By Alex Fogleman
From the beginning, Christians have connected teaching and baptism through the Great Commission — baptizing in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and “teaching them to obey all that I have commanded” (Matt. 28:19–20). And while the particular teaching traditions of the Church could have developed in different forms, there is something inherent to the Christian faith requiring that it be passed on in an informed, thoughtful way. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, for example, once claimed that it is “of the essence of Christianity . . . that it be transmitted” (Communio, Spring 1983, 17). Christianity finds a natural expression in catechesis.
But not everyone views it this way. From the early days of Christianity up till now, critics have complained that Christianity promotes anti-rationalism, anti-intellectualism, or credulity. For a people of faith, in other words, who needs catechesis?
While we could suggest several reasons, three in particular emerge in the early church. First is Christianity’s social location within culture. Second is Christianity’s commitment to catholicity — its formation of literary and charitable networks that distinguished catholic Christians from “Gnostic” Christians who claimed to have superior knowledge of spiritual matters. A third reason has to do with something in the very nature of the God Christians worship — a God for whose very being the expression of the Word and the sanctification of the Holy Spirit are integral.
In reflecting on each of these reasons, my hope is that our churches today might better understand the reasons why they might form as catechizing communities.
Catechesis Is Needed for Alternative Communities
The late Robert Jenson said once, in an article called “Catechesis for Our Time,” that “the church did not start to teach just because everyone does it, but because she had a specific need to do it, peculiar to her own life” (138). One reason the church became a catechizing community, then, was because it needed to.
One of the needs was the sheer unfamiliarity of Christianity in the Graeco-Roman world. Christians had some odd teachings — a God that became a man, for instance. It was also unfamiliar because non-Christians didn’t have the basic categories for understanding what Christianity was. It was, as Gerald Sittser has recently put it, a genuine “third way” in the ancient world — neither Jewish nor Roman. It was, instead, a new way of being human.
Because non-Christians did not have the basic categories to understand Christianity, Christians needed to build “bridges” that would give non-Christians time to become formed in Christianity’s distinctive structure. Otherwise it would be, as Jenson puts it, “too great a shock for spiritual health” (138).
Catechesis Is Needed for Catholic Communities
Another reason the church became a catechizing community was its commitment to “catholicity” — a sense that each individual community was connected to the “whole,” spread far and wide over the known world. As such — and we see this in the earliest writings of the New Testament — the church formed as a network of relationality, correspondence, and teaching. These were the tangible practices that formed the early Christian church’s self-identity as a “catholic” community.
In contrast was Gnosticism. For Gnostics, one doesn’t need communities of dependence, relationality, and teaching. Once you receive the illuminating liberation of “gnosis,” you no longer need the teacher. As Rowan Williams has described it: “The strong gnostic emphasis on the recovery of an identity as a spiritual being, the discovery of one’s true genos, works again any differentiation between teacher and learner, any sense . . . in which the historical relation of teacher and learner can play a constitutive role in the spiritual identity of either” (15).
Early Christian communities, meanwhile, were supremely interdependent — not only for teaching and instruction but also for hospitality, financial care, and prayer. Think of the extended greetings in Romans 16, or the fundraising efforts of 2 Corinthians 8–9. These are expressions of the church’s catholicity — networks of care and a shared sense of a “common world” that bound them together. There was a sense that other churches, near and far, needed each other for their mutual well-being.
What this tells us is that communities that catechize — communities in which the “historical relation of teacher and learner” make up a crucial feature of Christian identity — are catholic communities, on guard against the esoteric and individualist forms of Christianity that resemble Gnosticism. A church that cares about being in relationship with other churches is going to foster teaching relationships that extend beyond the local teacher-student relationship. Catechizing Christians, then, are catholic Christians.
Catechesis Is Needed for Communities of Word and Spirit
A final reason that Christians catechize is theological. Christians are a teaching people because of the character of the God they worship.
The fourth-century bishop and mystical theologian, Gregory of Nyssa, wrote an extraordinary work called The Great Catechetical Oration. In the prologue, he beautifully describes the high calling of Christian leaders to catechize:
The discourse of catechesis is necessary for those who preside over the “mystery of piety” (1 Tim. 3:16) so that the Church may be increased by the “addition of those being saved” (Acts 2:47) while the “word of faith in accordance with teaching is brought to the hearing of unbelievers” (Tit. 1:9). (trans. Ignatius Green, 60).
Graham Ward, in his recent book, How the Light Gets In, reflects on this passage from Gregory for what it says about “how the Church learnt and continues to learn its language, how it systematized what it learnt and generated new literary genres for the transmission of that learning” (6). There is a certain kind of pedagogy, Ward says, that “lies in the very performance of its discursive practice as it lies also at the very core of a theology’s liturgical practice” (6).
The key word in Gregory’s passage is “necessary.” The catechetical discourse is not simply necessary for the teachers of the faith. It is rather, Ward says, that the logos itself exerts a “constraint” upon the form of teaching. “What does this mean?” Ward asks.
Fundamentally, [it means] that the “system” is not an abstract set of propositions set out by the ministers who preside and to which allegiance is given by those taught. It is, first of all, intrinsic to the word itself as the Logos; the word of faith that teaches. The system is the constraining and necessary logic of the Logos. It is co-relative to both a social and institutional practice (teaching) and an operation (being saved). It is implicated in “the mystery of godliness” or the hidden working of piety. Its aim is salvation through conversion. And it is a teaching belonging to the “word of faith,” the Logos who is believed in — Christ who is the way, the truth and the life of that faith (7).
This trinitarian pattern of salvation extends into a certain kind of catechetical teaching — not one simply about doctrinal propositions or moral instructions but about the “mystery of godliness,” the “filling up by the addition those being saved.”
Catechesis, in other words, is not simply a new literary genre that emerged in Christianity but a new theological genre, we might say. Given the dynamics of the triune God — the Son reveals the Father and the Holy Spirit incorporates Christians into this economy of salvation — the aim of Christian life is not simply learning for learning’s sake but godliness and piety.
Christian teaching is “constrained” by the logic of the logos and the sanctification of the Spirit. The character of the Christian God invites the church to be just this kind of catechizing community: not simply a teaching community but a community caught up in the divine economy.
Communities of Catechesis Today
As we reflect on the catechetical genius of the early church, there are a number of lessons we can learn. One is that an awareness of the social context of Christian life today exerts a pull on the church to become a catechizing community. This will look different in different countries, regions, cities, and neighborhoods. But in general, as Christians become an increasing oddity in their culture, the structures of catechesis will need to adjust to provide “bridges” that help our neighbors understand the peculiarity of Christian life without accommodating to the cultural assumptions about what the good life is. Catechesis is thus a kind of hospitality as much as it is a defense of its unique forms of life and patterns of speech.
However, in order to avoid falling into an obscurantist enclosure, Christians will also need to recover the catholicity of early Christianity. This, too, is crucial of catechesis. A merely tribal or local Christianity will eventually stop catechizing, because all of its interests and views are self-contained.
Finally, however, regardless of the church’s social and ecclesial location, Christians today ought to form as catechizing communities because of the God they worship. The nature of God’s being as communicative and salvation-focused — the Son interpreting the Father and the Spirit sanctifying believers in communion — invites Christians to enter into teaching communities that are “constrained” by the triune God.
It may not always be apparent why Christians are a catechizing community. But in looking at the early church’s historical and theological reasons for teaching, I cannot help but think that there’s something integral to Christianity that compels it to be a catechizing community. Who needs catechesis? Christians do.
Alex Fogleman is director of the Institute for the Renewal of Christian Catechesis and a doctoral candidate at Baylor University.