Catechism is a mostly forgotten word. Many Protestants know it only in a Catholic context–and therefore approach it skeptically. The idea of turning to a catechism for learning the faith is confusing to some and comical to others.
And yet, along with a growing number of Christians, I support the idea of bringing back the catechism.
A catechism is simply a tool for training and teaching. It comes from a Greek word that means to teach. Historically, catechisms have been a common means of conveying complicated doctrines in graspable terms. It is not a dumbing-down of the faith; it is a bite-sized approach that delivers a feast of theological riches.
Though catechisms have gone out of style, they deserve a right and prompt return. Typically structured in an accessible question-and-answer form that lends itself to easy memorization, the short, structured styling of the catechism makes it an ideal teaching tool both for children and adults in a church age that is heavy on feeling and light on understanding. (Nothing wrong with feeling, but we must have both.)
No doubt, some will be reluctant to take on this old form of instruction. The catechism is more “religion” than “spirituality,” critics will say. It could be accused of reducing faith to memorizing facts rather than fostering relationship.
But I think such a view is shallow and short-sighted.
The catechism is for the head, but it is also for the heart. For what is relationship without knowledge? What is faith or hope without Truth?
The catechism says, “Here is what we believe.” If clarity, consistency, and even confidence is to be accused of dogmatism or religionism, we should all desire to be more religious.
Having just read through The New City Catechism, a contemporary explainer for the current culture, I was struck by the need for such a simple book. As a child, I took catechism class on Sundays. We went through the Heidelberg Catechism, a standard of some in the Reformed tradition. The New City Catechism offers a simplified access point to what Christians believe, and proves a helpful nudge forward (not backward) toward an clear and coherent Christianity. One in which Christians know what they believe and why.
In the introduction to The New City Catechism by Kathy Keller, she tells the story of an inner-city pastor who uses the seasoned model to reach and teach kids about the faith we hold to be not only dear, but also true and theological credible.
The pastor was used to the shocked disbelief and surprised questions: “Why on earth are you having them memorize the catechism? Don’t they need the basic gospel message? When do you get to that?” I have still not forgotten his answer:
“These kids know nothing whatsoever about God, or Jesus, or sin. They’ve never heard the words, except as curse words. We’re building a framework in their minds of words and ideas and concepts, so that when we do tell them about sin and the Savior who came to die for it, there is a way for them to understand what we are saying.”
Here is why I propose we bring back the catechism.
Five Reasons We Should Return to the Catechism
1. Catechisms provide a framework for our faith.
On the one hand, the gospel is simple. God loved us—a broken people—so much that he gave his perfect Son for our redemption. On the other hand, it’s complicated. Who is God? How are we broken? Who is Jesus? How does redemption work? What does it all mean? A good catechism answers all of these questions. Rather than further mystifying the foggy, catechisms provide a firm foundation in clarity. As Keller realized through the inner-city pastor, catechisms help to establish a means of understanding God, his Word and work, ourselves, and the reality of our world in such a way that we are equipped to make connections and dig deeper.
2. Catechisms build a worldview from scripture.
The reason a good catechism can be widely recommended is its anchor: the Bible. Catechisms don’t just make generic claims to be based in the Word; they really are. They are loaded with sidenotes and footnotes pointing to where every jot and tittle comes from. Each phrase and sentence is supported in the pages of scripture, if not rehashing them exactly. Catechisms are a gateway, a companion, and a clarifier of Word of God. They draw from the Bible and direct back to it.
3. Catechisms are digestible.
This is one of the most attractive features of catechisms. Their structure, typically in the form of a simple question followed by a short and sweet response, are easy to read and to follow. You can read one a day or one a week—or you can read an entire catechism in an hour. The New City Catechism is even shorter and simpler, but no less true, than the historic catechisms. For moments when you desire assurance, clarity, or speed, race to the catechism and rest in it as it directs you to the Word of Life.
4. Catechisms are memorizable.
Because catechisms are digestible, they also tend to be memorable. Traditionally, the catechism was presented orally. Teachers would ask the questions and students would recite the answers. That’s a useful technique and we’d do well to imitate it. But even in our own devotional lives, memorizing catechism questions and answers is relatively easy and enormously helpful. The opening lines of question and answer number one of the Heidelberg Catechism has come to my mind frequently over the years since memorizing it as a teenager.
Q. What is your only comfort in life and in death?
A. That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.
Don’t let anything replace your memorization of scripture, but it won’t hurt to throw in a few catechism Q&As. You’ll have fleshed-out answers to deep theological questions ever at the ready.
5. Catechisms are fuller than creeds and can be more accessible than the canon.
To be sure, no catechism replaces the Bible. There is no substitute for the actual Word of God. Neither do catechisms do away with the creeds, which are briefer, more ecumenical statements of faith. But I have no doubt that if the catechism is used wisely and well, more Christians, and especially new and young Christians, will be able to understand, share, believe, and love the good, full news of God’s story.
A catechism isn’t a reinvention or reimagining of the faith. It is faithful to orthodox, biblical Christianity. The New City Catechism specifically draws from Westminster catechism and the Heidelberg catechism (as far as I can tell). Every phrase is backed up with scripture. This modern catechism includes response keys (how we might react to the questions and answers), scripture references, and memorization assistance. There is also a companion version that includes devotionals from contemporary and classic Christian thinkers.
Jude 3 tells us to “contend for the faith.” In 1 Peter we are directed to be able to give a reason for the hope that we have. In an era when contending for faith and giving reasons are backburner issues of belief, a return to the catechism seems all the more valuable.