Should There Be a Sharp Line Between the Liturgy and Catechesis?

Should There Be a Sharp Line Between the Liturgy and Catechesis?

In a recent article in these pages, Phil Davignon makes the case for why apologetics and catechesis are the wrong targets for the oft-maligned “rise of the nones.” While there is nothing wrong with intellectual defenses and instruction, Davignon admits, placing our attention here reveals a fundamental misunderstanding about the true nature of both faith formation and deconversion. We are not formed (or deformed) by our theological beliefs, he writes, but by our “imagination and enduring dispositions (habitus).” Greater focus should therefore be placed on families, “cultural liturgies,” and ordinary life, rather than catechesis and apologetics: “A ten-minute homily, an hour-long theology class, or an eight-week program may introduce people to ideas for the sake of strengthening their beliefs, but whether these beliefs truly take root depends on whether they are consistent with one’s pre-existing vision of reality. Such a vision cannot be endowed by catechists, but rather is cultivated in everyday life.”

While I am sympathetic to the view that faith formation happens outside as much as inside an ecclesiastical building on a Sunday morning, I think we should have reservations about the rhetorical contrast between apologetics or catechesis and social-liturgical formation. Such a contrast only makes sense within—and perpetuates—the very limited social and metaphysical imaginary of modern Western culture. What we might propose, instead, is to reconceive the connection between catechesis and a whole-life formation.

What might such a vision entail? As a matter of first steps, I propose revisiting some of the key aspects of patristic catechesis. When we allow our conception of catechesis and faith formation to be guided by the leading catechetical lights of the early Christian centuries, we will find ourselves encountering a mode of catechesis that is not simply an hour-long Sunday morning class but rather a deep habituation in the Christian life that shapes our entire vision of God, the world, and ourselves.

Catechesis in the Pre-Constantinian Church

Though we know little about the formal guidelines for catechesis in the pre-Constantinian era, it is clearly operative by at least the end of the second century. Already in Justin Martyr’s First Apology, we hear that baptism is only permitted to those who had “dedicated [themselves] to God when . . .  made new through Christ,” and those who have been “persuaded and believe that what we teach and say is true and who give an undertaking that they are able so to live.”[1]

The need to establish a catechesis that is both moral and doctrinal stemmed in part from early Christianity’s connection with ancient philosophy, as well as with the experience of martyrdom. Christians not only entrusted themselves to a persecuted Lord who was executed like a common criminal, they also sought to model their own lives on the cruciform Jesus and to present this as a superior form of ancient philosophy. The martyrs witness to Christian faithfulness and, indeed, image Christ in their very bodies. Furthermore, by exalting the martyrs, early Christians developed a martyrial identity. When the martyr responded to his or her executioner with the simple phrase, “I am a Christian,” the martyr became an icon of what it meant for all believers to identify as Christians at baptism.

Preparing for baptism thus echoed preparation for martyrdom. In keeping with St. Paul’s identification of baptism and the death and resurrection of Christ (Rom 6:1–11), Christians in the second and third centuries saw catechesis as a preparation for sharing the death of Christ.

When Tertullian teaches catechumens to pray the Lord’s Prayer, for example, he understands the phrase, “Let your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” to teach that God’s will is supremely revealed in Christ’s obedient suffering unto death, since Christ’s will is to do the will of the Father (John 6:38). This petition teaches us, Tertullian explains, “that we should likewise proclaim and labor and suffer even to death.” When we pray this prayer, we “forewarn ourselves for endurance.” Though Christ was himself the very will and power of God, “yet, in order to show the endurance that is due, he abandoned himself to the Father’s will.”[2] For Tertullian, learning to pray is an exercise in following Christ to the cross.

This partly explains the celebrated connection between baptism and martyrdom in Tertullian and his North African heir, Cyprian. Martyrdom, as they understood it, is a “second baptism,” a “baptism in blood.” In his treatise On Baptism, Tertullian explains that Christ “sent forth these two baptisms from the wound of his pierced side, because those who had believed in his blood were to be washed in water, and those who had washed in water would need also to be washed in blood.”[3] Tertullian closely connects baptism and martyrdom by rooting them in Christ’s passion. Cyprian followed suit:

Let those of us who, by the Lord’s permission, have given the first baptism to believers also prepare each one for the second [baptism], urging and teaching that this is a baptism greater in grace, loftier in power, more precious in honor. . . . In the baptism of water is received the remission of sins, in the baptism of blood the crown of virtues.[4]

If baptism was a preparation for martyrdom, and martyrdom was a second, more glorious baptism, how would this affect the way early Christians approached baptism?

