It is my hope to present a persuasive argument, for the use of catechisms as a biblical and useful (and even necessary) tool and a great foundation for Christian Education / Spiritual Formation in our churches. They are a time-tested institution in many branches of the Christian Church and were considered a primary means of communicating the essential doctrines of the Faith to the people from the earliest days of the Christian Church. Today, we live in a time where most Christians have a very shallow understanding of the most important doctrines of the Faith which they profess to hold. Individualism has captured the heart and mind of the Church in the United States. No one wants to be told what to believe or how to understand and interpret the Bible. Almost unanimously, the claim is, “I can read it and understand it for myself!” While there is a certain amount of truth in that statement, it is not universally true. The Apostle Peter speaks of some who are not so good at interpreting the Scriptures as he writes to the saints in Asia Minor, saying; “… There are some things in [Paul’s Letters] that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.” (2 Peter 3:16 ESV)
Is this idea of everyone having their own individual interpretation a biblical attitude? I fear that it is not. Many of the churches of our day have strayed so far from where our forebears were, from what the Scriptures have clearly told us about ourselves, and how they instruct us to behave. I am beginning to hope for the state of our nation and of the Church to move further into the present decline in hope that it will be something to awaken us from our lethargy and pragmatism, and ultimately brings about true revival. That pragmatism, however, is really no pragmatism at all! It does not actually seek to accomplish the end which ought to be in our view. Rather, it seeks to accomplish an end that follows from it’s own line of pragmatic deduction, based on what it ought to accomplish according to it’s worldly methods. Sometimes, what is going on in so many churches almost seems like another form of Roman Sacrementalism. It simply wants people to be a part of itself. It appears to believe that, by association comes salvation. This is most evident in the Emerging Movement, but also seems to be a growing problem in much of the Evangelical Church. However, it is not really a recent innovation, but has been an underlying current for the past two hundred years. In our relativistic culture, what that association is and what it means has become almost completely undefined in some cases.The goal is little to nothing beyond simple participation. “Community” and (often un-biblical) “purpose” have replaced true knowledge and therefore true faith. Faith, after all, is first a “body of doctrine to be believed” before it is ever the human will exercising itself in belief. (which is never done apart from the sovereign regenerative act of the Spirit, but that is another paper altogether).
As Dr. Parrett begins his lectures, (http://www.biblicaltraining.org/educational-ministry-church/gary-parrett) he first gives us seven questions which we must ask ourselves concerning the teaching ministry within the local church. He tells us to ask ourselves, “Why, What, When Whom, How, Where and Who.” As he presents these questions for us to ponder, he draws his answers for us from the Word of God. It is there where we find our commission, as the People of God, to keep the Faith going from generation to generation. We are not called to simply make converts, but learners and followers of Christ. What Jesus called, disciples. Dr. Parrett draws our attention to the primary place in the New Testament that we have this responsibility revealed to us. It is in what we commonly call, the “Great Commission.”
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20 ESV)
The orders given here, by our Lord, consist of one basic command that is accomplished through three actions. Our job, as His Church, is to make disciples. We accomplish that task; First, by going out into the world where the people who need to know Him are at. Secondly, by baptizing them or getting them to enter into the proper covenant relationship with Him (evangelism). Finally, by teaching them to obey all of the things that He has commanded. So, essentially the command is to Make Disciples by first going, then winning, and finally, instructing those whom we have won.
Having begun here with answering the “Why?” question (Because Jesus has sent us to the work!), and having given us the other six questions to consider, Dr. Parrett draws from the text, what he calls, “Three Commitments to Reaffirm;” 1) “Biblically-based Starting Point” which he demonstrates by drawing his answers from Christ’s commission and which, as we have seen above, entails; A) Baptizing = Evangelism, and B) Teaching = Christian Education. (These are derived directly from the text.) Then he goes further in depth with what this means as he deals with the other two commitments, which are; 2) “Obey and Teach The Faith” and, 3) “Cooperative Servant Leadership” (Lecture 1, Introduction).
