Line of Promise Press

Understanding the Concepts of Catechism and Covenant

“Catechizing - A Forgotten Practice”
John J. Murray

It is surely an indictment of the Church today that in dealing with the subject of catechizing we have to begin by explaining the very meaning of the term. What was looked on as a necessary and beneficial practice by the early church and by the Reformers has now fallen into such disuse among Christian people that very few seem to have any understanding or appreciation of the subject. And yet we believe it is to the discontinuance of this practice that we can trace much of the doctrinal ignorance, confusion and instability so characteristic of modern Christianity.

The Origin of Catechizing

The term catechizing is derived from the Greek word katechein which means “to sound over or through, to instruct.” In the New Testament this word is used seven times and in each instance refers to oral instruction in religious matters. For example, Luke, in addressing his Gospel to “most excellent Theophilus,” expresses his purpose thus: “that thou mightest know the certainty of those things wherein thou hast been instructed” or, as it can be literally translated, “orally instructed.” The teaching of our Lord and of the Apostles was of necessity oral and partly interlocutory, and in the early church the converted Jews and heathen who received instruction in the rudiments of Christianity with a view to being admitted to membership were known as “catechumens.” Thus what is meant by catechizing is instruction in the Christian faith by means of question and answer.

Catechizing, or interlocutory teaching, was regarded as indispensable in the early Church. It is true that the early catechisms were not constructed on the method of question and answer but usually consisted of manuals of doctrine or brief creeds. These, however, were used as the basis for catechizing. Recent researches have suggested that there is common catechetical material in several New Testament epistles. There is no mention in the New Testament of catechist as a separate office or order, but it would seem that as the catechumenate developed this became full-time work.

Development and History

In the writings of the second century we find mention of catechumens and catechists and by the fourth and fifth centuries we see that catechetics began to develop its scientific theory. One of its chief exponents was Augustine and in his Catechizing of the Uninstructed he details the several steps in the process of wise catechizing. It is clear from the writings of the early Fathers that they attached great importance to the interlocutory method of instruction. They were not unmindful of the great commission given by the Lord to disciple all nations, teaching them all things that He had commanded.

As the Church grew in worldly prominence and lost in spiritual life changes came in the method of its training work. As its ritual services were expanded so its teaching exercises were diminished. As the ecclesiastical spirit overcame the evangelical, catechetical instruction declined. It stands out clearly in the history of the dark Middle Ages that where this kind of instruction was adhered to most closely, Christian life remained purest. We have only to think of the Waldenses, the Albigenses, the Hussites, and the Lollards to prove this. It is to the last mentioned that can be traced the earliest of catechisms (as we know them today).

With the dawn of the glorious Reformation catechetical instruction came back into its own in the Christian Church bringing with it a further development in the science of catechetics and especially constructing the catechism as we know it today. It is not surprising that Martin Luther to whom, humanly speaking, the Reformation owes its very beginning should be regarded the father of modern catechetics. His claim to this honor is substantiated not only by the catechism which he himself prepared but also by the writings in which he explained catechetics and gave an impulse to their pursuit. Calvin, who so clearly systematized the Reformation teaching, took similar view of the duty of the Church to instruct the young and the ignorant by interlocutory methods, and he published a catechism shortly after Luther’s appeared.

In the latter half of the sixteenth and the first half of the seventeenth centuries catechizing occupied a most important place in the Reformed Church and perhaps nowhere more than in Scotland and England. “It may be said, without exaggeration, of the catechisms framed on the system of the doctrinal Puritans, and published in England between the years 1600 and 1645, that their name is legion.” Writing in 1656, Richard Baxter could say “How many scores, if not hundreds, of catechisms are written in England.” But the Reformers and Puritans did not stop at the compilation of catechisms, they enforced the practice of catechizing. It is obvious that they were thoroughly in earnest about this matter, as can be seen by enactments of the Church at that time.

In England a canon of 1603 (which has never been repealed) required that “every parson, vicar, or curate upon every Sunday or holy day before evening prayer, shall, for half an hour and more, examine and instruct the youth and ignorant persons of his parish in the Ten Commandments, the Articles of the Belief, and in the Lord’s Prayer; and shall diligently hear, instruct and teach them the Catechism set forth in the Book of Common Prayer.” The General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, in the first year of its existence, provided that while there should be two public services on every Lord’s Day, the first service should consist of worship and preaching, and the second should be given to worship and the catechizing of the young and ignorant. In 1639 this was carried a step further by an act declaring that “every minister, beside his pains on the Lord’s Day have weekly catechizing of some part of the parish.” To ensure that the weekly catechizing be carried out the Assembly later ordained every presbytery “to take trial of all ministers within their bounds, whether they be careful to keep weekly diets of catechizing; and if they shall find any of their number negligent therein, that they be admonished for the first fault, and if, after such admonition, they do not amend, the presbytery for the same fault shall rebuke them sharply; and if after such rebuke they do not yet amend, they shall be suspended.”

The history of catechizing from the beginning of the eighteenth century to the present time is mainly a story of decline. It is true that in Scotland, and especially in the Highlands, catechizing continued to occupy a vital place in the instruction of young and old, but, as had already happened in England, it was becoming more and more a rote acquaintance with the catechism. Isaac Watts had taken up the question with great enthusiasm and exposed the folly of blind memorizing. He wrote a short work on Catechisms for Children and compiled two catechisms for younger children as well as explanatory notes to the Shorter Catechism. Among the leaders of the Evangelical Awakening, John Wesley more than any seemed to value the use of catechetical method of instruction. It was in Wesley’s later days that the modern Sunday school movement began, and although the basic principles continued, yet in the second half of the nineteenth century the effects of the new antipathy to dogmas, creeds and catechisms virtually put catechizing out of the Church. Today we are reaping the results of that false approach to the Christian life. Ignorance and unbelief are rampant in our land, the Church is without an authoritative message, and often even evangelical Christians are weak and unstable. Is there not cause to ask whether the time has not come to revive the art and practice of catechizing?

The Need for Catechizing

Catechizing presupposes need. The foundation of all religion, Isaac Watts reminds us, is laid in knowledge. Scripture attaches great importance to knowledge and gives a foremost place to the mind and understanding. It is through the mind that truth enters the man, influencing the affections and directing the will. True it is that knowledge may remain in the mind and, without the influences of the quickening, life-giving Spirit, be inoperative in the life, yet the fact remains that knowledge—knowledge of truth—is the very basis of the Christian life. Hence the need for instruction in the doctrines of Christianity both for the believer and the unbeliever. Ignorance and error are effects of the Fall and it is upon them that Satan’s kingdom is built. Knowledge and truth are the grand weapons by which it is overthrown and Christ’s kingdom established in the individual and in the world.

Ignorance of the truth and love of darkness is the basic justification for the practice of catechizing. How often this is found true by sad experience. It was a tour revealing to him the gross ignorance of his fellow countrymen that constrained Martin Luther to take up the work of catechizing in earnest. “I have been impelled to cast this catechism or Christian doctrine into this simple form by the lamentable deficiency in the means of instruction which I witnessed lately in my visitation. God help us! what deplorable things I have seen! The common people wholly without any knowledge of doctrine.” John Owen, the great Puritan theologian, was moved by a similar need to compile two catechisms and wrote: “Amongst my endeavors after the ordinance of public preaching the Word, there is not, I conceive, any more needful (as all will grant that know the estate of this place, how taught of late days, how full of grossly ignorant persons) than catechizing.” Even more convincing is the testimony of Richard Baxter, one of the most faithful and zealous pastors whom England has seen. “For my part,” he writes in his Reformed Pastor, “I study to speak as plainly and movingly as I can and yet I frequently meet with those that have been my hearers eight or ten years, who know not whether Christ be God or man, and wonder when I tell them the history of His birth, and life and death, as if they had never heard it before. And of those who know the history of the gospel, how few are those who know the nature of that faith, repentance and holiness which it requireth, or, at least, who know their own hearts.”