But pre-Constantinian catechesis was not only about the moral formation needed to withstand persecution. Already by the end of the second century, early Christians developed a rich theological understanding of baptismal education. The second-century theologian Irenaeus of Lyons is a great example of how catechetical instruction offers a transforming vision of reality. He is, of course, one of the first to draw upon the “rule of faith” (though he prefers the term “rule of truth”) as a form of theological praxis linked with baptism (Against Heresies 1.9.4), and his powerful little book, On the Apostolic Preaching, is often considered one of the first catechetical or quasi-catechetical texts on record.

Especially interesting is the way this text seamlessly weaves doctrinal instruction and moral virtue as constitutive elements of catechesis. The rule of faith enables Christians both to know and to live lives in ways that draw the Christian into a living encounter with the living God. In John Behr’s translation, we glimpse the breathtaking scope of the rule:

We must keep the rule of faith unswervingly, and perform the commandments of God, believing in God and fearing him, for he is Lord, and loving him, for he is Father. Action, then, comes by faith, for, as Isaiah says, “If you do not believe, you will not understand” (Isa 7:9 LXX). Now the truth produces faith, for faith is established upon things truly real, so that we may believe what really is, as it is, and [believing] what really is, as it is, we may always keep our conviction of it firm. Since, then, faith is the conserver of our salvation, it is necessary to take great care of it, so that we may have a true comprehension of what is.[5]

Faith is founded on the “really real,” for Irenaeus, and our access to it comes through the “Rule” of Faith. The Rule of Faith, in Irenaeus’s use, takes on spiritual and even metaphysical resonances. Later, he explains why our baptism takes place according to three “articles” or “heads”—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is because God, who by nature transcends creation and is invisible to creatures, becomes visible in the person of Jesus Christ, whom the Spirit makes known in the process of regeneration. “Thus,” Irenaeus writes, “without the Spirit it is not possible to see the Word of God, and without the Son it is not possible to approach the Father.”[6]

What Irenaeus describes is hardly the stuff of a one-hour-a-week class, providing Christians with a few good arguments so they might not defect from the faith. Irenaeus is, to be sure, motivated to inoculate his flock from heresy—to defend against Valentinian forms of Christianity, for example. But his mode of doing so is much more expansive than a simple rebuttal. It is an introduction into (literally, a leading into) a mode of reality in which the Holy Spirit joins us with the Son who brings us into union with the Father. Irenaeus’s Trinitarian account of catechesis leaves any purely sociological account of conversion wanting.

Catechesis in the Fourth Century

Though much changed in the pivotal fourth century, the core elements of basic catechesis remained intact. In the fourth century, one could be a catechumen from an early age, even infancy, yet not baptized until many years later—sometimes not until death. While a strict level of discipline and biblical instruction still took place, in this period catechesis became more infused with the dramatic ritual of baptism—the mystical entrance into the church—and a more school-like doctrinal training. In this process, however, belief and behavior remained tightly linked in the process of conversion.

Catechumens occupied a liminal space between non-Christian and Christian. In North Africa, they were received into the community by a specific ritual—being signed with salt and the sign of the cross. But they were not yet full-fledged members. Augustine could refer to them using the Pauline distinction between servants and sons (Gal 4:1–11).[7] Catechumens could attend church to hear the Scriptures and homilies, but they could not observe, or even have explained to them, the sacraments. This was only for the baptized.

When catechumens did decide to be baptized, they submitted their names for enrollment, usually around Epiphany (January 6), and then underwent an intense period of preparation during Lent. They received, too, a new status: in Jerusalem, they were called “the enlightened” (photizomenoi), in the West, “elect” (electi) or “petitioners” (competentes). This period entailed fasting, sexual continence, and other ascetic practices; it also entailed rituals of exorcism, prayer, and a rite of examination called “the scrutiny,” which was something like a physical and psychological examination of the baptismal candidates. Lenten catechesis involved daily instruction—in Jerusalem, as much as three hours a day for seven weeks.[8] This instruction varied from place to place, but generally included teaching the biblical narrative, the necessity of moral formation, and the meaning of the Creed. Several churches developed a ritual of “handing over” (traditio) and “giving back” (redditio) the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer (and sometimes even other texts, such as Psalm 23). The bishop would have them memorize the Creed—usually a regional “baptismal creed,” akin to the modern-day Apostles’ Creed, which was simpler and older in style than the more specific purposes of the Nicene Creed.

