Reclaiming the Catechumentate in the Lutheran Church

The catechumenate is the process of teaching adults the members of the faith that is grounded in Word and Sacrament. The rite of Christian initiation is “the process which a person goes through while being transformed into a new creation, modelled in the likeness of Christ himself.” [1]  This process of initiation is just one step in the spiritual journey of the Christian life. It is this journey that brings us “back to God from whom [we] came” and brings us into the Christian community. [2]  Christian initiation is almost as old as the Church itself and has been practiced in one form or another throughout the centuries.

In order to understand the ancient rite of Christian initiation, we must first look at the history of baptism and the uses of water rites in Judaism and Christianity. Our attention will then turn to Christian initiation in the early Church. Subsequently, we will look at the the decline of the catechumenate. Finally, we will focus on the resurgence of the catechumenate in the Lutheran Church.

Origins of Baptism and Christian Initiation

It has been suggested that the Christian understanding of baptism was drawn from the Jewish understanding of water rites. Water rites were prevalent in Judaism for the overcoming of ritual impurity, however, water rites had nothing to do with forgiveness of sins. As Aidan Kavanagh points out there is a clear connection between the Jewish water rights and Christian baptism because “with the washing of bodies must go the cleansing of hearts.” [3]  The water rite of of purification was not the only water rite in the Jewish tradition. Within Judaism, there was a “form of water rite which seems to have become more initiatory in character. This was the practice of proselyte baptism, and it seems to have developed in connection with the expansion of Jewish communities living outside Palestine.” [4]  The evolution of this other water rite in Judaism underwent several changes during its use. Concerning this evolution, Kavanaugh states, “Originally perhaps nothing more than the proselyte’s first ritual purification after circumcision in preparation for the offering of sacrifice, the water bath begins later to absorb the initiatory aspects of circumcision, finally to displace circumcision in some places altogether as the central act by which a gentile adhered to Judaism.” [5]  But there was still a connection between the proselyte’s baptism and a ritual cleansing; the bath was used for “purifying converts from their uncleanness and by admitting them into the covenant life of Judaism which was consummated by the offering of sacrifice.” [6]  While it is possible that Christian baptism was derived from the baptism of the proselyte and the rites surrounding circumcision, there is no scriptural evidence linking the proselyte baptism and circumcision to Christian baptism. Concerning the connection between baptism and and circumcision, Reginald H. Fuller states that there is no “direct line leading from Old Testament circumcision to Christian baptism” and the connection is only made after the New Testament period. [7]  The scriptural evidence points only as far back as Jesus’ own baptism by John.

The most clearly seen origin of Christian baptism is in the Scripture when John baptizes Jesus. As Fuller writes, “It was from John that the movement launched by Jesus emerged.” [8]  It has been suggested that John adopted his baptism from the Jewish proselyte baptism. However, there is no evidence to support this theory. It has also been suggested that John adopted his baptism from the community at Qumran or one of the other baptismal movements in Palestine and Syria. There are problems with this theory revolving around the fact that John’s baptism was tied to his understanding of the inbreaking of the kingdom of God. As Fuller states, “John’s baptism was riveted to his eschatology in a way that these other baptisms were not. John’s baptism was a singular conversion event carrying with it the promise of eschatological salvation.” [9]  Maxwell Johnson further expands on this further, stating,

[W]hile John’s baptism appears to be a once-and-for-all ritual of repentance, those washings or immersions at Qumran were repeatable daily washings related to Levitical or ritual purity. In other words, the Essene ritual baths did not constitute an initiation into that community by were an ongoing means of maintaining ritual purity for the members of that community. [10]

Other differences exist between John’s baptisms and other baptisms including who administered the baptism. It is John’s baptism of Christ that “has traditionally been understood as the beginning of Christian baptism, although it was not until after the resurrection of the Lord that the disciples began to baptize, in accordance with the Lord’s command (Matt 28:19).” [11]

In the post-resurrection period, we see baptism used more frequently as initiation into the community. This follows from the Great Commission, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” [12]  From this text, we can see an early formula for Christian initiation start to take shape: make disciples, baptize, and teach.

