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5. Catechumens

Antiquities of the Christian Church
CHAPTER II. Names and classes of christians

5. Catechumens

These take their name from learners*, a word of frequent occurrence in the New Testament, Acts 18:25, Gal. 6:6, Rom. 2:19, 1 Cor. 14:19, The catechumens of the ancient church were candidates for baptism under instruction for admission into the christian church. They were styled candidates, candidi, because they were wont to appear dressed in white on their admission to church. In the Latin church they were sometimes denominated Novitii, Tirones, Audientes, Rudes, Incipientes, Pueri, etc. equivalent to the terms pupils, beginners, etc.

The importance of this order in the opinion of the ancient church, appears from the fact that schools were instituted especially for their instruction, and catechists appointed over them. One part of the church service was also suited to them especially, and another to the faithful. The discipline and instruction which they received in this manner, was usually an indispensable preliminary to their admission into the church.

The reasons which led to the institution of this order, are well described by Jamieson, in the following extract:

"While those who were entitled to partake of the Lord's supper were exclusively denominated the faithful, and considered as occupying the rank of perfect or approved Christians, there were several other classes of persons, who, though connected with the Church, and forming constituent parts of it, were yet separated from, and inferior to, the former, being in various stages of advancement towards a qualification for the holy rites of the Gospel. These orders, known by the name of catechumens, were distinguished from each other by lines of demarcation, beyond which none was allowed to pass without a long and gradual preparation; and between a newly made catechumen, and a Christian in the rank of the faithful, there was as wide a difference in the eye of the primhive Church, as between an infant of a day, and one who has attained the stature of a full-grown man. In the records of apostolic times, we shall in vain look for any traces of this distinction, – for then a heathen no sooner made an avowal of his faith in Christ, than he received the initiatory rite of Christianity. His conversion was immediately followed by his baptism, and whatever shades of difference there might be in the knowledge of the new converts, all were considered as equally entitled to the outward sign, as they were to the inward and spiritual benefits of the ordinance. But in the process of time, when the Church was enlarged by a daily increasing influx of members from heathenism, and when her purity was no longer guarded by the presiding care of those who possessed the miraculous gift of discerning spirits, the pious solicitude of her rulers in after-times, gave rise to the custom of deferring the admission of converts into the fellowship of the Church, till clear and satisfactory evidence was obtained of their fitness, in point of knowledge and sincerity, to be enrolled in the ranks of the disciples. The dear-bought experience of the primitive Christians had convinced them that the gross habits of idolaters were not easily and all at once, in many instances, relinquished for the pure and spiritual principles of the Gospel, and that multitudes of professed believers held their faith by so slender a lie, that the slightest temptation plunged them anew into their former sensuality, and the first alarm drove them back into the enemies' camp. To diminish, and, if possible, to prevent the occurrence of such melancholy apostasies, which interrupted the peace and prosperity of the christian society, and brought a stain on the christian name, was a consummation devoutly wished for by the pious fathers of the primitive age; and accordingly, animated by a spirit of holy jealousy, they adopted the rule, which soon came into universal practice, of instituting a severe and protracted inquiry into the character and views of candidates for admission to the communion of the church, – of not suddenly advancing them to that honorable degree, but of continuing them for a limited period in a state of probation. It was thus that the order of the catechumens arose, an order which, though unknown to the age of Peter and Paul, boasts of a very early introduction into the primitive church; and, at whatever period its date may be fixed, its origin is to be traced to the laudable desire of more fully instructing young converts in the doctrines of the christian faith, and at the same time affording them opportunities to give evidence of the sincerity of their profession, by the change of their lives and the holiness of their conversation." – Manners of Prim. Christ, pp. 130–2.

Alexandrinus and Origen have much to say in recommendation of a certain secret doctrine of the church, scientia arcani*. This discovers itself about the same time with the order of catechumens, and appears to have fallen into disrepute, as the church increased, and additions were made to it from baptized children of christian families, rather than from the candidates who had been received from among Jews and Gentiles.

There was no specific rule respecting the age at which Jewish and heathen converts were received as catechumens. History informs us, that the greater part were persons of adult age. Even Constantine the Great was reckoned among this class. The delay of baptism, against which Gregory of Nyssa and others inveighed so earnestly in the fourth century, seems to intimate that these subjects of baptism were usually advanced beyond the legal age of manhood.

