Catechizing: A Forgotten Practice*

                                   by John Murray

It is surely an indictment of the Church today that in dealing with the subject of catechizing we have to begin by explaining the very meaning of the term. What was looked on as a necessary and beneficial practice by the early church and by the Reformers has now fallen into such disuse among Christian people that very few seem to have any understanding or appreciation of the subject. And yet we believe it is to the discontinuance of this practice that we can trace much of the doctrinal ignorance, confusion and instability so characteristic of modern Christianity.

The Origin of Catechizing

The term catechizing is derived from the Greek word katechein which means “to sound over or through, to instruct.” In the New Testament this word is used seven times and in each instance refers to oral instruction in religious matters. For example, Luke, in addressing his Gospel to “most excellent Theophilus,” expresses his purpose thus: “that thou mightest know the certainty of those things wherein thou hast been instructed” or, as it can be literally translated, “orally instructed.” The teaching of our Lord and of the Apostles was of necessity oral and partly interlocutory, and in the early church the converted Jews and heathen who received instruction in the rudiments of Christianity with a view to being admitted to membership were known as “catechumens.” Thus what is meant by catechizing is instruction in the Christian faith by means of question and answer.

Catechizing, or interlocutory teaching, was regarded as indispensable in the early Church. It is true that the early catechisms were not constructed on the method of question and answer but usually consisted of manuals of doctrine or brief creeds. These, however, were used as the basis for catechizing. Recent research has suggested that there is common catechetical material in several New Testament epistles. There is no mention in the New Testament of catechist as a separate office or order, but it would seem that as the catechumenate developed, ,this became full-time work.

Development and History

In the writings of the second century we find mention of catechumens and catechists, and by the fourth and fifth centuries we see that catechetics began to develop its scientific theory. One of its chief exponents was Augustine, and in his Catechizing of the Uninstructed he details the several steps in the process of wise catechizing. It is clear from the writings of the early Fathers that they attached great importance to the interlocutory method of instruction. They were not unmindful of the great commission given by the Lord to disciple all nations, teaching them all things that He had commanded.

As the Church grew in worldly prominence and lost in spiritual life, changes came in the method of its training work. As its ritual services were expanded, so its teaching exercises were diminished. As the ecclesiastical spirit overcame the evangelical church, catechetical instruction declined. It stands out clearly in the history of the dark Middle Ages that where this kind of instruction was adhered to most closely, Christian life remained purest. We have only to think of the Waldenses, the Albigenses, the Hussites, and the Lollards to prove this. It is to the last mentioned that can be traced the earliest of catechisms (as we know them today).

With the dawn of the glorious Reformation, catechetical instruction came back into its own in the Christian Church, bringing with it a further development in the science of catechetics, and especially constructing the catechism as we know it today. It is not surprising that Martin Luther (to whom, humanly speaking, the Reformation owes its very beginning), should be regarded the father of modern catechetics. His claim to this honor is substantiated not only by the catechism which he himself prepared, but also by the writings in which he explained catechetics and gave an impulse to their pursuit. Calvin, who so clearly systematized the Reformation teaching, took similar view of the duty of the Church to instruct the young and the ignorant by interlocutory methods, and he published a catechism shortly after Luther’s appeared.

In the latter half of the sixteenth and the first half of the seventeenth centuries, catechizing occupied a most important place in the Reformed Church, and perhaps nowhere more than in Scotland and England. “It may be said without exaggeration, of the catechisms framed on the system of the doctrinal Puritans, and published in England between the years 1600 and 1645, that their name is legion.” Writing in 1656, Richard Baxter could say “How many---scores, if not hundreds---of catechisms are written in England?" But the Reformers and Puritans did not stop at the compilation of catechisms, they enforced the practice of catechizing. It is obvious that they were thoroughly in earnest about this matter, as can be seen by enactments of the Church at that time.

In England, a canon of 1603 (which has never been repealed) required that “every parson, vicar, or curate upon every Sunday or holy day before evening prayer, shall, for half an hour and more, examine and instruct the youth and ignorant persons of his parish in the Ten Commandments, the Articles of the Belief, and in the Lord’s Prayer; and shall diligently hear, instruct and teach them the Catechism set forth in the Book of Common Prayer.” The General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, in the first year of its existence, provided that while there should be two public services on every Lord’s Day, the first service should consist of worship and preaching, and the second should be given to worship and the catechizing of the young and ignorant. In 1639 this was carried a step further by an act declaring that “every minister, beside his pains on the Lord’s Day have weekly catechizing of some part of the parish.” To ensure that the weekly catechizing be carried out the Assembly later ordained every presbytery “to take trial of all ministers within their bounds, whether they be careful to keep weekly diets of catechizing; and if they shall find any of their number negligent therein, that they be admonished for the first fault, and if, after such admonition, they do not amend, the presbytery for the same fault shall rebuke them sharply; and if after such rebuke they do not yet amend, they shall be suspended.”

