As churches recover the language of catechesis, it's useful to know the biblical origins of the word. "Catechesis" is derived from a great New Testament word, the Greek word katēcheō, meaning to teach, inform, or instruct. It's more or less synonymous with other words meaning to teach or instruct (such as didaskalia), so we shouldn't try to impose a later, more technical sense of the word. Still, we can learn a lot by examining each of its usages.
In the New Testament, the word or its variants occur 8 times—four by Luke and four by Paul. In this post, we'll look at Luke's, and next, we'll look at Paul's.
First, though, it may help to get a sense of the etymology and range of meaning. katēcheō comes from combining the preposition kata, meaning "down" or "towards," with ēchos meaning "sound, noise, news, or fame" (where we get the word "echo").
Blue Letter Bible lists this range of meaning:
to sound towards, sound down upon, resound1a. to charm with resounding sound, to fascinate
to teach orally, to instruct
to inform by word of mouth3a. to be orally informed
Of course, we have to avoid the etymological fallacy of importing the total range of meaning into each instance of the word. But still, it's interesting to note the range of meanings—especially that first sense of "echoing" or "resounding," perhaps in a charming or fascinating way. In the classical world, rhetoric was one of the most important disciplines to learn. At its worst, it could mean enticing speech devoid of truth—the "sophistry" that so many philosophers railed against, or used for their gain. But at its best, rhetoric meant eloquence united to truth. Truth was inseparable from goodness and beauty—thus, true speech was also beautiful. Augustine in particular will develop the sense of delight as an important aspect to preaching and teaching. The truth teaches not by hitting us on the head but by getting inside us and captivating our hearts.
Okay, moving on to the Luke's usages of the word "catechesis." The first is from the intro to his Gospel.
I love this beginning to Luke's Gospel. We don't know much about "Theophilus"—whether he was a real person or a sort of proto-typical "God-lover" (Theo-philus). But the meaning of the passage is clear: Luke has gathered first-hand accounts of the events that "have been fulfilled among us." He does this, moreover, so that his hearers may with greater certainty the things they have been taught. In other words Luke is making more "concrete" (the word is ἀσφάλεια, as in asphalt) what this God-lover is just getting acquainted with.
Next is Acts 18:25, a description of Apollos:
Luke describes Apollos here as "instructed in the way of the Lord." I don't think catechemenos has any kind of technical sense, but it's interesting that it's used to describe "Way of the Lord" refers to a kind of technical term for the Christian faith, and the passage notes he was taught about Jesus accurately. Yet he only knew the baptism of John—that is, he hadn't yet encountered the baptism of the Holy Spirit. With further explanation (ἐκτίθημι) from Priscilla and Aquila, he was better prepared to defend the faith to the Jews from Scripture in public debate.
The final passage includes two of Luke's usages: Acts 21:21 and 24:
Once again, there's nothing particular remarkable about these uses of the word—they have the general sense of informing someone about something. "We've been told..." or "We've heard about this..." The last usage has the sense of "report." This is one of the usages mentioned above. Echos in Greek can mean "news" or "fame"—so this is talking about what people had reported about Paul.
While that may not enlighten our sense of catechesis as a unique practice of the church, it helps us keep a clear eye on how the biblical definition the word. It can mean something very generic—telling someone about something. Or it can mean "instruction" more specifically—the way Apollos was instructed in the "way of the Lord," or the way Theophilus had received preliminary instruction, which Luke's Gospel would help solidify.
So that's Luke's four uses of the term. In the next post, we'll look at Paul's.