One major element of our monthly church newsletter is our "Dr's Corner." It is by far the largest section, devoted to training the congregation to understand practical theological thinking. The primary source for these articles are located on the web by ministries providing helpful content. These two entries were included in our February 2019 printed edition (Oftentimes, edited for space...Attribution & Link to follow...)
During my childhood, my friends and I used to run home after school and make our plans for all of the fun we would have, but every Wednesday one of my friends would remind us that he could not participate because he had to go to church for catechism. At the time, I had no idea what he was talking about. My then-nine-year-old friend told me he learned stuff about the Bible. I didn’t think much about it then but in my years as a pastor and now as a parent I have come to greatly appreciate the practice of catechesis.
Catechesis is more than just teaching children about stuff in the Bible. Historically, the church orally instructed children and new converts in the Bible’s teaching and its doctrines; therefore most catechisms have a question-and-answer format. One of the earliest catechisms is the Didache, or The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles.
Pastors and teachers in the early church regularly used catechisms, and the sixteenth-century Protestant reformers reinvigorated the practice. During the sixteenth and seventeenth century, Reformed and Lutheran theologians wrote scores of catechisms in an effort to codify and teach the next generation the faith once delivered to the saints. One of the best-known catechisms is Martin Luther’s Small Catechism, which explains the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the sacraments, and prayer. Luther’s intention was to arm fathers with the necessary basic knowledge so they could teach and equip their children for the Christian life.
John Calvin’s Geneva Catechism of 1542 was written specifically for children and follows a similar pattern of topics as Luther’s Small Catechism. Zacharias Ursinus wrote the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), which is one of the three pillars of the Three Forms of Unity for Continental Reformed churches. And the Westminster Shorter Catechism (1648) is perhaps one of the best-known catechisms in the English-speaking world because of its famous first question and answer:
What is the chief end of man?
Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and enjoy him forever.
Catechetical instruction is part of the warp and woof of historic Protestant theology and practice.
In recent years, however, I believe catechesis has fallen on hard times. In the wake of revivalism many American Christians have sought the fantastic and emotional experience of an angst-ridden conversion rather than the quiet, incremental growth of catechetical instruction. In biblical terms, people seek the apostle Paul’s dramatic Damascus Road conversion (Acts 9:1–19) as the normative Christian experience rather than Timothy’s covenantal nurture by his mother and grandmother (2 Tim. 1:5–6). In other words, the overwhelming biblical evidence tells us that Timothy’s experience is normative, not Paul’s unique encounter with Christ.
In this vein, catechetical instruction follows the biblical commands that parents should instruct their children in the knowledge of God (e.g., Deut. 6:4–9; Ex. 13:14; Eph. 6:4). Catechesis provides the framework for children to understand the Bible. Scripture memorization should be a regular staple in the nurture of any child, but he must also understand how the various parts of the Bible fit together.
Moreover, catechesis also teaches children the grammar of theology. When children learn to read and write they must also understand the role and function of nouns, verbs, pronouns, etc., so they can clearly communicate in written and verbal form. The same applies to theology. Children learn the difference between justification and sanctification, the nature of God’s law, and the particulars of prayer and the sacraments, for example. Combined with a regular diet of reading and hearing God’s word preached, by God’s grace and the Spirit’s sovereign work, children have all the necessary nourishment they need to grow into healthy Christians. But just as the early church instructed children and new converts, pastors have the opportunity to use catechesis to instruct the new converts to ensure they too can grow to maturity and move from milk to solid food (cf. 1 Cor. 3:2; Heb. 5:12–14)!
So pastors, make use of catechetical instruction with everyone in your church. You can even use it for brief segments of congregational responsive readings in your worship services. Parents, especially fathers, pick up a catechism and use it in the evenings to instruct your family when you sit down for a meal. Feed your family’s bodies with food but feed their souls as well with good catechetical instruction.
- J. V. Fesko (PhD, University of Aberdeen, Scotland) is the academic dean and professor of systematic and historical theology at Westminster Seminary California. He was the pastor of Geneva Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Woodstock, Georgia, for ten years. J. V. lives in Escondido, California, with his wife, Anneke, and their three children.
