“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.
Profound gratitude is the proper response when Protestant Reformed members realize what they have in the practice of catechism—the church’s instruction of covenant youth.
They may be as grateful for catechism instruction and for faithful pastors who teach, as they are for air to breathe and food for their families. And more so.
This gratitude, if it is proper, resists pride over against so many that have allowed the practice to slip away, or have turned it into something other than feeding lambs. What have we that we have not received? And who makes us to differ? And why boast as though catechism were not a gift to the undeserving? (cf. I Cor 4:7).
But the right response of believing hearts to catechism is gratitude to God.
As the churches begin another season of catechism instruction this month, we do well to remind ourselves that the practice of the church in giving instruction to the children from early youth to late teens (and later) is an “old path.” It is also a “good way.” By it, under the blessing of a good God, the people of God “find rest for their (and their children’s!) souls” (see Jer. 6:16a).
May God preserve the Protestant Reformed Churches (and all others who have maintained this practice) from responding, “We will not walk therein” (seeJer. 6:16b).
We might be surprised how old is this path.
Already early in the old covenant the church walked this path. The church taught the youth. This understanding of the church’s role in catechizing is based not only on Abraham’s role as spiritual teacher of the community. God certainly gave Abraham this place over his household and mandated him to teach them all (Gen. 18:19). But very shortly the church’s role became much more official and organized when theLevites were assigned the position as teachers of the children.
The inspired blessing that Moses gave the tribe of Levi before he died was God’s powerful and official appointment of them to this work. “They shall teach Jacob thy judgments, and Israel thy law” (Deut. 33:10). Spread out as they were in the land of promise (see Josh. 21), the Levites were able to carry out the work efficiently. When Israel later began to fall away, good king Jehoshaphat carried out his spiritual reforms by restoring the Levites to their proper work. They “taught in Judah, and had the book of the law of the Lord with them, and went about throughout all of the cities of Judah, and taught the people” (II Chron. 17:9). And when Israel returned from Babylon, Nehemiah understandably had the Levites assume their ancient role: they “caused the people to understand the law: and the people stood in their place. So they read in the book in the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading” (Neh. 8:7, 8). Later, prophet Malachi sharply rebuked the unfaithful priests and Levites for failing in this fundamental calling (Mal. 2:7, 8).
The place of Levites as teachers explains what happened in the synagogues and in the special schools for the children spread throughout the land. When sufficiently well trained in the old covenant Scripture, the children graduated to become “sons of the law” (Bar Mitzvah). The evidence of Scripture knowledge by Jesus at age twelve, when He debated the “doctors” (teachers!) in the temple, was not surprising to anyone. What was surprising was that this young man knew the Scriptures so well. The church’s youth were always taught.
The old path.
Thus, we would expect Jesus to tell His disciples (the representatives of the church!) to “feed my lambs” (John 21) and to make more disciples by “teaching them…” (Matt. 28). Christ was reminding them of the old paths. When the disciples took up their work after Pentecost, “they ceased not toteach and preach Jesus Christ” in the temple and in every house (Acts 5:42).
This calling of the church takes nothing away from the massive responsibility of all parents. It only establishes the necessity also of the church officebearers seeing to the biblical instruction of the church’s children.
The old path is marked out by Scripture.
The Early Church
The early New Testament church followed that path.
At the request of an officebearer who was feeling the weight of the responsibility to teach catechism, Augustine (354-430) wrote one of the first books on catechetics—how and what to teach. Catechizing the Uninstructed has insightful and surprising educational wisdom for catechism teachers today. According to historian P. Schaff, mandatory catechism for the adult convert and for the children of believers was “a regular institution of the Christian church from the beginning” (7:551). The children were taught what to believe (from the Apostles’ Creed), how to pray (from the Lord’s Prayer), and how to live (from the Ten Commandments). If that sounds familiar, it is. These are three of the main sections of the beloved Heidelberg Catechism. The children were also taught how and what to sing.
Although there was regression in the Middle Ages, catechism instruction did not disappear. There is good evidence that regular instruction of the youth was maintained—at least by some. Without it, God’s church would not have survived.
The old path.
So it’s certainly a mistake to suppose that the Reformation began the instruction of the youth through the church. At the Reformation this great and necessary practice was renewed, strengthened, even developed. But the Reformation fathers were merely clearing the overgrowth from the well-worn path, traversed by God’s church for 4,000 years or so already.
