“Believe me, Sir, the Church of God will never preserve itself without a Catechism, for it is like the seed to keep good grain from dying out and causing it to multiply from age to age.”
So wrote the Genevan reformer John Calvin to Lord Protector Somerset during the reign of King Edward VI in 1548. He wanted to stress the importance of instructing the youth so that gospel ministry would go from strength to strength during the English Reformation. In other words, it was about children’s and youth ministry. In particular, it was the importance of catechising.
But what exactly is catechising? In short, it is verbal instruction (institutio viva voce). In the context of Christian ministry, it is a way of teaching the gospel
to the next generation of God’s people to know, love, and serve the Lord. Indeed, God himself has always cared about raising the next generation and his people have always cared about the same. In the early church when Gentiles were converted to the Christian faith there was a process of instruction required before they would be admitted to the Christian services and sacraments. They received verbal instruction in the central articles of the faith, and this was catechising.
Catechising: in the Bible
The Christian community had it from the beginning, and the Jewish community had it too. So perhaps the best place to begin is recalling that right from the start of the biblical story, God has always wanted children to know and to love him. He created Adam and Eve so that humanity would increase and fill and subdue the earth. The idea was that Adam and Eve’s children would know him and love him. But Adam and Eve’s faithlessness and fall into sin throws a really significant spanner into the works.
Which is why Abraham’s faith and rise into grace is just so marvellous. In fact, the beautiful covenant that God makes with Abraham has countless children in mind – more than the sand on the beach and stars in the sky (Gen 15:5, 22:17). But in order for this to happen,
Abraham is required to pass on the faith to his children: God tells Abraham that he needs to ‘direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right’ (Gen 18:19). Abraham must direct his children – that is, instruct them so they will keep the way of the Lord. It’s little wonder, then, that when we come to Moses, we see the same thing. Deuteronomy 6 records us the special giving of the Shema – ‘the Lord our God, the Lord is one’ – and the command to ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength’ (v 5). But then God says, ‘Pass these on’. ‘Impress them on your children’ (v 7). These commandments are not just for you; you need to pass them on. And you need to do that when you’re sitting at home, when you’re walking along the road, when you’re lying down, and when you get up (v 8). In fact, he tells the Israelites to take these instructions, tie them onto their hands and heads, and write them onto their houses and gates (v 8). That’s how important they are.
I think this sort of thing is probably in the background of Solomon’s Proverbs – especially at the start of the book: ‘Listen, my son, to your father’s instruction and do not forsake your mother’s teaching. They are a garland to grace your head’ (Prov 1:8-9). It is certainly foregrounded in another proverb: ‘Train a child in the way he should go’ (Prov 22:6). In fact, this verb for instruction (chanakh) gave rise to the important thirteenth-century ‘Book of Instruction’ (sepher hachinukh) which sought to catechise Jewish youth. The famous English Reformation preacher John Donne once called attention to this ‘Book of Instruction’ (liber institutiones) in a sermon at Paul’s Cross and said, ‘And if we should tell some men, that Calvin’s institutions were a catechism, would they not love catechising the better for that name?’
Now, Solomon’s wise catechetical advice was evidently not sufficiently heeded. After his death, the Kingdom of Israel divided and spiralled into chaos and confusion. But when Jesus of Nazareth was born hundreds of years later a new epoch had dawned. The Son of God listened perfectly to the instruction of both his heavenly Father and his human father. In him we find not only the model learner, but we also glimpse God’s love for children. In that beautiful episode in Matthew 19:13-15, we see Jesus caring for children, praying for children, and declaring that the kingdom of heaven is also theirs. Furthermore, after Jesus’ mighty sin-bearing death and earth-shattering resurrection, he declares in the Great Commission that his disciples, both adults and children, need to be baptised and taught to obey all his teachings (Matt 28:19-20).
We can also see the faith being passed on to Jesus’ disciples – his followers, both young and old – in the Apostle Paul’s writings. In Ephesians 6, fathers are not to exasperate their children, among other weighty things; instead, they are to ‘bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord’ (v 4). Of course, Paul also recognises the important place of motherhood for passing on the faith: he speaks about the transmission of faith in Timothy’s own life and story: from his mother Eunice and grandmother Lois (2 Tim 1:5).
So even from this whistle-stop tour of the biblical story, we can see that the passing on of the faith to the next generation really does matter to God. In fact, one of the key words used to describe this is ‘catechising’: it comes straight from one of the Greek words of the New Testament and it means ‘teaching’ or ‘instruction’ (Luke 1:4; Gal 6:6). It is different from preaching. Whereas preaching takes a passage or topic and brings it into a singular discourse, catechising contracts the whole of Scripture into a summary; whereas preaching is to all sorts of people, catechising is directed to
the unlearned. Furthermore, most sermons are monologues, and most catechisms are
dialogues. So, catechisms are not the only kind of teaching and instruction, but they are one of the big ones. And it’s something that Christians have kept on doing in the church
and in the home ever since New Testament times.
