Amazing articles on just about every subject...


The Catechetical System Of The Primitive Christians

( Originally Published 1906 )

IT was suggested at the close of the first chapter that the germ of the catechetical schools established and worked by the primitive Christians may be detected in the great Apostles' custom of gathering round them, for instruction and discipline, disciples and aspirants to the priesthood. The schools of post-apostolic times grew gradually wider in aim and scope, many of the later catechumens remaining laymen throughout their lives.

Among the most famous of these institutions was the celebrated Christian School at Alexandria ; and again, the Catechetical Lectures of St. Cyril of Jerusalem, which have come down to us, afford the student of education interesting evidence of the thoroughness, and many indications of the method adopted in this region of primitive Christian work.

According to tradition, St. Mark was the founder of the Alexandrian School. St. Jerome, in his Lives of Illustrious Men,' writes : "Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, wrote a short Gospel at the request of the brethren at Rome, embodying what he had heard Peter tell. When Peter had heard this, he approved it and published it to the Churches, to be read by his authority. . . . So, taking the Gospel which he himself composed, he" (i.e. Mark) "went to Egypt ; and first preaching Christ at Alexandria, he found a Church so admirable in doctrine and continence of living, that he constrained all followers of Christ to his example. .. . He died in the eighth year of Nero" (i.e. 62 A.D.), "and was buried at Alexandria, Ammianus succeeding him."

In attributing the second Gospel to St. Mark, inspired by St. Peter, St. Jerome is only following the fourth century historian Eusebius, bishop of Cesarea, who in his Ecclesiastical History wrote (citing the authority of Papias) as follows:2 "And John the Presbyter also said this, Mark being the interpreter of Peter, whatsoever he recorded he wrote with great accuracy, but not, however, in the order in which it was spoken or done by our Lord, for he neither heard nor followed our Lord; but, as before said, he was in company with Peter, who gave him such instruction as was necessary, but not to give a history of our Lord's discourses : wherefore Mark has not erred in anything, by writing some things as he has recorded them, for he was carefully attentive to one thing, not to pass by anything he heard, or to state anything falsely in these accounts." St. Jerome speaks of this Papias as " the pupil of John"; and it is worth adding as a proof that neither sanctity nor Christian charity debarred Eusebius from perceiving intellectual differences between writers, that the bishop, while quoting from Papias as an authority for facts, describes him as " very limited in his comprehension, as is evident from his discourses."

St. Irenaeus (140 (5)-c. 202 A.D.) also furnishes an account of the origin of the four Gospels. The truth of his statements, in certain particulars, has been impugned : as, for example, when he tells us that " Matthew issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect." Nevertheless his story of the source and authorship of St. Mark accords with the tradition which was generally received in the early Church 1: " Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter."

It is not possible here to discuss such a burning question as the authorship of a Gospel ; nor relevant, if it were possible. But it may be of interest to quote three sentences from Mr. Allen's contribution to Contentio Veritatis ; i.e. from the fifth chapter of that book, entitled, On Modern Criticism and the New Testament, where he writes : " Of sources of St. Mark it is hardly possible to speak. Attempts to find traces of written sources in his Gospel have not yet won any general assent. The Church in the Second Century believed that his Gospel contained reminiscences of the preaching of St. Peter, and there is very little to be set against this tradition." Dr. Gore speaks of "the trust-worthy tradition which makes St. Mark's Gospel represent the preaching of Peter—that part. of his experience which he embodied in his primary instruction." (The italics are mine.) The interest of this whole matter to the student of education lies in the fact that St. Mark is so generally regarded as St. Peter's pupil, as a scholar receiving definite and planned instruction.

