Assumptions and Methods in Catechism Preaching
Few among us would deny the urgent relevance of appeals to preach the Catechism faithfully and regularly. For those committed to God's Truth and God's people, this requirement is more than a duty — it is a joy. We can therefore be deeply grateful to those who have recently sounded that appeal in The Outlook of October, 1987: Revs. Peter De Jong, Randal Lankheet, Jay Wesseling and Mr. Sjirk Bajema. Each of the articles is of a different character, the one more general, the other more pastoral, yet another more theoretical.
The article written by Rev. Lankheet, entitled "Two Ways to Write a Catechism Sermon," is a bit more theoretical in nature. Because we are currently teaching a course entitled "Catechism Sermon," dealing with the theory and method of Catechism preaching, we thought it might be helpful to analyze and learn from Rev. Lankheet's remarks. Because we'd like to give our supporters a "taste" of what goes on in our classroom, we thought it might be appropriate to invite you into a "class discussion." That's what these remarks that follow sought to provide: an opportunity to reflect on and discuss how our students will one day preach the Catechism. All the area pastors were invited to audit the course (Wednesday mornings, one hour) and, to our delight, several accepted the invitation.
What follows, then, is intended to elicit your discussion, your awareness of method and assumptions, as those who with us long for a revived love of the Lord's truth confessed in the Heidelberg Catechism. Our comments will exhibit disagreement at some points; but this does not displace our appreciation for the author — after all, he has "laid himself on the line" for our instruction and growth, for which we owe him our gratitude.
(words within quotation marks are taken from the article.)
The problem reflected in the title, "Two Ways to Write a Catechism Sermon," seems to be a common dilemma facing Catechism preachers: Do I preach Scripture, or do I preach the Catechism? Presumably it surfaces when the preacher has to "decide on a Bible text." According to Rev. Lankheet, this difficulty becomes a "tension between a set of questions and answers in the catechism and what is found in a particular Scripture text." This tension presents the preacher with a choice: "either he will have to stay with the catechism answers and develop his main points from them (and bring in various Scriptures along the way) or he will have to go with a particular Bible text (and bring in the catechism where it fits the exposition of this text)."
The author explains and illustrates the "catechism-text" and the "Scripture-text" methods of writing Catechism sermons. These consist basically of explaining either the Catechism statements or a Scripture portion. The writer concludes by expressing his personal preference for the "Scripture-text method," citing the following advantages:
- Few preachers have been able to master the catechism-text method.
- The Scripture-text method helps the preacher avoid inserting his personal opinions into preaching, to the neglect, even compromise of the authority of the Word of God. It pays "strict adherence to the Bible text, following the words and phrases of a specific verse."
- Listeners desire preaching that leads them through the Bible passage, verse by verse, phrase by phrase.
That the dilemma — difficulty — tension discussed by the author does exist for many Catechism preachers cannot be denied. Whether such a tension between preaching the text of either the Catechism or the Scripture should exist, can be argued.
Derived perhaps from the author's personal experience, perhaps from the sources underlying his analysis, this "tension" overlooks the significant wording of the Church Order itself in Article 54.b., which requires that,
at one of the services each Lord's day, the minister shall ordinarily preach the Word as summarized in the Heidelberg Catechism, following its sequence (emphasis added).
We might put the emphasized words this way: the content of the Catechism sermon is to be the-Word‑as-summarized-in-the-Heidelberg‑Catechism.
That is to say: What is to be explained is the "sum of Christian doctrine" confessed by the church in her Catechism. This point and its implications for Catechism preaching have been explained and defended extensively by Dr. Peter Y. De Jong in three significant articles entitled "Comments on Catechetical Preaching," published recently in Mid-America Journal of Theology.
It seems to us that the "dilemma" of preaching the "Bible text" or the "Catechism text" results from an improper disjunction (separation, breaking apart) between God's Word and the church's confession.
Let's try to isolate this unfortunate separation (in method) by asking: When we preach Catechism sermons, are we preaching the Bible's doctrine or the church's doctrine? The careful reader will see immediately that this is a false dilemma: the church's doctrine is the Bible's doctrine! The contents of the church's confessions are the content of Scripture!
But already we can see our readers becoming nervous: What? Are you equating the creeds with the Bible?
Let me hurry to qualify this claim as follows:
- The authority of the church's doctrine derives from, rests upon and is subservient to the authority of the Bible's doctrine. But this is not to say that its authority is less real or genuine. The Scripture is the norma normans (norming norm; the "original straight-edge ruler"), while the confessions are the norma normata (normed norm; the "ruler made according to the original straight-edge ruler"). The confessions are a "ruler" made straight (derived from) the Straightest Ruler: Scripture. But they are both NORMA: both RULERS!
- The content of the Scripture is of necessity broader, deeper and richer than that of the church's confessions. But: to preach the content of the Catechism is to preach the content of Scripture — not its exhaustive content, but the content of Scripture nonetheless. The content of the Catechism, indicated by phrases like "the Word as summarized in the Heidelberg Catechism" and "the sum of Christian doctrine," is a subset of a set, the latter being the truths of Scripture, the former being the truths of the confession.
