What is a catechism? My dictionary (The Random House College Dictionary) defines catechism as “an elementary book containing a summary of the principles of a Christian religion, in the form of questions and answers.” When was the first catechism written? The December 15-28, 2013 issue of the National Catholic Register quotes James Hitchcock, a historian at St. Louis University, as stating that the Church didn’t have a catechism until the Council of Trent was concluded in 1545. Pope Pius V issued the Roman Catechism in 1566. The newspaper describes a catechism as “a Church-approved compendium of core teachings in terms accessible to the laity.”
I contend that the first catechism (On First Principles) was finalized around 255 by Origen, director of the famous Catechetical School of Alexandria and later the Catechetical School of Caesarea. While originally written in Greek, On First Principles was later translated into Latin (De principiis) by Rufinus in 397 and a few years later by St. Jerome. The Church had few scholars of Origen’s stature in the first three centuries. He was queried regarding questions of faith by bishops from around the Roman world. Moreover, Origen traveled throughout that world to settle ecclesiastical disputes between Greek speakers and Latin speakers.
It is true that the Council of Trent settled many outstanding disputes, notably those raised by Luther and other protestants, but disputes are old news to the Church in any century. Some new disputable issue always arises; we would not be human otherwise. If a catechism must be “Church approved,” then we need to know what that means. Many people believe that a world-wide gathering of bishops, a Ecumenical Council, is necessary for approval. If that is true then certainly we could not have had a “Church approved” catechism before the year 325 AD when the first Ecumenical Council (Nicaea) was held. Still, I hold that the Church recognized and approved of On First Principles as the first internationally accepted theological treatise or catechism shortly after 255 AD.
My reasoning is that while the Council of Nicaea rejected Arianism, adopted the Nicene Creed and issued twenty canons, it did not reject the theological doctrines identified as such in First Principles. It did reject certain clearly identified “assumptions” of Origen. In effect, the council upheld the tenets and dismissed some of the assumptions. The tenets were based on communications Origen had with bishops from around the Roman world–the Christian world. In effect, he obtained approvals from his communications. Remember, in 255 AD only provincial gatherings of bishops had taken place. Origen compiled and put into easily understood words the philosophical expositions of the Church. Even today, the current Church Catechism has various levels of doctrine required to be believed by members of the Church: some are absolute, others are not. Origen’s catechism differentiated between Church decided doctrine and tenets that the Church had as yet not made a decision on.
Origen has never been regarded by the Church as a saint; however, he is held as a Church Father. It is unfortunate that some of his reasoning on the undecided church teachings were misguided and rightfully rejected by the Church. Yet, what he did was to suggest possibilities and that is all we can do in the development of faith. Origen’s theological masterpiece On First Principles as edited by Rev. Robert Imbelli is currently available. Also, my very interesting novel on the life and works of Origen (The Scholar’s Challenge) is available from most booksellers, including Amazon at an excellent discount.