Catechizing and Preaching

It will be readily objected that since God has ordained to save men by “the foolishness of preaching,” there is no special call to catechizing. But is it not clear that the Apostles went further than merely preaching the Word? We read that not only in the temple but in every house they ceased not to teach and to preach Jesus Christ. Paul’s method at Ephesus (Acts 19) was to begin by questioning the disciples, and in his farewell to that church (Acts 20) he could say, “by the space of three years I ceased not to warn every one night and day with tears.” Perhaps Henry More overstates the position in the following words, but he brings home the fact that establishing men in the Gospel implies more than is generally remembered: “Concerning preaching that which is most remarkable is this, that whereas there are three chief kinds thereof, namely, catechizing, expounding a chapter and preaching usually so called—whereof the first is the best . . . the last is the very idol of some men, and the others rejected as things of little worth. But assuredly they (expounding of a chapter and catechizing) are of most virtue for the effectual planting the gospel in the minds of men; and of the two catechizing is the better because it enforceth the catechized to take notice what is taught him.” This brings into focus the great advantage of catechizing over preaching. “At sermons and prayers men may sleep or wander, but when one is asked a question, he must disclose what he knows.”

A minister may preach and teach publicly for years and, after all his labor, be surprised how little effect this has had on his people. Some of the greatest preachers of all time have learned their lesson in this matter. “I have found by experience,” Richard Baxter could say, “that some ignorant persons, who have been so long unprofitable hearers, have got more knowledge and remorse of conscience in half an hour’s close discourse, than they did from ten years’ public preaching. John Owen made a similar discovery: “More knowledge is ordinarily diffused, especially among the young and ignorant, by one hour’s catechetical exercise, than by many hours’ continual discourse.” It was the regret of the godly Bishop Hall toward the close of his life that he had not bestowed more hours in the exercise of catechizing, “in regard whereof I would quarrel with my very sermons and wish that a great part of them had been exchanged for this . . . . Those other divine discourses enrich the brain and the tongue; this settles the heart; those others are but the descents to this plain song.”

The Difficulties of Catechizing

Considering the great advantage derived from catechizing it is surely hard to understand why ministers and teachers are so reluctant to take up this practice. Without doubt the greatest cause for the neglect is the difficulties attending the proper performance of the work. It was the testimony of Samuel Rutherford, a keen advocate of the practice, that “there is as much art in catechizing as in anything in the world. It may be doubted whether every minister do understand the most dexterous way of doing it.” Richard Baxter insisted that catechizing is a more difficult as well as a more important work than sermonizing: “I must say that I think it easier matter by far to compose and preach a good sermon, than to deal rightly with an ignorant man for his instruction in the necessary principles of religion.” He cites Archbishop Usher’s opinion to the same effect, “Great scholars should consider that the laying of the foundation skillfully, as it is the matter of the greatest importance in the whole building, so it is the very masterpiece of the wisest builder . . . . And let the most learned of us all try it whenever we please, we shall find that to lay this groundwork rightly (that is, to apply ourselves to the capacity of the common auditory, and to make an ignorant man to understand these mysteries in some good measure) will put us to the trial of our skill, and trouble us a great deal more than if we were to discuss a controversy or handle a point of learning in the schools . . . . The neglecting of this is the frustrating of the whole work of the ministry.”

Difference Between Catechizing and the Use of a Catechism

The reason why many people regard catechizing as a slight and trifling exercise is that they confuse the practice with the mere rote-work of asking and answering of question in a catechism. But there is a vast difference between catechizing and the mere rote acquaintance with a catechism. It is almost certain that the early Church did not have catechisms constructed on the method of question and answer. Their great concern was catechizing. The early Fathers, the Reformers, and the Puritans were at one in maintaining that true catechizing is a very different matter from learning the mere letter of the catechism.

If we turn back to Augustine, one of the earliest exponents of the science of catechetics, we find him in his Catechizing of the Uninstructed detailing the several steps in the process of wise catechizing. He insists that each pupil be treated according to his individual needs and that to this end the catechist should examine him by preliminary questioning as to his motives and as to his attainments with a view to making the pupil’s error or lack the starting point of his particular instruction. Similarly, all the way along the pupil must be watched and questioned, and carefully dealt with individually so that he may be cause to know rather than merely be caused to hear the truth which is the substance of the catechetical instruction. This certainly puts catechizing on a different level from the mere use of a catechism.

Although Luther is regarded as the father of modern catechetics his teaching on the subject is an enforcement of what Augustine said many centuries before. In his Preface to his Small Catechism he enjoined it upon teachers to see to it that their scholars not only knew what was said in the catechism answers, but knew what was meant by them—“to take these forms before them, and explain them word by word.” It is clear that blind memorizing of a catechism was in the eyes of the Reformers and Puritans an evil to be guarded against. The fear of the divines who compiled the Westminster Catechisms was, as one of them expressed it, that “people will come to learn things by rote and can answer as a parrot, but not understand the thing.” What they had in mind was to give help in true catechizing, and this is confirmed by the words of George Gillespie when he said: “It never entered into the thoughts of any to tie (men) to the words and syllables in that catechism.” Richard Baxter in giving illustrations of questioning as a test of the learner’s knowledge says: “So contrive your question that they may perceive what you mean, and that it is not a nice definition, but a necessary solution, that you expect.”

From the history of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and from the writings of the Reformers and Puritans, therefore, we are able to see that it was in order to promote catechizing, or interlocutory teaching, that catechisms, presenting truth in the form of question and answer, were prepared in such fulness and variety at that time. The catechism was primarily and fundamentally a help to the practice of catechizing. But what was intended to be, and actually was at first, a help, in later centuries assumed the place of catechizing. The use of catechism degenerated into a practice of asking rote questions with the purpose of securing memorized rote answers. Catechism-using stood in the way of catechetical teaching; the stepping-stone became (unintentionally, no doubt) a stumblingblock. The change came gradually and there were some like Isaac Watts who were alive to the dangers.

Watts was radical in his hostility to unintelligent memorizing. He maintained that words written on the memory without ideas or sense in the mind will never incline a child to his duty, nor save his soul. “The young creature will neither be the wiser nor the better for being able to repeat accurate definitions and theorems in divinity without knowing what they mean.” In the Preface to his Young Child’s Catechism he says that “parents and teachers should use their utmost skill in leading the child into the meaning of every question, when they ask it, and of every answer when the child repeats, that the child may not hear and learn mere words and syllables instead of the great things of God and religion.”

