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Wednesday, September 25, 2013

My Work on Catechesis as Discipleship (The Decline of Catechesis and its Modern Revival)

As we have seen, Christian discipleship evolved from the mentor/disciple style of Jesus’ ministry to the less-immediate imitation model and finally to the community-based catechesis that focused on adult baptism in response to the events of Pentecost. Such a model presupposed a very high standard of personal accountability to the local congregation and held baptism as its ultimate liturgical act.[1] Such a pattern was unsustainable, though, as the nature of Christianity transitioned from a persecuted minority religion to the official state religion of the Roman Empire.[2]
            When Constantine issued the Edict of Milan he unknowingly began the ultimate deterioration of the catechumenate.[3] The establishment of Christendom, that is, the Christian religion married to the workings of the State, inverted the expectations and practices of catechesis. As noted earlier, catechesis had been an intense, long-term practice in preparation for baptism. However, once baptism became a symbol of participation in Roman society, such a long and rigorous preparation was impractical. Westerhoff comments on this transition, saying, “With the establishment of Christendom in the fourth century, infant baptism, followed by some attempts at catechesis, became normative. As time went on, catechesis in the church was increasingly neglected. It was assumed that the society would nurture Christians.”[4]
            Catechesis as had been previously practiced became increasingly impossible as the “Christian” Roman Empire spread. When entire cultures would be “converted” to Christianity, church leaders would go about the task of catechizing these “barbarians” after the fact.[5] This form of mission-as-catechesis became the norm for the church’s endeavors to make disciples in the increasingly diverse world of the Christian West. According to correspondence between Pope Gregory and Augustine, missionaries were to “cleanse the temples of idols and the worship of demons and rededicate the buildings themselves to the service of the true God, to substitute Christian celebrations in place of the pagan festivals.”[6] Gregory writes, “For it is certainly impossible to eradicate all errors from obstinate minds at one stroke, and who wishes to climb to a mountain top climbs gradually step by step, and not in one leap.”[7]
            Not only was the catechetical process greatly diminished as a consequence of the mass conversions in the Roman Empire, baptism itself lost its place of preeminence in the discipleship program. Weiss comments that, “In its enthusiasm to win members, the Church tended to welcome them as catechumens without as rigorous an examination of the genuineness of their conversion or their lifestyle as had earlier been customary. Moreover, among those who became catechumens there was a wide-spread tendency to delay baptism as long as possible with the sure hope of winning ultimate salvation. As a result, the nominal catechumenate tended to grow, while the “real” catechumenate shrank to what had previously been the period of final preparation, now the six to eight weeks prior to Easter.”[8] Further, the increasingly popular practice of infant baptism all but eliminated the use of pre-baptismal catechesis.[9] Although children were indeed baptized alongside adults in the earliest generations of the Church, from the fifth century onwards the initiation of infants into the faith became the overwhelming source of new Christians.[10] Weiss summarizes the effect this transition had upon the catechetical efforts of the church, saying, “It was this transition from adult to infant baptism that finally brought the disappearance of the catechumenate…Because many baptisms could not be delayed until the Easter season but had to be performed soon after the child’s birth, catechesis, in most places, was either abandoned altogether or highly compressed so as to form the first few minutes of the baptismal rite itself.”[11]
            By the time of the Reformation the catechetical efforts of the Church had laid dormant for the better part of 1000 years.[12] During this time catechesis had developed from a system of formation to one of information. By the end of the Middle Ages the catechesis of the Church had become a three-stage process that followed the major maturation stages of a child: baptism near birth, confirmation near the beginning of puberty, and admission to communion later in the maturation process.[13] Further, this process had been separated from the context of the Christian community and had been privatized, a shift that further removed the importance of baptism from the meaning of being a Christian.[14]
            The transference of information, that is, Christian doctrine, became the primary meaning of catechesis before and during the Reformation. Because of the lack of a fundamental understanding of Christian doctrine among the laity, reformers within and without the Church attempted to communicate discipleship through the printed and taught word. Weiss comments, “The focal point of catechesis came to be the printed page and the recitation of doctrinal questions and answers” which “reduced catechesis to instruction, to memorization, and to the use by children.”[15]
Luther and the other Reformers implemented this transition from catechesis as a process to a catechism as an object to be learned and recited in their attempt to educate the laity. Protestants let go the language of catechesis in favor of education “with a primary concern for the acquisition of knowledge and skills.”[16] To be a disciple in the early Reformation, then, was to be a child who could recite doctrinal points and demonstrate a familiarity with the Scriptures that served as a skill in the Christian society. Westerhoff comments that, “the theological concern became doctrine, believing propositional truths. The ethical concern became moral decision-making. Both were legitimate ends for education, or perhaps for better instruction, beginning with children after their baptism.”[17]
It is important to note that the catechetical documents produced in the Reformation and in subsequent generations were often polemical and were used as “measures of orthodoxy.”[18] Various sects and councils would publish catechisms that reflected their particular position on a theological tenet, usually in stark contrast to their immediate opponent’s.[19] Thus catechesis, that long process of preparation in both virtue and theology, gave way to a pedagogical framework of propositional statements that inculcated a particular interpretation of Scripture and theology. This is in stark contrast to the experiential, mentor-based model of the ancient church: the catechism evolved into a private method of instructing children in sect-specific theology that was ultimately separated from the overall life of the church.
