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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

3rd and 4th Century Catechism

(This is a very condensed version of a larger research thesis I did this semester. I hope to write follow-up posts soon that consider initiation, conversion, and catechism in today's church.)

By the third and fourth century, as new converts came to accept the Christian faith, the church recognized the need for a time of preparation before new converts (known as catechumens) were allowed to fully enter the Christian community. Thus, a catechism was established as catechumens waited for full initiation into the church through baptism. Though modern scholars debate both the length of catechesis and the preferred day of baptism in the early centuries of the church, most believe Easter was the custom.[1] Regardless, it is mainly agreed upon that by 350 A.D., Lent became a season for intensified instruction of catechumens.[2]
Liturgical evidence provides details to the dedication of the season of Lent for the instruction of catechumens. Documents from third century Jerusalem provide Lenten readings gathered for the instruction of both those within the church and those who were new to the faith.[3] An Armenian lectionary from the fourth century details a series of scriptures with a concluding psalmody to be used in worship every Wednesday and Friday of Lent.[4] Furthermore, this Armenian lectionary lists a series of nineteen Bible readings assigned to catechumens as part of a Lenten pre-baptismal catechesis.
Another liturgical example comes from a fifth century baptismal liturgy. This document directs bishops to “teach that catechumens (as the ancient canons command) shall come for the cleansing of exorcism twenty days before baptism, in which twenty days they shall especially be taught the Creed…”[5] Noting that the “day of baptism” was Easter, the twenty days preceding in Lent were then dedicated to this intensified training and purification. Not only were catechumens to be taught, but they also were to be “exorcised” of all impurities in preparation for baptism. They were cleansed of the old and sinful life in order to take on new life in Christ.
Catechism sermons of Origen give liturgical insight to this Lenten conversion experience for catechumens. Origen assumed that those who had “been received into the number of the catechumens” had already “begun to obey the commandments of the Church.”[6] He urged that the practice of these commandments needed to be encouraged, for he knew that no catechumen could enter baptism without “changing his conduct and habits,” thereby “showing the fruits worthy of conversion.”[7]
These liturgical documents point to catechism as a time dedicated to more than just instruction. Instead, it was purposed for the transformation from one way of life into another. The conversion of Cyprian, the bishop of Carthage in the mid-third century, provides important insight to the understanding of catechism as conversion. Before becoming a Christian, Cyprian lived as an aristocrat in Carthage. He was known for his extravagant wealth and his giftedness for rhetorical speech. However, Cyprian found the lifestyle of his fellow pagan aristocrats to be unsatisfying.[8] Through Caecilianus, a Christian whom he admired, Cyprian was introduced to the Christian community. He found Christians to live in ways that challenged his values. They knew a freedom he had not yet been able to obtain. Cyprian was deeply moved by their lifestyle and began to seek out how someone could be changed to such a heart and mind.
Examining his life, Cyprian found himself to be in slavery. Alan Krider writes:
Cyprian realized the areas of his life where he lived in bondage and sought freedom – his enjoyment of liberal banquets and sumptuous feasts; his love for glittering attire of gold and purple; his enjoyment at being surrounded by admirers who deferred to him; his ambition – and he began to feel deep regret for his life and sought out a means of change.[9]
It is reported that at the onset of becoming a catechumen, Cyprian’s life began to transform.[10] Cyprian felt such deep penitence that as he was instructed through catechism, he began to take on altered ways of life. In his Ad Donatum, Cyprian gives an account of his own conversion to Christianity as he sets forth 120 “maxims of the Lord” which he labels “the religious teaching of our school.” The first of these maxims emphasizes simplicity and sharing, the benefit of good works and of mercy.[11] The second emphasizes care for the poor.[12] The third states “charity and brotherly affection are to be religiously and steadfastly practiced.”[13] Further maxims deal with mutual aid, the “great lust of food,” the “lust of possessing, and money, [which] are not to be sought for,” visiting the sick, and other acts of charity and almsgiving.[14] Cyprian states that the standard of a catechumen’s distinctiveness was identity in Jesus Christ: “there is given to us an example of which we follow, living in Christ.”[15]
If these teachings were a part of the catechesis Cyprian encountered and promoted, they likely reflect standard teachings within the third and fourth century church. Such training would be proper for catechumens as they learned how to behave like Christians before receiving new birth in baptism. On the Apostolic Tradition records that catechumens were expected to behave like Christians before even having “heard the gospel.”[16] For these catechumens, like Cyprian, the experience of salvation came by having a penitential attitude bound with a commitment to join the community of faith in living in a transformed way.
It is imperative to recognize the essential nature of penitence not only at the onset of catechism but throughout. Penitence was more than initial regret. It was also the resolve for change. Initiation into the community of the church meant putting to death the sinful nature and rising again to new life with Christ. Lent was a perfect season for this focus to be made real. Though catechumens were instructed in the ways of Christ’s life, they also began to live as those identified with Christ. Thus, Lent was not only a time for new Christians to think their way into a new life; it was also an intentional time for new Christians to live their way into a new kind of thinking.[17] It was marked by preparation, but also anticipation for when they would finally be welcomed as full members of the community of faith. Alan Krider captures well the heart of Lenten catechism:
In the final weeks prior to their baptism, the candidates received daily instruction in Christian belief; very possibly a local creed was the core of their doctrinal catechesis. All of this reached a peak of excitement in the cathartic rituals of the Easter vigil… They left behind their lifelong accumulation of secular interests, values and loyalties; they renounced Satan; then they were thrice immersed as they confessed their faith in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. They ascended from the water to be clad anew, whereupon the bishop anointed them yet again and signed them with the cross. Finally they were incorporated as brothers and sisters in a new family that prayed together, that exchanged the kiss of peace, and then ate together at the Lord’s Table. The destination so long desired had been reached; the newly born (neophyte, infant) was the member of a new family, a new nation.[18]

[1] See: Maxwell E. Johnson, “Preparation for Pascha?: Lent in Christian Antiquity,” in Between Memory and Hope: Readings on the Liturgical Year, edited by Maxwell E. Johnson, (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2000), 210-214; Hippolytus, On The Apostolic Tradition (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001) 106; Lester Ruth, Carrie Steenwyk, and John D. Witvliet, Walking Where Jesus Walked: Worship in Fourth-Century Jerusalem (Grad Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 2010), 27-29; Wybrew, 10-12.
[2] Wybrew 11.
[3] Johnson, 213.
[4] Ibid, 212.
[5] E.C. Whitaker, Documents of the Baptismal Liturgy (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2003), 227.
[6] Origen, Homilies on Joshua (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2002), 52.
[7] Origen, Homilies on Luke (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1996), 215.
[8] This account is based on Cyprian’s Ad Donatum, recounted in Cyprian of Carthage, Born to New Life (New Rochelle, NY: New City Press, 1992), 19-24.
[9] Alan Krider, “Baptism, Catechism, and the Eclipse of Jesus’ Teaching in Early Christianity,” Tyndale Bulletin 47 no. 2, (1996): 320.
[10] Ibid, 320.
[11] Cyprian, 70.
[12] Ibid, 71.
[13] Ibid, 73.
[14] Ibid, 78 -87.
[15] Ibid, 41.
[16] Hippolytus, 106.
[17] Richard Rohr, Simplicity: The Art of Living (New York: Crossroad, 1991), 59.
[18] Krider, 322.

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