by Stephen O. Presley
There is a little gem of an article published in 2004 by Clinton Arnold entitled, “Early Church Catechesis and New Christians’ Classes in Contemporary Evangelicalism.”[i] Arnold, who served for many years as the instructor in the new member’s class at his local church, felt a growing dissatisfaction with the content and structure of the course. He reflected on his experience and began asking some basic questions like:
1. Is a four-week (or six-week, or eight-week) new Christians’ class really enough?
2. Are we getting new believers adequately immersed into the Scripture?
3. Have we downplayed the importance of the creed?
4. Are we helping new believers repent completely of sinful lifestyles and practices?
Arnold’s questions led him on the path of retrieval to the origins of Christian initiation and the function of catechesis, or the process of training new converts, in the earliest days of the church. The ancient Christians were no strangers to the process of training new members. Just like today they evangelized often and regularly welcomed new converts. As these new Christians settled in, the church felt a burden to train them in the basic contours of the faith.
Some of the Church Fathers who reflected on early Christian catechesis include: Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen, Hippolytus, Cyprian, Cyril, Augustine, and many more. Early Christian literature is replete with examples of the church fathers training new converts and composing instructional texts written for such an occasion including: the Didache, Irenaeus’ Demonstration of Apostolic Preaching, Hippolytus of Rome’s On Apostolic Teaching, Cyril’s Catechetical Lectures, and Augustine’s long letter on the topic entitled “On the Catechizing of the Uninitiated.”
After reading some of these texts and encountering their rigorous structure of catechesis, Arnold came away “deeply convicted about the superficiality of what we were doing.”[ii] In a similar way, when I consider my own time in various churches, ministries, and discussions on catechesis in seminary courses, I fear that Arnold’s experience is just as common today. We continue to replace the theological and biblical content of traditional forms of catechesis with discussions of “mission statements” and “core values.”
This is not to say it’s inappropriate to introduce new members to the particular organization features of a church or emphasize “what our church is all about” or “what makes our church unique,” but is this enough? Should this even consume the greater part of the time spent in a new member’s class?
To offer some reflection on these questions, below I describe the content of the catechetical curriculum as it began to take shape in the early church. These points should be sufficient to portray how the ancients were thinking through the content of catechesis and raise important questions about how we train new members.
First, catechesis involved doctrinal formation.
Much of the formal content of catechetical instruction in the early church was organized around doctrinal loci. In many cases, it took the form of a creed-like structure. For example, Cyril of Jerusalem writes:
[C]onsider catechizing to be a kind of building: unless by successive fastenings in the masonry, we bind the frame-work of the house together, that no opening be detected, nor the work be left unsound, naught avails all our former labour. But stone must succeed stone in course, and corner must follow corner, and, inequalities being smoothed away, the masonry must rise together. In like manner we are bringing to thee the stones, as it were, of knowledge; thou must hear concerning the Living God; concerning Judgment; concerning Christ; concerning the Resurrection; and many things are made to follow one the other, which though now dropped one by one, at length are presented in harmonious connexion.[iii]
For Cyril, each point of doctrine, such as the doctrine of God or the doctrine of Christ, is communicated in unified succession. Together one doctrine after another assembles the essential framework of the faith for the new converts. This faith is fortified like a building and armed with the doctrinal bulwarks required for living the Christian life in a hostile world.
Other fathers, such as Irenaeus, use the language of the “rule of faith” or “rule of truth,” to summarize the essential points of doctrine communicated to a new convert. In his little catechetical manual, Irenaeus begins with an ordered summary of the Christian faith saying:
And this is the order of our faith, the foundation of the edifice and the support of our conduct: God, the Father, uncreated, uncontainable, invisible, one God, the Creator of all, this is the first article of our faith. And the second articles; the Word of God, the Son of God, Christ Jesus our Lord, who was revealed by the prophets according to the character of their prophecy and according to the nature of the economies of the Father, by whom all things were made, and who, in the last times, to recapitulate all things, became a man amongst men, visible and palpable, in order to abolish death, to demonstrate life and effect communion between God and man. And the third article: the Holy Spirit, through who the prophets prophesied and the patriarchs learnt the things of God and the righteous were led in the path of righteousness, and who, in the last times, was poured out in a new fashion upon the human race renewing man, through the world, to God.
Irenaeus’ rule of faith is more structured and detailed than Cyril, but the same point remains. The young catechumen should learn to confess and believe in this ordering of the faith concerning the Father, and the Son, and the Spirit. Notice, like Cyril, Irenaeus also believes the rule of faith is a “foundation” in which the new believers stand.
While we could discuss these things in greater detail, the general point remains; catechesis, for these fathers of the church intended to give new converts the suitable doctrinal foundation that is built with the most essential points of the faith.
This raises important questions for us, do we emphasize doctrinal content in our new member’s courses? Are we aiming to give new Christians the proper doctrinal “foundation” in the faith? What is the role of creeds or doctrinal statements in our new member’s classes?