This claim and its necessary qualifications do not yet answer the question: How must the Catechism be preached? But it does help to avoid the false dilemma of preaching either Scripture or the Catechism, of either "pulling in" the Catechism to illustrate Scripture exposition or "pulling in" Scripture to illustrate Catechism statements. (Moreover, we can now also avoid that disjunction widely abused by many who seem not to like Catechism preaching: that "choice" between "preaching the Word of God" or "preaching the word of man.")
- All of this is not to deny the need for the Catechism preacher to demonstrate the "Scripturality" of the Catechism's explanation of biblical truth. But he need no longer be unsure of his method when he allows the Catechism questions and answers (Yes: questions too!) to govern his sermonic outline, content and progress, since the Catechism's content is (part of) the Bible's content.
He can begin now to understand and communicate to the congregation that Catechism preaching isn't a matter of sewing a garment from two kinds of material — say, cotton and wool. The theme of the Catechism is the theme of Scripture: my only comfort in terms of my sin, my salvation and my service! The Catechism's explanation of good works is the Scripture's teaching about good works — their origin, their purposes and their necessity (Lord's Day 32).
So many of the questions and answers are nothing less than exposition of the Scripture itself! One need think only of the Ten Commandments and the Lord's Prayer, in addition to the frequent quotations of Scripture itself in the body of the Catechism.
Our difficulty, then, in blending together the Catechism and Scripture as sources for Catechism preaching is that, like a delicious soufflé, preaching the Word of God summarized in the Heidelberger is too rich for our taste-buds! It is too deep, too broad for us to comprehend even in one sermon on a single Lord's Day! The diligent Catechism preacher is beset by at least two temptations: 1) to become too detailed in Catechism preaching; and 2) to become too general.
- Because a discussion of how to escape these temptations would require too much space (you're welcome to enroll in "PP 311 - Catechism Sermon!"), we shall not expand on this any further. Instead, we should like to respond to what Rev. Lankheet perceives as the advantages of the "Scripture-text" method of Catechism preaching.
Advantage 1: Few preachers have been able to master the catechism-text method.
The difficulty of a method should not be advanced as a reason for adopting an easier method. One could then argue that since few preachers have been able to master the thematic (or: textual- reconstructive) method of "free text" preaching, we should recommend topical preaching. The basis for recommending a homiletical method should be the validity of its principles, not the ease of its practice.
But is it true that few preachers have been able to master the method of preaching sermons governed in their outline, content and progress by the Catechism?
Perhaps this is true in North America, though it's difficult to prove. But in my study I have more than twenty volumes of Catechism sermons, in addition to a file-drawer full of photocopied Catechism sermons, that I would consider worthy examples of that kind of Catechism preaching. Some are in English, most are in Dutch. Some of these come from the pens of those Rev. Lankheet mentioned, and others: B. Holwerda, K.J. Popma, H. Veldkamp, K. Schilder, K. Dijk, J.W. Tunderman, S.G. De Graaf, K. Deddens, D.K. Wielenga, and more. Even a rudimentary knowledge of Dutch will open up goldmines of insight and interpretation! And the effort invested in either teaching yourself Dutch or dusting it off will yield rich dividends!
Advantage 2: The Scripture-text method helps the preacher avoid inserting his personal opinions into preaching, to the neglect, even compromise of the authority of the Word of God. It pays "strict adherence to the Bible text, following the words and phrases of a specific verse."
We have attempted to demonstrate that this imposes upon Catechism preaching an improper disjunction (separation) between the Bible's doctrine and the Catechism's doctrine.
Moreover, if strict adherence to the Bible text restrains a preacher from inserting his personal opinions into preaching, it may be argued with equal validity that strict adherence to the Catechism's text does the same.
The point being made in either case is that strict adherence to a text restrains the preacher from "sharing" his own personal opinions and experiences — something absolutely contraband on the pulpit, about which we heartily agree with Rev. Lankheet! But to assume that adherence to a Bible text is better than adherence to the Catechism's text impales us once again on the horns of a false dilemma.
Advantage 3: Listeners desire preaching that leads them through the Bible passage, verse by verse, phrase by phrase.
Listeners with notepads in hand will hear the preacher "expound God's Word" when the Catechism governs the sermon's outline, content and progress. Again: we must be careful not to suggest that, if the Catechism is opened on the laps of pewsitters and if it is faithfully explained in the pulpit, then we won't be "hearing the Word."
If members of the congregation sit with the Catechism open before them — as many listeners in fact do, but nowadays to their increasing frustration — and if preachers diligently proclaim the "sum of Christian doctrine" which is the Heidelberg Catechism, then we will all hear "the Word as summarized in the Heidelberg Catechism" proclaimed with fresh enthusiasm, coherent exposition and challenging application.
Let us repeat: we are grateful to Rev. Lankheet for publishing some thoughts on his preferred method of Catechism preaching. It is our intention, our hope and prayer that the above comments, by no means exhaustive or complete, will further our awareness and discussion of Catechism preaching as, indeed, it is: the administration of the Word of God.
