Recovering the Lost Art of Catechesis

Catechism comes from the Greek word katecheo which means “to sound down upon; to teach orally, to instruct; to inform by word of mouth.” To catechize is to pass on doctrinal truths from God’s Word with the use of questions and answers. This timeless and effective tradition of catechesis has been practiced by Christians for centuries. But have long been lost today. 

Catechism plants the seeds of God’s truths in the hearts and minds of children.

When my daughter was around three years old, I remember one instance when she asked me some pretty hard questions right after our bedtime routine. She asked regarding the purpose of the atonement, the impeccability of Christ, the omniscience of God, the special revelation of God, the necessity of Scripture, the central theme of Scripture, and the purpose of studying the Bible! She didn’t use those big theological terms, of course. But her questions were well beyond her years. Thankfully, she has already memorized some of the catechism answers. And I used those answers to point out the key doctrines and explain them to her. By baptizing our children, we are saying that they are not free to choose what to believe. By catechizing our children, we are telling them what they should believe.

By baptizing our children, we are saying that they are not free to choose what to believe. By catechizing our children, we are telling them what they should believe.

Catechism also provides children the spiritual vocabulary they need to know.

The doctrine of the Trinity remains a mystery to many. This particular teaching also bothers my daughter. She simply cannot wrap her mind around it, like all of us. In the same way we join our voices with the ancient church in reciting the Athanasian Creed when we gather for worship, we also repeat the words of the catechism whenever puzzling thoughts about this teaching come up:

Q. 6. Are there more gods than one?
A. There is only one God.

Q. 7. In how many persons does this one God exist?
A. In three persons.

Q. 8. What are they?
A. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.

Perhaps, in a few years from now, we’ll resound the words of the Westminster Shorter Catechism

Q. 5. Are there more Gods than one?
A. There is but One only, the living and true God.

Q. 6. How many persons are there in the Godhead?
A. There are three persons in the Godhead; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost; and these three are one God, the same in substance, equal in power and glory.

Catechism aids in the nurture of covenant children.

Recovering the lost art of catechesis is indeed vital, and Joel Beeke explains why:

Creeds and catechisms are other valuable tools or methods by which we may communicate the truths of the Word of God to our children. These documents provide clear, concise definitions of basic doctrines and key words in easily memorized form so our children can hide them in their hearts. Bible references (“proof texts”) anchor these definitions in Scripture. The catechisms not only teach basic Christian doctrine, but also show us how to live according to God’s law and how to pray. When we catechize our children, they learn the basic truths of Christian faith and living, and we reinforce and deepen our own knowledge of them.

If toddlers can say Tyrannosaurus Rex, they can surely learn what justification is. B. B. Warfiled once wrote an article called Is the Shorter Catechism Worthwhile? and shares how many have benefited from having been taught ”even with tears” the Shorter Catechism:

How many have had occasion to “thank God for that Catechism!” Did anyone ever know a really devout man who regretted having been taught the Shorter Catechism — even with tears — in his youth? How its forms of sound words come reverberating back into the memory, in moments of trial and suffering, of doubt and temptation, giving direction to religious aspirations, firmness to hesitating thought, guidance to stumbling feet: and adding to our religious meditations an ever-increasing richness and depth. “The older I grow,” said Thomas Carlyle in his old age, “and now I stand on the brink of eternity, the more comes back to me the first sentence in the Catechism, which I learned when a child, and the fuller and deeper its meaning becomes: “What is the chief end of man? To glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” 

Training with catechism at home along with faithful family worship aids in the nurture of covenant children. In fact, Terry L. Johnson in his book Catechizing Our Children aptly notes that, “The Shorter Catechism is best understood as a comprehensive gospel tract, designed to lead our children to Christ, and then to the life that is ours in Christ.”

Catechism prepares children for the future.