Catechizing and Catechisms Not for Children Only

It is generally thought (and in reading Isaac Watts one would get this impression) that catechizing and catechisms are only for children. This was not the opinion of the early Church nor of the Reformers. Martin Luther, who entreated all Christians to study their catechism daily, says in his characteristic manner: “As for myself, let me say that I am a doctor and a preacher. I am as learned and experienced as those who are so presumptuous and confident (i.e. to despise the Catechism). Yet I do as a child who is learning the Catechism . . . . I daily read and study the Catechism, and still I am not able to master it as thoroughly as I wish, I must remain a child and a pupil of the Catechism, and this I do very willingly.” “It is a great error,” writes Bishop Ken, “to think that the Catechism was meant for children only: for all Christians are equally concerned in these saving truths which are there taught; and the doctrine delivered in the Catechism is as proper for the study and as necessary for the salvation of a great doctor as of a weak Christian or a young child.” Certainly it was the practice in Scotland, and more especially in the Highlands, right up to the end of the last century for heads of families, and where there was one, the parish catechist, to catechize all members of the household and even visitors.

The Case for Catechisms

Although we deplore the mere mechanical acquaintance with a catechism as a substitute for catechizing we equally take issue with those who say that the preparation of catechisms is unnecessary and unwise. This opinion has been very prevalent within the last 100 years. It owed its success to the “Higher Criticism” movement and the consequent reaction against dogma. Its advocates maintained that theology had been the prison-house of religion, creeds were but shackles and fetters and the same applied to catechisms. We have no intention here of going into a defense of doctrine (thank God, there are encouraging signs in our day that the Church is returning to sanity on this matter); all we would seek to do is to justify the compilation of catechisms.

Let us turn back once again to the Reformation times and there we see a compelling force behind the framing of catechisms. It was this: the invention of printing made the Bible accessible to the people as it never had been before. The Reformers therefore felt themselves bound to show that the Bible, rightly interpreted, was not self-contradictory or misleading to the unlearned (as Rome maintained), but yielded a clear and definite way of salvation. When placing the Bible in the hands of the layman, therefore, they sought to place side by side with it what they believed to be its only true explanation in the form of a catechism. However, the Bible itself was always the court of appeal. Scripture proofs were a necessary part of the catechism. The result was that the Protestant layman became as confident of his absolute orthodoxy as the Church of Rome was of hers. And surely this is as necessary in our day. It may sound very spiritual for some to say we have the Bible and what more do we want, but it does not stand close examination. None who love Scripture can justifiably ignore a means of instruction which has honored Scripture and enforced Scripture throughout the centuries of the Church’s history. Those who have prized Scripture most have usually been those who have valued catechisms, and those who have ignored catechisms have generally been those who have fallen into unscriptural teaching. A misguided reverence for the Bible has prevented some from forming a systematic outline of the main doctrines of the Word, and consequently when confronted with a systematic challenge to their faith, which also alleges Scripture for its authority, they are ill equipped to defend their position. As we are so painfully discovering today, such people are an easy prey of Romanism and false cults.

Another force which necessitated the compilation of catechisms was the need of those of weaker understanding. “Without such helps as these (catechisms), writes Isaac Watts, “they might turn over the leaves of their Bible a long time, before they could collect for themselves any tolerable scheme of their duty to God or their fellow-creatures.” Matthew Henry in an admirable defense of the use of Catechisms and Confessions (in subordination and subserviency to the Scripture) outlines the three valuable ends attained by framing such systems out of the Word of God. They are worthy of our careful consideration:

  1. Hereby the main principles of Christianity, which lie scattered in the Scripture, are collected and brought together; and by this means they are set in much easier view before the minds of men.
  2. Hereby the truths of God, the several articles of Christian doctrine and duty are methodized and put in order.
  3. Hereby the truths of God are brought down the capacity of those who are as yet but weak in understanding.

Indeed the case for the use of catechisms is so plain that we agree with Baxter when he says: “Those that will deride all catechisms and professions, as unprofitable forms, had better deride themselves for talking and using the form of their own words to make known their mind to others.”

The Benefits of Catechizing

In dealing with the whole matter of catechizing we have already touched on some of the benefits attending this practice, but as the advantages are so great and are more liable than anything else to stir us to this work it is necessary that we be well acquainted with them. It is with this aspect of the subject that Richard Baxter deals at length in his Reformed Pastor. “When I look before me,” he writes, “and consider what, through the blessing of God, this work well-managed is likely to produce, it makes my heart to leap for joy.” He goes on to outline twenty particular benefits, “that when you see the excellency of it, you may be the more set upon it, and the more loath by any negligence or failing to destroy or frustrate it.”

We may briefly summarize the benefits under three headings—as applying to ministers themselves, their flocks and the Church as a whole. Although it is by no means the chief end of catechizing there are, as Baxter maintains, advantages and blessings to the pastors who faithfully pursue this duty. It will keep them from being too idle or taken up with unprofitable business; it will do much to exercise and increase their own graces; it will afford much peace of conscience and comfort when they review their use of time and opportunities; and it will make them pray and preach better, since they will be acquainted with the spiritual state of each one in their flock. In other words, the attendance upon this work will make them better ministers of Christ.

The primary aid and end of catechizing, however, is the building up and establishing of Christians and the conversion of sinners. We have already mentioned the need for believers to be well settled in the fundamentals of the faith. This will be beneficial not only to their comfort and growth in grace but to their being able to stand in the day of testing, whether it be through false teaching, persecution for Christ’s sake or dark providences. It was catechizing that made Christians in Scotland of such depth and character. The Scottish people were, by a proper use of the catechism, rooted and grounded in Christian doctrine. John MacLeod in his Scottish Theology describes how the powerful preaching of the seventeenth century produced a people who were very theologically minded, and goes on to remark that “this was none the less the case as the outcome of the catechetical method of instruction that was current.”

Catechizing has also been the means of converting sinners. “If anything in the world is likely to do them good,” says Baxter, “it is this . . . . I seldom deal with men purposely on this great business, in private, serious conference, but they go away with some seeming convictions, and promise of new obedience, if not some deeper remorse, and sense of their condition.” Even the Catechism committed to memory without a proper understanding of the truth contained in it has been used to the saving of souls. Those who, in their immature years of childhood, had their minds stored with what at that time they learned only by rote, in after years reaped the benefit when they asked themselves the meaning of those words with the letter of which they had been long familiar.

The third general head under which we may class the benefits of catechizing is the furtherance of Church reformation. We saw already that when catechizing was neglected the Church soon became dark and overspread with ignorance. The Reformation saw a revival of this practice, and it was one of the chief means by which Protestant Christianity made its conquests. “The Papists acknowledge,” said Lancelot Andrewes, “that all the advantage which the Protestants have gotten of them, hath come by this exercise.” Indeed the reaction of the Church of Rome to this is most revealing and should certainly confirm our faith in the practice. The Council of Trent decreed that since “the heretics have chiefly made use of catechisms to corrupt the minds of Christians” this must be met with opposition, and so they put forward a new catechism.

Looking back over the history of the post-Reformation Church we can see that it was where the catechetical system of instruction as adhered to that the best fruits of the Reformation were preserved and transmitted. Richard Baxter was ready to acknowledge that “the chief part of church reformation that is behind (accomplished), as to means, consisteth in it (catechizing).” “O, brethren,” he cries in another place, “what a blow may we give the kingdom of darkness by the faithful and skilful managing of this work.” What a blow actually was given in the days when this Scriptural practice held its place in the Church! And as the true Church of Christ goes forth to battle in our day, as she seeks to storm the strongholds of sin and error, we pray that she may once again be constrained to take up this mighty weapon.

