When our institutions are attacked, we will defend them. When they are threatened, we may assume the offensive. Such are the attitudes expressed in our day with regard to the war situation. Though we were caught off-guard, and Pearl Harbor was attacked, it did not take long before military machineries were being rushed to their strategic positions of defense. And now because of the declared threat of the Nipponese to invade even our continent, the cry has gone up to take the offensive. For it is the experience of modern warfare that mere defense is fatal and the aggressor proves victorious especially if he can strike quickly and with sufficient force.
In most any kind of a conflict I suppose both of these kinds of strategy are necessary and must be used to effectively thwart the enemy. Yes, even when doctrinal issues are at stake or age-old institutions or customs are threatened.
Since the last World-War, and especially immediately thereafter, there was a growing tendency and a marked incline toward what is known as undenominationalism. Its program and constituency is undoubtedly well-known to most of us. Their chief tenant was: “No Creed, but Christ.” In fact that is still their creed. If we understand their cry correctly, they mean to imply that ‘old out and dried’ doctrines must be put away. The ‘time-worn creeds’ of the church are antiquated. The tendency of these creeds to formalism is killing. Their maintenance leads to dead orthodoxy. We want ‘life.’ We want a return to the Scriptures. Give us the living Christ once more, and throw away ‘your old forms of unity.’
With their emotional appeal and Arminian evangelism, they attacked the churches by the name of Reformed and carried away captive not a few who readily succumbed to their well-timed bombardment. Many of these victims, when carefully interrogated, proved to be sorely lacking in the knowledge of Reformed doctrine and were therefore unable to defend themselves, or they were of the number who long ago had acquired an aversion for fundamental doctrinal instruction and were crying exactly for the things undenominationalism had to offer.
Occasionally one finds even in our circle one who, though in name is Reformed, has acquired the speech of the above described sect. He may not speak so boldly and pointedly, and for fear that he be uncovered, he may gleefully rehearse the early history of our churches, pointing to the church property trouble, the court-case, etc. He may try to make you think that things were hot for him and his contemporaries. Yes, he will even describe in detail the inconveniences they had to forego in the days of organization. But noticeably he does not once mention the doctrinal issues involved. Either he does not know them, or they were of no special interest to him. These individuals are the same from whom you may hear the complaint that we should have less doctrine and more ‘gospel.’ They are bored to hear persistent preaching on the Heidelberg Catechism.
It is not impossible that the knowledge of this element occasioned the question which heads this article. For that is also the question of the above described individuals to which they as well as any undenominationalist would answer emphatically, No!
Should we not then take up the defense, yea, even assume the offensive when our institutions are attacked? I trow—Yes! and most emphatically—Yes! because this danger threatens from within. In our day a quisling proves to be just as effective opponent as the dive-bomber and the armored tank.
We think it therefore not superfluous to devote a few moments of thought to the above named question not only to defend the custom of Catechism preaching, but to assure ourselves anew that the keeping of the custom is right and proper.
Before we proceed, however, we shall have to concede that mere catechism preaching need not necessarily be ministry of the Word. In other words, just because one preaches on the catechism, does not necessarily mean that he is preaching the Word of God. It is conceivable and exactly true that one can speak on a section of the catechism and not preach the Word at all. Just as it is conceivable and exactly true that one can preach on a certain text of Scripture and still not preach the Word of God. Therefore we shall have to show not only that Catechism is ministry of the Word, but also why and when it is.
