Recovering the Lost Art of Catechism

“Presbyterian Catechising” by John Philip

In the Philippines, the Catholic tradition has been so inculcated by the Spanish conquistadors in the Filipino culture that majority of Filipinos profess the Catholic faith as soon as they are able to speak. Catholicism then has become synonymous to being Filipino, just as Thais are to Buddhism, and Indians to Hinduism.

A majority of the congregants in local Christian churches are converts from the Roman Catholic tradition, and so the practice of catechism is not foreign to them. Because of this notion, covenant communities who desire to use catechesis in instructing their members in the faith have faced opposition because these converts are prone to believe that it is Roman Catholic in practice, and should not be part of the ministry of the Protestant church.

However, that should not be the case. For as it is, Roman Catholics do not have the exclusive right of usage of the word “catechism.” Zacharias Ursinus, the author of the Heidelberg Catechism writes in his article “What is Catechism?“:

The Greek word kataecaesis is derived from kataeceoh, as kataecismos is from kataecidzoh. Both words, according to their common signification, mean to sound, to resound, to instruct by word of mouth, and to repeat the sayings of another. Kataeceoh more properly, however, means to teach the first principles and rudiments of some particular doctrine. As applied to the doctrine of the church and as understood when thus used, it means to teach the first principles of the Christian religion, in which sense it occurs in Luke 1. 4, Acts 18. 25, Gal. 6. 6, etc. Hence, catechisation in its most general and comprehensive sense, means the first brief and elementary instruction which is given by word of mouth in relation to the rudiments of any particular doctrine; but, as used by the church, it signifies a system of instruction relating to the first principles of the Christian religion, designed for the ignorant and unlearned.

Heidelberger_Katechismus_1563Ursinus also writes that catechism has always been practiced in the church, beginning in the Old Testament:

[T]he origin of catechisation which is said of the whole economy or service of the church… was instituted by God himself, and has always been practiced in the church. For, since from the very beginning of the world God has been the God, not only of those of adult age, but also of those of young and tender years, according to the covenant which he made with Abraham, saying, “I will be a God unto thee and thy seed after thee;” (Gen. 17. 7.) he has also ordained that both classes should be instructed in the doctrine of salvation according to their capacity…

In the 12th and 13th chapters of Exodus, God commands the Jews to give particular instruction to their children and families in relation to the institution and benefits of the Passover. In the fourth chapter of the book of Deut., he enjoins it upon parents to repeat to their children the entire history of the law which he had given them. In the sixth chapter of the same book, he requires that the doctrine of the unity of God, and of perfect love to him should be inculcated and impressed upon the minds of their children; and in the eleventh he commands them to explain the Decalogue to their children. Hence, under the Old Testament dispensation, children were taught in the family by their parents, and in the schools by the teachers of religion, the principal things contained in the prophets…

In the New Testament we are, told that Christ laid his hands upon little children and blessed them, and commanded that they should be brought unto him. Hence he says, in Mark 10. 14, “Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not, for of such is the kingdom of God.” That the catechisation of children was diligently attended to in the times of the apostles, is evident from the example of Timothy, of whom it is said that he knew the holy Scriptures from infancy…

So likewise the Fathers wrote short summaries of doctrine, some fragments of which may still be seen in the Papal church. Eusebius writes of Origen, that he restored the custom of catechising in Alexandria, which had been suffered to grow out of use during the times of persecution… After this period the doctrine of the church, through the negligence of the bishops and the subtlety of the Romish priests, became gradually more and more corrupt, and the custom of catechising grew more and more into disuse, until at length it was changed into the ridiculous ceremony which to this day they call confirmation.

small-catechism-luther-1529Even so, the Reformers like Martin Luther wrote his Larger Catechism for adults in 1529, along with the Small Catechism for children. In his preface to his Small Catechism, Luther correctly notes:

The common people, especially in the villages, have no knowledge whatever of Christian doctrine, and, alas! many pastors are altogether incapable and incompetent to teach [so much so, that one is ashamed to speak of it]. Nevertheless, all maintain that they are Christians, have been baptized and receive the [common] holy Sacraments. Yet they [do not understand and] cannot [even] recite either the Lord’s Prayer, or the Creed, or the Ten Commandments; they live like dumb brutes and irrational hogs; and yet, now that the Gospel has come, they have nicely learned to abuse all liberty like experts.

John Calvin also produced his catechism in 1541, which underwent two revisions in 1545 and 1560. Catechesis only came to Rome in 1556 when the Council of Trent published the Roman Catechism, which was intended for the use of their clergy.