There has been a revival in catechesis among Roman Catholics and Protestants alike in the 20th and 21st centuries. Within Roman Catholicism a catechetical renewal movement has been developing since the 19th century through what Weiss identifies as three distinct phases: “The first began with a quest to find more effective method than the one then in use; this gradually evolved into the second phase, which was more concerned with content than method. And most recently, the third phase sees catechesis broadening to include a variety of educational ministries and instructional strategies.”[20] Weiss points out three characteristics of the Roman Catholic interest in a revised catechesis, saying, “First, [it] signaled a reaction against the spirit of the Counter-Reformation and the inadequacies of the traditional teaching or religion based primarily on the catechism. Second, [it] showed a degree of openness to the insights and discoveries of educational psychology and represented an attempt to introduce learning theory in catechesis...” and finally, “a renewed interest in the Church of the apostolic and patristic era... Though fascinated with the structures and practices of the ancient Church, the catechetical movement could not remain satisfied with copying the past. The fascination with the early Church was born out of the desire to recapture something of its vitality and spirit. One result was to bring back into common parlance the word catechesis.”[21]
The landmark event in Roman Catholic renewal of catechesis was the Second Vatican Council. Out of that watershed event came the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) in 1972. This document describes the initiation of adults as “a spiritual journey.”[22] The concilium responsible for the RCIA divided the journey of Christian initiation and formation in to four distinct periods: “(1) evangelization, (2) catechumenate, (3) enlightenment, (4) mystagogy.”[23] Harmless is very helpful in summarizing the goals of these four stages of Catholic formation, and I quote him at length:
“The first period, evangelization, is to be a time for hearing the Gospel…During it, the inquirer should taste some initial conversion. This conversion should be powerful enough to “cause a person to feel called away from sin and drawn into the mystery of God’s love.” After this period, the Church officially welcomes candidates at the first of the public rites, the Acceptance into the Order of the Catechumens…
            This new phase [the catechumenate] is to be a time for more than mere schooling in Christian doctrine; rather it is to be…an apprenticeship in Christian living. The catechumenate is thus an intricate venture accomplished not in a few hurried sessions, but more leisurely, over a span “long enough – several years if necessary – for the conversion and faith of the catechumens to become strong.”
            Also during this period, catechumens receive “suitable catechesis,…gradual and complete in its coverage, accommodated to the liturgical year.” This catechesis should do more than instruct in dogmas and precepts. First, it should instill in the catechumens a “profound sense of the mystery of salvation.” Second, it should not only instruct them in the different ways of prayer, but also give them some experience of these. Third, it should focus on the practical and the moral – “implanting in their hearts…the morality of the New Testament…” Finally, this catechesis should take place, at least some of the time, not within the confines of a classroom, but rather within a liturgical setting.
