Reserving the Gospel

By Alex Fogleman

What was the focus of catechetical teaching in the early church? What did a new convert actually know about the faith before becoming a Christian?

It seems obvious from the NT and early Christian writings that an emphasis on both belief and ethics were important in pre-baptismal instruction. But was there a priority? Did knowledge of the faith come before learning how to live as a Christian, or vice versa?

Evidence for catechetical teaching is fairly sketchy in the second and third centuries. Our knowledge is much better by the  fourth. Nonetheless, the eminent liturgical scholar Paul Bradshaw has made a good case that catechumens in the third century were not taught the Gospels until after baptism. Instead, the Gospels were reserved from outsiders, perhaps because they were considered too sacred—like casting pearls before swine—much like was the case for the Eucharist. (Paul Bradshaw, “The Gospel and Catechumenate in the Third Century,” The Journal of Theological Studies n.s. 50, no. 1 (1999): 143-152).

He begins with two pieces of evidence from third-century texts, both compilations of church orders and liturgical documents. 

 “When the heathen desire and promise to repent, saying ‘We believe’, we receive them into the congregation so that they may hear the word, but do not receive them into communion until they receive the seal and are fully initiated” – Didascalia Apostolorum 2.39

“And when they choose those appointed to receive baptism, having examined their life, if they lived in holiness while they were catechumens, and if they honoured the widows, and if they visited those who are sick, and they fulfilled every good work, and when those who brought them in testify on his behalf that they acted thus, then let them hear the gospel.” - Hippolytus, Apostolic Tradition 20

These two passages seem to maintain an odd logic: In the first, the outsiders have to show a desire to repent, and then they can come in "so that they may hear the word." But they are not to be received until they have been "sealed," that is, baptized.

In the second text, they must examine the catechumen's way of life as a prerequisite to their hearing the Gospel. Has the person lived well? Have they cared for widows and visited the sick? In other words, have they shown in their lives a true desire to repent and live according to the Christian way of life? If so, "Then let them hear the gospel."

This is the positive evidence for the thesis that the Gospel was reserved in third-century catechesis. Bradshaw then looks at fourth-century evidence to find "memories" of this practice. Even though the fourth-century texts reveal that the Gospel was preached among catechumens, there seems to be certain vestiges of a practice wherein the Gospels were reserved.

Bradshaw looks at eastern liturgical rites, the preaching of the fourth-century bishops Ambrose of Milan and Cyril of Jerusalem, and church councils in Rome and Gaul, finding suggestions that, although now it is allowable to preach the gospel to catechumens, perhaps this was a new custom. In Canon 18 of the First Council of Orange (441), there is a directive specifying that catechumens should hear the Gospel, and that the Gospel should be read among the catechumens. Why would this have to be mandated unless there there was some practice or expectation that catechumens should not hear it?

In Cyril of Jerusalem's catechetical writings, the Gospel texts are mentioned in passing, but never does Cyril include Gospel readings as part of the principle texts from which he teaches. Bradshaw hears in this fact a faint echo of a distant practice. 

“This is not to say that the gospels were still really being kept hidden from the unbaptized in fourth-century Jerusalem, but only that there appears to have been the memory of a tradition that this was once so, which the choice of catechetical readings still reflects.” (145)  

In the case of Ambrose, there is little evidence that he preached from the Gospels during the Lenten catechumenate. Instead, we find him preaching on Genesis, the Old Testament Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, Noah), and Proverbs—and usually with an expressly moral purpose. That is, not only does he seem to downplay the preaching of the Gospels, he seems to have retained the earlier emphasis on morality preceding doctrinal teaching. Perhaps he is carrying on a tradition of first preaching morality, then teaching doctrine and sacraments. 

There is also the curious rite, unique to Milan, of the Ephphatha, a liturgical rite involving the priest washing the eyes and ears of the catechumen. This names comes from the Hebrew word meaning “be opened,” which Christ spoke in opening of the ears and eyes of the deaf and dumb man in Mark 7:34. Most liturgical scholars have thought Ambrose is just confusing an exorcism rite that was common in pre-baptismal catechesis. But is Ambrose really that ignorant? Perhaps instead this is evidence that developed because of an appreciation for the sacredness of the gospels, which required a rite of opening the ears.

But why was the Gospel reserved in this way?  Bradshaw’s conclusion teases out some of the logic behind this practice, and is worth quoting at length. Bradshaw is helpful in drawing out some of the modern assumptions with which we bring to the early church practice, as well as some of the implications for thinking about how people became Christians in the early church. 

