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(Note: At the request of the Officebearers’ Conference of Classis East, I have prepared for publication an address delivered at their October meeting on the above subject. It will appear serially in the Standard Bearer. H.C.H.) 

INTRODUCTION 

As far as this subject is concerned, I suppose I might almost be counted a “has-been.” Catechetics has never been one of my subjects in the seminary; and Church Polity is no longer one of my branches of instruction. Moreover, though I am an officebearer, I have no active part in any consistorial labor; and it is, besides, very seldom that I ever teach catechism any more, except occasionally as a substitute. 

Nevertheless, I deem this subject both interesting and important, and that for more than one reason. In the first place, it is as important as catechetical instruction itself is: and that is probably even more important than we think it to be and than we sometimes treat it as being. But it can surely be readily understood that a consistory which considers catechism instruction to be important will also consider consistorial supervision thereof to be important. For, basically, the quality of the former can be no better than the thoroughness and the carefulness of the latter. In the second place, I deem this subject important because I am of the opinion that catechetical instruction could receive more attention and emphasis than it sometimes does. It is, of course, always a mistake to assume that there is not room for improvement. But it is also true that even where there is a high level of quality in the instruction given in the catechism room, this can only be maintained by careful supervision and oversight on the part of those responsible. Good things have a quiet way of slipping away from us and of becoming neglected merely by default and through a process of being taken for granted. And certainly our consistories must take care that catechetical instruction does not have a “second fiddle” role in our congregations. Positively speaking, we must take care that this instruction is as thorough and as intensive as possible. 

As far as the origin of this assigned subject is concerned, I would guess that it has probably arisen in part out of that sometimes nettlesome question that is addressed to the consistory at church visitation concerning the visiting of catechism classes. We will come to that problem eventually in the course of this discussion; but I consider that particular problem to be only one phase of a larger and very important subject. The actual visiting of catechism classes is but one part of a very important duty of any consistory, namely, to assume the chief responsibility for catechetical instruction and therefore to supervise all that belongs to that instruction. 

To various aspects of this consistorial responsibility I now call your attention. 

The Importance of This Consistorial Supervision 

As I already suggested, this importance lies, in the deepest sense, in the importance of catechetical instruction itself. And the importance of catechetical instruction, in turn, can only be seen correctly when we note the nature and purpose of catechetical instruction. To that nature and purpose, therefore, we must give our attention. 

For a description of the nature of catechetical instruction I will quote from our seminary’s “Catechetics Notes,” written by the late Rev. Herman Hoeksema:

Catechetical instruction is the official labor which the church by way of instruction is called to bestow upon the seed of the covenant, in order that it may attain to the knowledge of the covenant and be enabled consciously to assume its part in that covenant. 

In distinction from ail other instruction, it is spiritual, religious instruction, the contents of which must be derived directly from Holy Writ. 

It (catechetical instruction) is official ecclesiastical instruction. It is a form of the ministry of the Word. It is more particularly the task of the minister of the Word. And it is a very important part of that task. For by catechetical instruction the seed of the covenant is prepared for the preaching.

As far as the task and purpose of catechetical instruction are concerned, I quote the following from the same notes:

The task may be described as consisting in this, that the church instruct the seed of the covenant in the whole counsel of God. And the purpose of catechetical instruction…is to lead the seed of the covenant from the state of spiritual immaturity to that state of maturity in virtue of which they can take their position in the church in which they have a place, make confession of their faith consciously in the fellowship of that particular church, and consciously take their place at the communion table. The children of believers must come to a conscious possession of all the benefits God’s people have in Christ. They must learn to know these benefits and to appropriate them. They must learn to know their calling as members of the body of Christ and of God’s covenant, not only as such, but also in antithesis to the world that lies in darkness. And they must learn to consider it grace in the cause of Christ not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer with Him. For this purpose it is not sufficient, as the purpose of catechism is sometimes presented to be, to lead the seed of the covenant to conversion. On the contrary, it must as much as possible be founded in all the truth of Scripture as it is understood and confessed by the church that instructs. Moreover, it must not merely be instructed in the positive knowledge of this truth, but also learn to distinguish it from every wind of doctrine, and by the truth be trained to put on the whole armor of God, fight the good fight, and stand in the evil day. Such is the task of catechetical instruction, and the end which the catechizing church must keep constantly in mind.