            All this clearly moves against the grain of inherited practices. No longer can catechists content themselves with presenting tidy theological summaries lifted from official catechisms; no longer is it sufficient to win a nodding assent to propositions. The goal and measure of catechesis should be not only changed minds, but changed hearts and changed lives."[24]
James Dunning has also offered a helpful summary of the first two stages of the RCIA, saying “the precatechumenate should be a time for listening to and for telling stories – certainly those from Scripture but also personal stories, especially those of the inquirers themselves – stories that raise ultimate questions about the meaning of our lives; during the catechumenate, one should probe these stories and their meaning more deeply and put them into dialogue with the Tradition; the basic text should be the Scriptures and the basic lens should be either a salvation-history or Christological one…”[25]
This is certainly a clear nod to the ancient Church’s practice of long-term catechesis that aimed at character formation as well as theological and liturgical instruction. For the purposes of this inquiry, it is important to notice that the motivation behind the catechetical renewal in the Roman Catholic Church was a felt need of better formation rather than information.
To that end, the RCIA also elevates the role of the “sponsor” in the life of that catechumen: “Throughout this period [the catechumenate], sponsors play a key role. No longer are they to serve as mere ceremonial fixtures, rather they are once more to apprentice the catechumens in to the everyday rhythms and demands of Christian living. Sponsors should show catechumens “how to practice the Gospel in personal and social life, to sustain [them] in moments of hesitancy and anxiety, to bear witness, and to guide [their] progress in the baptismal life…” In other words, sponsors play a dual role – they are, on the one hand, witnesses to the catechumens – testifying more by deed than word how one incarnates gospel imperatives. They are, on the other hand, witnesses for the catechumens – testifying on their behalf before the final liturgical assembly.”[26] The RCIA “insists that lay ministry – of sponsors, of catechists, of the assembly – must be vital, indeed, must be constitutive of the life of the whole Church. In particular, it presumes that within every assembly there are enough master Christians to apprentice catechumens in the intricate art of gospel-living."[27] This demonstrates the reason behind the relatively slow implementation of the RCIA even 40 years after its creation; since the entire program requires “master” Christians among the laity of every congregation it will certainly take more than one generation of catechesis to train up a critical mass of disciples capable of carrying out the catechetical program effectively.
            In summary, the RCIA emphasizes that good catechesis “is always done in steps.”[28] As the Roman Catholic Church continues to renew the ways in which it makes disciples it will surely re-examine the demands of being a disciple in the 21st century, mandating greater theological depth and practical Christ-like virtue among the laity.
            Protestantism has also seen a renewed interest in baptismal catechesis in recent decades. Christopher Hall laments that there is a “desperate need to catechize evangelical young people and the broader evangelical community in the basics of the faith, essentials rooted in the teaching and practices of the ancient church.”[29] He suggests that “evangelicals must make catechesis a fundamental priority, a catechesis that purposefully and discerningly draws on the riches of ancient Christian exegesis and the theology that blossomed from it….Evangelical catechists must be themselves be catechized in the riches of the faith, the heart of the matter, the dazzling theological substructure supporting the health, vital emphasis within evangelicalism on the evangelistic mandate, the preaching of the gospel to every person, across every culture and continent.”[30]
Bingham fears for the future of evangelical Protestantism, saying, “I believe the future of evangelicalism is in jeopardy. My belief is linked directly to what I perceive as the subculture’s movement away from, even rejection of, baptismal catechesis, particularly in its dizzying Free Church varieties. Such departures from baptismal catechesis…are at least in part responsible for recent concerns expressed about doctrinal weakness among evangelicals…”[31]
Such biblical, theological, and liturgical ignorance is owed in no small part to the evangelical heritage of revivalism. Hart, summarizing the work of John Williamson Nevin, comments that Nevin “decided that revivalism possessed a seriously impoverished understanding of the nature of the Christian ministry. As such, Nevin contrasted the system of the bench [a reference to the “anxious bench” of revival meetings] with that of the catechism, with the bench standing for the individual’s lone decision to walk the aisle, and the catechism signifying a churchly form of devotion that stressed church membership and growing in faith through word and sacrament.”[32]
While Baptists, specifically, have traditionally rejected the standardization of theological statements or even of the understanding of conversion, the de facto catechism of pre-Great Awakening Baptists expressed through their testimonies of an encounter with the Lord was eroded and all but eliminated by the revivalism in North America in the 18th and 19th centuries. Loyd Allen demonstrates that even though conversions among Baptists prior to the Second Great Awakening were “not easily expressed in logical, discursive language,” the experience was nonetheless the culmination of a catechesis, the “long, solitary struggle culminating in the convert, in solitary, receiving a sudden inexplicable intervention from an unseen and unknowable auditory source, which released [the convert] from spiritual uncertainty.”[33] After the growth of revivalism after the Second Great Awakening, this long-term, community-normalized catechesis was replaced with brief, intellectually based conversions with little catechesis before or after the fact.[34] Revivalism all but killed what could even loosely be called a Baptist catechesis; according to Allen, “Business efficiency applied to revivalism gradually shortened the conversion process among Baptists from years to potentially the twenty-minute wait at a bus stop.”[35]
The need for a renewed Protestant catechesis is further demonstrated by the calls for renewed interest in specific catechisms and catechetical models among luminaries of Protestant thinking.[36] What is yet to be determined among Protestants is the direction in which catechetical reform will move. A return to doctrinal statements taught through question-and-answer form is an option being explored by some Baptists based upon the Baptist Faith and Message.[37] Other Protestant groups are moving in the direction of the Roman Catholic reforms explored above, especially through the adoption of catechetical programs like the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. Ultimately, this is the most crucial decision in any attempt to reform discipleship through catechetical methods: if a group choses the former method then doctrinal statements and particular interpretations of the Gospel will become litmus tests of Orthodoxy in a denomination. If the latter path is chosen, the denomination or congregation must be prepared for theological diversity and must learn to be comfortable with ecumenical and historical expressions of catechesis.