For some Christian communities in the second and third centuries there was a custom of reserving certain teachings to those in the final stages of preparation for baptism and not allowing them to be more widely known to the unbaptized

“Individually these various pieces of evidence may not to amount to much, but I would contend that cumulatively they start to build something of a case for the thesis that for some Christian communities in the second and third centuries there was a custom of reserving certain teachings to those in the final stages of preparation for baptism and not allowing them to be more widely known to the unbaptized, a custom that lingered on in some places into the fourth century and even later, albeit now only in symbolic form. Its decline in the Constantinian era could well have been the result of the growing trend at that time both of making the baptismal rite itself secret and mysterious, and of developing instead a period of post-baptismal mystagogy when certain teachings were revealed for the first time to the neophytes.” (150)

We don’t need to look to gnostic rites or mystery cults for this practice, he says, for there is already a well-established New Testament tradition of “secrecy” within the nascent Christian communities—the whole teaching of “not casting pearls before swine,” for example. “It could just be,” Bradshaw wonders, “that Jesus’ own words were considered too sacred for the gospels to be read to any but the baptized and those who were about to be admitted into the fellowship of the faithful” (150).

“I realize that to some this suggestion may sound much too preposterous to be taken seriously. How could pagans possibly have been attracted to Christianity, and how could they have been converted to the faith and been willing to prepare for baptism, if the contents of the gospels had never been fully revealed to them? In any case, early Christian writers themselves testify to the existence of knowledge about Jesus and his teaching among their pagan contemporaries. But we must beware of reading back into Christian antiquity the presuppositions of our own age. We tend to assume that in order for a person to be drawn into a religious sect, it must be the central doctrines of that sect which attract them and win them over, causing them to change their life-style. In other words, we see the sequence as: believing first, belonging second, behaving third. But this is not necessarily always true, even for our own day, let alone for centuries and cultures long ago. In particular, the scrutiny of baptismal candidates described in some detail in the Apostolic Tradition, wherever and whenever that text might have originated, clearly focuses on testing the behaviour of the catechumens rather than their beliefs or the content of Christian doctrine, as a modern confirmation class would probably do instead: 'Have they honoured the widows? Have they visited the sick? Have they done every kind of good work?'"

Indeed, it appears to have been the behaviour of Christians rather than their beliefs as such that was the principal attraction to the religion for pagans and the most effective means of evangelization

“Thus, it rather looks as though it was prerequisite to belonging in the early church, and that at least some believing might have been expected to come later. Indeed, it appears to have been the behaviour of Christians rather than their beliefs as such that was the principal attraction to the religion for pagans and the most effective means of evangelization. Christians would thus not have needed to tell them everything about the gospel in order to draw them into the catechumenate. The ethical precepts of the Lord might have been enough, and the deepest mysteries of the faith might well have been reserved for the time when they were ready to make the final commitment of baptism.” (151)

What are the possible implications of reflecting on this practice today?

Perhaps it's completely backwards and should be seen as a false step in the early church. It seems like part of the beauty of a catechumenate is that it gives new believers a chance to understand fully what they're getting into before they sign on. 

Now I don't think this—or any other aspect of early Christian practice—is simply duplicatable for us today. I can't help but think this would be seen as rather cultish today and unnecessarily circumspect (although first- and second-century Christians were no doubt seen as cultish, too).  

What I'm more interested in, however, is the kind of pedagogy and dogmatic convictions inherent in this practice. It seems that a built in assumption of withholding the Gospel is the sense that a) there really is something precious or sacred about it, something about the Gospel that warrants treating it with reverence; and b) that the Christian life is one inherently aimed towards increasing understanding and progress—epektasis in Gregory of Nyssa's conceptual framework. It seems early Christians were much more attuned to the process of becoming Christian, and understanding that life as one of growing ever deeper into life with God. 

It also seems like the case that early Christians presumed that being able to be receptive to the Gospel required some basic initial training, particularly in terms of moral virtue. To be able to hear and respond to the Gospel, one needed to show signs of desiring to live well, to want to obtain true blessedness, and to be able to evidence that desire in one's way of life. 

Once again, I'm not advocating a simple adoption of this practice. In our context, we need more and better teaching about Christ. But perhaps we need to remember that the presentation of the Gospel is also dependent on the contexts and moral habitats of the people who are hearing it. If we are not concerned with the sacredness of the Gospel at all, do we perhaps come to the conclusion that we can treat the Gospels "like any other book"? Do we open up the door to the kinds of academic study of the Bible where it is treated like a frog to be dissected, rather than the pearl of great price, for which it is worth selling all that we have?

How might attending to the practice of reserving the Gospel inform how we think about catechesis today?