What is a Catechism?

Catechism is another way of stating what we believe. Catechism means “oral instruction.” It is meant to be spoken and rehearsed, not read quietly to oneself. Catechism is essentially a tool for memorizing theology. A close cousin of the Catechism is the Confession, which is a systematic statement of belief. While a Catechism is designed for more informal use, a Confession is intended to function as a formal document.

Because Catechism is defined as “oral instruction,” it may be initially conflated with preaching. Catechism distinguishes itself from preaching by its response-dependent nature and by its various informal applications. Catechisms are typically more systematic than sermons or other forms of teaching (aside from confessions). They are also intended for repetitious use, for sake of memorization. A Catechism is intended to be a nail driven down into the mind – whereas a sermon is as a shepherd, to lead the mind unto Scripture. The sermon may be forgotten yet its utility realized, but a Catechism must be memorized for its benefits to truly take root.

A Catechism is especially helpful in familial contexts. It operates well as a tool for parents to use for instructing their children in godliness and truth. The Baptist Catechism (ca. 1693) exemplifies this. The earliest edition we have access to is the fifth print, presumable because families wore-out the first four editions.

Insufficiency of Memorizing Writ

If Scripture is sufficient, then what good is it to memorize a Catechism? It is very good, as the early church discovered when hashing-out the doctrine of God’s triune nature. Church fathers arrived at an obstacle when Trinitarians and Arians began quoting the same passages as proof of their respective positions. The problem was not that Scripture failed to distinguish truth from error. Rather, the problem was that men found ways around the writ and into something the text did not imply.

Sinners have a nasty habit of misinterpreting Scripture. This is due to the total depravity of our fallen selves – which extends even to our mind and capacity to reason. Christ, for example, could think clearly and consistently even as a child, in ways that astounded His elders (Luke 2:41-52). This was because His reasoning capabilities were not impaired by sin.

Sinners have a nasty habit of misinterpreting Scripture.

Because we are sinners, renewing our minds in Scripture is necessary and often difficult work (Romans 12:2). If our only aim is to memorize what Scripture says (the jots and titles), then we are doomed to slip into unbiblical doctrines. It is not enough to memorize the text, we must take to heart the meaning of the text. What profit is there, for example, in quoting John 3:16 and yet not understanding that one must believe upon Christ for eternal life? The profit is that God’s Word is preserved in your mind, but the irony is that His Word has not been applied to your heart, if in fact you do not believe that God gives eternal life to those who place faith in Christ.

For this reason, Christians are called to teach Scripture, not simply repeat it. The apostles obeyed Christ’s command to teach (Matthew 28:18-20): “They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer,” (Acts 2:42). Paul proclaimed “the whole purpose of God” to the Ephesians (20:27) and to the Romans he wrote, “But thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed,” (Romans 6:17). He urged the Thessalonians to “stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us,” (2 Thessalonians 2:15) and Timothy likewise to “retain the standard of sound words which you have heard from me, in the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus,” (2 Timothy 1:13).

The word katecheo is used by Paul in Galatians 6:6 to refer both to one who is taught and one who teaches. This is an early form of our modern-word “catechize,” which is the verb form of “catechism.” This verse is applicable beyond the apostolic age, which means that a closed canon does not nullify its weight (see also 1 Corinthians 14:19; Acts 18:25). It is not enough for the church to preserve Scripture, they also must guard the doctrine that Scripture reveals. Today, Catechism is a tool towards this end.

Catechism in Scripture

In addition to the above references to teaching and catechizing, Scripture presents us with at least three examples of catechism. The first is found in Deuteronomy 6:4-7:

Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up.

In this passage, parents are given responsibility for teaching their children good theology. This responsibility carries over into the New Testament (Ephesians 6:4) and so without excuse must be observed. Catechism serves our families as one tool among others which any father may find helpful in raising children to fear God and keep His commands.

Second, consider the teaching practices of Christ. He utilized parables many times, but He also asked questions and required answers of His listeners (e.g. Matthew 16:15; 21:25; Mark 8:17-21; Luke 10:26-28; John 11:25-27). As one pattern of instruction which Christ used, families today may confidently utilize it as well. A Catechism is one such opportunity.

Third, Paul uses questions to instruct in his monumental letter to the Romans. References include the following: 2:3, 4, 21-23; 3:1, 3, 6-9, 27, 29, 31; 4:1, 3, 9-10; 6:1-3, 15, 16, 21; 7:1, 7, 13, 24; 8:24, 31-35; 9:14, 19-22, 30, 32; 10:6-8, 14-16, 18-19; 11:1-2, 4, 7, 11, 15, 24, 34-35; 13:3; 14:10. As Christ utilized questions to teach sound doctrine, so it seems Paul followed suite.

Having considered the nature and utility of Catechism, and having further seen Catechism exemplified in Scripture, I happily recommend this form of teaching to you and your family. The New City Catechism is a modern-day volume that would be a great place to start. Let us all learn to treasure the doctrines of Scripture, which God has seen fit to bestow and preserve for His church.

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