Reprinted with permission from: Issue 27 of the Banner of Truth, published monthly by the Banner of Truth Trust, P. O. Box 621, Carlisle, PA 17013

“Christian Nurture”
Eifion Evans

Today more than ever attention focuses on young people. Newspaper headlines of their activities feature everything from revolution to drugs, student sit-ins to the generation gap, hooliganism to hi-jacking. Not that the news media are unfair or disproportionate: in a year or two the average age in America will be twenty-four. Most of these young people will be educationally superior to their parents, and an alarming number will be morally weakened by drugs or drink or both. In spiritual matters the vast majority will be isolated and confused on account of a culpable neglect by church and home with regard to their upbringing. These are facts which the Christian Church has chosen to ignore for some considerable time, and the implications are disastrous.

What, then, constitutes a ‘Christian upbringing?’ Attendance at Sunday worship, Sunday School, evangelistic campaigns, and youth rallies are part of contemporary evangelical culture. But it is open to question whether any of these, or even all of them together, constitute a biblically-grounded Christian upbringing. Their appeal is far too confined and their emphasis, all too often, is emotional and volitional rather than educational. Basically, they assume the presence of a Christian nurture. Consequently, the effect on evangelism is frustratingly demoralizing; on the young it is one of catastrophic disillusionment. Without a sound Christian nurture, the experience of conversion can be presented as degradingly inadequate, a kind of psychological relief from feelings of insecurity, dissatisfaction, or, for that matter, any ‘complex’ which happens to fashionable among young people at the time.

The task of Christian nurture, then, is to provide children and young people with biblical thought-forms, an intellectual framework which is Scripturally informed, so that the message will be neither meaningless nor misunderstood by its being presented on a different cultural wavelength. That they recognize the difference does not necessarily follow, and this fact accentuates the problem of communicate the Gospel to the teenage generation of today.

It may be hard to admit that ‘the problem of communication’ is not just the fantastic creation of liberal theologians. The fantasy arises in the synthetic solutions which non-biblical thinking proposes, such as modifying the message and relying on human ingenuity. From a consistently Biblical standpoint, the evangelical is bound to reject such superstitions. That is the negative contribution he makes, and it is a necessary one, although not always recognized or practiced today. Positively, the answer lies in presenting the same message to this generation in terms it can understand, and doing so with unqualified dependence on the power of the Holy Spirit. As a direct contribution to bridging that gap between the message of the Gospel and this word-conscious generation, the Bible advocates fostering of a Christian nurture.

Basic to this important aspect of the Christian faith is the principle that ‘Christianity is taught and not caught.’ The Christian message comes to man through his mind, often buttressed by acts of kindness or a show of genuine friendship on the part of Christian contacts, but no less through the mind because of them. In their commendation of the Westminster Confession of Faith and its Catechisms ‘To the Christian reader, especially heads of families,’ the seventeenth-century Puritan divines put the matter this way:

The two great pillars upon which the kingdom of Satan is erected, and by which it is upheld, are ignorance and error; the first step of our manumission [liberation] from this spiritual thraldom consists in having our eyes opened, and being turned from darkness to light, Acts 26:18. The understanding is the guide and pilot of the whole man, that faculty which sits at the stern of the soul: but as the most expert guide may mistake in the dark, so may the understanding, when it wants the light of knowledge: without knowledge the mind cannot be good, Proverbs 19:2; nor the life good, nor the eternal condition safe, Ephesians 4:18.

In this ‘battle for the mind’ truth does not find virgin soil, a sort of no-man’s-land through which it can advance unopposed. Original sin involves men in delusion as well as darkness. In this holy war for man-soul there is no neutrality. This makes a Christian nurture doubly necessary, as the same divines insist:

Corrupt and unsavory principles have great advantage upon us, above those that are spiritual and sound; the former being suitable to corrupt nature, the latter contrary; the former springing up of themselves, the latter brought forth not without a painful industry. The ground needs no other midwifery in bringing forth weeds than only the neglect of the husbandman’s hand to pluck them up; the air needs no other cause of darkness than the absence of the sun; nor water of coldness than its distance from the fire; because these are the genuine products of nature.

What another Puritan, Richard Baxter, summed up neatly in the phrase, ‘Ignorance is your disease, knowledge must be your cure,’ his Westminster colleagues expound more fully:

A most sovereign antidote against all kind of errors, is to be grounded and settled in the faith: persons unfixed in the true religion, are very receptive of a false; and they who are nothing in spiritual knowledge, are easily made anything. Clouds without water are driven to and fro with every wind, and ships without ballast liable to the violence of every tempest. But yet the knowledge we especially commend, is not a brain-knowledge, a mere speculation; this may be in the worst of men; but an inward, a savory, an heart knowledge, such as was in that martyr, who, though she could not dispute for Christ, could die for Him.

Here was the excellence of Christian nurture: under the blessing of God it led to saving knowledge of Christ. The work is initiated in the mind; it carries the day over the will, and brings delight to the affections. The quotation high-lights what has come to be called ‘Pre-evangelism’, which is merely a modern term for the more traditional phrase ‘Christian nurture’. Be that as it may, the neglect of it has had seriously detrimental effects on twentieth-century Christianity.

Responsibility for Christian nurture falls upon two important agencies: the family and the church. It is not difficult to trace the Biblical basis for this essential ministry, indeed Scripture abounds with references to the vital task of Christian nurture, an indication of the solemnity and magnitude with which it was regarded in Biblical times. Abraham’s blessing was assured because God had every confidence ‘that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the Lord, to do justice and judgment; that the Lord may bring upon Abraham that which he hath spoken of him’ [Gen 18:19]. By way of contrast Eli was reprehensible for the neglect of this ordinance: ‘I have told him that I will judge his house for ever for the iniquity which he knoweth; because his sons made themselves vile, and he restrained them not.’ [1 Sam 3:13].

Religious nurture was recognized practice in the Jewish Church, The passover was to be commemorated not only by festival, but also by instruction, Exodus 12:26-27, ‘when your children shall say unto you, what mean ye by this service? . . . . ye shall say, It is the sacrifice of the Lord’s passover.’ The grand body of the law, as well as in introduction, was to be rehearsed to the children, Deuteronomy 4:9, ‘keep thy soul diligently, lest thou forget the things which thine eyes have seen, and lest they depart from thy heart all the days of thy life: but teach them thy sons.’ Especially solemn was the recital [twice daily by pious Jews] of the ‘Shema’, Deuteronomy 6:4, solemnly concluding with the injunction, ‘These words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart: and thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children.’ The practice found expression in the conviction of Proverbs 22:6, ‘Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it.’

Coming to New Testament times, two notable instances of religious upbringing are Paul, Acts 22:3, ‘I am verily a man which am a Jew . . . . nurtured according to the perfect manner of the law of the fathers’, and Timothy, who ‘from a child’ had known the holy Scriptures [2 Tim 3:15] which had brought him to the same ‘unfeigned faith . . . . which dwelt first in thy grandmother Lois, and thy mother Eunice’ [2 Tim 1:5].

In the New Testament the classical text on the subject is Ephesians 6:4, where the word ‘nurture’ is given by the translators for a Greek word meaning education and training by discipline, ‘Ye fathers, provoke nor your children to wrath, but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.’ Linked with it is a word which denotes training by word of encouragement or reproof, as the case may be. The elements of education and discipline are prominent, as can be seen from the use of the former word in Hebrews 12:5, ‘My son, despise not the chastening of the Lord.’ Both home and church are to be schools of Christ: where He exercises discipline by word [instruction] and act [chastisement]. For the purpose of ‘nurture in righteousness’, the Holy Scriptures are ‘God-breathed and well-suited’ [2 Tim 3:16].

