Paideia and Cult: Christian Initiation in Theodore of Mopsuestia

  Schwartz, Daniel L. 2013. Paideia and Cult: Christian Initiation in Theodore of Mopsuestia. Hellenic Studies Series 57. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.


Theodore’s Catechetical Homilies present his attempt to craft a distinctive Christian paideia and to create initiated Christian citizens. While Nock sees these converts as the norm, MacMullen can hardly imagine that such converts were produced by the early church. Of course, even after receiving this sort of instruction, people were still entering the church with differing notions of what that meant and with a broad range of motives. To conclude otherwise would be to miss completely the radically changed position of Christianity by the end of the fourth century. But Theodore and other catechists took up the challenge of initiating new Christians and sought to create the kinds of Christians they thought should populate the church in its newfound position of prominence. They believed the rites were efficacious and preached this message forcefully. Theodore insisted that:

You have been born again and have become a completely different person. You no longer belong to Adam, who was subject to change, because he was afflicted and overwhelmed by sin; you belong to Christ, who was entirely free from sin through his resurrection, and in fact had committed no sin from the beginning of his life. [1]

It seems Nock could have borrowed much of his language for describing Christian conversion directly from Theodore. We see in this quotation Theodore’s high confidence in the rites of Christian initiation. He believed that they produced nothing shy of complete transformation. However, we have also seen that Theodore did not simply leave this transformation to chance. He used the systems of education and initiation he had inherited to make a vigorous argument for personal transformation. In the course of doing this, he crafted an imaginative worldview into which he sought to draw his catechumens.

Attention to the subjective experience of catechumens began even before they had become baptismal candidates. Prior to hearing the initial catechetical lesson, we have seen that the candidates had already begun integrating themselves into the Christian community. Indeed, this process would have started long before a person sought baptism. The increasing prominence of the church, particularly as an important civic institution in the late fourth century, was a conscious part of Christian proselytism. Even the casual observer could not have failed to notice the conspicuous position of the church, particularly the person of the bishop, as an important powerbroker in the late Roman city. The temporal and spiritual benefits to be derived from association with this institution would have been readily apparent and must have played a considerable role in the desire to pursue baptism. We should certainly see this backdrop as at least part of the reason for the maintenance of the disciplina arcani. Liturgical enactment of a distinction between insiders and outsiders made formal ties to the community and its channels of power that much more valuable.

But catechesis assumed more than a simple awareness of the Christian community and its role in society. More importantly, it took the catechumen’s involvement with the social structures of the community well beyond the level of admiration for its influence and a desire to appropriate that influence for personal gain. Those seeking to become baptismal candidates needed established ties to the community in order to engage in the process of initiation. Augustine’s On the Catechizing of the Uninstructed indicates the Carthaginian practice of holding classes for people considering taking that step. Egeria, Chrysostom, and Theodore all discuss the importance of having a baptismal sponsor before being accepted as a candidate. This situation demanded more than simply having an acquaintance that was already baptized. The expectation was that this sponsor would be prepared to speak to rather intimate details of the catechumen’s moral accomplishments and earnest efforts to avoid sin. Egeria’s description of registration for baptism as a courtroom scene strongly suggests the gravity of the scenario and even the need for a sponsor who could act as an advocate for the catechumen.

However, the role of the sponsor did not end with the scrutiny of the catechumen and his or her acceptance into the ranks of the baptismal candidates. Occasionally during the Catechetical Homilies, Theodore speaks directly to the sponsors, suggesting that they are expected to attend the regular Lenten instruction along with the candidate. Their charge was to aid the candidates by supplementing the preachers teaching, but they were also necessary for passing on the unwritten creed, which the candidate was expected to memorize. But this was not a relationship based entirely on gaining an intellectual understanding of Christianity, of learning the creed and the finer points of theology. The sponsor assisted with the performance of ritual components of initiation as well, particularly exorcism and the renunciation of Satan. This kind of relationship was designed to begin the process of integrating the candidate into the social structures and liturgical life of the local community.

