Preaching from the Heidelberg Catechism (continued)

For nearly four hundred years the Reformed churches have followed the established practice of preaching from the Heidelberg Catechism. Although this practice has been criticized and by some even regarded as undesirable, the common objections that have been raised have little merit. The objection that catechism preaching is not preaching of the Word we have already considered and found to be untrue. On the contrary, when the truths of the Word of God are preached according to the systematic arrangement of the Catechism, the church will be instructed and built up in the knowledge of the truth far more effectively than she possibly could be through general preaching on freely selected texts. The practice of Catechism preaching is not only desirable; it is a real necessity for a spiritually healthy church.

Other objections are frequently heard. It is argued that Catechism preaching falls into the category of classroom discussions on some dogmatic or theological subject. Others contend that this kind of preaching goes over the head of the congregation so that the majority of the members understand little or nothing of it. It is too deep and devoid of the practical character that is found in preaching that is based directly upon the Word. It is said that the church will grow tired of this kind of preaching because she must hear the same thing year after year and, therefore, it is better to feed her with something new in order to retain her interest.

We may certainly consider the validity of these objections and in doing so immediately concede that the danger is always present that such things might happen and if and when they do Catechism preaching will lose its effectiveness. However, it must be noted that these objections cannot legitimately be raised against the practice as such but are in effect criticisms of the method by which this practice is carried out. When a good thing is misused it loses its value. This is true of many things in life but then it does not follow that all good things that are abused must be discarded. The only thing that this argumentation proves is that the wrong-doing must be corrected. Ministers must refrain from using the pulpit for theological debate and lecturing. They must know the spiritual level of their flock and bring the Word within the range where it can be grasped. From there they must proceed to build up so that the level of spiritual comprehension is elevated over a period of years. It may be necessary at first to preach the Catechism in the form of a milk-diet in order that later the church may be meat-fed. Doing this the church will not grow tired nor complain that she is always fed the same thing. Rather, with all other things being equal, she will desire more and more systematic feeding and her interest in the truth will increase. If, therefore, the practice of Catechism preaching is properly conducted it will be a real stronghold of the church. She will receive a balanced and sound diet through which she will grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ and be able to withstand the assaults of false doctrines that are continuously made upon her.

This latter is one of the most potent arguments in favor of Catechism preaching. It must not be overlooked that ministers of the Word are but men and as such they also have their likes and dislikes. Applied to the selection of material for sermonizing this would certainly become evident in that some ministers would indicate a preference for some doctrines while others would choose those that were most attractive to them. Holy Writ is very rich and from it may be drawn truths about God, Christ, man, the church, salvation, and the things that are to take place with a view to the completion of the work of God. It would not be healthy for any church to have a minister who always would preach on the truth of salvation and fail to instruct in truths concerning man, sin, depravity and the like. This is avoided when ministers are required to preach each Sunday from the Heidelberg Catechism. The sum of Christian doctrine will then be expounded and the minister cannot avoid preaching on those aspects of the truth that may be particularly disfavorable to him.

In this connection we are to notice that the Church Order states that “as much as possible the explanation of the Catechism should be completed annually.” The phrase “as much as possible” was added later but in former times it was expected that the entire Catechism be covered each year. This we consider to be an impossibility without doing gross injustice to the material of the Catechism. The Catechism is, as we know, divided into fifty-two Lord’s Days and this would seem to lend itself to an arrangement whereby one Lord’s Day would be covered each Sunday of the year. However, anyone acquainted with this beautiful Confession knows that this cannot be done except by giving a very general and superficial treatment to the various Lord’s Days. For example, the third Lord’s Day treats the creation of man, his fall and disobedience and his depravity. How can all this wealth of truth be condensed into a single sermon? Again, Lord’s Day 21 discusses the truth concerning the holy catholic church, the communion of saints and the forgiveness of sins. Now it is surely true that all three of these things are related to each other but it is equally true that each one is sufficiently-important to deserve separate attention. If the latter is done there is no difficulty in bringing out the relation of the one to the other, but if all three are treated in one sermon proper attention cannot be given to the importance of these things. This same thing can be said concerning several other Lord’s Days and, therefore, we deem it far better to take more than a year to complete adequately the Catechism. We agree with others who say that this should not drag out to three or four years but considering that it cannot be avoided that a minister is away from the pulpit of his own church a certain number of Sundays each year, it is virtually impossible to complete the Catechism in less than two years and do justice to its content.

The importance of Catechism preaching is expressed in a decision of the synod of the Christian Reformed Church taken in 1902. We wonder whether the synod of this church would be able to reiterate this decision today. We personally doubt it very much and are rather confident that there is a large element in the Christian Reformed Church today that would like to see the practice abolished. Sixty years ago the church expressed:

“With a view to dangers from without that threaten sound doctrine, and in consideration of the great need of, and the very meager interest in the regular development of dogmatical truths, Synod emphasizes the time honored custom of catechism preaching, and the Classes are urged to give proper attention to this matter, that the regular consideration of the catechism may be observed” (The Church Order Commentary, p. 250).