The Truth will Set you Free (1) v.2: Catholicising the Alpha Kerygma

Fr Hugh MacKenzie FAITH Magazine November – December 2010


The Holy Spirit seems to be using the evangelical Alpha course to good effect. Through participation in it numerous people discover or gain a deeper awareness of our Lord Jesus and change their lives for the better. In addition Alpha, which began at Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB) in the early 1990s, is now a famous and successful brand, incorporating professional business and advertising strategies. There are two particularly fruitful moments in the history of the course's seemingly exponential growth. Firstly the introduction of the "Holy Spirit" weekend where there is a Charismatic-style appeal to God. Secondly the introduction to the leadership team of a management professional who had worked for Rupert Murdoch.

In France alone 700 Catholic parishes run what is called "Alpha in a Catholic context" with episcopal support. An excellent group of Catholic young adults in London, under the name of "Vision", is currently attempting to develop and deliver an effective evangelisation course. Under Mauro lannicelli, their dynamic leader who has recently given up his City job for this purpose, they have just begun a course in Kensington inspired by Alpha, as well as by other Catholic courses from the States and Italy. HTB, which is now the headquarters of "Alpha International", employs a number of people just to support such "Catholic Alpha" courses.

Yet there is a problem with the concept, namely that Alpha is not part of the Catholic tradition. Thus its doctrinal content, ecclesial character and catechetical methodology are bound to be in significant tension with the Catholic Church. This certainly does not mean that God cannot and is not working through it and that we should not learn from it. It just means that it is not, and cannot truly be described as "Catholic". This means that its authority and its ministrations are not unambiguously one with the Mystical Body of Christ.

Moreover the identity of the Alpha brand is so specific that, whilst the HTB leadership want to be generous with their resources in order to allow the Spirit to work wherever it will, there is a reasonable desire not to let people use the brand if there is not a significant faithfulness to the original materials.. So there is a strong encouragement that "Catholic Alpha" courses avoid "controversial" issues such as the Real Presence and Magisterium until after the basic fifteen talks have been given. Naturally the priority is the theology of Nicky Gumbel, vicar of HTB and writer of the Alpha talks, rather than what the Catholic tradition understands as the Deposit of Faith entrusted to the Apostolic Church.

Rev Gumbel has done a fine job mediating between various protestant theologies, and arguing that he is presenting a sort of common denominator "kerygma" between Catholic and reformed traditions. However, from the point of view of Catholic teaching, he has not been successful in this aspect of his endeavour - for the reasons following.


Below are three apologetic themes which need to be developed in, not to say added to, the official Alpha content to make it coherent with Catholicism. For reasons mentioned above we are not going so far as to say that such developments would justify appending the word “Catholic” to the Alpha brand.

The suggested developments cover respectively, Creation, the humanity of Jesus Christ, The Cross, and the Church - corresponding to four key God-centred concepts which are underplayed in Alpha: reason, human nature, solidarity and communion.

1. Creation

There is virtually no teaching on creation, even in the first talk - yet this is a foundational aspect of the Christian kerygma, and has been from the earliest times. Scott Hahn and Edward Holloway have developed the theme by emphasising that Creation is a revelation and covenant of Love which is destined to be fulfilled in the great covenant of union with God in Christ.

It needs to be emphasised that there is convincing evidence for God in nature (Romans 1:19). The order of the cosmos points to a creator. This is Catholic teaching cf.: the first Vatican Council and the Catechism, which follows Blessed John Henry Newman in speaking of "convincing and converging arguments" which can lead to justifiable "certainty".

In the fourth talk, "How can I be sure of my faith?", the idea of natural reasoning upon nature is completely absent - yet this is a key dimension of the classic and Catholic answer to the question posed. Also in this talk there is ambiguity about whether faith gives eternal life irrespective of later sin, an example of Nicky Gumbel's finessing of controversial issues.

Also human beings are made in the image and likeness of God, we can know and love, through the power of our spiritual soul - we are very different from animals, not in our physical bodies but in our souls. This means truth and love are the key foods we need, we are made for the revelation (truth) and love of God. As we say in Faith movement, He is our sunshine, our environment, our ecosystem. In as much as Alpha even mentions our human nature the emphasis is the protestant one upon the image of God being "almost eradicated by sin".

2. The Humanity of Christ

When talking about the identity of Jesus as God (before sin and the Cross) it is important to have a much bigger emphasis on the fact of the true human nature of Christ. The talk on "Who is Jesus?" is completely about evidence for his divinity from the Bible, including his resurrection. Whilst the fact of his humanity is established its significance is assumed. Yet it is crucial for understanding who He is for us, and not least how his Cross saves us.
So there is a need to add:

- Jesus is in real "solidarity" with us. We are destined, in our very nature, to be his true family (the Church), closer than blood-brothers. "We were chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world" [Ephesians 1:4].

- Christ is the exemplar of humanity "the first-born of creation". [Colossians 1:15]

- "God becomes man that men may become like God"

[St Irenaeus, 2nd century AD], "sharing his Divine nature" [2Peter 1:4]

In Faith movement we would go a little further and suggest that we have a Jesus-shaped hole in our hearts: "You have made us for yourself O Lord and our hearts will not rest until they rest in you" [St Augustine] "In the beginning the word was God, and the Word was with God .... and the word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us ... he came into his own and his own knew him not" [John 1]

If God's word and will, his truth and love, are our food, Jesus is truly our "Bread of Life": "My flesh is real food indeed" [John 6]

So when we come to the reason for the Incarnation we see it as fundamentally to fulfil human nature irrespective of sin. The presence of sin draws out the even deeper enaction and expression of divine love which is Christ's faithfulness to his original mission, "even to death on a Cross" (Philippians 2:8).