The history of catechizing from the beginning of the eighteenth century to the present time is mainly a story of decline. It is true that in Scotland, and especially in the Highlands, catechizing continued to occupy a vital place in the instruction of young and old, but, as had already happened in England, it was becoming more and more a rote acquaintance with the catechism. Isaac Watts had taken up the question with great enthusiasm and exposed the folly of blind memorizing. He wrote a short work on Catechisms for Children and compiled two catechisms for younger children, as well as explanatory notes to the Shorter Catechism. Among the leaders of the Evangelical Awakening, John Wesley more than any seemed to value the use of catechetical method of instruction. It was in Wesley’s later days that the modern Sunday school movement began, and although the basic principles continued, yet in the second half of the nineteenth century the effects of the new antipathy to dogmas, creeds and catechisms virtually put catechizing out of the Church. Today we are reaping the results of that false approach to the Christian life. Ignorance and unbelief are rampant in our land, the Church is without an authoritative message, and often even evangelical Christians are weak and unstable. Is there not cause to ask whether the time has not come to revive the art and practice of catechizing?

The Need for Catechizing

Catechizing presupposes need. The foundation of all religion, Isaac Watts reminds us, is laid in knowledge. Scripture attaches great importance to knowledge and gives a foremost place to the mind and understanding. It is through the mind that truth enters the man, influencing the affections and directing the will. True it is that knowledge may remain in the mind and, without the influences of the quickening, life-giving Spirit, be inoperative in the life, yet the fact remains that knowledge—knowledge of truth—is the very basis of the Christian life. Hence the need for instruction in the doctrines of Christianity both for the believer and the unbeliever. Ignorance and error are effects of the Fall and it is upon them that Satan’s kingdom is built. Knowledge and truth are the grand weapons by which it is overthrown and Christ’s kingdom established in the individual and in the world.

Ignorance of the truth and love of darkness is the basic justification for the practice of catechizing. How often this is found true by sad experience. It was a tour [of Germany] revealing to him the gross ignorance of his fellow countrymen that constrained Martin Luther to take up the work of catechizing in earnest. “I have been impelled to cast this catechism of Christian doctrine into this simple form by the lamentable deficiency in the means of instruction which I witnessed lately in my visitation. God help us! what deplorable things I have seen! The common people wholly without any knowledge of doctrine.” John Owen, the great Puritan theologian, was moved by a similar need to compile two catechisms and wrote: “Amongst my endeavors after the ordinance of public preaching the Word, there is not, I conceive, any more needful (as all will grant that know the estate of this place, how taught of late days, how full of grossly ignorant persons) than catechizing.” Even more convincing is the testimony of Richard Baxter, one of the most faithful and zealous pastors whom England has seen. “For my part,” he writes in his Reformed Pastor, “I study to speak as plainly and movingly as I can and yet I frequently meet with those that have been my hearers eight or ten years, who know not whether Christ be God or man, and wonder when I tell them the history of His birth, and life and death, as if they had never heard it before. And of those who know the history of the gospel, how few are those who know the nature of that faith, repentance and holiness which it requireth, or, at least, who know their own hearts.”

Catechizing and Preaching

It will be readily objected that since God has ordained to save men by “the foolishness of preaching,” there is no special call to catechizing. But is it not clear that the Apostles went further than merely preaching the Word? We read that not only in the temple but in every house they ceased not to teach and to preach Jesus Christ. Paul’s method at Ephesus (Acts 19) was to begin by questioning the disciples, and in his farewell to that church (Acts 20) he could say, “by the space of three years I ceased not to warn everyone night and day with tears.” Perhaps Henry More overstates the position in the following words, but he brings home the fact that establishing men in the Gospel implies more than is generally remembered: “Concerning preaching that which is most remarkable is this, that whereas there are three chief kinds thereof, namely, catechizing, expounding a chapter and preaching usually so called—whereof the first is the best . . . the last is the very idol of some men, and the others rejected as things of little worth. But assuredly they (expounding of a chapter and catechizing) are of most virtue for the effectual planting the gospel in the minds of men; and of the two catechizing is the better because it enforceth the catechized to take notice what is taught him.” This brings into focus the great advantage of catechizing over preaching. “At sermons and prayers men may sleep or wander, but when one is asked a question, he must disclose what he knows.”