We find, in all of this, that instruction is paramount in keeping this command. Instruction takes leadership. That leadership must model its own obedience to those commands. All of this is described in some detail in the Scriptures (See Acts 20:28-35, 1&2 Timothy and Titus). As Dr. Parrett instructs us in these things, he says, “I believe that in many cases, Christian Educators have lost sight of the clear biblical vision of what Christian Education is.” He continually pushes us back to the Bible as the source for directing our service to God in the area of making disciples. He speaks of the lack of this kind of direction as being fairly pervasive in the contemporary Church. As he does, he draws us into the history of the Church and even Old Testament practices that show what this kind of Biblically derived education or discipleship looks like (Lessons 5 and 6). Without him actually saying it in so many words, one important thing which I take away from the lectures is that the way to fix what is wrong with the areas brought to our attention by each of the seven questions is to center our focus on the authority and utility of Scripture and then evaluate our own response to its grace-driven directives. We must not just to talk about what it says, but let it direct us in our own performance of the duties that it requires. Then we must pass on, not only a pattern of sound words (2 Timothy 1:13), but of obedience to those words. We must pass on a sound pattern of life;
Likewise, urge the younger men to be self-controlled. Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, dignity, and sound speech that cannot be condemned, so that an opponent may be put to shame, having nothing evil to say about us. (Titus 2:6-8 ESV)
The Scriptures that give us our doctrine are also there to direct our behavior (1 Timothy 4:16). The Apostle Paul tells the young pastor, Timothy that the Scriptures are powerful to change the people of God as he instructs him in his second letter;
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16-17 ESV)
Because of what it is, God’s own word which is given by Him for a particular purpose, it is always and absolutely useful to that end! That purpose is accomplished, however, not just by giving a Bible to everyone in the church and letting them interpret and apply it for themselves. Though this may sound good at first blush and though it is at the heart of much of Evangelical theology, it is not really what the Scriptures themselves teach. Some believe that for us to rely at all on men is to discount the Holy Spirit and His work in the mind of the Believer. They immediately run to verses like 1 John 2:27 which tells us,
But the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and you have no need that anyone should teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about everything, and is true, and is no lie–just as it has taught you, abide in him. (1 John 2:27 ESV)
Is John indeed saying that we do not need the aid of any man, in our understanding of the Scriptures? On the contrary, if he was, he would not have had to write these very words! In the preceding verse, he says, “I write these things to you about those who are trying to deceive you.” If they have no need to be taught by any man, why does he warn them about certain men? Why also, a few verses later, does he embark on an entire chapter (chapter 4) in which he teaches them how to discern a false teacher from a true one? It is because God has gifted the Church with men who are called by Him, and gifted through Him, to teach His Church. To ignore them and claim absolute autonomy in the matter is a great dishonor to the Holy Spirit who calls and gifts men to hold that office!
And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? (1 Corinthians 12:28-30 ESV)
God has set some individuals in His Church for the purpose of leading and teaching. Paul asks a series of rhetorical questions. Among them is the question, “Are all teachers?” The obvious answer is a resounding “NO!” Though all may be equal at the foot of the cross, all are not equally gifted or called into the service of the Body of Christ. Every one of these gifts have not remained active in the Church. The miraculous gifts were given during the time of the writing of the New Testament and they were designed by God to give authentication to the words of Christ and His Apostles (Hebrews 2:4). Yet, the office of Pastor and Teacher is perpetually given to the Church to bring maturity, unity and stability to it. This office continues and is spoken of elsewhere as the standard for the local church;
And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds (pastors) and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, (Ephesians 4:11-15 ESV)
Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, (1 Timothy 3:2 ESV)
The New Testament writer, James, instructs his readers in the letter that bears his name, in this way; “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” (James 3:1 ESV) And so, if we are to honor the Spirit who gives us the Word, we must also honor the Spirit who gives us teachers of that word. Likewise if we honor the Word that the Spirit has given, we should honor the teachers whom He has given to instruct us in it, to the degree that that teacher is faithful to the Word. No one I have ever discussed this issue with would deny this idea when it is related to their own pastor or any other gifted teacher in their local church. Rightly so! But it does not stop there. We can also do this by relying on good, historic interpretations of the Scriptures. Almost every teacher does this when he opens a commentary or leans upon a Greek or Hebrew scholar to aid him in his own interpretation of the sacred text. However, many strongly oppose the idea when we apply this idea of using trusted teachers to help us understand the Scriptures and then turn to the historic confessions of the Church. Those all came about as the Church came through the Reformation and was established throughout Europe and New World.
A Brief Historical Overview
As we read the Scriptures, and we find that God has given to the Church, men, whom He has gifted to lead and to teach within Her (1 Corinthians 12:28, Ephesians 4:11), we may turn our attention to some very significant giants in this area during the time of the Reformation and in the century that followed. These men laid a strong foundation of basic interpretation and application of the Scriptures, regarding its primary doctrines, in order to provide unity for the Church as a whole, as well as the local assemblies. Dr. Parrett refers specifically to the Heidelberg Catechism in Lesson 7. This catechism and its accompanying confession of faith, the Belgic Confession, are among the earliest of Reformed confessions. (According to Phillip Schaff’s Creeds of Christendom, the Belgic Confession was received in 1561, whereas the Westminster Assembly was not convened until 1644, and its Confession, published in 1646). These two confessions are the dominant confessions of Protestantism and are in agreement on the fundamental doctrines of the Christian Faith. In addition, the London Baptist Confession of 1689 is also largely based the content of the earlier Westminster Standards. These are what governed the interpretation and application of God’s Word for the largest number of the Churches of Europe and the New World for about 300 years. At the end of that time, much of the Church threw them off and rejected the authority of those men whom God had placed in the Church for the purpose of instruction and unity. Again,we turn our attention to the description of the office of pastor / teacher in the Letter to the Ephesians.
