What is catechesis and what role did it play in deepening the spiritual life of God’s people in the early church? What is the basic, fundamental purpose of catechism?
The early church was birthed in a shockingly pagan environment filled with the worship of false gods, rampant immorality, and structural injustice. The church represented the divine “in-breaking” of a radical new set of kingdom “upside down” values. No one would have intrinsically mirrored those values without proper instruction and guidance. So, the church invested a great deal of time in the training of new believers. The word “catechesis” comes from the notion of “instruction by word of mouth,” as this training was originally done between a more mature Christian and a new believer, or between parents and children. It was mostly oral learning.
What is the peril of ignoring this foundational practice in the 21st century? What does history indicate happens when converts and children are not robustly catechized into the faith?
The peril of ignoring catechesis is two-fold. First, the distinctive lifestyle and ethical embodiment gap between the church and the surrounding culture diminishes to the point that people may not see any significant differences between the church and the world. Second, the lack of catechesis hinders the ability of Christians to share and communicate their faith. People ask honest questions and the un-catechized Christian is not able to reply. These twofold perils mirror the significance of the various dimensions of catechesis, including beliefs and practices, or as we’ve called them in Foundations, doctrine and ethics.
How would you defend catechesis against the charge that it is an antiquated approach to spiritual formation? Do creative applications exist which preserve the spirit of catechesis but take on fresh forms in the life of the church?
It is difficult to argue against traditional catechesis since it has survived many centuries in the life of the church. Nevertheless, I believe rote memory of set answers can be supplemented or even replaced with more extemporaneous replies which demonstrate someone understands the question and the appropriate answer. It is also important to recognize the difference between a solitary person learning and memorizing, and the original context which was more group oriented and relational. We would do well to create classes of new Christians who go through their catechesis together, are baptized together, and join the church together.
How does catechism relate to an increasingly popular practice of families establishing a rule of life to order their lives around?
Before we think about how a rule of life connects with catechesis, we need to first understand that catechesis has two aspects. First, catechesis does involve content. One needs to know, for example, that Jesus rose bodily, not just spiritually, from the dead. This is an historical claim, without which the Christian faith is seriously weakened. Second, catechesis involves the nurturing of holy practices such as prayer, daily Bible reading, and receiving the Eucharist. It is in this second part of catechesis that a “rule of life” intersects with catechesis since it is so central to promoting good Christian practice.
How did this book come to be? Can you briefly describe the significance of the three components: Doctrine, Ethics, Ordinances? How do the traditional elements of the Apostles’ Creed, The Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments constitute this particular resource?
The broad division of the book is based on the wisdom of the early church that effective catechesis must engage the mind, the heart, and the will. In other words, it is not enough to merely know things mentally. We must also have our affections re-oriented and our lives must actively (hands and feet) be engaged in service to the world. This is why the book is structured around the three broad areas: Doctrine (things you need to know), Ethics (ways you need to live and act) and Ordinances (practices which engage your faith into the world). Traditionally, the church used the Apostles’ Creed (doctrine), the Lord’s Prayer (spiritual practice) and the Ten Commandments (ethical orientation) in the same way. The Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments have formed the backbone of every major catechesis guide in the history of the church.
Who is this book’s audience? How do you imagine readers will engage this book?
Having published several parts of this guide as separate booklets, I do have enough feedback to know that there are two major audiences for the book. The first audience is the one you would suspect; namely, the new believer who is being trained in the faith. However, the second audience has, perhaps surprisingly, been even larger; namely, those who have been Christians all of their lives but long for a “deeper dive” and a deep desire to learn what Christian identity is all about.
I hope that this book will be engaged in small group settings. This is the ideal way to be catechized and it re-captures how it was done in the early church.
What would God’s people look like if they faithfully applied this vision of catechesis to their shared lives?
If the book is meaningfully engaged, my hope is that it will help produce faithful and sustainable Christians in a world of increasing conflict and division. Since it focuses on the essential beliefs and practices of the faith rather than the characteristics of a specific Christian tradition, it has the power to unite us into the body of Jesus Christ in ways that are reproducible. My hope is that this book will resource movements in the evangelism and discipleship of new converts, and institutions, through passing down the faith to future generations.
The journey of Christian discipleship can only be embarked upon with a sure foundation under foot. For ages the church has provided a tool set of basic doctrines, ethics, and ordinances through which a child or convert could be initiated into ever increasing Christlikeness. This process is called “catechesis” (to sound down, or echo) and it has traditionally been a teaching exchange between a seasoned Christian and a new believer.
Working its way through doctrinal affirmations like the Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and other foundational content on the means of grace, this collection of writings by Timothy Tennent forms core material that may be used by leaders and laypeople alike. Scripture references, notes, and suitable hymns highlight key concepts and provide additional value that can be engaged at varying degrees.
As Christianity in the Western world experiences a diminishing influence upon its surrounding culture, and as Christian families struggle to effectively pass their faith onto children, the rediscovery of catechesis will serve God’s people as they and future generations reinherit the treasures of biblical faith, or, the “faith which was once delivered unto the saints” (Jude 3). This work will prove to be an indispensable reference for those charged with teaching and modeling Christian faith to others. Get it from our store here.
- Christian students
- New converts or catechumens
- Discipleship directors
- Confirmation leaders
- Pastors’ reference desk
In these pages you’ll:
- Learn the key doctrinal affirmations of the historic Christian faith
- Engage our moral inheritance defined by Jesus, Scriptures, and the early church
- Discover spiritual rhythms and means of grace that grow Christians into the image of God