Catechism Instruction

Rev. Arie denHartog


The concept of catechism instruction is hardly known in the church world today. We believe it to be of greatest value for the future spiritual welfare of covenant youth growing up in the church and for the continued strength of the church as a whole. There was a time when almost every Reformed and Presbyterian Church had a thorough program of catechism instruction. Sadly this is no longer the case.

The word 'catechism' simply refers to a method of instruction at one time most commonly used in the church to instruct children and new converts in the great truths of God's Word. The instruction is usually given by means of a series of questions and answers. Most often these questions and answers are very carefully formulated ones. The teacher asks a set of formal questions and the students memorize the answers contained in the catechism.Catechism instruction rightly understood is instruction in the great historic creeds and confessions of the church.

Catechism instruction had its origin mostly in the Reformation though it was practiced even before the Reformation in the early church. Catechism instruction was widely used when the Reformed faith spread through Europe and Great Britain. The leaders of the Reformation were convinced that if the Reformation was to be truly successful the people of the land had to know the truth of God's Word. Those who know anything about the Reformation would know that above all things the Reformation was a return to the Word of God. There was before the Reformation an appalling ignorance in the church. The Reformation sought to correct this awful thing. There was reason for the prevailing ignorance in the church before the Reformation.

We will not go into great detail giving the reasons for this. We mention just a few main points here. We believe that ignorance in the church came as a result of the Roman Catholic hierarchy removing the scriptures from the common people and replacing the preaching in the church with the corrupted celebration of the Lord's Supper, called the Mass. Roman Catholicism before the Reformation and even to a certain extent today thrived on the ignorance of the people kept under her authority by superstitious fear and through the prescribed ceremonies of the church, its teaching about purgatory and other things. Not only were the common people ignorant but even the clergy of the church were appallingly ignorant. The offices in the church was sold and bought for money, power and influence. Offices in the church were often occupied by ignorant and corrupt men. Church tradition was made more important than knowing the doctrines of scripture. According to the prevailing teaching in the church, the members of the church only had to go through the church prescribed ceremonies to be counted good Christians. This was considered to be the whole duty of the members of the church and the substance of piety and Christianity. Furthermore, by going through these prescribed ceremonies one could merit a place in heaven, a reward among the saints in glory. There was no need for knowledge of the truth in any great degree. The clergy alone was responsible for maintaining truth and upholding church tradition.

The Reformation by the mighty working of the Holy Spirit brought about a revival of interest in the knowledge of God and His Word. True knowledge begins with the personal knowledge of God Himself and of His Son Jesus Christ and of the way of salvation. True knowledge is the living knowledge of God which leads to fellowship with God and His Son Jesus Christ. True knowledge leads to the true experience and enjoyment of the blessings of salvation which God has revealed in His Word. The revival of interest in the knowledge of God came first of all through a restoration of the scriptures to the common people. Common people were urged to read the scriptures and learn its great doctrines themselves. They were encouraged with the truth that every believer filled with the Spirit of God is a prophet priest and king. Every believer can, with the wonderful influence of the Holy Spirit, learn and understand the scriptures for themselves. The greatest of all labors of many of the Reformers were those expended on translating the scriptures into the common language of the people and insisting on the right of the people of God to possess these scriptures for themselves. In the Lord's providence the invention of the printing press at the very time of the Reformation greatly aided in the revival of learning, especially the learning of the scriptures. We believe that the Reformation restored to the church the great doctrines of the Word of God.

There was urgent need for instructing those who were brought into the mighty movement of the Reformation by the grace of God. To fill this need the Reformed Churches formulated catechisms and confessions which summarized the great teachings of the Reformation. Over a period of years these statements of faith were tried, and improved by repeated careful comparison with the infallible standard of the Word of God. Some of the great confessions which were the product of the Reformation were the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dort, commonly called "The Three Forms of Unity." In Great Britain the Reformation produced the Westminister Standards, including the Westminister Catechisms and the Westminister Confession of Faith. Many generations have tested these great confessions by the infallible standard of the scriptures. The confessions do not stand alone. They derive their authority from the Holy Scriptures. Though the confessions are not in themselves infallible they faithfully represent what we believe are the central doctrines of the Scriptures and what we believe is the correct interpretation of these doctrines.

