Doing What You Have Learned and Received

Neither Jesus nor Paul tried to 'pastorally adapt' any 'hard teaching'

“Keep on doing what you have learned and received” (Phil 4:9). St. Paul’s sage advice, in last Sunday’s Second Reading, seems particularly apt for those gathered in Rome for the Synod on Synodality.

In recent weeks, we’ve heard some interesting, some bizarre interpretations of how the Church’s Tradition relates to its pastoral theology, to the work of those charged with doctrinal preservation, and even to the “charism” of papal teaching itself. What seems to be characters in search of a hermeneutic could do no better than a quick (or not so quick) “modular theological reflection” on Philippians 4 (and other parts of the Pauline corpus). “Keep on doing what you have learned and received” also suggests avoiding what you have neither learned nor received.

I suggest considering the Pauline corpus because Paul was an apostle “born abnormally” (or, as some render it, “out of turn”), and he has something to say about it. Remember that Paul was not one of the Twelve Apostles. He persecuted the Church. His conversion on the road to Damascus literally threw him off his high horse. Yes, Paul encountered Christ on the road to Damascus. But what is telling is what Paul does after that encounter. He is baptized. He reflects on Scripture. And he seeks instruction and authorization from the Twelve (which has already been expanded beyond its original members in the person of Matthias) before he goes preaching.

Paul does not claim some special inspiration or some “visit of the Holy Spirit” to go on and teach something new. He is clear that what he preaches is what he has learned and received, the same hermeneutical principle he recommends to the Philippians.

Take, for example, Pauline teaching on the Eucharist. The New Testament contains four accounts of the institution of the Eucharist. But those four accounts are not from the four Evangelists. John does not explicitly include an account of the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. The four accounts are from Matthew, Mark, Luke… and Paul. Now, wait a minute. Paul was not at the Last Supper. When the Apostles were sharing the Last Supper, Saul of Tarsus was probably out getting goods for Passover Supper with Gamaliel.

But Paul gives us an account of the institution of the Last Supper; see I Cor 11:23-26. And what is telling about this Pauline account is its opening words: “I received from the Lord what I handed on to you…” Paul carefully “hands on” the Tradition. He does not innovate. John recounted that Jesus’ Eucharistic Teaching (John 6) was rejected by His hearers: “this is a hard teaching, who can bear it?” John does not beat around the bush: “many of His disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied” Jesus (6:66).

Jesus did not “accommodate” those who no longer wanted to “accompany” Him. He did not say, “How can we make this teaching more welcoming?” He did not have a theological module to consider how He might “pastorally adapt” this “hard teaching.” After bidding his erstwhile disciples adieu, he turns to His Apostles and asks, “Do you want to go, too?”

Now, aware that the Eucharist could be a stumbling block for many, did Paul recast the teaching? Did he seek some special intervention of the “Spirit” to make Jesus’ Eucharistic discourse more palatable and digestible? Or did Paul—like John earlier—simply frame the institution narrative with the words: I’m giving you what I have received.” And, “Keep on doing what you learned and received.”

The phrase “what has been handed down to you” occurs often in the Bible. It is clear that the community of faith—Israel or the early Church—perdures in what it has received, what has been handed down to it, as a constituent part of its identity. That community of faith is not interested in reframing the deposit of its faith; it takes pains to ensure that deposit is kept integral. And it does so by doing what it has learned and received.

Good advice to the Synodalists.


John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are exclusively his.

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