And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, (Ephesians 4:11-13 ESV)
The unity that had been established, was all but destroyed in the middle of the 19th Century when Revivalsim and the Restoration Movement took hold of the American Church. In the name of unity, they rejected the historic confessions in favor of individual interpretations of the Scripture. They claimed that these “forms of unity” were actually dividers of the Church. They turned to individualistic interpretation as the standard, somehow believing that this would bring greater unity. Thus, they divided the Church (which had been somewhat divided by their country of origin in the New World where the Germans were mostly Lutheran, the Scottish were Presbyterian, the English were Anglican or Congregational, etc. At this point they Church was divided into thousands of splinter groups. Each one claiming that they were the only ones who knew what the Bible actually said. Nearly 200 years later, having passed 33,000 different denominations (World Christian Encyclopedia : a comparative survey of churches and religions in the modern world, David B. Barrett, George T. Kurian, Todd M. Johnson. 2nd ed., Oxford ; New York : Oxford University Press, 2001) we are living with the fruit of that mutiny. And now, secondary issues seem to be primary in many of those churches. Issues like what Bible translation you use, what style of music you like, or whether women should wear dresses or pants, these are the standards of fellowship. Actual Biblical doctrine is pushed aside and even derided as something that divides Christians (though, in my experience, personal taste has done more to divide than doctrine ever has!). In our day, almost no one really knows what they believe or why they believe it! The catechism has fallen into disuse because the accompanying confessions have been discarded. The very idea of catechism is so foreign to most evangelicals that the very word sounds “unchristian” or even “anti-Christian” to many of them. These confessions and their catechisms embody the basic interpretation of the Bible which is the solid foundation upon which the church had been built from its inception.
In an introduction to John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, a foundational work that helped the Church recover the Gospel from 1,000 years of papal obscurity, Rev. John Murray describes Calvin this way;
Calvin was far above the weakness of aiming at the invention of novelties in theology, or of wishing to be regarded as the discoverer of new opinions” (The Reformers and the Theology of the Reformation, Edinburgh, 1866, p. 296). As we bring even elementary understanding to bear upon our reading of the Institutes we shall immediately discover the profound sense of the majesty of God, veneration for the Word of God, and the jealous care for faithful exposition and systematization which were marked features of the author. And because of this we shall find the Institutes to be suffused with the warmth of godly fear. The Institutes is not only the classic of Christian theology; it is also a model of Christian devotion. For what Calvin sought to foster was that “pure and genuine religion” which consists in “faith united with the serious fear of God, such fear as may embrace voluntary reverence and draw along with it legitimate worship such as is prescribed in the law” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, Introduction, Pg. 4)
Calvin’s approach to the Scriptures became the defining attitude of the Reformation and its leaders. Exceptional scholarship, in both theology and in history, were at the center of that movement. It’s goal was to move forward by looking backward to the time before the Roman Church co-opted the Faith, and to restore the Church and the Gospel to its proper place. Calvin was not the only one who was moving in this direction at that time. He, himself stood on the shoulders of many other men whom God had begun to use to restore the Church and the Gospel. Men like John Wycliffe, John Huss and Martin Luther, as well as faithful teachers throughout the history of the Church.
Zacharias Ursinus was also numbered among those men which God used to establish pure doctrine and strengthen His Church. Ursinus’ Heidelberg Catechism begins by explaining the state of man in his guilt, as delineated by the Scriptures. It then covers the biblical affirmations of the Apostles Creed (an ancient statement of faith) dealing with the nature of the Godhead and Christ’s Person and Work. From here it leads us to Gratitude for Christ’s Grace and to our response, as given by a study of the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Sacraments. It constantly derives its teaching directly from the Scriptures and relates every question and answer to the Scriptures as it’s source and confirmation. The biblical truths which are taught therein, are a systematized presentation of the fundamental elements of the Christian Faith.
From the 1600’s through the 1800’s there were some who were arguing for the continued use of such catechism and their accompanying confessions for the very purpose of instructing the people of the Church and bringing unity to the Faith.