St. Jerome fathers his statement, that St. Mark founded the Alexandrian Church, on "Philo the Jew, an Alexandrian of the priestly class," to whom he attributes the authorship of a book on this Christian community. This volume, On a Contemplative Life, has not been lost, though Philo's authorship has been doubted. Cardinal Newman adopts the view that St. Mark was the founder of the Alexandrian Church ; he says :1 " The Alexandrian may peculiarly be called the Missionary and Polemical Church of Antiquity. . . . Its catechetical school, founded (it is said) by the Evangelist himself, was a pattern to the Churches in its diligent and systematic preparation of Candidates for baptism ; while other institutions were added of a controversial character for the purpose of carefully examining into the doctrines revealed in Scripture, and of cultivating the habit of argument and disputation. While the internal affairs of the community were administered by the bishops, on these academical bodies as subsidiary to the divinely sanctioned system devolved the defence and propagation of the faith, under the presidency of laymen or inferior ecclesiastics. Athenagoras, the first recorded master of the catechetical school, is known by his defence of the Christians, still extant, addressed to the Emperor Marcus" (i.e. Marcus Aurelius).

From this description the student of education gleans at least an ear of information. The function of the Alexandrian school was not wholly theological, it had a twofold aim, since it provided elementary instruction, and was also a school of that learning which is subsidiary and essential to the work of apologetics. Nevertheless Cardinal Newman seems to have accepted too easily the statement that Athenagoras was the first head of the school. The authority for it is Philip of Side, in Pamphylia, a writer who lived in the reign of Theodosius i.e. early in the fifth century, whose history, however, is not esteemed highly by scholars.1 It appears that very little is known of Athenagoras. His English translator notes two authors who mention him, Methodius and the said Philip of Side.

Gibbon cites Athenagoras as putting forth a " profane and absurd simile "2 concerning the divinity of Jesus Christ : he does not locate the passage in the Defence of the Christians, and in chapter x. of that Apology, where Athenagoras discusses the nature of the Trinity, nothing like the suggestion of Gibbon appears.

It is generally admitted that he was an Athenian who became a Christian. His two treatises, the one addressed to the Emperors Marcus Aurelius and Commodus, entitled, A Plea, for the Christians, and the other on The Resurrection of the Dead, still exist. In the first he is, par excellence, one of those philosophers, mentioned by Gibbon, who appeal for Tolerance for the Christians on the ground of the universal forbearance to all forms of religion shown under the Roman Empire. He cites the citizen of Ilium, the Lacedemonian, the Athenian, and the Egyptian as practising each his own form of religion,1 " and to all these you and the laws give permission so to act, deeming on the one hand that to believe in no god at all is impious and wicked, and on the other that it is necessary for each man to worship the god he prefers."

Athenagoras goes on to beg the Emperors not to be " carried away by a name," and so to persecute the Christians. Throughout his pleading, he indicates his acquaintance with the poets and philosophers of Greece and Rome : once he pulls himself up suddenly with the question, addressed so aptly to the most philosophical of the Roman Emperors : "What need is there in speaking to you who have searched into every department of knowledge, to mention the poets?" as if the greatest of the Antonines could not need to be even reminded of the accumulated wisdom of antiquity ; as if an Athenian philosopher, when writing to him, might take all that for granted.

The value of a philosophical education is admitted by Athenagoras in his final appeal to Aurelius : " And now, do you, who are entirely in everything, by nature and by education, upright, moderate, and benevolent, and worthy of your rule, now that I have disposed of the several accusations and proved that we are pious, and gentle, and temperate in spirit, bend your royal head in approval." Again, in the concluding chapter of his other treatise, Athenagoras writes : "We shall make no mistake in saying that the final cause of an intelligent life and rational judgment is to be occupied uninterruptedly with those objects to which the natural reason is chiefly and primarily adapted, and to delight unceasingly in the contemplation of Him who is, and of His decrees, notwithstanding that the majority of men, because they are affected too passionately and too violently by things below, pass through life without attaining this object."

It has seemed worth while to say thus much about this great Christian scholar of the second century, because the tolerance and wide learning which inspire his two treatises make the reader wish it were possible to accept without any misgiving the statement of Philip of Side, that he was really head of the Alexandrian catechetical school. However that may be, it is not denied that he was a philosopher and that he was a Christian ; consequently, if he never presided over the school, yet his logical, learned, and stately theses may count on the credit side when the early Christians are condemned too hastily as the enemies of secular learning and education.

