Previous article in this series: September 1, 2008, p. 460.

“Thus saith the Lord, Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls. But they said, We will not walk therein. 

Jeremiah 6:16

We gratefully acknowledge that, for almost 85 years, the Protestant Reformed Churches have asked for the old path of catechism: the church instructing her youth. God be praised for preserving the PRC on that path, giving rest to our (and our children’s!) souls.

Catechism was God’s way in the Old Testament when the Levites gave systematic instruction in God’s law. It was God’s way also in the New Testament, and has been carried out for 2000 years up until today. The church would not have survived without the training of her youth.

Catechism season is upon us. These editorials call the church—all who are involved in this great work—to ask for this old path, walk in this good way, and find rest for the children’s souls.

There was hardly a time when the church’s enemies did not understand the importance of catechism instruction. When Christianity was sanctioned in the Roman empire by Constantine, teachers worldwide promoted Christianity by teaching the children. Then Constantine’s nephew, “Julian the Apostate,” enemy of God and truth, succeeded him on the throne and attempted to destroy Christianity by requiring state certification of all catechism teachers. In God’s providence, the counsel of Julian failed because he died in battle the following year. In Reformation times, the Roman Catholic Church realized that “the heretics have chiefly made use of catechisms to corrupt the minds of Christians.” The Roman Catholics acknowledged that “the advantage which the Protestants hath gotten…came by this exercise.” The Roman Catholics were so impressed with the influence of catechism that they set up their own machinery to train their army of capable Catholics. To this day, the Roman Catholic’s “Society of Jesus” (Jesuits) is influential because of the academic rigor with which they train multitudes of children and young people.

That today so many Protestants today are abandoning catechetical instruction is, therefore, more than a little ironic. But for generations already the path has been abandoned. Story has it that in the 1800s a Roman Catholic priest, visiting a protestant bishop, said: “What a poor foolish people you Protestants are. You leave the children until they are grown up, possessed of the devil, and then go out reclaiming them with horse, foot, and dragoons [perhaps in missions, BG]. We Catholics, on the other hand, know that the children are as plastic or clay in our hands. We quietly devote ourselves first to them. When they are well instructed and trained, we have little to fear for the future.”

A good reminder to those today who might be tempted to devote themselves to missions rather than the important work of teaching children.

Sound doctrine

But there are other ways to depart from this old path than by abandoning catechism altogether.

A church can lose its way by teaching fluff, or drivel, rather than meaty, sound doctrine. The churches must teach sound doctrine.

In the days of the Judges there arose a “generation that knew not the Lord.” The reason for that fatal ignorance was that the generation had not been taught. For lack of knowledge, more than a few generations in old covenant times were destroyed (Hosea 4:6). Thus, the new covenant word is that we (children included) must “grow in grace, and the knowledge of our Lord” (II Pet. 3:18; my emphasis, BLG).

Faithful Reformed churches will ensure that the children know God’s truth. Sound doctrine.

PRC catechism curriculum is, first, seven years of Bible history from age 6 to age 12—three times through the full history of both Old and New Testaments. The children start with Bible history. Notice, the generation that did not know the Lord in the days of the judges, lacked this heart knowledge because they did not knowhistory: “nor yet the works which he had done for Israel” (Jud. 2:10). Children come to know the Lord largely by knowing His works.

After they are grounded in history, the children learn doctrines of Scripture taught systematically. First, instruction in the Heidelberg Catechism is given for two years. Then, two years in the Essentials of Reformed Doctrine, until grade 11 or 12. After high school, the young adults usually learn from one of the other creeds or from the Church Order, according to the elders’ judgment. Each of these classes makes plain that the church’s confession is the expression of the Word of God.

Always the Word of God.

Application of sound doctrine 

Proper catechism instruction also includesapplication of the Word of God. Application is as important in catechism as it is in preaching. And because preaching is incomplete without application, catechism is incomplete without applications—practical, penetrating applications. It will not do just to teach the history of the flood, the doctrine of total depravity, unconditional election, or the truth of the church. The children must hear the comfort of the flood history, thecautions implied in our depraved natures, the love of God in His gracious giving of us to Christ, and the assurance that those who now are living members of the church shall ever remain so. It is not enough for a pastor to teach Scripture’s infallibility without teaching, with conviction, that the Scriptures are profitable, able to make one wise unto salvation, that they are food for one’s soul, a light in a dark world, the love letter of God to His dear children.

And applications take preparation. To make them properly takes great care. To direct them to the particular age takes much wisdom. A five-year-old is different from a nine-year-old, who, again, is not a seventeen-year-old. Not just anyone is able to do this work. But catechism instruction is always instruction in and by the Word.

The subject is not the “issues of the day” (although the word will be brought to bear on the issues of the day; applications include these issues).

The subject is not the social problems of the world (although catechism will instruct the youth about the social problems of the day, and point out the Christian’s social calling in the world).

But the subject and starting point is always the Word of God.

Sound methodology 

The old path can be abandoned by teaching something other than the Word of God.