My first encounter with the Westminster Shorter Catechism was in a church membership class. I was 18 years old and had recently become a Christian. While I told the pastor I found reading it helpful, I didn’t imagine using it much afterward.
How wrong I was! Thirteen years later, I continually find the Shorter Catechism helpful in my Christian walk and ministry.
Here are five reasons I consider this catechism worth engaging today.
1. The catechism gives a helpful summary of core beliefs. In Romans 12 Paul urges Christians to “present their bodies as a living sacrifice” (v. 1). When done in view of God’s mercy, this is an act of “spiritual worship” (v. 2). Among other things, this teaching seems to imply that grasping God’s mercy in both our mind and heart is essential to authentic Christian living. Before we live a gospel-shaped, Christ-exalting life, we must have a firm grip on gospel truth.
Of course there are plenty of other documents that can help with this study. It’s likewise true the Shorter Catechism goes a bit beyond the core on some matters. Nevertheless, the first 38 questions and answers offer a succinct, clear, and heartwarming summary of central Christian beliefs.
Do you want a firmer grip on central Christian truths? Are you looking for a resource that can help you teach these doctrines to others? If so, engaging with the Shorter Catechism is worth it.
2. The catechism rightly views salvation as past, present, and future.The story goes that an eager evangelist got on a train and asked the man sitting opposite him: “Are you saved?” The other replied, “I am, I am being, and I will be.” Somewhat puzzled at this response, the evangelist tried again: “You don’t understand. Are you saved?” The other man simply reiterated his first answer: “I am, I am being, and I will be.” The other man was Charles Spurgeon.
I’m not sure whether this story is authentic or not, but it illustrates a vital point. It’s easy to misconstrue salvation as merely something that happened when I became a Christian, thus overlooking its present and future dimensions.
Here, too, the catechism can help us when it talks about ongoing salvation, stressing how believers are renewed in God’s image and increasingly enabled to slay sin and live in holiness (Answer 35). The catechism teaches about future salvation, too, pointing us to the day when believers will be “perfectly blessed, in the full enjoying of God to all eternity” (Answer 38).
3. The catechism calls for whole-life discipleship.This point follows naturally from the previous one. Once the catechism teaches believers about their salvation and their daily fight with sin, it’s no surprise it then offers how we ought to live. This teaching largely comes in the form of a powerful and practical exposition of the Ten Commandments. The catechism doesn’t call Christians to live by the commandments in a legalistic or chore-like fashion. Instead, we take them as an expression of God’s moral will for the lives of his believing people. For example, the explanation of the eighth commandment (Questions 73 to 75) has obvious practical implications for our daily work.
In a nutshell, the catechism is thoughtfully arranged to show us how the commandments lead us to the redeeming love of God and help us live in an ongoing experience of that love.
4. The catechism opens the door to the wisdom of the Puritans.When we think about the past, we can easily fall prey to one of two mistakes. The first is to view it through rose-tinted glasses, imagining everything was wonderful “back then.” The other is to ignore it entirely, thus missing out on valuable historical lessons.
We shouldn’t idolize the Puritans, but much can be gained from paying attention to them. If, for example, you read Thomas Watson, you’ll find statements like this: “We are more sure to arise out of our graves than out of our beds.” Or Richard Sibbes: “There is more mercy in Christ than sin in us.”
Would you like to tap into this mine of spiritual gold? The Shorter Catechism is a great place to get acquainted with Puritan wisdom.
5. Our ‘chief end’ really is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.There’s no doubt that the opening answer is the most famous portion of the Shorter Catechism.
To realize our chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever is to appreciate the whole thrust of Scripture, to see into God’s heart, and to discover our own purpose. A real grasp of this truth can enable us to see that knowing Jesus is eternal life, and that losing our lives for him means finding true life.
The catechism’s first answer is worth our engagement. Yet the Westminster divines didn’t just leave us one answer, they offered another 106. And they are worth our attention too.
- Andrew Conway (MDiv, Union Theological College, Belfast) is the minister of Hilltown and Clonduff Presbyterian Churches in County Down, Northern Ireland. He and his wife, Sarah, have a delightful young daughter, Annie. Andrew is the author of The Shorter Catechism Made Simple.
Neatly written articles to promote Christian Thinking; minted from the web & more...