R Lankheet: Response to Rev. Kloosterman
The October issue of The Outlook brought together several articles around one theme. The Board of Reformed Fellowship intends to publish more thematic issues from time to time.
With Rev. Kloosterman I am grateful that we had the opportunity to write, to publish, and to read several articles dealing with catechism preaching. May our interaction with one another contribute to better catechism preaching today. As Rev. Kloosterman indicates, his response to my article should not be seen as a disagreement about the necessity of catechism preaching. On this we are fully agreed. Where we seem to have some disagreement is on the construction of the catechism sermon — how the catechism sermon is to be structured.
In my article, I tried to persuade the readers that in preparing a catechism sermon, the preacher first ought to locate a pertinent Bible text related to the particular catechism question and answer for that week. He ought to study that Biblical text with all the tools at his disposal — lexicons, commentaries, sermonic helps, etc. From that study of the Biblical text, a sermon outline gradually will emerge. He then will incorporate the catechism materials into his sermon outline to explain the Bible text further or to assist in the application of that text to the faith and life of the church members. But the starting point and the outline of the sermon ought to rise from the Scripture text, not the catechism text.
Rev. Kloosterman fears that by using this method of constructing the catechism sermon, I am setting the Scripture against the Catechism. I am not intending to do so, but I realize that I leave myself open to this charge. So let me respond.
We all know Christians who claim, "No creed but Christ; no book but the Bible!" No pastor within the Christian Reformed Church could agree with such a claim. As one who has signed the Form of Subscription without any mental reservations, I heartily believe that our church's confessions "do fully agree with the Word of God." To the best of my knowledge, no teaching found within the Heidelberg Catechism disagrees with the Bible's teaching. If I thought otherwise, I would surely bring the matter up by way of a confessional-difficulty gravamen. The Heidelberg Catechism accurately represents the Bible's teaching on the specific matters addressed in the various questions and answers.
Having said this, however, we must also agree that the Scriptures are not to be equated with our confessions. The former is a product of God's activity; the latter is a product of man's activity; the former is inspired; the latter is not. The former is infallible; the latter is not. To the question, then "what shall we preach?" the answer is, "The Word of God. Sola Scriptura." Even though the Heidelberg Catechism fully agrees with the Word of God, yet it is not the Word of God. That is why I stress using the Bible text as the basis for constructing the outline of the catechism sermon and then to bring in the text of the Catechism where it further explains and applies that Word to the hearers. Start with God's Word and bring in man's word along the way. It seems to me that this method of writing a catechism sermon keeps our focus on the Bible text which should be the focus for all good preaching.
Now there are two sections of the Heidelberg Catechism that lend themselves to developing sermon outlines directly from the catechism answers themselves. I'm thinking of the sections on the Ten Commandments and on the Lord's Prayer. These sections are based directly on specific Bible texts. For example, "You shall have no other gods before me" is found in Exodus 20:3 in the Bible and is explained by Question 94 in the Catechism; "Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name" is found in Matthew 6:9 in the Bible and is explained in Questions 120-122 in the Catechism. The catechism answers given in these two sections directly explain and apply specific Bible texts. So I would have no problem taking the main points of my sermons on the Ten Commandments and the Lord's Prayer directly from the catechism answers.
I would have a problem, though (and I suspect many listeners to catechism sermons have this same problem) developing a sermon outline based, say, on Question 80: "How does the Lord's Supper differ from the Roman Catholic mass?" First of all, where is the preacher going to find a text to hook this sermon on? He might go to the Scriptures dealing with the institution of the Lord's Supper or the meaning of the Lord's Supper, say Matthew 26 or 1 Corinthians 11. But if he slavishly follows the outline of Question 80, his sermon outline will look like this:
- The correct meaning of the Lord's Supper,
- The incorrect meaning of the Lord's Supper.
This outline does not do justice to the text or to the context of either Matthew 26 or 1 Corinthians 11. Is Question 80 then contrary to what the Scriptures teach? No, not at all. The Scriptures teach that Jesus' sacrifice is once for all, not a ritual to be repeated on an altar, as the Romanists teach. But my point is that Question 80 in particular does not give us a sermon outline from Matthew 26 or 1 Corinthians 11, or, to the best of my knowledge, from any other specific Bible text. To use Question 80 as the outline of a sermon on Matthew 26 or 1 Corinthians 11 is, in my opinion, a violation of those particular Bible texts and a violation of what preaching ought to be.
Perhaps these comments will help to clarify the main point of my earlier article. I appreciate Rev. Kloosterman's comments; they have forced me to think through the issues further. And I admit that I am new at preaching and at preaching catechism sermons. Perhaps I am misconstruing the whole matter. Let me encourage other readers and preachers to submit their reactions. We can all learn from each other. The worst thing that could happen is if we simply gave up on catechism preaching altogether. My goal, and that of Rev. Kloosterman, is to encourage better catechism preaching. With that as our common goal, I trust that we can endure some differences of opinion on how to best achieve that goal.