This is what J. I. Packer and Gary Parrett had to say in an article in Christianity Today about the very same concern:

Historically, the church’s ministry of grounding new believers in the rudiments of Christianity has been known as catechesis—the growing of God’s people in the gospel and its implications for doctrine, devotion, duty, and delight. It is a ministry that has waxed and waned through the centuries…

Today, however, things are quite different, and that for a host of reasons. The church in the West has largely abandoned serious catechesis as a normative practice. Among the more surprising of the factors that have contributed to this decline are the unintended consequences of the great Sunday school movement. This lay-driven phenomenon swept across North America in the 1800s and came to dominate educational efforts in most evangelical churches through the 20th century. It effectively replaced pastor-catechists with relatively untrained lay workers, and substituted an instilling of familiarity (or shall we say, perhaps, over-familiarity) with Bible stories for any form of grounding in the basic beliefs, practices, and ethics of the faith.

Thus, for most contemporary evangelicals the entire idea of catechesis is largely an alien concept. The very word itself—catechesis, or any of its associated terms, including catechism—is greeted with suspicion by most evangelicals today. (“Wait, isn’t that a Roman Catholic thing?”)

Surely, catechism has always been practiced in the Christian church and it did not originate from the Roman Catholics, but from God Himself. RCC converts in our churches need to know this truth and we have the responsibility to carefully instruct them in love. Thus, I echo Packer and Parrett’s words:

We are persuaded that Calvin had it right and that we are already seeing the sad, even tragic, consequences of allowing the church to continue uncatechized in any significant sense. We are persuaded, further, that something can and must be done to help the Protestant churches steer a wiser course. What we are after, to put it otherwise, is to encourage our fellow evangelicals to seriously consider the wisdom of building believers the old-fashioned way.

Classical Christian Education: Teaching Truth, Goodness, and Beauty to the Glory of God

“School of Athens” by Raphael

Classical Education is a method of teaching children according to their developmental stages of learning, which correspond to the aspects of the Trivium, that is grammar, logic, and rhetoric. The Trivium has been around since the Middle Ages, but also find its roots in Ancient Greece. Classical Christian Education, however, is educating children in the Trivium with a distinct Christian worldview.

While modern education seeks to put the child in the center of all learning, Classical Christian Education sees that God is the center of all learning. It recognizes that all truth is God’s truth, and that one cannot fully distinguish truth and error without understanding God’s truth as revealed in the Bible. Everything should then be examined through the lenses of Scripture, as it relates to God and His revelation. Children need not be shielded from the plethora of opposing philosophies and harsh realities of life. Rather, they need to be grounded firmly on the Word of God, which will then arm them with the grid whereby they can sift through different ideas that will come their way.

N.D. Wilson, son of Classical Christian Education proponent Doug Wilson, wrote this excellent piece on how to train children in his book Notes From The Tilt-The-Whirl:

The world is rated R, and no one is checking IDs. Do not try to make it G by imagining the shadows away. Do not try to hide your children from the world forever, but do not pretend there is no danger. Train them. Give them sharp eyes and bellies full of laughter. Make them dangerous. Make them yeast, and when they’ve grown, they will pollute the shadows.

I truly believe that Classical Christian Education will give children the tools to do just that. Children will learn how to acquire information (grammar), how to think critically (logic), and how to communicate with clarity (rhetoric).

Francis Schaeffer once said about education:

If Christianity is not just one more religion, one more upper story kind of thing… then it has something to say about all the disciplines, and it certainly has something to say about the humanities and the arts and the appreciation of them. And I want to say quite firmly, if your Christian school does not do this, I do not believe it is giving a good education… True Christian education is not a negative thing; it is not a matter of isolating the student from the full scope of knowledge. Isolating the student from large sections of human knowledge is not the basis of a Christian education. Rather it is giving him or her the framework or total truth, rooted in the Creator’s existence and in the Bible’s teaching, so that in each step of the formal learning process the student will understand what is true and what is false and why it is true or false. It is not isolating students from human knowledge. It is teaching them in a framework of the total Biblical teaching, beginning with the tremendous central thing, that in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. It is teaching in this framework, so that on their own level, as they are introduced to all of human knowledge, they are not introduced in the midst of a vacuum, but they are taught each step along the way why what they are hearing is either true or false. That is true education. The student, then, is an educated person.

Classical Christian Education is where knowledge and virtue converge. But ultimately, the goal is for children to recognize and treasure truth, goodness, and beauty, to the glory of God.


