Churches generally offer membership classes or even classes for new believers. In most cases, these classes teach the basics of the faith or what someone should know before joining a church.
These kinds of classes are not new. Early Christians called such training catechesis. In the early years, Christians taught the basics of life and doctrine through catechetical instruction.
This kind of training seems to have started very early in church history, even during the apostolic age. So it is worth asking the questions: what did the apostolic church teach new believers? What were the fundamentals of the faith? What did early Christian catechism look like?
We need to look no further than to Hebrews for an answer. The epistle contains a list of the basic elements that new believers should know before moving on to more advanced teachings.
Six topics for Christian catechesis
In particular, Hebrews 6:1–3 provides six basic Christian teachings that new believers should know before they can move on towards what the author of Hebrews calls “maturity.” In the context of Hebrews 6, maturity or perfection simply means that someone has graduated from school to become a teacher himself (see Heb 5:11–14).
The two sources for Christian catechesis in Hebrews include: the message of Christ (6:1), that is, apostolic teaching and the oracles of God (5:12), that is, the Old Testament.
From these two sources, early Christain catechesis according to Hebrews included six headings:
(1) Repentance from dead works. Repentance from dead works seems to contrast with receiving the living and effective (working) word of God (Heb 4:12). More specifically, it appears to contrast reading the Old Testament apart from hearing the word of the triune God with hearing the triune God directly addressing us “today” in the Old Testament (e.g., Heb 3:7).
The latter constitutes the Christian way of reading Scripture because in these last days God speaks to us through his Son (Heb 1:2). And the first three chapters of Hebrews list the many ways that Father, Son, and Spirit speak in the Old Testament. God in this way speaks to us “today.” Hence, the Word of God is living and effective and sharper than a two-edged blade (Heb 4:12).
(2) Faith in God because repentance implies turning from something (dead works) to something or someone (God).
(3) Teaching about baptisms or washings. These washings include all the Levitical washings and pre-eminently how Christian baptism supersedes them all (cf. Heb 9:10; 10:22; see Kleinig).
(4) The laying on of hands, which possibly included anointing with oil and any case preceded the reception of the Holy Spirit during the apostolic age (Acts 8:17; 19:6).
During this age, the laying on of hands directly preceded a visible experience of the Spirit to signify the colossal shift from the Old to the New (more could be said here). Now that this transition has occurred, we lay on hands to signify the Spirit’s work in a believer’s life (sometimes called confirmation).
(5) The resurrection of the dead, which the Old Testament certainly speaks of (e.g., Isa 26:19) and the apostolic teaching emphasized.
(6) Eternal judgment. Eternal judgment likely refers to the end when God will judge between the just and the unjust.
These six items chronicle conversion (repentance, faith), entrance into the faith community (baptism, laying on of hands), and the final end (resurrection, judgment). All together, they outline three movements in the Christian’s life: conversion, entrance into the visible church, and the resurrection.
These are the basic elements of Christian catechesis. Doubtless the author of Hebrews would fill in the details about these topics in an actual catechetical setting.
Likely, he is writing to a church that he knows well. So he can use simple language like this to evoke larger ideas. For example, faith in God implies faith in the Son of God by the Holy Spirit. The resurrection implies the resurrection of the body. And so on.
And it should be noted that the list here probably is not exhaustive but representative of what catechesis looked like in the community that the Letter to the Hebrews belonged to.
How do we build on these foundations?
These six topics are ABCs of the faith. And as the author to Hebrews notes, they are foundations—the beginnings. They are vital and necessary. They provide the necessary foundation to pursue greater depths of maturity.
What should Christian maturity look like? How do we build on the foundational teachings?
In short, to press on to maturity or to build on these foundations, Hebrews says that we need to deepen our understanding of Christ’s ongoing priesthood and discern the beautiful from the evil (Heb 5:11, 14). We can expand on these two items to clarify their meaning.
First, Christ’s ongoing priesthood minimally signifies his current ministry of intercession and confirmation of our forgiveness of sins from heaven (Heb 7:25; 9:14, 24). In other words, Christians should always confess the cross of Christ and the resurrection, but we also press into Christ’s life in the here and now. He lives in heaven for our sake today.
We need to know Jesus, who currently lives for our sake. He is not a historical relic; he is our high priest now.
Second, discerning good from evil is the meat of the Christian life. Christians are called to live good lives. The beautiful or good is what is true, honourable, and just. The mark of Christian growth is knowing good from evil (e.g., Rom 12:1–2; Eph 2:10; Heb 5:14; 13:21). Of course, we must do good and not merely stop at discernment. But discerning what is good is a necessary prerequisite.
In sum, growing into mature Christians looks like pressing into the life of Jesus and discerning good from evil. Love Jesus. Do good. That’s a mature Christian. That constitutes the household of mature Christianity built upon the foundations of the six catechetical items listed above.