Baptism was also used as a means of entrance to the community in texts surrounding the Pentecost. Following the Pentecost in Acts 2, Peter tells those who were receptive to “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins will be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” [13]  As a result, “those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand were added. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” [14]  Maxwell Johnson states that from the Pentecost on “the dominate tradition of the early Church to initiate new converts to the Christian faith through a ritual process which included a baptismal washing of some sort.” [15]

Ancient Rite of Christian Initiation

The ancient rite of the catechumenate developed through the years with the help of several church fathers. They fleshed out the rite and created the baptismal liturgy.

Some of the earliest writings concerning the catechumenate come from Saint Hippolytus of Rome (c. 170-c. 236). His writing, The Apostolic Tradition (c. 215) “is frequently put forward as a model of of the liturgy of the ancient church.” [16]  Hippolytus proscribed that the catechumenal process take three years, however Hippolytus did make allowances for the period of time to be reduced “because it is not the time that is judged, but the conduct.” [17]  It should be pointed out that the catechumens formed “a separate class in the church, distinct from the baptized faithful” as the catechumens had little contact with the baptized. [18]  There is no description as to how the catechumens were taught. In The Apostolic Tradition, Hippolytus also provides the shape of the baptismal liturgy. While The Apostolic Tradition provides “some details of this rite that are unique, the pattern or shape of the baptismal liturgy which it embodies may well be called the ancient pattern.” [19]

The writings of Theodore of Mopsuestia (ca. 350 – 428), were believed to be used as a “textbook for catechesis in the Church of Antioch” for a time. [20]  His sermons for the catechumens covered the creed, the Lord’s Prayer, baptism, and the eucharist and were used to instruct the catechumens in matters of the faith. Theodore of Mopsuestia’s “theology has been condemned as leading to Nestorianism, and his interpretation of the liturgy is rejected by modern commentators.” [21]  He is nonetheless important in the development of the teachings of the catechumenate because he was one of the first to define and name what tenants of faith a believer should know and he sought to teach them those items.

Ambrose of Milan (c. 337-397) further developed the catechumenate by creating a period of intense preparation for baptism. Prior to baptism, the catechumens were taught the creed, the Lord’s prayer, Christian living, and the Bible. It is interesting to note that Ambrose did not speak of the sacraments to those who had not participated in them. It is only after baptism that the meaning is explained to the newly-baptized, essentially creating a two tiered system.

Instead of a catechumenate curriculum, Augustine of Hippo (354-430) focuses his attention on recruitment. His most noteworthy writings in relation to the development of the catechumenate come as “an explanation of what to say to an inquirer to move him or her to enroll as a catechumen.” [22]  Little is said of what is to be taught as the focus is on conversion of the unchurched. What we get from Augustine “is of a highly specific beginning, which motivates the convert to enroll as a catechumen and begin the more formal instruction, leading to the sacramental life in Christ.” [23]

Decline of the Catechumenate

Beginning sometime around the end of the fifth century and the beginning of the sixth, the catechumenal process began to decline in the church. Catechism and the partaking of the Eucharist developed into steps within a members life separate from baptism.

One of the factors that influenced the decline of the catechumenate was the practice of infant baptism. The practice of infant baptism can be traced back to the late second century. Prior to that, there is no evidence of infant baptisms being performed. In the late second century, there was a shift in cultural opinion from viewing children as innocents to viewing them as sinful creatures. [24]  By the sixty century “candidates for baptism were almost exclusively infants.” [25]  Probably due to the high mortality rate of infants, the church became preoccupied with “saving children from dying unbaptized.” [26]  With infants being the primary candidates for baptism, it makes sense that the acts of catechesis and eucharist would be separated from the act of initiation itself. Around this time, and associated with the separation of baptism and the eucharist, we also see the start rise of Confirmation.

