Word Magazine December 1957 Page 260-261
DOCTRINE IN ORTHODOX CATECHESIS
By Eusebius A. Stephanou
There can be no doubt that Orthodox religious instruction, traditionally called “catechesis”, should have a twofold aim: To teach our children, firstly, the content of the faith, namely what to believe and, secondly, how to live in conformity with this faith. Both aspects of Orthodoxy must be equally stressed, since to be an Orthodox Christian is both to believe rightly and to live rightly.
The content of the faith of Christ which the Church declares through the ages consists of what may be properly called “doctrines” or “dogmas”, while the response expected from those who believe in Christ, the center of the Faith, belongs to what may be termed “Christian Ethics” which includes the range of Christian living and Christian conduct. For purposes of analysis and clarification we need to make this distinction, but we should not lose sight at the same time of the inner unity between faith and experience or life. Christ must be known firstly as the object of faith and then the importance of the total conduct of the believer should be taught in relation to faith.
Faith or inner vision is a natural faculty with which man has been endowed. But if faith is to recognize its true object it must be determined and defined in conceptual language. The object of Faith can become illusory, imaginary, and subjective, if it is defined in vague and ambiguous terms.
The Orthodox Church true to her divine mission places due stress on precision and correctness of doctrine. This is why she calls herself the Orthodox Church. She has kept the revealed Truth free from adulteration. Christ came into the world to reveal the saving truth and to enlighten man with the divine verities which were unknown to him. To distort the revealed truths of Christ is tantamount to misrepresent Him Who is the Truth.
Our young people in this country are exposed to countless distortions of the Christian revelation. They are surrounded on all sides by numerous sects and denominations which give arbitrary interpretations of the Bible and hold conflicting creeds. We should be sufficiently aware of the need for instructing our children in the exactness of Orthodox doctrine.
There are many who would have us believe that “simple faith in Christ” is the only necessary creed and that dogmas can be no substitute for the simple message of the Gospel. But faith in Christ does not suffice, since Christ has been interpreted in more ways than one. A creedless Christianity advocated by several groups outside the true church is no Christianity at all. Orthodoxy has preserved her identity throughout the ages simply because she has insisted on the certainty and exactness of Christian doctrine. Today more than ever before our young people are in need of a more clear and concise understanding of the great fundamental doctrines of the faith in view of the diversity of beliefs in which they find themselves. We must impress upon them the importance of holding correct doctrines and the seriousness of the distortion and heresy.
As much as the Orthodox Church is reluctant to transform the Christian Faith into fixed dogmatic propositions, since the object of faith is ineffable and known only through personal religious experience, nonetheless she is compelled by circumstances to articulate the Faith in credal form and to elaborate it in a system. The apologetic needs of her faithful have required the increased formulation of the Faith into dogmas. The necessity of defending the purity of the faith is the only reason for the formulation of dogmas. This is the way the Church answers the threat of the forces of adulteration and distortion which have beset her since the time of her inception.
Thus a good Orthodox is always one who does not ignore the doctrinal statements of the Church, but instead is well grounded in the knowledge of the historical doctrines. It is indeed impossible to conceive of a living and practicing member of the Orthodox Church who is not well informed on the dogmatic teachings of the Church. The baptismal creeds of the Early Church testify to the necessity of being instructed in the articles of the Faith. It has never been enough to “believe in God” and to be committed to Christ.” God and Christ as realities of faith, though mysterious and essentially ineffable, have had to be defined in order that faith and piety would be directed rightly. Dogma always serves to guide the direction taken by faith, just as faith on the other hand is the affirmation of dogma.
The temptation, on the other hand, of teaching doctrines in a technical, academic fashion as ends in themselves must be avoided as much as possible. Doctrines should always be taught in relation to Christian living. Since they were formulated initially as symbolic expressions of basic, Christian convictions, they must always be taught and interpreted within a framework of personal faith and religious experience. This means that all doctrines must bear on the central truth of the redemption of Christ who alone is the proper object of Faith. Faith is not to be
regarded as intellectual assent to a list of propositions or articles of a creed, but rather as inner vision. It should not be static, but dynamic.
The Sunday School should try to create a vital conception of truth in the mind and heart of the child without sacrificing the dogmatic expression of the faith. It should lead him to discover the truth in experience and conviction, without ignoring dogmas and theological formulations. Orthodoxy denotes a vital view of truth which allows for fresh discoveries of the spirit to those who seek it as the chief quest of a consecrated life. But inward experience must be guided by outward expression of the experience of the Christian ages.
