Catechesis in the History of Christian Discipleship

A significant spiritual formation practice that has been fundamental to the spirituality of many generations and traditions of Christians is that of catechesis. This practice has been seen as a fundamental form of discipleship as far back as the 1st century, spanning the patristic period, the medieval period, fueling the Reformation, and beyond. While its form has varied throughout the centuries, its fundamental function as instruction in essential Christian beliefs, practices, and morality has remained consistent. Is this practice necessary for all Christian discipleship? No, though its goal of instruction in the fundamentals of the faith is important for all Christians. Is it Roman Catholic? No, it has played a significant role to many Christian traditions.

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Credit: Mark Rasmuson, Unsplash

Looking to the early writing of the Didache to demonstrate the earliest beginnings of Christian spirituality, circa 50-100 c.e.,[1] we find that the practice of catechetical instruction preceded baptismal initiation.[2] It took the form of a “two-way” instruction, placing before the disciple “the way of death” and “the way of life” (1.1-2). The way of life is explained within the framework of the two Greatest Commandments, fleshing out Christian moral teaching found in Matthew 5 and further drawn from other parts of Scripture (1-4). The way of death is also explained, listing the antithetical sinful deeds and practices that are unbefitting those who would partake in “the way of life” (5).

 

Robert Louis Wilken notes the patristic practice of two years of catechetical instruction that was central in “forming the attitudes and behavior of not only of the catechumens but also of the faithful,” ending in the grand drama and ritual of baptism.[3] While this indicates a development of complexity in practice from the first century onward, there are significant continuities. Catechism was still depicted as a training of Christian life, morals, and belief, and was culminated in the act of baptism.

 

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Credit: Chris Lawton, Unsplash

 

Catechism continued on through the medieval period, and was also significant the formation of the spiritual life and community in the reformation, especially with the technological advance of printing allowing for printed catechetical materials.[4] Luther developed both a Small Catechism and his Larger Catechism. David Steinmetz notes that Luther viewed his catechism as a “handbook of basic Christianity.” The Larger Catechism “continued the medieval tradition of the instruction of the laity in the creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments” and also included teaching on baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The Smaller Catechism served to concisely teach basic and essential Christian truth.[5]

Calvin and his associates in Geneva also created a catechism to help foster spiritual formation and to reform the spirituality of the people of the city. Before the Reformation, instruction primarily happened in the home and involved learning the creed and various prayers in Latin.[6] The reformers insisted that the people learn the Lord’s prayer in their own language. They would sometimes include the expectation of the learning the Apostle’s Creed and the Ten Commandments in their own language.[7] The local church also took over the instruction of these elements by developing weekly catechetical classes taught by the ministers, in which questions and answers were given to commit truths to memory (as had other Protestants).[8] Calvin’s method took over a year. Like Luther, it involved the Apostle’s Creed. Like both Luther and the early church, it involved instruction in moral teaching, focusing on the Ten Commandments and other important texts.[9]

Catechetical instruction and process, of one form or another, has long been a central form of spiritual formation for the Christian faith. Whether the short instruction of the Didache, the two-year baptismal preparation of the early church, Luther’s two catechisms, or Calvin’s year long classes, catechesis has long been used to cement Christian understanding and identity in firmly held Christian morals. The majority have also shown concern for educating people in a language they understand (with the exception of some medieval practices) and to ground believers in their understanding of essential doctrine.

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Credit: Aaron Burden, Unsplash

Possible Points of Application:

I believe creating and implementing some creative form of catechetical discipleship in our modern evangelical churches can certainly help to ground believers in their faith and fuel the discipleship process. Doing so may also be very helpful for the spiritual lives of young believers so that they have that knowledge and understanding to fall back on when they enter into young adult life on their own. While many in our churches may chafe at the mention of “catechesis,” a similar mode of discipleship instruction (with a different name if it would make others comfortable) could be created using the same tools that have been used in many different traditions and for many generations. I believe, that like the reformers of Geneva, that we can’t count on this process to take place in homes, at least not without creating a culture in the church where it is valued first. Part of the difficulty may be figuring out how to get people to commit to such a process. Membership or baptismal class is always a good option, but could potentially miss the chance to bring in others who are already members and baptized. Whatever creative approach we may take to instructing members of the church in essential Christian beliefs and morals, the goal is one we should seek after.

[1] Michael J. Svigel, RetroChristianity: Reclaiming the Forgotten Faith, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 109.

[2] Didache, 7.1.

[3] Robert Louis Wilken, “Christian Formation in the Early Church,” in Educating, People of Faith, edited by John Van Engen, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004)59-60).

[4] David C. Steinmetz, “Luther and Formation in Faith,” Educating People of Faith, edited by John Van Engen, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004), 263.

[5] Steinmetz, 265.

[6] Robert M. Kingdon, “Catechesis in Calvin’s Geneva,” Educating People of Faith, edited by John Van Engen, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004), 295-296.

[7] Ibid., 299.

[8] Ibid, 300-301.

[9] Ibid., 303.

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