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Jesus the Divine Teacher

by Msgr. Eugene Kevane


In this article Eugene Kevane discusses the four basic areas or components of the content of Jesus' teaching: the Trinitarian faith in itself; the sacraments; Gospel morality; and prayer. He states, "Biblical scholarship has made clearer the perception that Jesus was a teacher in the full professional meaning of the word at his time. This newer insight opens the way to the young people. For young Catholics of today have a characteristic new interest in Jesus as a person and a leader. Implicit in this is a potential rediscovery of the magisterium on a large scale, which promises a rich renewal of the Church."

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Homiletic & Pastoral Review



Publisher & Date

Ignatius Press, December 1982

Biblical scholarship has made clearer the perception that Jesus was a teacher in the full professional meaning of the word at his time. This newer insight opens the way to the young people. For young Catholics of today have a characteristic new interest in Jesus as a person and a leader. Implicit in this is a potential rediscovery of the magisterium on a large scale, which promises a rich renewal of the Church.

Professor James Hitchcock has called attention to this emerging fact on more than one occasion. "The most promising thing in the Church today," he writes, "is the evident resurgence of interest in orthodox Christianity among young people. There is a tremendous hunger for genuine Catholicism waiting to be filled."1 The "Jesus-Movement" among the Protestants bears an analogous witness. Then there are the young native Israelis of Palestine, steeped in the Hebrew Scriptures by their education and in daily touch with the Holy Places of Jesus.

Pope John Paul II has made this new perception of Jesus as a Teacher official in Catechesi Tradendae, nos. 7-8. "The Gospels clearly relate occasions when Jesus taught," he writes. "It is the witness that Jesus gives of himself: 'Day after day I sat in the temple teaching.' (Matt. 26:55)... 'Crowds gathered to him again; and again, as his custom was, he taught them' (Mark 10:1)... One who teaches in this way has a unique title to the name of Teacher... This image of Christ the Teacher is at once majestic and familiar, impressive and reassuring."

The Content Of Jesus' Teaching

Did Jesus teach a specific content of doctrine? Can its elements be identified? Where does a man of Jesus' cloth find them stated today? The more recent scholarship, pioneered in Germany, shows that fresh, strong answers are to be found in a reading of the Gospels from the viewpoint of teaching and catechesis. It is clear that Jesus based his approach squarely on Hebrew theism, the Hebrew Shema, the Hebrew faith in One God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth. At the same time, he taught them the mystery of the Trinity. Within the One God of the Hebrew revelation, there are three equal divine Persons.

This enabled Jesus to teach his twelve full-time mathetai (the ordinary Greek word for "students") who he himself is, and what the religion is by which mankind is to respond to this central doctrine. From beginning to end the pattern of his teaching is Trinitarian. One may say that the New Testament reflects a teaching almost equally concerned with God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. The classic work of Jules Lebreton, S.J., History of the Dogma of the Trinity, is abidingly significant in this present doctrinally-disturbed century.

With the utmost skill as a human teacher, Jesus gradually brought these twelve disciples (or eleven of them, more exactly) to know and to profess the faith in the divine Trinity, which will characterize the Church he is building with them as its foundation. For he intends to send them to the whole world with his own identical teaching mission and doctrine.

With regard to God the Father, who is in heaven, who sees in secret and who will reward his own, Jesus taught that he was not come to destroy the prophets but to fulfill them. The substance of the Hebrew religion, its faith in the transcendent Pure Spirit, continues in this new universal Church, which he is building. Its faith in the revealed concept of a personal God, his attributes, his almighty creating power and his Providence over his creation, will be handed to all the Gentile nations by Jesus' ongoing teaching program.

In their daily life with him, the disciples came to know Jesus very well indeed. Gradually they learned to recognize him as the only begotten Son of God, their Lord: one in his divine Person, but possessing two natures, the nature of Yahweh, the Supreme Being of the universe, and the human nature he took to himself by being born of his human mother, the Virgin Mary. Thus, as a result of the program of their Teacher, the Apostles became able to celebrate his death in charity, to proclaim his resurrection with living faith, and to look forward with firm hope to his Second Coming in glory, to judge the living and the dead.

