Inverting the Relevance of the Gospel

We hear much these days about relevance and the need to be relevant in all we do. The admonition applies to politicians, parents, teachers and especially pastors who are exhorted to make Scripture relevant to their congregations. What can we learn from the story of the Good Samaritan? Perhaps that we should extend a compassionate hand to immigrants and refugees. What can we learn from the story of Zacchaeus in the sycamore tree? Perhaps that we should be honest on our annual tax returns and not forget to give to the poor in our communities. By making the Gospels relevant in this way, it is suggested, Christianity will be able to reach the public with a message that speaks to the real life circumstances of the modern man and woman.

William F. Buckley, Jr., captured the modern understanding of relevance well: “Modern formulations are necessary even in defense of very ancient truths. Not because of any alleged anachronism in the old ideas — the Beatitudes remain the essential statements of the Western code — but because the idiom of life is always changing, and we need to say things in such a way as to get inside the vibrations of modern life.”1 So while not necessarily changing the truth conveyed in the Gospel, the modern preacher no doubt feels under a certain pressure to bring it into “the vibrations of modern life.”

It is interesting to note that the English word relevant as it is used today is a relatively modern concept. It has its roots in the Latin relevans, but the modern English cognate has little in common with the way in which the word was employed in the thought of early Christian and medieval writers. Nowhere, for example, does this brand of relevance find a place in the writings of St. Augustine or St. Thomas Aquinas. The modern reader might wonder then how the medieval thinker conveyed what we want to convey when we speak of making the Gospels relevant for contemporary audiences. What language did they use to describe the way in which we should refer the message of the Gospel to everyday living?

Well, they didn’t.

This lack of interest in making the faith relevant in the modern sense of the word was not because writers of antiquity had no interest in placing the Gospel within the perspectives of the time in which they lived. Doing so was certainly as much a concern of the Church in pre-Enlightenment Christendom as it is today. While many assume that the Church only began considering making Christianity relevant at Vatican II (an assumption that is itself a misconstrual of the Council’s aims), the work of communicating the Gospel in a cultural context has always been a primary focus of the Church. In a sense, we can speak of all twenty-one ecumenical councils as being concerned with making the mission of the Church relevant in their own day. Each council was concerned with responding to the quotidian and pressing issues the Church was facing at various times and in different places.

In his 1990 encyclical Redemptoris Missio, Pope John Paul II wrote, “as a result of the changes which have taken place in modern times and the spread of new theological ideas, some people wonder: Is missionary work among non-Christians still relevant?” (RM 1.4). His answer, throughout the encyclical, is that the mission of the Church has always been focused on bringing the Gospel to life in the context of a given time and culture. But the encyclical gives us something more: it provides us with an authentic, albeit nuanced way in which we should understand what it means to make the Gospel “relevant.”

In order to get at the heart of Redemptoris Missio’s treatment of “relevance,” it’s useful to first consider the way in which the modern term makes its way into a great many homilies each Sunday.

The modern concept of relevance is largely derived from efforts in the last century at least to “demythologize” the Gospel.2 The movement is largely identified with the work of Rudolf Bultmann who coined the term “demythologization” in order to help us avoid a “naïve acceptance of the Kerygma” resulting from an uncritical reading of the Gospel and subsequent failure to make it relevant to the modern man and woman.3 “Does the New Testament embody a truth which is quite independent of its mythical setting?” Bultmann asks; “If it does, theology must undertake the task of stripping the Kerygma from its mythical framework, of ‘demythologizing’ it.”4

Bultmann did not advocate a carte-blanche approach to the hermeneutic of demythologizing texts. But he did insist on purging a significant measure of received doctrine and tradition in the effort to make the Gospel relevant. Included among the supposed mythologies of the New Testament were the accounts of the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection of Christ. These, Bultmann maintained, were so steeped in mythological language and intent that they had lost any relevance for the modern church-goer. We need, therefore, to strip away these “mythological elements” in order to reveal the real message: a Gospel account based on the very relevant and accessible notions of forgiveness, redemption, and love, unencumbered by miracles and other such obsolete fancies.

Presumably, few Catholic pastors would go so far today as to take to the pulpit to declare that these key doctrines of the Church were naught but myth to be expunged from the congregation’s minds. But there are subtle, but no less problematic elements of the Bultmann-style hermeneutic which have found their way into a great many homilies each Sunday. That tendency — what we might call ‘inverted relevance’ — is to direct the Gospel message to the modern day, rather than the other way round. Relevance has come to mean making the Gospel seek its significance in the present, rather than inviting the present to seek significance in the Gospel.

