The Biblical Duty of Catechising

In our last few weeklies, we have been examining the Christian covenant family, with a particular emphasis on the God-ordained responsibility of the covenant head of household, namely the father, to bring up the covenant children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. We also mentioned that one of the primary ways of doing so is to “catechise” the children. To catechise (Grk. katêcheô is to “teach by word of mouth” or more definitively, “to instruct orally, systematically and repetitively.” This term is used in the New Testament a total of 8 times (Lk 1:4; Acts 18:25; 21:21, 24; Rom 2:18; 1 Cor 14:19; Gal 6:6 [2x]), with the most striking of which being Acts 18:25, where we are told that Apollos, because he was catechised (KJV “instructed”) in the way of the Lord, was able to speak and teach diligently about Christ though his knowledge was imperfect. This verse as well as the other points to the fact that catechising was the mode of instruction during the apostolic era. That this is the case is also hinted in Paul’s departing exhortation to Timothy: “Hold fast the form of sound words, which thou hast heard of me, in faith and love which is in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim 1:13; cf. Rom 6:17). The word translated “form” (Grk. hupotupôsis denotes an “outline, sketch, summary, example or schema,” and so Paul is reminding Timothy to retain firmly in his memory the outline or scheme of doctrine which he had taught him orally. Catechising is therefore a mode of instruction sanctioned by the apostles.

It was precisely because this was the case that the office of a catechist(one who catechise), began to emerge in the early church (cf. in Gal 6:6, “him that teacheth” may also be rendered catechist). In fact, by around AD 180, the catechetical school of Alexandria, where later the famed Church Fathers, Clement and Origen would teach, was founded. Here a form of catechism was probably used for the instruction of those who were seeking baptism, i.e., catechumens. These catechism have generally taken the form a list of succinct questions and answers on doctrinal truths and are designed to be committed to memory as an outline of divinity. Though subsequently, the use of the catechism would be eclipsed under the shackles of Roman superstitions, many evangelical groups prior to the Reformation such as the Waldenses, Lollards and Hussites were known to make use of them.

The use of catechism, moreover, was revived and vigorously promoted during the Reformation of the 16th Century. Martin Luther, was the first to introduce a catechism developed from more ancient catechisms in 1520. In 1529, he published a Smaller and a Larger Catechism for young people. In Geneva, John Calvin soon followed suit, and developed a catechism as a compendium to his Institute of the Christian Religion in 1536. This proved too complex for younger minds, so that he had to revise it completely in 1542. This latter version was to be used extensively, not only in Geneva but in Scotland and would greatly influence the later Westminster Catechisms. Meanwhile, in 1563, two of Calvin’s followers in Germany, Caspar Olevanius and Zacharias Ursinius, soon developed the Heidelberg Catechism. This, together with its revision by the Synod of Dort (1618–19) and the earlier Belgic Confession (1561) became the standard of the Dutch (and, to some extent, the German) Reformed churches.

Back in England, the Westminster Assembly was convened by an Act of Parliament in 1643. The Assembly (comprising of 121 Divines, 10 members of the House of Lords and 20 of the Commons, as well as 8 commissioners from Scotland), was to advise Parliament concerning the restructuring of the Church of England along Puritan lines as a condition to securing the help of Scotland against the army of King Charles I. TheWestminster Confession of Faith was completed in December 1646. That done, the assembly immediately started working on a catechism. When its early attempt was frustrated, the assembly decided by consensus to develop two catechisms instead: “one more exact and comprehensive, another more easy and short for new beginners.” TheShorter Catechism was completed in 1647 and the Larger a year later. John Murray says of the Shorter Catechism, “I know of no compendium of Christian truth that is more excellent than [it], and what an inestimable reservoir of truth we possess if our memories are stored with and our minds established in the masterly definitions of that treasure of Christian literature!” (Works, 1.7); and “There is no other document of its kind that presents the truth of the Christian faith with such precision, such balanced proportion, such rhythmical stylistic quality and such theological adequacy” (Works, 1.29).

Ostensibly, the Shorter Catechism was introduced as “a Directory for catechising such as are of weaker capacity.” This catechism, as such has up to recent times been used with great profit for instructing children in most English speaking Reformed Churches where the duty of catechising the children fell primarily on the Christian fathers—the covenant head of house-holds—rather than on the officers of the church.

Indeed, that catechising is a duty of the father in the Christian family, is clearly taught in the Scripture. When Paul, under inspiration, speaks of the spiritual training children as the primary responsibility of the fathers (Eph 6:4), he would no doubt have in mind the Old Testament injunction on how this is to be carried out: “Thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up” (Deut 6:7; cf. Deut 4:9; 11:19; Jos 4:6–7). Diligent and repetitive oral instruction is therefore the duty of every Christian father. Fathers who fail in this sacred responsibility will have to account for their failure before the Lord in the day of judgement—when in all probability the damnation of own children will be set forth as a display of their neglect.

