What do we mean by the term Kerygma?

In one of last week’s blog posts I made use of the term, Kerygma, and a number of people asked me to expand on the meaning of this term. To some extent, it is an example of one of those “Church words” which is rich in meaning to those who know, and have perhaps had been to seminary or studied advanced theology, but is largely unknown to many others. So let’s take a look at this term since it seems to be coming more central as we look to evangelizing a culture, almost from scratch.

The term κήρυγμα, (Kerugma) is a Greek word meaning “proclamation”. The Greek word κηρύσσω, (kerusso) means “herald,” or one who proclaims. And thus the Kerygma is what is proclaimed.

As the apostles began the work of preaching and proclaiming Christ, they proclaimed a message that was rather basic and simple. More extended teaching or instruction (Διδαχή, (didache), in Greek) would come later, after baptism. But the initial proclamation of Christ was simple, and to the point.

This does not mean that later development was both necessary and good. It simply means that the initial proclamation sought to get right to the point. In effect, this kerygmatic approach was seen more as a proclamation addressed directly to the hearer, and is a call to conversion, rather than as an extended appeal to the reason or to motives of credibility.

The basic curricula of the kerygma emphasizes that Jesus is the chosen Messiah of God, the one who was promised. And though he was crucified, He rose gloriously from the dead, appearing to his disciples, and having been exulted at the right hand of the Father through his ascension, now summons all to him, through the ministry of the Church. This proclamation (kerygma) requires a response from us, that we should repent of our sins accept baptism and live in the new life which Christ is offering. This alone will prepare us for the coming judgment that is to come upon all humanity. There is an urgent need to conform ourselves to Christ and be prepared by him for the coming judgment.

This was the basic Kerygma. The Apostles would surely go on to develop more, for example, the theology of grace, extended moral treatises, Christology, Ecclesiology, Trinitarian theology, and so forth. But the deeper things and concepts wait until the soul has first been cleansed of sin, and the darkness of mind that sin brings. Once initiated into the mysteries through baptism, the soul is now able to go on to maturity in Christ.

But step one is the announcement of the kerygma, and the acceptance of it by the believer, so as to enter into the deeper mysteries.

Thus, it would seem that the early Church, and the Apostles tended to preach the basics, and then to draw those who would accept and believe, into the deeper mysteries.

Our tendency today is to unload the entire bale of hay, to instruct converts in the whole counsel of Christ, before they are even initiated, and ask that they ascent to all of it, before they are baptized, or received into the Church.

This is not wrong per se, but there are some today who argue that we should get back to the original plan of proclaiming the basic kerygma, repentance, baptism, and the faith that that implies, and then continue instruction in the deeper things after the enlightenment that baptism brings.

It is too easy today for people to get lost in the weeds, and to miss the essential point. Often for example, people rush to the demands fo the moral norms with little understanding or experience of the grace that life in Christ provides. Within days of entering a catechumenate, the students are being asked to ponder sophisticated notions of sanctifying versus actual grace, transubstantiation, Trinitarian mysteries, and so forth.

It would seem that the earliest days of the church reserved a good deal of this for a time of μυσταγωγia (mystagogia), a kind of ongoing instruction into the mysteries to which one has already been initiated. In fact, the early church often kept the deeper things hidden until after baptism. There was a kind of a discipline of the secret (disciplina arcanis). And those who were unbaptized could not experience the liturgy, or expect that deeper things should be revealed to them until after they had been enlightened by Baptism, Confirmation and Holy Eucharist.

Today, this sort of notion is generally set aside in favor of the laying out the whole doctrine of Christ to the uninitiated, insistence on their assent to it all, and only after this, an offer a baptism is extended. Again, this modern approach is not per se wrong, but it is different from the approach of the earliest days.

And thus, one approach of the new evangelization today is the proposal to return to a more kerygmatic approach. This is especially the case when we are in effect, starting from scratch with many people today.

In some sense, the current times are not unlike the pagan world in which the apostles first proclaimed the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is true, that the West is more an “angry divorcee,” and the ancient Gentile world which was more like a virgin awaiting her groom. But there are still some parallels, and our presumption that most people heard the basics of Scripture, and the gospel is generally a poor presumption today. Most have not heard Christ, or the Scriptures authentically proclaimed. And to the degree that they have, it has been proclaimed to them with hostility and cynicism by a world and a culture that scoffs at the claims of Christ, his Church, the Christian tradition.

