One of the blessings of a year like 2020 and the slow-down that our reaction to this virus have imposed on us is time to think. Normally we are so busy doing our lives that we don’t have time to ask ourselves why we do the things we do.
One of the areas I have had some time to think about is catechesis, which is the teaching of the Christian faith. To be fair, it’s not surprising that I am thinking about this as I just finished a class on catechesis as part of my doctorate program. It might be surprising that the way we catechize our youth looks almost nothing like the way Christians before us catechized their youth. In a short series of articles, I want to run through the history of how Christians have approached the task of catechesis.
Immediately following the life of Jesus, the church took up the task of Christian education by providing materials that we are familiar with today. It is very likely that Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Hebrews were all separately intended to be used for catechesis, each with a different audience and different situations in mind.
By the 2nd century, a document called The Didache (“The Teaching”) appeared. It is believed to be the teachings handed down by The Twelve Disciples themselves! The church in the early years called itself “The Way,” and The Didache taught that before each of us lies two ways: one is a way of life and one is a way of death. The way of life is Jesus, and the way of death is the world. 2nd century catechesis was less interested in transferring intellectual information than it was in teaching people how to live, but you do have to know the Faith in order to live it. As Proverbs 22 says, “train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” So, The Didache tried to teach the pattern of Christian living, anchored in Jesus and rooted in Baptism.
In the 3rd century, catechesis became very rigorous. Keep in mind that Christianity was still an illegal religion! Churches never knew what government spies might show up to cause trouble. So in those days, simply showing up for church didn’t mean a person would even be allowed to attend! If you were a newcomer, you had to first appear before the teachers and give explanation as to why you were even there, and to promise you didn’t have a non-Christian occupation (such as a pimp, a sculptor of idols, an actor, gladiator, enchanter, etc). To help with this, you need a witness, or a sponsor, who was known by the church and who would vouch for your good intentions. We have a holdover of this today in our Baptismal sponsors. Catechesis was a three-year period of hearing the Word and being examined, not just on what they know but on how they live. Not just the catechumens, but all church members were to live Christian lives, participating in Daily prayers, serving in godly vocations, and having a modest lifestyle. This, of course, is no different than what we hear from Jesus or Paul.
The 4th century is called the “Golden Age” of Catechesis. This happened because Christianity was declared legal in 311, churches received back their government confiscated properties in 314, and by 380 Christianity became the official state religion. Instruction was deeply sacramental, demanding that the catechumen have ample time to reflect on the mystery of the sacraments. “Mystery,” by the way, is the Greek word that was translated to Latin as “Sacrament.” And as they reflect on the mysteries of the church, they are instructed in moral living (Ten Commandments) and salvation history (The Creed). After this, they could be baptized, and then learn more about the Sacrament of the Altar and other doctrines.
Over the next ten centuries, catechesis generally declined. Now that Christianity was legal, more emphasis could be placed on the rituals of the church. Soon, “the rite of confirmation” became the end goal of catechesis rather than living lives of faith. This is so true that to this day, we usually call “catechesis” by the milestone ritual of “confirmation.” And “confirmation” in turn becomes an end, rather than a beginning.
What do you think? Which is more important in our faith and practice: confirmation as a rite-of-passage or training in God’s Word and Godly living? How is that best done?
In Part 2, we’ll look at the history of catechesis from the Lutheran Reformation to the emigration to America.
Pastor Thomas Brown
Much of the material here is a summary portions of the excellent book by Rev Lincoln Winter called “Catechesis: Fixing Confirmation.”