It can also be forsaken by teaching poorly.

Not all talk about the Bible by a church officebearer in the presence of children is catechetical instruction. There is a right way to teach and a wrong way to teach. And, though teaching poorly is not as bad as not teaching at all, it comes close.

A good catechism teacher must be trained to teach. Not everyone is qualified to teach catechism any more than everyone is qualified to teach in the good Christian schools. Although a man may know his subject, parents cannot abide a teacher who cannot explain it to children. Parents must dismiss a school teacher who, although he is able to explain it, lacks wisdom. And no school board will renew a contract of one who, although he can explain the material, cannot manage a classroom of rambunctious youth. Teaching school takes many different qualifications. So does teaching catechism.

That not everyone is qualified to teach catechism is seen when we remember that catechism instruction is a form of, though not identical to, preaching. (Reformed churches have recognized the difference between catechism instruction and preaching in their allowance of elders to teach, even though elders may not preach. They recognize the close similarity in that they require that the one who teaches be an officebearer, a man chosen for his aptitude for teaching: I Tim. 3:2II Tim. 2:24.) As not everyone is qualified to preach, everyone is not qualified to teach. And to be skillful in teaching (“apt to teach” in the KJV is really “skillful in teaching”), one must usually be trained.

No doubt, as with many pastors, so with elders who teach, often the skill is gained through some halting attempts and less than first-rate efforts. But usually the elders who teach have experience from teaching school, have clearly recognized gifts of teaching, or have received some training. (Many elders may be interested to know that a consistory recently asked for instruction designed for elders to teach catechism; God willing, next summer this can take place.)

But there is a method in good catechism teaching, as in all teaching.

I mention a few of the important methods, not so much to assist elders who may be teaching catechism (I regard with high respect those who are willing and able to teach. My father, a teacher as much by nature as by training, often taught catechism when Redlands was vacant), but to impress upon the church the difficulty of the undertaking. Pray that all the teachers may teach well, may convey the Word of God to the youth clearly, for the salvation of their souls. Faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God. But let none of us stand in the way of the children hearing.

First, the teacher will exert all his powers to make the truth clear. He will not be satisfied until the children understand what he’s teaching. In Nehemiah 8 the Levites not only read distinctly, they also “gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading.” This is explanation by illustration, repetition, and the use of every appropriate tool to cause the hearers to understand.

Second, the teacher will repeat, restate, and review. One of the great principles of teaching is “a little at a time, oft repeated.” One temptation of young teachers is to try to teach too much at once. Another is to suppose that when children hear something once, they will remember it. But children remember what they hear many times. In each class, the main point of the lesson is stated, illustrated, applied, repeated. Then, when one gives evidence that he did not understand, the process is repeated until it is plain for all. Repetition and review also go from week to week. One of the delightful experiences in teaching catechism is seeing the children, at the end of the season, able to repeat and explain all of the important truths that have been repeated week after week. And I strongly recommend that this review include tests or other review exercises after every five weeks, even though this lengthens the season by a month. It always used to be so. The benefits of review are great.

Third, the good catechism teacher asks questions. He doesn’t waste time by using a strict “Socratic method,” which method results in the children talking as much as he does. But he certainly does not lecture for forty-five minutes, or he will find out sooner or later that, although the bright and obedient children “got it,” others remained in the dark. This is another reason catechism instruction is so difficult (another reason to give review tests, too). A man must determine whether the children are grasping the truth, and then do whatever it takes to “cause them to understand.” Asking questions not only helps him gauge at what level to begin (Augustine’s emphasis), but asking questions helps the teacher gauge whether he has been clear, and whether the students he thought were taking notes were actually doing tomorrow’s science homework. We teachers must not be naïve.

An effective teacher is orderly; is demanding (how many times haven’t I heard older saints say, “My minister was hard, but we learned so much!”); is enthusiastic (God forbid we ever teach His truth in any other way); disciplines in love the disobedient; and requires a mountain of memorization.

Because catechism is not teaching mathematics, but the Word of God, the teacher will aim at the heart (albeit through the head); will make explicit that what he teaches is not his word but God’s Word; will show, especially to the older students, that the Reformed faith is the “faith of the fathers,” the “old path,” historic Christianity; and will always have a spiritual perspective and a biblically practical goal: the maturing of them in Jesus Christ and the preparation of them to make a good, public confession of faith.

Because teaching catechism is teaching the Word of God, it does not suggest, but declares. At the end of the day the students have heard, “Thus saith the Lord! This is the word of God to which we all must submit.”

At the heart of all the instruction is the love of God. Methods are vital, but teaching is useless if it is not the teaching of the love of God. The teachers love God; the students sense that. God loves the children; the children hear that. If the heart of the Scriptures is the Lord Jesus, and if the Lord Jesus is the manifestation of God’s great love, then the teaching of Scripture in catechism is the teaching of the love of God. Oh, that our children know the love of God! God give us teachers who love the covenant children.

God bless our catechism instruction this season!