This article looks at the roots of catechism classes in church history and the importance of catechizing the youth of the church.

Source: The Outlook, 2011. 12 pages.

Instruction in the Faith Some Pages from the Past

EVERYWHERE in today’s world the Christian church is facing, with a new sense of urgency, the question of its calling. It confesses to having received the gospel of God’s grace in Christ Jesus. This, so the church acknowledges, must be presented and passed on. Such communication is its calling.

Communication by the church, however, is replete with frustrations. Nowhere do these come into sharper focus than when we become painfully aware of the multitudes estranged from the life of the church and its saving message. Bridges of all kinds are attempted between men and men, between one nation and another, between the church and the world. Frequently, however, the first piers sunk into the swirling waters are swept away. This happens most poignantly and painfully when the church sees children and young people, embraced by Christ’s baptism, turn away. Millions of these sustain no living relationship to the Word of life. To us who know and love the God of our salvation they seem like salt that has lost its savor. While on many mission fields and in younger lands the Christian church still appears to be registering advances, in the Western nations it beats a slow but sure retreat.

This points up what may well be the major issue facing the church today. Can it so communicate the Christian message that from one generation to the next God is praised among the peoples? Unless this can be done consciously and committedly, men will experience no true reconciliation. Hendrik Kraemer points this up well, when he writes,

Only the re-creation, the restoring, of the right relationship with God can be the basis of the recreation of true unfrustrated communication with each other. This is one of the deep meanings of the Church, to be the place and sphere of this re-creation of true communication, because its function is to be the true community, founded through Christ in God, the embodiment of renewed humanity.1

Here the self-revealing God manifests himself, challenging the church to speak his word, which declares, “Light shall shine out of darkness, who shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6).

Only such convinced speaking can communicate, for the Spirit honors the word that testifies faithfully to the grace of God in Christ Jesus. And those to whom the church is called to speak first of all are within her closest reach — the children whom he has embraced in his covenant and church. Their hearts and mouths must be opened by grace unto grace, so that also the next generation may know the mighty works of the Lord. To neglect them while seeking to communicate with others afar off is disobedience that flirts with spiritual disaster.

Time and again the church has had to be called back to this task. That Scripture is filled with exhortations to train the children of the covenant in the Lord’s fear needs no demonstration. Even the words of our Lord and his apostles on this point are too well-known to require repetition.

In the ancient church, however, this task was largely the responsibility of Christian parents. Such fathers as John Chrysostom, Rufinus, and Augustine, while speaking much of catechizing, only indirectly and by implication speak of the duty of the church to its own children. During the middle ages more attention was given to the baptized children. Yet here the church, while attempting to introduce the children and bind them to its life, largely failed to awaken a response of childlike faith in God and his promises. Scripture was too much obscured by an emphasis on living in submission to church ordinances. The voice of the saving Christ seemed strangely silent among the clamorings for an obedience that produced work-righteousness. The way of salvation was largely hidden from the sons of men. Failing to communicate the gospel to millions whom it had baptized, the medieval church demonstrated its desperate need for reform.

When the Reformation broke like bright dawn across Europe, all evangelical churches undertook with zeal the catechizing of the children of the church. This was an inescapable consequence of the restoration of preaching as the central act in the church’s worship and work. For unless the gospel message was clearly taught to the children, how could they in turn transmit this to their children? At stake was the continuity of a confessing church that knew what it confessed and aimed at passing this on to succeeding generations. Luther,2Zwingli and Calvin, 3together with their followers, urged such Christian nurture as an integral aspect of the church’s calling. To secure this they prepared their catechetical manuals.

Wherever these were used diligently, the life of the congregations grew in purity and strength. At the end of the first century of Reformation history appears the Synod of Dort (1618–19), an assembly of representatives from nearly every Reformed church on the continent. Here the fruits of a hundred years of trial and triumph were garnered, also those that had ripened as a result of the church’s deep concern for its baptized children and young people. And these were intended to be passed on, so that churches in the coming years might reap an even richer harvest. What Dort did for catechesis deserves some attention from us in these years when the churches throughout the world are again addressing themselves seriously to the problems surrounding church education of children. 4

Catechesis in the Churches🔗

Catechesis is an aspect of the teaching ministry of the church. In the Reformed church it has historically been regarded as the chief means of communicating the Christian gospel to those whose spiritual life (i.e., life in faith-union and communion with God in Christ) has not attained that degree of maturity essential to a clear and credible profession of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

Here some distinctions deserve our attention. Not all education and training in the Christian life should be subsumed under catechesis. Also the faithful proclamation of the gospel at the time of public worship has an educational dimension. Here the church does well to remember that,

Every Scripture inspired of God (and this alone is to be expounded and applied in the churches) is also profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for instruction which is in righteousness.2 Timothy 3:16

Even pastoral work, when scripturally carried on, sustains an inescapable connection with the teaching function of the church.5Yet catechesis performs a unique service. Here the church in Christ’s name instructs the catechumens in the mysteries of the Christian faith, so that they will be prepared to profess their faith in the God of salvation and thus be able to conduct themselves responsibly as Christian believers in the church and in the world. Today we recognize much more clearly than some centuries ago that the church has a catechesal responsibility not only to those who have received Christian baptism; without a “missionary” or “evangelistic” catechesis, which in several respects ought to be distinguished from catechesis within the churches, we fail to honor fully our Christ-given mandate.6

