Twentieth Century Theology

Jean Daniélou and the catechesis of the Fathers of the Church

Three major books by Jean Daniélou offer a panorama of biblical types and scenes that serve to illustrate the figure of Christ, the history of salvation, and the sacraments and feasts of the Church.

Juan Luis Lorda-May 3, 2019-Reading time: 7 minutes

In his beautiful book on the history of the "Sources chrétiennes" collection, Étienne Fouilloux tells how, in 1941 and 1942, Henri de Lubac and Jean Daniélou worked to bring out the first volume. The circumstances could not have been more adverse: Henri de Lubac was in Lyon, under the Vichy regime. And Daniélou was in Paris, under the German occupation government. Correspondence was slow and subject to censorship, finding a publisher for such a book in a divided France in the middle of the world war was complicated, and even more so, finding paper. It was with much regret that they gave up on bringing out the bilingual text in Greek and French. It would be done later.

The purpose of Sources chrétiennes

Did it make any sense to edit The life of Moses Why not wait for better times for Father Mondesert's old project, which had been stalled for three years? But waiting was what they did not want. It must be understood. Jean Daniélou (1905-1974) was always a bold personality. But that was not all. They lived in times of national calamity, and also - so it came - of Christian calamity with the triumph of atheistic totalitarianisms. And in those times there are two options: to be depressed and let defeat absorb everything, or to react and commit oneself to something, as a bet for the future, even if it seems a symbolic redoubt.

In their correspondence one can appreciate the Christian depth they give to the task. They are certain that a direct and profound knowledge of the Fathers of the Church will help Christians to connect with their roots, renew spirituality and theology, and increase the relationship and understanding with Eastern Christians. The enthusiasm they put into the project, the tenacity with which they carry it out and the full awareness of its importance is impressive. It is even clearer than we may be aware of now, when we are perhaps not so used to it, we do not perceive its effect.

To this origin, so modest in its means and so ambitious in its aims, we owe this great collection of Christian sources, with more than six hundred volumes, bilingual, in the original language and in French. We have already had occasion to speak of it. We are now interested in the itinerary that this work caused in the mind and work of Jean Daniélou.

Two lines of Jean Daniélou's work

Jean Daniélou turned very early on to Christian antiquity, and his work extended in two directions. From 1943, he taught "Christian origins" at the Institut Catholique de Paris, and thus built, little by little, a panorama of Judeo-Christianity, that Christianity of the 1st and 2nd centuries, still strongly linked to the Jewish matrix. To this work belong his felicitous essay on Philo of Alexandria (which is an attempt to understand him globally), his three volumes of studies and also, in a way, his various syntheses on early Christian history.

But, in parallel, he developed another line of research, which was born precisely with the preparation of the volume of the Life of Mosestranslation from the Greek and commentary. From the outset, Daniélou sought in Gregory of Nyssa, theology and spirituality, and also the underlying philosophy to be placed in the Greek context. Thus, in the same year of liberation (1944), he finally published The life of MosesHe is the author of the first volume of Sources Chrétiennes, and presented his doctoral dissertation at the Sorbonne on Platonism and mystical theology. Essay on the spiritual doctrine of St. Gregory of Nyssa..   

The Biblical Inspiration of Patristics

 That the Fathers have a Platonic inspiration is a recurrent and topical theme at that time. A few years earlier, an extensive article by René Arnau had appeared in the Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique (Platonism of the Peers). It is also known that, since Gregory of Nyssa (actually since Origen), the itinerary followed by the people of Israel from the liberation of Egypt to the entrance into the Promised Land is used to describe the Christian itinerary, which leaves the slavery of sin and purifies itself in the desert before reaching the Promised Land.

In studying Gregory of Nyssa, Daniélou realizes the extent to which biblical scenes and images occupy the center of his catechesis and preaching, and deeply inspire the explanation and form of the liturgy. They had already been developed by Origen and are present in patristics as a whole. In fact, the symbiosis between biblical facts, catechesis and Liturgy (the sacraments) characterizes much more profoundly the patristic epoch than the Platonic influence. However, this theology had almost completely disappeared since the scholastic period, which preferred to handle notions rather than symbols. 

We are still heirs to this remarkable blurring of focus when it comes to representing patristics to us. We should not be mistaken in this. This patristic catechesis is not an outdated epoch. At its core is the Passover, where God himself wanted to bring about his salvation in the symbolic context of the Jewish Passover. The history of salvation with all its symbolic load of characters, deeds and sayings is the form of Christian revelation. And what the Liturgy lives and celebrates in that same story, with its web of symbolic relationships because there is only one story. It is not an opinionated resource of sacred rhetoric. And it cannot be replaced by abstractions.

Catechesis and mystagogy

In a precious book published by his best friends, a year after his painful death (1975, edited by M-J Rondeau), a Dominican colleague of the Institut Catholique de Paris, Father Dalmais traces in brief pages the itinerary of his work and discovery. Le Pére Daniélou, catéchéte et mystagogue

After the publication of the doctoral thesis at the Sorbonne, a journal of thought, edited by a group of lay people with ecumenical interests, Dieu vivantasked him to collaborate on the first issue and he chose The symbolism of the baptismal rites (1945); he later intervened in a controversy over the On spiritual exegesis (1947). Also in an interesting colloquium on The Old Testament and Christianspublished by CERf in 1951. By then he had already announced his first essay on the subject, Sacramentum futuri.