The emphasis in the Alpha course is upon seeing the Incarnation as a rescue mission. Whilst this is a reduced version of the Catholic vision, there is a truth to it. It is like going into a burning building to save someone you love. You know you may get horribly burnt yourself, but love drives you to accept the pain. So Christ "descends into hell" to carry us out of degradation and spiritual, as well as physical, death and back into Life.

3. Jesus' death on the Cross

In the Alpha talk "Why did Jesus die?" the emphasis is upon "substitutionary" theory. The primary analogy used is of a Japanese concentration camp commandant punishing only one man rather than the whole group when, at the eleventh hour that (innocent) man (falsely) owned up. This has more recently been replaced by the analogy of Maximillian Kolbe offering himself for death by starvation in place of a father. This analogy should only be used if it is clear that the concentration camp commandant is not an example of an angry God the Father but of the devil - it is the devil and evil and sin that causes Jesus's suffering not (directly) God.

In the "Result" section the talk slightly softens the image, through images of cleansing sacrifice, monetary debt, criminal punishment and, finally, the healing of a broken familial relationship. One is still left with image of an angry, punishing God the Father.

The Catholic emphasis is upon solidarity. It is because Jesus "shares our human nature" (i.e. point 2 above) that he can heal us and forgive us from the inside out. He is faithful to us in his love of us and his mission to complete us ("I come that you may have life", John 10:10).

Jesus is able to redeem us because of this solidarity. Only in this context can we talk of "substitution" (and the other Alpha images), which can be helpful if interpreted through the lens of Who Jesus is in his divinity and humanity. Jesus as the lamb-victim who goes to the slaughter is clearly scriptural, but he is the victim of our sin, not simply the Father's anger, and saves us because he is the foundation of our humanity, the "first-born of creation".

There is a truth to the "substitutionary sacrifice" theme, but it is not juridical and extrinsic - not just "paying a price". If your child committed some awful crime you would grieve for them and apologise for them, but above all you would want to reform them and win them back to sanity and goodness. This will cost you blood, sweat and tears.

God could have sent legions of angels to prevent the crucifixion, and indeed he could prevent many evils similarly. However, that would not change human nature which has become through sin heavily conformed to the devil and his angels, who therefore claim dominion over fellow corrupted spirits. (It is an awful but true thought). We would then carry on doing evil things and the only solution would be for God to abandon or destroy us. But he does not. The battle for human hearts and minds has to be fought with the weapons of the human heart and mind, and indeed the human flesh and blood of Christ. In other words the battle must be fought on human terms alone. Hand to hand, as it were. His power as God must be freely laid aside and his only weapons are utter faithfulness and perfectcharity.

4. The Church

The key lack in Alpha, from the point of view of the Catholic tradition, is ecclesiology. The kerygma should involve the fact that the key element of the Incarnation, namely our Lord's physical and sacramental corporeality, continue in the Church, the family of Jesus, its sacraments and teaching. It is wholly inadequate for the Church to be the penultimate talk. Indeed the catechism says: "The world was made for the sake of the Church ... [which] is the convocation of men in Christ", (n. 760).

Any impression that the Ascension means that the actual presence in time and space of God-made-man is no longer here should be avoided.

Integral Christian living means (i) being part of Jesus's family (i.e. being in "Communion" with the Holy Trinity, physically and spiritually), through having the actual touch of Christ in Baptism, Confirmation and Communion, and (ii) receiving his Teaching through the Church's magisterium (i.e. 'teaching authority'). The Church wrote the Bible and can interpret it. Full Christianity has two books, the Bible for our inspiration, and the Catechism, for our instruction.

All the graces of redemption therefore flow from his Sacred Heart and Sacred Head - his human heart and human head. We belong to him in flesh and blood. These graces must be sacramental, and administered through the familial structures of the Church. They cannot be merely imputed from on high.

So Alpha-style statements like, in the first video: "If you say sorry in your heart then you are forgiven" need the significant qualification that full forgiveness involves actually hearing Jesus's words "I absolve you", and presence at the Mass.

This should lead fairly quickly, and seamlessly to those other fundamental aspects of being Jesus's family, for instance the Communion of Saints. Being part of the communion/family of Jesus means acknowledging our mother Mary and our brothers and sisters in Heaven and purgatory as well as on earth - and our Father on earth, the Holy Father, with his magisterium - not Nicky's!

In Faith movement we develop these themes in this way:

The relationship to God through the Church may be imagined this way. I love my nieces and nephews not just in their own right, which I do of course, but primarily because they are my brothers' children. That is why they mean what they do to me in the first place. I love my brothers first, historically and in priority of affection, and them for his sake. This does not contradict the individual love but sets it within the hierarchical order of the family bond. So it is with God. We are all known and wanted in the Son, "chosen in Him before the ages began", and in him through the flesh. Our Lady is the first creature to be known and chosen in Christ as most amazingly intimate and essential to his vocation.

We are then known and loved within and through that family bond in the Church. This is why we cannot fully belong to Christ without having Our Lady for our Mother. And of course the saints for brothers and sisters.

Another point that we would want to bring out is the need for Magisterium in the Church as flowing directly from the Incarnation of the Word.

This would involve emphasising early on the correct order of priority when understanding the meaning of "the Word of God": namely 1. Word 2. Church 3. Bible: 1. the living relationship of revelation, 2. the community constituted by God and acting with his inspiration and magisterium, 3. then the Book within that. Scripture is part of Tradition (they are not parallel streams of revelation).

Jesus is truly our Bread of Life offered to the Father through The Eucharist, ratified upon the Cross. The Mass does not merely enact and recall Calvary. We say that rather "The Eucharist went to the Cross", so every Mass is the One same offering of Christ in time and space which was ratified by his perfect obedience unto death on the cross and is offered in heaven as an eternal offering.

Faith Magazine