I published a book review for Comment Magazine on Joseph Abila and Patrick Capizzi's "A Catechism for business." Check it out here.
For extra credit ... you can read a very brief overview of the history of catechesis I've pieced together from my reading”
The word Catechesis is derived from the Greek word κατήχησις, which translates to “instruction” or “teaching by word of mouth.” It first appears in the New Testament in Luke 1:4, when Luke says he is writing so that Theophilus may be confident in what he has been taught (katecheo). Today catechesis has become nearly synonymous with a method of instruction in the faith based on a prescribed list of questions and answers that the student or catechumen must learn. The purpose, as described by the official Catechism of the Catholic church is “an education in the faith of children, young people, and adults which includes especially the teaching of Christian doctrine imparted, generally speaking, in an organic and systematic way, with a view to initiating the hearers into the fullness of Christian life.” A catechism is simply the written summary or synthesis of the fundamental teachings to be taught through catechesis.
Catechetical instruction is an ancient practice, dating at least back to the third century. The idea was straightforward: those who would be baptized into the church should undergo instruction on the basics of the faith. While the earliest converts were baptized immediately after professing faith, eventually the church fathers decided that converts ought to be more formally educated in the doctrines of the faith before being accepted into full communion.
Ancient Alexandria witnessed the introduction of the first widely used catechetical system, developed by Origen (ob. 254). His method guided converts through a rigorous process of learning the fundamental elements of Christianity before revealing to them the deeper mysteries of the faith, including baptism and the Eucharist. Origen’s model developed into a practice where new converts were instructed for upwards of two years before being admitted to baptismal rites. Not long after, Augustine and Cyril of Jerusalem took up the idea of catechism and developed the beginnings of the interlocutory style we know today.
For more than a hundred years, catechesis was a common practice in the church. Two forces led to its decline and near disappearance in the centuries that followed. The first was the church’s own success. As the church grew and went mainstream in Roman culture, two things happened. First, infants became the majority of baptismal candidates so pre-baptismal education was less relevant. Second, under Constantine, who issued the Edict of Milan to declare tolerance for Christianity and convened the Council of Nicea, Christianity thoroughly infiltrated Roman society, allowing the church to turn its attention from evangelism and Christian education to other ecclesial functions.
While success may have weakened the church’s commitment to catechesis, near destruction of the church brought about the near-demise of catechesis. The “barbarian” invasions beginning in the late 4th century brought an end to Roman dominance of the West. Under their boots the northerners crushed not only catechesis but many educational practices and institutions of the Roman empire, unofficially introducing the saeculum obscurm, or Dark Ages.
Most historians credit the resuscitation of catechesis to Martin Luther. Luther saw the need to lay out his beliefs systematically in a method for education. So in 1529 he wrote two catechisms, a shorter one to instruct children and a longer one to instruct the children’s instructors. Children and the adults who taught them were expected to memorize answers to specific questions about things like what each phrase means in the Lord’s Prayer and the Ten Commandments. Luther’s was only the first of what would be many. Following him, the Reformers wrote hundreds of catechisms, most notably the Heidelberg and the Westminster catechisms. Nor were the Reformers alone. About thirty years after Luther, Peter Canisius, one of the leading lights of the German counter-reformation published three catechisms that became foundational in the Catholic Church.
From the 18th century to today, protestant commitment to catechesis waned, partly through their increasing skepticism of dogmas and because some protestant churches unthinkingly eschewed all “tradition”-based teaching. Today only the Reformed and Catholic traditions seem to place value on catechesis at all, and the Catholics much more so than the Reformed. Today many protestant churches have abandoned the formal process of catechesis. Some will look to the Westminster and other catechisms as reference tools, but rarely as the fundamental methods for instruction on the Christian life. In contrast, the Catholic church not only still uses catechetical instruction but views all Christian discipleship essentially as catechesis.