In a previous article we said a few things about the means, the ‘how’ of indoctrination. In our present article we plan to say a little about the ‘when’ of the indoctrination. When must the Church start with this; how old should the child be?
I fully realize that the field I am treading upon is so large that I will not be able to finish this subject. It deals with the whole system of our catechetical training. A great many questions enter in. It would indeed be a proper subject for a more lengthy discussion. No justice can be done in: one short article. It deals with questions like these: “When must the Church begin teaching ‘the man of God’, what should be taught, what method should be followed, how about our present method, when should we begin with teaching our children ‘doctrine’? etc. Related questions are: “What should be the normal, average age for the man of God’ in the church to make public profession of faith and partake of communion; do we, in general, perhaps, have a wrong conception of this?” etc. The field before us is so large that it would be well worth while for someone who considers himself qualified, to write a series of articles on these various related subjects. As we said a moment ago, at present we can merely touch upon them. Besides, the undersigned does not consider himself an expert in this field, although I feel free to call at least the attention to some of these things and to make a few suggestions.
Let us start out by mentioning our present method of catechizing. By this time we have our own catechism books, both on history and doctrine. The books on history were composed by Rev. P. De Boer, the ones on doctrine by Rev. H. Hoeksema, and one catechism book on doctrine is composed by Rev. A. Cammenga. As a rule our children come to catechism when they are about 7 or 8 years old. The first book they go through is “Bible History for Beginners”. Next follows “Bible History for Juniors.” And, finally, “Bible History for Seniors.” The first book gives simple Bible stories in 40 lessons. The next two books are more difficult and contain each 30 lessons. Here is a little more connection between the lessons. Texts are given, written work, and here and there dates are inserted. The one book is on the Old Testament, the other on the New Testament. According to the author these books for Juniors: “Intend to emphasize the chronology and the geography of Bible History.” The books for Seniors are also on the Old and New Testament, each containing 30 lessons. Memory work is more difficult and there is much more written work to be done. According to the author, these hooks: “Intend to emphasize the significance of history in the development of God’s covenant.”
From the foregoing it is plain that our catechism books on history, although all covering the same history, are not meant to be mere repetition. A definite line is followed, there is also gradual development and the work for the pupils becomes more difficult, which is but proper.
At present we are not discussing the merits or demerits of these books. Neither will we enter into the method which is followed in these books. We may state that if the pupil memorizes the lessons faithfully and does the written work conscientiously, much can be learned from these books. The question might be debated whether no improvement could be made, whether we could not do better from a pedagogical point of view. However, these questions would lead us too far away from our present subject. Fact is these are all the tools we have at present, there is no second choice, and we are glad that we have these books. We are at least no longer dependent upon books written by Christian Reformed or Reformed authors, books, which contain objectionable material for us. And these books by Rev. De Boer can be used very nicely and with profit.
However, I like to say this: “If it is the duty of the Church to give the children: a thorough course in Bible History, then these books are wholly inadequate. You simply cannot cover Bible History in detail in the catechism room. And this is not the fault of the books, but this is due to the present method which we follow. We teach catechism for about 45 minutes per week, and on the average not more than 30 weeks in a year. Come to think about it, that is precious little, and personally I am very glad that our Christian Schools devote ever so much more time to teaching Bible History than we do as Churches. If our children had to depend upon the Church for a thorough knowledge of Bible History, I’d pity them, for they simply do not get it. And I certainly pity those children who are deprived of a Christian day school. And parents who send their children to the public school with the excuse that their children receive Bible History in catechism, certainly have a very poor and lame excuse. And if we think indeed that it is the duty of the Church to teach a thorough Bible course to our children, we have to do a lot better before we should be satisfied. We have our children in class but once a week. We have no follow- up, we lack the necessary repetition, and often we must cover way too much material in, one lesson. Permit me to illustrate this point for just a moment. I have here on my desk “Old Testament History for Juniors.” I can pick out a lesson at random to make the point clear. Take, e.g. the Judges. All the judges, with the exception of Samuel, are treated in one lesson. I ask in all frankness: “Can anyone treat all the judges in one short period of, at the most 45 minutes?” That is impossible. All that can be accomplished is that you do a little ‘picking’ here and there. The same is true of ‘David’, one lesson. Two lessons on the Kingdom of Judah. And thus we might continue. The books for Seniors are about on the same order, although here I can see the element of a general review of history, emphasizing ‘the significance of history in the development of God’s covenant.’ However, the point I am making is, that: “If we think that as churches it is our calling to give our children a thorough course in Bible History (even if we should emphasize the idea that the Church should give the doctrinal aspect) we make a poor job of it, I am not finding fault with the books now, but I simply have reference to our method and the actual field we cover.
However, notice that all these books emphasize History. And children attending these catechism classes, that means till they are 13 or 14 years old, we consider to belong to what is usually called ‘the pre-doctrine’ age.
Of late I have read in “The Banner” that some Christian Reformed Churches have abolished some catechism classes in this category of the pre-doctrine age. Various reasons are given for this, but one of the main reasons seems to be: “An overlapping of the teaching of the Christian Schools and the Church.” Personally I would not favor such a step. I much rather favor the method we have been following thus far then abolishing these classes altogether. I believe it is true that there often is overlapping, although I don’t consider this a serious matter. But besides, abolishing these catechism classes means that nothing takes their place. We don’t even give the opportunity to the pastor to work with the children, neither do we train the children in the good ‘habit’ of attending catechism, nor do we make any work of it of molding them together as one group belonging to the same church that will have to work together tomorrow. Other reasons might be mentioned why we should not abolish any catechism classes, but for me the main reason is after all that such abolishing is tantamount to an admission on the part of the Church: “We have nothing to offer the child in the line of catechism till he is about 13 or 14 years old.” And that’s a shame, and it is not true either.