Inverted relevance takes a Gospel narrative and attempts to interpret it according to the perspectives and needs of the present day. This approach is often based on a pastoral heuristic that considers what afflicts and provokes us today and then attempts to find something in the Gospel that addresses such concerns. We’re concerned about discrimination in the workplace: what story in the Gospel has a message for this? Perhaps Matthew 7 will do the job. We’re concerned about the poor and oppressed in our society: what narrative in the Gospel speaks to this worry? Maybe Luke 4 has it covered. We’re overwhelmed by debt and the frenetic pace of modern life: what in the Gospel can help assuage this stress? Perhaps Luke 12 has some answers. Modern life and modern concerns thus become the rule by which we measure the relevance of the Gospels. Such attempts to provide the Gospel with relevance in light of what ills or assails us today produces, ironically, a Gospel that is little more than a metaphor for modern living. Far from becoming more relevant, it becomes less so. For, if the measure of the Gospel is how it can be effectively employed to advise me today, surely there are other texts that can do the job just as well, if not better? The Gospels are thus considered a sort of sacred “chicken soup for the soul”; no doubt imbued with poetry and majesty, but ultimately little more than a self-help manual that is at the mercy of the modern reader to confer upon it some imagined relevance.

Redemptoris Missio aims to correct this inversion of relevance and to re-orient our focus on how the Gospels are truly relevant. To appreciate how the encyclical does so, it’s worth revisiting the original meaning of the word relevance — the relevans of the likes of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas.

Etymologically, relevans is closely aligned to the verbs to relieve and to elevate or, more accurately, to lift up again. In the theological context, the term relevant is a metonym for the relationship between grace and nature. The sacred texts help “lift up” the wayfaring soul into the divine light of the Logos. The illumination provided by the Gospels is what elevates us; it’s what gives our daily struggles meaning and purpose by placing them in a context we could not have imagined for them. They do this by revealing Christ at the center and meaning of history. It is not us, but Christ that is the reference point for all that is relevant. It is not my life that gives purpose to the Gospel; it is the Gospel that gives purpose to my life and my struggles. It does so by referring me to Christ himself. My life takes on meaning, mission, and purpose when considered in the context of a living relationship with Christ. By inverting this principle, I end up making Christ seek relevance according to what I consider important. Christ is important to me if he can shed light on my tax returns, on my concerns about discrimination, on my work-related stress.

“Everywhere the Scripture is about Christ alone,” declared Swiss theologian Wilhelm Vischer.5 In opposition to Bultmann, Vischer maintained — as does the Catholic Church itself — that Christ is the focus and meaning of both the Old and New Testaments. The Bible as a whole derives its relevance, not from our historical snapshot of human existence, but from the person of Christ at the center of the cosmic drama.

This is the vision of the Gospel that Redemptoris Missio wants to bring us back to. It does so, not by simply endorsing or censuring various methods of Biblical hermeneutics, but by recalling the Church’s understanding of the human person. Each person is called, in freedom, to seek a relationship with Christ. Deep within the conscience of each one of us is an incipient orientation towards the divine. The Gospel provides us with keys to unlock this character and to lead the seeker to the awareness that “there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all” (Col 3:11).

There is a sense in which the Gospel message transcends the vagaries of day-to-day living; not in a way that renders human concerns meaningless, but by placing them in a new light. “If we go back to the beginnings of the Church,” Pope John Paul II writes, “we find a clear affirmation that Christ is the one Savior of all, the only one able to reveal God and lead to God” (RM 1.5). This key principle is the correct heuristic by which we are invited to read and proclaim the Gospels.

The measure of the relevance of the Gospel is, in broad terms, the Christocentric vocation of each and every person. That vocation is an invitation to enter into a deep relationship with Christ. Hence, every Gospel passage is for the purpose of this invitation. The question we are invited to ask upon hearing the Gospel is: “what does this passage reveal to the Church about Christ?”

The inversion of this Christocentric understanding of the Gospel is to reduce both it and the human person to the trivial. “The temptation today,” the encyclical continues, “is to reduce Christianity to merely human wisdom, a pseudo-science of well-being. In our heavily secularized world a ‘gradual secularization of salvation’ has taken place, so that people strive for the good of man, but man who is truncated, reduced to his merely horizontal dimension. We know, however, that Jesus came to bring integral salvation, one which embraces the whole person and all mankind, and opens up the wondrous prospect of divine filiation” (RM 1.11).

Accordingly, the story of Zacchaeus in Luke 19 is not a parable about being honest on our tax returns or making amends for any cheating we may have done. It is a story about the person of Christ.

The Catena Aurea on the Gospel of Luke by St. Thomas includes comments on the passage in Luke 19 by eight early Christian commentators. In each case, these commentators (including Ss. Cyril, Ambrose, and Bede) seek to find a point of relevance in the story by seeking what the passage reveals about Christ. They observe, first of all, that it is Christ who initiates the meeting with Zacchaeus. Why that particular man? Of the thousands who pressed about Jesus, why did Zacchaeus attract the gaze of Christ? The story reveals something of the mystery of Christ’s gaze on each one of us. In that moment, it is as though Zacchaeus is the only character upon the world’s stage. Christ is not distracted by the milling crowds, but fixes his gaze on this character in the sycamore tree. The mercy of God becomes incarnated in this sudden and new friendship at the instigation of Christ who breaks through Zacchaeus’s curiosity and draws out the tax-collector’s repentance and love. Zacchaeus is “lifted up” in this encounter with Christ; Zacchaeus’s entire life — his past mistakes and desire for future righteousness — takes on relevance in the meeting with Christ.