But catechetical teaching went far beyond simply lecturing. Like earlier theologians, fourth-century catechists recognized the importance of personal exemplars. As Gregory of Nyssa understood it, theological education is more like a journey led by an experienced guide, or like an apprenticeship with a master craftsman in the “workshop of the virtues.” The difference between one who teaches only in words versus the one teaches by both words and deeds is like the difference between a “lifeless icon” and a human being who is “truly alive and outstandingly beautiful and effective in his movements.”[9]

Virtue formation in catechesis appears in the catechetical writings of John Chrysostom and Theodore of Mopsuestia in politically charged language. The theologians from Antioch compare catechesis to preparing for membership in a new city—the heavenly city of God. John even uses technical political language for enrolling as a new citizen, politographēthēnai (literally, “citizen-writing”), to describe baptismal enrollment.[10] Theodore pictures the catechumenate like this:

It is as if the [catechumen] is a stranger to the city and its citizenship, and so a specially appointed person from the city to which he is going to be enrolled, who is well versed in its mode of life, leads him to the registrar and testifies for him to the effect that he is worthy of the city and of its citizenship and that, as he is not versed in the life of the city or in the knowledge of how to behave in it, he himself would be willing to act as a guide to his inexperience.[11]

Catechesis, for John and Theodore, meant more than just teaching about the faith. It meant guiding members into a new form of social life—citizenship in a new polis. Echoing St. Paul, they taught catechumens what it meant to say that their citizenship (politeuma) was in heaven (Phil 3:20).

A similar emphasis can be found in the catechetical writings of Ambrose of Milan, who retold the stories of the Old Testament patriarchs—Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph—in Lenten catechesis using the classical ideals of paideia. Ambrose wanted new Christians to hear these stories so that catechumens “might become accustomed to enter upon the ways of our forefathers and to pursue their road, and to obey the divine commands, whereby renewed by baptism you might hold to that manner of life which befit those who are washed.”[12]

This kind of moral formation was not, for Ambrose, a form of what the contemporary American sociologist Christian Smith has called “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.”[13] The goal was not simply to “be good” or to conform to some abstract cultural norms. The Christian life, Ambrose knew, was learned through imitation—following the footsteps of our spiritual forbears. Paul’s injunction to “imitate me as I imitate Christ” (1 Cor 11:1; see also Phil 3:17, 4:9) could well apply to Ambrose’s Lenten catechesis. Above all, his goal was Christ-centered. He wanted catechumens to see Christ—to know Christ through a personal, experiential encounter through sharing in Christ’s own divine sonship. The pathway to seeing Christ was first learned through perceiving the virtues of Christ reflected in the saints.

But it was not only by following the examples of virtuous Christians that catechumens were formed. Fourth-century catechesis was also understood as a mystical encounter with God. Baptism was the crux upon which the spiritual senses were unlocked. Before baptism, Ambrose writes, catechumens see “corporeal things with corporeal eyes,” but they are not able to understand the sacraments because they “were not yet able to see with the eyes of the heart.”[14] Things change, however, after baptism:

Since you have come [to the altar], you are able to see what you did not see before . . . Through the font of the Lord and the preaching of the Lord’s passion, your eyes were then opened. You who seemed before to have been blind in heart began to see the light of the sacraments.[15]

Similarly, Gregory of Nazianzus and Augustine describe teaching the Creed in mystical terms—as Moses receiving the Law written with the very finger of God (Deut 9:10) or like Jeremiah’s prophecy of the new covenant written on our hearts (Jer 31:33).[16] In addition, the fourth century was a time when Christian hymnody emerged, especially for catechetical purposes. Ephrem the Syrian and Ambrose of Milan were innovative in the writing of new hymns, which not only sought to teach the contents of orthodoxy but “enchant” catechumens with the beauty of truth.[17] The aim was not only to know the true in an abstract way but to be enraptured by it.

This enrapturing education occurred, too, in the rite of baptism itself. In the fourth century, baptisms happened on Easter, at the end of the Lenten catechumenate. They were dramatic public rituals—“the spectacula Christiana,” the Christian answer to the spectacles of the Roman amphitheater.[18] Gregory of Nazianzus described baptism as a form of divine illumination: “This illumination is renunciation of the flesh, following of the Spirit, communion in the Word, setting right of the creature, a flood overwhelming sin, participation in light, dissolution of darkness.”[19] Catechumens publicly renounced Satan and confessed belief in the triune God. They were stripped naked before being immersed into a large, eight-sided font, symbolizing their entrance into Resurrection time—the “Eighth Day.” Arising from the font—their own deathly tomb—they were anointed with oil, adorned with white robes, and given a taste of milk and honey. They exchanged the kiss of peace and joined the faithful in celebrating the Eucharist. They were now, before the whole community, welcomed into full membership in the Church.