Had the reformers not restored catechism throughout the church, the Reformation would have been a flash in the pan. But because the children were learning and believing the truth, standing on Scripture and its principles, the Reformation was an enduring gift of God to the churches.
The old path.
Hear Calvin refuse to return to Geneva unless a program of catechism were instituted. See him and his pastors requiring parents to bring their children to catechism, and declaring that “those who contravene this order shall be called before the company of elders.” Watch Luther, some years earlier, manifest his love for the church’s children by writing a catechism. Luther always had his eye on the children of the flock. Find Pastor Knox in Scotland writing in his book of discipline that the minister must take care of the children and youth, instructing them in the basic doctrines and especially in the catechism. Go to Dordt, a generation later, and see them devoting some early and lengthy sessions of the Great Synod to catechism instruction. And listen to President Bogerman thunder how indispensable the labor was. To which some of the delegates from Germany responded by recommending that elders prepare lists of all the youth age eight and older to ensure faithful attendance. Others from Germany reported that children of 8 and 10 knew the entire catechism!
Too soon again, reform was needed in the Netherlands because catechism instruction was neglected. But God raised up the men and women of the Afscheidingand theDoleantie to restore the practice, so that the church of Christ would continue in the land of our forefathers.
See the path? The way is plain. The path is old.
This is the way a Reformed church and denomination must walk.
The official documents of the PRC require this.
The questions asked at the annual Church Visitation have four references to catechism. The church visitors ask the full consistory whether it “sees to” the conducting of the classes, the material used, and the attendance. In the absence of the minister they ask the elders and deacons whether the minister teaches the classes. In the absence of the elders, the minister and deacons are queried whether the elders supervise catechism. And when the full consistory assembles again, investigation is made whether there is fruit on the catechetical instruction: “Do the young people seek admission to the Lord’s Table?” This great emphasis on catechism by the church visitors makes sense when one reads the Church Order article itself that requires church visitation. Article 44 requires that the officebearers be examined about how they build up the congregation, in particular the youth.
Nor is this requirement surprising to the minister, because when he was called to the pastorate, the call letter read plainly: “The labors that we expect of you . . . are: preaching twice on the Lord’s Day,attending to catechetical instruction . . . .”
I pray that we are impressed by those who have walked this way. Be more impressed than if you saw a literal path in Palestine trod by Paul himself…or Jesus. Those are mere footpaths. No profit in walking on them. But the ancient path of catechizing children is a “good way,” on which we find rest for our (and our children’s!) souls.
Profound gratitude to God for the blessings found on this path will keep us on it.
The blessing of mature children, who seek the Lord’s Table with knowledge and discernment of the Lord’s body. Stable children, not tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine. Lovely children, sanctified as they have been by the word of God all these years. Strong children, able to wield the sword of the Spirit against the church’s (and the Lord’s) foes. Thankful children who love the church, their mother, at whose breasts they have been nursed all the years of their youth, so that they are now strong. Obedient children who have learned what it means to love God and their neighbor. Children united with their brothers and sisters because they have all been taught the church’s one confession. Discerning children who understand the times and know what the church ought to do. Children well protected by the shield of faith and the helmet of salvation. Children ready to give an answer to those who ask them of their hope. Hopeful children whose eyes ascend to the clouds, waiting as they do for the coming again of Jesus Christ.
On a Sabbath afternoon, or some time of family worship, tell your children about this old path. Show them that it is indeed the good way, where they will find rest for their souls. Warn them of the temptation to say, “we will not walk therein.” And make clear to them the judgments of God upon those who say so.
But make especially clear to them the blessings. Oh, the blessings. The great blessings. The rich blessings. The undeserved blessings.
Lord God, open the storehouses of heaven. Shower down upon Thy church the rich blessings from the Word taught our covenant youth. Establish them in the faith. Teach them godliness. Form their hearts. Comfort their souls. Knit them to Thyself in Christ. Love them. By the Word taught, work repentance, create faith, and declare to them forgiveness. May Thy blessings be so abundant that there is hardly room enough in our souls to receive them.
And then give us men, able men, faithful men, who love to teach, love the children, and devote themselves to this great work.