But, and this needs underscoring in our time, the church is by no means the only agency called upon to provide Christian education. Thus a distinction must be made between the responsibilities resting on the church and those that devolve on Christian homes and schools. While we may rejoice that today, under the influence of the ecumenical movement and its theologians the church, also in its institutional form, receives its due more justly than before, the danger of a totalitarian church is by no means imaginary. Here in more ways than one the views of the ecumenically-minded theologians at times sound strangely like Rome. By not a few, all religious and Christian education is assigned to the institutional church, a convenient escape from the impasse created by the increasing “secularization” of our homes and schools, but one fraught with great peril for the freedom of the Christian man, woman, and child under Christ.

Especially in Reformed churches during the past century this matter has received attention. Much more clearly than the fathers of Dort do we recognize that home and school and church each have unique contributions to make in the Christian education of children. But more, much more, needs to be clarified on this score, if the gains that have already been registered shall be sustained and strengthened. Catechesis is only one yet a most essential and indispensable agency for the education of children in the faith that is according to godliness.

This is still widely recognized in the Christian Reformed Church. Each year tens of thousands receive such instruction 7. It is not merely expected by the people; it is an obligation assumed by the churches in adopting as Church Order regulations also the following:

  • Article 63. Each church shall instruct its youth — and others who are interested — in the teaching of the Scriptures as formulated in the creeds of the church, in order to prepare them to profess their faith publicly and to assume their Christian responsibilities in the church and in the world.
  • Article 64. a. Catechetical instruction shall be supervised by the consistory. b. The instruction shall be given by the minister of the Word with the help, if necessary, of the elders and others appointed by the consistory. c. The Heidelberg Catechism and its Compendium shall be the basis of instruction. Selection of additional instructional helps shall be made by the minister in consultation with the consistory.8

Although somewhat more detailed, these regulations do not differ markedly from those adopted in earlier church orders, including the redaction prepared by the Synod of Dort. In this respect our churches — and not those that have substituted the usual Sunday school classes or discussion groups or junior church services — stand in the classic Christian tradition that goes back to Calvin and even earlier.

Such regulations alone, however, offer no assurance that the aims of catechesis will be attained. Above all else sound understanding of and whole-hearted commitment to this teaching ministry is necessary. And this seems sadly lacking among many.

Criticisms of the catechetical program are many. Some consistories pay no more attention to this work than making a few formal arrangements. Ministers are known to assign this task to others without serious qualms of conscience, in order to pursue what they deem more worthy of their time and attention. Not infrequently the catechetical classes are reduced to little more than half an hour and the catechetical season to not much more than twenty or twenty-five weeks in a year. In some churches these classes have become a rather meaningless routine conducted in drab and even dingy surroundings, which soon stifles any interest that the children may have. In others, experimentation with manuals and methods of all kinds tends to undermine the aims that the churches themselves have spelled out. That catechesis still yields some rich and rewarding fruits is often more in spite than because of us.

For much of this decadence, Christian parents as members of the church must bear a large measure of responsibility. The pressures that they bring to bear on this pattern of the church’s ministry, although often subtle, are exceedingly strong. Having enrolled their children, they will tend to do little more. A careful inquiry into and explanation of the lesson to the children at home takes too much of their time. Soon they allow dental appointments, basketball games, and family affairs to preempt the hour scheduled for catechesis. Not a few argue that these classes are quite unnecessary, since the material is identical to that presented in Sunday school and in the Christian day school. Others complain too quickly that the minds of the little children are being too much overburdened — and that in a day when thorough education in all other departments of learning is regarded as indispensable! All this demonstrates a declining interest in God and his service that plagues churches and church members in today’s “scientific” and so-called “secularized” world. Unless this and much else is remedied, the catechesal classes will go by default to the detriment of multitudes for generations to come. No church can be true church unless its members know and believe and testify to the gospel of our God. This calls for “indoctrination” — plain and patient and persistent teaching of the Christian faith that is unto godliness. Unless this is achieved, the church within a generation may no longer have a gospel to communicate.

But why speak about Dort in this connection? This question cannot be shoved under the rug. Too many people manifest a strong anti-historical bias. To them all that counts is what has been proposed no earlier than yesterday. The past is regarded as an accumulation of dead bones, of baggage that only hampers us in the adventure of living life to the full in these years.

To respond to them and their opinions fully would take too much space here. However, a few salient facts should be brought to their attention.

No generation among the sons of men lives without its strong and inescapable ties with the past. This is true also of Christ’s church. We cannot understand who we are and why we live as we do except we reflect on the life and labors of those who have gone before. The eminent Dutch historian Pieter Geyl, in an altogether different connection, calls attention to this in his Encounters in History.

History does not only fashion that understanding and participating attitude of mind in the most general way with respect to life and humanity; it calls forth feelings of kinship with the group to which the spectator belongs; it strengthens the sense of community. With understanding grows love for what one is a part of, and a more profound and firmer love as it is free from illusions ... It is not an escape from the present; it is strengthening ourselves for the struggle that is calling us. 9

Nowhere is such strengthening more needful than in Christ’s church. Here by profession we acknowledge our kinship with all those called to salvation in Christ — “I believe one holy, catholic church.” This church, which lives in Christ and through Christ and for Christ, has been assured by him of the Spirit’s leading into all truth. This process, which spans the centuries, is his gift to us. And we disregard or disdain it to our grave spiritual impoverishment.

