My blog posts revolve around my interests and vocation as a historian: the intersection of history and contemporary church life, the intersection of history and contemporary politics, serendipitous discoveries in archives or on research trips, publications and research projects, upcoming conferences, and speaking engagements.
I sometimes blog for two other organizations, the Canadian Baptist Historical Society and the Centre for Post-Christendom Studies.
The views expressed in these blogs represent the views of the authors, and not necessarily those of any organizations with which they are associated.
“The manner of healing must be suited to the form of the illness” – St. Gregory of Nyssa on the Need for Contextualizing Catechisms
It is easy to assume that “one size fits all” when instructing people about the essentials of the faith. Yet the early church leaders and the church fathers knew better. Stated simply, while there is only one apostolic faith, the way in which that faith is communicated must be adapted to different people in different times and in different places.
I was recently reminded of this when I bought a wonderful modern version of St. Gregory of Nyssa’s Catechetical Discourse. This work was a handbook of instruction for those who intended to teach the faith to others.
St. Gregory of Nyssa (c.335-395) was a bishop of Nyssa (in modern-day Turkey) and was one of the most important fourth-century theologians. He was one of the three Cappadocian Fathers – the other two were Basil of Caesarea (his brother) and Gregory of Nazianzus (his friend) – who played a vital role in doctrinal disputes and the activities of church councils. We today owe a great debt to those leaders.
One concern of St. Gregory of Nyssa was the instruction of the faith to people of various backgrounds and commitments. And he took great pains to make sure that those instructing others in the faith understood that the teaching of the catechism (the content of the faith) needed to be tailored to the needs of the students.
He was not advocating for an “anything goes” approach to the content of the catechism, nor was he suggesting that teachers adjust the doctrinal content of the faith to whatever students wanted it to be.
Rather, he urged a sensitive discernment of the convictions of one’s audience, a thoughtful engagement of the gospel with those views, and a highly attuned pastoral attention to matters of both head and heart. For instance, when dealing with the Jews one should address the issues usually raised by Jews. When talking with pagans one should deal with the concerns pagans had with the faith. And when addressing those who identify as Christian but who also have unorthodox views one should carefully challenge their assumptions and conclusions. It was clear to him that “one size did not fit all” when it came to teaching the faith. And we today in Christian education – formally as teachers or informally as parents, friends, and neighbors – need to keep that wisdom in mind.
And on that point, here is what St. Gregory of Nyssa had to say about this approach:
“The discourse of catechesis is necessary for those who preside over the ‘mystery of piety,’ so that the Church may be increased by the ‘addition of those being saved,’ while ‘the word of faith in accordance with teaching’ is brought to the hearing of unbelievers. Indeed the same manner of teaching will not be suitable for all who approach the word, but the catechesis must also be made to suit the differences of religion, looking to the same aim of the discourse, but not using proofs in the same manner for each. For the Judaizer has presupposed one set of suppositions and the one living in Hellenism different ones, while the Aromoean and the Manichean, and the followers of Marcion, and of Valentinus, and Basilides, and the remaining catalogue of those erring in heresies, each presupposing their own suppositions, make it necessary to do battle with their conjectures. For the manner of healing must be suited to the form of the illness. You will not heal the Greek’s polytheism and the Jew’s unbelief regarding ‘the only begotten God’ with the same arguments, nor for those who have erred in heresies will you overthrow the delusions about their teachings made up of myths from the same arguments.” (Prologue)
This is an important reminder for those seeking to instruct in the faith. Knowing the content of the faith is critical, but so is the way in which that faith is taught. Different audiences require different approaches. Or, as St. Gregory of Nyssa states, “the manner of healing must be suited to the form of the illness.”
 I have underlined parts for emphasis. The translation is from St. Gregory of Nyssa, Catechetical Discourse: A Handbook for Catechists (Yonkers: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2019).