Second, catechesis was immersed in Scripture.
While catechetical training in the early church was doctrinal, it was also biblical. Even a cursory reading of Irenaeus’ Demonstration of Apostolic Preaching is enough to recognize that page after page contains one Scripture reference after another. Many paragraphs are simply long quotations of Scripture. There are paragraphs summarizing the narratives of the Old Testament, descriptions of Christ’s relationship to the covenants with Abraham and David, catalogues of prophecies fulfilled in Christ, and even a brief summary of the events of Acts.[iv] Irenaeus wants to immerse new believers in Scripture and particularly the ways of reading Scripture in light of the revelation of Jesus Christ.
Like Irenaeus, Augustine argues that the framing of catechetical formation ought to take the form of a “narration” of the scriptures. In his letter on catechesis he writes, “The narration [of catechesis] is full when each person is catechized in the first instance from what is written in the text, ‘In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth,’ on to the present times of the Church.”[v] But Augustine has the good sense to recognize that teaching every book of the Bible would be a rather lengthy endeavor. So he adds that the instructor ought “to give a comprehensive statement of all things” and focus on the turning points of the Scripture narrative.[vi]
So Augustine sees catechesis as immersion in the Scripture, but this immersion must also be an immersion in a Christian hermeneutic, or way of reading, that reads Scripture in coherence with the work of Christ.
This brief account of the biblical basis of catechesis raises more important questions. How are we teaching new believers to read the Bible? Do we teach Scripture in a way that narrates the history of salvation and helps new members understand how Scripture, in various ways, points to Christ
Third, catechesis was attentive to the spiritual life.
Not only was the content of catechetical instruction in the early church attentive to the doctrinal and biblical content, it was very concerned with the purity of the spiritual life. In the opening paragraphs of his catechetical manual, Irenaeus charges the catechumen to pursue holiness of soul and body, which he defines saying, “holiness of the body is the abstention from all shameful things and from all lawless deeds, while holiness of the soul is to keep the faith in God whole, neither adding to it nor subtracting from it.”[vii] It is not enough to build the edifice of doctrine if the new believers have no desire for moral purity.
Augustine, too, concludes his instruction on catechesis imploring the new believers in the double love of God and love of neighbor that ought to characterize the Christian life.[viii] Cyril, Hippolytus, and many others also emphasize the importance of growth in sanctification for new converts.[ix]
This point raises even more questions about our new member’s classes. How should we encourage new believers in sanctification and helping them pursue a life marked by the fruits of the Spirit? Do we address the issue of sin and a healthy process of spiritual discipline?
These are certainly not the only features of early Christian catechesis and much more could be said about the process, timing, length, and even the details of the content, but these points are sufficient to raise important questions for the contemporary practice of training new members. Like Arnold, I believe the early church left us a “challenging example” of training new converts.[x
From the earliest days of the church, the people of God have trained new members in the doctrinal, biblical, and moral contours of the faith. I think it’s worth considering how we are doing the same.
In the closing lines of the Demonstration of Apostolic Preaching, Irenaeus shares his desire to pass on the faith and the purpose of catechesis saying, “This, beloved, is the preaching of the truth, and this is the character of our salvation, and this is the way of life, which the prophets announced and Christ confirmed and the apostles handed over and the Church, in the whole world, hands down to her children.”[xi]
May we also hand down this faith entrusted to us to every new member that walks through our doors.
[i] Clinton E. Arnold, “Early Church Catechesis and new Christians’ Classes in Contemporary Evangelicalism,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 47/1 (2004): 39-54.
[ii] Arnold, “Early Church Catechesis and new Christian’s classes,” 39.
[iii] Cyril of Jerusalem, Lectures on the Christian Sacraments: Protocatechesis, 11
[iv] For a more detailed summary of these points see my recent articles: Stephen O. Presley, “The Demonstration of Intertextuality in Irenaeus of Lyons,” in Intertextuality in the Second Century, 195-213 (Leiden: Brill, 2016) and Stephen O. Presley, “From Catechesis to Exegesis: The Hermeneutical Shaping of Catechetical formation in Irenaeus of Lyons” in Intertextuality in the Second Century, 120-135 (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2017).
[v] Augustine, On the Catechizing of the Uninstructed, 3. See also paragraph 6-7.
[vi] Augustine, On the Catechizing of the Uninstructed, 3.
[vii] Irenaeus, On the Apostolic Preaching, 2.
[viii] Augustine, On the Catechizing of the Uninstructed, 55.
[ix] Cyril of Jerusalem, Lectures on the Christian Sacraments: Mystagogical Catechesis V, “On the Eucharistic Rite,” 23 Hippolytus, On the Apostolic Tradition, 15-16.
[x] Arnold, “Early Church Catechesis and new Christian’s classes,” 54.
[xi] Irenaeus, On the Apostolic Preaching, 98.