We must turn from this most interesting man to an era of the catechetical school which is not shrouded in doubts. St. Jerome speaks of Pantaenus as the head of the catechetical school : he describes him as being " of great prudence and erudition," and adds :1 " Many of his commentaries on Holy Scripture are indeed extant, but his living voice was of still greater benefit to the Churches." It seems probable that the last sentence refers to his arduous work as a teacher of the catechumens. In one of his Letters,' St. Jerome, writing to Magnus, an Orator of Rome, has occasion to run through the list of Christian writers. Herein he describes Pantaenus as having " a great reputation for learning." Pantaenus was at first a famous philosopher of the Stoic school: on his conversion to Christianity he became the instructor of the catechumens. St. Jerome's story, that on account of his great reputation for learning he was sent by Demetrius, bishop of Alexandria, to India to preach Christ to the Brahmans and philosophers there, may not be true. If true, it proves that the ecclesiastical authorities of the second century adapted means to ends with more wisdom than some of their successors have done ; and again, if true, it is a proof that the primitive Christians valued erudition in the most flattering way by using it to the best possible advantage when they despatched scholars to evangelise scholars.

Eusebius, from whom St. Jerome probably borrowed some of these facts, remarks : Pantaenus, after many praiseworthy deeds, was finally at the head of the Alexandrian school, commenting on the treasures of divine truth, both orally and in his writings."

In chap. xxxviii.,1 St. Jerome tells us more of this Alexandrian school : "Clemens, presbyter of the Alexandrian Church, and a pupil of the Pantaenus mentioned above, led the theological school at Alexandria after the death of his master, and was teacher of the Catechetes. Origen is known to have been his disciple." There is an error here, if, as is the probability, St. Clement died one year before Pantaenus, i.e. in 215. The statement is only partially mistaken, for Pantaenus retired from the school after Clement became his colleague, and, as St. Jerome says, was succeeded by Clement.

St. Clement was born about 160 A.D. It is not known whether that city or Athens was his birth-place, though opinion inclines to the latter. He seems in his student days to have wandered from one philosophical school to another in search of some knowledge which might satisfy him. In his Stromata (or Tapestry work) he speaks of " vigorous and animated discourses which I was privileged to hear, and of blessed and truly remarkable men."

This passage refers to the time when he was listening to Christian teachers, for it is noticeable that he says " men," and is not therefore referring to Pantaenus only. This we gather, too, from another passage in his Stromata. Since we know that he was a student of classical literature and philosophy, and, therefore, presumably a judge of erudition in others, we may note these remarks as evidence of the esteem in which a Christian could hold learning and teaching.

It was to Pantaenus, however, that Clement's conversion was due; and in this connection it is interesting to remember again that Dr. Sandys writes : "Clement of Alexandria is the earliest of the Greek Fathers who were specially conspicuous for learning." Some further light is thrown upon St. Clement's estimate of the achievements of Pantaenus as well as upon his general standard of teaching by the following passage from the Stromata :1 "Now this work of mine in writing is not artfully constructed for display, but my memoranda are stored up against old age as a remedy against forgetfulness, truly an image and outline of those vigorous and animated discourses which I was privileged to hear, and of blessed and truly remarkable men.

"Of these the one, in Greece an Ionic "—(probably Tatian)—the other in Magna Gracia :—(probably Theodotus)—" the first of these from Coele-Syria, the second from Egypt, and others in the East. The one was born in the land of Assyria, the other a Hebrew in Palestine. When I came upon the last " (i.e. Pantaenus), " (he was the first in power), having tracked him out concealed in Egypt, I found rest. He, the true, the Sicilian bee, gathering the spoil of the flowers of the prophetic and apostolic meadow, engendered in the souls of his hearers a deathless element of knowledge."

Tatian, to whom St. Clement alludes, was an Assyrian, who, after wide-reaching researches in the literature and philosophy of Greece, became acquainted with some of the writings of the early Christians. He is believed to have embraced the new faith at Rome. It is interesting to notice that, in his Address to the Greeks, he anticipates Tertullian's contention that the Greeks borrowed from Hebrew literature ; he writes, e.g.: I "Cease to make a parade of sayings which you have derived from others, and to deck yourself like the daw in borrowed plumes." And, again, further on he writes : 2 "Now it seems proper for me to demonstrate that our philosophy is older than the systems of the Greeks. Moses and Homer shall be our limits, each of them being of great antiquity ; the one being the oldest of poets and historians, and the other the founder of all barbaric wisdom." This is a different aspect of Christian depreciation of classical learning to that suggested by Compayré, Symonds, and the rest.

