17 October, 2005

Family Worship II: Catechism

I have heard people, even in Presbyterian churches, complain that Reformed Christians spend too much time in the Catechism and not enough time in the Bible. Not only do I find this to be untrue, but I find it to be sad as well.

The purpose of the catechism is to teach children to think in biblical categories and to begin to train their minds to organize and to think in doctrinal terms. The proof text should always be taught and memorized along with the Catechism so that children do not attempt to learn doctrine without "owning it" through biblical evidence.

Catechism needs to become a regular part of the Christian home's worship experience. Teaching has been a part of the Christian home's worship since the days of old. We know that Moses required the catechising of children when he wrote in Deuteronomy that children are to be taught the ways of God. (Deut. 6)

Below you will find a short history of Catechising from Zacherius Ursinus (the co-author of the Heidelberg Catechism). You will find it to be both encouraging as well as thoughtful. Catechising needs to be seen as a priority in the lives of our children if we are serious about the Reformation of the Church.


The same thing may be said of the origin of catechisation which is said of the whole economy or service of the church, that it 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; “ he has also ordained that both classes should be instructed in the doctrine of salvation according to their capacity; the adults by the public voice of the ministry, and the children by being catechised in the family and school. As it respects the institution designed for the instruction of adults, the case is clear and admits of no doubt.
Touching the catechisation of children in the Jewish church, the Old Testament abounds in many explicit commands. 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, viz: such as respects God, the law, the promise of the gospel, the use of the sacraments, and sacrifices, which were types of the Messiah that was to come, and of the benefits which he was to purchase; for there can be no doubt but that the schools of the prophets Elijah, Elisha, etc., were established for this very purpose. It was also with this design that God delivered his law in the short and condensed form in which it is. “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart,” etc., “and thy neighbor as thyself.” So also as it respects the gospel; it was briefly comprehended in the promises, “The seed of the woman shall bruise the serpent’s head.” And in thy seed shall “all the nations be blessed.” They had, likewise, sacrifices, prayers, and other things which God required Abraham and his posterity to teach their children and families. Hence it is that this doctrine is presented in such a plain and simple form as to meet the capacity of children and such as are unlearned.

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, “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; and from what is said in the epistle to the Hebrews, where mention is made of some of the principal heads included in the catechism of the apostles, such as repentance from dead works, and of faith towards God, of the doctrine of baptism, and of laying on of hands, and of resurrection from the dead, and of eternal judgment which the apostle terms milk for babes. These and similar points of doctrine were required from the Catechumens of adult age at the time of their baptism, and of children at the time of their confirmation by the laying on of hands. Hence, the apostle calls them the doctrine of baptism and laying on of hands. 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. Socrates writes thus in relation to the system of catechising in the primitive church: “Our form of catechising,” says he, “is in accordance with the mode which we have received from the Bishops who have preceded us, and according as we were taught when we laid the foundation of faith and were baptized, and according as we have learned from the Scriptures,” etc. Pope Gregory caused images and idols to be placed in the churches, that they might serve as books for the laity and children. 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. So much concerning the origin and practice of catechisation in the church.

Discussion Points:

-How young should children be before they begin the memorization of the Catechism?

-What advantages/disadvantages do you see in catechising?

-Should one begin with a simplified catechism (childrens, compendium) for toddlers and preschoolers?


Mark said...

My younger siblings are currently learning the Westminster shorter. They learn one question a week or thereabouts, memorizing it and then having it expounded in a book Dad reads during family devotions after dinner. It's a good system, methinks, as it lets them not only learn the catechism but also what it means.

I think that simply memorizing it is useless. If they don't know what it means, they may as well not learn it at all. There is also the danger of emphasizing the catechism over the Bible, which does happen a fair amount in Dutch Reformed circles. (Not as much as reported, though.)

As for age, I think it depends on the child. I'd say start as soon as possible, once their skills are up to it. I see no reason not to learn the longer catechism, kids can handle more than they're given credit for. Of course, if one teaches them the Heidelberg this problem disappears... but they could learn both catechisms too.

