Baptism, Catechism, And The Eclipse Of Jesus’ Teaching In Early Christianity -- By: Alan Kreider
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Baptism, Catechism, And The Eclipse
Of Jesus’ Teaching In
Which should come first: baptism or teaching? Evidence from the first six centuries indicates that Christians began by giving priority to baptism and then, after the period from the Didache through Augustine in which catechism preceded baptism, they returned to the former order. The early Christians practised intensive catechism. They sought to resocialise pagans into a lifestyle, often rooted in the teachings of Jesus, which was practised by believers. In the fourth and fifth centuries, many catechists came to focus upon belief rather than behaviour, and the teachings of Jesus were increasingly marginalised. After the sixth century, catechism largely disappeared.
Matthew’s Gospel ends with a commissioning. The resurrected Jesus, on a Galilean mountain, informed his awe-struck disciples that God has enthroned him as Lord: ‘all power in heaven and on earth has been given to me.’ Therefore Jesus gave them a task. They were to ‘go… and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you’ (Mt. 28:18-20).
This commissioning has reverberated across the centuries; its effect, especially within the past two hundred years, has been immense, and has resulted in the globalisation of Christianity.2 But
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the commissioning also poses many questions, of which I shall concentrate upon two. In this commissioning Jesus urged his disciples to make other disciples, and to do so by engaging in two activities which would be aspects of disciple-making—by baptising and by teaching. But is it significant that Jesus mentioned baptising before teaching? Did he mean to establish a procedural order for the initiation of new disciples? Or was this order fortuitous, subject to change according to circumstances? A second question refers to Jesus’ injunction to teach people ‘to observe all that I have commanded you.’ In saying this Jesus, in keeping with the emphases throughout Matthew’s gospel, underscored the importance of a lived, practical response to his teachings. Wise people, Jesus observed at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, are those who ‘hear these words of mine and act upon them’ (Mt. 7:24). But what were the Great Commission’s ‘things which I have commanded you’? They clearly gave a ‘strongly ethi...
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