Shall we answer our question intelligently, we should understand well what is implied in both of the elements in the question, namely, what is ministry of the Word? and, what is catechism preaching? In respect to the first of these elements, we can define the ministry of the Word as that act of God whereby He through Christ Jesus in the divinely designated office and through the divinely called officebearer in His Church proclaims His own Word. He has given authority to His exalted Son, our Lord, to set up in the institution of the Church the office of teaching and preaching elder through which He will minister His Word to all those whom He in His good-pleasure will send it. God, it must be maintained, always ministers His own Word. Mere man can never speak God’s Word, neither can he ever minister that Word. However, the Lord does minister His Word through human media. These latter He calls, appoints, and qualifies to speak His Word. And these only, in distinction from others in the institution of His Church, have this high office and calling. It must be maintained further that when we state that God speaks His Word through them, He does not treat them as some talking machine on which He transcribes and broadcasts His Word. No! These officebearers are rational-moral beings, who are conscious, thinking, willing, planning, responsible creatures who live in the flesh. Besides, God does not come to them at set times in an inner chamber and mysteriously delegate them to speak a certain message for Him. Neither does He, as some would have it, merely lay the words on the opening of their mouths. No! God lays at their disposal the one and only Word, of God, the Scriptures, written on paper with ink. The same Scriptures which He so wonderfully formed through the ages past and delivered by His holy apostles and prophets, through His Son, the Word, to the Church. It is the same Word which is the possession of the whole Church, rich and poor, old and young, wise and simple, parents and children, clergy and laity, alike. Regarding that Word, it is the specific calling and task of the minister to prayerfully analyze and study it. And only when he has laid hold on it and it becomes a definite part of his thought structure and a lively testimony within him, can he speak it as a living witness and be instrumental in administering it to his divinely appointed audience. When he speaks on a certain text of the Scriptures he ministers the Word of God only as the light of the whole Scriptures is cast into the mold of the exposition of the one text. Shall the Word be truly ministered, therefore, it is his task to rightly divide the Word of truth and direct it to the hearers in such a way that it fits their needs and applies to their conditions, ability, etc. God applying it to the heart in such a way that it is a savor of life or of death.
Much more could be said regarding this particular phase of our subject, but this will suffice to define what we understand by the expression: Ministry of the Word. We conclude then that the Ministry of the. Word is God’s work through human media especially prepared by Him whereby He imparts to men, predestined in His good-pleasure, His Word in such a way that the light of the entire written Revelation is cast into the mold of each portion administered, and applied to the mind and heart of the appointed objects whether it be to life or to death. And in regard to the human media through whom He ministers, we conclude that they are living, rational creatures of flesh and blood, sinful men, in whom the administered Word is consciously taken up and becomes a living testimony expressed intelligently in human sounds.
Regarding Catechism Preaching, we may state briefly that it is an expression signifying that form of preaching which follows the line of instruction prescribed in the Heidelberg Catechism. The latter is that book of instruction, in question and answer form, formulated by the celebrated Zacharias Ursinus, a German professor in the University of Heidelberg, Germany, in the year 1563, and adopted by the Churches of the Palatinate of southwest Germany as a guide for the instruction of the youth in opposition to the Lutheran and Catholic confessions and instruction then prevalent. It was adopted by the Reformed Churches represented in the Synod of Dordt in the years 1618-‘19 as one of the forms of unity in conjunction with the Belgic or Netherlands Confession and the Canons of Dordt. Besides adopting the Catechism as a form of unity, the Reformed Churches also insisted on and enforced through its Church Order that the Churches should devote at least one service each Sabbath to the exposition of doctrine as formulated in the Heidelberg Catechism. This good custom has been commonly referred to as preaching on the Catechism.
To anyone acquainted with the form and contents of the Catechism, it must be evident that it purposes to set forth doctrines or truths of Scripture which are the object of faith as it is experienced in the life of the Christian. Each of these truths are based on the Word of God. The Catechism was not intended to be a book of instruction next to the Scriptures, neither is it above the Scriptures, but it was intended to be a collection of the truths that make up the Scriptures. The Catechism is but the echo of the Scriptures, and having received its contents from the Word of God, it purposes to lead us back to that Word.
It must therefore be maintained that all Catechism preaching that does not lead us to the Scriptures cannot properly be called: Ministry of the Word.