Catechising: in church history
In the early church, catechesis was the moral and doctrinal instruction given to new converts who rejected their pagan past and embraced the Lord Jesus Christ. So, for instance, we know from Hippolytus, writing in the third century, that a catechumen (i.e. someone being catechised or taught) was taught the basics of Christianity for three years before they could belong to the church properly. Catechesis was also important for the training of ordination candidates. We know from Cyril’s Procatechesis in the fourth century that lots of doctrine was taught and examined – doctrines like the virgin birth, the cross of Christ, the resurrection, the ascension, and so forth. In fact, these sorts of biblical truths were central to the great catechetical schools in places like Alexandria (Clement and Origen), Antioch (Diodorus), and Carthage (Optatus). Thus, as the church grew significantly there were significant catechetical needs in order to instruct new converts, train their children, and teach future ministers.
That’s also what we find when we come to the mighty Reformation in the 16th century. The great German friar Martin Luther wrote catechisms, and he expected churches and families to use them. In fact, he even wanted Christians to drill themselves with catechetical questions:
… I appeal once more to all Christians, especially the pastors and preachers, that they not try to become doctors too soon and imagine that they know everything. (Vain imaginations, like new cloth, suffer shrinkage!) Let all Christians drill themselves in the catechism daily, and constantly put it into practice …
What are these questions, then? They’re short and memorable – easy to teach and easy to learn questions like, ‘What does “You shall have no other gods before me” mean?’ Answer: ‘That we should fear, love and trust in God above all things’.
The great Archbishop Thomas Cranmer published a short-lived catechism in the early stage of the English Reformation.26 The preface to his catechism sets out the biblical warrant for catechesis, and notes the importance of teaching, among other things, the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed (which he calls ‘The Articles of the Christian Faith’) and the Lord’s Prayer:
And truly it is no new thing that the children of godly parents should be instructed in the faith and commandments of God, even from their infancy. For does not God command his people to teach his law to their children, and their children’s children? … Does it not appear by plainly expressed words of Paul, that Timothy was brought up even from a child in the Holy Scriptures? Have not the commandments of Almighty God, the Articles of the Christian faith, and the Lord’s Prayer, been necessarily always (since Christ’s time) required of all, both young and old, that professed Christ’s name?
Cranmer’s more determined program for evangelical youth ministry was set forth in the 1549 Book of Common Prayer which contained a rubric stating that curates (assistant ministers, more or less) ought to catechise candidates for confirmation at last once every six weeks and this became a weekly ministry under the 1552 revision of the prayer book. Bishops would ensure this took place through episcopal visitations which investigated whether clergy were indeed catechising their parishioners – if not, they would face church discipline!
As an important excursus it is worth noting that the most significant catechism of the English Reformation was written by Cranmer’s chaplain and theological advisor, Bishop John Ponet (1516–1556)27. The Short Catechism had the full backing of the English reformers, Lord President Northumberland, and most importantly, King Edward VI. Published in 1553, this 88-page catechism was structured around the Apostles’ Creed, Lord’s Prayer, and Decalogue, and used the dialogue format between a Teacher and a Scholar. For example:
Master: I would like to hear your belief in the Holy Spirit.
Scholar: I confess him to be the third person of the Holy Trinity. And since he is equal with the Father and the Son, and of the very same nature, that he ought to
Master: Why is he called Holy?
Scholar: Not only for his own holiness, but because by him the chosen of God are made holy and members of Christ. And therefore have the Scriptures have called him the spirit of sanctification or making holy.
Scholar: In what does sanctification consist?
Master: First we be made new by his inward motion. And therefore, Christ said: we must be new born of water and of the spirit. Then by his inspiration we are adopted and, as it were, by choice made the children of God. For this reason he is called the Spirit of adoption. By his light we are lightened to understand God’s mysteries. By his judgement are sins pardoned and retained. By his power is the flesh with her lusts kept down and tamed. By his pleasure are the manifold gifts dealt among the holy. Finally, by his means shall our mortal bodies be relieved. Therefore in the author of so great gifts, we do not without a cause believe, honour, and call upon him.
The Short Catechisme covered the full scope of subjects which would be covered by a modern systematic theology textbook, and it focused especially on important reformation doctrines, such as justification, holy scripture, ecclesiology, the Lord’s supper, and baptism. It is thus one of the most comprehensive official theological treatises of the early English Reformation. In its own day it was understood to represent the theology of the English reformers. Indeed, Bishop John Randolph (1749–1813) would later remark that ‘it may fairly be understood to contain, as far as it goes, their ultimate decision; and to represent the sense of the Church of England, as then established.’
The significance of Ponet’s Short Catechisme may also be seen by the fierce opposition it received under Queen Mary (‘Bloody Mary’). It was severely suppressed, burned, and was regarded as the Catechismus Reprobatus of her first convocation.