Recall that up to this point, catechumens had never seen or had explained to them the sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist. This was known as the disciplina arcani, the “discipline of secrecy.” This practice emerged to protect Christian communities from suspicious outsiders, as well as to avoid “casting pearls before swine” (Matt 7:6). But it soon evolved into a highly effective mode of teaching, a kind of pedagogy of silence wherein the rite itself is seen to do the work of teaching more powerfully than any speech or sermon. As Augustine writes: the “sacred rituals hand on all these truths to us in a more secret and powerful way; in them the life of the good is cleansed most easily, not by the vagaries of disputations, but by the authority of the mysteries.”[20]

The week following Easter, the newly baptized were finally explained the meaning of the sacraments. These homilies came to be known as “mystagogical” preaching, a term that literally means “leading into the mysteries.” The bishops now teach the sacraments to the newly baptized—the “infantes or “neophytes” as they were now called. They were now ready to learn these mysteries, for, now, with new Spirit-opened eyes, they begin to see things as they really are.

In the fourth century, catechesis was a tight fusion of instruction and initiation, conversion and transformation. I have stressed the way that belief and behavior became welded together. But even more importantly, catechesis meant learning to love differently. It was a pedagogy of enchantment and education of desire.[21] The catechumenate was the space where new believers were not merely educated but educated for conversion—a conversion of the heart that meant loving God and one’s neighbor.


Perhaps today we can imagine Christian apologetics and catechesis as distinct from social or liturgical formation. But a perusal of patristic tradition reveals that such a distinction—and at worst, a contrast—has not always existed and so need not continue. We do not have to draw sharp lines between having good arguments about the faith and being inculcated into a community of practice, and patristic catechesis shows us a way forward. By dwelling with the fathers as they catechized, we find ourselves on a path not simply of bringing together theology and virtue but, more importantly, of being drawn into life with God in which knowing God and being formed in Christ are one coterminous expression of God’s salvific grace. If to know God is eternal life, then we cannot hope for less than a catechesis that brings us into contact with the God who is truly Life.

[1]  Justin, First Apology 61.2–2 (trans. Denis Minns and Paul Parvis [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009], 236–39).

[2] Tertullian, On Prayer 4 (trans. Alistair Stewart-Sykes [Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2004], 45).

[3] Tertullian, On Baptism 16.2 (trans. Ernest Evans, Tertullian’s Homily on Baptism [London: S.P.C.K, 1964], 34–35, translation altered).

[4] Cyprian, Exhortation to Martyrdom to Fortunatus Preface, 4 (ANF 5:497).

[5] Irenaeus of Lyons, Proof of the Apostolic Preaching 3 (trans. John Behr [Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1997], 41).

[6] Irenaeus, Proof 4 (Behr, 71).

[7] Augustine, Tractates on the Gospel of John 11.4.

[8] See the Journal of Egeria, especially chapters 45–47, for an eyewitness account of the fourth-century Jerusalem catechumenate.

[9] Gregory of Nyssa, On Virginity 23.1 (trans. Virginia Woods Callahan, Fathers of the Church 58 [Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1967], 68–69).

[10] John Chrysostom, Baptismal Instructions 1.18; 4.6; 4.29. On this term, see Claudia Rapp, “City and Citizenship as Christian Concepts of Community in Late Antiquity,” in The City in the Classical and Post-Classical World: Changing Contexts of Power and Identity, ed. Claudia Rapp and H. A. Drake (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, ), 153–66.

[11] Theodore of Mopsuestia, Catechetical Homilies (trans. Alphonse Mingana, Commentary on the Lord’s Prayer [Cambridge: Heffer and Sons, 1933], 24–25, alt.).

[12] Ambrose, On the Mysteries 1.1 (trans. Roy Deferrari, Fathers of the Church 44 (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1963], 5).

[13] Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).

[14] Ambrose, On the Sacraments 3.2.12 (Deferrari, 294).

[15] Ambrose, On the Sacraments 3.2.11 (Deferrari, 293).

[16] Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 40.44–45; Augustine, Sermon 212.2.

[17] See Brian Dunkle, Enchantment and Creed in the Hymns of Ambrose of Milan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, ).

[18] On the following, see Thomas Finn, From Death to Rebirth: Ritual and Conversion in Antiquity (New York: Paulist Press, 1997). For Augustine’s catechumenate in particular, see the excellent work of William Harmless, Augustine and the Catechumenate (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, ).

[19] Gregory Nazianzus, Oration 40.3 (trans. Nonna Verna Harrison, Saint Gregory of Nazianzus: Festal Orations [Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2008], 100).

[20] Augustine, On Order 2.9.27, cited in Michael Cameron, Christ Meets Me Everywhere: Augustine’s Early Figurative Exegesis (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 117.

[21] Robert Louis Wilken, “Christian Formation in the Early Church,” in Educating People of Faith: Exploring the History of Jewish and Christian Communities, ed. Charles Van Engen (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 61.