Another factor closely related to the baptism of infants, that lead to the decline of the catechumenate as the standard of Christian initiation was that the rite of baptism became more commonplace within the Christian liturgical calender. Instead of having a catechumenal process that culminated with baptism during the Easter Vigil or Pentecost, more churches were moving to have more frequent baptisms as a way to guarantee infants were baptized.

The decline of the catechumenate was neither immediate nor swift. It took several hundred years. However, it is safe to say that by the time of the Reformation, the catechumenate was non-existent.

Modern Rite of Christian Initiation in the ELCA

The catechumenate and the rite of Christian initiation are both something that is new to the ELCA and yet steeped in tradition. It is something new in that the catechumenal process re-emerge in the Lutheran church in 1978 with the Lutheran Book of Worship (LBW) and yet the Lutheran catechumenal process is heavily influenced by tradition and baptismal theology. As the Lutheran church further explores the rite of Christian initiation, a truly Lutheran understanding of the catechumenate has emerged and continues to evolve. As the Lutheran understanding of the catechumenal process grows, so too does the variety of liturgical acts surrounding the catechumenate including the rite of welcome and the rite of enrollment. With the release of Evangelical Lutheran Worship (ELW) comes a different way of looking at the baptismal process which integrates the rite of Christian initiation for adults more into the life of the congregation.

In the ELCA, the experience of initiation between infants on one hand and older youth and adults on the other looks very different. For infants, they are brought into the life of the congregation through baptism, then under go catechesis, culminating in the rite of Confirmation. Education is handled by parents, sponsors, and others as the infant grows up. For older youth and adults, the process of initiation is drastically different and “[t]ypically, congregations do not offer much support to new members who come with little or no background in the Christian faith.” [27]

Reclaiming of the catechumenate and the Rite of Christian Initiation are vital for the continued growth of the Lutheran Church, and more specifically, the ELCA. The ELCA, having realized that more people are coming to the church as unchurched adults, needs to continue to develop and expand upon its understanding of Christian initiation. In an age of consumerism, secularization, and personal spirituality, the ELCA needs to develop new methods to pass on the faith to those who are seeking entrance to the Christian community without betraying the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The shape of the baptismal process within the ELCA is put forth in Welcome to Christ: A Lutheran Introduction to the Catechumenate and consists of four phases: Inquiry, Catechumenate, Baptismal Preparation, and Baptismal Living. [28]  Inquiry is “an open-ended period during which unbaptized persons make an initial inquiry into the Christian faith.” [29]  Inquiry classes are geared towards those who are new to the faith as a way to allow them to ask questions concerning matters of faith and discipleship. The period of inquiry concludes with the rite of welcome in which “inquirers are received into the catechumenate.” [30]  The catechumenate is the period following inquiry. The catechumenate is “an open-ended period during with catechumens explore more deeply the church’s story of faith.” [31]  The period of the catechumenate concludes with the rite of enrollment, in which they are added into the church register. Following the rite of enrollment, the catechumens become candidates for baptism and enters a time of baptismal preparation. The time of baptismal preparation concludes with the rite of Holy Baptism. The newly baptized then enter the final period, that of baptismal living. This period is “a life-long period during with the newly baptized grow more deeply into the practice of faith and Christian life.” [32]

Throughout the catechumenal process, the participants are exposed to weekly bible study, weekly worship and the prayer life of the church. Because of this, the catechumenal process helps raise biblical knowledge both within the catechumens as well as those who work with the catechumens. Liturgy awareness is raised as the catechumens ask questions regarding the liturgical practices of the church. It is safe to say that the catechumenal process is focused on forming disciples and forming faith.

The catechumenate is not a new phenomena in the church. The themes and strengths of the catechumenate are not new to Lutherans. In fact, many of the themes and strengths of the process are fundamental to Lutheran theology and practice.