William Beveridge tells us, in the 1600’s
And therefore to catechise or instruct Children in the Knowledge of God and our Lord Jesus Christ, is a Duty here laid upon all Parents by Almighty God himself; and all that neglect to educate or bring up their Children in the Admonition of the Lord, by catechising or teaching them the Principles of his Religion, they all live in the breach of a plain Law, a Law made by the supreme Law giver of the World, and must accordingly answer for it at the Last-day. Wherefore all that are sensible of the great Account which they must give of all their Actions, at that time, to the Judge of the whole World, cannot but make as much Conscience of this as of any Duty whatsoever, so as to use the utmost of their Care and Diligence, that their Children may grow in Grace, and in the Knowledge of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, and so be wise unto Salvation. Neither is this any hard matter for those to do, who live in the Communion of our Church, having such a Catechism or Summary of the Christian Religion drawn up to their Hands, which is easy both for Parents to teach, and for Children to learn: And yet full and comprehensive, that it contains all things necessary for any Man to know in order to his being saved. As you may clearly see if you do but cast your Eye upon the Method and Contents of it; which may be all reduced to these five Heads, The Baptismal Vow, the Apostles Creed, the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Doctrine of the Sacraments, ordained by our Lord Christ. (William Beveridge: Private Thoughts Upon a Christian Life Pg. 184)
Phillip Schaff was still calling for the same thing in the 1800’s
“Confessions, in due subordination to the Bible, are of great value and use. They are summaries of the doctrines of the Bible, aids to its sound understanding, bonds of union among their professors, public standards and guards against false doctrine and practice. In the form of Catechisms they are of especial use in the instruction of children, and facilitate a solid and substantial religious education, in distinction from spasmodic and superficial excitement.” (Philip Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, Pg. 28)
Charles Spurgeon, assembled his own catechism for the Baptists in England. He did that by editing the Westminster Shorter Catechism in the 1800’s. In his introduction to that work he stated the following;
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. Those who use it in their families or classes must labor to explain the sense; but the words should be carefully learned by heart, for they will be understood better as years pass.
May the Lord bless my dear friends and their families evermore, is the prayer of their loving Pastor.
As the Reformers had worked hard to recover the Gospel from 1,000 years of papal incarceration, they strove, not only to free it, but to give the Church a sound method to pass it on to the succeeding generations. One of John Calvin’s earliest works is called, simply, Instruction in Faith. It was published (in the native language of French) in 1537, the year after he began his ministry in Geneva. In the foreword to one edition of that little book, Paul T. Fuhrman tells us;
“The great Jesuit theologian, Cardinal Bellarmine, 1542-1621, frankly acknowledged that before the Reformers came, nothing was firm in the world: there was no severity in the church courts, no discipline in morals, no erudition in sacred letters, no reverence in divine things, almost no religion. That the purpose of the French Reformers was then essentially positive and constructive is clearly shown in the Declaration of the Church of France of 1559, whose Article 31 defines the Reformers as men whom God has raised up in an extraordinary manner to build anew the Church which was in ruin and desolation…..
It was under these circumstances, and on Farel’s suggestion, that Calvin wrote in French this Instruction in Faith and published it in 1537. His intention was not to gain the admiration of scholars, but to inspire a simple faith in the people of Geneva. This treatise represented to the common people, the essence of His Institutes of 1536… As the title, Instruction in Faith suggests, this work is essentially constructive. Abstaining from debates and attacks on the Roman Church, it offers the positive tenets of the Christian Faith. It aims at spiritual upbuilding and religious education. (Instruction in Faith, Historical Foreword, Pg 7-8)
The very first acts of the Reformers, once they had established the basis of the Christian Faith as, Sola Scriptura (the Scriptures alone, as opposed to the Pope and Church councils), was to establish a method of instruction to teach the people faithfully from the Scriptures. As early as 1520, according to Graebner’s The Story of the Catechism (Concordia Publishing House, 1928), Luther had begun to preach on and produce booklets dealing the subjects of the catechism. (William E. Fischer, Luther’s Small Catechism—Then and Now) He actually published the complete work in 1529. In his preface to the work, Luther says;
The deplorable, miserable conditions which I recently observed when visiting the parishes have constrained and pressed me to put this catechism of Christian doctrine into this brief, plain and simple form. How pitiable, so help me God, were the things I saw: the common man, especially in the villages, knows practically nothing of Christian doctrine, and many of the pastors are almost entirely incompetent and unable to teach. Yet all the people are supposed to be Christians, have been baptized, and receive the Holy Sacrament even though they do not know the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, or the Ten Commandments and live like poor animals of the barnyard and pigpen. What these people have mastered, however, is the fine art of tearing all Christian liberty to shreds.
How is this any different than the situation that we find ourselves in today? (except that they had the excuse of 1,000 years of the Scriptures being held in papal bondage, which we have not had!) How is it that many will fight and wrangle over being called by the names of these great theologians, through whom God changed the course of the Church, by their mighty efforts, and then disregard their gifts to the Church, which come in the form of simple instruction for our children and the members of our flocks?