It must indeed be admitted as an exception to this usage, that whole families were occasionally baptized, as in the times of the apostles, Acts 16:15, 31, Acts 18:8. 1 Cor. 1:16. And as an argument in favor of infant baptism, this usage is the more persuasive from the fact that after the fourth century paedobaptism was much more generally introduced and defended. In the meanwhile, no rule is given for the children of christian parents, respecting their requisite age, for becoming catechumens. And it is remarkable that Tertullian and Cyprian who, in other respects are so harmonious, should so disagree on this point. The latter was an advocate for paedobaptism; the former, a zealous opposer. "It is better, he says, for each one to delay his baptism, according to his condition, disposition and age – especially for the young. Let them come when they have arrived to maturity; let them come when they have sufficient knowledge – when they are taught why they come; let them become Christians (by baptism) when they have a competent knowledge of Christ.' 

The case of Augustine may with propriety be cited in this place. By his pious mother Monica he had, from his infancy, been carefully instructed in the christian religion. In consequence of a dangerous sickness he was about to be baptized in early childhood, that he might die as a Christian, under the covenant. But the administration of the ordinance was deferred in consequence of his recovery; and the delay he regarded as a kind Providence. From this example the inference is, that he might have received due preparation for the ordinance from his pious mother, but that his baptism would have been an exception to the general rule on this subject. He was converted under Ambrase of Milan, and, though at this time a distinguished writer, became a regular catechumen. After due preparation, he was baptized in the year 387.

It is, however certain that children were, at an early age, the subjects of baptism, and that too, not merely in cases of emergency, but by established rule and usage; for it was against this usage that Tertullian felt himself constrained to write. But these little children who were incapable of knowing Christ, as Tertullian describes them, could not of course be subject to any such preliminary preparation as the catechumens received. They could only be subject to such exercises subsequent to baptism, just as, since the general introduction of infant baptism, the subsequent instructions preparatory to confirmation are regarded, which is a religious ordinance introduced into the church very unlike the original usage.

No general rule prevailed respecting the time which the catechumens should spend in that relation. It varied at different times, and according to the usages of the several churches; especially, according to the proficiency of each, individually. In the constitution of the apostles, three years are prescribed. By the council of Illiberi. A. D. 673, two years. By that of Agatha, A. D. 506, eight months. Cyril of Jerusalem, and Jerome, direct them to observe a season of fasting and prayer for forty days. From all which, the inference is, that there was no determinate rule on this subject. This public preparation of the catechumens necessarily implies, that they were previously subject to private instruction. The same is inferred from the instructions which were preliminary to confirmation. The true idea of which is, that of completing and confirming the discipline to which the candidate has already been subjected. Exceptions there undoubtedly were. Instances may be adduced in which all the preparation which the candidate received was limited to a single day.  And the procedure is authorized by examples in the Scriptures. But the rules of the church, have ever required a longer period of probation.

The catechumens were early divided into separate classes. But their number, and their names, were somewhat different. The Greek canonists specify two classes. The uninitiated*, and the more advanced, perfectiores*. These are styled by Suidas, *, such as are occupied in learning, and [those]*, such as are engaged in devotional pursuits. Maldonatus gives three classes, the audientes, the competentes, and the poenilentes. According to Bingham, there were four classes.

  1. Those who were subject to private instruction.
  2. Such as received public instruction.
  3. Those who were occupied with devotional exercises.
  4. Those who were duly qualified for baptism. But this classification is not duly authorized.

These distinctions, however, are of little importance, and have never been generally recognized. They seem to have been made as occasion required, rather than by any essential rule of classification. The churches at Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, and Alexandria, were at variance among themselves on this point, and each agreed with the churches of its own communion only in a few leading particulars. The gradations of improvement were particularly observed. The age, and sex, and circumstances of the catechumens, were also duly regarded; men of age, and rank, not being classed with children of twelve or thirteen years of age. At one time they may have all been united in one class, and at another, may have been divided into two, three, or even four several divisions.