Since doctrine is the outward expression of spiritual experience, teaching of doctrine must include the evoking of that experience necessary in rendering doctrine relevant to faith. Since doctrines are symbolic articulations of the experience of Christian generations, they must be taught within an existential framework. To declare a doctrinal statement true is to imply the affirmation of the reality of inner experience.
A dogma, nonetheless which is a formal statement of belief must in every case precede experience, if experience is to take a safe and unerring course. This is especially true with regard to young children who lack the powers of intellect and spirit for gaining spirit for gaining spiritual experience which would confirm doctrine. The task of the catechist should be to present doctrinal statements in accordance to the maturity of the faith of the child. The dogmatic proposition should not exceed the limits of the learner’s range of faith. Its form should correspond always to the extent of his spiritual maturity. Statements intended for the younger age groups should be simple and brief, as well as metaphorical, while those intended for the older age groups can be less metaphorical and more elaborate.
Older children should also be taught comparative doctrine. They should have some acquaintance with the basic doctrinal differences between Orthodoxy and Protestantism, on the one hand, and between Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism, on the other. A good apologist for Orthodoxy is familiar with the non-Orthodox views which conflict with Orthodox teachings. To know the opposing position helps in building a better defense for Orthodoxy and provides an incentive for a more thorough study of the Orthodox faith. The doctrinal statements for each age group must be determined by the spiritual as well as intellectual capacity of those included in each group.
To a 5-7 year old group, for example, the statements “God is love”, “God is a loving Father”, and “Jesus is the Son of God”, would be perfectly comprehensible because the child has experience of the meaning of “father” and paternal “love”. The form of doctrine must depend on the maturity of the learner. Although a small child may take the doctrine of the fatherhood of God with the same credulity that he would in accepting a fairy tale, nevertheless, with the progress of mental development Christian teaching will remain as conviction, while in the other case, acceptance of tales will eventually be dropped. If the child is reared in an Orthodox Christian environment and is trained in living the sacramental life of tile church, divine grace will be the determining factor in the establishing of permanent convictions in the child. In an older group a more advanced step may be taken in expressing the same truths. Jesus is not only “the Son of God”. but “He is God’s incarnate Son who remains eternally of the same essence with the Father.” The growth of spiritual vision must in every case parallel the progressive elaboration of doctrinal statements.
When we speak of the Son as “homoousios” or essential” to the Father, we are obviously involved in symbolic language. It is language which expresses a truth to which one can commit himself only when he has experienced the inner vision of Christ as personal Savior in His full divinity and humanity. This means that it is faith or mystical experience which makes statements of dogma meaningful and acceptable. Along with the spiritual experience, however, there is the need for comprehending the conventional rule of using the word, e.g. ousia or essence, if “co-essential” is to be a meaningful term. This understanding of the conventional usage of the word coupled with faith accounts for the legitimacy of giving convictions linguistic expression and dogmatic formulation.
The Holy Scriptures teach us both what to believe in and how to live, or in other words, doctrines and Christian ethics. This is the purpose of Scriptures within the Church, to reveal to us who God is and what His dealings are with man. It is with this object in mind that religious educators must teach the Bible in Sunday School.
For the lower age groups it is customary to teach those parts of the Bible which are narrative in nature since children at this level can comprehend a truth more easily when presented in story form. Even our Lord spoke in parables in order to make the truths He revealed more understandable. Bible stories, however, must not be told for the purpose of entertaining, but to instruct and edify. We should avoid isolating the Scripture from doctrines and dogmas, as such. Bible stories should not serve to entertain, but reveal eternal truths, and it is to these truths, that we should direct our teaching. We need not wait for a formal course in Catechism in order to teach the dogmatic teachings of the Church. Catechism should begin from the very beginning of Sunday School.
“Catechesis” comes from the Greek catecho, which means to instruct in the Christian faith. All material used in teaching must fulfill the two-fold purpose of the Sunday School: to instruct in doctrinal teaching and to cultivate the spiritual life of the children, in other words, informative and edifying. Doctrine must not necessarily be reserved for an older age group and taken as a separate course. Doctrine, the Bible and the cultivation of spiritual vision must be kept related and integrated. To isolate them is to do irreparable violence to the integrity of the Orthodox Faith.