For centuries Reformed and Presbyterian Churches used the above named confessions for catechetical instruction of covenant young people born in Christian homes and growing up in the church. They were used to instruct the youth to bring them to maturity in the faith in order that when they came to years of understanding they could confess their faith in the Lord and their agreement with the doctrines of the Word of God. Also in many places where Reformed churches did mission work the confessions were used as instruments of instruction even as they were used in the time of the Reformation.

Of late, most Reformed and Presbyterian churches have abandoned the whole idea of catechism instruction and replaced it with superficial Bible study and shallow Sunday School teaching for children and converts. Though our age is an age of the explosion of knowledge, there is in fact a tragic lack of knowledge about the great and fundamental doctrines of the scriptures in most churches. Solid preaching and teaching of the Word of God in the church has been replaced with worship services that are largely music, telling stories of personal experiences and other forms of entertainment. The audience is stirred up emotionally by all sorts of devices such as music, drama, shouting, hand clapping and feet stomping. Audience participation of almost every sort is encouraged. Superficial decisions and commitments are pressed out of people and great excitement is generated. But when all is said and done there is really very little substance. There is little instruction in the objective truth of God and His Word. People soon forget their emotional experiences again and are not at all grounded in their faith. This form of Christianity has little relevance to every day living. There is grievously lacking any solid and enduring grounding in the faith. So there is in the modern day church world as great a need for instruction in the doctrines of the Word of God as there was at the time of the Reformation. Only this can make the members of the church strong in the truth of God and of salvation. Only this can keep the members of the church from what Paul warns against in Ephesians 4 , from being carried about by every wind of doctrine and the slight and cunning craftiness of men who lie in wait to deceive.

We are thankful that the practice of catechism instruction continues in the Protestant Reformed Churches, the denomination of which the Hope Protestant Reformed Church, the publisher of this news letter, is a part.

We point to several excellent features of true catechism instruction. First of all, catechism is systematic doctrinal instruction in the Word of God. The practice of catechism instruction is based on the conviction that the Bible contains a system of doctrine. It is not merely a collection of aphoristic sayings. The Bible is not merely a collection of stories with little moral lessons. The Bible contains the great doctrines of God. These doctrines form a glorious harmonious logical system. This system is consistently found through scripture. It does not have any contradictions even though superficial reading of the scripture might at first suggest this. The Christian benefits greatly from learning the biblical system of doctrine. Our faith cannot be based on a scattered and disjointed series of texts found in various parts of scripture and often taken out of the context in which they are found, and given meanings other than was intended by the inspired authors. Our faith must be grounded in knowledge, not mere emotion, feeling and experience, as real as these may seem in themselves. Catechism teaching seeks to illicit from scripture the great doctrines of God Word that are a summary of all of what the Bible as a whole teaches. We believe that the Reformed Confessions excellently summarize the teaching of the whole of God's Word and that they set forth how we are to rightly understand all the fundamental doctrines of the Word of God.

Catechism teaching takes into account the development of the truth in church history. It is not interested merely in maintaining tradition thought up by men, even if these men were actually great theologians. Catechism teaching does, however, set forth what the true church of Jesus Christ has always understood regarding the doctrines of scripture. We do not imagine ourselves to be the first ones to ever study the Scriptures. We seek to benefit from the great men of God and great men of learning who have gone before us in the history of the church. The great catechisms of the church reflect not merely the opinion of one man, not even the opinion of one or more of the greatest theologians of church history. The catechisms of the Reformed Churches represent what the church as a whole officially believes to be the truth of God's Word. It is the conviction of the truly Reformed man that the true church has always held to the truth of God's Word. Through history the church has grown in her understanding and appreciation of the Word of God, which in seed form the Lord has always given to the church. God has guided His church over the years by His Spirit into a deeper and richer understanding of the Word of God. The catechisms of the church reflect this, they are the product of the Spirit's leading, though not in the same way as the infallible scriptures.

Catechism instruction not only sets forth the truth of God's Word but also sharply distinguishes this truth from error. Many there are in the church who imagine that one can hold to the truth of God without condemning error. They want everyone to believe what they themselves want to. They imagine that tolerance of all forms of belief and every doctrine devised by man is a most loving mark of the church. Catechism instruction seeks to equip God's people to discern the truth, contend for that truth and in doing this refute and condemn error. It would be easy to prove that our Lord Jesus Christ constantly did this while He was on earth. The letters of the inspired apostles contained in Holy Scripture are mighty doctrinal treatises, some even more than others. The truth of God cannot be maintained without distinguishing it from error. The church is called to condemn that error and to warn the members of the church against it. This we believe is equally important today as it was for Israel in the Old Testament. Israel was called to condemn the idolatry of heathen nations and separate herself from it. Only then could Israel be consecrated in love to her God. The church that boldly and forthrightly condemns false teaching and steadfastly maintains the sound doctrine of God is defending the honor and glory of God and His truth.