Gispen, that capable, justly famous and quite eccentric Reformed preacher of nearly a century ago, saw a striking parallel between the church and the circus. Acrobats make their appeal to the populace as some stand on the shoulders of others to reach even greater heights; they can soar safely through space from one trapeze to another only when in passing they seize and are propelled by others at the crucial moment. Here no individual can do without his partners. Communicating the gospel is a kind of spiritual acrobatics. We stand on the shoulders of the past; we are gripped by the trained hands of those who have gone before in order to move into the future with the full and rich Christian gospel that every age needs. And since our understanding of that message has to a large degree been shaped by Dort, we do only disservice to our self-understanding by disregarding it.

The Roots of Reformed Catechesis🔗

If we cannot understand the catechetical pattern and practice of our churches apart from knowing something about Dort, we shall not be able to understand what and why Dort spoke on this without some consideration of what preceded the assembling of that synod. Its deliberations and decisions were not the product of a single day.

To only a few of the salient features of Reformed catechetical history can we call attention now.

Here the work of Luther and Calvin should be signalized.10As reformers within Christ’s church their place is unparalleled. They called men throughout all of Christendom back to the Scriptures. Only on the basis of God’s word could the church be truly reformed. And in the task of reformation according to the Word the catechizing of children and young people was crucial. Both of them early in their reformational work prepared catechetical manuals for the children, so that the pure doctrine that is proper food and drink for the believing church might not perish but be perpetuated from generation to generation. And that the churches learned well from them is evident from the fact that during succeeding centuries confessional Lutheran and Reformed churches pursued the pattern that they learned from their “spiritual fathers in Christ.”

The teachings of Calvin spread by various means to the Netherlands of the sixteenth century. Here the churches early adopted a confession of faith that even in its details harmonized with what was taught in Geneva.

In order to promote the unity and strength of the Calvinistic reformation in the Netherlands, leaders met in the German town of Wesel and drew up a tentative Church Order. These articles did not possess official and binding status, since the Convent of Wesel (1568) was not a legally constituted assembly of representatives of the churches. Yet they provided the basis for church orders adopted by succeeding synods, beginning with Emden (1571). 11

Wesel devoted an entire chapter to the teaching ministry of the churches, specifically that of catechizing. It affirmed that responsibility for this rested upon the ministry of the Word. Likewise, such catechizing “according to our judgment is positively (stellig) to be maintained in all churches.” It urged the Dutch-speaking churches to employ the Heidelberg Catechism and the French-speaking (Walloon) churches the Catechism of Geneva.12

Fully as significant were the deep pastoral concerns of this assembly.

Every effort was to be put forth by the catechist that the children, in accordance with their age, 'not only learn to recite the Catechism accurately but also understand its content and retain this not only in their minds but also in the depths of their heart.'

Thus careful and clear exposition was required of those who taught. The “simplest manner of speaking, which is appropriate to the understanding of children” was urged. And that such instruction might be consistently provided, parents were under obligation to present their children for such teaching “in the true religion and piety.” Those who refused to cooperate became subject to ecclesiastical censure.

This was the pattern soon confirmed and maintained officially by the Dutch churches.13The close relation between the churches and the schools and between these churches and schools and the civil magistrates, occasioned by the recognition of the Reformed faith as the religion of the nation, gave rise to many knotty problems. This was especially true in those areas where the population had conflicting ecclesiastical loyalties. The schools were placed under supervision of the churches, specifically of the ministers. Also here the catechism was to be taught, at least two times each week. In addition, the schoolmasters were to see to it that the older children (usually boys) were brought to divine worship. The disadvantages of these regulations, especially to Roman Catholics, and to a lesser extent to Lutherans and Anabaptists, are obvious. Some classes and particular synods insisted on a rigorous enforcement; others with greater insight and wisdom modified their application. Thus the Gelderland synod held in Zutphen (1596) refused to compel children of Roman Catholic parents to attend Reformed worship even though they were to be instructed in the Heidelberg Catechism in the schools.14

The same synod, meeting in Nijmegen (1606), saw the issues involved even more clearly. In response to a gravamen presented by Harderwyk that was rejected, it declared that catechetical instruction was “an ecclesiastical matter” and that therefore “every church and minister shall labor to the end, that the members continue to send their children to catechism.” 15

What especially constrained the Synod of Dort (1618-19) to address itself to catechesis was the Arminian controversy. This party — which sprang up in the Dutch churches and grew in influence for some twenty years — chafed at the rigid confessional and church-political requirements of the Reformed churches. By various and even devious means they sought to undermine the standards that had been adopted officially by the synods and to which they themselves had subscribed when assuming office in the churches. Time and again, at first very cautiously but afterward with growing boldness, they urged a revision of the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism. Sometimes it was made to appear that they aimed at only minor redactional changes. But whenever they were requested to state clearly what they sought to have changed, an answer was not forthcoming. Rightly did those who championed the Reformed teachings fear that Arminian dissatisfaction and dissent was more deep-seated than its representatives were ready to admit.

