Today I want to look briefly at the history of catechesis, with particular attention paid to the ages in which it thrived in church history. Those periods in which catechesis was primarily used and encouraged to be used were in the second through fifth centuries and the sixteenth century (Packer & Parrett, Grounded in the Gospel, 52). We’ll cover the second through fifth centuries today in part 1.
From the onset, catechesis was intended to integrate persons into the life and ministry of the church. While the apparent pattern in the book of Acts is for those who profess faith in Christ to immediately enter into the waters of baptism, by the second century this practice began to be suspended in favor of a longer initiation process. The reason for the delay may have had to do with the recipients of baptism, particularly the background out of which many of them were coming. Initially, most Christians were steeped in the Old Testament, since many of the first Christians were Jewish. By the second century the make up of those desiring to enter into the church were mostly Gentiles with little to no understanding of the Christian worldview, a worldview that was grounded in part in the Hebrew Scripture. It took considerable time to transition these Gentiles from a pagan understanding of the world to a Christian one (Sittser, “The Catechumenate and the Rise of Christianity,” 181. Anthony & Benson provide additional reasons for the delay of baptism [History and Philosophy of Christian Education, 108–109]). This lengthy process was referred to as the catechumenate.
Formal catechesis followed three stages: (1) enrollment, (2) instruction, and (3) rites of initiation (Sittser, “The Catechumenate and the Rise of Christianity,” 196). The process took roughly 2–3 years to complete (Anthony & Benson, Exploring the History and Philosophy of Christian Education, 108). During the initial stage (enrollment) a sponsor would serve as a mentor to a catechumen. This sponsor vouched for the genuineness of the individual’s conversion and presented them to church leaders to be interviewed. If the individual were accepted, they would proceed to the next stage (instruction). During this stage the catechumen could participate in hearing the preaching and teaching of Scripture, as well as prayer and hymn singing. They would also undergo additional instruction in Bible, doctrine (explanation of creeds), ethics (Ten Commandments and Sermon on the Mount), and such practices as prayer (Lord’s prayer) and baptism (Sittser, “The Catechumenate and the Rise of Christianity,” 198). However, the catechumen was barred from the Lord’s Table during this time, since he/she was not as yet a full member of the church (Packer & Parrett, Grounded in the Gospel, 54). If after having progressed through the first two stages, the catechumen would enter the final stage, rites of initiation, which concluded with Christian water baptism, partaking of the Lord’s Supper, and participating in the holy kiss. The final stage usually coincided with the week of Easter (Sittser, “The Catechumenate and the Rise of Christianity,” 199). After this the catechumen would be a full member of the local church.