It is either through ignorance of our history (predominantly) or through human sloth and love of the world (autonomy) that we do not make use of these amazingly profound, yet simple tools bequeathed to us by our forebears. As Christian parents and as pastors, we will be found guilty on the day of judgment if we do not make every effort instruct our disciples, and especially, our own children, in the primary doctrines of the Faith! A cursory glance at Church History shows us that every branch of the Church, following the Reformation, did exactly the same thing as Luther and Calvin had done! Zacharias Ursinus, as he published the Heidelberg Catechism, wrote a treatise on the historic use of catechisms in the Church. In it, he states;
…from what is said in the epistle to the Hebrews, where mention is made of some of the principal heads included in the catechism of the apostles, such as repentance from dead works, and of faith towards God, of the doctrine of baptism, and of laying on of hands, and of resurrection from the dead, and of eternal judgment which the apostle terms milk for babes. These and similar points of doctrine were required from the Catechumens of adult age at the time of their baptism, and of children at the time of their confirmation by the laying on of hands. Hence, the apostle calls them the doctrine of baptism and laying on of hands. So likewise the Fathers wrote short summaries of doctrine, some fragments of which may still be seen in the Papal church. (What is Catechism?, Preface to the Heidelberg Catechism, Pg. 6)
And so, again we hear the admonition of William Beveridge;
“Seeing therefore this catechism is so full, that it contains all that any man needs to know, and yet so short, that a child may learn it: I do not see how parents may bring up their children in the ‘nurture and admonition of the Lord,’ better than by instructing them in it. I do not say by teaching them only to say it by rote, but by instructing them in it, so that they may understand, as soon and as far as they are capable, the true sense and meaning of all the words and phrases in every part of it;” (William Beveridge: Private Thoughts Upon a Christian Life Pg. 189)
We have been bequeathed the proper tools for the job of instructing the next generation in the Faith of Jesus Christ. Not only one tool, but several of them! And yet, we live in an age where “How do we effectively communicate the Faith to the next generation?” is the question on the lips of every concerned parent and pastor. According to the statistics of our time, 59% of our teens are leaving the Church on or after their 15th birthday! (http://www.barna.org/teens-next-gen-articles/528-six-reasons-young-christians-leave-church) Josh McDowell claims in his book, The Last Christian Generation, that those numbers are far greater. Are these ancient documents of any use to the Church in America in the 21st Century?
What Must We Do With What We Have Been Given?
Certainly a booklet, no matter what it contains, will not be sufficient to fix all the ails of the Church. But, if heeded and practiced with conviction, this encapsulation of God’s own wisdom, for the task of instructing converts and the children of Christian parents, will have great effect!
One of the primary things that was lost after the Second Great Awakening was the idea of Gifted Leadership, working with Fathers, in order to help them instruct their own families as the pastor of their own “little church” (their home). Dr. Parrett mentions this practice in Lecture 6 and relates it to the Hebrew practice of instructing covenant children. That practice flowed out of many Old Testament passages (i.e. Exodus 12:26, Deuteronomy 6:7, Psalm 78:4-7, et al.) where fathers are given the primary responsibility to instruct their own children. This is not only the case in the Old Testament, but it is also reiterated in the New Testament;
Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother” (this is the first commandment with a promise), “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.” Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. (Ephesians 6:1-4 ESV)
While obedience is enjoined upon the children (Which no one would dispute!) responsibility for discipline and instruction are enjoined upon the fathers, and upon them alone! However, we do see that the example of the instruction of a godly mother and even a grandmother, are given elsewhere in the New Testament. This is, apparently, in the absence of a godly father. The Apostle Paul writes to Timothy;
I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, dwells in you as well. (2 Timothy 1:5 ESV)
Elsewhere (Acts 16:1) we discover that Timothy was the son of a believing Jewish mother and a Greek father. It is assumed that the father is not mentioned by Paul in 2 Timothy because he was not a believer. Commentator Albert Barnes says this of 2 Timothy 2:5, “In the history in the Acts , nothing is said of the father, except that he was “a Greek,” but it is implied that he was not a believer. In the Epistle before us, nothing whatever is said of him. But the piety of his mother alone is commended, and it is fairly implied that his father was not a believer.” And so, the unbelieving father is not required or expected to instruct his children in the Faith. In this situation, it falls to the mother if she is a believer. In a case where the father is a believer, it is his responsibility and none other.
These Biblical directives led the Reformers to the above conclusion and subsequent actions; that there must be; 1) a standard of the Faith given to promote unity and maturity among Christian families and churches. 2) that fathers were the God-given means of passing that standard of the Faith on to their families. And so, with both biblical and historic president, Confessions and Catechisms were brought into use in the Church. Unfortunately, most Christians in our day are patently and willfully unaware of this. Most Christians in our day have bought into the lie of autonomy that was promoted by the Revivalists and the Restorationists and reject any and all forms of Confession or Catechism.