Sacramentum futuri (1950)

This book, which today is quite difficult to find, was to be called The typology of the HexateuchThe book of the Pentateuch plus the book of Joshua. It is dedicated to the commentaries of the Fathers on five great characters of the Hebrew Bible: Adam and Paradise; Noah and the Flood; the sacrifice of Isaac; Moses and the Exodus; and the Joshua cycle. 

Daniélou is aware of the difficulty of the subject, as the material is vast and varied. Many individual studies would be necessary to summarize an adequate idea. He realizes that only general outlines can be drawn. On the other hand, typology is a field where it is not possible to demand precision or accuracy. These five types prefigure something of Christ and serve to explain him. Although it is also true to say it the other way around: the figure of Christ explains and summarizes the history of salvation with all its characters. St. Paul himself reminds us that Adam is only "a figure of him who was to come" (Rom 5:14).

Adam is the type and antitype of Christ, the first man and origin of humanity, but also the model of the old man. The Fathers have extended their comparisons and have seen the Church as being born from the side of Christ, like Eve from Adam. For their part, the flood and Noah's ark suggest evocations of Christian salvation and the final judgment. The surprising scene of the sacrifice of Isaac has a strong parallelism with the offering of Christ and they explain each other, but their wedding also has allegorical interest.

The whole Exodus cycle has been widely commented on by the Fathers since the earliest times, and used to illustrate Christian initiation, as we have already seen. Daniélou goes on to expound the opinion of Philo and the mystical interpretations of the Exodus in Clement of Alexandria and Gregory of Nyssa. In Joshua, his very name evokes the Christian Jesus and also his role of guide who introduces the people into the promised land.

Bible and Liturgy (1951)

This book is called in French Bible and Liturgyand is complementary to the previous one. The subtitle, in Spanish, is  The biblical theology of the sacraments and feasts, according to the Fathers of the Church. And it was translated by Ediciones Guadarrama in 1964, with the title: Sacraments and worship according to the Holy Fathers

It is divided, in fact, into two parts. The first part is dedicated to the many biblical symbols and figures that concur in the sacraments of initiation, Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist. It also includes a commentary on the history of the sign of the cross. (sphragis)

The second is dedicated to the feasts, with three chapters on Sunday (the mystery of the Sabbath, Sunday, the eighth day), and four feasts: Easter, Ascension, Pentecost and also Tabernacles, which has not become a Christian feast, but has been widely commented on by the Fathers.

Catechesis in the First Centuries (1968)

This last book, which belongs to the old genre of the "The reportationesnotes taken in class and reconstructed. It is a course given at the Higher Institute of Pastoral Catechetics in Paris, and recomposed by Sister Regina de Charlat.

As Daniélou explains in the introduction: "It is a matter of highlighting the main features of the catechumenate in the ancient Church, so that light can be drawn for contemporary pastoral care (...). The author does not hesitate to point out that this teaching is still relevant today". 

After reviewing the sources of catechesis (Sacred Scriptures and later writings) and pointing out the main historical stages, the book goes through the dogmatic catechesis (part 2), more apologetic in the third century and more doctrinal in the fourth century; the moral catechesis (part 3), with ample reference to Clement of Alexandria's Christ the teacher; and the sacramental catechesis (part 4), commenting in detail on the rites of Baptism and the Eucharist, and the figures of the sacraments (the primitive waters, the flood, the paschal lamb, the Jordan, the rock in the desert). The last part (5) deals with the method: it gathers many pieces of advice from St. Augustine (From Catechizandis rudibus) to catechize the "rough" and transmit to them a living idea of the history of salvation.


Daniélou was sometimes reproached for writing too fast and that everything needed more precision. He was aware of these limits, as we have seen, but no one can do everything. Daniélou did a colossal job in trying to describe, at least the great lines of force in the typology of figures, scenes and rhythms of the history of salvation. It was a known theme, and at the same time unknown and above all, culturally distant. He had the virtue of making it come alive, of explaining it and bringing it closer. If he had paid attention to all the details, he would not have been able to offer panoramas.

In words taken from his intervention at the Rencontres colloquium (Cerf 1951), quoted by Dalmais: "This exegesis is part of the common tradition of the Church. It is even one of its essential aspects. It is directly linked to the teaching of the Apostles. It constitutes one of the main themes of elementary Christian teaching and also for the doctors. Origen saw in it one of the substantial points of the faith (...). And it is not exclusive to any school. It is found in the East and in the West, among the Antiochenes and among the Alexandrians. It is precisely this unanimity of tradition that makes it possible to identify it with certainty and to distinguish it from other currents that have sought to mix it up". All this catechesis on the mysteries of Christian initiation has been extensively studied by Guillaume Derville in his monograph Histoire, mystère, sacrements. Christian initiation in the work of Jean Daniélou.

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