It is October, now, and for most of our churches the season of catechism instruction is underway. In the Reformed tradition, the churches’ children are catechized in all the truths of Scripture, both its history and doctrine. This tradition holds catechism as a biblical demand, a demand so important that if parents do not send their children, the parents become objects of church discipline. But our parents do send their children, and with gladness. From age six until their late teens, for 25 or 30 weeks per year, for an hour each week, the covenant children come to church to have the minister or elder teach the doctrines contained in the Holy Scriptures.
How thankful we may be for this tradition!
As with all traditions, the risk is that we take catechism for granted and the tradition becomes traditionalism and soon is lost. The people of God gradually forget the significant reasons for catechism and simply go through the motions because this is what they have always done. Soon, because the practice takes great effort, the practice is lost. That is how good traditions are lost: one generation believes, the next generation assumes, the third generation rejects. Except for the mercies of God, the tradition will be lost among us as it has been in many denominations.
One important way to maintain biblical traditions is to think deeply about them and even to develop our understanding of them. Traditions are rarely maintained unless they are developed. For example, our tradition of maintaining good Christian schools will not be maintained except we develop our understanding of them— as educators and boards think deeply, write carefully, and defend that tradition against threats. Likewise, our tradition of catechism instruction will not be maintained unless the church thinks deeply, writes carefully, and defends this tradition against many threats.
One area in which the church must think carefully regards the aims and goals of catechism. Good pedagogy has goals. Just as schoolteachers have aims and goals, so must catechism teachers. The PRCA has a fine curriculum for catechism. What are our goals?
That is, why catechism?
There is certainly consensus among Protestant Reformed membership that catechism aims at imparting to the children the knowledge of God. By teaching them Bible history for seven years and Reformed doctrine for at least four more, the church aims at indoctrinating the covenant youth, enabling them to understand clearly and speak fluently of the things of God. Without the knowledge of God, the people perish (Hos. 4:6).
But it is helpful to put our aims and goals in covenant language, in a covenantal framework. Failure to do this may leave the impression, among the youth as well, that the goal of catechism is simply to fill their heads with enough knowledge that they are able to pass the confession of faith exam and probably debate Arminians or Baptists. Explaining our aims in terms of God’s rich, fatherly relationship with His people enriches our understanding of and deepens our appreciation for this historic practice.
Fellowship with Father
First, the covenant goal of catechism is to teach the children fellowship with their covenant Father. Covenant fellowship starts with learning Father’s language, so that when He speaks they understand and can listen with spiritual joy as He describes to them His own being and wonderful name and marvelous works and rich promises. Then, having heard Father speak to them, they must learn to reply to God, praising Him. For public worship, the children learn to listen to God speak to them in sermons, then return praise to God in prayer and Psalm-singing. For family and private worship, the same applies. They learn to listen, quietly and reverently, when Father speaks in the Bible. They also learn, in their own child-like way, to speak to God. This is the life of covenant fellowship that catechism teaches.
Catechism teaches the children God’s name, by instructing them in the great works of God in Jesus Christ (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 47). At a certain age, the children wonder about this God who, their parents say, loves them. They ask about worship, just as the Israelite children asked their parents about the Passover, “What mean ye by this service?” And parents are in duty bound to teach them, also by sending them to catechism, all about God and His works: He created heaven and earth in six days of 24 hours, to show Himself to men. In Adam, we fell into sin and brought the world to ruin. God mercifully gathered, defended, and preserved a church in the Old Testament, who had to battle to survive in the wicked world. But God fulfilled His promises to send His Son to defeat our enemies and give life and restore fellowship with Him. He is coming again, and we will live and reign with Him forever!
Catechism instruction, insofar as it is the ministry of the Word of God, is God Himself telling His children, at their own level, who He is, what He has done, and of His great love for them in His own Son. Then, in their own simple, child-like way, they reply to God: “Oh Lord our Lord in all the earth how excellent Thy name!” These lambs confess, “The Lord’s my shepherd, I’ll not want….” Each one exclaims, “Halleluiah, praise Jehovah, O my soul Jehovah praise!” Catechism with a covenant-orientation teaches them such fellowship with God. It also engages them in it.
The difference between catechism instruction that does not have this covenantal goal and the instruction that does is something like the difference between learning a foreign language by studying a book of grammar or learning the language by living among the foreign people. In catechism, with this covenantal perspective, God’s littlest children slowly and sometimes even unconsciously learn the Father’s language and grow in their ability to communicate with Him.