Tendencies in the direction of Semi-Pelagianism, Pelagianism, and even Socinianism betrayed themselves in the writings of several. Throughout this discussion the Arminians posed as champions of “moderation,” which to all practical purposes would mean a church no longer consistently bound by its own confessional statements. Catechesis as well as preaching in the pulpits was being affected. Many in the churches were confused as to what was a sound presentation of the Reformed faith. So sharply were the lines between the two parties drawn during the eight years before the Synod of Dort convened, that many congregations were rent by schism.

None of the Arminians, so far as we have been able to trace, ever argued against catechesis as such. What they aimed at, however, was quite different from the pattern pursued in the Reformed churches since their organization in the land. This becomes especially evident when we take note of the Gouda Catechism, which was drawn up by some of their leaders in 1607 and published the next year. 16

The argument was that the Heidelberg Catechism was much too long and complicated to serve as a suitable manual for instruction. By no means could all of its contents be considered essential to a sound knowledge of the Christian faith. In fact, it was to be regarded as merely the work of men. Therefore a catechism was needed that adhered much more closely to the very words of Scripture, and then only those words (relatively few when we review this product of their pen) that were indispensable to a man’s salvation. We meet here, therefore, a kind of “Biblicism” that in Anabaptist fashion had no eye for the leading of the Holy Spirit throughout the centuries of church history as well as a kind of “reductionism” that is always characteristic of those who defend latitudinarianism in Christian doctrine.

It should come as no surprise, therefore, that the Synod of Dort felt constrained to speak on catechesal matters. Without using the word, it addressed itself to the communication of the gospel. And since this was to be done in classroom as well as from the pulpit, in order that the confessional church might truly be a confessing church, it addressed itself seriously to this aspect of the teaching ministry. Only in this way, so it believed, could the rich gains enjoyed since the days of Reformation be preserved for and passed on to the church of the future.

The Deliberations and Decisions of Dort🔗

The synodical sessions were officially opened with appropriate ceremonies on November 13, 1618. While awaiting the arrival of the foreign delegations who were to assist in settling the Arminian controversy, synod decided to proceed with and dispose of ecclesiastical business that was the more direct concern of the Dutch churches alone.

Likely we may find in the order of business evidence of some basic Reformed convictions. The matter of a sound Bible translation was first discussed at great length, the delegates being committed to the position that only the most accurate as well as perspicuous rendition of the Holy Scripture in the Dutch language would serve the churches well. Having decided on this, they could proceed to a consideration of preaching and teaching as it should be conducted among them. Here catechism preaching, established in the earliest years of the Reformation, was discussed 17.

In not a few congregations this had, in spite of repeated decisions by classes and provincial and even a national synod, been greatly neglected. In addition, the incessant clamor of the Arminians that the catechism stood in need of some revision and that it was simply a man-made document cast a dark shadow. Here the foreign delegates, whose advice was not obtained until after synod took its decisions, unanimously commended the practice of the Dutch churches as regulated by the Church Order and urged its continuation.

From that discussion to a consideration of the catechetical instruction of children, young people, and others whose knowledge of the Christian religion was deemed deficient but who were willing to receive such teaching was a short step. For how could the gospel as presented in this systematic and thorough way be communicated effectively, unless the people were somewhat prepared to understand what was being preached?

This subject of the proper instruction of catechumens was introduced by the president, Johannes Bogerman. A summary of what he said on that occasion has been preserved for us by the English secretary Hales, whose Letters still provide interesting and instructive comments on the synodical proceedings.

The Praeses first spake many things learnedly of the necessity of Catechizing, that it was the basis and ground of Religion, and the sole way of transfusing the principles of Christianity into men; that it was very ancient, practiced by the Patriarchs, by the Apostles, by Origen, and approved by the consent of the Fathers; that from the Neglect of this came the ignorance of the common sort, and that multitude of sects among them, of Papists, Anabaptists, Libertines, &c. whereas if an uniform course of teaching them their first Principles had been taken up, there would not have been so many differences; that there now was greater necessity than ever of reviving this custom, because of the Jesuits who mightily labour in this kind, as appeared by some of their Acts lately in Frisia...18

Immediately the foreign delegations were requested to present their advice on this. The president limited the initial discussion to the manner of catechizing, postponing any consideration of the manual or manuals to be used until later. The influence of the foreign delegations on synodical decisions was substantial. Thereafter the professors and the delegations from the several provincial synods submitted their judgments. All of these were discussed, not the least the view of the Remonstrant delegation from the province of Utrecht, which urged that a catechism be composed consisting solely of Scripture quotations.

Thereupon synod took its decisions. Since these are found in detail form in the Acta, only a summary of the main points will be given.

Dort declared that in order that Christian children and young people may be more thoroughly instructed in the true religion, three kinds of catechesis should be maintained: in the homes by the parents, in the schools by the teachers, and in the churches by the ministers, elders, or assistants such as lezers (readers) and ziekentroosters (comforters of the sick).

