Many people wonder what a catechism is. J.I. Packer notes that “historically, the church’s ministry of grounding new believers in the essentials of the faith has been known as catechesis – systematic instruction in the foundations of the faith, including what we believe, how we pray and worship, and how we conduct our lives.” In fact, the principles of catechism is something prescribed in the New Testament as something both churches and families should do. Before looking at some biblical texts which describe and prescribe catechism, let’s see what the word means.
Catechesis derives from a New Testament word for teaching – the Greek verb katecheo, meaning to teach, or instruct. The Protestant Reformer Zacharius Ursinus defined catechesis as “the brief and elementary instruction which is given by word of mouth in relation to the rudiments of any particular doctrine… as used by the church, it signifies a system of instruction relating to the first principles of the Christian religion.” J.I. Packer defines it more simply as “the church’s ministry of grounding and growing God’s people in the Gospel and its implications for doctrine, devotion, duty, and delight.” We think this is a good thing. And in fact, so does the Biblical witness.
In the Old Testament we see God commanding older generations to raise up and teach the younger generations those things God has revealed (see Deut. 6:6-7; 11:18-19; Psalm 1; 78:4-5; 119). Paul in 1 Timothy 4:6-7 instructs Timothy to “put these things before the brothers… being trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine that you have followed… train yourself for godliness.” That tiny phrase the faith is describing a body of doctrine essential to the Christian faith, and it was these doctrines with which Timothy was to “put before the brothers” in order to train for godliness. Perhaps more striking is Paul in Galatians 6:6 where he states that “one who is catechized must share all good things with the one who catechizes.”
It seems too that we have evidence of early New Testament Christians being catechized. Luke writes his Gospel to Theophilus and tells him in Luke 1:3-4 that he’s written his account, “so that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.” Luke also tells us in Acts 18:25 that Apollos “had been instructed (catechized) in the way of the Lord…” Here again, the phrase the way of the Lord denotes a recognized body of doctrine with which to instruct new believers by (see Romans 6:17 as an example). This same body of doctrine was to be used by Titus to teach believers godly living, “so that in everything the may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior” (Titus 2:1; see also 2 Thess. 3:6).
Interestingly, Paul in 1 Corinthians 11 Paul twice uses a technical Greek word, paradidomi, to describe the critically important teaching he had given during his ministry in Corinth. First he says, “I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you” (1 Cor. 11:2). And then later Paul says that “I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you…” (1 Cor. 11:23). Later in chapter 15 Paul then uses the word again when he says, “I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3-4).
J.I. Packer comments on these verse in 1 Corinthians: ” Paul’s use of the term parelabon in these passages is both intriguing and instructive. He does not indicate how he had received these teachings. To say that he had received them from the Lord does not require that he had done so by direct revelation. It is more likely that he had received this teaching ‘from the Lord’ through the teaching of the other apostles. In similar fashion, we who worship the Lord today receive God’s word through the ministry of preachers and teachers and through our own reading and study of the Scriptures. Beyond the issue of how Paul received this instruction, however, is the simple but crucial fact that he received it. If ‘passing on’ or ‘delivering’ describes the catechetical process from the vantage point of the teacher or catechist, ‘receiving’ describes the same process from the vantage point of the disciple or catechumen. In fact, all who engage in the ministry of catechizing others are continually exercised in both directions – they pass on what they have received. Catechesis, then , is not concerned with novelty – certainly not in terms of content. It is concerned, rather, with faithfulness in both learning and teaching the things of God.” (J.I. Packer, Grounded in the Gospel: Building Believers the Old-Fashioned Way, 42).
• “Command and teach these things” (1 Tim. 4:11).
• “Timothy, guard the deposit entrusted to you” (1 Tim. 6:20).
• “Follow the pattern of sound words that you have heard from me… guard the good deposit entrusted to you” (2 Tim. 1:13-14).
• “What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2).
• “As for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1).
To many American evangelical Protestants, this language of catechizing seems strange and alien. Isn’t it a distinctly Roman Catholic practice? In actuality, though the practice of catechizing new members and children was done throughout the early church, during the Middle Ages and the rise of the Roman Catholic church, the practice of Catechising fell off. Churches and families just didn’t do it any more. It wasn’t until the Protestant Reformation, where pastors like Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox, and others started writing catechisms and teaching them that the practice came back into vogue. Only then, at the Council of Trent, did the Roman Catholic church begin to practice catechizing again. But this was only in response to the great teaching Protestant children were receiving from their own churches using catechisms. It is a sad reality that many Protestant Christians today have forgotten and turned away from the fruitful work of catechizing, perhaps reentering another period of Dark Ages like those a millenia ago.Nearly 500 hundred years ago John Calvin, writing to the Lord Protector of England, declared, “Believe me, Monseigneur, the church of God will never be preserved without catechesis.” We heartily affirm that sentiment and desire to raise up the younger generation within our midst knowing the essentials of the Christian faith so as to be better prepared to live bold Christian lives in an ever decreasing Christian world.
The Westminster Confession of Faith
The Baptist Confession of Faith 1689
The Heidelberg Catechism
The Belgic Confession of Faith
The Abstract of Principles
The Apostles Creed
The Nicene Creed
The Athanasian Creed
Why Do We Have Creeds by Burk Parsons
Grounded in the Gospel: Building Believers the Old-Fashioned Way by J.I. Packer
Confessing The Faith by Chad Van Dixhoorn
The Westminster Shorter Catechism: For Study Classes by G.I. Williamson
The Good News We Almost Forgot by Kevin DeYoung