Getting to the Root: Catechesis, Tradition, and the Contemporary Church

By Alex Fogleman

I am always on the lookout for a concise, clear yet substantive article to introduce people to catechesis. This is harder than it seems. Most tend to provide either too much or too little information, either too theoretical or too practical. Some are all about content, others all about practice. It’s actually quite difficult to name what makes catechesis a unique theological practice.

I was especially pleased, therefore, to discover this recent article by Bryan Hollon, entitled “Catechesis and Christian Discipleship,” written for the CS Lewis Institute’s online journal, Knowing and Doing. Among other things, he gives an excellent summary of catechesis and its main features, which he categorizes as a “narrative of Scripture,” “Apostles’ Creed,” “prayer and worship,” and “Ten Commandments. But especially helpful is his articulation of how the lack of catechesis lies at the root of so many other problems in the church today, and how its recovery can begin to address some of them.

Hollon is professor of Malone University and the founding rector of St. John’s Anglican Church in Canton, OH. I first came across his work through his book on Henri de Lubac and spiritual exegesis, Everything is Spiritual: Spiritual Exegesis in the Political Theology of Henry de Lubac, which came out of his 2006 dissertation at Baylor University (where I currently am).

The same sense of hope in the church’s tradition to be a source of renewal—the sense of the early Christian witness as a living witness today—which characterized the nouvelle theologians, is also a key impetus behind the Institute for the Renewal of Christian Catechesis. Hans Boersma, one of my former teachers from Regent College, and the keynote at this past year’s IRCC Colloquium, wrote an important study of these figures, which formed the backdrop of his Heavenly Participation.

Hollon begins his article by asking us to consider what lies at the root of the contemporary church’s malaise.

If you were asked to articulate the contemporary church’s greatest weakness, what would you say? Would you point to the tendency among so many Christians to conform to the surrounding culture on issues such as gay marriage? Would you argue that evangelicals and mainline Christians have both become too captive to political ideologies and failed to remain faithful to the King of kings and Lord of lords? Perhaps you would mention the prosperity gospel or the multibillion-dollar Christian entertainment industry shaping so much evangelical worship? Others have made those arguments, and I am in many ways sympathetic. However, it seems to me that there is a deeper, more foundational problem that is too often overlooked. I suggest that the eclipse of catechetical discipleship ministry is among the greatest threats facing the church today. (1)

He does on to give a deceptively simple but in fact very profound definition of catechesis:

Catechesis has the sense of handing on something that has been received, so it is not instruction in new truths but the faithful teaching of wisdom long preserved (see 1 Cor. 15:3). Indeed, catechesis is the church’s classical approach to forming disciples in the Bible’s grand drama of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation. For nearly two thousand years, catechists have sought not only to teach the biblical story, but also to guide new Christians into a process of assimilation to that story, so that the life and mission of Jesus Christ would shape the belief, prayer, worship, and moral life of new disciples.

From this definition, it becomes clear that catechesis is closely tied to tradition—though tradition understood as the dynamic process of passing on what has been received, rather than a stale list of non-biblical credenda. Tradition also entails an “assimilation” of the new believer to the biblical narrative of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation. It is the appropriation of the person to a form of life. Such is the way nouvelle theologians like Yves Congar or Henri de Lubac, whom Hollon has written about so well in his earlier book, described tradition.

Hollon then shows how an overarching scriptural narrative figures into catechesis. Most people associate catechesis with the “core standards” that make up a typical catechism—the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments (and sometimes the Sacraments are a distinct category). For Hollon, however, who draws on Augustine’s De catechizandis rudibus, catechumens first need a broad-brush scope of the biblical story, before attending to the specifically credal, spiritual, and moral elements of catechesis. The narrative provides, as it were, the canopy in which the other aspects make sense.

But, adds Hollon, while the notion of biblical narrative has become popular again in many Christian circles, there is something more that catechesis does than provide a biblical narrative. By emphasizing that catechesis is both an aesthetic and moral formation—a new perception and imagination for what it means to live as a Christian—Hollon highlights the participatory character of how Christians come to know and be assimilated to the Christian story.

As important as the story of Scripture was and is, the ultimate goal of Christian discipleship is not only head knowledge of the biblical story but a participatory knowledge of God through formation in love (see 1 John 4:7–8). Christian formation requires both the head and the heart.

This kind of formation entails repentance, faith, and growth in holiness. As Thomas Aquinas wrote, “All [knowledge of God] is produced by an assimilation of the knower to the thing known, so that assimilation is said to be the cause of knowledge” [Summa Theologiae, I, q. 12, a. 9]. Sound catechesis requires that Christians learn the story of Scripture and submit themselves to the lordship of the Bible’s author and primary subject. It has an epistemology of love (assuming that true knowledge of God entails loving others) and a hermeneutic of love (assuming that a proper reading of Scripture entails a transformative encounter with Jesus Christ who first loved us). Love is the shape of Christ’s body and of the Christian life. (12-14)

This kind of assimilative knowledge of the scriptural narrative is one of the key dimensions of catechesis, and arguably one of its most hard-to-name aspects. But it is a necessary component of a consistently theological pedagogy, because it is what allows for the Holy Spirit to work in and through our educative efforts. Highlighting the participatory character of catechetical knowledge prevents, on the one hand, a kind of Pelagian catechesis, where successful catechesis is a result of the sheer skill of the catechist, and, on the other hand, a Quietist catechesis, where the catechist doesn’t think anything he or she does in catechesis has any genuine effect on the quality of the catechesis—it’s all up to the Spirit.

In sum, I found Hollon’s article to be an exceptionally good introduction to catechesis, one that could be used to provide newcomers to catechesis with a sense of the overall goals, practices, and content of catechesis. It would also be helpful for articulating why catechesis is such a timely and necessary task for the church today, when it seems like so many other more issues are more pressing. At the root of these issues is a lack of sound catechesis, and Hollon’s proposal is a good one for getting back on track.