As I grow older and have frequently thought about these things, and especially of late while I was writing these few articles, I come more and more to the conclusion that what our children need is more doctrine. It’s very common to speak of a pre-doctrine age, but how old must a child be before you should teach him doctrine? I believe it to be the primary calling of the Church to indoctrinate ‘the man of God’. Well, why don’t we do it more than thus far? Is it true that a child below the age of, say 13 years, cannot be taught doctrine? I don’t believe it. Of course I realize that as we teach ‘History’ doctrine enters in and is at times emphasized. Still, we teach history and not doctrine. Are we doing the right thing? This is well worth considering. I know very well a number of difficulties enter in here. If we are to teach more doctrine this would imply that we must reconsider and even wholly change our present method of catechizing the covenant children. It would mean an altogether different system and method. We would need a whole set of new catechism books. Besides, it may not be too difficult to teach doctrine to young people, but to teach it to the children is a different matter. You have to come down to their level. We would not only need a teachable course of study, but we might even need a special course in our Theological School, the purpose of which would be to teach our future ministers ‘how to teach doctrine’ to the children. In other words, give the theological students some special preparation: for this task. And there are a great many other difficulties to be considered. To change the ‘system’ also would imply abolishing the present method of teaching history. For to do both would be quite impossible, neither is it sufficient, it seems to me, to merely teach some doctrinal implications of Bible history, as is done now at times.
However, why not think into these matters once? It might prove well worthwhile for us to study the whole question of catechism teaching and its proper place in the life and educational program of the Church. I certainly would appreciate hearing some reaction to the suggestions that I made or the problems I have presented in this article. Should our Churches teach more doctrine to the children? Would we favor an almost revolutionary change in our present system of catechizing the children of the Church which we now consider of pre-doctrine age? Come on, fellow brethren, ministers, consistories, interested parents, what do you think about these things?
Fact is of course that there would be several advantages. More doctrine would give us a better foundation to build upon when our children reach the high school age. There would be no danger of overlapping with the Christian high school age. There would be no danger of overlapping with the Christian school instruction and the Church would have its own very unique program and be distinct. It also would follow that in normal circumstances our children would and could make public profession of faith at an age several years younger than is now usually the case. It also would give the pastor the opportunity to continue catechizing the covenant youth after they have made confession of faith and thus cover the field of dogmatics and the contents of our confessional standards much more thorough. This can be done now, too, at least theoretically speaking, but usually it does not work out so well. It also would imply that our children would be taught Prot. Ref. doctrine while they are still very young. I can see the advantage that thus the Church would get a firmer hold on its own youth, and that on the other hand the youth, being so thoroughly trained in Prot. Ref. doctrine, would not as easily leave the Church as is now often the case. They would know our particular doctrine better, understand it clearer, be better founded in the truth. Why not bend the twig while it is still young, why not mold the child while it can still easily be molded? And more indoctrination in their childhood days certainly would help them immensely .in better understanding doctrinal preaching.
Perhaps we can learn something here from the Roman Catholics and we might be able to borrow a leaf from them. I have before me here on my desk two Roman Catholic Catechism books. The title of the one is: “How to teach our little ones.” (And these little ones are little ones), Well, what do they teach them? No history but solid doctrine. Here follows a partial list of the subjects treated: “God, the Unity and the Trinity, God’s presence, Why are we on earth, Heaven and Hell, Purgatory, Angels, The sign of the cross, Sin, Original sin, Our Savior, The true Church, Grace, Baptism, Confirmation, The Holy Eucharist, Holy Communion, Confession, Extreme Unction, The Sacraments in General, The Ten Commandments, Commandments of the Church.”—I gave most of the titles. From the foregoing it is crystal clear that the whole book is doctrine.—In, the Preface of the second book is stated: “This book has been prepared for children of the fourth and fifth grades in grammar school. Lengthy questions and answers have been avoided, and the phraseology made as simple as an adequate presentation of the doctrine would permit.”—The contents of this book, you ask? Again solid doctrine, ‘The articles of Faith, Works to perform (Law), Means to become Holy.’
Perhaps you say: “I wouldn’t like that, we are no Roman Catholics, we couldn’t do it that way, etc. etc.” This may be all true and well, but the fact remains that the Roman Catholic Church teaches doctrine to its little children. And they succeed too. And when I read books like I mentioned I can readily understand why some young children in the Roman Catholic Church can be very strong “Catholics”, even though they are still at an age when our children know little about doctrine and have no idea at all what it means to be Prot. Reformed. And I can also understand why Roman Catholic children can be so young when they are ‘Confirmed’. The Roman Catholic Church considers it her business to make Roman Catholics of her seed and loses no time but starts with them very young so as to get a firm hold on her members.
It is the business of our Churches to make our children Protestant Reformed. Why not start young? In the first lesson of the second Catholic, catechism book I mentioned, you find the following question: “When should we begin to study Christian doctrine?” The answer is: “We should begin to study Christian doctrine in childhood.”
My space is more than filled. I realize that the last word has not been said in this subject. Neither do I expect that everyone will agree with some of the sentiments I have expressed. Nor have I solved all the problems involved. However, if I have succeeded in presenting some ‘food for thought’, I consider this writing not to have been in vain. And may the Lord, the King and Shepherd of His Church make us ever more faithful as churches to indoctrinate the man of God in the pure, blessed, Reformed truth of Scripture.