Catechesis: Cutting Edge Technique
To stay competitive, businesses are constantly looking for the latest cutting edge technology or techniques. The use of cutting edge technology will help a company stay a step ahead of the competition.
As familiar as the term cutting edge may be from the business world, it is not a term we tend to associate with Canadian Reformed church life. If anything, Canadian Reformed church life seems to be marked more by outdated technology and techniques. An example of what might be considered an outdated technique would be the practice of catechesis. Catechesis is the instruction in Christian doctrine to both the youth in catechism classes as well as the whole congregation via catechism preaching.
Some articles in a recent issue of Christianity Today (March 2010) served as a reminder that our practice of catechesis puts us on the cutting edge. The cover had as title “Light for the Soul: Why a heady dose of doctrine is crucial to spiritual formation.” One article drew attention to the disastrous effect upon the life of the church when, in the early nineteenth century, theology shifted from doctrine to spiritual experiences and feelings. Especially under the influence of men like Friedrich Schleiermacher, feelings became the yardstick for doctrinal relevance instead of doctrine being the yardstick for human feelings. In a side bar, there was an excerpt from a new book by J.I. Packer and Gary A. Parrett, entitled Grounded in the Gospel: Building Believers the Old-Fashioned Way, which stressed the important role of catechesis. It also mentioned the detrimental effect of the Sunday School movement of the nineteenth century because of the way it substituted Bible stories for grounding in the basic beliefs and practices of the church. A second article dealt with a number of churches rediscovering the importance of doctrinal instruction.
It is encouraging to see this rediscovery of the importance of doctrine. It encourages us also to hold on to our practice of catechesis, knowing that it is cutting edge. At the same time, the ultimate reason for us to hold on to catechesis goes deeper. It is not because it is the latest cutting edge technique but because it always has been the cutting edge of the Spirit’s method of gathering the church bought by Christ’s blood. Catechesis is really the wielding of the two edged sword of the Word of God that “penetrates even to dividing the soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).
Catechesis and the Apostles
It is good to elaborate on this point since at times one can hear the suggestion that catechesis is at odds with preaching and teaching the Bible directly. The fact is that there was catechesis before there was preaching from Bible passages. This is immediately obvious if we reflect on how the gospel went to the nations. The apostles travelled and preached long before they wrote accounts of our Lord’s life and letters to various congregations. The gospel consisted of a certain set of doctrines concerning Christ crucified as the fulfillment of the Scriptures and how the kingdom of God had been established through his ministry.
Some examples from Scripture will bear out that there was a certain set of doctrines concerning Christ and his work. Jude wrote to his readers that his initial plan was to write about “the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints” (v 3). In Paul’s letters to Timothy, we find mention of the sound doctrine (e.g. 1 Timothy 1:10; 6:3; 2 Timothy 1:13; 4:3). He also wrote of those who would abandon the faith (1 Timothy 4:1) and of being brought up in the truths of the faith and the good teaching (1 Timothy 4:6). In chapter 6:20 he told Timothy to guard what had been entrusted to him. In his second letter to Timothy he told Timothy to guard the good deposit that had been entrusted to him (2 Timothy 1:14). To Titus he said that elders must “hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that (they) can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it” (Titus 1:9).
What we see then is that there was a clearly defined body of doctrines long before there were the New Testament Scriptures. In other translations, we may come across the word “tradition.” Tradition simply means something that is handed down from one person to another. The word “entrusted” has that aspect of being handed down so they in turn may pass it on (cf. 2 Timothy 2:2).
Samples of Catechesis
There are a few places in Scripture where we find summaries of this doctrine, this faith once for all entrusted to the saints. A clear example is found in 1 Corinthians 15:3-6 where Paul wrote,
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve.
Another example is found in 1 Timothy 3:16 where Paul wrote, He appeared in a body, was vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, was preached among the nations, was believed on in the world, was taken up in glory.
In short, what has been handed down, entrusted to the believers, is the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God come into our human flesh to die for our sins, and that through faith in him we might have life in his name.
The New Testament testifies to the fact that the apostles had been catechizing, that is, giving instruction in Christian doctrine. The New Testament books are an elaboration, clarification, and defence of this faith and an inscripturation of this doctrine. In none of the writings, however, do we get a comprehensive doctrinal package. This is so because the letters responded to particular questions and difficulties that arose. The closest we might get to a comprehensive exposition of the gospel is Paul’s letter to the Romans. In this letter, Paul deals with human sinfulness, the work of Christ as redeemer, and the response of Christians in godly living. The structure of this letter finds an echo in the structure of our Heidelberg Catechism. Yet, even that letter was shaped by the context of the believers in Rome. All this does not take away that when the Scriptures are taken together, they testify to the existence of a comprehensive package of doctrine. All the points of doctrine are confirmed and supported in the Scriptures.
Four Elements of Catechesis
It was, therefore, fully in keeping with the manner of teaching by the apostles that in due time the churches developed instruction manuals. A very ancient document from the second century is called the Didache meaning, “Teachings.”1 It is said to contain the teachings of the twelve apostles. The need to teach the basic Christian doctrines also led to the development of the twelve articles of faith. As time progressed, the consistent elements of catechesis were the twelve articles of faith, the sacraments, the law and prayer. Though catechesis fell into great neglect for many centuries, the Reformers revived the practice of catechesis, developing new catechisms to accomplish this purpose. The introduction to the Heidelberg Catechism points out how the motivation was the instruction of the youth and the guiding of the pastors. In the year 1548, John Calvin wrote in a letter to Lord Somerset, the advisor to young King Edward, about the need for a catechism and catechizing. He wrote,
Believe me, Monseigneur, the Church of God will never preserve itself without a Catechism, for it is like the seed to keep the good grain from dying out, and causing it to multiply from age to age. And therefore, if you desire to build an edifice which shall be of long duration, and which shall not soon fall into decay, make provision for the children being instructed in a good Catechism... This Catechism will serve two purposes, to wit, as an introduction to the whole people, so that everyone may profit from what shall be preached, and also to enable them to discern when any presumptuous person puts forward strange doctrine...2
Catechesis then has a long history. It was practiced by the apostles. The Scriptures testify to this. It is a false dilemma to put catechesis over against preaching from the Bible. Catechesis is preaching from the Bible. In terms of the ebb and flow of history, it would seem that right now, as Canadian Reformed Churches, we are on the cutting edge with our emphasis on catechesis. In terms of Scripture, the persistent emphasis on catechesis is only maintaining the cutting edge of the Word.