Catechism teaching promotes unity of faith in the church. The great catechisms and confessions are the united confession of the Reformed Church. In our Protestant Reformed Churches we hold to "The Three Forms of Unity" mentioned above. We believe that these confessions unite us. When new converts join our churches they are catechized. We want our members to know and love the truth of God together with us. We are not interested in mere numbers but in the true unity of the church in knowledge and love of the truth of God. When new converts make confession of their faith in the midst of the public worship services of our churches they acknowledge agreement with the doctrines maintained in our churches and summarized in our confessions. The Lord is pleased. His name is glorified not by diversity of strange doctrines in the church but by unity in the confession and love of the truth of His Word, the truth which is Jesus Christ Himself.

Catechism teaching is adapted to the level of understanding of the catechumens. Its purpose is to teach new converts the deeper things of God. Its purpose is to lead those who are infant in the faith to mature understanding of the Word of God. The purpose of catechism teaching is to help the members of the church in understanding the preaching of the Word of God in church and to continue all their life long to grow in the knowledge of God.

We believe that catechism teaching in the church is serious business. It ought to be placed on an equal plane with the preaching of the Word on the Lord's Day. The catechete (those doing the teaching) should be well-trained. They are after all responsible for the souls of God's people and for upholding God's glorious truth in His church. As pious as it might seem to encourage as many members of the church as are willing to become teachers in the church this is not a biblical mandate. Scripture clearly teaches the need for a well trained, gifted, called, ordained and supervised ministry which can rightly divide the Word of God and maintain sound doctrine in the church. If at all possible catechism training in the church should be done by the theologically trained pastor. In our churches most of the catechism instruction is done by the pastor. Because this work is considered so important, our pastors devote a tremendous amount of time and energy to this work. I myself regularly teach seven catechism classes every week from September to May. If the minister of the Word is for legitimate reasons incapable of doing the work of catechism instruction it should be done by well-trained elders in the church.

True catechism instruction rightly involves the memorization of answers of the great confessions and catechisms of the church. There is tremendous value to memorization and recitation. We believe that this is an excellent method for learning the Word of God. However, in connection with this the catechete has a twofold task. First of all he must carefully explain the questions and answers in a manner that is consistent with the level of understanding of his students. Mere rote memorization of doctrine without any or with only minimal understanding of what is learned is of little value and will lead to dead orthodoxy in the church. Secondly the catechete must clearly demonstrate for each class and its students the biblical basis for the things being taught. Learning doctrine in the abstract will produce students who might perhaps be excellent in retaining in their memory certain formal statements of doctrine but who after it all still know little about the Bible. All the great Reformed Confessions are replete with Biblical proof texts. In fact some of them such as the Canons of Dort are as far as their very content almost half simply quotations from scripture.

We exhort members of the church to consider the matter of catechism instruction so important that you urge the church to which you belong to give such instruction. If this is not done in your church we consider it to be of such great importance that we exhort you to join yourselves to a church that does faithfully and rigorously catechize her members. Remember that we are not to be concerned merely for ourselves but for the church as a whole and for all of her members that they be strong in the faith of the Lord Jesus Christ and the knowledge of His truth. To be sure, our concern is not merely that of maintaining a certain formal tradition. Our great concern is that the members of the church know their God and love His truth. This concern is entirely Biblical.

The fruit of faithful catechism teaching in the church will by the grace of God be members who are strong in the faith and the knowledge of the truth of God. It will promote unity of faith in the church and a standing together against false teaching. Again, this is so urgently needed in our day.

Our churches have over the years developed some good catechism materials that are used regularly in our congregations. We invite our readers who are interested to send for samples of these.


The Reformed Witness newsletter is published monthly under the auspices of the Evangelism Committee of the Hope Protestant Reformed Church of Redlands. This newsletter is available to anyone who is interested in the Reformed Faith. If you would like your name added to our mailing list, please write to:

Reformed Witness
Hope Protestant Reformed Church

1307 E. Brockton Ave.
Redlands, CA 92374-3802
Return to the Protestant Reformed Churches' page