Redemptive Catechesis: Rethinking Theological Teaching

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Recently, in evangelical circles, there has been a renaissance of catechesis, the church’s historic practice of teaching the essentials of the faith through dialogue. Fueled by the growing need to educate and form believers in the historic doctrines of the Christian faith, authors such as J.I. Packer, Gary Parrett, Steve Kang, pastors such as Tim Keller, and resourcing platforms such as Seedbed have all been at the forefront of catechetical renewal within the church. Amidst a new religious culture that actively blurs the boundaries between religions, challenges the major aspects of Christian orthodoxy, and seeks to draw believers away from holding to “rigid,” outdated doctrines, catechesis provides solid and clear answers about the Christian faith to an inquisitive world, educates the church in what she has always held dear, and imprints the deepest truths about God into the hearts of Christians.

While catechetical enthusiasm is at an all-time high, catechesis has traditionally been viewed as a rigid practice that tends to discourage further exploration and dialogue about doctrine. Paulo Freire, the great Brazilian educator, writes about a concept of “banking,” where teachers treat students as storehouses wherein to deposit information that can be received, memorized, and repeated when necessary (Pedagogy of the Oppressed). The problem with this approach, in Freire’s mind, is that there is no genuine critical engagement with truth, and information instead becomes a mode of currency as opposed to a conduit to inward transformation and social change. My fear is that catechesis, in a rigid question-and-answer format, can focus too much on teaching believers the correct answers while neglecting to engage their present thoughts, feelings, and questions about doctrine.

How can catechesis be a transformative process that not only teaches believers the essential doctrines of the faith, but also engages their hearts, and treats them as human beings instead of storehouses of information? In order to uncover the answer, I will explore Henri Nouwen’s views on teaching in order to build an approach to catechesis that achieves both heart and mind transformation.

Violent Teaching and Redemptive Teaching

Henri Nouwen, in his classic work Creative Ministry, describes two distinct approaches to teaching in a Christian context—the violent approach and the redemptive approach.

Violent teaching is competitive, unilateral, and alienating. It is competitive in that having the ability to recall the right facts causes students to approach education as a means to an end, toward some sort of internal or external reward. When you memorized that verse for VBS, did you do so because the teacher taught you that hiding Scripture in your heart was honoring to Jesus, or because it would get you candy or the admiration of your peers? In this way, education is a form of pragmatism, and knowledge is used as currency. Secondly, it is unilateral in that teachers are the sole possessors of knowledge, and view knowledge as a “property to be defended” rather than a gift to be shared (Creative Ministry, 12). Teachers are the only ones who can contribute in the educational process, and the critical voices of students are silenced. Finally, it is alienating because it causes students to use their education solely as a tool for a better future life; acquiring knowledge is a means to an end rather than the end itself.

Redemptive teaching offers a better path—it is evocative, bilateral, and actualizing. Evocatively, it draws out the thoughts, feelings, and personal experiences of both students and teachers, so they become available to one another, and allow one another to share their insights within safe space. Bilaterally, it asks that instead of fostering the dichotomy between teachers and students, we create a new space where teachers can become students, and students can become teachers.  In this way, teachers and students become co-pilgrims in the search for truth, and share in each other’s roles. Finally, redemptive teaching is actualizing in that it tangibly expresses preparation for the future into the present, and allows the future to take place within the classroom instead of without; knowledge is used for the here and now.

Redemptive teaching is thus characterized by a spirit of openness and equality, wherein we can exchange ours ideas without fear they will be demonized or unwelcome into the classroom. It is this form of teaching we should embrace when teaching believers the core doctrines of our faith.

Toward Redemptive Catechesis

In order for catechesis to be transformative, it must be redemptive. How can we ensure that our catechetical endeavors not only allow for the mutual exchange of ideas, but also stick firmly to our established doctrinal standards? Here are a few ways.

First, we must recognize that a person’s ability to recall doctrinal beliefs with precision does not necessarily equate spiritual growth. We can pair the teaching of doctrine with questions of how one is doing in their walk with God, if they have any deep sin or issue with which they struggle, and if they are actively seeking to live out doctrine in their daily lives. This approach is reminiscent of the questions Wesley asked in his band meetings, such as “how is it with your soul?” and “have you done all the good you could this week?” This approach ensures not only that people understand our teaching, but they are also allowing it to form and transform their personal journey with God.

