The Need For Catechesis

(original source Oxford University) serves as the Board of Governors’ Professor of Theology at Regent College. He is the author of numerous books, including the classic best-seller Knowing God. Packer served as general editor for the English Standard Version Bible and as theological editor for the ESV Study Bible.

This post draws together several quotes from J. I. Packer, highlighting the need for catechesis in the church today, and anticipates the release of The New City Catechism: 52 Questions and Answers for Our Hearts and Minds.

Train in the Truth

It’s every Christian’s calling to continue learning, growing, and striving to know the truths taught in the Bible. Catechesis—from a Greek word meaning “instruction by mouth”— is a historic teaching method of giving Christians the language with which to articulate the basic tenets of faith—narrowing in on what the Bible says, and what it doesn’t say.

In a question and answer format, catechisms pose an inquiry (like the Heidelberg catechism’s first “What is our only hope in life and in death?”) and then supply a theologically-packed response drawn from Scripture.

In Finishing Our Course With Joy: Guidance from God for Engaging with Our Aging (Crossway, 2014), theologian and author J. I. Packer stresses the importance of the practice of catechesis within the church:

Congregations in every age must see themselves as learning communities in which gospel truth has to be taught, defended, and vindicated against corruptions of it and alternatives to it. Being alert to all aspects of the difference between true and false teaching, and of behavior that expresses the truth as distinct from obscuring it, is vital to the church’s health.

While many Christians are actively involved in devotional Bible study, he laments the lack of formal catechetical study, without which, he says, “Well-intentioned minds and hearts will repeatedly go off track.”

Like Scripture says, we all, like sheep, have gone astray. We need constant shepherding and guidance, and knowing and repeating a catechism can be a way to ground our hearts in unchanging truth. The tradition of repeating established statements of faith helps with that shepherding, and it has a long history. Many modern congregations, however, have allowed a lapse in the practice.

In Taking God Seriously: Vital Things We Need to Know (Crossway, 2013) Packer says:

As the years go by, I am increasingly burdened by the sense that the more conservative church people in the West, Protestant and Roman Catholic alike, are, if not starving, at least grievously undernourished for lack of a particular pastoral ministry that was a staple item in the church life of the first Christian centuries and also of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation era in Western Europe, but has largely fallen out of use in recent days.

That ministry is called catechesis. It consists of intentional, orderly instruction in the truths that Christians are called to live by, linked with equally intentional and orderly instruction on how they are to do this.

That is why, he says, churches need practical help in knowing how to incorporate the tradition into their lives and families. While it may take time to acclimate to the discipline, the benefits of establishing a tradition of catechesis can far outweigh the costs, and there are many ways to involve people of various ages in the practice. Packer continues:

There are different levels of catechizing, according to the age groups involved: catechizing is, or should be, a vital ongoing discipline for church people from nine to ninety, so angles, styles, and emphases will naturally vary.

There are different ways of catechizing— question and answer, one-on-one; set presentation, orally or on paper, leading to monitored group discussion; offering formulae for memorization and affirmations for amplification; or the time-honored school system of chalk, walk, and talk in didactic dialogue with a class of learners—but essentially the same thing is being done each time. The Bible calls it, quite simply, teaching; on that basis we may further label it, discipling.

Catechesis is, in essence, a simple way to train in the truth, and thus, stir affection for the beauty of the gospel. Packer continues:

Though Bible-based, catechesis is not exactly Bible study, and though it spurs devotion to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, it is in itself a discipline of thought in God’s presence rather than of direct address to the Holy Three, or to any one of them. Its intended end product is Christians who know their faith, can explain it to enquirers and sustain it against skeptics, and can put it to work in evangelism, church fellowship, and the many forms of service to God and man for which circumstances call.

