost interest in the Messiah until about 500 A.D. Even then they did not speak of most of the ancient prophecies, only that he should be of the line of David. So we can be sure these Targum interpretations were very early, before 70 AD, for they could not have been written in the centuries when the Jews no longer cared to speak of the Messiah. Yet the Targums saw the Messiah in very many places in the Old Testament.

Here are the chief ones. Right after the fall of Adam and Eve, God promised (Genesis 3:15): "I will put enmity between you [the serpent] and the woman, between your offspring and hers. He will strike at your head, you will strike at his heel." The Targum saw this was in a way Messianic, and said it involved a victory for the sons of the woman. Today the Church (cf. LG § 55) with the help of fuller light from the Holy Spirit, sees Our Lady, the Mother of the Redeemer, and her Son in this text.

When the Jews were near to the promised land after their long wandering, the King of Moab hired a pagan prophet, Balaam, (Numbers 22-24) to curse the Jews. But Balaam, moved by God, could not curse them, instead he blessed them, and foretold that a star would arise out of Jacob. The Targums know this was the Messiah. Centuries later, sometime before 700 B.C., the great Prophet Isaiah in 9:5-6 spoke of a child, whom the Targums said was the Messiah: "A child is born to us, a son is given to us, the government is upon his shoulder. His name shall be called Wonderful Counsellor, God the Mighty, Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace."

Now since the large passage of Isaiah 7:1 through 12:6 is called and is, the Book of Emmanuel, it is clear that the child of Isaiah 7. 14 is also the Messiah: "Behold the Virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel." The Targums as they are today do not make this line messianic. But we know that the great teacher Hillel of the time of Christ did say it talked about the Messiah. We know that later Jews stopped calling it Messianic, to try to oppose the Christian use of the text.

When the Magi came to Jerusalem to ask where the new King was to be born, Herod called in the Jewish theologians. They had no difficulty replying it was at Bethlehem, according to the prophet Micah 5:2.

The Targum also knew that Isaiah 53, - the prophecy of the Passion - was messianic, though again in their eagerness to oppose Christ, they later distorted it. And Jesus Himself on the cross let us know that Psalm 22 referred to His Passion. In that Psalm verses 16- 17 say: "They have pierced my hands and my feet."

No wonder that some fine Jewish scholars today, like Jacob Neusner say that at the time of Christ, the Jews were strongly expecting the Messiah.

Further, if even the Jews could see so much in these prophecies, it is evident that Our Lady, full of grace, would see it all the more easily. For when the Archangel told her (Lk 1:33) that her Son would reign over the house of Jacob forever, she could not miss the fact that He was to be the Messiah. Jews in general then said the Messiah would reign forever.

Moses and the Ten Commandments

Easily the greatest human figure in the Old Testament was Moses, who is mentioned 80 times in the Old Testament, more than any other person. He came from the tribe of Levi, which was to be the priestly tribe. When a new dynasty of Pharaohs came in Egypt that did not remember the great things Joseph had done, the Pharaoh began to oppress the Jews. He even ordered all boy babies to be killed. But the mother of Moses put him into a basket on the edge of the Nile. There the daughter of the Pharaoh found him, and raised him as her own. Later Moses left the royal court, and went to Midian, where God appeared to him in a burning bush (Exodus 3), revealed His name, and told him to go to the Pharaoh to deliver the people of Israel from slavery. It took ten plagues to make Pharaoh willing to release them.

After this Moses led them through the Red Sea, which miraculously opened for them. They came to the foot of Mt. Sinai, where God gave Moses the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20), written on two stone tablets (Deuteronomy 4:13).

The Gospels will picture Jesus as the new Moses. He is the prophet Moses foretold (Deuteronomy 18:15 and Luke 24:27). The passage of the Red See was a prefiguration - that is, a prophecy by action rather than by words - of Baptism (1 Corinthians 10:2). Moses gave the law, which Jesus said must stand (Matthew 5:17). St. Paul may seem to say we do not need to keep the law (Galatians 2:16; Romans 3:28). But as the Second Epistle of Peter warns us (2 Peter 3:16) St. Paul often speaks unclearly. But if we study his words, we see that he really means that to keep the law does not earn heaven, though to break it earns the opposite (Romans 6. 23). St. Paul also says often (1 Cor 6. 10) that those who sin greatly will not inherit the kingdom of heaven. A child does not say he earns what he inherits from his parents: he gets it because they are good, not because he is good. Our Lord expressed the same truth when He said (Matthew 18:3): "If you do not change and become like little children, you will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven".

Again, Moses gave the people manna in the journey to the Promised Land; Jesus gives us the Bread of Life, Himself in the Holy Eucharist ( John 6:32). When the people were dying from the bites of serpents, Moses put up a bronze serpent on a pole so that all who looked on it were healed: the Cross of Jesus saves us from eternal death (John 3:14). Moses had a priesthood, but that of Jesus far surpasses it (Hebrews 8:54). God made a covenant with the people through Moses, promising favor if they would obey (Exodus 19:5); Jesus sealed the New Covenant in the obedience of His own blood (Hebrews 9:11-22).