[1] Again, this high standard of ethical examination and personal transparency seems alien to the revivalist Baptist tradition, and it is certainly contrary to the individualistic spirit of the age in America. Glassford comments that, “Catechetical instruction developed during a period when those converted to the faith faced persecution. The early church’s catechizing was both an educational endeavor and means by which a person’s commitment to Christ and his church was authenticated. This is a far cry from most churches’ practices today. Admittence is often based on a brief testimony with little or no probing” (S-176).
[2] Reference general historical situation?
[3] Historical source for Edict of Milan
[4] Westerhoff, “Evangelism, Evangelization, and Catechesis,” 157.
[5] See Charles Talbert, The Anglo-Saxon Missionaries in Germany, New York:Sheed and Ward, 1954).
[6] Marthaler, 3.
[7] Venerable Bede, A History of the English Church and People, Book 1, Chapter 30. New York: Penguin, 1967, p. 30.
[8] Weiss, 58.
[9] See Weiss, 58; Marthaler, 3; Westerhoff, 157.
[10] Weiss, 58. Weiss attempts to justify this historical transition by referencing the “high infant mortality rate of the period and Augustine’s teaching on original sin, which led to a desire to baptize babies as quickly as possible so that they should not risk dying unbaptized.”
[11] Weiss, 59.
[12] This is a broad generalization, but it captures the idea that from the Early Middle Ages until the Council of Trent little attention was given to discipleship in the church. For a succinct survey of these eras, see Marthaler, “Catechesis: A Semantic Evolution?”
[13] Weiss, 59.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Westerhoff, 158.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Marthaler, 6.
[19] Marthaler demonstrates that the Heidelberg Catechism of 1563 served as a landmark position paper against Catholic teaching. The Catechism of the Council of Trent was the Church’s response to those positions. Marthaler, 6.
[20] Weiss, 62. Weiss goes on to expand these three eras. He helpfully puts the reforms instituted at Vatican II into context and demonstrates a trend within Roman Catholicism toward catechetical reform that is otherwise absent in many analyses of said reforms.
[21] Ibid, 63.
[22] RCIA 4.
[23] Harmless, 3.
[24] Harmless, 4-5.
[25] Dunning, James B., New Wine: New Wineskins: Pastoral Implications of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (New York: Sadlier, 1981) 20.
[26] Ibid, 6.
[27] Ibid, 10.
[28] RCIA no 88.
[29] Hall in Kalantzis and Tooley, Evangelicals and the Ancient Church, 41.
[30] Ibid, 43.
[31] Bingham in Kalantzis and Tooley, Evangelicals and the Ancient Chruch, 159.
[32] Hart in Kalantzis and Tooley, Evangelicals and the Ancient Church, 87-88.
[33] Allen, Wm. Loyd, “Being Born Again – And Again, and Again,” Baptist History and Heritage, Summer/Fall 2010, 28-29.
[34] Ibid, 30-32.
[35] Ibid, 32.
[36] See Packer and Parrett; Parrett and Kang; McLaren, Osmer, Westerhoff, et al.
[37] Dissertations and Projects

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