We not only want our children to grow, we want them to thrive wherever God places them. And we do that by saturating their hearts and minds with the Word of God. We let them memorize Scripture and hymns. We speak the good news of Jesus to them daily. We pray for the work of the Spirit of God in their lives. But we also catechize our children to arm them with a system of Biblical doctrine that will combat culture’s lies that pervade our world today and in the days to come. Catechism helps prepare children for the future. In fact, R. Scott Clark (HT: Wes Bredenhof) in the book Faithful and Fruitful emphasizes how memorizing Scripture and catechism go together:

Some might object to the idea of memorizing a catechism along with Scripture. This complaint may sound pious on the surface, but it contains a sort of sugarcoated poison since it, at least implicitly, juxtaposes the theology and teaching of the church against Scripture. As a matter of fact, we understand our catechism to be a good, sound, and accurate summary of the whole teaching of Scripture. As a matter of history, all heretics quote Scripture. What makes us Reformed is how we understand Scripture, and this understanding is summarized in the catechism. This is why we have a catechism. If we thought that catechism was not biblical, we would not use it and, if anyone can show that the catechism is unbiblical, the church ought to revise it to bring it into conformity with Scripture. Certainly we ought to memorize Scripture; it is the Word of God which he uses to bring our children to faith and by which they grow in that faith. But our children also need a framework in which to understand the Scripture they are learning. So Scripture and catechism memorization go hand in glove.

Catechism Resources

As Christians in the Reformed-Presbyterian tradition, we use the 1840 edition of the Catechism for Young Children, created by Joseph P. Engles. It is also known as Children’s Catechism and it contains 145 questions. It was designed for younger children and serves as an introduction to the Westminster Shorter Catechism.

The Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) and Presbyterian Church of America (PCA) denominations expanded the Children’s Catechism to 150 items, and named it First Catechism. Dania Beach Batarseh sets these catechism questions/answers to music, which are readily available on Spotify.

Of course, there are the historic Reformed standards: the Westminster Shorter (1646-47) and Larger Catechism (1647), as well as the Heidelberg Catechism (1563 AD).

A more recent catechism has been developed by The Gospel Coalition called the New City Catechism. My husband has actually written a short commentary on this catechism at Consider Christ for a daily radio spot on a Philippine classical music station. 

A Preface to the 1840 Shorter Catechism for Young Children

To Parents and Teachers,

You have an awfully responsible office in being entrusted with the training of immortal spirits for the service of God on earth and for glory in heaven. The temporal welfare and eternal salvation, not only of your own children, but of future generations, may depend upon your faithfulness in the discharge of this duty. The prosperity, and even the continuance of the church of God on earth are connected with the religious education of the rising generation. To aid you in this all-important task, the following little work has been written, and is humbly offered for your acceptance.

Brevity and conciseness have been studied in the composition of it so far as the nature of the subjects treated of would allow. But much of the benefit to be derived from this work will depend on the judgment and care exercised in the use of it. Without these requisites even the words of inspiration may be perverted to convey defective or erroneous views of truth; and with them even an imperfect work like the present may be made “a light to the feet and a lamp to the path” of your interesting charge. Be admonished then to enter on this “work of faith and labor of love” with diligence, preparation, and prayer. Endeavor to impress the minds of the dear children with the importance of understanding what they learn. Be not satisfied with the verbal accuracy of their answers. Encourage them to ask and be ready to answer questions while you gently check a spirit of idle curiosity. Endeavor to make what most children consider an irksome task a pleasing and profitable study.

Be not discouraged nor chafed in your minds as you find that “line upon line and precept upon precept” are required to overcome the dullness or heedlessness of your youthful disciples. Remember the words of the divine Teacher, who, when inviting sinners to become His disciples, said, “Learn of me, for I am meek and lowly in heart.” And emulate the spirit of the pious mother, who, when asked by a witness of her patience and successful perseverance in the instruction of one of her children, “How could you repeat that sentence to the child 20 times?” answered, “If I had only repeated it 19 times, I would have lost my labor.”

Acting thus in the spirit of faith and prayer, you shall in due time reap the fruit of your labors, and when your heads are laid low in the dust your children shall rise up and call you blessed.

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