In patristic catechesis, we see, as Jean Daniélou once said, the “living tradition in action.” It was here, in the education and formation of new believers, that church leaders elucidated the vital dimensions of the faith that had been received and were now to be handed on. Catechesis was thus of the utmost importance for the early fathers and for shaping Christianity in generations to come. It set out the parameters of what to believe and how to live. It brought to the foreground, out of the enormous range of topics one could discuss, what was most important to reflect upon—thus playing an important role in the shaping of Christian theology and practice. At the beginning of the fourth century, when Eusebius, the bishop of Caesarea, returned from what would be a world-changing council at Nicaea in 325, he felt the need to stress that the new creed formulated there was in substantial continuity with the local baptismal creed in Caesarea. It was the creed set out in baptism, which presumed a formative catechetical practice, that provided the original “canon,” or rule, against which to measure any succeeding theological formularies. And for all the importance of the Nicene Creed in later centuries, it’s instructive to find bishops well over a century after its introduction still using their local baptismal creeds as a template with which to catechize new Christians.
In putting together this patristic commentary on the catechism, my hope is that pastors and teachers today might imbibe some of the energy that the fathers displayed toward catechesis. I don’t think we can, or need to, simply reiterate what they said—although a well-chosen quote from the fathers, in the right context, can add a nice zing to any catechesis lesson. What is more important is that we capture the ethos and tenor of the father’s mode of catechesis. They believed that catechetical instruction—as all theology—was meant to lead people to the vision of God. Having that guiding telos for catechesis today will prove especially fruitful in capturing the spirit of early Christian catechesis.
By doing catechesis with the church fathers, then, we are not simply giving a history lesson. The Anglican tradition holds history reverently, even sacredly, but not slavishly. We don’t cling to the historical tradition of the church for its own sake, or because “that’s the way they used to do it. Instead, we attend to the Spirit’s pattern of building the church throughout the ages. Learning the early history of catechesis, then, is not simply about learning “what happened.” It’s a way of joining in the Spirit’s work of binding together the communion with saints. It’s a way of reforming the church’s collective memory so that it becomes stamped with the image of Christ. To study the past is to be led on a gentle path out of the spiritual amnesia that disorients the modern mind.
The pages here will provide an ongoing collection of patristic commentary, organized around the key teaching points of the Catechism—the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, and the Sacraments. Ranging from the second to the seventh century, and including figures that spoke Latin, Greek, and Syriac, the range of texts presented is meant to be broad and diverse, in a way that shows where the fathers disagreed about certain topics, while also showing a certain measure of common consensus—if not always in what they taught, at least in why they taught it. Overall, there is a focus on texts that will be most helpful in a catechetical context, though the selections themselves are not necessarily from pre-baptismal instructions. No doubt there is a good deal of personal bias in these selections. But alas, one has to start somewhere. The selections are sometimes brief, sometimes lengthier, so that, in recognition of the limited time most people have for preparing for catechesis lessons, they may still glean something of the fundamental spirit of patristic catechetical theology. Again, the overall goal is to provide an insight into the mind of the fathers—a sense of how they handled Scripture, Tradition, and reason in order to engage the hearts and minds of their hearers with the divine truths.
In selecting these passages, I’ve availed myself of a number of great pre-existing resources, to which I gratefully acknowledge tribute, and recommend for further reading.
The Ancient Christian Doctrine series, edited by Thomas Oden, 5 vols. (IVP Academic)
Matthew, edited by D. H. Williams, in The Church’s Bible Commentary (Baker Academic, 2018)
Understandings of the Church, ed. Everett Ferguson (Fortress Press, 2016)
Wealth and Poverty in Early Christianity, ed. Helen Rhee (Fortress Press, 2017)
Biblical Interpretation in the Early Church, ed. Michael Graves (Fortress Press, 2017)
Marriage and Sexuality in Early Christianity, ed. David Hunter (Fortress Press, 2018)