Divine Simplicity Shines Through

Furthermore, he taught them that there is a third divine Person, the Holy Spirit of God. In fact he impressed on them his intention to send this divine Person upon them as the Spirit of Truth to support their teaching of the faith, as the Spirit of Life to animate the sacraments of his religion, and as the Spirit of Holiness to sustain the life of prayer and Gospel morality in his Church. These are the four basic areas or components of the content of Jesus' teaching: the Trinitarian faith in itself; the sacraments; Gospel morality; and prayer.

Thus Jesus' teaching fulfilled in a divinely simple, yet, masterfully comprehensive way his own first call as an "Evangelist" when he began his public life. The summary in Mark 1:14-15, can only have come from an eye-witness: "After John had been delivered up, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of the Kingdom of God, and saying, 'The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the gospel.' " He taught them the essential content of this gospel, its "articles" or "elements" which they were to believe with divine faith. And he helped them take up in personal response this metanoia or repentance. This is the Christian way of life in its three fundamental activities: personal prayer, Gospel morality and the practice of the seven sacraments, which he taught them to administer in his Church. Again, the same four basic areas or components of the content of Jesus' teaching.

The Deposit Of Faith

Jesus, in his very being and presence as a teacher, cuts through all contemporary agonizing over the question whether the words of man can express the things of God. He taught his disciples with his human lips using their own human discourse. But what he taught them was the very Word of God. Mankind need not lie prone in religious ignorance. They came to realize this. They accepted the content of Jesus' teaching as the very Word of God. This is what he wanted them to do—and sent them as his Apostles to bring others to do.

By continuing Jesus' teaching in its content and in the Trinitarian pattern, which stabilizes the content, the Apostles actually make Jesus' Church "apostolic" in character. This teaching, furthermore, gives the Church its unity. It is always and everywhere the same, whether at Antioch or Ephesus or Rome or Paris or New York. And it is a holy Church because of this teaching of the divine faith and the triple response of the metanoia. Jesus' teaching Church is "One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic."2

It would be difficult to exaggerate the love of the original Apostolic Church for this deposit of faith. The very word paratheke, "deposit," is used in the inspired text of the Greek New Testament. Norbert Brox, in his commentary on 1 Tim. 6:20-21, expresses the consensus of contemporary exegesis: "The paratheke designates the Faith insofar as it is a heritage which is handed on. It is the substance of the orthodox teaching."3

Always and everywhere, furthermore, this teaching is a practical matter linked with Baptism and the living of the new way of life. Cut to the heart when they heard St. Peter's first evangelizing of the faith, his hearers said to Peter and the Apostles, "What must we do, brothers?" "You must repent," Peter answered, "and every one of you must be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit" (Acts 2:37-38).

The Trustees Of The Deposit

Where is the deposit located? To whom has it been entrusted? Every convert asks these questions when on the road to Rome with John Henry Newman. Is it like a fund placed in Bankers' Trust? Like jewelry in a lockbox? Not so: that mode of an inert object is not the correct imagery. The divine Teacher was too excellent a teacher for anything like that. He did not even hand his students a written summary with fixed terminology. He was sending them to all nations where they would have to use all languages. Rather, as the master of his teachers' art, Jesus gave them their own mastery of the meaning and the Trinitarian pattern of his message. Then, knowing very well the frailty of human beings, he promised to send his Spirit of Truth to stay abidingly with them in their teaching of his deposit.

Where then is the deposit located? It is located in the teaching of these apostles whom Jesus taught and trained, and after them in the apostolic teaching body, which has grown and unfolded from them as an oak from an acorn. It is located in the living teaching of the men of the cloth, the men of the Sacrament of Holy Orders. Vatican II puts the constant self-understanding of the Church on this point into lapidary summary in Lumen Gentium, no. 25.