What do we, as pastors and teachers, do about that? Do we lie down and let the individual interpreter command the situation with his appeal to 1 John 2:27 while we watch Christ’s Church disintegrate before our eyes? We, who are His appointed under-shepherds of the flock? Or, do we correct that false assumption with a strong stance for Biblical authority as it is reflected in those confessions and catechisms which are based on the Apostle’s call to honor the position of Teachers as given in the New Testament Scriptures? Do we take our own place as one who leads the Church to both maturity and unity?
We MUST take a stand! We must, as pastors and as fathers, make known to our churches and to our families, that God has, by His providence, given us more than adequate tools so that we may accomplish our duty to our families and to the new disciples in our congregations. As pastors in the Church, we must lead, not only in instructing others, but in exemplifying the teachings of Christ in our own lives. We must be actively engaged in the discipleship of our own families. We must make use of the tools of the catechism and confession in unifying the Body of Christ that resides in our own homes and in our churches.
This was certainly Richard Baxter’s main aim as he wrote to instruct other pastors in their duties as shepherds of the flock of God over which the Holy Spirit had made them overseers. He instructs those pastors in this manner, saying;
“Persuade the master of every family to cause his children and servants to repeat the Catechism to him, every Sabbath evening, and to give him some account of what they have heard at church during the day. Neglect not, I beseech you, this important part of your work. Get masters of families to do their duty, and they will not only spare you a great deal of labor, but will much further the success of your labors. If a captain can get the officers under him to do their duty, he may rule the soldiers with much less trouble, than if all lay upon his own shoulders. You are not like to see any general reformation, till you procure family reformation. (The Reformed Pastor, Pg. 48)
Mr. Baxter was so earnest in his insistence on the matter of making diligent use of the catechism that he took the last 60 pages of this book to reflect on the method of it, the obstacles to it, and the fruit that would come from it (as a motivation to the work) as he closed out the book. He begins that final section of the book with these words;
Leaving these things, therefore, I shall now proceed to exhort you to the faithful discharge of the great duty which you have undertaken, namely, personal catechising and instructing every one in your parishes or congregations that will submit thereto. ( The Reformed Pastor, Pg. 97)
If, as we have seen, every segment of the church, from the Germans to the Dutch and from the English to the French concurred on the matter. And if every denomination, from the Reformed, to the Lutherans and from the Presbyterians to the Independents and the Baptists, agreed on the necessity and usefulness of the catechism, how can we simply throw it off and claim that we have no need of such instruction?
I remember when I first stumbled upon the Westminster Confession and Catechisms. I read through them and found at the end of the book, a brief work called The Sum of Saving Knowledge. I felt as I read through that booklet, at that moment, that if all of our Christian families had these resources and used them, that the Church would be a much more built-up and established community (Colossians 2:7-8). I reflected on the fact that many pastors I knew would not be able to articulate the faith so accurately, so simply and profoundly. I immediately began to use the Westminster Shorter Catechism with my own children. I was not in a church that recognized or understood the value of such things. As a matter of fact, I have never been a part of any church that did not look upon them with absolute skepticism and suspicion! We made it through thirty-some of the questions before we lost our momentum and failed to continue. What a blessing it would have been to have the support I needed in order to continue on in that exercise! My children have all turned out quite well, by the Grace of God! But that is, at least in part, because of my commitment to sound theology and my understanding of Church History. They have been a part of my studies as I have taught and argued in defense of the Faith for almost two decades now. They have heard the arguments on both sides and were satisfied with my defense of the truths of the Scriptures. The difference being, from what I can tell, is that I know what I believe and they know that I know what I believe. I do not have to be fearful of opposing opinions. I can logically oppose them and do it with a good attitude, because I am well grounded in the Faith. I do not respond from fear, but from love of souls and of truth. I have striven to pass that on to them through family devotions and ministering together, as a family. Everyone does not have those spiritual gifts or those kinds of opportunities. Relying on good resources for helping those who are not gifted teachers is unavoidable! I, personally, cannot comprehend why any Christian would oppose such a gift. Nor, why they would not make ready use of it.
I have argued this point with a few of my Christian friends who oppose the use of such things as creeds and catechisms. As they shout, “No creed but Christ!” they fail to recognize that, in saying this, they have composed yet another creed. They take the rather awkward position of pitting the Bible against such works. The Bible is the source and measuring rod for these works. Again, as much so, and or even more than the commentaries and Sunday school curriculum that is used by virtually all of Christendom. These are works made by Godly men (sometimes scores of them) for the purpose of strengthening the Church in a biblical faith. I like the way Dr. Larry Bray recently put it in a Face Book discussion on this topic. He said;
“He goes on to say that he uses the Bible rather than catechisms and does not set up strawmen…yet that’s a strawman as confessional believers do use Scripture as their standard, not catechisms. It’s also a false dichotomy as Scripture and catechisms are not an either-or paradigm.”
