Catechesis against the Gnostics

By Alex Fogleman

I’ve been thinking about the connections between early Christian catechesis and the church’s first encounters with theological controversy—especially those related to so-called “gnostic” forms of Christianity. These debates were the context in which the rule of faith emerged, which had an important catechetical function; most historians think that the baptismal creeds developed from the rule of faith, and so formed the core elements of pre-baptismal instruction.

“Gnosticism” as a label covers a number of separate groups, and scholars have learned to be more careful about what designates these groups. We’re often limited in our knowledge of gnostic thought and practice based on what their opponents said about them. However, what gnostics were accused of—regardless of whether these were “accurate” depictions—can tell us a lot about what was important to early Christians. We learn much by listening to what early Christians were against as much as what they were for.

The North African church father Tertullian, in his treatise Prescriptions against Heresies, makes a passing remark about catechumens in a larger attack on heretical groups, especially those that he links with gnostic groups. And as I hope to show, behind this critique are important ideas about the origins of catechesis. The passage goes like this:  

I must not leave out a description of the heretics’ way of life: futile, earthly, all too human, lacking in gravity, in authority, in discipline (disciplina)—as is congruent with their faith. To begin with, one cannot tell who is a catechumen and who is baptized (fideles). They come in together, listen together, pray together. Even if any of the heathen arrive, they are quite willing to cast that which is holy to the dogs and their pearls (false ones!) before swine.

The destruction of discipline is to them simplicity, and our attention to it they call affectation. They are in communion with everyone everywhere. Differences of theology are of no concern to them as long as they are all agreed in attacking the truth.

They are all puffed up, they all promise knowledge. Their catechumens are perfect [perfecti] before they are fully instructed (edocti). As for the women of the heretics, how forward they are! They have the impudence to teach, to argue, to perform exorcisms, to promise cures, perhaps even to baptize. Their ordinations are hasty, irresponsible and unstable. Sometimes they appoint Novices [neophytes, those who had just been baptized], sometimes men tied to secular office, sometimes renegades from us—hoping to bind them by ambition as they cannot bind them by the truth.

Nowhere can you get quicker promotion than in the camp of the rebels, where your mere presence is a merit. So one man is bishop today, another tomorrow. The deacon of today is tomorrow’s reader [lector, an official role in the early church], the priest of today is tomorrow a layman. For they impose priestly functions even upon laymen. (Prescriptions against Heresies 41)

This is typical Tertullian—mincing no words for those whom he deems heretical. It’s not clear exactly who he has in mind. He’s mentioned Marcion and Valentinus in previous paragraphs. Jerome would later comment that Marcion did not exclude catechumens from the Eucharist, as catholic churches did, which is an issue Tertullian has in view here in saying that catechumens and the baptized all “come in together, pray together, etc.”

The main point, however, is clear: heretical groups are disordered in the way they structure their churches. There’s no discipline, no structures of authority, no gravitas. Moreover, Tertullian says they relish this absence of discipline because of its “simplicity,” over against the catholic church’s pretense and posturing. Among catholic churches of this period, catechumens and anyone else not baptized were excused from the Eucharist, which was considered a sacred mystery only accessible to the baptized. Otherwise, it was considered “throwing pearls before swine” (Matt. 7:6). Tertullian accuses the gnostics of not making these distinctions. There’s no difference between catechumens and the fideles (those who had been baptized).

Likewise, as is noted in the final two sections quoted, it becomes relatively easy in these groups to gain a quick promotion. Catechumens are considered "perfect” before even being instructed. They ordain people quickly, without sufficient training. All one has to simply show up and—just like that!—a priest.

We of course don’t need to take Tertullian at his word here. He’s not trying to present an impartial, “objective” history of Gnosticism. What’s interesting is the fact that these are issues worth worrying about. What’s insightful is the assumption that his hearers should also share his anxieties about undisciplined, unstructured churches with easy promotions. Tertullian wants to show that orthodox churches are not like this.