St. Clement taught in the Alexandrian school for thirteen years, first as the colleague and after-wards as the successor of Pantaenus. St. Jerome tells us that Origen was his pupil : 3 "Origen . . . when only eighteen years old . . . undertook the work of instructing the Catechetes in the tered churches of Alexandria. Afterwards, appointed by Demetrius, bishop of this city, successor to the presbyter Clement, he flourished many years."

Drane remarks : "The child of a martyr, Origen had been the pupil of saints. He had been taught not only by St. Clement, but also by Hippolitus, bishop of Porto, the disciple of Irenaeus, the disciple of Polycarp, the spiritual son of the Apostle of St. John. Hippolitus was a man of many sciences, a philosopher, a poet, and a mathematician."

Eusebius observes that Hippolitus wrote upon the computation of Easter, a matter which often occurs in the history of primitive Christian learning, and which involved some knowledge of astronomy and arithmetic.

Origen knew early the meaning of poverty, for while he was still a boy his father died, and his mother and six brothers were thus left to his sole care and exertions. His Greek learning enabled him to become a " Teacher of Grammar." Before he was eighteen his learning and his pedagogic capacity, joined to untiring charity, attracted the notice of Demetrius, bishop of Alexandria, who appointed him master of the catechetical school, from which post St. Clement had fled on the outbreak of the fifth persecution, which occurred in the reign of Septimius Severus. Gibbon, with all the mildness of a person not immediately concerned, calls it "a mitigated persecution." Eusebius 1 records that it affected Alexandria with particular severity.

A circumstance occurred at this moment of Origen's life which might be misinterpreted. The labours of the catechetical school obliged him to give up his other, his secular, teaching ; for his catechetical work he refused remuneration. Yet even a teacher must have some means of subsistence. Consequently, Origen sold the library which he had accumulated ; not because as a Christian, or from any other cause, he despised learning and books, but because the buyer of his library agreed to pay him for life a salary of four obols per diem. On this exiguous income, equal to about sixpence a day of our money, Origen lived and taught for many years.

We learn further from St. Jerome that Origen journeyed through Palestine to Athens and on to Rome, returning finally to Alexandria. "Immediately on his return to Alexandria," Jerome writes, " he made Heraclas the presbyter, who continued to wear his philosophic garb, his assistant in the school of catechetes. Heraclas became bishop of the Church of Alexandria, after Demetrius."

May we see, in the fact that Heraclas retained his philosopher's garb while teaching the catechumens, a proof, if a small one, of the friendliness of the Christians to learning ? It is perhaps worth notice that Trypho, who proudly describes himself as "a Hebrew of the circumcision, observes —when introducing himself to Justin Martyr, who was accustomed to preach the gospel in his philosopher's dress—" I was instructed by Corinthus the Socratic in Argos, that I ought not to despise or treat with indifference those who array themselves in this dress, but to show them all kindness and to associate with them, as perhaps some advantage would spring from the intercourse either to some such man or to myself " (Dialogue of Justin, Philosopher and Martyr, with Trypho a Jew, chap. i.).

Out of Trypho's infinite condescension escapes the fact that in the second century another Christian teacher retained the learned garb.

Alexandria did not stand alone in its care for the education of youth. As the Ante-Nicene young man, are extant."

St. Clement and St. Cyril both offer the student of education matter for consideration : from the works of the former it is possible to extract an idea of the Christian ideal of conduct, and of the means—the educational means, using the adjective in a broad sense—of achieving it ; from the works of the latter, examples can be drawn of the actual kind of teaching which was offered to the catechumens. But first a few words on the condition of these learners themselves seem necessary.

The Greek word catechesis is only by a narrowing of its original meaning restricted to specially Christian teaching. Yet, even so, it covers a wide extent of ground, passing from the simplest fundamentals of the Christian faith to that partial elucidation of its deeper mysteries with which the wisest, the most Father's name is connected with the Egyptian city, so is that of the Post-Nicene Father, St. Cyril, bound up with the catechetical school of Jerusalem.