The catechumenal process is grounded in the Word of God. Saint Paul writes, “So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the Word of Christ.” [33]  Scripture is proclaimed and studied during the catechumenal process. This is especially true in catechumenal groups that use a lectionary-based bible study. Lathrop puts it best, saying, “[A] lectionary-based catechumenal group will be focused not only on telling and hearing personal stories in light of the scriptural story. It will be a gathering in the presence of Jesus Christ, a continued echoing of that Living Word which is present in the assembly of the church.” [34]

Not only is the catechumenal process ground in the Word, the catechumenal process is also grounded in the use of the means of grace. The means of grace come to us in a variety of ways: the proclamation of the Word, baptism, eucharist, and forgiveness and reconciliation just to name a few. This is especially true of the catechumenate. The scriptures are studied after they have been proclaimed to the congregation, made up of the baptized, in a eucharistic service. Throughout this process, the catechumens are moving toward their own baptism and entrance into the community.

The catechumenal process also encompasses Lutheran understanding of the priesthood of all believers. In our baptisms, we are given gifts of the Spirit. These spiritual gifts are to be used in our ministry which is the proclamation of the Gospel of Christ. This is the responsibility of all the baptized. It is not just the rostered leaders who participate in and assist with the catechumenal process. While Pastors have their role to play in the process, theirs is not the only important role. Sponsors and catechists are made up of those members of the congregation that are knowledgeable in the faith. The members of the congregation pray on behalf on the catechumens in their daily time of prayer.

As the Lutheran church moves forward from here, there needs to be a “continuing exploration of ways to lead people into baptism, the churches will need to consider whether a single process is to be considered normative or whether there are multiple ways such integration may occur, and how best such approaches might be described.” [35]  Regardless of the specifics of the catechumenal process, it is a process that needs to be reclaimed as a Lutheran practice of welcoming the newcomer to Christ.


[1] Mark Searle, Christening: The Making of Christians, (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1980), 1.

[2] Ibid., 1.

[3] Aidan Kavanagh, The Shape of Baptism: The Rite of Christian Initiation, (New York: Pueblo Publishing Company, 1978), 7.

[4] Ibid., 7.

[5] Ibid., 8.

[6] Ibid., 9.

[7] Reginald H. Fuller, “Christian Initiation in the New Testament” in Murphy Center for Liturgical Research, Made, Not Born: New Perspectives on Christian Initiation and the Catechumenate, (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1976), 8.

[8] Ibid., 8.

[9] Ibid., 9.

[10] Maxwell E. Johnson, The Rites of Christian Initiation: Their Evolution and Interpretation, (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1989), 8.

[11] Searle, 2

[12] Matthew 28:19-20

[13] Acts 2:37

[14] Acts 2:41-42

[15] Johnson, 22-23.

[16] Leonel L. Mitchell, Worship: Initiation and the Churches, (Washington D.C.: The pastoral Press, 1991), 17.

[17] Gregory Dix and Henry Chadwick, eds., The Treatise on The Apostolic Tradition of St Hippolytus of Rome, (Ridgefield: Morehouse Publishing, 1991), 28. The Greek in the text has been omitted.

[18] Mitchell, 19.

[19] Ibid., 5.

[20] Ibid., 39.

[21] Ibid., 41.

[22] Ibid., 43-44.

[23] Ibid., 45.

[24] Everett Ferguson, “Inscriptions and the origin of Infant Baptism” in Everett Ferguson, ed., Studies in Early Christianity vol. XI. Conversion, Catechumenate, and Baptism in the Early Church, (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1993), 391.

[25] Searle, 13.

[26] Ibid., 14.

[27] Dennis L. Bushkofsky and Craig A. Satterlee, Using Evangelical Worship vol. 2, The Christian Life: Baptism and Life Passages, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2008), 79.

[28] Ibid., 84.

[29] Paul Nelson, “Introduction” in Samuel Torvend and Lani Willis, Welcome to Christ: A Lutheran Introduction to the Catechumenate, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1997), 8.

[30] Bushkofsky and Satterlee, 86.

[31] Nelson, 8.

[32] Nelson, 8.

[33] Romans 10:17

[34] Lathrop, 50.

[35] Bushkofsky and Satterlee, 88.


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