Front Page Titles (by Subject) I.: On Catechetical Instruction - On the Mysteries and the Treatise on the Sacraments
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I.: On Catechetical Instruction - Ambrose, On the Mysteries and the Treatise on the Sacraments [387 AD]
On the Mysteries and the Treatise on the Sacraments by an Unknown Author, trans. T. Thompson, ed. with Introduction and Notes by J.H. Strawley (New York: Macmillan, 1919).
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On Catechetical Instruction
The two treatises contained in the present volume, apart from their importance to the student of Christian worship and doctrines, possess this further source of interest, that they illustrate the care of the ancient Church for the adequate instruction of those who were admitted to Christian baptism. Each of them consists of addresses given in Easter week to those who had been baptized on Easter Eve. But they presuppose a longer course of instruction which had been carried on throughout Lent, and to this previous instruction Ambrose refers in the opening words of the treatise On the Mysteries. The origin of this system of instruction goes back to the early days of the Church, and the word “catechumen” applied to one who had attached himself to the Church and was undergoing such instruction has its origin in the New Testament.1 As the Church grew in numbers and influence, and its converts were in most cases adults, increasing importance was attached to this side of its activity. The famous school of Alexandria, of which Pantaenus, Clement, and Origen were the most notable heads, represents that activity in its most splendid and striking form. Under their leadership it attracted the more thoughtful and intelligent classes of converts, and developed into a school of Christian philosophy and learning. But in a simpler form the same kind of instruction was going on throughout the Church, and the discipline and training to which converts were subjected before they were admitted to baptism is reflected not only in the series of Church Orders, which give directions for the preliminaries of baptism, but also in the liturgical books which deal with the ordering of Christian worship. The central act of worship, the Eucharist, was divided into two parts. The missa catechumenorum, consisting of lessons, psalms, homily, and prayers, was open to all, baptized and unbaptized, alike. The missa fidelium, or Eucharist proper, was the special privilege of the baptized. The conversion of the Empire flooded the Church with a number of converts, many of whom were Christian only in name, and were unwilling to take upon themselves the full obligations of the Christian life involved in baptism. Crowds flocked into the ranks of the catechumenate, but many stopped there, and the evil custom became prevalent of postponing as long as possible the reception of baptism. The Emperor Constantine was baptized on his death-bed. Augustine, though admitted to the catechumenate as a boy, is another example of one whose baptism was long deferred. Corresponding to these changed conditions we find that the Church in the fourth century, unable to cope with the great crowd of catechumens, reserved the full and complete instruction to those catechumens who expressed their intention of presenting themselves for baptism. The duration of this instruction, of which in the earlier period we have no clear indications, became generally fixed to the season of Lent, the baptism itself taking place on Easter Eve.1 The importance of this work of instruction was such that leading bishops of the Church engaged in it themselves, and also wrote treatises intended for the guidance of catechists. We have examples of these latter in Augustine’s work de catechizandis rudibus and in the Catechetical Oration of Gregory of Nyssa. The best known example of the actual instruction given is the Catecheses of Cyril of Jerusalem. Other examples may be found among the sermons of Chrysostom, in those of Augustine to candidates for baptism (ad competentes) and to the newly-baptized (ad infantes), and in the addresses of Gaudentius of Brescia to neophytes.
The names of those who expressed their intention of offering themselves for baptism were given in at the beginning of Lent (cp. de Sacram. iii. 2.12), and henceforth they were known as competentes, or at Rome electi, while the corresponding term in the East was οἱ ϕωτιζόμενοι (“those who are being illuminated”). At Milan, during Lent, Ambrose daily instructed the candidates in Christian morals and the elements of religion (de Myst. i. 1), and many of his extant sermons, based upon the books of Scripture read during Lent, are of this character. Thus Ambrose tells us, in the passage just cited, that in Lent the lives of the patriarchs (Genesis) and the precepts of Proverbs were read, and his own sermons On Abraham contain references which show that they were intended for candidates for baptism.1
The services at which these lessons were read and the instructions were given were undoubtedly the missae catechumenorum, of which we find survivals in the later Milanese books, i. e. the Manuale (cent. x) and the Ordo of Beroldus (cent. xii). From these sources we learn that they were held at the third and ninth hours on week-days in Lent, except on Saturday, when the “scrutinies” were held. (See W. C. Bishop, Ch. Quart. Review, lxxii (1911), pp. 56 f.)