I do not think Spurgeon is too harsh when he says, “To neglect the instruction of our offspring is worse than brutish” (Morning & Evening, July 11, evening). Nor do i think Luther to be exaggerating when in his preface to his Small Catechism, he condemns parents who, by neglecting the Christian education of their children, had become the “worst enemies of God and man.” Fathers who profess to be Christian would do well to re-examine their foundations if they neglect so sacred a duty required in the Scriptures. Conversely, those who take their duty seriously need feel no guilt, if despite of their diligence, their children eventually stray from the Lord—unlikely though it may be. Indeed, Abraham was commended by the Lord, though He surely know that Ishmael would stray away. “For I know him,” says the LORD, “that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the LORD, to do justice and judgment; that the LORD may bring upon Abraham that which He hath spoken of him” (Gen 18:19).

Sadly, few of us measure up today. This is probably due to ignorance, but the result is that when we ought to be studying the Larger Catechism today, many of us have not so much as read the Shorter, not to mention attempted to memorise it. This neglect does not, in any way, diminish our responsibility to have a form of sound words committed to memory (cf. 2 Tim 1:13). Neither does it excuse us from our responsibility to catechise our children.

May I, therefore, urge this duty on you, my dear brethren. Begin to catechise yourself by studying and if possible memorising the WSC. This will no doubt be of great use to you personally, for as Thomas Watson says “catechising is the best expedient for the grounding and settling of people” and that “Catechising is laying the foundation (Heb. 6:1). To preach and not to catechise is to build without foundation” (Body of Divinity). In other words, you will not only benefit much more from preaching, but your pastor will be able to preach more meaty sermons if you are able to bear in mind a form of sound words in your memory through the use of the catechism.

Also, if you have children, may I urge you to begin to have them commit the catechism to memory before it becomes too difficult as they grow older. If you wish to, you may use child’s catechism (Catechism for the Very Young for 2–4 years old; Catechism for Children for 5–8 years old). But I’ll recommend that as soon as your child has finish memorising these two catechisms that they may be made to memorise the WSC, even if they do not fully understand what the answers mean. Do, however, bear in mind Luther’s words, “With the young, always keep to one form and teach them word for word so that [they] may repeat and learn them by heart” (Intro. to Small Catechism). In other words, firstly, use only one version. If you’ve started on a particular version of the Children’s catechism, stick with it until you complete it, then start with the WSC. Secondly, insist on word perfection not just ideas. Remember also that while our children’s doctrinal classes use the catechisms, these classes are not intended to replace your catechising. They are intended as refreshers and supplements of what you do at home. The memory work and detailed or personalised explanations must be done there.

The benefit of such rote memorisation of the catechisms has been attested time and again. Listen, for example, to Archibald Alexander, who was himself catechised with the WSC in his childhood: “If [children] are compelled to commit the catechism to memory, they are wont to do this without ever thinking of the doctrines contained in the words which they recite; so that, when the attention is at any time awakened to the subject of religion as a personal concern, they feel themselves to be completely ignorant of the system of divine truth taught in the Bible. Yet even to these the truths committed to memory are now of great utility. They are like a treasure which has been hidden but is now discovered. Of two persons under conviction of sin, one of whom has had sound religious instruction and the other none, the former will have an unspeakable advantage over the latter in many respects” (Thoughts on Religious Experience, 1).

And consider the heart-warming anecdote about D.L. Moody when he was staying with a Scottish friend in London. This story was retold by B.B. Warfield: “A young man had come to speak to Mr Moody about religious things. He was in difficulty about a number of points, among the rest about prayer and natural laws. ‘What is prayer?’ he said, ‘I can’t tell what you mean by it!’ They were in the hall of a large London house. Before Moody could answer, a child’s voice was heard, singing on the stairs. It was that of a little girl of 9 or 10, the daughter of their host. She came running down the stairs and paused as she saw strangers sitting in the hall. ‘Come here Jenny,’ her father said, ‘and tell this gentleman “What is prayer.”’ Jenny did not know what had been going on, but she quite understood that she was now called upon to say her Catechism. So she drew herself up, and folded her hands in front of her, like a good little girl who was going to ‘say her questions,’ and she said in her clear childish voice: ‘Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God for things agreeable to His will, in the name of Christ, with confession of our sins and thankful acknowledgement of His mercies.’ ‘Ah! That’s the Catechism!’ Moody said, ‘thank God for that Catechism.’” (Shorter Writings, 1.383).

This is not the only story I’ve heard. Dr Howard Carlson, for example, related how his children stumped a sceptical Jewish man whom they were trying to preach to when he tried to confuse them by asking them “What is God?” His children who had memorised the catechism gave the answer with such confidence and alacrity that the Jewish man was persuaded to listen on and find out more!

Will you not begin catechising today?

J.J. Lim