The responsibility of parents was to teach their own children the first principles of the Christian faith. This was to be done regularly and faithfully according to the abilities of each child. Especially the “practice of godliness” was to be the concern of parents, who were to admonish and encourage their children in the fear of the Lord. Only by these means, so synod judged, would they learn to accustom themselves to family devotions. Parents were also to take their children to church regularly and review with them the content of the sermons, especially those preached according to the order of the Heidelberg Catechism. Children were not only to be stimulated at home to memorize basic Scripture texts; these were to be explained to them by their parents, in order that the children might be better prepared to receive the catechetical instruction given in schools and churches. All who were negligent should be warned by the officebearers of the congregation. If this did not avail, then such parents would be subject to church discipline.

With respect to catechizing in the schools much that had been practiced and decided by the Reformed churches in earlier times was reiterated. Everywhere the churches were urged to encourage the civil magistrates to establish and maintain schools throughout the land. Only those should be appointed as teachers who were members of the Reformed church, sound in doctrine and godly in conduct. They were to subscribe to the Belgic Confession and Heidelberg Catechism, pledging themselves to teach the children with great care and precision the fundamentals of the Christian religion “according to the catechetical method.” 19Such instruction was to be given at least twice each week. In addition, the schoolmasters were responsible for taking their pupils to divine worship, especially when the catechism was preached, and thereafter to discuss with them what had been heard.

For this catechizing in the schools synod judged that three manuals of instruction were necessary. Herein it clearly recognized that accommodation must be made to various levels of age and understanding. Yet it was not minded to undermine unity in teaching, urging as it did a “threefold manual” (drieerlei leerboek). This is plain especially from the details that were delineated in the decision. For the very young children a simple manual comprising the six basic parts of the Christian religion, together with a few prayers, some simple questions and answers following the order of the “three parts” (drie stukken) of the Heidelberg Catechism, and some Scriptural passages exhorting to godliness was to be used. For the more advanced there was to be a summary or compendium of the Heidelberg Catechism after the fashion of either the abbreviated catechism of the churches of the Palatinate or the Compendium (1608) of Faukelius, which had won widespread approval, especially among the churches of Zeeland. All the older catechumens were to be instructed in the Heidelberg Catechism itself. Other manuals were to be prohibited, and the civil magistrates urged by the churches in their respective localities to remove from the schools all Roman Catholic and other dangerous writings.

The tasks of the ministers of the Word with respect to catechizing were also specified. Much attention was to be given to catechism preaching. Here the pastors were admonished to speak in simple language and with appropriate brevity, bearing in mind that they were to preach for children as well as adults. In addition to supervising the catechesis given by the schools, they were to direct special attention to those no longer attending school but whose knowledge of the Christian faith was still deficient. These were to be catechized by the minister in the presence of an elder each week, either at home or in the consistory room of the church. Those who desired to profess their faith publicly in the church were to receive final and detailed instruction for a period of some weeks preparatory to taking this step. All such catechizing was to be opened and closed with appropriate prayers.

Having adopted these decisions, synod now faced three questions proposed by the president. Were certain persons to be appointed for the purpose of drawing up these proposed abbreviated manuals of instruction? In the preparation of such manuals, were the words of the Heidelberg Catechism to be preserved as much as possible? Was this work to be undertaken immediately, so that upon its completion synod might express itself officially on what was being proposed? To all three questions synod responded affirmatively, reminding itself in the course of taking its decisions of an earlier directive adopted by the synod of Middelburg (1581).

Now a committee was appointed to prepare such manuals, which would later be submitted to synod for its judgment and thereupon be officially approved for use in the churches and schools. The original committee consisted of Polyander, professor at Leiden; Gomarus, professor at Groningen; Hermannus Faukelius, who had drawn up the Compendium of 1608 and served the church at Middelburg; Ralthasar Lydius, the pastor of Dordrecht; and Godefridus Udemannus, the pastor of the church of Zierikzee. To this number was added some time later Antonius Thysius, who served as professor at Harderwyk.

At the 177th session on May 27, 1619, after the foreign delegations had already left for home, synod again took up the matter and dealt with the work of the committee. Meanwhile, however, at the 148th session, when the Heidelberg Catechism again was officially approved, synod took a position that was not completely consonant with its earlier judgments. It now declared that this catechism was not only “in all respects an accurate summary of the orthodox Christian doctrine;” it also insisted that it was eminently suitable to serve as a manual for instructing those of tender years as well as the more.20Thus the necessity of elementary manuals of instruction appeared upon further reflection less urgent.

All this can be understood when we remember what took place at synod. Repeatedly the Arminians and those who to a degree sympathized with them had undermined the influence of the Heidelberg Catechism. Heyngius, secretary of the Political Commissioners appointed to serve at the synod, explains in his report that many of the delegates feared that the smaller manuals, if adopted, would come to be regarded as “new catechisms and thus would provide occasion for confusion in the congregations and for discrediting the Heidelberg Catechism which had again been approved.” 21

Yet synod could not rescind a decision adopted in the presence and with the cooperation of the foreign delegations. Thus it tacitly sought a satisfactory compromise. The shortest catechism was read and approved upon condition that a few matters drawn from the Heidelberg Catechism would be included. Bogerman judged that the summary to serve those somewhat more advanced in years and understanding seemed too long to be read. Thereupon synod decided that the churches might be permitted to use either the proposed summary of the committee or the Compendium of Faukelius, which had already gained quite widespread acceptance.