The mode of their admittance was very brief, and unceremonious. But some form of admission was uniformly required, a circumstance which illustrates the degree of consideration in which the rite was held, while it indicates the existence both of some determinate time of admission, and of some difference of opinion respecting it. The imposition of hands was one of the prescribed ceremonies. The sign of the cross is also mentioned. Augustine received the sign of the cross, and affirms that this, with the imposition of hands, was the usual mode of setting them apart. By Porphyry, bishop of Gaza, converts from paganism were received, by prostrating themselves at his feet, and requesting to receive the sign of the cross. After having passed upon them this sign, and received them as catechumens, he propounded them for admission to the church, and dismissed them with his benediction. Soon after this, he baptized them, having previously given them catechetical instruction. In this instance, the term of probation must have been short. They were also immediately recognized as candidates for baptism, without reference to the distinction of classes.

The manner of receiving a catechumen, therefore, was substantially as follows: The bishop examined the candidate, and, if he was found worthy, enroled his name in the records of the church. The solemnity was then concluded by prayer, imposition of hands, and the signing of the cross. – Siegel, Catechumenat, Vol. I. p. 367.

The exercises of the catechumens until their union with believers, were wholly directed with reference to their preparation for baptism. They consisted generally in attending to various catechetical and doctrinal instructions, the reading of the Scriptures, etc. The advanced class, before baptism, were subject to repealed examinations, and to a kind of exorcism accompanied with imposition of hands, the sign of the cross, and insufflation, the breathing of the priest upon them. They also passed many days in fasting and prayer, and in learning the words of their creed and the Lord's prayer. 

In case of severe sickness, baptism was administered to the patient on his bed*. This was called clinic baptism. In such instances, it was allowable to administer it by sprinkling. Baptism was also administered to apostate catechumens in the near approach of death, and to such apostates as gave evidence of repentance it was not denied, even though they were not received to the class of penitents.

Any one devoted to martyrdom, was reckoned among the catechumens, martyrdom being regarded as a full substitute, and therefore styled blood baptism 

This notion was derived from various passages in the Scriptures. 'He that loseth his life, shall find it,' Matt. 10:39. 'I have a baptism to be baptized with,' Luke 12:50. Baptism was accounted essential to salvation. Martyrdom was also esteemed a passport to heaven. It was therefore made a substitute for baptism.

Oh the contrary, if any catechumen who had caused the delay of his baptism by his crimes, died unbaptized, he was not treated as a Christian. His name was not enrolled in the records of the church while living, and after death, he was denied the solemnities, of christian burial, and refused a place in the catalogue of Christians. He was buried, Sine cruce et luce.

Much controversy has arisen out of a passage from Augustine, respecting the sacrament of the catechumens, relating chiefly to the consecrated bread panis benedictus. But Bona, Basnage and Bingham have sufficiently shown, that it was not the sacramental bread, but bread seasoned with salt; and that this, at their baptism, was administered with milk and honey, salt being the emblem of purity and incorruption. 

The ancient discipline of the catechumens, preparatory to their admission into the communion of the church as above stated, is briefly summed up in the following extract. It exhibits so clearly the extreme caution and deliberation of the ancient church, in receiving candidates into their communion, that no apology can be necessary for inserting it as a brief recapitulation.