If catechism, on the other hand, simply imparts Bible knowledge without this covenantal perspective, it may just create argumentative, pharisaical church members rather than members who love and delight in spiritual fellowship with God, praising Him for His grace to them, unworthy sinners. If the academic rigor of Monday night catechism (and catechism ought to have academic rigor!) as instruction is not accompanied by the worshipful atmosphere of covenant fellowship, the youth who confess their faith will not return to church the following Sunday with anything more than a critical spirit. But for God’s mercies, they evolve into the kind of person who waits to assault the minister for explaining a theological concept with slightly different words than their favorite minister used. But catechism with covenantal goals both teaches children the how of worship and actually engages in worship. The minister leads the children into the august presence of God, reverently opening with humble prayer, reading Scripture with awe, explaining it in behalf of God Himself, and then explicitly asking them to respond to God’s grace with song: “The dawn shall hear my song, Thy praise I will prolong, And where Thy people throng Thanksgiving bring” (Psalter #298, stanza 1). Catechism is worship. So much have we viewed catechism as worship that our practice has also included that the children bring an offering.
In the goodness of God, this means of grace creates gracious church members, whose love is a testimony of God’s undeserved favor to them.
It is also worth saying that, for these reasons, the children’s dress for catechism ought to be appropriate for coming into the presence of God. This is not asking for ‘Sunday best,’ but for tidy and respectful dress.
Participation in the family meal
Second, catechism aims at preparing the covenant youth to participate in the church’s covenant meal, the Lord’s Supper. An important aspect of covenant fellowship for the mature Christian is partaking of communion, mature being the decisive word. Based on Scripture, the Reformed faith teaches that spiritual maturity is required for participating in the meal, and so a confession of faith precedes it.
Requiring spiritual maturity before partaking is controversial in some Reformed and Presbyterian churches. In these churches there is promotion of child-communion, which practice allows littlest children, ignorant of the faith, to participate in the Lord’s supper. Although here is not the place to enter that debate, this is the place to assert that Reformed Christianity’s prevailing view is that children must first make a confession of “the Reformed religion” before partaking (Church Order, Art. 61; Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 30). Children must “discern the Lord’s body,” lest they eat and drink judgment upon themselves (I Cor. 11:29). “The ignorant…are not fit to receive the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.”1 Catechism aims at preparing the children for this meal.
Without thorough catechism instruction, the ‘gate in the fence’ around the table remains closed to children. This Reformed tradition is so strong that, at the very first assembly of Reformed churches in the Lowlands, the Assembly at Wesel in 1568, the fathers asserted it:
It will…be fitting to do the examination of the children who have finished their catechism instruction in the presence of the whole church, according to the form of the shorter Catechism to which then should be added the most important parts of the larger Catechism and this should happen eight days before the day set for the Lord’s Supper.
“Now children,” the minister explains at appropriate occasions, “the church is preparing you for a very important step in your life—that you sit with the adults at the table of the Lord’s Supper. You have seen your parents and the other adults partaking the bread and wine. And since not everyone may come to the table, the elders who guard the table need to hear from you that you are sorry for your sins with a godly sorrow, truly know and trust in Jesus Christ, that you want your faith in Him strengthened, and that you want to live more and more holy lives. They must know that you are not a hypocrite, and that you ‘turn to God with a sincere heart’ (Lord’s Day 30). These catechism classes are going to help you to show the elders that you are ready to come to the Lord’s table.”
Of course, the minister does not call attention to this every week. Yet he speaks of it often enough that the children know the aims of their hard work of memorization and recitation. Thus, if someone asks them, “Why do you go to catechism?” they have some good answers.
There is more to say about the covenant goals of catechism instruction, next time.
I conclude here with a hearty exhortation to everyone involved in this holy exercise of catechism.
Ministers: Let us take heed to ourselves and to the doctrine (teaching!); let us continue in them; for in doing so we will both save ourselves and those that hear us (I Tim. 4:16).
Elders: Take the oversight of catechism. “The elders which are among you I exhort, who am also an elder, and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed: Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof” (I Pet. 5:1, 2). Visit the classes often. And if you teach, aim at the goal of leading the flock to their Shepherd.
Parents: Yours is a high and holy calling. Without your help, catechism will not be the means of grace that it will be with your help. So remember the vows you took at the baptism of these children: We “promise and intend to see these children, when come to the years of discretion, instructed and brought up in the aforesaid doctrine…to the utmost of [our] power.” It takes a great deal of power—God-given strength—to do all that is called for in rearing covenant children. See that all of them—not just your youngest— are prepared, spiritually, having been taught by you the truths of God, our Father. And remember also God’s promises: “I will be a God unto you, and to your children…” (cf. Acts 2:39).
Children and young people: By means of catechism, you are prepared to confess Jesus Christ and to stand among God’s people, singing with spiritual understanding, “Redeemed by Thee, I stand secure In peace and happiness; And in the Church, among Thy saints, Jehovah will I bless” (Psalter #69, stanza 7).
1 See the Westminster Standard’s Directory for the Public Worship of God; also WCF 29:8. Both the Reformed and Presbyterian traditions’ explanation of what is required to prepare for and to partake of the sacrament exclude untaught children from partaking.