Recognizing the relevance that Christ brings to the life of each one of us is not always easy to articulate. Sometimes, an encounter with Christ in the Gospels raises eyebrows: “What is this story about? How can Christ say such things?” But it is precisely these kinds of provocations which draw us more intimately into the life of Christ. We cannot explain everything Christ says and does; but everything that Christ says and does is Truth, and that Truth resonates within the soul even when not explicitly understood. It is for this reason Henri de Lubac insisted that “Catholicity has nothing to do with geography or statistics . . . its nature is not material but spiritual.”6 The Church and the Gospels are “Catholic” because they correspond to the whole person, and answer to the deepest yearning of every man and woman throughout history. The Gospels both comfort and challenge; they sometimes seem clear and sometimes obscure; they speak explicitly and tacitly; but always they speak in a way that reveals Christ to each individual through the Spirit. Such a mysterious, inner working of the Word of God often cannot be neatly parsed into a handy lesson-of-the-day.

The single, unifying hermeneutical methodology of the Church is based on the conviction that all of Scripture reveals something of Christ. Christ himself tells us as much on the road to Emmaus: “He said to them, ‘How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?’ And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Lk 24:25–27).

Because Christ alone answers to the deepest desires of the human person, every Gospel story — indeed, every Biblical account — is an invitation to know Christ more deeply. This Christological focus of the Gospel may seem obvious and a foregone conclusion in principle, but the practice is frequently something else.

Redemptoris Missio reminds us of the Christocentric character of the Gospel and mission of the Church: “All forms of missionary activity are directed to this proclamation, which reveals and gives access to the mystery hidden for ages and made known in Christ” (RM 5.44).

The Christocentric character of the Gospel is not, however, a purely theoretical or abstract focus, disinterested in the day-to-day struggles of the common man and woman. The Church is not – cannot be – indifferent to the very real demands of life. The aim of Redemptoris Missio is not to have us expunge personal crises or concerns from our reading of the Gospel. Indeed, the encyclical gives careful consideration to the concrete circumstances of the modern world that either facilitate or inhibit the proclamation of the Gospel. But we must not, the encyclical insists, allow the very real circumstances of life take precedence over an encounter with Christ. For it is only through that encounter that the lived experience of each one of us finds deeper meaning and purpose.

It is the only way our lives become truly relevant.

  1. William F. Buckley, ed., American Conservative Thought in the Twentieth Century (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2011), xxxix.
  2. There were, to be sure, efforts during and after the Enlightenment period to strip the Gospels of its “mythology” in order to get at the message. For example, such efforts were promoted by Baruch Spinoza (Tractatus Theologico-Politicus), Immanuel Kant (Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone), and Friedrich Schleiermacher (Hermeneutics & Criticism); all appeal to varieties of form and historical criticism as a hermeneutic to get at the “authentic” and “relevant” message of the sacred text.
  3. Rudolf Bultmann, Kerygma and Myth: A Theological Debate (New York: Harper & Row, 1961), 10ff.
  4. Bultmann, Kerygma, 3.
  5. See Bernard Anderson, ed., The Old Testament and Christian Faith (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2010), 90. In the same volume, Bultmann provides a differing perspective on the relevance of Old Testament studies; ostensibly, it is of value to the Biblical scholar only insofar as it sheds light on the relationship between the primitive religion of Judaism within which Christ himself was culturally conditioned.
  6. Henri de Lubac, Catholicism: Christ and the Common Destiny of Man (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988), 49.
Steve Morrisson About Steve Morrisson

Steve Morrisson studied at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas in Rome, where he developed a passion for theology, and later received his PhD in philosophy from the University of London. Alongside lecturing in the humanities, he is currently president and co-founder of the Rebus Institute, which is bringing academics together from around the world to examine the notion of person, rights, education, and justice in our rapidly changing world.


  1. Avatar Tom McGuire says:

    Steve what you observe is important today in a extreme narcissistic world guided byextreme self interest and greed. What surprised me was that you did not mention the Social Doctrine of the Church. I just finished rereading the Compendium of Catholic Social Doctrine. What a gem, a hidden secret of the Catholic Church, that contains so many practical ways for Catholics to respond and help to build the ‘civilization of love’. Here are two quotes from the Compendium and one from the Constitution on the Liturgy that are practical guides for pastoral vision. A vision so lacking in many of the Catholic Churches I have visited.

    “The Church’s social doctrine must be the basis of an intense and constant work of formation especially of the lay faithful. Such a formation should take into account the obligations in civil society.
    # 531. Compendium of the social Doctrine of the Church

    “Social life becomes more human the more it is characterized by efforts to bring about a more mature awareness of the ideal towards which it should be oriented, which is the ‘civilization of love’”.
    #794. Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church
    “The liturgy is thus the outstanding means by which the faithful can express in their lives, and manifest to others, the mystery of Christ and the real nature of the true Church.”
    The Documents of Vatican II—Constitution on The Sacred Liturgy