Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


How Did Early Christians Teach New Members to Know God?

Alex Fogleman

The topic of catechesis, or baptismal instruction, remains a relatively understudied area of research outside a few highly specialized subdisciplines in early Christian studies. It’s primarily of interest to scholars in practical theology, liturgics, and social history. Increasingly, however, the organization of the catechumenate, beginning at least in the second century and going up to the fifth century, is seen as a key “institution” (in Christoph Markschies now well-known definition) within early Christianity. It played a pivotal role in the spreading and solidification of Christian teachings, rituals, and identities.[1] 

As I began to study this topic several years ago, I came to see just how central catechesis was not only to the social history of Christianity but also, more concretely, to the shaping of Western thinking about faith and knowledge more generally. The catechumenate was arguably the only educational institution unique to early Christianity—the primary site in which members first encountered what it meant to think and live as a Christian. I sensed that we needed a deeper understanding of catechesis was important to shaping the new ideas about the very meaning of the word “God” in the patristic era.

When I looked at historical treatments of catechesis, however, I found it difficult to find reliable treatments that really appreciated the subject’s rich and complex history. The great patrologist and ressourcement theologian Jean Daniélou wrote in the early 1960s that “the history of patristic catechesis remains to be written,” and this sentiment has been echoed at least twice in the last decade by two leading specialists in patristic catechesis.[2] Most book-length treatments, I found, were too broad or too narrow, attempting to survey the whole landscape of patristic catechesis or only touching on one or two figures. Additionally, I kept noticing a predominant trend in focusing on socio-political interpretations of the development of the catechumenate, with stark contrasts between the rough-and-ready catechumenate of the pre-Constantine era and the largesse and decadent approach after the period of legalization.[3]

It was, however, especially after coming to the end of William Harmless’s 400-page magnum opus on Augustine’s catechesis (Augustine and the Catechumenate) that I saw the need for a new book that focused on the role of faith and knowledge in the early catechetical tradition. Harmless identified a set of key related questions that needed further examination in studies of catechesis: “What constitutes knowledge—particularly of faith and about faith? What forms of knowing—cognitive, affective, verbal, practical—most need to be promoted and in what ways? What does teaching mean—especially when it involved teaching mysteries?”[4] These questions struck me as profoundly important—not only for the study of the early church or the history of catechesis but, more broadly, for understanding Western conceptions of knowledge, faith, and education. Was there a rationaleto learning something fundamentally acquired by grace or a higher divine power? Could something as mysterious as faith in God be taught or learned? And how, in fact, did Christian conceptions of religious knowledge relate to actual practices of teaching and communicating knowledge? These are questions that a historical study of knowledge in catechesis was primed to answer.

Knowledge, Faith, and Early Christian Initiation offers a new approach to the study of early Christian catechesis. It looks at the many and varied ways that theological knowledge was constructed, ordered, and instilled in peri-baptismal education (both before and immediately after baptism). How, in these settings, did early Christian leaders shape the way new Christians thought about God, the world, and themselves? Amid a variety of Jewish and Graeco-Roman teaching platforms, how did early Christians develop pedagogies that claimed to offer true pathways to wisdom and beatitude? Without downplaying the legalization and political favoring of Christianity in the fourth century, this study situates the role of organizing catechetical knowledge within a broader range of intellectual and cultural currents.

By focusing on the formation and development of early Christian catechesis, I argue, we gain unique insight into the relationship between knowledge and pedagogy—an ancient question in the Western tradition, going back at least to Socratic and Sophist debates in the fifth century BC. This book analyzes the early Christian catechumenate as a formative site for training divine cognition—for learning what it means to know God. While epistemology has primarily been the occupation of analytic philosophy, an historical-theological study of the ancient Christian catechumenate promises to illuminate key aspects of knowledge transmission more generally, and religious knowledge of God, more particularly. The purpose of this volume, then, is to observe historically the concrete ways in which early Christian leaders sought to communicate and instill this knowledge in its newest members.

What appears is a new picture of early Christian catechesis, one focused not only on its social function or theoretical content but also on how knowledge of God was understood in these settings and how certain kinds of teaching practices emerged in dialogue and competition with other antique educational institutions. Through close readings of catechetical texts from the second to the fifth century in Italy and North Africa, this study investigates the ways in which central Christian ideas emerged through engagement with classical knowledge-forming institutions as well as with biblical and theological resources, the result of which was the creation of a novel teaching institution in Christian antiquity.

[1] See Daniel Schwartz, Paideia and Cult: Christian Initiation in Theodore of Mopsuestia (Washington, D.C.: Center for Hellenic Studies, 2013; David Vopřada, Quodvultdeus: A Bishop Forming Christians in Vandal Africa: A Contextual Analysis of the Pre-baptismal Sermons Attributed to Quodvultdeus of Carthage (Leiden: Brill, 2019); Matthieu Pignot, The Catechumenate in Late Antique Africa (4th–6th Centuries): Augustine of Hippo, His Contemporaries and Early Reception (Leiden: Brill, 2020).

[2] Jean Daniélou, La catáchèse aux premiers siècles (Paris: Fayard-Mame, 1968), 11. See also William Harmless, Augustine and the Catechumenate, rev. ed. (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2014), 25; Benjamin Edsall, The Reception of Paul and Early Christian Initiation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019), 20.

[3] Representative examples include: Michel Dujarier, A History of the Catechumenate: The First Six Centuries (New York: William H. Sadlier Inc., 1979); Everett Ferguson, “Catechesis and Initiation,” in The Early Church at Work and Worship, vol. 2: Catechesis, Baptism, Eschatology, and Martyrdom (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2014), 18–51; Alan Kreider, The Change of Conversion and the Origin of Christendom (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2007); Alistair Stewart-Sykes, “Catechumenate and Contra-Culture: The Social Process of Catechumenate in Third-Century Africa and Its Development,” St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 47 (2003): 289–306; Andrew Louth, “Fiunt, non nascuntur Christiani: Conversion, Community, and Christian Identity in Late Antiquity,” in Being Christian in Late Antiquity: A Festschrift for Gillian Clark, ed. Carol Harrison, Caroline Humfress, and Isabella Sandwell (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 109–18.

[4] Harmless, Augustine and the Catechumenate, 405.

Knowledge, Faith, and Early Christian Initiation by Alex Fogleman

About The Author

Alex Fogleman

Alex Fogleman is an assistant research professor of Theology at Baylor University's Institute for Studies of Religion and director of the Catechesis Institute. He received his Ph.D...

View profile >

Latest Comments

Have your say!