Let me briefly point out that the basis of all this is the fact that God establishes His covenant in the line of continued generations. If God had not connected the historical development of His covenant with the organic continuity of generations, and if there were, therefore, no certainty whatsoever that He would gather His church from generation to generation, there would be no basis for catechetical instruction. And since God gives the children of the covenant not only to the parents, but also to the church in the midst of the world, and instituted the church and gives her the offices, it follows that the church has a sacred calling to minister the Word of God to the lambs of Jesus’ flock according to their capacity. And we need not be surprised that it is only in those circles where this idea of the covenant of God running in the line of continued generations is maintained that catechetical instruction flourishes. 

This brief review of the nature and task and purpose of catechetical instruction is sufficient, I think, to make it clear, in the first place, that catechism instruction is important. It is safe to say, I believe, that catechetical instruction is second only to the preaching of the Word itself. In the second place, that importance of catechetical instruction is closely connected with the preaching of the Word in the church. Through the means of catechetical instruction the seed of the covenant is led to spiritual maturity. And a very important part of the life of the spiritually mature child of God is his being under the preaching of the Word, listening to, understanding, and appropriating the Word preached. And by means of catechetical training the seed of the covenant is prepared for the preaching. This means, therefore, that a generation that is not properly catechized is not properly prepared for the preaching of the Word. Such a generation will be unable to understand the preaching of the Word. Such a generation will not be able properly to discern whether or not that preaching of the Word is true and pure. Such a generation will have no spiritual appetite for the pure preaching of the Word. Such a generation will not know and understand the vocabulary of the Reformed faith. And therefore, ultimately the preaching of the Word itself must needs deteriorate according as a generation grows up which is not properly catechized. Moreover, all the various elements which were mentioned above in connection with the purpose of catechetical instruction must needs be affected whenever and wherever that instruction is neglected. 

From all this, it follows that this official work of the ministry must be carefully and very thoroughly and zealously performed. And from this it follows that it is a far from unimportant task for a consistory carefully to supervise this part of the work of the ministry. Even as it is the consistory’s task to oversee the ministry of the Word, so it is the consistory’s task to oversee the catechizing of the covenant seed. And even as the responsibility for the ministry of the Word does not lie ultimately with the individual minister, but with the consistory, so the responsibility for the task of catechizing the covenant seed does not lie ultimately with the individual teacher, but with the consistory.

Yet, while theoretically and principally we will all undoubtedly acknowledge this importance of catechetical instruction, and therefore the importance of its supervision by the consistory, it is not difficult to point out how, in various practical ways, the importance is often minimized. Let me mention a few items which will be familiar to you merely by their being mentioned. Consider how the catechism season has been abbreviated, so that it is by no means as long, for example, as the school term. In most of our churches the maximum catechism season is some thirty weeks, three-fifths of the year. Or consider how sometimes the catechism season is simply allowed to “tail off” and to be terminated without really being completed. Spring weather comes. Perhaps the neighboring church has ceased holding classes. Possibly the pastor would like to bring the “busy season” to a close. And so it is proposed that catechism be stopped, though the various courses have not been finished. Or consider how catechism sessions can be shortened to a scant forty-five minutes, so that it is all but impossible adequately to treat a lesson. Or consider the fact that catechism classes are in many cases required to be taught at a most disadvantageous time, at the tag end of a school day, when it is virtually a psychological impossibility to retain the full attention of children who have already been in school all day. Consider, too, the fact that though this instruction is very important, covenant parents will allow their children to go to catechism class with little or no preparation and little or no parental supervision. Or consider how sometimes children and young people are allowed to skip catechism for the most flimsy, and sometimes the most carnal, of excuses,—so that, for example, school programs or basketball games can come before catechism in importance. Or consider how little actual knowledge a consistory may have as to what goes on in the catechism room, and how little actual supervision is exercised by the elders, and how difficult it seems for the elders to accomplish class visitation. 

The above are but a few practical items which I mention from observation and which may serve to illustrate how {the importance of catechetical instruction can sometimes be minimized. 

Hence, it is clear that consistorial supervision of catechetical instruction is not a small thing, but ought to be counted an important task and responsibility of the consistory. It surely must not be treated as a matter of empty routine by the elders, or as one of those numerous, bothersome tasks which must be performed, but which are not of great importance. 

Its Authority and Necessity 

When we turn to our Liturgical Forms and to the Church Order, we do not find many direct references to this consistorial task. There is, in fact, very little direct mention either of catechetical instruction or of the supervision of it in these documents. This does not mean, however, by any means that the authority and necessity of catechetical instruction and of consistorial supervision thereof are without basis in our Reformed system. I would suggest rather that because catechetical instruction became an inherent part of our Reformed system, and because historically it has been taken for granted as belonging to the task of the preaching of the Word, therefore it received little separate mention alongside of the preaching of the Word. 