This does not mean we do not need to do anything, since His sacrifice was infinite. No: St. Paul makes clear many times over that we are saved and made holy only if and to the extent that we are members of Jesus and like Him in all thing, e.g., Romans 8. 17: "We are heirs together with Christ, provided that we suffer with Him, so we may also be glorified with Him." Moses sealed that Old Covenant with the blood of animals; Jesus sealed the New with His own blood (Hebrews 9:11-22).

David, Royal Ancestor of the Messianic King

For all his greatness, Moses was not the ancestor of Jesus. Our Lord, on the human side, came from the great King David. The genealogies in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke make that clear. St. Paul too in Romans 1:3-4 says that the Gospel is the good news about the Son of God, "who came from the line of David, according to the flesh."

So often in the Gospels we see Jesus called the "son of David" and the "seed of David." At the Annunciation, as we already saw, the Archangel told Our Lady: "The Lord God will give Him the throne of his father David; he shall rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there shall be no end' (Luke 1:32-33).

Just as David was the ruler of the kingdom of God on earth, so Jesus is the Head of His visible Kingdom, which is to last forever. The words "Kingdom of God" can vary somewhat in sense in the Gospels, but very often they mean the Church in this world and/or in the next. For example, Jesus told His enemies that "the kingdom of God will be taken from you, and given to a people who will yield a rich harvest." It meant that the fact that they were rejecting Him put them outside the Kingdom of the Messiah, the Church, the People of God (compare Romans 11:13-24, where the tame olive tree stands for the original People of God, which lost so many branches through their lack of faith in the Messiah, while gentiles from the wild olive tree were engrafted into their places). We see the fact that the kingdom often means the Church in the parable of the Mustard seed (Matthew 13:31), in the parable of the net (Matthew 13:47-50), and in many other places. At the end of the world, the angels will separate the wicked from the just, and the wicked will go into hell forever.

Jesus also made clear, especially in Matthew 5:1-12, that the joy of the Kingdom comes even in this world to the poor in spirit, to those who feed the hungry, clothe the naked in His name, and hunger or even suffer for what is righteous.

The earthly kingdom of the Church will continue in the heavenly kingdom (cf. Vatican II, LG § 48). Vatican II also taught (LG §8): "The one Mediator, Christ, established and constantly sustains His one and holy Church as the visible community of faith, hope and love, by which He pours truth and grace upon all.

Jesus is our Way, our Truth, and Our Life (John 14: 5-6). He is the Truth because it is from His teaching that we learn what we need to know to reach Heaven. He entrusted the interpretation and guarding of these truths to His Church, to which He promised divine protection in its teaching.

Jesus is also our Way, since by His example as well as by His teachings, He showed us how we need to live in this world, to attain our eternal goal. We need to follow His rules, the Commandments, and to move also in the direction of the ideals given us in the Eight Beatitudes.

He is our Life, because He gave us the Mass and the seven Sacraments, which feed , nourish, and heal us at every point in our lives. And He gave us His own prayer, the Our Father. Through the Sacraments and prayer we are born again into life, for to those who receive Him "he gave the power to become the sons of God, those who believe in His name, who are not born of blood or of the will of the flesh or of man, but of God (John 1. 12-13).

How to Give Reasons for Our Faith

When we were small, we believed things just because other older people said so. But when we grow up, we should, as St. Peter urged us (1 Peter 3:15),"Always be read to give a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you."

Let us sketch the chief lines of how this is done. We begin with the Gospels, but do not at first look upon them as inspired - we still have to prove that. So for now, we think of them only as ancient documents. We give them many tests, such as we use on other ancient documents. We reach the point where it is clear we can get from them a few simple, uncomplicated facts about Jesus (We mean things not entwined in an ancient culture, things that eyes and ears can pick up so directly and without any need of interpretation that danger of bias is not present). We look and find these six simple things: 1) There was a man called Jesus. 2) He claimed He was sent from God, as a sort of messenger. 3) He did enough, by working miracles in situations where there was a tie established between the miracle and His claims (e.g., Mark 2:1-12, where He cured the paralytic to prove He had forgiven the man's sins). 4)He had an inner circle in the crowds that followed Him, and He spoke more to them, and (5) told them to continue His work, His teaching. 6) He promised God would protect their teachings: "He who hears you hears me" (Luke 10:16. Cf. Matthew 1:17-18). He identifies with them - that is, says He who hears you hears me - not just in the way in which He identifies with the poor. No, He says they are speaking in His place as teachers, not as poor. So, finally, we see in front of us a group or Church, with a commission to teach by a messenger from God, and promised divine protection on that teaching. Then we not only may but should believe its teachings. Among other things, it tells us that this messenger from God was really God, that the ancient documents we used are really inspired, that there is a Pope, and what powers he has.

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