Of these “scrutinies,” or examinations of the candidates to test their fitness for baptism, which find a place in the references of Augustine and in the later liturgical books of Rome and Milan, there is no mention in the two treatises contained in this volume. Nor do they refer in express terms to the “delivery of the Creed” (traditio symboli), which formed an important part of the preparation of candidates in the West. Elsewhere, however (Ep. xx. 4. 6), Ambrose tells us that this delivery of the Creed took place on the Sunday before Easter. This ceremony illustrates another feature in the discipline of the early Church, its reserve in imparting the most sacred truths and mysteries of the Christian religion. This reserve, to which in later times was given the name disciplina arcani, was partly due to motives of reverence, and was suggested by Mt. vii. 6. It was also due to the sound educational principle that truth must be conveyed gradually and adapted to the circumstances and apprehension of the hearers.1 At Rome, somewhat later, a like reserve was practised with regard to the delivery and exposition of the Gospels, for at Rome the catechumens were dismissed before the reading of the Gospel at Mass, though this was not the case at Milan. The Lord’s Prayer came under the same reserve, and was delivered and expounded to the candidates, at Rome before baptism, at Milan, if we may regard de Sacram. as evidence, in Easter week.1
Of the whole of this preparatory stage the two treatises included in this volume supply only fragmentary evidence, and of the rites which accompanied it they reveal little or nothing. On the rites of baptism their information is full, and on the lessons read, and the instructions given, in Easter week, when the training of the candidates was completed, they throw a flood of light. It was during this period that the instruction on the Sacraments and the Lord’s Prayer was given. The Catecheses of Cyril of Jerusalem show a similar practice. On the other hand, at Hippo in Africa in the time of Augustine the instruction appears to have been completed in the main before baptism, though Easter week was still devoted to further addresses to the candidates, in which they were exhorted to perseverance. See Aug., Sermons, ccxxiv.-ccxxviii. (ad Infantes).
This practice of postponing instruction on the Sacraments until after Baptism and Communion is justified by Ambrose on two grounds (de Myst. i. 2). (1) To disclose the mysteries to those who were as yet uninitiated would be the betrayal of a sacred trust. (2) It is better to let the light of the mysteries make its own appeal to those who come fresh to them than to introduce them by a discourse.
With the widespread growth of infant baptism this elaborate system of catechetical instruction became unmeaning, and after the sixth century it tended to disappear, though traces of it survived, and the liturgical books, both in the rites of Baptism and the Eucharist, bear clear marks of its influence.
[1 ]The word κατηχεɩ̂ν (“to instruct”) is found in Lk. i. 4; Acts xviii. 25; 1 Cor. xiv. 19; Gal. vi. 6. From it are derived the words catechism, catechise.
[1 ]Easter and the season between Easter and Pentecost were recognized times for baptism in the days of Tertullian (de Bapt., 19). In the East the Epiphany was also commonly set apart for this purpose, and there are traces of the same custom in Gaul and Spain. See W. C. Bishop in Journ. of Theol. Studies (1909) pp. 127 f. On the connexion between the preparation for baptism and the forty days of Lent see Thompson, Offices of Baptism and Conf. pp. 19 f., and Brightman in Essays on Early Church and Ministry (ed. Swete), pp. 340 f.
[1 ]See de Abraham. I. 4, 25: viri, maxime qui ad gratiam domini tenditis; 7.59: qui ad gratiam baptismatis tenditis; cf. 9. 89.
[1 ]Both principles are stated by Ambrose, Exp. in Luc. vi. 105.
[1 ]On the practice at Rome and in Africa see T. Thompson, Offices of Baptism and Confirmation, pp. 112 f.