But it seems there’s something more going on than simply the need to maintain rank and file—to preserve order amidst chaos. Not differentiating between catechumens and fideles, the ease of the quick promotion—these problems that Tertullian identifies in gnostic groups have to do with a more basic problem, and that is the rejection of a kind of faith that involves virtue, a rejection of the notion that Christianity entails a transformed life acquired through disciplina—a word that means not only discipline but education, instruction, and training.

A similar critique of the gnostic rejection of virtue shows up in a surprising passage from the neo-Platonist philosopher Plotinus in the third century. In his Enneads 2.9.15—part of a section that his biography Porphyry called “Against Gnosticism”—Plotinus critiques the rejection of virtue associated with certain gnostic schools.

This school, in fact, is convicted by its neglect of all mention of virtue: any discussion of such matters is missing utterly. We are not told what virtue is or under what different kinds it appears; there is no word of all the numerous and noble reflections upon it that have come down to us from the ancients; we do not learn what constitutes it or how it is acquired, how the Soul is tended, how it is cleaned.

For to say “Look to God” is not helpful without some instruction as to what this looking imports: it might very well be said that one can “look” and still sacrifice no pleasure, still be the slave of impulse, repeating the word God but held in the grip of every passion and making no effort to master any. Virtue, advancing towards the Term and, linked with thought, occupying a Soul makes God manifest. God on the lips, without a good conduct of life, is [just] a word.

I say this is a surprising passage to come from Plotinus because many Christians today are still under the impression that Gnosticism is little different than Platonism. Both are united in their rejection of the body or “matter” as they seek a pure spiritualist escapism.

But as this passage makes so clear, what is at stake for Plotinus is the idea of a philosophy that avoids the hard work of learning to live well—of practicing a philosophy that requires no disciplina, no changed way of life, no difference in the way one orders the passions. Plotinus critiques this anti-training as hypocrisy: they have God in their lips, but it makes no difference in how they live.

Andrew Louth, in his wonderful book, Discerning the Mystery, has an excellent reflection on this passage from Plotinus, which he then extends by considering Augustine’s On Christian Teaching as a model of Christian paideia that is offered in the place of a deficient classical model. Louth writes:

Christians, in opposing the gnostics, used the Greek notion of paideia as a way of articulating their understanding of the goodness of creation, consequent on this, of redemption not as something opposed to creation, as with the gnostics, but as the restoration of creation—as re-creation, which restored the original coherence between man and man, and man and the cosmos. (Discerning the Mystery, 76–77)

Early Christians in fact had a very positive evaluation of human tradition and culture, for they saw redemption itself as the realization in the church of a renewed creation. And they recognized that an essential role in the formation of a citizenry was the discipline that meant learning virtue.

For Louth, this is just what Augustine is trying to do in On Christian Teaching. The African bishop was not just presenting an outline for a way of Christian teaching narrowly conceived but a whole way of being human and living together. As Louth says, Augustine’s goal was not to reject tradition and culture as such, but the diabolical characteristics of pagan culture. What he offered instead was restored tradition, a “truly human culture” (77).

Seen in this light, Tertullian’s comment about the failure to differentiate between catechumens and the faithful takes on a new light. Perhaps we can say the problem with not having a space for catechumens is that it imitates the gnostic tendency to repudiate human culture and tradition, which is an offshoot of its rejection of the created order as such. It seeks an “easy salvation” where no learning is needed.

It’s not hard to make a similar critique of churches without catechesis. As Plotinus puts it: they have God on their lips but, without a changed way of life, “God” becomes only a word. In a more biblical idiom, we might say: “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me” (Matt. 15:8).

One of the tasks of catechesis is to enable contexts in which the word “God” is not merely a word on our lips but has become synonymous with the contours of our lives. A church that prizes catechesis does so in relation to other commitments—to the goodness of the world, of human tradition and culture. A catechizing church is one that aims not for the rejection of culture as such, but the rejection of pagan culture. Instead, a catechizing church aims at a paideia that has in view a restored humanity, and indeed, a restored creation.