This devotion-stirring practice may not seem central to ministry, which is particularly why it has become less frequently emphasized in churches. But, when adopted into a church or family life, the effect can be great. He goes on to say:

As a nurturing discipline, catechesis may be said to correspond to the innermost ring of the dartboard, or rifle or archery target. Bible study meetings and prayer gatherings will reach the outer rings, but it is catechesis—this ongoing procedure of teaching and discipling—that hits the bull’s eye. The fact that all-age catechesis has fallen out of the curriculum of most churches today is thus a major loss, which, as was indicated above, has left many Christians undernourished and hence spiritually sluggish.

Thus, the catechized Christian is not just one that knows how to rotely repeat antiquated phrases, but ideally, one who has the tools to translate belief into action.

The essence of catechetical material is that it links the formulation of Christian truth (i.e., orthodoxy) with its application in Christian living (i.e., obedience).


riddlebargerDr. Kim Riddlebarger is a graduate of California State University in Fullerton (B.A., Roman Catholicism: Evangelical Protestants Analyze What Unites & Divides Us, and Christ The Lord: The Reformation & Lordship Salvation, and is currently the pastor of Christ Reformed Church in Anaheim, California.

He writes:

The Importance and Practice of Catechism

“Fathers – Instruct Your Children

The Importance of Catechism

Growing up in American fundamentalism, as I did, the very word “catechism” brought to my mind images of the liberalism of mainline Protestant denominations, or some mysterious Roman Catholic ritual that could have no biblical support whatsoever. As a Bible church person, I was taught from my earliest youth that catechism was at best a worthless practice, if not downright dangerous to the soul. But if you were to have asked me just what exactly catechism was, I’m not sure that I could have given you an answer. Growing up with such misconceptions, I often viewed my friends who attended catechism classes as people who could not possibly be born again and therefore, in desperate need of evangelization. For unlike their misguided and dead church, our church had no creed but Christ, and we needed no such man-made guides to faith since we depended upon the Bible alone. Whatever catechism was, I wanted no part of it!

The burgeoning evangelical men’s movement, demonstrated by the huge amount of interest garnered by such groups as Promise Keepers, has raised a whole host of legitimate questions about the role of Christian men in society, the work-place and the home. This is certainly an important and indeed, a healthy trend. But I wonder if the answers to such questions are perhaps best found in the wisdom of earlier generations, rather than from among our own contemporaries. Many of these same questions have been asked before and the answers given to them by our predecessors and fathers in the faith were not only based upon a thorough knowledge of Scripture (which Gallup and Barna remind us is sadly lacking in our own age), but additionally, were forged through a kind of wisdom and life experience gained during an era in which Christians were less apt to simply react to the secular agenda and uncritically imitate its glitz, glamour and noise. Evangelical Protestants of previous generations, it seems, were often more careful about confusing the sacred and the secular than our own leaders, and they often dealt with such weighty issues theologically and historically. Inevitably, when we look to the theological wisdom of the previous generations regarding the role of men in society, the work-place and the home, we come back to the importance of the practice of catechism.

Catechism (from the Greek word catechesis) is simply instruction in the basic doctrines of the Christian faith. Instead of replacing or supplanting the role of the Bible in Christian education, catechism ideally serves as the basis for it. For the practice of catechism, as properly understood, is the Christian equivalent of looking at the box top of a jig-saw puzzle before one starts to put all of those hundreds of little pieces together. It is very important to look at the big picture and have it clearly in mind, so that we do not bog down in details, or get endlessly sidetracked by some unimportant or irrelevant issue. The theological categories given to us through catechism, help us to make sense out of the myriad of details found in the Scriptures themselves. Catechism serves as a guide to better understanding Scripture. That being noted however, we need to remind ourselves that Protestants have always argued that creeds, confessions and catechisms are authoritative only in so far as they faithfully reflect the teaching of Holy Scripture. This means that the use of catechisms, which correctly summarize biblical teaching, does not negate or remove the role of Holy Scripture. Instead, these same creeds, confessions and catechisms, as summary statements of what the Holy Scriptures themselves teach about a particular doctrine, should serve as a kind of spring-board to more effective Bible study. When this is the case, these confessions, creeds and catechisms are invaluable tools to help us learn about the important themes and doctrines that are in Scripture. Continue reading