A minister may preach and teach publicly for years and, after all his labor, be surprised how little effect this has had on his people. Some of the greatest preachers of all time have learned their lesson in this matter. “I have found by experience,” Richard Baxter could say, “that some ignorant persons, who have been so long unprofitable hearers, have got more knowledge and remorse of conscience in half an hour’s close discourse, than they did from ten years’ public preaching. John Owen made a similar discovery: “More knowledge is ordinarily diffused, especially among the young and ignorant, by one hour’s catechetical exercise, than by many hours’ continual discourse.” It was the regret of the godly Bishop Hall toward the close of his life that he had not bestowed more hours in the exercise of catechizing, “in regard whereof I would quarrel with my very sermons and wish that a great part of them had been exchanged for this . . . . Those other divine discourses enrich the brain and the tongue; this settles the heart; those others are but the descents to this plain song.”

The Difficulties of Catechizing

Considering the great advantage derived from catechizing it is surely hard to understand why ministers and teachers are so reluctant to take up this practice. Without doubt the greatest cause for the neglect is the difficulties attending the proper performance of the work. It was the testimony of Samuel Rutherford, a keen advocate of the practice, that “there is as much art in catechizing as in anything in the world. It may be doubted whether every minister do understand the most dexterous way of doing it.” Richard Baxter insisted that catechizing is a more difficult as well as a more important work than sermonizing: “I must say that I think it easier matter by far to compose and preach a good sermon, than to deal rightly with an ignorant man for his instruction in the necessary principles of religion.” He cites Archbishop Usher’s opinion to the same effect, “Great scholars should consider that the laying of the foundation skillfully, as it is the matter of the greatest importance in the whole building, so it is the very masterpiece of the wisest builder . . . . And let the most learned of us all try it whenever we please, we shall find that to lay this groundwork rightly (that is, to apply ourselves to the capacity of the common auditory, and to make an ignorant man to understand these mysteries in some good measure) will put us to the trial of our skill, and trouble us a great deal more than if we were to discuss a controversy or handle a point of learning in the schools . . . . The neglecting of this is the frustrating [??[ of the whole work of the ministry.”

Difference Between Catechizing and the Use of a Catechism

The reason why many people regard catechizing as a slight and trifling exercise is that they confuse the practice with the mere rote-work of asking and answering of question in a catechism. But there is a vast difference between catechizing and the mere rote acquaintance with a catechism. It is almost certain that the early Church did not have catechisms constructed on the method of question and answer. Their great concern was catechizing. The early Fathers, the Reformers, and the Puritans were at one in maintaining that true catechizing is a very different matter from learning the mere letter of the catechism.

If we turn back to Augustine, one of the earliest exponents of the science of catechetics, we find him in his Catechizing of the Uninstructed detailing the several steps in the process of wise catechizing. He insists that each pupil be treated according to his individual needs and that to this end the catechist should examine him by preliminary questioning as to his motives and as to his attainments with a view to making the pupil’s error or lack the starting point of his particular instruction. Similarly, all the way along the pupil must be watched and questioned, and carefully dealt with individually so that he may be cause to know rather than merely be caused to hear the truth which is the substance of the catechetical instruction. This certainly puts catechizing on a different level from the mere use of a catechism.

Although Luther is regarded as the father of modern catechetics, his teaching on the subject is an enforcement of what Augustine said many centuries before. In his Preface to his Small Catechism he enjoined it upon teachers to see to it that their scholars not only knew what was said in the catechism answers, but knew what was meant by them—“to take these forms before them, and explain them word by word.” It is clear that blind memorizing of a catechism was in the eyes of the Reformers and Puritans an evil to be guarded against. The fear of the divines who compiled the Westminster Catechisms was, as one of them expressed it, that “people will come to learn things by rote and can answer as a parrot, but not understand the thing.” What they had in mind was to give help in true catechizing, and this is confirmed by the words of George Gillespie when he said: “It never entered into the thoughts of any to tie (men) to the words and syllables in that catechism.” Richard Baxter in giving illustrations of questioning as a test of the learner’s knowledge says: “So contrive your question that they may perceive what you mean, and that it is not a nice definition, but a necessary solution, that you expect.”

