It is surely an indictment of the Church today that in dealing with the subject of catechizing we have to begin by explaining the very meaning of the term. What was looked on as a necessary and beneficial practice by the early church and by the Reformers has now fallen into such disuse among Christian people that very few seem to have any understanding or appreciation of the subject. And yet we believe it is to the discontinuance of this practice that we can trace much of the doctrinal ignorance, confusion and instability so characteristic of modern Christianity.
The Origin of Catechizing
The term catechizing is derived from the Greek word katechein which means “to sound over or through, to instruct.” In the New Testament this word is used seven times and in each instance refers to oral instruction in religious matters. For example, Luke, in addressing his Gospel to “most excellent Theophilus,” expresses his purpose thus: “that thou mightest know the certainty of those things wherein thou hast been instructed” or, as it can be literally translated, “orally instructed.” The teaching of our Lord and of the Apostles was of necessity oral and partly interlocutory, and in the early church the converted Jews and heathen who received instruction in the rudiments of Christianity with a view to being admitted to membership were known as “catechumens.” Thus what is meant by catechizing is instruction in the Christian faith by means of question and answer.
Catechizing, or interlocutory teaching, was regarded as indispensable in the early Church. It is true that the early catechisms were not constructed on the method of question and answer but usually consisted of manuals of doctrine or brief creeds. These, however, were used as the basis for catechizing. Recent research has suggested that there is common catechetical material in several New Testament epistles. There is no mention in the New Testament of catechist as a separate office or order, but it would seem that as the catechumenate developed, ,this became full-time work.
Development and History
In the writings of the second century we find mention of catechumens and catechists, and by the fourth and fifth centuries we see that catechetics began to develop its scientific theory. One of its chief exponents was Augustine, and in his Catechizing of the Uninstructed he details the several steps in the process of wise catechizing. It is clear from the writings of the early Fathers that they attached great importance to the interlocutory method of instruction. They were not unmindful of the great commission given by the Lord to disciple all nations, teaching them all things that He had commanded.
As the Church grew in worldly prominence and lost in spiritual life, changes came in the method of its training work. As its ritual services were expanded, so its teaching exercises were diminished. As the ecclesiastical spirit overcame the evangelical church, catechetical instruction declined. It stands out clearly in the history of the dark Middle Ages that where this kind of instruction was adhered to most closely, Christian life remained purest. We have only to think of the Waldenses, the Albigenses, the Hussites, and the Lollards to prove this. It is to the last mentioned that can be traced the earliest of catechisms (as we know them today).
With the dawn of the glorious Reformation, catechetical instruction came back into its own in the Christian Church, bringing with it a further development in the science of catechetics, and especially constructing the catechism as we know it today. It is not surprising that Martin Luther (to whom, humanly speaking, the Reformation owes its very beginning), should be regarded the father of modern catechetics. His claim to this honor is substantiated not only by the catechism which he himself prepared, but also by the writings in which he explained catechetics and gave an impulse to their pursuit. Calvin, who so clearly systematized the Reformation teaching, took similar view of the duty of the Church to instruct the young and the ignorant by interlocutory methods, and he published a catechism shortly after Luther’s appeared.