We men of the cloth have this charge, each in the place and way proper to bishops, priests, and deacons. Since the writer stands with the priests, these considerations turn primarily about the priestly role in this trusteeship, although in the last analysis the trust is held by all together. This can be seen readily from the rites by which we receive Holy Orders. At his ordination each bishop affirms his resolution "to maintain the content of faith, entire and uncorrupted, as handed down by the apostles and professed by the Church at all times and places." Each priest expresses his resolution "to exercise the Ministry of the Word worthily and with wisdom, preaching the gospel and explaining the Catholic faith." The deacons likewise profess their intention to participate in this same ministry of teaching, resolving "to hold with a clear conscience to the Mystery of Faith, as the Apostle calls it, and to proclaim this faith in word and action taught by the gospel and the Church's tradition."4

Is this deposit of faith, this teaching proper to us men of the cloth, is it stated and formulated anywhere, clearly and with authority? Yes indeed: first, in the Apostles' Creed and its official doctrinal developments from the Nicene Creed to the Creed of the People of God after Vatican II; secondly, in the official Catechisms which explain this living credal profession, especially in that unique pastoral document of the magisterium, The Roman Catechism, which John XXIII pressed us so urgently to recover.5

These are the instruments by which Jesus the Divine Teacher has been continuing his teaching through our ministry. They express the rule of faith and the norm of teaching for all our pulpits, teachers' classrooms and ecclesiastical jurisdictions.

Jesus Christ, through this program he places in our hands, is by all odds the greatest teacher who has ever appeared on the human scene. This is true from the viewpoint of the elevating quality and purpose of his teaching. It is true from the viewpoint of the lasting sway over men and nations, which he has exercised by means of his teaching. Prescinding from the countless millions of ordinary good Christians and their works across the Christian era, we need think only of the martyrs and the saints. Most of them had only Jesus' own teaching program, given to them in its elements, in the divinely simple deposit of the faith and its triple response of the metanoia. It is also true from the viewpoint of its structure. The Articles of Faith, which the Creed professes, are the elements of doctrine, which constitute its elementary level. Are they too difficult for children? Jesus had no such idea. "Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs" (Mark 10:14). In fact, his idea was that adults must grasp these Articles of Faith as the little children do (see Mark 10:15). The very Articles of Faith, let us stress the point, are the elements for an elementary level of teaching that implements "the simple and objective kind of instruction which is appropriate for children."6

The structure of Jesus' program has a second and higher level. These same divinely simple Articles, elements proper to children, coming as they do from the higher order of revealed knowledge, can be taken as first principles and the point of departure in human thinking so as to build the new science proper to the People of God called theology. And the higher light of the Articles of Faith can shine from theology upon all learned discourse in all other branches of human knowledge. Thus the "religious way of thinking" comes into existence which constitutes catechesis for adolescents and adults.7

Jesus' teaching program is the perfect antidote for intellectual pride in all its varied forms. It is a magnificent program from every point of view. When all its aspects are considered, what other teacher in human history can even distantly compare with Jesus Christ? What better thing could one do than enable him to continue his program of teaching in his body, which is the teaching Church?

A Deepening Shadow

For a century and a half, however, a shadow has been falling across Jesus' program for handing on his deposit by teaching. It was first noticed, to be exact by Pope Gregory XVI, in the document Dum acerbissimas published in 1835. The Church always encounters opposition from this world, he writes, but now a different kind of trouble is becoming visible. There are teachers inside the Church, he continues, who think they have hit upon a new way of exercising their mission of teaching, one which will make it more successful. But they are deceived. "They are profaning their teaching office," he says, "and are adulterating the sacred deposit of the faith."8

Under the leadership of the Holy See, there has been a growing concern in the Church since that date for the deposit of faith, and a constantly renewed effort to parry the danger by seeking an authentic renewal of catechesis. This is the declared concern of Vatican I and even more so of Vatican II in the words of Pope John XXIII on Oct. 11, 1962, by which he gave his Council its pastoral purpose and orientation. This concern has prompted the cluster of Twentieth Century catechetical documents of the Supreme Magisterium, unique since the Apostles, from Acerbo Nimis of St. Pius X to Catechesi Tradendae of John Paul II.

