Preaching the Word – Catechetically
What Has Happened to the Heidelberger?
Something appears to be happening in our churches to what is called "catechism preaching." What? It is no longer the type of preaching that was once common or expected. Instead of the minister using the Heidelberg Catechism as his point of reference or guideline, there is an emerging tendency to take one of the proof texts listed below a particular question and answer, or something closely connected, and then to preach on it. As for the Lord's Day itself, it will be read and it may be referred to but there is a sense that it no longer occupies centre stage.
Needless to say, there are consequences to this approach. The first is that the congregation comes away with the impression that while the Catechism has been referred to, it is more in the sense of "lip service." Perhaps in a formal way what the Church Order in Article 52 means by "catechism preaching" has been adhered to, but that is about the extent of it. The second consequence follows from the first and it is that the older style of catechism preaching has now been shunted aside or become a shell of its former sense.
"Catechism preaching" has given way to "textual preaching," and that in both services. Invariably this leads some people to ask, "What really is the difference now between our two worship services on a particular Lord's Day?"
Biblical Texts Only – Please
No doubt some members and pastors will applaud this development. According to them, preaching needs a text and that text has to come from the Scripture, and the Scripture alone. At the same time using the Catechism as "text" is frowned on because then one is making use of a human document. It may be a confession but it is still a man-made product.
This last comment indicates that preachers in our circle have a strong desire to be biblically based and rooted in all of their preaching. And that is a good thing! At the same time one cannot get away from the impression that this development may also be a reactionary one. We have become so sensitive to the accusation coming from broader evangelical circles that "catechism preaching" is preaching on a man-made text that we now shy away from it and have opted for the purist (or shall we say fundamentalist) approach.
What shall one say to all this? For a start let me be clear and say that there are a variety of approaches possible when it comes to catechism preaching. One has only to consult the book of Dr. K. Dijk, De Catechismuspreek in Haar Verscheidenheid (Franeker: Wever) to see that. He gives at least seven different suggestions as to how a preacher can approach and preach on each particular Lord's Day. Among these suggestions at least one is textual in nature.
In many respects this too is understandable. Indeed, if a minister has been pastoring one church for a long period of time he may well want to vary his approach occasionally. For one preaching cycle he may stick very close to the actual text of the Catechism.
For another he may want to use a special theme be it "comfort," "covenant," or "life." Or else for still another cycle he may want to approach each Lord's Day from out of a Trinitarian perspective. In short, there is nothing wrong with mixing it up.
One Approach Only
Yet that is not what is happening at present. In some cases the minister always takes a biblical text that somehow connects to the subject of the Lord's Day and preaches on it. The new development is not that we have different approaches to catechism preaching today but that now we have only one approach, namely the textual one.
Now I understand why some of my colleagues are going down this road but there is reason to reflect seriously on the merits of this approach and to discuss it together. At the same time, let no one assume that I am in any way accusing my colleagues of unfaithfulness. I have the utmost respect for them and for their preaching labours.
A Different Kind of Preaching
Getting back to the matter as such, I am from the school which believes that "catechism preaching" is a different kind of preaching than what is commonly called "textual preaching." Let me hasten to add that to a large extent the terms "catechism preaching" and "textual preaching" are misnomers. They convey the impression that the one uses the Bible as its basis, while the other uses the Catechism as its basis. They insist that "textual preaching" is all about expounding the Scriptures and "catechism preaching" is all about expounding the Catechism. From this we then get the further deduction that while the one type of preaching uses a "divine" text, the other makes use of a "human" text. You can see, no doubt, where this is going in terms of implications and conclusions.
Revising Our Terms
It is for this reason, and others, that we do well to revisit and revise our language. I would ask your consideration for a change of terminology. Why not say that what happens on the Lord's Day in the morning service is that the minister preaches the Word "textually;" whereas, what happens in the afternoon or evening service is that he preaches the Word "catechetically." Hence in both services the Word stands central. It is not so that in one service we preach on an inspired text and that in the other service we preach on a non-inspired (human or confessional) text. No, in both services the Word is being expounded.
So what's the difference? The difference is that in the first service the minister usually expounds on only one text; whereas, in the afternoon or evening service he expounds on a whole series of texts. Or you can say that in the first service we have "textually specific" preaching; whereas, in the second service we have "topically specific" preaching. In the morning the minister leads his flock into an in-depth exploration of a chosen biblical passage. In the afternoon or evening the minister takes the whole Bible as his text and shows his flock how different parts of Scripture have a bearing on this or that particular biblical doctrine or teaching.
Not Carbon Copies
Now, what this approach does immediately is underline the fact that the first and second services are not carbon copies of one another. The first is very specific and focused; whereas, the second is more general and topical. In both Scripture is being expounded but then in a different manner. In this way it will also become obvious that while in the one service the stress is on "preaching as heralding," in the other the stress is more on "preaching as teaching."
Another benefit from this approach is that it gives the preacher an opportunity to vary his preaching. Currently when you sit under "preaching the Word – textually" in both services, the preacher is following one and the same approach every time. He is, by the very nature of this type of preaching, confined to one text.
This, however, is not the case with "preaching the Word – catechetically" for then the preacher can range far and wide. His starting point then is that he has to preach on a certain topic, doctrine or teaching, be it comfort (LD 1), faith (LD 7), providence (LD 10), the resurrection of our Lord (LD 18), sacraments (LD 25), good works (LD 32), the Fourth Commandment (LD 38), the Second petition (LD 48), and so forth. Thereafter, he has to make choices as to which Bible passages to use to teach these topics. When he goes through the Catechism cycle of preaching one time he may choose to expound on certain foundational passages. The next time he may choose a set of different passages. The point is that true Catechism preaching is always biblically flexible. It allows a preacher to approach the Scripture as a whole and to show the congregation how rich and diverse it is when it comes to its central doctrines and key teachings.
The Whole Lord's Day
In this connection it may have struck you as well that when a preacher uses only one text and somehow ties it to the Catechism, something happens. It is then impossible for him to present the entirety of that doctrine as summarized by the Catechism. The preacher says to himself: "Next week I need to preach on Lord's Day 17 and so I am going to take 1 Corinthians 15:16-20 as my text." Fine, but the problem is that this passage from 1 Corinthians 15 touches on only one of the three benefits of the resurrection of our Saviour as mentioned by the Heidelberg Catechism. What you then get is a truncated catechism sermon on Christ's resurrection. For this Lord's Day tells us that overcoming death is but the first benefit of his rising. Being raised to a new life is the second benefit. Receiving a sure pledge of one's own resurrection is the third benefit. So why not craft a sermon that covers the entire Lord's Day and all three of its glorious benefits? Take for example, 1 Corinthians 15:16-20; Colossians 3:15; and Philippians 3:20, 21 as your texts and explain this doctrine in all of its fullness.
Speaking personally, I have had the privilege of being allowed to "preach the Word – catechetically" for almost forty years and I have never found this approach to be either problematic or tiresome but always fresh and challenging.