Avoiding Catechetical Snobbery

I was a theological polyglot before my arrival at seminary. It took three years to sort through the junk drawer of Evangelical aphorisms that filled my head. But seminary did its good work, a part of which was forcing me to memorize the Westminster Shorter Catechism. It was a blessed suffering. I can remember during a disappointing time of memory work reading the following excerpt from B.B. Warfield's outstanding article, "Is the Shorter Catechism Worthwhile?" He wrote:

What is ‘the indelible mark of the Shorter Catechism’? We have the following bit of personal experience from a general officer of the United States army. He was in a great western city at a time of intense excitement and violent rioting. The streets were over-run daily by a dangerous crowd. One day he observed approaching him a man of singularly combined calmness and firmness of mien, whose very demeanor inspired confidence. So impressed was he with his bearing amid the surrounding uproar that when he had passed he turned to look back at him, only to find that the stranger had done the same. On observing his turning the stranger at once came back to him, and touching his chest with his forefinger, demanded without preface: ‘What is the chief end of man?’ On receiving the countersign, ‘Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever’ — ‘Ah!’ said he, ‘I knew you were a Shorter Catechism boy by your looks!’ ‘Why, that was just what I was thinking of you,’ was the rejoinder.

That story made me want to be a Shorter Catechism boy too, but more than that, a Shorter Catechism man. There is some chest beating and strength-to-victory in it. Stories like these are a part of our collective narrative that help us understand how we live out our faith. And combined together these stories help set the tone for our faith.

I do not take umbrage with Dr. Warfield for his anecdotal encouragement. After all, it helped me finish my memory work--work which pays dividends to this day. But I do wonder if this story exemplifies ‘the indelible mark’ of solid doctrine lived out in regular life. Is standing strong amid crisis the one seminal result of robust doctrine?

And so I’ve imagined a few other ways this story could have been told.

Catechetical Trembling 

What happens when doctrine is encouragement for the weak?

What is ‘the indelible mark of the Shorter Catechism’? We have the following bit of personal experience from a general officer of the United States army. He was in a great western city at a time of intense excitement and violent rioting. The streets were over-run daily by a dangerous crowd. One day he observed approaching him a man with a gate that could only be described as ‘weak-kneed’, whose very demeanor betrayed the fear he tried to hide. So worried for the man amid the surrounding uproar that when he had passed he turned to look back at him, only to find that the stranger had done the same. On observing his turning the stranger haltingly came back toward him, and quavering before him, asked in a weak voice: ‘What is the chief end of man?’ On receiving the countersign, ‘Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever’ — ‘Ah!’ said he, ‘I am so fearful amid such violence. But my grandmother long ago taught me the answer you just gave and it encourages me to hear you say it. I admit it is difficult at times like these to believe it.’ ‘Brother, the God to whom the Catechism points, that Christ, is with you.’ was the rejoinder.

Catechetical Evangelism

What happens when orthodoxy is evangelism?

“What is ‘the indelible mark of the Shorter Catechism’? We have the following bit of personal experience from a general officer of the United States army. He was in a great western city at a time of intense excitement and violent rioting. The streets were over-run daily by a dangerous crowd. One day he observed approaching him a man whose eyes scanned the streets like he was looking for something, whose very demeanor communicated unease. So curious was he with his bearing amid the surrounding uproar that when he had passed he turned to look back at him, only to find that the stranger had done the same. On observing his turning the stranger shuffled back to him, and drawing him close, speaking in whispered tones, asked: ‘What is the chief end of man?’ On receiving the countersign, ‘Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever’ — ‘Ah!’ said he, ‘That is my hope and dismay. I have done things in this city that I am not proud of and even now the weight of them is upon me. Yet, the gospel of Jesus, shared with me years ago in a Sunday school class through the very Catechism you just quoted to me rings in my ears.’ ‘Why, that same Catechism says that all who receive and rest on Jesus for salvation can have assurance that their sins, no matter how heinous, have been atoned for,’ was the rejoinder.”

The way of Doctrine

These two altered narratives are my brief attempt to challenge our collective narrative surrounding catechetical training. There are times where doctrine provides surpassing strength in times of testing but also times where doctrine keeps our head above water or ushers a dead soul into new life. We have to be careful about the combined effect of the stories we tell and the sermon illustrations we give. We would not want to slip into a catechetical snobbery by making the assumption that right doctrine guarantees a faux Christian life devoid of struggle and weakness.

The benefit of doctrine is discovered in the way in which our Lord Jesus uses it to equip us for everyday life. Life is multiplex and experiences differ from person to person. And yet the truth of God, the activity of the Holy Spirit, and kingly rule of Jesus never change. Do our stories, told together, reflect the varied care of our God over us? If they don’t, I think it’s time to write some new stories.

 

1. Warfield, Selected Shorter Writings (P&R Publishing), vol 1, p 383–384.

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