For many, the word catechesis is linked directly to a period in their life where they underwent a specific theological training through a class and the use of some sort of specific text. For others, the word implies the teachings of a specific Christian faith tradition with negative connotations. Yet the word has a broader meaning.
It is firstly, the declaration that the knowledge of the faith belongs to the whole Church and not just a handful of trained theologians and clergy, and secondly, the assertion that faith is not an isolated part of life but something which whole households ought to receive daily. From a definitional point of view, it would do us well to expand what we mean when we say catechesis and consequently broaden the reach of theological education into daily life.
In 1558, not long before his death, Philip Melanchthon published a catechism which, in classic Melanchthon style, opens with a lesson in Greek that dives to the very heart of this definitional issue. In the very first lines, Melanchthon states that every student studying the catechism needs to know that the word catechesis comes from the Greek word καταχέω (kat-akh-eh'-o). Melanchthon then proceeds to give a rather simplistic definition: “The Greek word καταχέω means to instruct or teach.”
There is more to this concise definition than our modern ears may at first realize. Καταχέω is a compound word from the preposition κατα (down) and the verb ἠχέω (to sound). To catechize is to speak downward, not in the negative connotation of “being spoken down to,” but as a pouring out of knowledge from an authoritative source down to its recipient. This idea goes hand in hand with the reformation adage, ad fontes, literally “to the fountain” or more colloquially “the source.” This is because the waters of a fountain or mountain spring to which the word fontes originally refers pour outward and downward. To be catechized is to have the waters of the fountain of knowledge poured into your cup.
Melanchthon goes onto explain that the Christian tradition of catechesis is essential throughout the Christian life because catechesis is that institution in which we first begin to understand the gospel. Catechesis is not a brief period of instruction. It is not the memorization of one book. It is all knowledge handed down that reveals and speaks to the gospel of Christ. Because they are based on Scripture alone, catechisms like that of Melanchthon and Luther contain all the knowledge of saving faith; however, they are not the only type of catechetical experiences that drive us to the waters of salvation. These waters rightly start with and flow from Scripture, and as this mountain spring begins to flow downward, we find that many tributaries pour into it.
There is a certain freedom that comes from what Melanchthon called, “that first institution” that allows the Christian to incorporate not just the explicitly theological but also knowledge from the arts, philosophy, literature, and even science. On their own, these things are not the gospel, but they can still help us richly grasp and understand our place in a world desperately in need of Christ.
We must recognize that we are being catechized every day, whether it be formally in the classroom or from the school of hard-knocks and daily life.
Melanchthon also believed that catechesis starts with the pouring out of baptismal water and ends with our death, and thus it is something which we take part in throughout our whole life. Because, in its most simple sense, to catechize means to teach, we must recognize that we are being catechized every day, whether it be formally in the classroom or from the school of hard-knocks and daily life. These other “classrooms” should be acknowledged and incorporated into a lifelong Christian education so that they can become places that speak toward the Gospel, rather than above it.
Catechesis cannot just be something that happens at church on Sunday, or in a classroom every week for a few years. Acknowledging that we are being taught in many ways every day highlights the need for household tools with the specific purpose of instructing us through law and gospel and consequently turning us back to Christ.
The subtitles to Luther’s Small Catechism even offer a formulaic introduction: “In a simple way in which the head of a household is to present it to the household.” As a tool for both the home and Sunday school, the Small Catechism can be used daily by individuals and families alike. It provides a baseline for what might otherwise be difficult or neglected conversations about faith, even exceeding the role of what we now call devotions by encouraging simple and complete ways to pray and meditate on God’s Word.
This could allow us to broaden our catechetical mindset into literature, philosophy, science, and breathe new life into these disciplines as we examine and learn from them in light of the gospel. This is not to say that formal church catechetics using the Small Catechism is a bad thing. Yet while maintaining this practice, we must also free catechesis from simply being a one and done formal theological education. Christian education is not only about formally learning the right answers but also about handing over Christ to the individual so that we might cling to him. By embracing the catechetical life in the home, we are given a means to navigate daily life and daily return to Christ in order to both concretely receive and deliver his promises.
For more on the importance of the Small Catechism and catechism in general, check out this podcast from The Thinking Fellows.