Secondly, we must create space in we can wrestle with and challenge doctrine. This does not mean that we discard doctrines we dislike, but rather we dialogue about how specific doctrines cause us unease, why that is so, and seek answers to these challenging questions. This can include digging into the Church Fathers, the insightful monastics, and even contemporary theologians and discovering how they have understood and embraced these doctrines. Through dialogue and exploration, we can come to embrace the doctrines that we once misunderstood or made us uncomfortable.

Finally, we must make every effort to discuss how our catechesis fleshes out in daily life. Why bother learning the historic doctrines of the faith if they do not infiltrate and transform our hearts? We must explore how doctrine is relevant in the life of the church, how it serves the advancement of God’s kingdom, and how doctrine encourages us to love God and neighbor wholeheartedly.

My prayer is that when we teach the historic doctrines of faith through the mode of catechesis, we do so with a spirit of collaboration and a heart filled with love, just as the Spirit leads us into all truth, and as we learn how to love God with our hearts and minds.

Seedbed’s CREED is a companion guide to Dr. Timothy Tennent’s This We Believe and serves as a reflection guide of Scripture readings, spiritual exercises, reflective quotes & questions for conversation. Great for for individuals, small groups and whole congregations. Purchase from the Seedbed store here.

 

 

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Ben Espinoza currently serves as a pastor at Covenant Church in Bowling Green, Ohio. A frequent writer in areas related to Christian formation, ministry, and theology, he currently serves on the board of directors for the Society for Children’s Spirituality: Christian Perspectives.

6 COMMENTS

  1. Ben, I enjoyed reading your piece. I think a major area of concern in catechesis is the separation of Christian education (where much catechesis is done) and worship. We teach our children (and converted adults) a set of beliefs that are dogma (rightly so), but we then divorce that doctrine from our worship. How do we expect our children to believe Jesus is Lord when most of what is heard in worship boils down to pragmatism and the telos leads places exterior to Christ? We need a revival of the Churches truth Lex orandi, lex credendi. Or as James Smith would say, a pedagogy of desire. I think worship is where belief starts and the wrestling happens.

    • Josh, I agree. Ecclesial pedagogy must include worship, and worship must never be severed from theological teaching. The telos of catechesis is indeed worship.

  2. It is a shame that we pietists have often assumed that rigorous catechesis is pitted against the practical application and living out of the faith. Perhaps the finest devotional work of the last 500 years was produced by Johann Gerhard, a Lutheran dogmatic theologian who applied the dogmas to his devotional life. His “Sacred Meditations” prove that dogma, well applied, IS practical, devotional, and ultimately pastoral.

  3. I like your essay here, Ben, but I believe there is perhaps a way that bridges them. The classical model of education engages the trivium, beginning with the grammar of a subject-which does involve a good deal of rote memory work; moving to dialectical learning wherein students learn to wrestle with the material in dialogue and application; finally moving to the rhetoric stage, where students become teachers of the learning in its developing dimensions.

    I suppose it does do violence to the model (not to mention the student) when we stop the process after the grammar phase, considering that mastery consists in memorization.

    I like the way you have presented Nouwen here, yet with respect to children, it is imperative that it begin fairly concretely- which might mean a thoughtful and careful approach to memorization. I call it “re-memberization.”

    • JD, thanks for your thoughts. Perhaps it would be more fair for me to say that redemptive teaching does include the acknowledgement and teaching of truth, but that truth is then placed in healthy discussion. I think I hit on this a little when I describe how we must engage both the objective truth and subjective feelings and thoughts about that truth.

      As for the education of children, I completely agree; there does need to be a healthy amount of doctrinal memorization. However, I would posit that elements of redemptive teaching must be maintained when teaching children. Children’s spirituality is organic, imaginative, and needs room for exploration and truth-seeking. When we subject our children to the memorization of facts without engaging their keen sense of imagination and wonder, we squelch the way they naturally engage and think about God. Perhaps that’s another Seedbed article entirely 🙂

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