Hold Fast To The Deposit

Why so? Because the small beginning noted in 1835 has continued to grow into a body of teaching which militates against accepting this deposit of faith from the lips of the Teaching Church as the Apostles received it from the lips of their Teacher, accepting it as it truly is, the Word of God, and not some human thinking (see 1 Thess. 2:13). In this contrary philosophizing and theologizing, the efficacy of Jesus' sacraments becomes a question. The power Jesus conferred on the Apostles and their successors is likewise a question. Was divine public revelation really closed with Jesus and his Apostles, or is it rather still going on in our modern progress? It becomes a question whether the new way of Christian life is a response to norms, which are absolute, that is, which bind in every case and on all people. It is questioned whether Jesus was really a divine person in the way the deposit always has taught.

It is but a short step from the chairs of such professors and their writings to the superficial slogans now familiar to all. "You can't give them propositions; you have to give them experiences." "All you need is Jesus. You don't need all that old doctrine and its abstract statements." The slogans abound. They reflect an alienation from the deposit of faith, a loss of perceptiveness regarding its nature, an unconcern for handing it on, especially to the young, in its simple elements, by a true and real formative teaching. Next come the statements of policy, reflecting the slogans. Those who hold fast to the deposit of faith are said to "veer off to the right," as if the divine deposit were reducible to the categories of the secular politicians, "right" and "left," "conservative" and "liberal." The deposit becomes at best only one option, and not really the good one. However useful these categories may be in the social and political order, they are the kind of "dichotomies which catechesis must remain above," as John Paul II says in Catechesi Tradendae, no. 52.

Perhaps the most superficial slogan of all wishes an approach and a set of books, which will "pull those two extremes together." Newman saw through this fallacy throughout his life. If the deposit of faith is really absent in the one and really present in the other, only a Hegelian mentality or the shallowness Newman describes, in his Idea of a University, can have such a thought. Why? Because the result would no longer be Jesus' deposit. All such slogans sin intellectually through a failure to consider the implications of the fact that the deposit of faith comes to us from the lips of Jesus the Divine Teacher.9

There is a related slogan, which has even more devastating implications. "There is nothing in the Apostles' Creed about the Eucharist!" As if the Eucharist, and hence the Sacrifice of the Mass, and hence the Sacrament of Holy Orders, and hence the Church herself together with the meaning of her treasured deposit, were therefore now to be reinterpreted.

The Challenge Of Witness

Is the Eucharist really absent from the Apostles' Creed? From the deposit of faith? The deposit is not a mechanical matter of words but of the meaning of the Creed taught since the Apostles by the living magisterium of the Church. Hence, everything depends on our communion, men of the cloth, with the Holy See of St. Peter.

Quite contrary to the smirky slogan, the Eucharist is present in the deposit of faith as the full meaning of the teaching, which Jesus gave to his Apostles. The Eucharist is today the full meaning of our own personal baptismal profession and of the teaching entrusted to us to do, in every form of priestly ministry, whether in the pulpit, at the teacher's desk or on the writing table. But this full meaning, it is becoming clear, is going to depend increasingly on full communion with the Vicar of Christ in Rome.

