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Picture of a question from the Heidelberg catechism

The Catechism Tango

Photo of contributor

Posted by Lee Gatiss, 29 Jun 2020

Lee Gatiss considers the art of catechism.

It takes two to tango, they say. It also takes at least two to catechise. Catechesis is from a Greek word meaning careful religious instruction. It is used eight times in the New Testament itself (e.g. Acts 18:25, Romans 2:18, Galatians 6:6). Christians have always been eager to develop effective means of instructing people in the faith, and particularly recent converts (either children or adults) who were early on known as catechumens prior to their baptism. Catechesis has often consisted of basic training in the essential foundations of Christian doctrine, with an especial focus throughout all of church history on the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Apostles’ Creed as central items for meditation and memorisation.

Question and Answer
Protestant catechisms developed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as an aid to the basic biblical and doctrinal education of the laity (as opposed to the more clerical focus of the Tridentine Roman Catechism of 1566). They utilise a distinctive question and answer format, though this predates Protestantism itself and has been used as an educational method in other religions and even in secular contexts.

Several Protestant catechisms have attained the status of secondary or subordinate doctrinal standards (under Scripture) within denominations, most notably Luther’s catechisms and the Westminster Shorter and Larger Catechisms. Protestantism emphasises individual responsibility before God for reading and understanding the Bible, and responding to God accordingly. This is why it was and has been a key driver of the two-step, “call and response” tradition of passing on the rudiments of doctrine, rather than a more sacerdotal form of spirituality where the priest with his sacraments are given greater centrality.

Reformation Catechisms
In the sixteenth century, both Luther and Calvin produced catechisms, putting the re-discovered truths of the Reformation into simple, digestible form for their congregations. Luther’s Small and Large Catechisms were both bound together into the Book of Concord as confessional standards for the Lutheran church. The Reformed tradition, on the other hand, has not accorded similar status or stature to Calvin’s catechetical output, preferring more consensual and corporately-composed documents.

One such team effort was the Heidelberg Catechism (1563). Indeed, the collective authorship of this was publicly emphasised so as to stress the unity of Protestants from Calvinist, Zwinglian, and Melanchthonian streams within the Palatinate. Theological issues such as predestination, covenant, and some aspects of sacramental theology — issues with potential for intra-Protestant controversy — were substantially played down within the Heidelberg Catechism for the sake of doctrinal harmony (although Calvin had not devoted a section to predestination in his Geneva Catechism either). As an official document it was intended to replace the profusion of home-made catechisms produced for the instruction of the young which individual pastors were composing and regularly amending themselves, with a more theologically consensual and stable form shaped by the theology faculty and leading churchmen of the area.

Pedagogically, the Heidelberg Catechism, “the best known among all Reformed confessional writings” according to Karl Barth, is divided into 129 questions and answers which can be grouped together into 52 units for the purposes of weekly preaching. These cover issues of sin and soteriology, followed by an extended rehearsal of the doctrines contained in the Apostles’ Creed. Later questions cover the place and role of good works, sacramentology, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer.

One key distinguishing feature of the Heidelberg Catechism is its threefold structure as outlined in the second question:

Q. How many things are necessary for thee to know, that thou, enjoying this comfort, mayest live and die happily?
A. Three: the first, how great my sins and miseries are; the second, how I may be delivered from all my sins and miseries; the third, how I shall express my gratitude to God for such deliverance.

Thus, the Catechism is divided into three sections covering humanity’s misery, deliverance, and thankfulness (or grief, grace, and gratitude as it is sometimes remembered).

The Clue in the Question
The highly influential Westminster Shorter Catechism (1647) is divided into 107 questions, and begins with a short and deservedly famous opening question:

Q. What is the chief end of man?
A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.

The genius of Westminster is that the question is, in a sense, included in the answer. This made it easier for the catechumen to memorise and recall the correct responses: the first answer is not simply “To glorify God and enjoy him forever” but “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever”—  which not only teaches an edifying proposition in and of itself, but also makes it easier to relate to the specific question your pastor might suddenly call on you to answer!

Incidentally, the Westminster divines did not invent this idea of “enjoying God”, as is sometimes thought. That was a staple of patristic and medieval thought, appearing in Augustine’s De Doctrina Christiana and in Peter Lombard’s Sentences for example. But they are certainly responsible for more people memorising and reflecting on this beautiful thought.

Wider use of catechisms
Other Reformed traditions such as the Church of England, as well as Methodists and many Baptists also adopted the catechetical form of teaching. The catechism in the Book of Common Prayer (1662), intended for weekly use, rehearses the basics of the Creed, Commandments, Lord’s Prayer, and sacraments and also tests whether a candidate understands their interpretation before being brought for episcopal confirmation.

Keach’s Catechism (1693), from the Particular Baptist stable, exhibits many similarities with the Westminster tradition, though with obvious divergences on the subject of baptism. Whereas the Polish anti-Trinitarian group known as the Socinians produced the Racovian Catechism (1605) built around the threefold office of Christ as prophet, priest, and king to promote their own very dodgy views of who Jesus is. They have been followed by many sects, cults, and denominations since in their imitation of this distinctively Protestant style of doctrinal education.

Today, that catechetical style remains popular in many confessional circles and even musical versions of the older catechisms (in several languages) are in use across the world (see www.songsforsaplings.com for an example of modern musical catechesis in the Westminster tradition, which is translated into several African and European languages). It is popular, because it works. So let me try a question of my own:
Q: Will you give it a try?
A: ...

Walk This Way book cover

WALK THIS WAY, the latest publication from Church Society, includes a short catechism based on the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England.

Lee Gatiss is the Director of Church Society and co-author of Walk This Way: Guided Reflections on Christian Faith, Life, and Prayer (Lost Coin) which includes its own modern catechism, based on the Thirty-nine Articles.

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