Actually, therefore, the Heidelberg Catechism remains as the only manual that has complete official endorsement in the Reformed churches. The “A.B.C. book” for the youngest catechumens remained in use in the schools until early in the nineteenth century. The Compendium of Faukelius, twice recommended by the synod at its sessions, received no competition in the churches from the summary drawn up by the committee. Since 1637 this work of Faukelius has been included in the Dutch psalter to find its way into countless homes and hearts. In this rather strange and surprising way synod concluded its considerations with respect to catechesis.

Evaluation of the Work of Synod🔗

Since that assembly — which met three and a half centuries ago — has so strongly influenced the life and labors of Reformed churches ever since, we do well to reflect on its work.

At the outset it should be remembered that we have no right to fault synod for failing to provide the churches with an exhaustive set of regulations for this work. Such an attempt, according to the polity prevailing in the Reformed churches, would have threatened the rights and responsibilities of local congregations. To these first of all has Christ entrusted the teaching ministry of his church on earth. Synodical regulations, no matter how well-intentioned and solidly grounded, can never make up for deficiencies and derelictions that are allowed to continue by the churches themselves.

But when this is observed, there still remains grave inadequacy in what Dort said and did.

First of all, synod adopted too much without reflection a pattern that had developed throughout the Reformed ecclesiastical world since the days of Calvin. While insisting that all education in the Christian religion should be unified and integrated, so that home and school and church would speak the same language of faith, it did not clarify to any helpful degree the contributions that each could and should make. Not a few of the practical problems that plague catechesis to this day, even though they assume a somewhat different shape than three centuries ago, stem from this. It may well be questioned whether the schools, even when sustaining a close and cooperative relationship to the churches, should ever provide instruction in the confessional standards of the church. The issues surrounding the proper relation between church and school demand much more attention than they are receiving also among us today.

Closely connected with this is synod’s description of the duties devolving on the church, more specifically, on the minister of the Word. Much of his catechetical responsibility was limited on the one hand to catechism preaching and on the other hand to supervising catechesis in the schools. Thus the unique pastoral care that the church through the ministry of the Word should exercise in the lives of children and young people was obscured. Parents and school teachers were required to inquire into what the children remembered of the sermon and, if necessary, to explain this more clearly. But this task actually belongs to the pastor first of all. If we take seriously what Reformed churches have always maintained — that preparation for profession of faith requires an introduction of the catechumen into the living confessional language that the church employs as it seeks to communicate the gospel — then an official representative of the church should be charged with providing this.

Undoubtedly because of this decision of Dort catechetical classes for all baptized children did not become common ecclesiastical practice until the days of the Secession (1834). The three or four weeks of special instruction required immediately prior to making such public profession were totally inadequate to make church membership truly meaningful for those who received it.

The Achilles’ heel of Dort’s decisions with respect to catechesis, however, must be found in its ambivalence on the score of the suitability of the Heidelberg Catechism as a manual for catechumens of all ages. While understanding the difficulties in which it was placed by continued Remonstrant carping, we can hardly justify what it did. No justice was done to the decision taken in the presence and upon the advice of the foreign delegations. Nor can it be regarded as honorable that synod, having assigned a specific task to its committee, failed to deal openly and conclusively with its proposed manuals.

The consequences of this ambivalence have haunted the Reformed churches ever since. Here it is impossible to enter into a detailed discussion of the question itself, namely, whether the Heidelberg Catechism can or cannot serve well in instructing younger and less-advanced catechumens. In its final decision, which recommended for use some elementary manuals, Dort showed that it was not wholly committed to what had been declared in the 148th session. To be sure, synod insisted that the number of catechetical manuals was to be kept to those specifically recommended.

But because there was no officially authorized “small catechism,” the doors in time swung open to give entrance to a multitude of manuals, most of which did not consistently follow the pattern that synod itself sought to safeguard in the interest of a unified and sound program of catechesis. Biesterveld employs strong language when decrying this practice, which is also current in the Christian Reformed Church today. According to him, and with this judgment we concur, all such manuals that neglect or obscure or minimize giving direct attention to Scripture and to the Heidelberg Catechism (including the approved Compendium) do disservice in a confessional and confessing church by confusing the catechumens through a multiplication of the materials to be memorized, discussed, and appropriated. It may well be that we accomplish too little in our catechetical classes because we attempt too much.

Yet in making up the balance sheet, we may not forget the contributions of Dort. Correctly it insisted that catechesis is primarily an ecclesiastical responsibility. No church can long remain sound in Christian doctrine and conduct if it neglects its teaching responsibilities to the baptized children and young people. Its emphasis on “unified material” to be taught faithfully and perseveringly to all within the church’s reach also deserves praise. The church should learn to speak “with one mouth and heart” concerning the mighty works of God in Christ for man’s salvation.

This should alert us to the far-from-imaginary danger of teaching Bible stories in isolation from the total context of God’s progressive redemptive self-revelation to his people, or of teaching Christian doctrine by means of a proof-text method that so frequently ignores the underlying unity of the Scriptures. Meanwhile it should be underscored that Dort warned sharply and strongly against a purely intellectualistic approach to catechesis.