Learn more about the Trivium and Christian Christian Education from these valuable resources:

The Ministry of Motherhood: Resting in Gospel Promises in the Season of Motherhood

“The Good Mother” by Jean-Honoré Fragonard

Never was I the girl who dreamt of unicorns, tiaras, and Prince Charming. Growing up, I was an “accidental feminist” who fought for women empowerment. In hindsight, it would seem that I have grossly misunderstood God’s design for women, as settling down was farthest from my mind when I entered seminary back in 2005. Homemaking and child rearing, I thought, would just slow me down if I allowed myself to fall victim to this oppressive male dominated society. Yet because of God’s providence, He allowed me to discover the true essence of femininity as taught in the Scriptures. The Lord also led me to find a kindred spirit, with whom I share the love for good coffee, good books, and good theology.

When my husband and I first got married, we faced the challenges of church planting together. It was a lot like caring for a baby, and we were both treading on new ground. We both faced the increasing demands of a fledgling ministry, and the prospect of another newborn in nine months.

A year into our marriage, the Lord was pleased to bless us with a daughter. It was also during those times that I, together with my husband, made the conscious decision that I will be setting aside formal ministry for a while, in order to become a full-time mom. While I understand that some women choose to walk both paths of family and career at the same time, it became my conviction that the best way to rear a child was to stay at home. Not surprisingly, I was cajoled more often than I can remember that my seminary degree would be put to waste if I did. However, knowing that the formative years are particularly crucial, I was neither convinced to allow somebody else to parent my child, while I concern myself with other “more important” duties. I took heed this caveat from an old venerable pastor,

The babe grows into the child; the child into the youth; the youth into the man; and the man into the immortal; and that immortal will be an heir of glory—or a child of perdition. Let this be remembered from the beginning and always acted upon.

Luther-thumb-640xauto-51

In the same manner, Martin Luther, too, asserted the importance of child-rearing as each parent’s supreme gospel work to children:

Now the ones who recognise the estate of marriage are those who firmly believe that God himself instituted it, brought husband and wife together, and ordained that they should beget children and care for them… But the greatest good in married life, that which makes all suffering and labour worth while, is that God grants offspring and commands that they be brought up to worship and serve him. In all the world this is the noblest and most precious work, because to God there can be nothing dearer than the salvation of souls. Now since we are all duty bound to suffer death, if need be, that we might bring a single soul to God, you can see how rich the estate of marriage is in good works. God has entrusted to its bosom souls begotten of its own body, on whom it can lavish all manner of Christian works. Most certainly father and mother are apostles, bishops, and priests to their children, for it is they who make them acquainted with the gospel. In short, there is no greater or nobler authority on earth than that of parents over their children, for this authority is both spiritual and temporal. Whoever teaches the gospel to another is truly his apostle and bishop… See therefore how good and great is God’s work and ordinance!

My primary role as a mother of my child is to raise her in the instruction of the Lord, for she has been gifted to me for that very purpose. This I was determined to do, by God’s grace, in the home that He has blessed us with.

Yet the more I journey in this season of motherhood, the more I realize that there are even more bridges to cross. Without understanding the beauty and blessings of the Gospel daily, I would never be able to embrace and exercise the role of wife, mother, and homemaker, at the same time. It is a constant dying to the desires of doing “more relevant” work, of acquiring another academic degree, or pursuing other vain pursuits and paths to glory. But as a wife to my husband, the Gospel assures me a dignity that is no less than his. We are co-heirs in the grace of Christ. It is vital that I daily recognize and recall my divine calling to assist him in his own mission from the Lord. One of the ways of doing this is to fulfill my responsibility as a mother to our child in the home no matter how seemingly mundane it can be. As a mother, I am called to instruct my child in the Word of God by seeking to show her that the Bible is not a compendium of separate stories or mere examples of moral principles that she can follow, instead God’s plan of redemption is on every page of Scripture. The Gospel also allows me to take comfort in the fact that even though I have not gotten every single thing right, my covenant child’s salvation rests in God’s unfailing mercy and the atoning work of His Son, Jesus Christ. As a homemaker, my identity is neither found in how beautifully ornate nor how effectively organized my home is, rather it is in the promise of the Gospel, that our Redeemer will come again and make all things new. And He will bring His imperfect children, including stress-driven and sleep-deprived mothers, to glory, as they bask in his perfections for all eternity.

The late Elisabeth Elliot once said, “A mother is a chalice, the vessel without which no human being has ever been born. She is created to be a life-bearer, cooperating with her husband and with God in the making of a child. What a solemn responsibility. What an unspeakable privilege—a vessel divinely prepared for the Master’s use.” This is my calling. This is my mission. This is my ministry.

Omnia pro Dei gloria.


NOTE: This article is intended for the next issue (July-September 2015 edition) of the Biblical Seminary of the Philippines Alumni Association E-Journal. This article is republished in this blog with permission from the editor.