A firm emphasis on teaching emerges in our discussion of the process of becoming part of the Christian community. Baptismal sponsors would have committed a considerable portion of Lent to attending catechetical sermons along with the baptismal candidates. In addition to this, we have seen the extensive discussion of teaching within Theodore’s presentation of the creed. Theodore clearly thought of catechesis as offering a significant pedagogical moment that gave him the opportunity to teach doctrine as well as to teach the candidates how to engage with the liturgy.

This commitment of time, effort, and resources focused on teaching calls into question an interpretation of the evidence that would remove an intellectual component from the process of Christianization. An emphasis on the social network as an explanatory model over and against the model of intellectual conformity is a welcome development in a discussion too often focused on doctrinal texts. However, the complete rejection of an intellectual component is not warranted. The social network of the church was heavily invested in inculcating its values within those joining it. As in the case of Chrysostom’s catechesis, those values could be predominately, although not exclusively, moral. Conformity to technical theology was not necessarily what catechesis aimed to produce. Theodore worked diligently to compress his theological teaching into small units that would be comprehensible to his hearers. He also often repeated the main themes of his teaching in hopes of instilling at least the broad strokes of his message, even if the finer points might elude some. Furthermore, in conjunction with his explanatory lessons on the creed, the candidates needed to work with their sponsors to memorize the creed, further reinforcing the main outlines of Christianity’s cognitive content.

In this context of catechetical instruction, comprehensive theological understanding would not have been a reasonable goal. The general tenor of the church’s teaching was actually preferable when it came to reaching an audience drawn from all segments of late Roman society. As in the case of Eunomius, a strong emphasis on technical precision could result in a failure to convince even those who shared one’s general outlook. In this context, Theodore’s emphasis on the self-evident nature of his doctrine and repeated use of the terms eunoia and kakonoia provide considerable insight into his catechetical curriculum. By appealing to people of “good mind” and people of “evil mind,” Theodore could further simplify his theological instruction. With this language he sought primarily to create and further reify community boundaries.

By the time they got to the point of receiving Theodore’s instruction, the candidates were already significantly invested in the structures of the Christian community. Some of the emphases in Theodore’s teaching suggest that it was more important that he reinforce this affiliation than that he successfully pass on all the details of his theology. He consistently used theological education to urge the cultivation of a good mind or will (eunoia), essentially a mind that came into conformity with that of the community. Thus while Theodore presented rather technical matters of theology to his audience, each candidate did not necessarily need to comprehend and internalize it in all of its detail. In this way, Theodore’s instruction left plenty of room for the less theoretically or intellectually inclined. Thus we should imagine that some candidates were engaged by the theological ideas that Theodore and other catechists taught, while other candidates responded to his commentary on the creed by merely agreeing to participate in the good mind of the community. Even when they failed to comprehend his entire message, they could rest assured that they were entering a community that rightly understood the truth about God and was therefore able to relate itself rightly toward God in worship. In this qualified way, the cognitive content of Christianity played an important role in the process of initiating baptismal candidates.

Theodore concludes his Catechetical Homilies with a detailed discussion of the baptismal and eucharistic liturgies the candidates were about to experience. We see clearly how he uses these liturgical commentaries to give considerable attention to the subjective experience of his catechetical students. Theodore’s strong sense of correspondence between liturgical acts and what was occurring in heaven lays great emphasis on the role of the worshipper and places him or her in very close relation to Christ through partaking of the liturgy. The aim throughout is to teach the candidates how to experience God in the liturgy.

In this context, the use of the genre of ekphrasis plays a very important role. Through his catechetical ekphrasis, Theodore employs highly emotive language specifically for the purpose of presenting the distant realities of heaven as palpably close to the candidates in their own experience. In thus addressing the subjective experience of his audience, we can see Theodore’s most obvious attempt to create for them a distinctly Christian imagination. Drawing on the background of his creedal instruction regarding Father, Son, Holy Spirit, and church community, Theodore lays out a phantasia, a vision, of how an initiated member of the church meets the divine through corporate worship. This ekphrasis entails the argument that if the candidates were to dwell on this vision with a right mind (eunoia), then they would encounter God and presently realize a taste of eternal life in heaven. This exhortation to join the community in cultivating this mental image of orientation towards God forms the basis for a Christianized way of imagining the world and the place of the individual and the church community within it.