It is not just having the resources! It is the active sanctification in the life of the father or other head of household. It is investing in personal time with the young believers. It is making the Faith something other than a Sunday morning obligation. This combined with the accurate and succinct description of the Christian Faith, taught faithfully and explained well, to the inexperienced Christian. This is the means that God has ordained for the perpetuation of His Church. For it, He has given us proven teachers who have stood the test of time and proven the fruitfulness of their ministries. By them He has bequeathed to us, valuable and useful resources for the purpose of instructing new converts and children of believing parents, in the Faith. Not by the written works themselves, but by our implementation of them in our own families and churches, we can strengthen the Church of Jesus Christ once more. Through the expedient use of them we can see the blessings of our own children and others being, “rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as [they] were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.” (Colossians 2:7 ESV)
Some Useful Resources
Some may yet balk and say, “I cannot teach this stuff to anyone. I have never been taught it myself.” And yet, as there have been so many men whom God has gifted and given to His Church for the purpose of writing those confessions and catechisms, He has also given us many men, (Men like Richard Baxter) who have a passion to see them regularly used within Christ’s Church. Within a few decades of the Westminster Confession and Catechisms being published, Richard Baxter and others saw fit to promote their use. Not just to talk about using them, but to give aids for the practical implementation of them. There are two resources that I have found eminently helpful in this, they are; Thomas Watson’s trilogy; A Body of Divinity, The Ten Commandments and The Lord’s Prayer. (published in 1692). As well as I Thomas Boston’s Complete Works, Vol 2. These very useful resources are both, complete commentaries on the Shorter Catechism. Each was originally delivered as a series of sermons and then encapsulated into book form. They are profound expositions of the essential doctrines of the Christians Faith. Their design is to aid individual Believers in their comprehension of those truths. Both are available for free, online.
In addition, I have found a ministry called Reformed Music. They have produced a short song for the question and answer of each of the 107 questions of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. A great way to help you memorize them!
And so, I must ask; 1) Seeing the Biblical command to pass the Faith on to the next generation and to reach our own generation, making true disciples of both, 2) Recognizing the authority of God in calling and gifting teachers who serve the Church in order to bring it to maturity and unity, and 3) Knowing that we have been given the tools, through God’s providential care, so that we may fulfill our God-given responsibility, Can we continue to pretend like it is our job to reinvent the wheel of Christian Education as we spend more time playing with the kids and entertaining the new converts than actually instructing them? Can we ignore the instruction of the fathers in our churches, in their God-given duty to instruct their own children? Can we, without compunction or fear of reprisal, neglect the gift that has been given to us in the name of being “spiritual” people and leave the work of God undone?
On the contrary, we must make diligent use of the means that the Lord has provided for the carrying out of our duties as parents and as pastors. We must call our churches and the families that compose them, back to the way of our forefathers. We must begin by strengthening the things that remain, even as the Lord spoke to the Church at Sardis, in the third chapter of the Book of Revelation. As we do, I am confident that the Lord will bless His Church and we will become a much more effective witness to our generation and remain faithful as a witness to the next generation.
Why, What, When Whom, How, Where and Who. Whether you realize it or not, these questions have all been answered above. I began answering the Why? question. We teach, not only information but obedience to that information, because Jesus has commanded us to do so.
What do we teach? Whatsoever Christ has commanded. He has commanded many things, among them that we teach or make disciples of those who come to faith.
When do we teach? From the beginning of our children’s ability to comprehend. The most ironic thing about this whole conversation is that the catechisms were written, primarily, for the instruction of children. Most adults are only marginally familiar with what they contain. So, we teach them also to the adults. One of the most profitable ministries in the local church would be to instruct the fathers in these things so that they are competent to instruct their own children! So, we are constantly teaching in the various phases of life so that our people are equipped for every good work.
To Whom is our teaching directed? It is to everyone, “until we all attain to… mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” Which directs the bulk of our attention to the less mature, i.e., new converts and children.
How do we teach? By focusing mostly on the primary doctrines and instilling them at the family level. Not just by having Sunday School classes and small groups full of electives and hot button issues!
Where do we teach? In the home and in the Church. In all of life. Christian teaching is to become a daily part of life for every person in the church, but especially for families with children.
