The Case for Catechisms

Well folks, it’s time for the Catechism of the week! If you’ve been a regular member at our GracePoint Sunday worship services, you will have noticed a few additions to our church liturgy over the past year. Most notably, the interactive segment of catechisms, where we get to hear a central doctrine explained to us and then affirm it together. But have we taken a moment to consider: Why? Are catechisms biblical? Are catechisms effective? Are they relevant for modern Christian life? Are they really worth memorising and teaching to our children? In this article, I will briefly explore the biblical purpose, practice and power that we see behind catechisms, followed by their ability to distill, instill and refill us with gospel truth.

The word Catechism derives from the Greek word ‘katecheo’, which means ‘to teach or instruct orally’. It is a form of teaching biblical truth, typically structured in a question and answer format. Historically, they have been utilised as a method to communicate essential doctrines of the faith to children and new converts. Catechisms are not intended to replace the Bible, but are considered a subordinate standard meant to complement God’s word; similar to creeds and confessions. Well known examples include the Westminster Shorter and Larger Catechisms (used by the Presbyterian Church), the Heidelberg Catechism and the New City Catechism.

The Purpose behind Catechisms

As we seek to examine the origins of ‘catechising’, it would be wise for us to begin by searching the Scriptures. I’d like to bring our attention to what Jesus referred to as the greatest and first commandment. 

Deuteronomy 6:4-7 reads: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children…”. Here we see the Lord God charging his chosen Israel to take heed of his words; to love him wholeheartedly with the very core of their being. Immediately after, they are given the imperative to seal these precious truths into their hearts and impress it upon their children. The goal of this was so that they might live in accordance with God’s law, enjoying him and his blessings upon them. 

Time and time again in the Old Testament, Israel neglected this duty to teach which disastrously resulted in a new generation of Israelites “who neither knew the Lord nor what he had done for Israel” (Judges 2:10). In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul recognises the importance of this responsibility to teach, similarly encouraging the fathers to “not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord”. As we often say here at Gracepoint, God’s purpose is for the gospel to not only go out to the nations but also to the generations. If we are to excel in this, we must hold fast to the crucial task of catechising ourselves and those that come after us.

The Practice behind Catechisms

In the New Testament, we find the recurring pattern of believers coming to an understanding of the gospel through catechesis. Luke opens his Gospel account by addressing his associate Theophilus, explaining to him the reason he wrote was “so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:4). Likewise in Acts, Luke records of Apollos reporting that “He had been instructed in the way of the Lord, and he spoke with great fervor and taught about Jesus accurately, though he knew only the baptism of John” (Acts 18:25). In both these instances, the word ‘katecheo’ is used revealing that catechising wasn’t an uncommon practice but rather an attested technique to familiarize saints with the gospel. And it comes as no surprise that the teaching and instruction that these men received equipped them well to serve the body, particularly for Apollos who later would lead in the Corinthian church. 

Paul himself provides a concise creed in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, stating “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures”. All of this demonstrates to us that the early church propagated the gospel through the teaching and instruction that we’ve come to know as catechism.

The Power behind Catechisms

Having looked at the biblical imperative towards sound instruction and its evidences throughout the early church, it would be remiss to discuss catechisms without acknowledging their tremendous impact during the Protestant Reformation. Following the resurgence of scriptural truth in Europe, Martin Luther was shocked to find that much of this rediscovered knowledge had not yet reached much of the populace. In the opening preface to his Small Catechism, Luther remarks “Mercy! Good God! What manifold misery I beheld! The common people, especially in the villages, have no knowledge whatever of Christian doctrine, and, alas! Many pastors are altogether incapable and incompetent to teach”[1].

This profoundly compelled Luther to issue his Small Catechism to the uneducated masses, focusing on the Lord’s Prayer, Ten Commandments and Apostle’s Creed. Shortly after, John Calvin published his own Catechism for the churches of Geneva, with an emphasis on basic Christian instruction and key doctrines in a question-response format. The Heidelberg Catechism developed such significance that it was adopted as one of the Three Forms of Unity (alongside the Belgic Confession and Canons of Dort) to reflect the official doctrine of the Reformed Churches. We should not underplay the critical role that catechisms have played in disseminating the riches of God’s truth to God’s people in a digestible format.

Application

As we move towards applying what we’ve learnt, I’d like to draw out the primary benefits of catechism. Namely, that catechisms distill God’s truth for us, instill God’s truth in us and refill us with God’s truth.

Distill

Catechisms are an excellent tool in the study of God’s word, owing to their ability to succinctly and clearly define doctrine in a teachable manner. It leans heavily upon Scripture to synthesize theology into bitesize questions and answers. If a young Christian wanted to better understand what sin was, then he could quickly find an answer in the Westminster Shorter Catechism. Question 14 reads “What is sin?” followed by the response “Sin is any failure to measure up to what God requires, or any disobedience to his commands”, complete with Bible references [2]. As we mature in knowledge and understanding of God’s word, we become all the more able to discern what is true and deny that which is false (Ephesians 4:14, Titus 1:9)

Instill

The aim of growing in knowledge through catechisms is never an end unto itself, but purely the means by which we are able to grow in our love for the Lord. It’s often been said that the heart can only love what the mind knows. Hearing the same truths explained and affirmed week in, week out embeds them into our hearts and gradually reshapes our affections through the Spirit. As Paul exhorts in Romans 12:2 “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind”. Our problem is rarely with not enough knowledge, but our propensity to forget what we already know. With so many competing voices in our lives, we need to let catechisms firmly root us in God’s truth.

Refill

Whenever we engage in private or public worship, we remind ourselves of our new identity in Christ Jesus. The Heidelberg Catechism is divided into 52 Lord’s Days, designed to be taught on each Sunday of the year. Question 1 asks “What is your only comfort in life and death?”. The answer being “That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ” [3]. It goes on to refresh the church of the freedom, love and assurance that we receive in Christ. Though we may approach with troubled or weary hearts, catechisms call our attention to the rich mercy generously poured out to us in the gospel as we boldly declare in one voice.

Conclusion

Catechisms are an effective form of teaching and instruction that we see purposed for us by God, modelled for us by the early church and prepared for us by the Reformers. They aid the church in distilling central doctrines, instilling biblical truth and refilling us with the grace of the gospel. If you’re still asking why catechise, my answer to that is why wouldn’t you? This will look different for each of us, whether it’s following a catechism alongside our bible reading or listening more intently each Sunday service. But I hope we can all greatly appreciate this method of catechism God has given for our sanctification.

REFERENCES

[1] – Luther, M (1529) Luther’s Preface to the Small Catechism. Accessed at: https://bookofconcord.org/small-catechism/preface/

[2] – Question 14 (1647) Westminster Shorter Catechism in Modern English. Accessed at: https://matt2819.com/wsc/

[3] – Heidelberg Catechism, Question 1

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