Theodore articulates his vision of a Christian paideia through these three broad themes of community, creed, and cult. His catechetical teaching expects involvement with the community, gives considerable attention to the teaching of the creed, and instructs the catechumens regarding how to experience the liturgy. While these are three different themes within Theodore’s teaching, we must also keep in mind the ways in which any attempt to draw a strict distinction between them fails. Part of the immersion into the church community involved teaching and the passing on of the community’s theological priorities. As sponsors attended catechetical classes and worked with candidates to memorize the creed, the communal structures associated with catechesis reinforced the doctrinal teaching. We have seen ways that this sponsor-candidate relationship was used to instill ethical values too through the process of baptismal registration. Likewise, the eucharist took place within the context of the community as clergy and laity came together to play their role in the ritual drama. Theodore pressed a highly theologized understanding of baptism and the eucharist. He insisted that these ritual acts expressed the theology of the community. Particularly in the case of baptism, the rite itself would constitute assent to the theology of the church on the part of the one being baptized. Thus community, creed, and cult were arranged to overlap and reinforce each other as tools of Christian initiation.

The study of these approaches to Theodore’s presentation of his catechesis shows a considerable diversity of ways that Christianity could be made meaningful to people seeking initiation. Rather than seeing some of these ways as “Christian” and some of them as lacking in a distinctly Christian motivation (as in the case of Theodoret’s Bedouin), it is more helpful simply to describe them in all of their diversity and imagine that people entered the church for reasons they found important. In the case of any individual candidate, mastery of theological content could be high or low, as could frequency of church attendance and engagement with the worship of the church. Likewise, the depth of a person’s integration into the functions of the community could vary widely, both in regard to those functions that we would tend to describe as “religious,” such as the liturgy or the pursuit of a clerical office, and those that we would tend to describe as “secular,” such as benefitting from the bishop’s court or ostensible largesse. The relative importance of these various forms of engagement with Christianity would certainly have varied considerably from individual to individual, as he or she strategized about how much involvement was desirable. To some the community may have been of central importance. Others may have found the liturgical life of the church very meaningful. Still others may have found the theological message of divine incarnation for the purpose of addressing the human condition a compelling narrative to integrate into their lives. For many others, a combination of these factors was surely at work. Each of these factors, however, should be seen as plausible tools used during the initiation process to make citizens of the church out of baptismal candidates. Each had an important role to play in cultivating a distinctly Christian imagination and in making Christianity believable to a considerable portion of the late Roman world. The Christian paideia crafted by late antique clergy ultimately presented a well-rounded culture of social ties, ideas, and participatory rituals. This matrix of factors allowed late Roman Christians to feel persuaded and ultimately to accept in large numbers a new religion that made sense to them and engaged them in meaningful ways.


[ back ] 1. WS 6.67 (trans. Yarnold 1994:3.25); Homélies Catéchétiques 14.114v:

ܘܐܚܪܢܐ ܚܠܦ ܐܚܪܢܐ ܐܬܝܠܕܬ ܘܗܘ݂ܝܬ. ܠܐ ܡܟܝܠ ܐܝܬܝܟ ܡܢܬܐ ܕܐܕܡ. ܗܘ̇ ܕܡܫܬܚܠܦܢܐ ܗܘ̣ ܕܒܚܛܗ̈ܐ ܐܫܬܚܩ ܘܕܘ̣ܐ. ܐܠܐ ܕܡܫܝܚܐ ܗܘ̇ ܕܓܡܝܼܪܐܝܬ ܕܠܐ ܚܛܗ̈ܝܢ ܗܘ̤ܐ ܒܝܕ ܩܝܡܬܐ. ܟܕ ܐܦܠܐ ܡܢ ܩܕܝܼܡ ܥܒ̣ܕ ܚܛܝܼܬܐ.

[ back ] 2. S. Schwartz 2005:152.