Who does the teaching? It begins with the gifted and called teachers in the church, but, they, in turn instruct those in positions of leadership within the individual families and aid them in the instruction of their own mini-flocks. So, it ultimately encompasses the entire church
The best single tool to aid us in the complete and biblical instruction of the disciples that the Lord has given us would be one of those historic catechisms. The tough question, at this point, would probably be, “Which one should I use?” Well, if you are baptistic in your beliefs, that would be a no-brainer. The 1689, London, Baptist Confession and Spurgeon’s Catechism are your primary source. However, a quick Google search of the phrase “Baptist Catechism” will reveal several choices. Look to the ministry that you trust, Desiring God (John Piper) offers The Baptist Catechism of 1689 on their website. The Founders Ministry offers an 1813 edition of it as well. Keach’s Catechism is probably the oldest (1677) and most used of them (Spurgeon’s being a possible exception to most used). Interestingly enough, as I was talking to my wife about this paper, she mentioned that when she was in grade-school, she was instructed from a Bob Jones catechism. Indeed, that still exists if you feel so led to pursue it, though I would not recommend that.
Again, all of the historic Baptist catechisms say essentially the same thing and are variations to make them more readable and understandable for contemporary users. Read them all and see which ones you think would be easiest to memorize and teach to your children.
If you are not baptistic, then you can choose between the Heidelberg and Westminster Catechisms. Heidelberg, as you may have guessed, is German and is used more with the churches of German and Dutch origin (For Lutherans, Luther has own small catechism). The Westminster standards reflect Presbyterian and Congregational churches from England and Scotland. Again, they all teach, essentially the same things. Though, as you might guess, the Baptists will teach differently on the subject of Baptism than the Presbyterians.
With all of this laid before us, it is high time that we as shepherds of the Flock of God look back to those great men who have given us these documents and to those who have spurred us on to the work of making use of them in our churches. It is time for us to hear and head the words of that great divine, Thomas Watson has he introduced his Body of Divinity in this way;
Catechising is the best expedient for the grounding and settling of people. I fear one reason why there has been no more good done by preaching, has been because the chief heads and articles in religion have not been explained in a catechistical way. Catechising is laying the foundation. Heb 6:6: To preach and not to catechise is to build without foundation. This way of catechising is not novel, it is apostolic. The primitive church had their forms of catechism, as those phrases imply, a ‘form of sound words,’ 2 Tim 1:13, end ‘the first principles of the oracles of God,’ Heb 5:52. The church had its catechumenoi, as Grotius and Erasmus observe. Many of the ancient fathers have written for it, as Fulgentius, Austin, Theodoret, Lactantius, and others. God has given great success to it. By thus laying down the grounds of religion catechistically, Christians have been clearly instructed and wondrously built up in the Christian faith, insomuch that Julian the apostate, seeing the great success of catechising, put down all schools and places of public literature, and instructing of youth. It is my design, therefore (with the blessing of God); to begin this work of catechising the next Sabbath day; and I intend every other Sabbath, in the afternoon, to make it my whole work to lay down the grounds and fundamentals of religion in a catechistical way. (Body of Divinity, Pg. )
You see, in the statement above, that Rev. Watson made it his regular work to catechize his flock, every other Sunday afternoon. I too have made it a point to study the Westminster Shorter Catechism with my own flock during our Midweek Prayer Meetings. The question is not, “Do we have the tools we need to accomplish our duty?” The question is simply, “Are we willing to put forth the effort to make efficient use of those tolls which the Lord has already provided?” Not just to teach the catechism in so many lessons, but to make it a regular part of our teaching. Not just to teach it in the church services, but as Rev. Baxter has admonished us, to visit the homes of our people and make sure that the heads of households are making use of it there as well.
As we do, the experience, by all those men who have encouraged us to that task is unanimous. They have found the benefits to vastly outweigh the work. Baxter lists those benefits as he writes;
It will be a most hopeful means of the conversion of souls;
It will essentially promote the orderly building up of those who are converted, and the establishment of them in the faith.
It will make our public preaching better understood and regarded.
By means of it, you will come to be familiar with your people, and may thereby win their affections.
By means of it, we shall come to be better acquainted with each person’s spiritual state, and so the better know how to watch over them.
It will show men the true nature of the ministerial office, and awaken them to the better consideration of it, than is now usual.
This duty of personal catechising and instruction is so important, that as Rev. Baxter expounds on it, he closes that section with these words, as will I;
And now, brethren, the work is before you. In these personal instructions of all the flock, as well as in public preaching, doth it consist. Others have done their part [the Reformers and authors of the confessions and catechisms], and borne their burden, and now comes in yours. You may easily see how great a matter lies upon your hands, and how many will be wronged by your failing of your duty, and how much will be lost by the sparing of your labor. If your labor be more worth than the souls of men, and than the blood of Christ, then sit still, and look not after the ignorant or the ungodly; follow your own pleasure or worldly business, or take your ease; displease not sinners, nor your own flesh, but let your neighbors sink or swim; and, if public preaching will not save them, let them perish. But, if the case be far otherwise, you had best look about you. (The Reformed Pastor, Pg., 125)
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