From the history of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and from the writings of the Reformers and Puritans, therefore, we are able to see that it was in order to promote catechizing, or interlocutory teaching, that catechisms, presenting truth in the form of question and answer, were prepared in such fulness and variety at that time. The catechism was primarily and fundamentally a help to the practice of catechizing. But what was intended to be, and actually was at first, a help, in later centuries assumed the place of catechizing. The use of catechism degenerated into a practice of asking rote questions with the purpose of securing memorized rote answers. Catechism-using stood in the way of catechetical teaching; the stepping-stone became (unintentionally, no doubt) a stumbling block. The change came gradually and there were some like Isaac Watts who were alive to the dangers.

Watts was radical in his hostility to unintelligent memorizing. He maintained that words written on the memory without ideas or sense in the mind will never incline a child to his duty, nor save his soul. “The young creature will neither be the wiser nor the better for being able to repeat accurate definitions and theorems in divinity without knowing what they mean.” In the Preface to his Young Child’s Catechism he says that “parents and teachers should use their utmost skill in leading the child into the meaning of every question, when they ask it, and of every answer when the child repeats, that the child may not hear and learn mere words and syllables instead of the great things of God and religion.”

Catechizing and Catechisms Not for Children Only

It is generally thought (and in reading Isaac Watts one would get this impression) that catechizing and catechisms are only for children. This was not the opinion of the early Church nor of the Reformers. Martin Luther, who entreated all Christians to study their catechism daily, says in his characteristic manner: “As for myself, let me say that I am a doctor and a preacher. I am as learned and experienced as those who are so presumptuous and confident (i.e. to despise the Catechism). Yet I do as a child who is learning the Catechism . . . . I daily read and study the Catechism, and still I am not able to master it as thoroughly as I wish, I must remain a child and a pupil of the Catechism, and this I do very willingly.” “It is a great error,” writes Bishop Ken, “to think that the Catechism was meant for children only: for all Christians are equally concerned in these saving truths which are there taught; and the doctrine delivered in the Catechism is as proper for the study and as necessary for the salvation of a great doctor as of a weak Christian or a young child.” Certainly it was the practice in Scotland, and more especially in the Highlands, right up to the end of the last century for heads of families, and where there was one, the parish catechist, to catechize all members of the household and even visitors.

The Case for Catechisms

Although we deplore the mere mechanical acquaintance with a catechism as a substitute for catechizing, we equally take issue with those who say that the preparation of catechisms is unnecessary and unwise. This opinion has been very prevalent within the last 100 years. It owed its success to the “Higher Criticism” movement and the consequent reaction against dogma. Its advocates maintained that theology had been the prison-house of religion, creeds were but shackles and fetters and the same applied to catechisms. We have no intention here of going into a defense of doctrine (thank God, there are encouraging signs in our day that the Church is returning to sanity on this matter); all we would seek to do is to justify the compilation of catechisms.

Let us turn back once again to the Reformation times and there we see a compelling force behind the framing of catechisms. It was this: the invention of printing made the Bible accessible to the people as it never had been before. The Reformers therefore felt themselves bound to show that the Bible, rightly interpreted, was not self-contradictory or misleading to the unlearned (as Rome maintained), but yielded a clear and definite way of salvation. When placing the Bible in the hands of the layman, therefore, they sought to place side by side with it what they believed to be its only true explanation in the form of a catechism. However, the Bible itself was always the court of appeal. Scripture proofs were a necessary part of the catechism. The result was that the Protestant layman became as confident of his absolute orthodoxy as the Church of Rome was of hers. And surely this is as necessary in our day. It may sound very spiritual for some to say we have the Bible and what more do we want, but it does not stand close examination. None who love Scripture can justifiably ignore a means of instruction which has honored Scripture and enforced Scripture throughout the centuries of the Church’s history. Those who have prized Scripture most have usually been those who have valued catechisms, and those who have ignored catechisms have generally been those who have fallen into unscriptural teaching. A misguided reverence for the Bible has prevented some from forming a systematic outline of the main doctrines of the Word, and consequently when confronted with a systematic challenge to their faith, which also alleges Scripture for its authority, they are ill equipped to defend their position. As we are so painfully discovering today, such people are an easy prey of Romanism and false cults.

Another force which necessitated the compilation of catechisms was the need of those of weaker understanding. “Without such helps as these (catechisms), writes Isaac Watts, “they might turn over the leaves of their Bible a long time, before they could collect for themselves any tolerable scheme of their duty to God or their fellow-creatures.” Matthew Henry, in an admirable defense of the use of Catechisms and Confessions (in subordination and subserviency to the Scripture) outlines the three valuable ends attained by framing such systems out of the Word of God. They are worthy of our careful consideration:

  1. Hereby the main principles of Christianity, which lie scattered in the Scripture, are collected and brought together; and by this means they are set in much easier view before the minds of men.