In this current climate and context, there are some who argue for a return to basic apostolic preaching as a fundamental schema in speaking to an unbelieving world. Deeper doctrines can and should be enunciated later but the initial proclamation should stick to basics:

That we are lost in our sins, that those deep drives are destroying us, and that God has sent the Savior, Jesus Christ, who died to set us free and offer us whole new life. It is he who calls to you now, who is drawing you to himself, that he might save you and give to you a whole new life. He died to give you this life, and having been raised from the dead, he ascended to the Father, where he is drawing you to himself even now, calling you by name, and offering you deliverance from every sinful and destructive drive, establishing you in a new, more glorious, and hopeful life. Come to him now, the repent of your sins, and let him begin the good work in you.

This is the basic Kerygma. It is the starting point, the initial proclamation, the summons, the invitation: the conviction of sins, but the announcement of loving hope..

There are eight kerygmatic sermons set forth in the Acts of the Apostles. In tomorrow’s blog post I would like to explore each of these sermons, and extracted their basic details. Today for the sake of brevity, let this be enough, to introduced the concept of what we mean by kerygma.

Here again is a trailer about a catechetical program rooted in the basic Kerygma:

22 Replies to “What do we mean by the term Kerygma?”

  1. If it wasn’t clear at the beginning, I think it is now increasingly clear that, as in-depth and deep as Pope Benedict can get, his has been very much a “back to the basics” papacy, often focusing on fundamental concepts that we might have heard a million times before — for example, “you are not meaningless, but are loved by God” — but in a more effective and touching manner than the squishy and trite way we heard it in the 70s.

    But the modern world, despite its many similarities to pagan Rome, is not the same as pagan Rome or the Jewish-Greek world (where most of the initial apostolic evangelization took place) that already understood some of those basic concepts. Rather, today, we need to be even more basic and fundamental. To combat the dictatorship of relativism and the agnostic secularism of today which has poisoned people against receiving the message, there is a need to supplement the traditional basic kerygma of the Good News that the Kingdom of God is at hand in the Risen Christ, etc. with the even more basic concepts that truth exists, that love is an existential reality, that there is something better available than our present-day world of hardship, on the one hand, and materialistic plenty that leaves people empty and unfulfilled, on the other hand.

    In effectively making the initial proclamation, there is a need today to counter the anti-kerygma that people have already heard, the false and inauthentic proclamation of Christ and the scriptures that has been presented to them already, to disabuse people of the many, many misconceptions and misunderstandings and outright lies that they have been told and now believe about God, Jesus, the Church, the faith, etc. The Father of Lies has been quite successful in poisoning the well against our efforts, just as he was in the beginning.

    I would agree that the Apostolic method is perhaps better for this time than would be the 1950s approach. But falsehoods were told about the Church back then too — that we were blasphemers and cannibals and promoted incest and were threats to civil society. The trick is to also see and learn how the early Church dealt with and countered the false ideas, the pagan gods, of those early days, which were also an impediment to kerygma, how they balanced correcting those misconceptions and meeting objections with personal witness and proclamation.

    1. In addition to the Apostolic method, I’ve thought that Augustine is the saint for the New Evangelization. Not only because the times of today are similar to those he lived in (shortly before the fall of Rome), not only because his own personal life before his definitive conversion was so very similar to our modern world, but because his communication methods are so well-suited to the goal of finding better and more effective ways to propose Jesus Christ to the world.

      An interesting article at Homiletic & Pastoral Review, Preaching to the Whole Person: Classical Wisdom for the New Evangelization, also advances St. Augustine as the man for the job, “In the challenging task of seeking to persuade the 21st century person, we would do well to employ the classical wisdom that Augustine has handed on to us.”

  2. Perhaps the need for basic teachings or for more advanced teachings depends largely on the state of the hearer. My Protestant friends are generally aware of the basics and have usually been falsely taught in the deeper areas. They need to hear more about why Catholic understandings of theology, ecclesiology, and other difficult subjects are more coherent than those of other churches. However, our society is increasingly pagan, and as you point out, apologists (even very amateur ones) need to be able to present the basic tenets of faith. We live in an unusual time in which both the basics and more advanced doctrines are needed by different people outside the Church. We also need discernment to know which is appropriate in any particular situation.