Furthermore, the examiners at the heresy trials of both Cranmer and Ridley attempted to attribute the authorship of the catechism to them. The former Bishop of London retorted, ‘that book was made of a great learned man, and him which is able to do the like again: as for me, I ensure [assure] you (be not deceived in me) I was never able to do or write such like thing. He passeth me no less, than the learned master his young scholar.’
The final – and perhaps most important – point to note about the Short Catechisme is that the 42 Articles of Religion first saw the light of day as an appendix to the catechism. In fact, the whole publication was known as the ‘Book of the Catechism’ or ‘Articles of the Catechism’. While the English Reformers were aware of this it is less widely known today. We know about the Articles but many may never have heard of the Short Catechisme. However, it is important to realise that the Articles were an appendix to the more verbose Short Catechisme. It is important because this fact enables us to see that Ponet’s catechism is the most proximate and accurate commentary on the Articles of Religion we have available. Should we need to explore the meaning of ‘predestination’ or ‘congregation’ or ‘justification’ in the Articles of Religion then the Short Catechisme supplies us with ample theological commentary.
Evidently, catechisms have a significant place in Reformation thought and practice. This is what John Calvin understood when writing to the newly Reformed Church of England: if you want to build a strong church, you need catechesis. This is what Cranmer and the English Reformers understood also. You need to catechise the children of God’s people.
In Anglican ministry today
Catechesis is the necessary bridge between the baptism of children and their later confirmation in the faith. The Book of Common Prayer baptismal service concludes with the explicit (and lengthy) command to godparents that they would teach the children the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Decalogue. Indeed, that the child would be ‘further instructed in the Church Catechism set forth for that purpose.’ The Church Catechism in the BCP is explicitly subtitled: ‘An instruction to be learned of every person before he be brought to be confirmed by the Bishop.’ The preface to the Confirmation Service within the BCP reiterates this principle, stating that no-one will be confirmed without recitation of the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the Decalogue, and other questions from the Catechism (e.g. the Sacraments).
A brief glance at some of the more recent local liturgical revisions reveals a significantly decreased emphasis on being catechised in the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the Decalogue, and with the Church Catechism. An Australian Prayer Book (1978) preserves much of the emphasis on these traditional elements of catechising, but they are far less present in the Common Prayer book (2012). The decline in catechetical emphasis and the disappearance of the traditional catechetical elements (e.g. the Decalogue) would have surprised the theologians of the Reformation. However, they also may have been pleasantly surprised by the standards of biblical literacy and quality of children’s and youth ministry in modern day Sydney Anglicanism. Nevertheless, it is still worth asking the question about how well our children are raised to know the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Decalogue. For these were not only the theological standard of children’s and youth ministry in the Reformed tradition, but these were – and are still – some of the most tried and tested tools for understanding how to live the Christian life.
Practically, we would do well to encourage this sort of catechising – and not just in the wonderful children’s and youth ministries in our churches. Anglican Youthworks does a marvellous job of training children and youth ministers in this way. However, catechising ought not be delegated entirely to their ministries. It needs to be done in our homes too. In one of his excellent little books on the ministry, Broughton Knox encourages churches to set aside half a dozen leaders per church whose first ministry should be to minister to families – to fathers and mothers, to encourage them to ensure that their home is a school of Christ. He says that fathers and mothers should spend an hour a day teaching their young children the Christian faith and its consequences for living. These family ministry leaders are important, because, Knox says, the parents will never persevere in this unless encouraged to do so by leaders visiting them in their homes to enquire and exhort them along this line.29 That advice reflects something of the time in which he was writing. But the point is a good one: what are we doing in our churches to encourage mothers and fathers in the catechising of their children? Do we expend as much ministry capital in this area as we do in our children’s and youth ministries? There may be windows of ministry opportunity for us here.
Perhaps those who are parents could ask themselves: what are we doing in our homes to catechise our own children? It might seem like a clunky and awkward practice to introduce, and we might lack confidence in our ability to even begin. But it is worth remembering that catechising ought to be something simply woven into the average fabric of life. So, to paraphrase Deuteronomy, you can do it when you sit down at home for dinner, when you walk along the road to drop the children off at school, and even before you put the children down to bed at night. If it sounds tricky, my advice is simply to give it a go. As a starting point, check out the First Catechism: Teaching Children Bible Truths (Great Commission Publications, 2003 – we have used this with our own modifications in our family). If you like to sing, consider using Songs for Saplings (Dana Dirksen). Or for a bit of fun, try The Acrostic of God. Try doing them at the dinner table or even the change table.
Above all, take a non-anxious approach: remember, have fun, push through frustrations, and keep praying. Catechesis is a great way of passing on the faith to the next generation. It’s in the biblical story, it’s in the story of the church, and it’s all about God’s great story of salvation in Christ. Perhaps you could make it part of your story – or better yet, part of the story of a child’s journey of faith.