As was said before, it is conceivable that one preach on the Catechism without preaching the Word of God, just as it is possible to preach on a certain text of Scripture without preaching the Word of God. In regard to the latter, we may say that the Word of God is one. Should the preacher speak that Word in such a way that a portion of it be administered irrespective and apart from the whole, he not only destroys the unity but at the same time he preaches the word of man. To illustrate: Suppose one chooses to preach on the well-known Scripture that deals with the prayer of the Publican “God be merciful to me, a sinner.” Suppose further that he explains the fact that the publican knew himself to be a great sinner, as well as the fact that God was indeed merciful; and that the sinner conscious of his sin and of God’s great mercy cries for that mercy. Should the minister orate on and exposit these facts stated in the text without showing from Scripture how God can be and is merciful only on the basis of strict justice, or by presenting, as is commonly done, the sinner as of himself knowing his sin, he would not be preaching the Word of God. In other words, the light of the whole Word of God must be cast on the text exposited, and the text preached on must not be made to militate against other truths of the Word.
Much in the same manner it is possible to preach on the Catechism without preaching the Word. When God speaks His Word, He does so infallibly. On the other hand, when man interprets and gives expression of the truth of God’s Word, he does so fallibly. Further, though the Catechism cannot be said to be an infallible symbol as the Scriptures is the infallible Word of God, it cannot be gain-said that the same Spirit that guided the formation of the Scriptures also led the Church in the formation of the Catechism. And it was and is evidently the intent of the Church that the Catechism, though perhaps inadequately and incompletely, should form a unity of expression of the faith of the Church as it is grounded in the Scriptures, and lives in the heart of the Christian. This unity is best expressed in the triad of truths designated in the triple division of Knowledge of Misery, Redemption, and Gratitude. It is the purpose of the Catechism to express in this triple division therefore the knowledge of the Word of God in its entirety as it lives consciously in the faith and experience of God’s children.
In the measure that one, preaching on the Catechism loses sight of the trilogy of the truth and emphasizes one department to the exclusion of the other, or treats each department apart from the others, he cannot be said to be ministering the Word of God which is expressed in the whole. In other words, as the knowledge of misery, redemption and gratitude are simultaneous in the experience of the Christian, and together make up his knowledge of the truth of Scripture, which contains this triple revelation, so the three parts must be preached on as constituting one whole. To preach on misery without any connection with redemption and gratitude is an error, and is not a ministry of the one truth of God. Truly, we may distinguish truths as the Scriptures also presents distinct truths, but we may never separate them and treat them apart from the whole of Revelation.
We conclude, in answer to our question, that Catechism preaching is ministry of the Word, when that preaching, which follows the line of instruction presented in the Catechism, presents the doctrines of Scripture contained therein, not as separate truths but as integral parts of the whole Revelation contained in the Scriptures. If ministry of the Word is what we have described it to be, it must become evident that Catechism preaching can be and is ministry of the Word when it coincides with and does what the Ministry of the Word does. Catechism preaching, therefore, does not become ministry of the Word just because the minister reads a few texts of Scripture before he begins his exposition on a certain Lord’s Day. Neither does the Catechism preacher minister the Word as God’s mouthpiece when he exegetes and expounds the Lord’s Day apart from Scripture. He ministers the Word, or rather, God ministers His Word through this human medium when that exposition of the Catechism is thoroughly based on Scripture and leads us to the Scriptures, so that we can see and understand particular truths in the light of the whole truth and revelation of God. In the measure that Catechism preaching departs from this principle, you have a word of man.
Finally, let us, as Churches and as divinely appointed agents of God to preach His Word, continue to preach the Word and maintain the custom of Catechism Preaching. For God, who ministers His own Word according to His good-pleasure, has called us to hold high the banner of the whole truth in order that we may be thoroughly grounded and established in the truth. And all those who would discard the custom and stop the mouths of the faithful expositor of the truth as contained in the Scriptures and formulated in the catechism close their ears to the Word of God. For the Catechism tends not to shackle the minds and hearts of the children of God as some would accuse, but it makes us free because it presents the only comfort in life and in death. And the truth shall make us free.