  3. When I was a senior in high school (1963-64), I volunteered to be trained as a catechist. About 30 of us seniors attended Saturday morning seminars for a semester and then were certified. Our training centered on the kerygma. The audio-visual part was a series of what were called filmstrips with audio recordings. It was called Kree Finds the Way. I’ve always remembered that training and the term kerygma.

  4. I agree with Sarah in that flexibility of approach is required depending upon the hearer. We are not preaching to a purely pagan world, as the apostles were. Our world, after 2012 years of Christian history, is composed of an extremely diverse group of hearers. This makes catechesis of captive classroom audiences a difficult challenge.

    I wonder if the so-called new evangelization even frames the issue in this manner. If not, I don’t see how useful it can be.

    On the other hand, in a typical everyday working life, in my experience it is the kerygma which is most needed, and which is most opposed, and most difficult to proclaim. I have found it is much easier to discuss, for instance, motives of faith, than it is to say, ‘repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ The temptation to discuss the former, when sometimes the situation calls for the latter, has often appeared to me. It is a difficult judgment to make, and the decision to forgo immediate discussion of the kerygma can mask a failure of courage. On the other hand, a rash proclamation can mask a failure of patience and love.

  5. @Ruth – I had to LOL at the “filmstrips” reference. Some time ago I explained to my 11yo what filmstrips were, and what a coveted position the role of Filmstrip Advancer was. She looked me as if I had three heads.

  6. Given the choice of becoming a baptized Christian over a period of a weekend or two, followed up by a properly directed program of continuing education, as opposed to a once per week, 26 week “grind”, I’m reasonably certain that most would choose the more streamlined approach, if offered. This is duly reflected in the dismal number of converts we have completing RCIA classes, in the majority of our Catholic parishes, today.

    I tried an experiment a number of years ago, when I was working as a professional SCUBA diving instructor. The course curriculum called for ten weeks of instruction, with one two-hour lesson a week. But not many were willing to make that major time commitment, and even fewer managed to attend all the sessions and successfully complete the course work necessary for certification, so classes were few and they were poorly attended.

    Once I repackaged the course into just a few days of concentrated instruction, to be followed up by a directed program of continuing education, both enrollment and completion numbers soared, and we successfully enrolled and trained over a thousand more divers than we had the previous year.

    I have no doubt that the one true church, founded personally by Jesus Christ for the salvation of souls, and infallibly guided by the Holy Spirit could obtain even better results, using a similar approach.

    What’s preventing today’s church from making the same type of simple, practical changes in order to better reach out to the people? Absolutely nothing.

    Just another mystery of the faith!

    1. This is my second year as a sponsor in the RCIA program. I like the way it is presented and in tune also with the liturgical celebrations of the catholic church.

      Happy to report, there were no dropouts in the first one – some even came back to volunteer for this year’s sessions!

      Please pray for our RCIA candidates. One of the parishes here in Vancouver asked for a prayer partner for each of their candidates. When I got the luck of meeting the one I prayed for, she and her sponsor were so overwhelmed with joy that someone was really personally praying for her!

      Our candidates need our prayers everyday – and even better, a fasting offering for them. The other day, during a weekday mass, one of our candidates was in attendance! He smiled when he saw me – it was priceless!

