Catechism--What is that?

The word "catechism" comes from a Greek word which is used in the New Testament to refer to teaching someone in an orderly and systematic way, by word of mouth, in the form of dialogue--question and answer. Luke, in the opening of the gospel according to Luke, refers to this. He speaks of "those things wherein thou has been instructed, (or catechized)" Luke 1:4. His purpose, under the Spirit of Christ, in writing his gospel is that those who have been so instructed, or catechized in the doctrine of Christ, might know, "...the certainty of those things, wherein thou hast been instructed," Luke 1:4. That is, his gospel must serve to ground the catechism instruction of believers.

This form of systematic instruction included memorized statements of doctrine and confession. The Apostles' Creed was developed by the early New Testament church for this very purpose. It is this type of instruction Luke has in view in Luke 1:4. While the form of it may vary, the goal of it is orderly instruction in the word and doctrine.

It is a fundamental form of teaching the word of God found already in the Old Testament. When Ezra and those with him, preached or taught the people, they not only read the law, but "caused the people to understand the law," Nehemiah 8:7. The manner in which they did this was a form of catechism instruction. "So they read in the book of the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading," Nehemiah 8:8.

This became the standard practice of teaching the people God's Word and His law. The apostle Paul refers to this catechism instruction of the Jews as those "being instructed (catechized) out of the law," Romans 2:18. In the passage in Romans, he upbraids them exactly because, having been catechized out of the law of God, they did not spiritually appropriate what the law showed them, namely, the knowledge of sin. Catechism instruction ought to have wrought repentance, not sinful pride.

While the term catechism is not used, this mode of instruction is described in the history of Jesus Himself. At age of twelve Jesus is found in the temple, "sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them, and asking them questions. And all that heard him were astonished at his answers," Luke 2:46, 47. It is the interaction of a catechism class, in which Jesus was engaged, that is depicted. Jesus also uses this form of question annd answer instruction with His disciples to draw from them the confession that He was the Christ, Matthew 16:13-20.

Apollos also was "instructed (catechized) in the way of the Lord," He was himself diligently teaching "the things of the Lord" and engaged in catechizing the people, though he knew only the baptism of John, Acts 18:25. When he met Aquila and Priscilla, who taught him the "way of God more perfectly," he went on to teach even more powerfully, Acts 18:26-28. "For he mightly convinced the Jews, and that publicly, shewing by the scriptures that Jesus was Christ," Acts 18:28. Apollos' activity of showing from the scriptures and teaching the people is what catechism instruction does. Apollos becomes a minister of the Word, a preacher of the gospel in the New Testament church. Having been catechized, he insrtructed others also. It should be noted also that Apollos' labors in catechism instruction and teaching were what genuine mission work and evangelism is in the New Testament.

Catehcism instruction was and is one of the principle aspects of the calling of preaching. It is the means to carry out Jesus' command, "teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you," Matthew 28:20. This calling involves more than merely expounding a passage of scripure. It requires bringing the scriptures together so as to elicit from them the "teaching" or doctrine contained in them. That teaching must also be stated in a form that it is retained and can be communicated with clarlity.

Jesus does this with the men on the road to Emmaus. What happened on the road was in effect a catechism class. Jesus asked a doctrinal question:

  • Q. " Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into his glory?" Luke 24:26.
  • A. (answer implied as Jesus' question is rhetorical) yes, it was the necessary way of salvation and will of God.
  • Proof: "And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself," Luke 24:27.

Peter does this in his sermon on Pentecost in Acts 2 responding to the multitude concerning the outpouring of the Spirit,

  • Question: "What meaneth this? Acts 2:12.
  • Answer:
    1. This is the fulfilment of the prophecy of Joel, Acts 2:16-20
    2. This is the blessing of Jesus' death and resurrection, Acts 2:22-24
      1. Proof: Psalm 16, Acts 2:25-29
      2. Proof: II Samuel 7, Acts 2:30
    3. This is the work of the exalted Christ, Acts 2:33-36
      1. Proof: Psalm 110 Acts 2:34, 35

The Book of Hebrews may be viewed in a similar way. It is a systematic setting forth, a catechism sermon, bringing together scripture after scripture to set forth the better glory of Christ as the high priest after the order of Melchisedec, the better rest, the fuflfiment and realization of God's covenant and the New Testament spiritual blessings.

It may be noted that this also answers the question "why not just preach a text?" The scriptures themselves are the basis of catechism instruction, but they are not a readymade catechism book. Teaching sound doctrine and instruction (catechism) entails more that merely "preaching a text." Preaching itself is more than a running commentary on a passage of scripture with a few word studies thrown in. It is the systematic bringing together of the doctrine of the gospel in an orderly way. Catechism instruction in particular has as its focus founding one's faith in the unity of the word as a whole, whether the doctrine is that of the cross, the second coming of Christ, or marriage. This is a scriptural practice. To carry it out faithfully requires doctrinal formulations, statements and confessions by the church.

Not only does Luke assume his readers have been receiving catechism (Luke 1:4) but the Apostle Paul assumes that this is a regular part of the ministry of the gospel. He says, "Let him that is taught (catechized) in the word communicate unto him that teacheth (catechizes) in all good things," Galatians 6:6. The support of the ministry is a support of catechism instruction, which stands as a central element of preaching the Word.