The goal that it clearly championed was that of instruction 'in the faith unto faith,' a faith explicated in the Heidelberg Catechism as 'not only a sure knowledge, whereby I hold for truth all that God has revealed to us in His Word, but also a firm confidence, which the Holy Spirit works in my heart by the gospel, that not only to others, but to me also, remission of sins, everlasting righteousness, and salvation are freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits.'Lord’s Day VII, 21

No one can rightly accuse Dort of paving the way for a cold, impersonal, abstract scholasticism in the catechetical classes. It inveighed against both human speculation that spends its time in seeking answers to illegitimate questions raised by either catechetic or catechumen and sterile orthodoxy that contents itself when children have learned words and phrases without understanding their meaning. Both of these threaten Reformed catechesis in our day. And against both of these, continuing faithful in this respect to Dort, we should warn ceaselessly.

But the challenge of Dort goes deeper. Little is more appalling than the doctrinal latitudinarianism prevalent in much present-day Christianity. This has not left the Reformed churches unscathed. In all areas of learning men urge greater precision — in logic, philosophy, economics, sociology, psychology and especially the “physical” sciences; in matters of Christian teaching almost every notion is not merely tolerated but even openly defended. What is impermissible in office and factory receives accolades in the churches as new, stimulating, relevant! This should alert us to the extent to which irrationalism, existentialism and subjectivism in various subtle forms are sucking the life-blood of the church which, according to Scripture, is “pillar and ground of the truth.”

Against this Dort took its position. Nor was this position inspired by a narrow-minded and uneducated provincialism. Among the delegates were men who stood head and shoulders above most European scholars of that day. Their knowledge of Greek and Hebrew, of literature both “sacred” and “profane,” of history and astronomy and jurisprudence, and — last but by no means least — of Christian theology in all its branches was nowhere excelled at that time. Philip Schaff, himself no advocate of its decisions, pays this tribute to Dort, It was undoubtedly an imposing assembly; and, for learning and piety, as respectable as any ever held since the days of the Apostles. Breitinger, a great light of the Swiss Churches, was astonished at the amount of knowledge and talent displayed by the Dutch delegates ... Even Paoli Sarpi, the liberal Catholic historian, in a letter to Heinsius, spoke very highly of it.22

What concerned Dort when it spoke of catechesis was “the doctrine which is according to godliness.” The spiritual consolation of the individual, the unity of the confessional and confessing church, and the praise of God for his rich grace in Christ Jesus compelled it to speak as it did. Here the best (i.e., the clearest and purest expression of the gospel) was none too good. In season and out of season it was to be taught. No bare intellectual assent to a series of propositional truths, but a vibrant, intelligent and heart-full faith-response is what it sought to cultivate in the lives of young and old. And for a century and more this endeavor of Dort bore rich fruit.

Some fifty years after synod convened, the lines of decadence began to be etched on the face of the Dutch congregations. Prosperity unknown before charmed the hearts and lives of the members. Although not a few warned against the worldliness that threatened to engulf the churches, the majority of ministers as well as members smiled benevolently at the “prophets of doom.” The next century and a half proved their words altogether too true. What men wanted and got was a “reasonable religion,” much after the fashion advocated by the Remonstrants. Respectability became the chief mark of church membership. And throughout that period, catechesis continued as a venerable tradition, but one that set little stamp on the lives of the people.

These are the incontrovertible lessons taught by history. The church today does well to take heed, lest it repeat in its negligence the sins of omission and commission that would condemn it in God’s sight as “holding a form of godliness, but having denied the power thereof.” The possibility of such corruption lies wide open. Against it one remedy has been given — that of faithfully preaching and teaching the Word that makes men wise unto salvation.