Inevitably, another word comes to mind in thinking of Christian nurture: catechizing. Its first occurrence in the New Testament is at Luke 1:4, where the careful historian gives as the purpose of writing, ‘that thou mightest know the certainty of those things, wherein thou hast been catechized.’ Apollos, similarly, was ‘catechized in the way of the Lord’ [Acts 18:25]. Let one more text suffice, a double occurrence of the same word, Galatians 6:6, ‘Let him that is catechized in the word share all good things with him who catechizes.’ Matthew Henry’s comment on Ephesians 6:4 summarizes the Biblical practice of Christian nurture: ‘instruct them to fear sinning; and inform them of, and excite them to, the whole of their duty toward God.’

Reformed churches have constantly emphasized the importance of family religion as a necessary counterpart to public worship. The multiplication of catechisms at the time of the Reformation, as a parallel development to that of Confessional statements, bears ample witness of this. Speaking generally of family religion, Baxter portrays the Puritan ideal in this way:

Keep up the government of God in your families: holy families must be the chief preservers of the interest of religion in the world. Let not the world turn God’s service into a customary, lifeless form. Read the Scripture and edifying books to them; talk with them seriously about the state of their souls and everlasting life; watch over them diligently; be angry against sin, and meek in your own cause; be examples of wisdom, holiness, and patience; and see that the Lord’s day be spent in holy preparation for eternity.

Applying himself to the matter of catechizing, Baxter commended it with the greatest vigor. He wrote several catechetical books, and his most famous work, The Reformed Pastor, is a lasting monument to his zeal for ministerial catechizing. Certainly in his own parish at Kidderminster this ‘familiar personal instruction’ bore rich harvest in a time of religious revival under his ministry. He justified the practice in this way:

Q. How must parents teach their households?
A. Very familiarly and plainly, according to their capacities, beginning with the plain and necessary things; and this is it which we call catechizing, which is nothing but the choosing out of the few plain, necessary matters from all the rest, and in due method, or order, teaching them to the ignorant.

Q. What need we catechisms, while we have the Bible?
A. Because the Bible contains all the whole body of religious truths, which the ripest Christians should know, but are not all of equal necessity to salvation with the greatest points. And it cannot be expected that ignorant persons can cull out these most necessary points from the rest without help.

For the purpose of imparting Christian nurture—the ‘Pre-evangelism’ of today—the Puritans reckoned that catechizing was secondary to nothing else.

A century before the flowering of the Puritan catechisms saw the appearance of John Calvin’s own production along these lines. For the great Protestant Reformer the necessity for it arose from a consideration of the welfare of the Church, as he explained to the English Protector, Somerset, in 1548:

The church of God shall never be conserved without catechism, for it is as the seed to be kept, that the good grain perish not, but that it may increase from age to age. Wherefore if you desire to build a work of continuance to endure long, and which should not shortly fall into decay, cause that the children in their young age be instructed in a good catechism.

What has come to be known as ‘Calvin’s Institutes’ was intended by Calvin as a summary of the Christian Religion and first appeared in 1536. He issued his first catechism as a synopsis of its teaching, in French the following year, and in Latin in 1538. Only in 1545 on his return to Geneva after a period of exile, did he produce Catechism of the Church of Geneva, an enlarged version of the earlier work in the classical form of question and answer.

It is evident that he regarded a catechism as more than a simple manual of instruction for children, although that might be its primary purpose. In the preface to the 1538 edition he called it ‘an authentic public testimony of our doctrine.’ Clearly, Calvin looked upon it as a rallying-point for the unity of the Reformed churches. His ‘Dedication’ of the later edition ‘to the faithful ministers of Christ . . . who preach the pure doctrine of the Gospel’ makes this even more explicit: ‘that we are all directed to one Christ, in whose truth being united together, we may grow up into one body and one spirit, and with the same mouth also proclaim whatever belongs to the sum of faith.’

More important, perhaps, was the fact that he saw in catechizing a necessary complement to preaching. He had already made this clear in the 1538 preface: ‘Whatever others may think, we certainly do not regard our office as bound in so narrow limits that when the sermon is delivered we may rest as if our task were done. They whose blood will be required of us, if lost through our slothfulness, are to be cared for much more closely and vigilantly.’ Along with preaching and discipline, Calvin was convinced that catechizing occupied a strategic position in the reformation and life of the church. Consequently, as a condition of his resuming the work of reform at Geneva he insisted that the authorities agreed to its acceptance: ‘On my return from Strasbourg I made the Catechism in haste, for I would never have accepted the ministry unless they had sworn to these two points; namely, to uphold the Catechism and the discipline.’

Evidently for the churches of the Reformation a full Gospel ministry was only possible when sustained by discipline and catechizing, the most essential features of a Christian nurture.

As summaries of the faith Reformed catechisms in the main have followed Calvin’s pattern, expounding the Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, the Word and Sacraments. The Heidelberg Catechism, which dates from 1563 and received wide acclaim and acceptance, was later conveniently arranged into 52 sections, one for each Lord’s Day. The first of these introduces the rest under the heading of things necessary to be known to enjoy comfort, to live and die happily: ‘The first, how great my sins and miseries are; the second, how I may be delivered from all my sins and miseries; the third, how I shall express my gratitude to God for such deliverance.’

Its definition of faith is worth repeating: ‘True faith is not only a certain knowledge whereby I hold for truth all that God has revealed to us in His Word, but also an assured confidence, which the Holy Ghost works by the Gospel, in my heart; that not only to others, but to me also, remission of sin, everlasting righteousness and salvation are freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits.’

The section on ‘conversion’ is a salutary corrective to the superficial ‘only-believism’ and decisionism of much contemporary evangelistic activity.

Q . In how many parts doth the true conversion of man consist?
A. In two parts; in the mortification of the old, and in the quickening of the new man.

The two parts are then defined. Mortification ‘is a sincere sorrow of heart; that we have provoked God by our sins; and more and more to hate and flee from them.’ Quickening ‘is a sincere joy of heart in God, through Christ, and with love and delight to live according to the will of God, in all good works.’ The section finishes by filling out the meaning of ‘good works’: ‘Only those which proceed from a true faith, are performed according to the law of God, and to His glory; and not such as are founded on our imaginations, or the institutions of men.’

Subsequent eras in Church history down to the last century, have reaffirmed their conviction of the necessity and validity of catechetical instruction. Spurgeon’s Catechism, for instance, appeared with the following introduction: ‘I am persuaded that the use of a good Catechism in all our families will be a great safeguard against the increasing errors of the times, and therefore I have compiled this little manual from the Westminster Assembly’s and Baptist Catechisms, for the use of my own church and congregation.’ By and large today such manuals have fallen into disuse, if not into disrepute. To the extent that Christian churches, ministers, and parents have been party to this grave erosion of the mainstay of a truly Christian nurture they have thereby abrogated what is clearly a Biblical responsibility.

Several factors are responsible for this retrograde trend. Defection from a Confessional position in the churches has belittled their doctrinal standards, catechisms included. The subjectivism of existentialist principles has eroded faith in propositional truth, and this in turn has further undermined confidence in the informative statements of catechisms. A drive for organizational unity between the denominations has led to a disparagement of doctrinal statements as ecumenically divisive and unconducive to effective witness.

Nor has the catechetical method itself been exempt from the most cynical criticism. Modern educational theory frowns on what it regards as a robot-like repetition of an unenlightened age. But the theory seems to have lost more than a little credibility in the face of the success enjoyed by Mao Tse-Tung’s ideology, summarized in a little red book and slavishly repeated by convinced Marxists the world over.