In the Form for the Ordination of Elders we find no special mention of the fact that the elders must supervise catechetical instruction. Nevertheless this task is implied in and certainly constitutes a part of the task of the elders as set forth in this Form. The elders are called “to take the oversight of the Church . . .and diligently to look whether everyone properly deports himself in his confession and conversation.” To this deportment of the church belongs the faithful use of the means of grace; and to these means of grace belongs the preaching of the Word; and to the preaching of the Word belongs catechetical instruction. From this it follows that faithfulness with respect to this catechetical instruction, both on the part of the parents and on the part of the covenant seed, comes under the oversight of the elders. 

Moreover, the elders must “have regard to the doctrine and conversation of the ministers of the Word, to the end that all things may be directed to the edification of the Church, that no strange doctrine be taught…” Here also it is plain that to the task of the elders belongs the supervision of catechetical instruction. They must have regard to the doctrine of the ministers of the Word also in the catechism classes. Also in the catechism classes they must see to it that all things are directed to the edification of the church. And also in the catechism classes they must see to it that no strange doctrine be taught. 

When we turn to our Church Order, we discover again that there are very few direct references to the matter of catechism instruction and its supervision. There are in our Church Order no separate articles about these matters. Our present Article 21 refers to the consistory’s responsibility with respect to Christian education; The original version of Article 21, dating from 1586, read as follows: “Everywhere consistories shall see to it that there are good schoolmasters, who shall not only instruct the children in reading, writing, languages, and the liberal arts, but likewise ingodliness and in the catechism.” In former years catechetical instruction was in part the task of the schoolmasters. We must remember that at that time the schools were under the supervision of the consistories, and the schoolmasters had to sign the Formula of Subscription. They were bound by that Formula to teach according to our Reformed confessions. In the original Article 21, therefore, supervision of catechetical instruction was clearly assigned to the consistories. We no longer have that article; and undoubtedly we lost something of its meaning in the process of the revision of it. But this reference nevertheless will suffice to show the thinking of our Reformed fathers about the matter under discussion. 

Article 23 of the Church Order describes the office of elder as including this: “…to take heed that the ministers…faithfully discharge their office…” There is no specific mention of catechetical instruction here; but as surely as that instruction belongs to the office of minister, so surely the office of elder implies the responsibility to take heed that the minister faithfully catechizes. And that catechetical instruction belongs to the office of minister is clearly spelled out in the minister’s call letter. 

Article 44 of the Church Order speaks indirectly of this supervision. This is the article about the task of the church visitors. These church visitors must “take heed whether the minister and the consistory faithfully perform the duties of their office, adhere to sound doctrine, observe in all things the adopted order, and properly promote as much as lies in them, through word and deed, the upbuilding of the congregation, in particular of the youth. . . ” (italics mine, H.C.H.) Note that according to this article it belongs to the task of minister and consistory to promote through word and deed the upbuilding of the congregation, in particular of the youth. Catechetical instruction is obviously included here. And that this conclusion is correct is plain from the fact that the adopted “Questions for Church Visitation” include questions which the church visitors must ask about catechetical instruction. 

Article 55 also implies the necessity of catechetical instruction and ascribes responsibility to elders as well as ministers: “To ward off false doctrines and errors that multiply exceedingly through heretical writings, the ministers and elders shall use the means of teaching, of refutation, or warning, and of admonition, as well in the ministry of the Word as in Christian teaching and family-visiting.” 

And Article 61, which requires a confession of the reformed religion by those who are admitted to the Lord’s Supper, and which places this matter under the supervision of the consistory, certainly implies the necessity of instruction in that “reformed religion” and implies a responsibility of the consistory to provide it and to see that it is adequate.

Finally, there are two questions asked at Church Visitation which directly refer to consistorial super vision. Question 5 of the questions to the full consistory reads as follows: “Does the consistory see to it that catechism classes are regularly conducted? Does the consistory determine the material for instruction? And does it see to it that the classes are regularly attended?” Notice that this question speaks of three specific items of responsibility: 1) the conducting of catechism classes; 2) the instructional materials; 3) the attendance of classes. 

And among the questions addressed to the minister and deacons in the absence of the elders is Question 2: “Do they at set times attend the catechism classes to see how they are conducted and attended; and do they assist the minister when the need requires it in catechizing?” Notice that this question does not merely speak of visiting, but mentions the purpose of these visits: “to see how they are conducted and attended.” Besides, the article presupposes that it is the duty of the elders to assist the minister as the need requires. 

From all this it is plain that the responsibility and authority lie with the consistory. Catechetical instruction is not the task of the minister alone, no more than the preaching of the Word is his sole responsibility. The ultimate responsibility for catechetical instruction lies at the door of the elders. 

(to be continued)