  1. ^  Hendrik Kraemer: The Communication of the Christian Faith(Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1956), p. 19
  2. ^ On Luther’s Small Catechism cf. Philip Schaff: Creeds of Christendom, 4th ed. (New York and London: Harper & Bros., 1919), vol. I, pp. 247–253, and vol. III, pp. 74–92.
  3. ^ Calvin wrote two catechisms. The first has been translated by Paul T. Fuhrmann: Instruction in Faith (1537) by John Calvin (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1959). The second is reproduced by Thomas F. Torrance: The School of Faith(London: James Clarke & Co., 1959), pp. 4–65. For Calvin on catechesis, cf. the author’s article “Calvin’s Contributions to Church Education” in Calvin Theological Journal (Nov., 1967), vol. 2, No. 2, pp. 162–201. 
  4. ^ Attention should be addressed to the renewal of catechesis in the various branches of Christendom. Here the lead has been taken by the Roman Catholic Church both with respect to “missionary” catechesis and catechesis for children of the church. The new Dutch catechism, approved by the hierarchy of the Netherlands, has occasioned much discussion and debate. Its “existentialistic” approach has rendered it highly suspect among conservative Catholics, both in Rome and the United States. Under the impact of neo-orthodoxy a flood of literature on this work has appeared in German-speaking lands. Both Hervormde and Gereformeerde churches in the Netherlands have “werk-groepen” that have addressed themselves to the same subject for several years. A renewal of the church’s teaching ministry, both with respect to message and form, is much discussed in the United States, usually in connection with the Sunday- or church-school. For a delineation of the issues involved and the radical differences between the Germans and the Americans on this score, cf. Arnold H. De Graaff: The Educational Ministry of the Church: a perspective (Delft: Judels & Brinkman, 1966), pp. 3-24.
  5. ^ J. Firet: Het Agogisch Moment in het Pastoraal Optreden (Kampen: J. H. Kok, 1968), who insists that all pastoral work, including therefore “zielzorg” of all kinds and pastoral counseling, is “...not the activity of men, but the act of God, who via the intermediary of official ministry comes to men in his word” (italics ours) p. 25. The various ways in which the Word functions are discussed in great detail and depth, in which understanding cannot be separated from teaching which is or has been given
  6. ^ Several reasons may be given why early Reformed churches, also at Dort, gave so little attention to Christian missions and therefore to “missionary catechesis.” Yet to say that nothing was done is a serious misrepresentation. Cf. the author’s article “Christian Missions in the days of Dort” in TORCH AND TRUMPET (May–June, 1968), vol. XVIII, No. 5, pp. 26–32. The unique dimensions of such catechesis even now are receiving a totally inadequate treatment by Reformed churchmen.
  7. ^ The most recent statistics (Jan. 1968) list 56,608 catechumens enrolled in Christian Reformed churches. During 1967 some 5,815 or slightly more than 10% made public profession of their faith. A carefully controlled inquiry into catechetical enrollment, attendance, etc. would be necessary to determine with any degree of accuracy present-day trends in the churches.
  8. ^ An interpretation of these articles is given in Monsma and Van Dellen: The New Revised Church Order Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1967), pp. 249–254. Reference is also made to synodical decisions of the Christian Reformed Church.
  9. ^ Pieter Geyl: Encounters in History (Cleveland: The World Publishing Co., 1961), pp. 273, 274.
  10. ^ Kendig Brubaker Cully: Basic Writings in Christian Education (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960) contains Luther’s “To the Councilmen of All Cities in Germany that they establish and maintain Christian Schools,” pp. 135-144, and Calvin’s “To the faithful Ministers of Christ who preach the pure doctrine of the Gospel in East Friesland,” pp. 165-169.
  11. ^ For this and other early church orders of the Reformed churches in the Netherlands cf. P. Biesterveld and H. H. Kuyper: Kerkelijk Handboekje (Kampen: J. H. Bos, 1905). The pertinent articles drawn up by the Convent of Wesel are found on pp. 15, 16.
  12. ^ By this the churches meant Calvin’s second catechism, drawn up in French in 1541, published in Latin in 1545.
  13. ^ A more detailed study of catechesis in the Dutch churches would require reference to the influence of early Reformed catechetist, Hyperius and Zepperus. 
  14. ^ Reitsma and Van Veen:Acta van de Particuliere en Provinciate Synoden (Groningen: J. B. Wolters, 1892) vol IV, p. 56.
  15. ^ Ibid., p. 145.
  16. ^ The Gouda Catechism, reproduced by Bakhuyzen vanden Brink: De Nederlandsche Belijdenisgeschriften, demonstrates clearly the radical difference between Arminians and Reformed on what constituted proper material for catechetical classes. A separate article should be devoted to this, because the differences spring from contradictory convictions concerning the church’s calling to communicate the gospel to its own generation as well as of the value and validity of the church’s doctrinal formulations. To the argumentation for the Arminian position presented at synod by the Remonstrant delegation of Utrecht, the response was given that the method they proposed would be a means to extirpate all other forms of catechizing and that there had never been produced any creed or catechism as they proposed. Cf. H. Kaajan: De Pro-Acta der Dordtsche Synode in 1618 (Rotterdam: T. De Vries, 1914), pp. 199–200.s
  17. ^ That “catechism preaching” was no invention of the Dutch or for that matter of the Reformed churches is evident from Reformation history. Early Lutheran church orders make mention of it as mandatory, although within a few decades it was discontinued. Even the catechizing of children soon was dismissed by pastors as beneath the dignity of their learning and position; hence it was assigned in many places to the church custodian. In the earliest Reformed churches it was introduced as either a second public worship service on the Lord’s Day to replace “vespers” in the Roman Catholic Church or as a sermon held during the week. The clearer distinction between catechism preaching and catechesis came some decades later.
  18. ^ H. Kajajan, opcit., p. 173; quoted from John Hales: Golden Remains... (London: Tho. Newcomb, 1673), pp. 9, 10.
  19. ^ Subscription by the schoolmasters to the Belgic Confession was already stipulated by the Synod of Dordrecht (1574) in art. XXII, 4 (Biesterveld and Kuyper,op.cit., p. 69) and to the Catechism by the Synod of The Hague (1586) in art. XLVIII (Ibid., p. 205). 
  20. ^ Quoted by Kaajan,op.cit., p. 211. 
  21. ^ Ibid., pp. 211, 212. The relation of this decision to the repeated Remonstrant criticisms of the Heidelberg Catechism is considered by H. H. Kuyper: De Post-Acta of Nahandelingen van de Nationale Synode van Dordrecht (Amsterdam-Pretoria: Hoveker & Wormser, 1899), pp. 316–324. He also quotes Breytinger as judging these objections as “frivolas” and Hales as saying that they were “a poor, impertinent stuff,” p. 322.
  22. ^ Schaff, op.cit., vol.I, pp.514, 515.

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