Rachel said...

I'm starting out with the Children's Catechism. My 16 month old knows "Who made you?" "God" and is learning #2. I think that we will start on the Westminster shorter when she can actually say the words. I'm looking forward to re-memorizing it, as I have forgotten a lot of it from my childhood. I doubt that we will finish the other one because I think of it as an introduction to memorization.

Manda said...

We started Joshy with a few questions taken from the Children's Catechism as soon as he was able to repeat after us. We've since added more simple questions as they've pertained to what we were teaching him in family worship or things he picked up from listening to sermons. When he turned two we began question 1 of the Shorter Catechism along with the scripture proof. We seek to apply what he learning to things we do on a daily basis and I think he's getting it. In fact, a couple of weeks ago he was trying to get his baby sister to repeat 1 Corinthians 10:31 after him and then as he took a bite of an apple in front of her he said, "Yook, Emmy! I can gwo-fy God when I eat diss app-o!"

shawn said...

I think that simply memorizing it is useless. If they don't know what it means, they may as well not learn it at all. There is also the danger of emphasizing the catechism over the Bible, which does happen a fair amount in Dutch Reformed circles. (Not as much as reported, though.)

Mark, I'm dure you mean if you do not know what it means when you get older, and more able to handle the rational aspects of the catechism.

It is a well known fact that you have children memorize large portions of facts, so that when they become older, and learn how to connect ideas and make logical deductions/inductions, they have this large depot pf facts in memory. This aids in the logical connection.

It's all trivium-based education.

Mark said...

Shawn, I think kids can learn what it means on a fundamental level. One wouldn't expect them to have an in-depth knowledge, of course, but they can grasp the basic idea of what's being said. Kids are a lot brighter than they're given credit for, I think.

shawn said...

Im sure we would agree when it came to a certain age level (maturity level).

It is appropriate to teach kids to begin catechism as early as they are able to speak, yet I would not expect them to be able to give me in their own words the answer to:
Q. 102. What do we pray for in the second petition?

But maybe as early as 6 a child is able to explain in their own words what Postmillenialism is - for that is what we pray for in the 2nd petition.

Droll Flood said...

"But maybe as early as 6 a child is able to explain in their own words what Postmillenialism is - for that is what we pray for in the 2nd petition. "
-Maybe if they could do this at age 6, they also could be self conscious about their reasons for interpreting a text the way they do, and distiguish a zeugma, synechdoche, litotes, etc.
-Also in the matter at hand, much emphasis has been put on distinguishing our Catechisms from the Word of God. It is a valid point, however the statement of truth in the 3 forms of unity and Westminster standards is the same truth as in Scripture and is morally binding. Note though that those very same confessional standards are vehement in having the confessing member derive their beliefs from Scripture, demonstrating them from Scripture.

Droll Flood said...

In one sense, a person having a Biblical confession and not learning to demonstrate them from Scripture would be more culpable than a Papist on grounds that the first has been given more.

Mark said...

They may or may not be able to articulate their own answer. I think that parents are called to teach the Bible to their children and explain what it means, so the same concept applies to the catechism as well. It's much like teaching them math - if they can tell you that 2 + 2 = 4 but can't explain why, then they haven't really learned anything.

shawn said...

roll - great comments re: the Binding nature of the Truth in the Standards.

As for the 6 year old, certainly we are dealing more with a level of maturity, than an age. There are short simple concise answers that even young are able to understand (grasping concepts).

Mark...It's much like teaching them math - if they can tell you that 2 + 2 = 4 but can't explain why, then they haven't really learned anything.

I don't mean to harp on you, but to say they haven't learned anything is false. They have learned that 2 + 2 = 4. In learning there are 3 stages according to the Trivium.

Knowledge - raw data memorized.
Understanding - grasping the concepts of the raw data, and being able to logically compare and contrast ideas.
Wisdom - being able to teach and apply understanding.