"The moment that a heathen announced his resolution to abandon the religion of his fathers, and to embrace that of Jesus, he was introduced to the pastor of the place, who, having laid his hand upon his head, a ceremony of very frequent use in all the offices of the ancient church, and prayed that he might become a partaker of the grace of the gospel, consigned him to the care of some missionaries, whose duty it was from time to time to wait upon him privately, and in his own house, to instruct him in the elementary principles of the christian faith. At an appointed time, and when he had satisfied his private instructors of his capacity to profit by the services of the church, he was permitted to come into the congregation, where he stood in a particular place appropriated to the hearers – those who were admitted to hear the Scriptures read, and the plain and simple discourses on the fundamental articles of faith and points of duty, which always formed the subject of the preliminary exhortations of the church. If the proficiency and conduct of the catechumen during his continuance in this lower rank were approved of, he was, at a certain period, advanced to a higher order, which was privileged not only to be present at the reading of the Scriptures, and the delivery of the sermons, but also at the prayers, which we described as concluding the first service. After remaining the appointed time in this more advanced stage of his progress, he was successively privileged to be present at the public prayers of the church, to hear the discourses addressed to the faithful on the higher and more abstruse doctrines of Christianity, and even to witness, at an humble distance, the dispensation of the Lord's supper. He was then considered ripe for baptism, and immediately put upon a new course of discipline, preparatory to partaking of the holy mysteries at the next celebration of the solemnity. Hitherto, he had been trained, by a regular course of catechetical instructions in private, to a knowledge of the leading doctrines and duties of the gospel, and now he was subjected to frequent and minute examinations in public on every branch of his religious education. If approved, he was forthwith instructed in some of the sublimer points of Christianity, which had been hitherto withheld from him, – such as the doctrine of the Trinity, the union of the divine and human natures in Christ, the influences of the Spirit, and the way in which a participation of the symbols of a Saviour's love gives spiritual nourishment to the soul. He was allowed to employ the Lord's prayer, – the use of which was considered as the exclusive privilege of his adopted children; and was enjoined to commit to memory the creed, as a formula which embodied, in a small compass, all the grand articles of revealed truth, which it had been the object of his protracted discipline to teach him. For twenty successive days he continued a course of partial fasting, during which he had daily interviews with his minister, who, in private, and secluded from the presence of every other observer, endeavored, by serious discourse, to impress his mind with a sense of the important step he was about to take, – and more especially, prayed with him, in the usual solemn form, by imposition of hands, that he might be delivered from any evil spirit that had possession of his heart, and be enabled to consecrate himself a living sacrifice to God and the Saviour. Such was the discipline of the catechumens, – a discipline to which all ranks and descriptions of men, who were desirous of being admitted into the bosom of the church, were in primitive times indiscriminately subjected. "None," to use the words of Lord King, "were permitted to enjoy the privileges of the faithful, till they had in a manner merited them, – which was, when they had, through a considerable time of trial, manifested the sincerity of their hearts by the sanctity and purity of their lives. When they had changed their manners, and rectified their former habits, then they were was hed with the waters of baptism, and not before.

"The period during which they continued this course of preparation varied in different places, and was, indeed, often regulated by no other rule than the proficiency of the candidates. In general, it lasted for two or three years; though, in cases of severe indisposition and imminent danger, the probation was shortened, and the most benevolent and anxious provision made to dispense to the sick or dying catechumens, whose life was consistent with their views, though they had not completed their appointed time of discipline, all the comforts which a participation in the privileges of the church could give. But when no such pressing emergency occurred, the young disciple was left to accomplish his noviciate in the ordinary course; and it was only by slow and progressive steps he ascended to the standard of knowledge and virtue that gave him a passport to the region of the faithful."

Tertullian, De Bap. c. 18; Augustin. Confess, lib. i. c. 11. lib. vi c. 1.

Augustin. Confess, lib. ix. c. 6. Ep. 147. c. 52; Posidii, Vit. Augus. c. 1. p. 165.

Constitut. Apostol. lib. viii. c. 32.

Illiber. c. 42. A. D. 673.

Agath. c. 34. A. D. 506.

Cyril of Jerusalem, Cateches. 1. n. 5; Jerome, Ep. 61. ad Pammach. 3. 4.

Socrates, h. e. lib. vii. c. 30; Basil M. Ep. 186; Epiphan. haeres. 28. n. 6.

Balsamon. not. in Concil. Niocaesan, c. 5; Cave, Primitive Christianity, i. c. 8.

Suicer, Thesaurus.

Maldonatus, De Baptism, c. i. p. 78 etseq.

Bingham, Christ. Antiq. vol. iv. p. 17.

Constitut. Apost. 1. 8. c. 6–8; Conci!. Arelat. i. c.6; Illiber. c.39;Euseb. Vit. Const. M. IV. 61; Sulpic. Sever. Vit. Martin. Turon. Dial. c. 5.

Marci, Vita Porphyrii. in Baronii. Annal. ad a. 400.

Edm. Martene, De antiq. eccl. vit. torn. i. 26 et seq.; J. Al. Assernani. Cod. liturg. torn. i. c. 1.

Cyprian, ep. 73. 57. Euseb. h. e. vi. 4; August. De Baptism, iv. 2; Gregory Naz. Orat. 39. Origen Tract. 12. in Math. p. 85; Cyril. Hierosol. Catech. iii. n. 10.

August. De peccator. merit, lib. ii. c. 26; lib. i. c. 11.

Bingham, bk. x. Sec.l6; Bona, Rer. Liturg. lib. i. c. 16. n. 3; Basnage, Exercit. Critic, in Baron, p. 487.
(No tag #17 appears in Rev. Lyman Coleman's translation.)

(* denotes Greek text in Rev. Lyman Coleman's translation.)


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