Category Archive: Catechism
It may be easy for people to forget today, but in the time of the Reformation (and for some time after) the Reformed churches didn’t all subscribe to one confession of faith or one catechism.Â Local pastors produced catechisms, not intending them to be the final statement of theology for their congregation but simply intending them to be good teaching tools for the congregation and, in particular, for its children.
Those days are largely gone.Â Today, in Reformed circles, the catechism is the Heidelberg Catechism.Â In Presbyterian circles, it’s the Westminster Shorter Catechism.Â I can’t say I care much for the latter, though I do appreciate the way it begins (“The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever”).Â I do have a great love for the former, and especially the first question and answer (“What is your only comfort in life and in death?”).Â But at the same time, I wish that men were still writing confessions of faith and producing catechisms today, correcting some errors in previous ones, incorporating some more recent insights, and warmly instructing today’s young people.
One man who is tackling that job (perhaps in the spirit of Jordan translating Leviticus: see the previous blog entry) is Rich Lusk.Â Here’s his catechism: “I Belong to God: A Covenantal Catechism.”Â I haven’t read it in detail, but it looks good and I particularly appreciate its attention to redemptive history and its inclusion of typology, even in its explanation of the Lord’s Supper.Â Good stuff.Â I look forward to spending some more time with it in the near future.
I was interested to notice in Danielou’s From Shadows to Reality that the early church’s catechesis was heavily typological (e.g., pp. 182-183). I suppose that may have been due, at least in part, to the context. As Danielou points out, typology “brought out, as against the Gnostics, the unity of the two Testaments, and the superiority of the New, against the Jews” (p. 1).
It is interesting that the early church saw biblical typology as an important part of its instruction of new converts (and, no doubt, of its children).
Our own catechesis, in contrast, does little with typology. Though the Bible is full of symbolism — take, for example, the amount of space Scripture devotes to describing the tabernacle and the details of sacrifices — and though much of the Bible consists of stories rich in typology, we usually leave the stories to the little children, as if they aren’t so important for grown-ups, and we spend little if any on the symbolism. (When was the last time you even heard a sermon or a lecture on the details of the sacrifices in Leviticus or on the structure of the tabernacle?).
What happens in holy communion? I wish to say: “We, as children of Adam, are offered the trees of the garden; as sons of Abraham, we celebrate a victory feast in the King’s Valley; as holy ones, we receive holy food; as the true Israel, we feed on the land of milk and honey; as exiles returned to Zion, we eat marrow and fat, and drink wine on the lees; we who are many are made one loaf, and commune with the body and blood of Christ; we are the bride celebrating the marriage supper of the Lamb, and we are also the bride undergoing the test of jealousy; at the Lord’s table we commit ourselves to shun the table of demons” (pp. 12-13).
That answer is certainly not the kind of definition we usually require catechism students to memorize. It doesn’t give us the kind of theological analysis we might be used to. At least at first it doesn’t seem to answer the kinds of questions we might want to ask (and there’s certainly a place for asking and answering these questions).
But it’s packed with biblical imagery and grounded on the stories and symbols of Scripture. It opens all kinds of Scriptural paths for us to travel as we meditate on the Lord’s Supper. It certainly helps us the understand the Supper better. As Leithart says, in its own way, it’s just as rich as our more philosophically worded answers.
It strikes me that such a typological approach might benefit our catechesis, not least by making us spend time with what the Bible spends the most time on: story, symbol, and song. It may enrich our theological definitions, showing us God’s truth in a fuller light. And it may be especially helpful for children — and for all who haven’t lost their childlike love of story.
In a recent article, Andrew Sandlin discusses some potential problems with the use of catechisms. His first point is something I’ve thought about, too. When we catechize, we tend to focus on definitions (“What is justification?”) whereas the Bible focuses primarily on the story.
First, catechizing may easily become a substitute for knowledge of Biblical history and its narratives. Certain Christian children know (or at least can recite) the meaning of regeneration and regeneration and adoption, but know nothing of Shamgar, Jonah, Zacchaeus, Samson, and Priscilla and Aquilla. It is astounding how many children in intense doctrinal churches have an extensive (though rote) knowledge of soteriology but not of Samuel and Saul; of eschatology, but not of Elijah and Elisha; of ecclesiology, but not Matthew and Andrew. This has things just backwards. Biblical doctrine has significance only because of the history that it interprets (though the Bible itself is, or rather can be, an aspect of a redemptive event [1 Pet. 1:23]). As George Eldon Ladd once wrote, the Bible is not so much a Book of religion as it is a Book of history. He goes on to write in the same essay: “The bond which holds the Old and New Testaments inseparably together is the bond of revelatory history. Orthodox theology has traditionally undervalued or at least underemphasized the role of the redemptive acts of God in revelation.”We can understand little of the Bible, and almost nothing of the Christian Faith, if we lack knowledge of the Bible’s history, no matter how much theology we may know. So, before we catechize children, we need to teach them the stories of the Bible — the Creation, Cain and Abel, the Great Flood, the calling of Abraham, Joseph in Egypt, the Exodus, the wilderness wanderings of Israel, the conquest of Canaan, David’s and Solomon’s and their predecessors’ reign, the minor prophets, covenant judgments, right on through the New Testament. The history, not the doctrine, always comes first. And the history should precede the catechism.
Andrew Kuyvenhoven on the Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 16:
Most people are sooner inclined to say that Jesus took the fear out of dying than to confess that he puts us to death while we are living. We don’t mind “dying in the Lord,” when the time comes, but we would like to continue having our own life as long as we’re here (103).