Can Faith Be Taught? Who is the Teacher?

By Alex Fogleman 

“Is it possible to teach religion?”

This is the question posed in a recent article by Peter Gemeinhardt, a church history professor at the University of Göttingen and one of the architects of a study center devoted to the intersection of religion and education called EDRIS (“Education and Religion From Early Imperial Roman Times to the Classical Period of Islam.”

In this essay (“Teaching Religion in Late Antiquity: Divine and Human Agency,” Studia Patristica 92 [2017]: 271–272), Gemeinhardt consults the church fathers for help to this question, and gets at the heart of a core theological issue in catechesis.

On the one hand, when religion is a special domain of knowledge (akin to history, sociology, or biology), there is no problem – otherwise, religion departments would close down!

“But it is not that easy,” Gemeinhardt notes, “when it comes to practicing religion, that is, when one endeavors to teach people to encounter divine beings in an adequate manner” (271). Sure, you can teach people the meaning of religious rituals or how to respond when examined by a bishop before baptism, but is this this same as teaching faith?

If religion is more than learning about religious rituals, practices, or doctrines—if the Christian religion in particular is constituted by a living faith in Christ—then how can religion be taught, and by whom, and in what way?

This question—Who is teaching faith?—is important to the original question—Can faith be taught? And it is a pressing one for Christians, because it foregrounds the theological issue of divine grace and human action—the answers to which provide very different approaches to catechesis. Does one make an educated and informed “decision” to become a Christian, based on a sound pre-baptismal education in the faith (and if so, are we happy with that basically Pelagian understanding of grace)? Or is faith purely a matter of grace, in which case, what would be the purpose of catechizing?

Gemeinhardt signals the inherent tension in early Christian catechists such as Clement of Alexandria and Irenaeus of Lyons, who thought faith was indeed a product of human virtue, yet who nonetheless viewed Christ as the “primordial teacher.”

So to sharpen (or perhaps obscure) the question: “is teaching religion a human enterprise, or is it effected by divine agency?”

Gemeinhardt looks more in depth at passages from Cyril of Jerusalem and Augustine to show instances in which early Christian catechists negotiated the tension between divine and human teachers.

In Cyril’s Procatechesis 11, catechizing is explained as a building—laying the foundations of faith. But who is the builder? Later, Cyril provides two definitions of “faith”: faith as a “dogmatic belief” and faith as “a gift from God,” both of which can be taught and professed (Cyril, Catecheses 5.10–11). Gemeinhardt concludes: “Learning the faith through intellect and through inspiration work together, and thus one can teach religion, but only to a certain extent: Faith is open to didactic reflection, but it also exceeds didactics” (274).

Turning to Augustine, Gemeinhardt finds “an even more elaborated concept of a didactics of religion” (274). Augustine promoted a conception of church as a “school of the heavenly teacher” (schola magistri caelestis; Sermon 52.4.13) who were taught a new curriculum, the “literature of Christ” (Sermon 270.1).

Gemeinhardt then asks again: “But how can an ecclesiastical teacher, himself a human being, lead his flock to holiness? Certainly, he can not simply ‘make’ them holy, but he is able to pave the way, and that’s what the human teacher himself has to learn” (275). So Augustine counsels in De catechizandis rudibus that while catechists should learn rhetoric, it is much more important to be learned in love of God and neighbor. For the teacher’s love for his hearers echoes God’s love for humankind. In Gemeinhardt’s words: “And if the teacher himself radiates the divine love about which he talks, then he will not be explaining something about religion but witnessing to what he believes and what has taken possession of him” (275).

As an aside, Gemeinhardt notes that the close connection between teaching and divine activity was acutely perceived by the emperor Julian, who banned Christian teachers from public schools in his “pagan reforms” of the early 360s. It was also noted from a different perspective by Tertullian long before (ca. 200), who warned Christians about the idolatrous implications of teaching in public schools, for teaching about the gods was not immune from teaching some kind of participation in their practices and beliefs (see Tertullian, On Idolatry 10).

(For my own two cents, I want to add that this is not a matter of “fideism” on Tertullian’s part; obviously Christians continued to be employed in public schools. The point is that one cannot so easily parse out the idols of the school with the forms and modes of education. There is a parallel here to the way St. Paul talked about the ambiguity of food sacrificed to idols: no, idols aren’t anything, but the demons to which those idols bind you are [1 Cor. 8, 10:18–20]).

To return to the character of the teacher: The teacher’s own faith, for Gemeinhardt’s Augustine, does important work in teaching. The teacher’s own disposition towards the students imparts to the students something about the divine teacher. The catechumens are listening to the teacher “through” the catechist (ille qui nos audit, immo per nos audit deum; cat. rud. 7.11)

Augustine writes of the reciprocal relation between catechist and catechumen: “For so great is the power of sympathy, that when people are affected by us as we speak and we by them as they learn, we dwell each in the other and thus both they, as it were, speak in us what they hear, while we, after a fashion, learn in them what we teach” (Cat. rud. 12.17).

Summing up Augustine’s view, Gemeinhardt writes: “For Augustine, religion can be taught because God himself is the teacher, but he relies on human assistance. Religious education means learning in a dialogical manner vis-à-vis to God, be it in the introductory catechesis or in the service for the whole parish. At church, the faithful participate in the ‘school of Christ,’ for only at face-value it is the bishop who speaks” (276). Augustine again:

“Christ is teaching, his reading desk (cathedra) is in heaven … but his school is on earth, and his school is his body. The head is teaching his limbs.” (Augustine, disc. Christ. 15)

Concluding the essay, Gemeinhardt writes: 

“For late antique catechists … religion can be taught, but this is due to Christ as the primordial teacher. Thus, teaching is no one-way road but appears as [an] interrelation of teachers and pupils who jointly enter into a catechetical dialogue.… Since divine agency is crucial to this pedagogical enterprise, human teaching is at the same time rendered possible and limited. Divine and human agency are inextricably intertwined in this process…. Thus, already in Late Antiquity we find something that in contemporary pedagogics of religion is called a paradox: Faith, as a gift of God’s grace, is not simply available to human beings; thus we have to teach what we cannot teach (but we also cannot do away with teaching, since Jesus’ commandment is fundamental for the Christian religion of all kinds).”