Catechizing: The Need of the Hour
There is nothing more important than passing on the faith to the next generation. We live in a day and age where people who claim to be Christians and to “know Christ” actually know less and less of the basic teachings of Scripture. It continually evidences itself in the decline of Biblically faithful conduct and the decay of evangelicalism away from the core of the gospel. We need to rediscover faithful patterns of instructing and passing on the truth of God’s Word. One tool that believers can use to pass on the doctrines found in the Bible is a catechism.
The word catechism comes from the Greek word katēcheō which means to teach or instruct orally. The verb is used in the New Testament in places like Acts 18:25; Rom. 2:18; and Gal. 6:6. Christians have always recognized the need to ground believers, particularly the young and the new, in the basics of the faith. The church has always had the mission to make disciples and that entails instruction in basic doctrine.
A catechism, then, is a tool for teaching the basics of Christian doctrine to believers, typically through a series of questions and answers. The practice of using a catechism is really rather simple. Those learning the catechism are encouraged to memorize and recite the answers. So a teacher, pastor, or parent may ask the question out loud and the student will typically give the answer in response. Some who use catechism very firmly stress rote memorization while others are more satisfied if the student can give the correct answer even if not word-for-word. The important thing is the rehearsing together of basic Christian doctrines. Using a catechism to answer basic questions of doctrine reminds us we are believing and confessing that which “was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).
The New Testament instructs us to pass on the basics of Christian doctrine in the pattern of sound words. New generations of Christians do not start with a blank slate. Good doctrine is formulated in a pattern of sound words and comes through Scripture as Paul instructs Timothy and Titus (cf. I Timothy 6:3, II Timothy 1:13, Titus 1:9). The catechism helps us faithfully to follow the instructions of Scripture to regularly review and speak the Word of God, particularly to our children. For example, Deuteronomy 6:4-7 says, "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. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise."
Catechisms are not to replace Scripture but help provide a faithful blueprint for understanding the whole of Scripture. It helps the young Christian think systematically about all the Scripture has said. The “proof texts” provided with the catechism serve as anchor points tying the doctrines to the texts but are not meant to serve as full expositions of any one particular text. The catechism focuses on teaching the sum total of Christian doctrine at the most basic introductory levels.
Very few Christians today regularly read their Bible. Even more, many treat the Bible like a fortune cookie: I can grab a verse here or there and feel good about myself. But everyone knows fortune cookies are hardly nourishing. Christians need to read deeply in Scripture but they also have need of knowing the basic structure of Scripture and its doctrines. Think, for example, of a tomato vine growing and flourishing when it is given a structure to latch on to. So, a catechism gives us a structure of the patterns of doctrine we find in the pages of Scripture. A Christian will flourish when they have a basic sense of the structure or pattern of the truths of Scripture upon which deeper growth and knowledge might attach.
In this respect, catechisms are immensely practical. They help shape and form strong Christians. B.B. Warfield tells a story that perfectly illustrates how the catechism builds young people into strong adults who are confident in the Lord in all of life:
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 at once came back to him, and touching his chest to 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 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.
It is worthwhile to be a Shorter Catechism boy. They grow up to be men. And better than that, they are exceedingly apt to grow to be men of God. So apt, that we cannot afford to have them miss the chance of it. "Train up a child in the way he should go, and even when he is old he will not depart from it."
It is this strong Christian adult who can walk boldly through the anti-Christian morass of life today that is sorely needed. Maybe it's time we returned to the tried and true ways our forefathers used to cultivate the faith. Maybe it is time to return to using catechisms.
Tim Bertolet is a graduate of Lancaster Bible College and Westminster Theological Seminary. He is an ordained pastor in the Bible Fellowship Church, currently serving as Interim Pastor of Faith Bible Fellowship Church in York, Pa. He is a husband and father of four daughters. You can follow him on Twitter @tim_bertolet.
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