  1. Hereby the truths of God, the several articles of Christian doctrine and duty, are methodized and put in order.

  1. Hereby the truths of God are brought down to the capacity of those who are as yet but weak in understanding.

Indeed the case for the use of catechisms is so plain that we agree with Baxter when he says: “Those that will deride all catechisms and professions, as unprofitable forms, had better deride themselves for talking and using the form of their own words to make known their mind to others.”

The Benefits of Catechizing

In dealing with the whole matter of catechizing we have already touched on some of the benefits attending this practice, but as the advantages are so great and are more liable than anything else to stir us to this work it is necessary that we be well acquainted with them. It is with this aspect of the subject that Richard Baxter deals at length in his Reformed Pastor. “When I look before me,” he writes, “and consider what, through the blessing of God, this work well-managed is likely to produce, it makes my heart to leap for joy.” He goes on to outline twenty particular benefits, “that when you see the excellency of it, you may be the more set upon it, and the more loath by any negligence or failing to destroy or frustrate it.”

We may briefly summarize the benefits under three headings—as applying to ministers themselves, their flocks and the Church as a whole. Although it is by no means the chief end of catechizing there are, as Baxter maintains, advantages and blessings to the pastors who faithfully pursue this duty. It will keep them from being too idle or taken up with unprofitable business; it will do much to exercise and increase their own graces; it will afford much peace of conscience and comfort when they review their use of time and opportunities; and it will make them pray and preach better, since they will be acquainted with the spiritual state of each one in their flock. In other words, the attendance upon this work will make them better ministers of Christ.

The primary aid and end of catechizing, however, is the building up and establishing of Christians and the conversion of sinners. We have already mentioned the need for believers to be well settled in the fundamentals of the faith. This will be beneficial not only to their comfort and growth in grace but to their being able to stand in the day of testing, whether it be through false teaching, persecution for Christ’s sake or dark providences. It was catechizing that made Christians in Scotland of such depth and character. The Scottish people were, by a proper use of the catechism, rooted and grounded in Christian doctrine. John MacLeod in his Scottish Theology describes how the powerful preaching of the seventeenth century produced a people who were very theologically minded, and goes on to remark that “this was none the less the case as the outcome of the catechetical method of instruction that was current.”

Catechizing has also been the means of converting sinners. “If anything in the world is likely to do them good,” says Baxter, “it is this . . . . I seldom deal with men purposely on this great business, in private, serious conference, but they go away with some seeming convictions, and promise of new obedience, if not some deeper remorse, and sense of their condition.” Even the Catechism committed to memory without a proper understanding of the truth contained in it has been used to the saving of souls. Those who, in their immature years of childhood, had their minds stored with what at that time they learned only by rote, in after years reaped the benefit when they asked themselves the meaning of those words with the letter of which they had been long familiar.

The third general head under which we may class the benefits of catechizing is the furtherance of Church reformation. We saw already that when catechizing was neglected the Church soon became dark and overspread with ignorance. The Reformation saw a revival of this practice, and it was one of the chief means by which Protestant Christianity made its conquests. “The Papists acknowledge,” said Lancelot Andrewes, “that all the advantage which the Protestants have gotten of them, hath come by this exercise.” Indeed the reaction of the Church of Rome to this is most revealing and should certainly confirm our faith in the practice. The Council of Trent decreed that since “the heretics have chiefly made use of catechisms to corrupt the minds of Christians” this must be met with opposition, and so they put forward a new catechism.

Looking back over the history of the post-Reformation Church we can see that it was where the catechetical system of instruction as adhered to that the best fruits of the Reformation were preserved and transmitted. Richard Baxter was ready to acknowledge that “the chief part of church reformation that is behind (accomplished), as to means, consisteth in it (catechizing).” “O, brethren,” he cries in another place, “what a blow may we give the kingdom of darkness by the faithful and skilful managing of this work.” What a blow actually was given in the days when this Scriptural practice held its place in the Church! And as the true Church of Christ goes forth to battle in our day, as she seeks to storm the strongholds of sin and error, we pray that she may once again be constrained to take up this mighty weapon.

* This is copyrighted material reprinted here with permission of the Banner of Truth. The article is from Issue 27 of the Banner of Truth Magazine, published monthly by the Banner of Truth Trust, Edinburgh. Please visit www.banneroftruth.org to subscribe.