Perhaps it merits a moment’s reflection that revolutionaries—Christian or Marxist—have never turned the world upside down apart from the impact of their revolutionary ideas on men’s minds. It seems that the Christian Church has yet to realize the full significance of Paul’s claim, made from prison, ‘the Word of God is not jailed’ [2 Tim 2:9]. Freely and effectively inculcated in the minds of children and young people, it fills out the meaning of subsequent Christian experience, and propagates its own revolution in their lives.

Is a Christian nurture, then, feasible today? Is it necessary? In the last resort, is it Biblical? The answer must lie in the affirmative. Biblical teaching on the nature of truth, of man, of the work of the Holy Spirit in conversion, on the nature of the Church, and on the necessity for discipline in the believing community as a private and public worshipping family—all these considerations emphasize the cruciality of a Christian nurture, a Christian ‘Pre-evangelism’. ‘Catechizing’, said another Puritan, Zachary Crofton, ‘must be used in the Church of God, because it is as necessary as ABC to a child first going to school; as a foundation to building, without which it cannot stand.’

For the advancement of reformation and revival, of fellowship and evangelism, of true Church unity and profitable, lively preaching, a Christian nurture is imperative. Christ called on Peter to feed the lambs as well as the sheep, John 21:15-17. Too many generations of Christians have been negligent in their provision for the lambs. A blind eye has been turned to family religion, and parents have chosen to leave the evangelism of their children to others.

Already much precious time has been lost, many opportunities missed, large numbers of young people deprived of this signal ‘means of grace’. Christian nurture has become virtually the Cinderella of evangelical churches and homes. An urgent return to this Biblical pattern of evangelistic strategy is of paramount importance.

Reprinted from: The Banner of Truth, 1970, P.O. Box 621, Carlisle, PA 17013

“The Meaning of Catechism”
Donald Van Dyken

Catechizing is a particular method of instruction historically used by the Christian church. To germinate the idea we must imagine ourselves on a ship looking for a submarine. The submarine hides deep below the surface of the ocean. Our ship is equipped with a sonar and our operator sends out sharp sounds into the dark waters. Those sound waves travel down through the water until they hit something. Sometimes they strike a school of fish, or the bottom, or the sub we are searching for. When those sound waves bounce off the hull of that sub the sonar device picks up the echo. From that echo the operator can get a fix on the submarine’s position.

That introduces us to the teaching concept known as catechizing, to send out questions and listen for the echo, the answer that fixes the depth of knowledge and understanding. When you question someone you find out “where they’re at.” The word “catechism” is derived from the Greek word “katecheo”. It is found in several places in Scripture, and the most familiar one is Luke 1:4 where Luke said to Theophilus, “I write to you in order that you may know the certainty of those things in which you were instructed (catechized).” The words “catechized” or “catechism” come from the Greek word and like a lot of Greek words it is put together from two words, “kata” and “echeo”. “Kata” means “down towards” and “echeo” means “to sound”. “Katecheo” then is “to sound down”. You can see then that our English word “echo” is related.

Sounding Hearts

To catechize then is to sound down; to speak to some one with the objective of getting something back as an echo. You are going to send a sound to probe their understanding. In teaching we use the catechetical method of questioning to send out the Word to hear the responses, to gauge the depths of the person’s understanding, to probe their hearts.

There are several places in the New Testament where the example of catechizing and the command to teach is emphasized. Apollos was “catechized” in the way of the Lord. (Acts 18) Jesus commanded Peter in John 21:19 to feed His lambs. Teaching is obedience to the Holy Spirit’s command through Paul to Timothy, “these things command and teach.” (1 Timothy 4:11) We will examine the examples of Christ and the apostles more thoroughly in chapter six.

Another Sunday School?

You may think that if catechizing is teaching Biblical truth in the church this book really serves no purpose since most churches have some kind of Sunday School program. I would suggest, however, that with rare exceptions most Sunday School teaching programs do not fit the historical model of catechism. There are several reasons for suggesting that.

The modern Sunday School movement began in 1780 outside the official ministry of the church. Although there appeared to be sound reasons for doing so, they clearly left the Biblical and Reformational model. The Sunday School concept has been embraced by many churches, but often has only attained quasi-official status. The evidence is that even churches who would not dream of placing a woman in the pulpit yet continue the original Sunday School practice of having women teachers. Catechism, by contrast, is, and always has been the official teaching of the church. We shall see more of this later.

The Sunday School movement began by reaching out to unchurched children. Its efforts were evangelistic and admirable. However, in adopting a Sunday School program for its own children, churches blurred the Biblical and Reformational distinction between the children of unbelievers and the children of believers. Catechism is specifically designed to teach children of the church.

The method that seems to be employed in Sunday Schools today emphasizes doing and seeing. Children color pictures, cut out characters, play games, and act out Bible stories; they are visually engaged by overhead projectors and videos. We should seriously question whether this is the Biblical and Reformational model.

The Biblical and Reformational model is catechizing, a method of teaching that relies on hearing and speaking, not on seeing and doing. If it is men and women of faith the church needs for the time to come, we must return to listening to the Word and from there to asking questions and getting answers. “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God.” (Rom. 10:17) The Christian life, my friend, is not a Sunday School picnic. If we expect our children to mature, to stand fast for the truth, to contend earnestly for the faith, to resist the great deceiver, and to fight as the saints who nobly fought of old, they will need a basic training more rigorous than making slingshots to understand the story of David and Goliath.

A Short Trip to the Past

Now we take a brief look at the use of the question and answer method yesterday and today, for it may help you get a better grip on the concept. In a later chapter we will explore the history of catechizing in the church, but right now I would like you to understand that the question and answer method, catechizing, is a technique effectively used by both ancients and moderns both within and outside the church.

The dialogues of Plato (427-347 BC) record Socrates’ method. He taught his disciples by question and answer and his technique is usually called “the Socratic method.” It is basically a variation of catechizing. Not only pagan teachers, but great teachers in Christian history used the question and answer method to make sure their teaching was getting through: Augustine (353-430) in his Catechizing the Uninstructed, Anselm (1033-1109) in Cur Deus Homo, Erasmus (1466-1536) in his Ten Colloquies (a “colloquy” is an informal conversation). Erasmus wrote it as “a school text, a short book of formulas, question-and-answer sentences . . . and [it] continued to be used for three centuries.”

The great leaders of the Reformation, Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox, all attacked the colossal ignorance they met in Germany, Geneva and Scotland by making catechisms and by catechizing. We turn now to the moderns.

Catechizing in the Newsroom and Courtroom

Although news reporting and journalism have justly lost respect, we yet pay them a lot of attention. Radio, TV, newspaper, and magazine reporting continue to impact us. Older journalists still recall editors who demanded the truth—complete, accurate, and unadulterated with opinion. Reporters then, in a relentless pursuit of complete and accurate coverage, interviewed people. They probed, they dug, they investigated, all the while asking questions, looking for answers. That is part of the idea of catechizing. Now we go to another major institution, our judicial system.

Although I am afraid that we view the main characters of our courtrooms—lawyers and judges—more often as villains than heroes, our judicial system remains important. The courts catechize to determine some of the most important issues of life. They award or fine parties enormous sums of money. They decide people’s lives and liberty. We said they catechize, for the method use to get at the truth is the question and answer one. Lawyers examine and cross-examine the various witnesses, they dig and probe with questions to get at what they want (we hope it is the truth).

