Whitefield Academy Blog
What is Catechism and Why Should We Catechize?
I once asked a group of high schoolers in Sunday school what a catechism was. This is a church where a catechism is used regularly, and so it was intended as an easy question. But I quickly realized that even in churches where a catechism is used, the practice and history behind such documents is often not a familiar concept.
What Is A Catechism?
If you are familiar with catechisms at all, you probably know them as lists of questions and answers. In Presbyterian churches, the Westminster Shorter Catechism follows this familiar format, which provides a memorizable set of questions and answers about Christianity. Many may even be familiar with the question and answer, “What is the chief end of man? To glorify God and enjoy him forever,” but not be aware that this is the first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. Other catechisms in this format include the Heidelberg Catechism, Luther’s Small Catechism, Keache’s Catechism (for Baptists), and various “first catechisms” adapted for young children.
Why Do We Use Them?
Memorization of summary statements is a very useful way to teach, a fact that teachers at classical schools like Whitefield Academy know well. The question and answer format also takes advantage of the Socratic method of prompting the student to provide an answer himself, rather than passively listening. But the Christian practichttps://www.whitefieldacademy.org/blog/classical-education-how-it-prepared-my-kids-for-adult-learninge of catechesis is a more expansive idea which is essential to the passing down of the faith from generation to generation. It is the teaching of those new to the faith, or who have not yet become Christians, in what they need to believe in order to call themselves a Christian.
Catechism As Education
We find the Greek word “katechoumenos” in Galatians 6:6, “Let the one who is taught the word share all good things with the one who teaches.” “The one who is taught” is a catechumen, a word that could be translated “sound down,” as the voice of a teacher sounds down to his students.
In the early church, the catechumenate developed as a group of those who desired to enter the church, but were placed under instruction until they had sufficient knowledge to do so. The course of study usually involved instruction in the Bible, the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, the sacraments, and a creed (often the Apostles’ or Nicene Creed). This system of education was intended to ensure there was a baseline of knowledge among the faithful and that new Christians knew what they were getting into.
During the Reformation, far from throwing away the idea of catechesis as a Catholic distraction from the Bible, reformers like Luther criticized the late Medieval church for neglecting its duty to catechize and allowing the laity to fall into ignorance and superstition. Almost every major Protestant reformer wrote a catechism using the format that addressed the Ten Commandments, Lord’s Prayer, Apostles’ Creed, and sacraments.
Christian Education Today
I think if Martin Luther or some of the other reformers saw the state of many Sunday schools, they might find another Reformation necessary to awaken us from our neglect to pass down the faith to the next generation of Christians. One of those reformers, Peter Martyr Vermigli, wrote in his catechetical work on the Apostles’ Creed, “Christianity is … a profession of wisdom, heavenly and divine. The end it holds in view is not any degree or condition whatever, but man’s ultimate happiness, desired by all. … Therefore, everyone who bears the name or mark of Christian should constantly give himself to the diligent study of the faith.”
Catechisms are not tired old documents but are instead vibrant summaries of what we as Christians should believe and what we should pass down to our children, an excellent way to be diligent about the study of our faith.