All of us Catholics, but especially we, men of the cloth, have a witness to give. "You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you," Jesus said to the Apostles and hence to each of us ordained into their succession, "and then you will be my witnesses not only in Jerusalem but throughout Judaea and Samaria, and indeed to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8). The doctrine, the content of our teaching, the deposit of faith, is the instrument for the witnessing. There is no other. The teaching is the witnessing. If the teaching fails, so will the witnessing. The concern for the deposit, which is the unifying bond of all the documents of the magisterium in these modern times, is a Christocentric concern. This is the reason for the Holy Thursday letters of Pope John Paul II, and for his linking them with an authentic catechetical teaching of the deposit. Love for its doctrine is a part of love for Jesus, the true and real Jesus of our baptismal profession, of the Apostles' Creed, and of the Eucharistic Presence.

Since his ordination, Rev. Msgr. Eugene Kevane has been concerned with teaching the faith on all levels. After some years as Dean of Education at the Catholic University of America, in 1969, he was appointed Director of the Notre Dame Pontifical Catechetical Institute, Middleburg, Virginia. Msgr. Kevane also teaches catechetics at the Angelicum University in Rome. He is the author of the impressive Creed and Catechetics (Christian Classics, 1978).


1 James Hitchcock, Newsletter, Fellowship of Catholic Scholars (June, 1981), p. 1.

2 The profession of the Nicene Creed regarding the Church.

3 Norbert Brox, Le lettere pastorali (Brescia: Morcelliana, 1970), p. 348, on 1 Tim 6: 20-21. The word paratheke, meaning a valuable treasure entrusted as a "deposit" to another person for safe-keeping, is used also at 2 Tim. 1: 14, For a study of this Greek word for "a deposit" as used in the Bible, see Kittel-Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Erdmans, 1972), Vol. 8, pp. 152-168. The idea occurs in many other places and might be called one of the unifying thematic concepts, which runs through the New Testament as a whole. See 1 Tim. 1: 10; 4:6; 4:13; 4:16; 6:1; 6:3; 2 Tim. 3:10; 4:2-4; Titus 1:9; 2:1; 2:7; 2:10; Heb. 13:7-9; James 1:5-8; 2 Peter 1:16-21; 1 John 2:18-25; 2 John 9-11.

4 Roman Pontifical, "The Ordination of Deacons, Priests, and Bishops," (Washington: NCCB, 1969), p. 37, p. 26 and p. 14. That the "deposit of faith" is directly and explicitly concerned is even more visible in the official Latin: "Vultis depositum fidei, secundum traditionem inde ab Apostolis in Ecclesia semper et ubique servatam, purum et integrum custodire?" And the answer: "Volo." These concepts in the Rites of Ordination in current, post-conciliar use, have come across the centuries: the Catholic Church has used them faithfully since apostolic times. Did Jesus entrust the deposit of faith also to religious sisters and to the laity, especially the mothers and fathers of families? Indeed, but in a different way and with a different kind of responsibility, which involves his holy Virgin Mother and saints like Therese of Lisieux and her family. To elaborate this point would call for a separate study.

5 So called generally; in the English-speaking world it has sometimes been given the less correct title "Catechism of the Council of Trent."

6 General Catechetical Directory, no. 83.

7 Ibid., no. 88.

8 Gregory XVI, Dum acerbissimas (1835), (Rome: Acta Gregorii XVI, 1901), Vol. II, p. 85.

9 The Church has been stressing this from Gregory XVI to John Paul II today. See the documentation in Denziger-Schonmetzer from no. 2738 to no. 3500; a mere list of the relevant numbers would fill a large paragraph. This is the background for a correct and fruitful understanding of Catechesi Tradendae. Over a decade ago, Dr. Charles E. Rice analyzed the current situation with precision in his Authority and Rebellion: The Case for Orthodoxy in the Catholic Church (New York: Doubleday, 1971). "It would be preferable," he writes, "to speak of orthodox and unorthodox rather than conservative and liberal… The implication that contrary views on basic issues are as acceptable in the Church as they are in civil society contributes to an improper division of Catholics into parties within the Church" pp. 3-4. This pinpoints neatly the current effort to politicize the Catholic religion.

© The Homiletic & Pastoral Review, Ignatius Press

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