Is the picture clear enough to convince us that catechizing is not something that was only for the old days? Both today’s news media and our judicial system work almost exclusively by the question and answer method. In a word, they depend on catechizing.


Catechizing is a question and answer teaching method that bounces words off students, catching the rebound and serving them up again. We gain the basic concept from the New Testament.

Catechizing is distinguished from Sunday School because the principle actions are speaking and hearing rather than doing and seeing.

The practice of question and answer was used effectively by ancient teachers, and great teachers of the Christian church. The current news and legal systems lean on the question and answer method.

From Chapter 3, Rediscovering Catechism, (P&R Publishing: Phillipsburg, PA, 2000)

“The Importance of Catechism”
Donald Van Dyken

The first reason for engaging in any activity must always be an obedience born out of love for our Lord Jesus Christ. He commands and we must obey. The Scriptures tell us that children are a heritage of the Lord (Psalm 127). Our covenant God gives them to families, to Israel, to the church of Jesus Christ. They are the heirs of the promise, the children of the kingdom. “For of such,” said Jesus, “is the kingdom of heaven.” (Luke 18:16) They are citizens.

Feed My Heritage!

Christ commands the church to feed that heritage, those children, those citizens, those lambs. Christ’s warning against the neglect of that command is inferred from His words, “Take heed that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that in heaven their angels always see the face of My Father who is in heaven.” (Matt. 18:10) A neglect of the command to teach these little ones is a grave offence.

Secondly, the Scriptures teach that knowledge is basic to faith and godliness. “Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God.” (Rom. 10:17) Eternal life, said Christ, is to know the Father and to know Jesus Christ His Son. (John 17:3) John J. Murray said, “Scripture attaches great importance to knowledge and gives a foremost place to the mind and understanding. Ignorance and error are the effects of the Fall and it is upon them that Satan’s kingdom is built. Knowledge and truth are the grand weapons by which it is overthrown and Christ’s kingdom established in the individual and the world.” 1

Is it any cause for amazement then, that today Satan’s kingdom seems to erupt and spread everywhere? Do I need to detail the disarray of marriages and families, the worldly living, the ungodly pleasures that not only characterize the world, but so often the church? The answer is not hard to find—“My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.” (Hosea 4:6)

Doctrinal Babes or Men?

What happened to our love for the truth? Do we want to know as little as possible? Is the Christian faith exhausted in five easy sentences? What are we doing? If someone loves cars they may spend a lifetime learning about them and still have more to study. Are we then going to say that the Creator of roses and stars, the great God whose mighty acts and wondrous character confronts us on every page of Scripture, can be satisfactorily known by a few short propositions?

We understand, perhaps, how this anti-doctrinal, anti-intellectual atmosphere was generated. Christians have seen brilliant theologians—doctors of divinity—mutilate, twist, and pervert the Word of God. Fed up, then, with these fancy ways of turning the truth of God into a lie, they have dumped all professors, past and present. Away with theology! Give me the simple gospel!

But listen, beloved Christian, let me point out an embarrassing fact. Although we would rightly judge these highly educated, unbelieving theologians to be fools, what are we? Their intellectual arrogance revolts us. Will we best them by the arrogance of our superior ignorance?

The simplicity of the gospel, my dear friend, is precious and so very dear. Its simplicity however, never robs it of its profundity. Pick a rose. Put it into the hand of a child. It is so simple a child can see it is a flower, a rose, beautiful, fragrant, a gift of God.

Pick another rose. Put it into the hand of Luther Burbank, and that man, without loosing any of his simple, child-like wonder and appreciation for its beauty, could devote a lifetime exploring its profound complexity. He did.

Does Doctrine Divide?

“You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” (John 8:32) We may say then, may we not, that the more of the truth we understand and believe the greater will be our freedom in Christ. “And this is life eternal, that they might know you, the only true God.” (John 17:3) We may also say that the more knowledge we possess of our Triune God the fuller and richer will be our life.

Do some Christians harbor the notion that doctrine divides people? Do they think that too much knowledge is a dangerous thing? I am afraid so. But doctrine unites rather than divides. We need though, a key factor, and that factor is the truth. True doctrine is simply teaching the truth. Christ is the truth, the Word, and when we teach and keep the truth about Him we are bound together in an eternal bond. The truth unites us to God and to each other.

It is false doctrine that divides, separates man from God, and men from one another. Satan’s false doctrine in the Garden of Eden separated Adam and Eve from God and later, Cain from Abel. False doctrine is the lie, and the lie has caused all the divisions this world has ever experienced.

Do we have trouble seeing the truth? We all do, and in so doing may promote error and contention as well. Shall we then abandon the pursuit of truth? Shall we yield to the world’s claim that there is no truth? Certainly not. Although we may not possess it fully yet it is there to be possessed. We may fault our sinful short sightedness for failing to see the truth, but we may not fault God for speaking it.

Do we sometimes sin as we contend for the truth? We do. Again though, if we fail to “speak the truth in love,” let us avoid finding fault with the truth, and rather confess our sins, bear patiently with one another, and rejoice in the truth.

The Church of Tomorrow

Catechism is important because the church of the future rests in the hands of faithful catechism teachers, on the faithful instruction of God’s people. As soon as the Reformation began the churches built for the future. The preface to the Catechism of Geneva says this, “One of the first and most laudable efforts of the Reformers was to revive the practice [of catechizing], and restore it to its pristine vigor and purity; and hence, in many instances, when a Church was regularly constituted, catechizing was regarded as part of the public service.”2

From a human perspective, if the Reformers had not regarded the catechetical instruction of its children one of its foremost responsibilities, the church would not be here today. From a theological perspective, though, it was the doctrine of predestination that fueled the great efforts at catechizing. If we remember that Martin Luther’s conversion sprang out of an Augustinian monastery, we will recall that Augustine was the ancient champion of predestination; so then were all the reformers. For a God who does not predestinate is not sovereign, and a God who is not sovereign is no god at all.

But what does predestination have to do with catechism? Just this: predestination, if it means anything at all, means that God reveals His plan for the future through His promises. God’s promises for the continuation of His church from generation to generation were built upon His promises to work in the hearts of the children of His people through His Word and Spirit.3 Out of faith in these promises sprang the unflagging zeal of the Reformation churches to indoctrinate the next generation in the grand Reformation teachings of Scriptural truth.

The Reformation and Catechism

In 1456 Johann Gutenberg completed the first printed book, the Bible. By 1517, when Martin Luther posted the ninety-five theses to the door of the castle church at Wittenberg, the busy printing presses of Europe had printed all or parts of the Bible in Latin, German, Italian, French, Czech, Dutch, Hebrew, Catalan, Low German, and Greek.

Therefore when the printing presses of Europe published the Scriptures, theological works and tracts, and when God raised up godly men of great intellectual and moral stature and fired them with a passion to preach, the churches wrote confessions and catechisms. From house to house, from week to week, churches everywhere, fired with a zeal for the truth, carried their Bibles and confessions into homes and catechized grandpa and grandma, young men and maidens, grandchildren and parents.

Catechising commanded the interest of small and great. Frederick, ruler of the Palatinate, saw no better means than catechizing to ensure his subjects were grounded in the Reformed faith. He commissioned Olevianus and Ursinus to write a catechism. After Frederick and ministers of Palatinate reviewed it, they published it in 1563. That catechism, the Heidelberg, among the many written during the Reformation, still retains the distinction of being one of the best known, loved, and used of all the Reformation catechisms.