" Cyril," St. Jerome writes,' " Cyril, bishop of Jerusalem, often expelled by the Church, and at last received, held the Episcopate for eight consecutive years in the reign of Theodosius. Certain Catechetical Lectures of his, compiled while he was a illuminated of men have been, by the limitations of human nature, compelled to content themselves. As the form of teaching varied in its passage from simplicity to profound complexity, so, as a natural consequence, the status of the catechumens differed ; and when we reflect that Christians were drawn from all classes of society, we realise that their intellectual capacities also must have differed almost indefinitely. The name was applied almost exclusively to candidates for baptism.

Dr. Gifford, in his introduction to St. Cyril's Catechetical Lectures, remarks : "Though the title `catechumen' was not usually applied to those who had not already been baptized, it is probable that such children were admitted to the Lectures addressed to Catechumens both in the earlier and later stage of their preparation : for it seems to be implied in the passage quoted above from Cat. xv. 18 that admission was not limited to the candidates for baptism." The passage from St. Cyril to which Dr. Gifford refers runs as follows :1 "If thou have a child according to the flesh, admonish him of this now ; if thou hast begotten one through catechising, put him also on his guard lest he receive the false one as the true."

The number of grades of catechumens is estimated differently : according to Canon XIV. of the Council of Nicaea there were two ; Bingham in his Antiquities reckons four ; Cardinal Newman (Arians of the Fourth Century) speaks of three. The latter thus describes the catechetical method :1 "In the system of the early catechetical schools the TÉÂfifoi, or men-in-Christ, were such as had deliberately taken upon them the profession of believers : had made the vows and had received the grace of baptism, and were admitted to all the privileges and the revelations of which the Church had been constituted the dispenser. But before reception into this full discipleship a previous season of preparation, from two to three years, was enjoined, in order to try their obedience and instruct them in the principles of revealed truth. During this introductory discipline they were called catechumens, and the teaching itself catechetical, from the careful and systematic examination by which their grounding in the faith was effected. The matter of the instruction thus communicated to them varied with the time of their discipleship, advancing from the most simple principles of natural religion to the peculiar doctrines of the gospel, from moral truth to the Christian mysteries. On their first admission they were denominated audientes (hearers), from the leave granted to them to attend the reading of the Scriptures and sermons in the church. Afterwards, being allowed to stay during the prayers, and receiving the imposition of hands as the sign of their progress in spiritual knowledge, they were called yovvxXiuoyrsç (Benders of the knee) or ' Evxóµnuor' (those who pray). Lastly, some short time before their baptism, they were taught the Lord's Prayer (the peculiar privilege of the regenerate), were entrusted with the knowledge of the creed, and, as destined for incorporation into the body of believers, received the titles of competentes (the qualified or competent) ' Electi' (the chosen). Even to the last they were granted nothing beyond a formal and general account of the Articles of the Christian Faith : the exact and fully developed doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation, and still more the doctrine of the Atonement as once made upon the Cross, and commemorated and appropriated in the Eucharist, being the exclusive possession of the serious and practised Christian."

A period of two (or, according to Newman, two or three) years appears to have been the ordinary time of the Christian's probation as he passed from the simple beginning to the difficult close of his course.

When, later on, an account is given of the actual stuff of St. Cyril's Lectures, it will be seen that the charge of ignorance and educational carelessness cannot be levelled with any justice against the primitive Christians ; certainly it cannot be brought by an age like this, which spends so much less care on the production of character, on the moral and religious education of youth.

It may be argued, perhaps, that the educational work of the Fathers proceeds wholly along one line—the theological. It is not a tenable position ; but if it were, it is surely perverse and arbitrary in the extreme to extend the name of learning to Literature and Philosophy while denying it to Theology. Had the early Fathers propagated their doctrine with the narrowness and barren repetition of mere statement and parrot cries characteristic of certain modern Christian sects, the charge of ignorance, if not of carelessness, might lie. But some of them at least urged their teaching with all the resources of a penetrating logic, a dialectic skill, a grace of language, a wealth of ornament and illustration, reminiscent of classic Greece and Rome, which ought to relieve them for ever from accusations of ignorance, carelessness, and lack of erudition.

Home | More Articles | Email: info@oldandsold.com