Catechism

By the time this article appears in print the new catechism season will have begun. Books will have been handed out and initial assignments will have been given. As the new season gets under way, it’s worthwhile to consider this important aspect of the ministry of the church. It’s worthwhile that as ministers, elders, parents, children, and young people we remind ourselves of the necessity of sound, thorough catechetical instruction. 

We need to remind ourselves of the importance of catechism especially today when there is a de-emphasis on catechism instruction. Many churches today have eliminated catechism altogether, or have made some unsatisfactory substitution for catechism. In many churches the catechism season has been so whittled down that the children spend more weeks out of than in catechism. The age at which the children begin catechism becomes older and older, and the age at which they are finished becomes younger and younger. The catechism instruction itself in many churches is no longer assumed by the minister, or at least by the elders, but is passed off to other members of the congregation, often times even women. 

This is a lamentable situation. It’s a situation that can only have adverse effects on the church, especially the church of tomorrow. It is only another aspect of the rejection of instruction in the truth, knowledge, and doctrine which so characterizes these last days in which we live. It is a situation that is calculated to produce a generation that knows not the Lord, nor His mighty works (Judges 1:10). 

From the very beginning of the New Testament church, catechetical instruction was given a large and important place in the official ministry of the church. Catechism is as old as the Christian church herself. It’s already plain from the Book of Acts and the New Testament that instruction preceded admission into the membership of the church, baptism, and admission to the Lord’s Supper. You have only to think of the instruction of the multitude on the Day of Pentecost prior to their baptism (Acts 2); the instruction of the Ethiopian eunuch by Philip prior to his baptism (Acts 8:26 ff.); the instruction of Cornelius and his household prior to their baptism by Peter (Acts 10); and of Paul’s instruction of Lydia and her household and the Philippian jailor and his household before their baptism (Acts 16). 

From the beginning, therefore, the church emphasized the need of instruction of those who sought membership in the church. Those who were candidates for baptism were given thorough intellectual and spiritual preparation for membership in the church. In earliest times, this instruction concentrated on converts from heathenism. But also the children of believers were made the object of the catechetical instruction of the church. This instruction was at first left to the parents, and in some cases to the schools. But, gradually, organized classes of instruction under the supervision of the church were instituted. 

Although catechetical instruction, as so many other aspects of the life of the church, languished in the Roman Catholic Church of the Middle Ages, the Reformation restored catechetical instruction. The Reformers emphasized the need for catechism, and both Luther and Calvin, as well as other of the Reformers, prepared catechisms for the instruction of the children of believers. One of the outstanding reasons for the preparation of our own Heidelberg Catechism was that there might be a course of catechetical instruction for the youth of the Reformed churches. The original introduction to the Heidelberg Catechism states: “. . . we have secured the preparation of a summary course of instruction or catechism of our Christian Religion, according to the Word of God, in the German and Latin languages, in order . . . that the youth in churches and schools may be piously instructed in such Christian doctrine . . . .” 

For many years catechetical instruction flourished among the Reformed churches. Undoubtedly this is in no small measure due to the unique importance attached by the Reformed churches to the Scriptural doctrine of the covenant of grace. Understanding the position in the covenant of the children of believers, and emphasizing the calling of believing parents and the church alike to instruct the children of the covenant, the importance of catechetical instruction necessarily followed. It’s really no surprise today that with the neglect and corruption of the doctrine of God’s covenant there is a corresponding neglect of good catechetical instruction. 

At the beginning of a new catechism season we do well to remind ourselves that catechetical instruction belongs to our rich heritage as Reformed churches. We do well to thank God for what He gives us in this important aspect of the gospel ministry. And we do well to recommit ourselves to the preservation of sound catechetical instruction in our midst. 

The children and young people especially must be impressed with the importance of catechism. As you begin your work in catechism for a new year, resolve to do your work diligently. Take an interest in your instruction in catechism. Give to catechism the importance that it deserves. Don’t let it happen that your involvement in school activities, athletics, work, or anything else stands in the way of your doing well in catechism. Don’t wait until the last minute or the evening before class to learn your questions and do your written work. This is a shame and something with which you can be sure the Lord is not pleased. In class, be attentive and take an interest in the instruction that’s given. Participate in the discussions and ask the questions that come to mind. Your time in catechism will be what you make it. If you’re disinterested and would rather be doing other things, then catechism is going to be a bore. But if you take an interest in catechism, learn your questions, do your work, participate in the discussions, you will probably be surprised how much you actually do enjoy catechism.

Parents must be involved in the catechetical instruction of their children. They must not only see to it that they are receiving the instruction, that the instruction is Biblical, but they must see to it that their children are doing their work faithfully. Especially with the younger children, Mother or Dad should teach the children their memory questions. But they mustn’t leave it at this. They ought to teach them the Bible story that each week’s lesson is centered in. Start early in the week, going over the lesson four or five times each night, and by the end of the week the children will know the lesson. See to it that the older children do their written work. Help them with the written work if they need help.

Parents ought to keep up this involvement in their children’s catechism instruction even when they are out of the younger classes and in the classes on the Heidelberg Catechism and Essentials of Reformed Doctrine. Too often I find it the case that parents simply assume that their young people are learning their questions and doing their preparation. Don’t simply assume this. Young people are notorious for learning their questions at the last minute. Continue to see to it that your children are prepared for catechism even after they graduate from the younger classes. Don’t assume that they know their questions; ask them the questions. 

We ministers too ought to remind ourselves of the importance of catechism. Let’s not give our preparation for catechism the once-over-lightly. But let’s give catechism the time that it deserves. Let our preparation be careful and thorough. Let’s make every effort to make our classroom instruction fresh and lively, and not simply rely on the same material that we used the last time through the book. Let’s be concerned to ground the children of the church in the Reformed faith, and be at pains to demonstrate to them that the Reformed faith is the faith of the Scriptures. And let’s demand good work of the students, making catechism not only intellectual but spiritual preparation for active membership in the church. 

The responsibility and supervision of the consistory in regard to catechetical instruction cannot be stressed enough. An excellent series of articles on this specific subject, written by Prof. H.C. Hoeksema, can be found in Volume 44 of the Standard Bearer. It would be worth the while of our elders to read these articles. Let officebearers have the high regard for catechetical instruction that the Reformed have always held, that catechism is the official ministry of the Word. As much as they are responsible for and are called to supervise the preaching of the Word on the Sabbath, so are they called to oversee the catechism classes. In large measure the quality of catechetical instruction depends on how faithful the elders are to oversee the instruction. Periodic visits ought to be made to the various classes. The instruction, both from the point of view of its content and its effectiveness, ought to be discussed by the consistory. And parents and young people who are negligent with regard to catechism ought to be visited. 

May God’s blessing rest upon the new season of instruction in catechism. May we all show a zeal for this important work. Especially may the instruction given be blessed to the hearts of the children and young people. By means of the instruction received may they be established in the faith and led to assume their place at the Lord’s Table and make public confession of their faith.