There is no shortage of Greek words that define the contents of our faith—words like logos and agape. But there is another set of Greek terms that express the way or the form in which the contents of revelation are presented to us.
According to Catholic theologian Erich Przywara, there are four such terms: kerygma, mysterium, kairos, and oikonomia (a framework that he has adopted from another theologian, the Lutheran philosopher Paul Tillich, reworking it according to the Thomistic tradition). Put simply: kerygma refers to the proclamation of the gospel; mysterium involves those things which are hidden; kairos is God’s timing; and oikonomia concerns God’s dispensation or administration of things.
The question that Przywara is seeking the answer to this question: What is the primary form under which God’s revelation appears to us? For example, we can see how, from an evangelical Protestant perspective, the kerygma might appear paramount, given that tradition’s focus on sola Scriptura.
The answer, of course, is that God’s revelation appears to us in all four ways—word, mystery, timing, and His overall arrangement and ordering of things. Therefore, we need to delve deeper into what each word means in order to better understand our relationship with God’s revelation.
Again, this is the proclamation of God’s word, which we might also describe as the Gospel or the Good News of Christ. An example of its use in the New Testament comes from 1 Corinthians 1:21, “For since in the wisdom of God the world did not come to know God through wisdom, it was the will of God through the foolishness of the proclamation [kerygma] to save those who have faith.”
The kerygma has a more specialized meaning beyond merely proclamation. According to Przywara, in the ancient world, the word was associated with “the kind of sound broadcast by a national, military, or sacred authority by means of a ‘herald’ who ‘calls together’ the people or the army or the faithful for the sake of a meeting or for training and battle or for the celebration of a sacrifice.”
He concludes that the term is thus “most intimately connected to the concept of a ‘kingdom’: whether the ‘gathering’ of a kingdom at peace, or the ‘army’ of a kingdom at war, or the celebratory sacrifice of a kingdom before God.” (Note: Quotations are taken from Przywara’s 1959 essay in Religion and Culture: Essays in Honor of Paul Tillich, reprinted in Analogia Entis: Metaphysics: Original Structure and Universal Rhythm, published by Eerdmans in 2014.)
As Catholics, then we can see how the kerygma is an essential form under which God’s revelation comes to us. The proclamation of the word is never an isolated event. The proclamation always draws are attention to the one proclaiming, the herald, or messenger.
Moreover, as Przywara notes, in the ancient world it always occurred in the context of an assembly of the kingdom, sometimes for the purposes of a sacrifice. In this sense, the Mass is an experience of kerygma: a celebration of the sacrifice of the Eucharist in which the Word of God is proclaimed. It’s interesting that in antiquity such gatherings were at times of both war and peace. Don’t both happen at Mass? We are both at peace, resting in God, while also at war with sin, Satan, and death.
If the kerygma is God’s word as it is proclaimed, mysterium almost seems like it is the opposite: God’s word in its silence. Mysterium, also translated as mysterion, comes from a derivative of the Greek verb of muo, which is defined as “to shut the mouth.” This certainly is the antithesis of what the kerygma herald does. As Catholics, we know that we need both: God’s spoken word and God’s silence. Put another way, at Mass we receive both the Scriptures read aloud to us and the mystical silence of Christ speaking to us through the Eucharist. Przywara sees the term as deeply connected to the Mass as the event in which our membership in the ‘mystical body of Christ’ is renewed.
Kairos concerns God’s timing. It’s best understood in the context of the Greek conception of time, which was expressed in three words: aion, chronos, and kairos. Aion is eternity. Chronos is time in the sense that we use the word time. And kairos is opportune moments within that sequence of time. One commentator says the difference between chronos and kairos is quantity time versus quality time. Or, put another way, chronos asks “What time is it?” while kairos asks “What time is it for?”
In Christians terms, perhaps we could say that kairos is when aion intersects chronos. Kairos is God’s opportune timing, his schedule for when the mysterium will become a kerygma (or vice versa). A clear example of the use of this word in the New Testament is in the words of John the Baptist in Mark 1:15, “This is the time [kairos] of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.” A more personal instance of the word is in John 7:6, when Jesus says, referring to His future Passion, “My time [kairos] has not yet been fulfilled.”
When we ask God, When will that happen? Or, At what time? We are asking about chronos. God answers us with His kairos—His chosen time, not ours.
This is a Greek term whose root is the source of our word “economy.” In the New Testament it can be translated as stewardship, administration, or dispensation. In the context of the above, we could say that the oikonomia refers to God’s ordering of His proclamation, His mysteries, and His timing of them.
But, for Przywara, it’s much more than this. He takes as his starting point these verses from Ephesians:
In all wisdom and insight, he has made known to us the mystery of his will in accord with his favor that he set forth in him as a plan [oikonomia] for the fullness of times, to sum up all things in Christ, in heaven and on earth (Ephesians 2:8-10).
According to Przywara, these verses draw us to what is truly ultimate: the “unfathomable and inscrutable” depths of God Himself. He points to Romans 11:33, where St. Paul exults in God’s greatness, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How inscrutable are his judgments and how unsearchable his ways.”
There are two sides to oikonomia. On the one hand, there is God’s involvement in arranging His creation and restoring all things in Christ. On the other hand, this work is so wonderfully vast and beyond our full comprehension, that it points beyond itself to God’s hidden thoughts that are so unlike ours. Put another way: oikonomia points to the distinctive paradox of Christianity—that God has made Himself both visible to us and yet is invisible. He is Incarnate and still pure spirit.
There are these four key words then: kerygma, mysterium, kairos, and oikonomia. Each of them signifies a particular way that we encounter God’s revelation. Kerygma is God’s word proclaimed to us in the Scriptures, read individually and publicly at Mass. Mysterium is the ‘unspoken’ hidden ways God comes to us, through His mystical body the Church and the Eucharist. Kairos marks the time that God intervenes in history and in our individual lives. It has do less with the “what”—the kerygma or the mysterium—and more with the “when.”
Finally, oikonomia refers to God’s plan that encompasses kerygma, mysterium, and kairos. It’s a plan that reflects a wisdom beyond our understanding. It thus draws us up into the very depths of God’s being, leading us from the visible into the dazzling darkness of the invisible.