Two elements are also to be noted in the passage in Galatians: first, the relationship described is one of a teacher and a student. This is consistent with the office of pastor, who is according to scripture a "pastor and teacher," Ephesians 4:11, and not a pastor only. Scripture uses two words to describe one office and labor. The labors are inseparable.

Secondly, we are to desire and value the labor of instruction. If the Apostle calls for the financial sustaining of those laboring in catechism, then he even more implies that we should value the instruction to which he is referring. It should be sought out. It should stand at the heart of the life of the church and worship. This is true also for the children of the congregation, as those in office have the same calling as Peter, to whom Jesus said not only, "feed my sheep," but also, "feed my lambs," John 21:15-17. The systematic instruction of the children in catechism instruction is also the pastor/teacher's responsiblity.

Lest the weight of this be lost on us, the scriptures attach indeed a significant degree of importance to this matter, particularly when the idea of catechism is combined with all that the scriptures say about doctrine, teaching, preaching, and making disciples. The purpose is to edify or build up the church.

In the context of the gift of tongues, and leaving aside the question whether they are still present in the church (see I Corinthians 13:8) the apostle says about this special gift of tongues which was then in the church, "yet in the church I had rather speak five words with my understanding, that by my voice I might teach (catechize) others also, than ten thousand words in an unknown tongue," I Corinthians 14:19.

Note well what the text in I Corinthians 14;19 says. Tongues were, after all, a special gift of the Holy Spirit, yet more important than even such a gift, is catechism instruction. Not only so, but the apostle's comparison is significant as to the degree of importance. To paraphrase the apostle, he would rather speak five words, just 5 words, in a catechism class than 10,000 in tongues! It is the Spirit who says this by the apostle (I Corinthians 14:37). Without such catechism instruction, one does not in fact have the full gospel and life of the church.

If this be so with a special gift of the Spirit, how much more those things which are neither gifts nor instruction in the word and which are made substitutes for preaching and instruction in the life of the church today. Such things as skits, plays, dramas, music, etc. fill the time of many churches. They occupy the young people. But are they being taught catechism and sound doctrine? Paul spent his time preaching and teaching catechism. This he did, for example, in Ephesus "disputing daily in the school of one Tyrannus, Acts 19:9-10. Instruction was not an add-on to the life of the church for the spiritually interested. It was at the core of its life and evangelism.

Faith is grounded in knowledge of the truth. You cannot trust or believe that which is not known or which is a matter of opinion or doubt. Luke writes his gospel that we might know the certainty of those things taught in catechism, Luke 1:4. The calling of Timothy was to commit what he had been taught, " faithful men, who shall be able to teach other also," II Timothy 2:2. Implied in the whole pattern of catechism instruction and teaching, especially the question and answer form of it, is that there are right answers and wrong answers. There is truth and there is error. There is sound doctrine and false doctrine. This involves prescision and doctrinal clarity, not vague ambiguity. In the modern context of lowest common denominator, watered-down Christianity with its thumbnail, vague sketch of the truth, catechism is not possible. The lack of systematic catechism instruction in the Christian church today is a testimony to the spiritual bankruptcy of faith and doctrine.

The very form of catechism instruction calls for clear statements of doctrine and careful formulations of them in confessions and catechisms. The Christian church has done this from the time of the apostles. The Reformation was a return also to careful, biblically-based catechism instruction and with that the development of confessions and catechism as tools for that instruction. Doctrinal confessions serve both the unity of the church and sound instruction in doctrine: catechism.

The question may well be asked. Is catechizing a central componant in the life of your church and in your life and that of your children? If they answer is "no," is this for your spiritual good? May you stay in a church that neglects this calling? If catechism cannot be taught because every view of doctrine is accepted or tolerated, do you have a faith grounded in the truth?

Catechism and the Reformed Faith

Catechism, as an aspect of preaching, has always held an important place in the life of churches of the Reformation. This was the great period of the writing of confessions and catechisms.

The confessional standards of the Protestant Reformed Churches include the Belgic or Netherlandic Confession of Faith 1561 and the Heidelberg Catechism 1563. The third form of doctrinal unity is the Canons of Dordt, 1618-19.

Being the doctrinal standards, or three forms of unity, of the churches, these confessions are also used in our public teaching and instruction. The doctrine of the gospel is regularly set forth in one of the worship services from the viewpoint of the Heidelberg Catechism. The purpose of this is to make sure that no doctrine of the Christian faith is left uncovered and that the truth of God's word as a whole is taught in the churches and on the mission fields. In effect, one of our worship services is a catechism class.

In addition to these confessional documents, we also use a variety of catechism materials designed and developed by the churches in common for the systematic instruction of the congregations. This includes material for instructing the children in Bible knowledge and history and for instructing the young people in the doctrine in a systematic way. This same instruction is given to adults in our evangelism work.

The purpose of this is to teach both a knowledge of the scriiptures and of the doctrine so that all in the church may know what they believe, why they believe it, and where it is taught in the word. The goal is that our faith may be firmly grounded in God our Father and in Jesus Christ our Lord.

On the mission field and in evangelism, this instruction is also carried on from house to house, that we might rightly know the Lord Jesus Christ and our salvation in Him..