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George Herbert on the pastor catechising

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Posted by Lee Gatiss, 14 Mar 2015

In today’s daily Herbert, we consider an important tool in the pastor’s armoury — catechising.

Sermons are very useful for teaching people about the faith. They are for both informing and inflaming, says Herbert, education and exhortation. But there is another way to pass on the faith as well, and that is by catechising people, something that was often done at a special afternoon service in Herbert’s day.

The standard practice was to make sure everyone could answer the set questions in the Book of Common Prayer’s Catechism. There is an updated English language edition of that in Church Society’s An English Prayer Book too. The Heidelberg Catechism was a great Continental Reformed attempt to do the same, and later in the seventeenth century, of course, the puritans would develop the art of catechism further in the great Westminster Shorter Catechism and the Westminster Larger Catechism.

Herbert is a great fan of the question and answer method of teaching people, both old and young, about the rudiments of the faith. He also sees the advantages of it for deepening people’s faith, and has some suggestions about how to prevent the exercise from become just a matter of rote learning, parrot-fashion.

He has some good words to say about Plato and the Socratic method, though he wisely critiques it too, from a Christian theological perspective. The essence of Christian catechising is helping people understand and remember biblical doctrine, as summarised in things such as the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, and the Apostles’ Creed. Committing such basic things to memory has sadly gone out of fashion in many quarters, as a basic discipleship tool. But Herbert urges us to be vigorous catechisers.

So, pastors, how are you catechising your congregation? And congregations, are you encouraging your pastor to continue training you and teaching you in good doctrine, by way of catechesis? For both children and adults, there’s some great material out there, including these excellent CDs from the Church Society shop.

The Parson Catechising

The country parson values catechising highly. For, there being three points of his duty — the one, to infuse a competent knowledge of salvation in every one of his flock; the other, to multiply, and build up this knowledge to a spiritual temple; the third, to inflame this knowledge, to press and drive it to practice, turning it to reformation of life by pithy and lively exhortations; catechising is the first point, and but by catechising, the other cannot be attained.

Besides, whereas in sermons there is a kind of state, in catechising there is an humbleness very suitable to Christian regeneration, which exceedingly delights him as by way of exercise upon himself, and by way of preaching to himself, for the advancing of his own mortification. For in preaching to others, he forgets not himself, but is first a sermon to himself, and then to others; growing with the growth of his parish.

He uses and prefers the ordinary Church-Catechism, partly for obedience to Authority, partly for uniformity sake, that the same common truths may be every where professed, especially since many remove from parish to parish, who like Christian soldiers are to give the word and to satisfy the congregation by their catholic answers. He exacts of all the doctrine of the catechism: of the younger sort, the very words; of the elder, the substance. Those he catechises publicly, these privately, giving age honour, according to the Apostle’s rule (1 Timothy 5:1)

He requires all to be present at catechising: First, for the authority of the work; secondly, that parents and masters, as they hear the answers prove, may when they come home, either commend or reprove, either reward or punish. Thirdly, that those of the elder sort who are not well grounded may then by an honourable way take occasion to be better instructed. Fourthly, that those who are well grown in the knowledge of religion may examine their grounds, renew their vows, and by occasion of both enlarge their meditations.

When once all have learned the words of the catechism, he thinks it the most useful way that a pastor can take, to go over the same, but in other words. For many say the catechism by rote, as parrots, without ever piercing into the sense of it. In this course the order of the catechism would be kept, but the rest varied — as thus, in the Creed:

“How came this world to be as it is? Was it made, or came it by chance? Who made it? Did you see God make it? Then are there some things to be believed that are not seen? Is this the nature of belief? Is not Christianity full of such things, as are not to be seen, but believed? You said, God made the world — Who is God?”

And so forward, requiring answers to all these, and helping and cherishing the answerer, by making the question very plain with comparisons, and making much even of a word of truth from him.

This order being used to one, would be a little varied to another. And this is an admirable way of teaching, wherein the catechised will at length find delight, and by which the catechiser, if he once get the skill of it, will draw out of ignorant and silly souls, even the dark and deep points of religion. Socrates did thus in philosophy, who held that the seeds of all truths lay in everybody, and accordingly by questions well ordered he found philosophy in silly tradesmen. That position will not hold in Christianity, because it contains things above nature: but after that the catechism is once learned, that which nature is towards philosophy, the catechism is towards Divinity.

To this purpose, some dialogues in Plato were worth the reading, where the singular dexterity of Socrates in this kind may be observed, and imitated. Yet the skill consists but in these three points: First, an aim and mark of the whole discourse, whither to drive the answerer, which the questioner must have in his mind before any question be propounded, upon which and to which the questions are to be chained. Secondly, a most plain and easy framing the question, even containing in virtue the answer also, especially to the more ignorant.

Thirdly, when the answerer sticks, an illustrating of the thing by something else, which he knows, making what he knows to serve him in that which he knows not — as when the parson once demanded after other questions about man’s misery, “Since man is so miserable, what is to be done?” And the answerer could not tell, so he asked him again, what he would do if he were in a ditch? This familiar illustration made the answer so plain, that he was even ashamed of his ignorance; for he could not but say, he would hasten out of it as fast as he could. Then he proceeded to ask, whether he could get out of the ditch alone, or whether he needed a helper, and who was that helper.

This is the skill, and doubtless the Holy Scripture intends thus much when it condescends to the naming of a plough, a hatchet, a bushel, leaven, boys piping and dancing; showing that things of ordinary use are not only to serve in the way of drudgery, but to be washed and cleansed, and serve for lights even of heavenly truths.

This is the practice which the parson so much commends to all his fellow-labourers; the secret of whose good consists in this, that at sermons and prayers, men may sleep or wander; but when one is asked a question, he must discover what he is.

This practice exceeds even sermons in teaching: but there being two things in sermons, the one informing, the other inflaming; as sermons come short of questions in the one, so they far exceed them in the other. For questions cannot inflame or ravish, that must be done by a set and laboured and continued speech.

Revd Dr Lee Gatiss is the Director of Church Society

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