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Catechetical Instruction

A newcomer to the Reformed faith sent me an email. He wrote, “I am beginning to learn that the protestant world has catechisms. Do you recommend their reading and study? If yes, which one?”

I thought I’d answer this today, relying in large part on an article I wrote a few years ago. Catechisms were an important part of my life when I was a child. I grew up in a Reformed tradition that placed great value in the Catechisms. Some would argue they placed too great an emphasis on catechetical instruction. From a young age I was able to recite large portions of the Heidelberg Catechism and eventually learned every one of the questions and answers. Many of them are still fresh in my mind while others reside in the deeper recesses, able to be drawn out with just a little bit of coaxing. Every Tuesday evening, from the time I was in sixth or seventh grade to the time I was ready to make a public profession of my faith, I sat in the church and received instruction from a pastor or elder. We went through the Catechism several times in that span, learning the framework of Reformed, biblical theology. Sunday evening sermons at church were also usually dedicated to the exposition of Scripture drawn from a particular question and answer. On many Sunday afternoons my father would gather us around him in the living room and we would be taught from the Shorter Catechism, memorizing many of those questions and answers. Truly as a child I was soaked in Scripture and sound Reformation theology.

I despised Catechism classes and almost always dreaded Sunday afternoon instruction with my father. Tuesdays became an occasion to see which of us in the class could memorize the least, so that when it came time to recite our answers, we would either read them from a hidden crib sheet or have them whispered to us from a friend while avoiding the glare of the instructor. Many Sunday afternoons my parents lamented how little we cared about what was so precious to them. But despite my best efforts I did learn the Catechisms and I did learn a great deal of theology. When I reflect on all that I might have learned in those occasions I am sorry and ashamed that I did not learn more. But when I reflect on all that I did learn, I am profoundly grateful that my parents, pastors and elders were far wiser than I was and persisted in this instruction. I am convinced that this instruction has played a very important role in my life and formed a theological foundation that is still firm today.

There is no substitute for investing in children when they are still young. The catechisms that have survived to this day and have stood the test of time are worth knowing. They are worth teaching to our children. They are worth teaching to ourselves.

Later in I began to examine Christianity outside of the Reformed fold. I was faced with terms and theology that were foreign to me. I had never heard of this thing called the rapture and burst out laughing the first time someone explained it to me, convinced that he was pulling my leg! One of my greatest surprises, and one I found most disconcerting, was the constant discussion in mainstream Protestantism about knowing God’s will and receiving guidance from Him. Before leaving Reformed circles I had never heard anyone claim to hear from God nor had I really seen people wrestle with issues of God’s guidance. These were foreign concepts to me.

It took me some time to figure out why this was not a struggle for me. I did not wrestle with issues of God’s guidance because I had been taught firm principles from my years of catechetical instruction. Read these words by Sinclair Ferguson (taken from his book Faithful God):

Christians in an earlier generation rarely thought of writing books on guidance. There is a reason for that (just as there is a reason why so many of us today are drawn to books that will tell us how to find God’s will). Our forefathers in the faith were catechised, and they taught catechisms to their children. Often as much as half of the catechism would be devoted to an exposition of the answers to questions like the following: Question: Where do we find God’s will? Answer: In the Scriptures. Question: Where in particular in the Scriptures? Answer: In the Commandments that God has given to us.

Why were these questions and answers so important? Because these Christians understood that God’s law provides basic guidelines that cover the whole of life. Indeed, in the vast majority of instances, the answer to the question ‘What does God want me to do?’ will be found by answering the question: ‘How does the law of God apply to this situation? What does the Lord require of me here in his word?’

I think Ferguson is exactly right. I have seen Christians wrestle and fight almost to the death with issues of guidance. More often than not, they finally take refuge in some type of circumstance or irrelevant detail that provides only brief comfort or assurance. I know of a person who made a major, critical decision in life based upon tossing a Bible in the air three times and randomly placing his finger upon a verse on the page which the Bible had fallen open to. I know of people who have made decisions based on hearing a particular person on the radio at a particular time or based on stirrings, feelings and emotions.

The catechisms, based as they are on firm Scriptural principles, do not allow for any of this. They are firm: we find God’s will in the Scriptures, particularly in the commandments. We listen and obey. God gives us great freedom to know and do His will within the situations in which He has placed us and by using the gifts and talents with which He has blessed us. Making decisions should not be difficult. Hearing the voice of God and receiving guidance from Him is as simple as opening the Scriptures.

This is just one of many examples in which I know that years of catechetical instruction have been a blessing to me and have helped me avoid the trappings of poor theology. I am grateful, now and always, that my father and theological forefathers were faithful in teaching and applying Scripture through the catechisms.

For further wisdom on the importance of catechisms, you may wish to read this article by R. Scott Clark.

To answer, very briefly, the second part of the question, I recommend both the Heidelberg Catechism and the Westminster Shorter Catechism. Both promote a covenantal, paedo-baptistic understanding of the faith, so Baptists may wish to look elsewhere or to adapt as they see fit. Perhaps some other Baptists out there (who have been Baptist for longer than I have) can recommend some Baptist-friendly Catechisms.