In 1643 an assembly of godly men equipped with enormous scholarship gathered at Westminster, England, and in 1647 produced the “Westminster Confession of Faith”, perhaps the most theologically precise and mature doctrinal formulation of the Reformation. Rather than content themselves with stating the truth, this assembly kept on working. They wanted to make certain that Christ’s people not only heard the truth, but also learned it. What method did they employ to reach this goal? Catechism; they added the Larger and Shorter Catechisms to the Westminster Confession.

A Recipe to Preserve Fruits

Keen observers credit catechism teaching for the propagation and preservation of the Reformation. Looking back from this century, John J. Murray said, “. . . where the catechetical system of instruction was adhered to the best fruits of the Reformation were preserved and transmitted.”4

Richard Baxter (1615-1691), a minister of the Word, lived in England through the powerful counter attacks of the Church of Rome and the Arminian party. He credited catechizing as a major factor in the survival and achievements of the Reformation.5 Two hundred years from now, should the Lord tarry, pray God that testimony may be made of us.

The Enemies React to Catechism

The importance of catechism can also be gauged by the reaction of the enemies of the faith. Let’s first go back to the early church. About AD 312 the Roman emperor Constantine appeared to be converted to the faith. By his Edit of Milan in AD 314 the Christian faith was officially tolerated in the Roman Empire.

His nephew Julian later succeeded him. He rejected Christianity and history remembers him as Julian the Apostate. During his time church schools were scattered throughout the Roman Empire teaching children, catechizing them in the faith. On June 17, AD 362, Julian the Apostate made a decree that no teacher could stay in those schools without government certification.6 By that means he was going to cut out all catechizing. In the providence of God he met his death the next year in battle.

Julian’s attempt provokes a comment. Does it not strike you that those who hate God know how important catechizing is, and yet so sadly, how many are there who claim to love God, yet fail to recognize the importance of catechizing, used so effectively for centuries.

We go forward to the Reformation of the sixteenth century. The Church of Rome convened the Council of Trent from 1545 to 1563, specifically to arrest the progress of the Reformation. The Council observed, “The heretics (by that they meant the Protestants-dvd) have chiefly made use of catechisms to corrupt the minds of Christians.”7 “The papists . . . acknowledge,” said Lancelot Andrews (1555 - 1626), “that all the advantage which the Protestants have gotten of them hath come by this exercise (of catechetical instruction).”8

Another powerful force that arose within the Church of Rome was the Society of Jesus, called the Jesuits. They devoted their society to reclaim the losses incurred by Reformation. Ignatius Loyola, Francis Xavier, and five other men organized the Society in Paris in 1537. In 1543 Pope Paul III gave them his blessing and in the course of time they became the greatest missionary and teaching organization in the Church of Rome. The first effort of the Jesuits was to set up religious schools for the young. They catechized rigorously.

“Catholic and Protestant historians are agreed that it was by this religious school machinery that the Jesuits arrested the Reformation in its onward and apparently triumphant advances.”9 They were tremendous educators, and even today among the universities, the Jesuit schools occupy a place of great academic eminence.

The Roman Catholics learned well by noting the success of the Protestant catechizing. Although as the years passed the proper use of catechizing fell into decay among many Protestant churches, the Church of Rome, at least during the nineteenth century, still recognized its power.

Protestants Laying Down Their Arms

H. Clay Trumbull, in a massive survey of catechizing published in 1893, recalled this conversation in the 1800s’.

A Roman Catholic priest was visiting an Episcopal bishop of the United States. The Episcopal bishop was supposed to be Protestant and the priest said to him, “What a poor foolish people you Protestants are. You leave the children until they are grown up, possessed of the devil, and then go out reclaiming them with horse, foot, and dragoons. We Catholics, on the other hand, know that the children are as plastic or clay in our hands. We quietly devote ourselves first to them. When they are well instructed and trained we have little to fear for the future.”10

The church today has largely abandoned the catechizing of its children and we need not strain our eyes to see the fruit. Ignorance and apathy rule in their hearts. Colleges flood their minds with illusions. They hear an old tune and recall the lyrics of rock songs heard years before, while the words of A Mighty Fortress are strangers to them. Mom and dad wonder where their children went; but they are gone, gone forever. Who is to blame?

Certainly a large share of guilt rests on church leadership. William Shedd in Pastoral Theology said this about training ministers, “In the whole range of topics in pastoral theology there is not one that has stronger claims upon the attention of the clergymen than the doctrinal instruction of the rising generation.”11 Again he said, “We feel deeply that there is not a subject of greater interest than the catechizing of the younger generation.”12 What happened to seminaries?

Let me close these quotes on the importance of catechism teaching with these remarks by Van Dellen and Monsma, the respected authors of a commentary on the Church Order of Dort. “If young people are to make confession of faith intelligently and sincerely, they must be well informed. For the sake of our churches and for the sake of our members, our churches have ever worked for thorough indoctrination. The catechism class has been the main means of indoctrination in the past. Catechetical instruction is indispensable to the welfare of our Churches . . . .”13

Wrapping It Up

If Christ’s parting commission to the church is “to make disciples” (Matt. 28:19), she cannot fail to begin with her own children by catechizing them. To do less is to neglect our own household, which Paul says, makes us worse than an infidel. (1 Tim. 5:8) If our greatest heritage is that summary of the truth of Scripture we have received in trust from God through the Reformation, we can do no less than to return with devotion to the catechizing of our children and youth. To do less is to deny the value of that precious faith of our fathers.

It is the unanimous testimony of the reformers of the sixteenth century, of those who saw the faith of the Reformation survive the onslaughts of a century of fierce opposition, and of many commentators on Reformation history today, that a key element in God’s gracious formula for victory was catechetical instruction.

The enemies of the Reformation unite in asserting that catechetical instruction was the major force in securing the Reformation in the minds and hearts of the people.

In military operations although the planes and tanks have spectacular firepower and speed, it is the infantry, plodding behind foot by foot, which covers the territory, wipes out pockets of hidden resistance, and secures the conquest. Catechetical instruction is that infantry.


  1. John J. Murray, “Catechizing—A Forgotten Practice”, Banner of Truth.
  2. John Calvin, Catechism of the Church of Geneva, Translator’s Preface, p. xi.
  3. Two examples of God’s promises for our children: Deuteronomy 30:6, “And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.” Isaiah 54:13, “All your children shall be taught by the Lord, and great shall be the peace of your children.”
  4. John J. Murray, “Catechizing—A Forgotten Practice”, Banner of Truth.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Clarence H. Benson, History of Christian Education (Chicago: Moody Press, 1943) p.46. (Nothing new under the sun, is there?)
  7. From the preface to the Catechism of the Council of Trent, question vi, quoted by H. Clay Trumbull, The Sunday-School, p. 95.
  8. H. Clay Trumbull, The Sunday-School, p. 73.
  9. Cited in ibid., p. 70.
  10. Francis Xavier, one of the founders of the Jesuits, is reputed to have said, “Give me the children until they are seven years old, and anyone may take them afterwards.” Cited in ibid., p. 71.
  11. W. Shedd, Practical Theology, p. 407
  12. Ibid, p. 429
  13. Van Dellen & Monsma, The Church Order Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1949), p. 256.

From Chapter 3, Rediscovering Catechism, (P&R Publishing: Phillipsburg, PA, 2000)

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