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Jonathan Master (PhD, University of Aberdeen) is professor of theology and dean of the School of Divinity at Cairn University. He is also director of Cairn’s Center for University Studies. Dr. Master serves as executive editor of Place for Truth and is co-chair of the Princeton Regional Conference on Reformed Theology.

Article by Jonathan Master

Catechizing: Catechism and the Commandment

November 4, 2015 •

When Jesus is asked about the greatest commandment, he responds by quoting from Deuteronomy 6.[1]  Specifically, he quotes from the passage often called the Shema: “Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one.  You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”[2]  According to one contemporary Jewish writer, this is, “the basic theological statement of Judaism – the Jewish ‘confession of faith.’”[3]  But what is often unnoticed is that this greatest commandment, this basic confession, is followed closely by a call to catechize.  Commandment and confession lead directly into instruction, teaching children and outsiders the basic principles of biblical doctrine.  In fact, most of the remainder of Deuteronomy 6 deals with the question of instructing children well in the faith.  

The first thing we notice about the instruction of children in Deuteronomy is that it comes from a sincere and believing heart.  The instruction of children is preceded by the parents themselves internalizing the truths of the confession.  Deuteronomy 6:6 says, “And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart.”  This comes before, “You shall teach them diligently to your children.”  In other words, Deuteronomy commands the adults to first understand, believe, and commit to the words of the scriptures, and then as a result to teach them to their children.  The instruction of children is not a formal exercise for parents to carry out merely from a sense of guilt, tradition, or duty.  The instruction of children is done from a heart that has been transformed by the redeeming love of God.  Today we are to pass along the truths of scripture because these truths are precious to us.  We aren’t teaching to simply perpetuate a tradition (though we are doing that, too), but rather because we are instilling teachings that we know to be true.  These are transforming doctrines that have changed our hearts, and we teach from the vantage point of that change.

Second, we see that this teaching is not restricted to a particular time or location.  Too often parents neglect teaching their children because the right opportunity never seems to arrive.  But Deuteronomy 6 reminds us that any time and every time can be an appropriate opportunity to teach the things of God.  “You shall teach them diligently to your children, and you shall talk about them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.”[4]  Teaching children need not be restricted to the mornings or evenings, indoors or outside, at home or away; in fact, all of those provide opportunities to speak about the basic doctrines of our faith.  We should be open to opportunities to teach our children these things when we wake up, when we’re tired, when we’re in the car, or when we’re eating at the table. 

Finally, Deuteronomy reminds us that biblical catechesis must always be quick to focus on the gospel.  To be sure, most of the wonderful catechisms in Reformed Protestantism already have a gospel focus, but in the ebb and flow of teaching and pushing children to learn, sometimes this focus can be lost.  Here is where we must remember – and verbalize! – the personal and meaningful way in which God has saved us.  Our children must know that God’s work in our lives and in real history provides the backdrop for all of the doctrine in which we’re seeking to instruct them.  Listen to this instruction from Moses:

When your son asks you in time to come, ‘What is the meaning of the testimonies and the statutes and the rules that the LORD our God commanded you?’  Then you shall say to your son, “We were Pharoah’s slaves in Egypt.  And the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand…And the LORD commanded us to do all these statutes, to fear the LORD our God, for our good always, that he might preserve us alive, as we are this day.[5]

Deuteronomy anticipates questions from the children of believers.  This passage shows us how to answer those questions.  We answer not by a bare appeal to parental authority or a threat of punishment; but rather, we answer by a rehearsal of the salvation of God in our own lives, and a reminder of His unending goodness and grace to us.

The beautiful outworking of this model of catechism is rehearsed for us by the Psalmist in Psalm 145.  He thinks of believing parents and children together declaring the goodness and salvation of God:  “Great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised, and his greatness is unsearchable.  One generation shall commend your works to another, and shall declare your mighty acts.”[6]

May this vision be worked out in our families, as we follow the greatest Old Testament commandment, along with the instructions for its outworking in our God-fearing homes.

Jonathan Master (PhD, University of Aberdeen) is professor of theology and dean of the School of Divinity at Cairn University. He is also director of Cairn’s Center for University Studies. Dr. Master serves as executive editor of Place for Truth and is co-chair of the Princeton Regional Conference on Reformed Theology.




[1] Mark 12; Matthew 22.

[2] Deuteronomy 6:4-5.

[3]Shema” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Judaism.

[4] Deuteronomy 6:7.

[5] Deuteronomy 6:20-21, 24.

[6] Psalm 145:3-4.

 

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