  7. It seems to me that the serious situation in our world today is one of outright denial of the “good news.” It is not accepted even when it is well presented, clearly and without stammering. It is laughed out of the conversation if it is weakly presented as simply a better way to live than we are living. People say that we are making progress in our world and we are solving the problems we used to look to God to solve. Look at the right of women to choose abortion if it’s not convenient to be pregnant and homosexuals to be married, whatever that means. Isn’t this progress? Isn’t it better than the old fashioned, bigoted Christian mythology?
    During the time of the original apostles, people didn’t know what they didn’t know. Today many people are able to repeat nearly word for word the gospel they heard in church – they simply refuse to accept it as relevant to their lives. It doesn’t sell in the street. What will sell in the street? Fear of eternal damnation might, if we could get the point across. Love is not powerful in today’s streets. It is the cry of the weak – love me, don’t leave me!
    The message is currently twisted and we have to untwist it. Sadly, even though martyrs for the faith abound across the world today, they are not even noticed. This is a tough crowd. Martyrs are today’s chumps. Fools standing for an unwinnable position. Not only an unwinnable position but one that is patently ridiculous.
    We must for the sake of the souls of our brothers and sisters, not to mention our own, speak without counting the cost. In season and out of season, we are responsible to God to declare that salvation is participatory – and that message is currently out of season. I think maybe it doesn’t matter if we are heard and accepted. It matters that we are willing to speak out anyhow. Jesus did his bit. This is the God show and we are only supporting players. We, however, are expected to support the show through thick and thin. Each of us is going to be asked what we did to help or hinder God’s economy of salvation. We won’t even have to be asked. We will be standing with our fists in our mouths, afraid to speak out against the derisive snorts of laughter from the crowd.
    My own children call me a bigot. They think I am foolish. They say I am out of touch with reality and I should just go to Mass if it pleases me and leave them alone, because they see the real world and I don’t. But my shutting down about abortion and gay rights won’t change God’s mind about the sinfulness of those things. I have to choose where I will stand. Jesus said that his message would divide the world, not bring peace to it. He warned us about all of this. We are the ones who are wavering and looking for new ways to tell the story so people who don’t want to hear it will suddenly find it palatable. Jesus just said his piece to whoever was there and then went to the cross. He did what he had to do for the ingrates he had just tried to explain things to.
    I have studied and prayed and studied some more and prayed even more and the truth doesn’t get any easier to say. It is still the truth and still worth saying, but we can’t worry about whether any one is listening. God won’t ask us who listened. He will ask if we loved people enough to keep talking.

    1. Susan as far as I understand you I agree with you. If I may, I would only add that God will not only ask us if we loved enough to keep talking but also if we loved enough to keep listening to those to whom we were talking. Jesus did that as well.


      1. Indeed. I can be insensitive to the need to listen. I am so disheartened with the situation that sometimes I just freak out.

  8. One problem with a kerygmatic approach: at least Graeco-Roman religion maintained a sense that the gods could be offended by human actions, that the things we do could upset the natural order of things with which the gods endowed their creation. If the basis of the kerygma is “Christ died for your sins”, our culture first needs to recover a notion that there is a God, and that there are ways to offend Him before it can accept the message of redemption with anything other than anthropological interest.

  9. Msgr, Yes! This! All the more since the bulk of the people in the pews have already received the sacraments, but are still awaiting their introduction to more than the bare basics of the faith, whether they realize it or not.

    Or, to respond to the point made by another commenter — I know of a few intellectual converts, for whom laying out the seamless fabric of the faith is exactly what is needed. They might not even *want* the sacraments until they are sure of the truth of our faith.

    But so many more have a spiritual, rather than intellectual, calling to the Church, and want to take the first steps of faith, and grow in knowledge and practice with the help of the grace of the sacraments. As it happens, many are permitted to do so, because they are reverts.

    Now I know the greek word for that. Thanks!

  10. For Susan
    As we struggle along on our journey, at some point or at different times we come to the struggle of acedia. Well known to the desert fathers and monastics over the centuries. Basically a sense of struggling alone, trying to help and enlighten people who steadfastly refuse to engage. Happy in their misery. It is a listlessness, a fatigue draining you of joy, where you fell like you just have to soldier on, unappreciated, somewhat disillusioned.
    What I found when I asked God what I was doing wrong was a call to come way and rest. And in listening be reminded that it was not by my limited energy or in my time frame or to my understanding; but to love them where they are and bring them to Christ in prayer and support in where their need lay and to leave all, all else to God.

  11. Dear moderator – may I add to my last reply?
    In acedia we can stray into the area of epicurean philosophy, that it is by right living that we find meaning eg Zen Buddhism.
    Acedia is usually in tiredness where we have missed the kerygma statement – God loves you completely, right now, as you are; and invites you on a relationship of growth to who you truly

  12. Sorry my phone keeps sending before I am finished.
    – are. True change comes through a personal encounter with god who loves us through Jesus the Christ. In is an internal conversion and cannot be imposed from outside. Bring them to Christ and leave them there.
    Hope this is helpful.
    Michael – Australia

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