Tuesday, October 22, 2013

A Young One's Thoughts on Catechisms

(As I wrote this article, I struggled and faded back and forth between two audiences: those who know catechisms’ intent, and those who do not. So I ask for generosity if you feel I think you ignorant, and that you continue reading if my writing seems pointless or confusing.)

I recently completed a year through the New City Catechism. I did so in a very public forum: Facebook. In spite of the perpetual, public, and of course the off-handed, private comments mocking those who place quoted material on Facebook, I did just that: I placed 52 weeks-worth of quoted questions and answers on my timeline and my friends’ newsfeed.

Occasionally I would get comments predicting the answer—one friend in particular would research related questions in other catechisms. A few times I received theological jokes. Once or twice I got degrading comments from practicing Jews. I vividly recall the genuinely curious response of someone wrestling with issues of faith. And other times, things went completely unacknowledged. And yet, I cannot tell you how many times I ran into friends old and new, forgotten and assumed who mentioned “the thing you do on Facebook.” Some of them had never clicked ‘like,’ but went on to tell me how encouraging it was. So, label this a #humblebrag, if you want, but really this is just a transition to some thoughts on catechisms in general.

Catechisms are a series of questions and answers designed to teach the basics of the Christian faith. They are intended to be memorized, not for rote’s sake, but for foundational, solid propositions to believe. They inform your faith as your faith finds flesh. The New City Catechism is the first wide-release evangelical catechism for some time. And it is extremely helpful. Of course, it’s not the only one available, but it is the most tech-intuitive—even using videos as resources.

To some, catechisms seem dead. ‘They’re too propositional to be respected in our postmodern context.’ ‘People want relationship not religion.’ ‘Doctrine is manmade.’ ‘That’s so seventeenth century.’ ‘Discipleship needs to be organic.’ Thoughts abound. But I beg to differ.

Most of those who spoke to me about the benefit they received from the New City Catechism were 20-somethings. That is… those who have grown up in the postmodern context. Those who have been influenced by the false dichotomy of relationship-religion. Those who have been told that ‘all we need is the Bible; doctrine divides.’ Those who are born in the 80’s and 90’s and taught that new is better. Those who have likely never been truly discipled in their life. Perhaps the reason these least-likelies find the Catechism so refreshing is because they’ve been living their life for twenty years with no solid ground—everybody is simply telling them that all is okay, that there’s no particular right way of… doing anything that they find it relieving to be told something as straightforward as a question with a right answer. The more academic and philosophical school of postmodernism [which respectfully states that although there is probably a right way, the limits of human reasoning cannot attain to it] is not fully exempt from this criticism (though it certainly ought to be leveled with less force toward them).

This is not an article about people leaving the church, or how to get them back. Plenty of people have written on that—even studies like Christian Smith’s Souls in Transition reveal that there’s been no great increase in the number of youth leaving the church, and Tim Keller casts things from a different angle (while including people of all ages) when he talks about “The Mushy Middle.” This is an article about catechisms.

  • Catechisms provide and propound basic theology which Christians ought to believe.
  • Most catechisms are denomination-specific, meaning that if you align to that denomination, you ought to believe the things in that catechism… and if you believe everything in a certain catechism, you are probably that denomination in theology.
  • Most (all, that I know of) are available somewhere online… since many of them are public domain, but you can also purchase copies of some of the more popular ones.
  • The Westminster Catechism (smaller and larger) is produced by the Presbyterian Church of America or Orthodox Presbyterian Church.
  • Luther’s Catechism was written by Martin Luther, but not in English originally.
  • The Heidelberg Catechism is a Reformed catechism, generally agreeable to all in that category (though not Reformed Baptists regarding baptism).
  • Catechisms were originally intended to teach children, but are profitable for all ages.
  • Some catechisms have short answers (for children) and long answers (for adults).
  • Catechisms seek to synthesize biblical truths in concise statements. As such, most have ‘proof texts’ or the verses from whence the statements were derived. (This is particularly helpful if you don’t think something, e.g. paedobaptism, predestination, can be found in Scripture.)
  • Confessions are not catechisms. Creeds are not confessions. There are four creeds that are believed by all Christians (otherwise you are not a Christian, necessarily, by definition). Confessions are extensive statements of faith belonging to a particular denominational group, denomination, or church. Catechisms are simple, divided ways of teaching the basics found in the confession. All of these attempt to be faithful to what is found in Scripture, not to teach something new, but to teach what is already there.



I don’t have children yet. When I have children, I believe that catechizing them will be a portion of faithful parenting. As they age, they will have the choice of deciding whether or not to believe the Christian faith, but at least if they deny it, they will be denying something which Christians actually believe; I will not afford them the opportunity of denying something they do not understand. I do not consider this ‘brainwashing,’ I consider it teaching ‘according to where [I believe] they should go.’ Which is what catechize means. And which is, of course, what every parent does.

---------------------------------
Related:
"Quack! How a Simple Catechism Could Have Saved a Duck" by Michael L. Johnson