What 6 year old can tell you why 2 +2 = 4, (let alone many teenagers and adults.)

But they have gained much knowledge if they have mastered the tables and charts, and raw data - do not underestimate this because you have a loftier goal in mond for them.


notliberal said...

Completely off topic, is that little boy on the catechism picture wearing a skirt?

Nate said...

He is Birn. This is a 18th century Italian poster that was an add for a Roman Catholic Catechism.

(Of course, in Kuyperian fashion, we have brought it into our sphere...or in Benny Hinnistic fashion...we have named and claimed it!)

Soli Fide!

Anonymous said...

Don't you think a child should understand the gospel first before we teach them anything else? We should make sure they are saved before they understand more advanced theology.
I do commend Reformed Christians for teaching children theology. I was raised on it and I understood doctrine as a child that my friends don't even understand as an adult. Teaching catechism is important but I don't think it should over shadow scripture memorization and an understanding of Bible Stories.

Droll Flood said...

"Knowledge - raw data memorized"
-Would you make distinctions in what is meant by knowledge as well as the means to getting it?

"He is Birn. This is a 18th century Italian poster that was an add for a Roman Catholic Catechism.
(Of course, in Kuyperian fashion, we have brought it into our sphere...)"
-Would this be circular reasoning?

-We won't 'skirt' the issue but we will Ad-DRESS it, this was something that was common for Europeans to be wearing earlier on in history and aprons too. Scots still do it...

Nate said...


Concerning the idea that "a child must first know the gospel" is exactly what a catechism does. It teaches the basics of the faith (both shorter as well as Heidelberg) for the purpose that when God converts the heart of the child they will have a BASIS of theological knowledge already under their belt.

The basics of the faith deal with a lot of things that our Reformed forefathers thought were important to teach our children. Some of these things are not considered important today..but why would our forefathers consider them to be important?

As far as teaching them the basics of the the bible and biblical stories..this is the aim of the catechism. It gives categories for little minds to think in.

I find it sad when Reformed people begin to lose care about our catechism. Your own father, Rev. Lanning, has written an allegory about how liberalism overtakes Reformed churches when THEY BEGIN TO LESSEN THE IMPORTANCE OF THE CREEDS AND CONFESSIONS.

I too, think that the scriptures are what are essentially important and teaching the catechism enhances this view!

Notliberal said...

I wish that when I was saved 10 years ago that Schwertley would have pushed me to read the catechism instead of advanced theology. Having gone through this stuff in recent years I see how important it is to understanding the gospel. I can see where it's important to focus on this stuff with children. They need to understand this stuff and at the same time develop a love of God.

As for that kid, he needs to dress like a proper gentleman. Either wear a kilt or get a proper pair of trousers on.

Droll Flood said...

Breaking News:
(Notliberal, Esq.; esp. you have got to see this!)

Marlain said...

What a great discussion and thoughts.
I love this - I'll be on here more.
My daughter is 23 months and knows questions 1 - 3. The most fun is teaching her what goes along with God making all things. After dinner a few weeks ago my husband said to my daughter, "Mommy made us a great dinner, didn't she?" and my daughter in one year old reasoning said "God" because he had used the word "Made" which is what God does. We don't use that word anymore - Mommy only fixes dinner - because indeed God made "All things" and we can go around and point to and name all the things God made.
On a slightly different note. I was in high school (at a Christian School) when we were in a large group discussion of things and we were asked "what is sin?" and seeing that everyone sat there trying to think of an answer while this very smart Baptist questioned us - I replied with the S.C. answer and then was able to back it up with the Scripture proofs from it.
The Catechism is very useful and should be learned by all!
Two related books, one is a Memorization book published by Paul Settle - he mixes in Catechism, hymns and scripture from ages 3 - 18. A great book!
The other is homeschooling curriculum by Covenant Home - they have some great materials for young (an ABC learning with Catechism) and older ( a high school curriculum on Calvin's Institutes). Check them out www.covenanthome.com

Grace & Peace