September 29, 2020

A Most Biblical Practice, Largely Forgotten (1)

The Catechism Lesson, Muenier

By Chaplain Mike

My son, do not forget my teaching,
But let your heart keep my commandments;
For length of days and years of life
And peace they will add to you.
Do not let kindness and truth leave you;
Bind them around your neck,
Write them on the tablet of your heart.

• Proverbs 3:1-3 (NASB)

Wendell Berry was once asked if children should be reintroduced to the lost practice of memorizing and reciting poems. Berry replied, “Yes, you’ve got to furnish their minds.”

The traditional way of “furnishing the minds” of believers in the church has been through catechesis. In their fine book, Grounded in the Gospel: Building Believers the Old-Fashioned Way, J.I. Packer and Gary A. Parrett define this practice:

Catechesis is the church’s ministry of grounding and growing God’s people in the Gospel and its implications for doctrine, devotion, duty, and delight. (p. 29)

They recognize three basic levels of catechesis in the church:

  1. Pro- or proto-catechesis—designed to help seekers or inquirers understand and believe the Gospel.
  2. Catechesis proper—designed to prepare children or new believers for their full inclusion in the church through confirmation or baptism.
  3. Ongoing catechesis—designed to help believers in the church during their continuing journey of formation in the life of faith, fellowship in the church, and ministry in the world.

The authors commend catechesis as a thoroughly Biblical approach to fulfilling Jesus’ Great Commission command to “make disciples.” Furthermore, they trace eras in church history, preeminent among them the Reformation, when the ministry of catechesis undergirded and sustained spiritual awakening and reform in the church. They discuss reasons why this practice has waned, as pietism replaced piety, as schisms and denominationalism turned catechical teaching into emphasizing ones’ particular practices rather than the unity of the faith, as the Sunday School model became the primary method for teaching in churches, and as a focus on church growth emphasized getting people to come to church, overtaking the priority of what people will become once they start attending.

In this book, Packer and Starrett take up John Calvin’s concern, who declared, “Believe me…the church of God will never be preserved without catechesis.”

The Baptism of Jesus, Callixtus Catacombs

Jesus, undeterred, went right ahead and gave his charge: “God authorized and commanded me to commission you: Go out and train everyone you meet, far and near, in this way of life, marking them by baptism in the threefold name: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Then instruct them in the practice of all I have commanded you. I’ll be with you as you do this, day after day after day, right up to the end of the age.”

• Matt 28:18-20, MSG

Many scholars believe, and I am persuaded, that the biblical Gospel of Matthew was designed to be used by the church as a catechism, or handbook for training disciples. Matthew ends with Jesus’ “Great Commission,” which sets forth the ongoing mission of the apostles and the church. He charged us to “make disciples” through “baptizing them” (incorporating them into the life of the church) and “teaching them” to observe what Jesus taught. Matthew’s Gospel is organized in such a way that this can be done in an orderly fashion.

Note how Matthew gathers Jesus’ teachings, for example, into five clearly demarcated teaching sections:

  • The Sermon on the Mount (ch.5-7)
  • The Mission Discourse (ch.10)
  • The Parables of the Kingdom (ch.13)
  • The New Community (ch.18)
  • Judgment and the End of the Age (ch.23-25)

Furthermore, in Matthew the narrative sections between these “sermons” are organized largely by theme rather than by strict chronology. So, for example, one may read a compendium of Jesus’ healing miracles in chapters 8-9. The carefully organized nature of the Gospel seems designed for ease of presentation, memorization, and recall. NT scholar Paul S. Minear calls Matthew, “The Teacher’s Gospel,” and says its author “had a major concern for the training of Jesus’ apprentices to continue his work after his death” (The Good News According to Matthew)

Over the course of church history, Jesus’ followers have sought to welcome outsiders into the faith and train them “in this way of life” with many such catechetical resources. Over time, instructing people to follow Jesus as “the Way, Truth, and Life” was done through a standardized three-part way of teaching, using:

  • The Ten Commandments (the Way)
  • The Apostles’ Creed (the Truth)
  • The Lord’s Prayer and the Sacraments (the Life)

Packer and Starrett do a thorough job of grounding this threefold method of catechetical teaching in its proper Biblical and theological soil. By the time they have completed their analysis, they present an impressive chart that shows these emphases and how widespread and deeply rooted they are in the Biblical witness and tradition of those who have practiced the faith.

From the devout piety of biblical Judaism, which emphasized Learning, Worship, and Action, viewed their Scriptures as Torah (faith and instruction), Prophecy (ethical action), and Writings (prayer and wisdom), and organized the synagogue as Houses of Study, Prayer, and Community, to Augustine’s threefold summary of virtue as Faith, Hope, and Love, to the Benedictine practices of Worship, Prayer, and Labor, this basic threefold approach grows out of the primary theological perspectives of the Bible.

From a distinctly Christian point of view, this perspective is rooted in Christ himself—the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Biblical theology affirms the Lord Jesus Christ as Prophet (proclaiming truth), Priest (mediating life), and King (declaring law). And so, studying the catechism points us to Christ.

  • Hearing God’s laws in the Ten Commandments, we learn Christ’s perfect character and demands, our sinfulness in their light, and the way we should walk in his new creation.
  • Reciting the Creed, we confess the faith that saves us, as revealed in the story of our redemption in Christ and the heavenly resources he has given us.
  • Praying the Lord’s Prayer, we approach our daily lives in humble, conversational relationship with Christ, who provides all we need to live in the light of his Kingdom.

Through the ministry of catechizing, we “proclaim Christ” (Col. 1:28) and fulfill his Great Commission.

Next time, we will look more specifically at some of Packer and Starrett’s suggestions for how to return to the practice of catechism in today’s church.


  1. Yes, yes, yes!

    We have been raised since children that Church is about young earth creationism, prayer in public schools, abortion, homosexuality, abstaining from sex, having a successful marriage, hating Democrats, loving SEC football…..

    Almost no one under the age of 60 seems to know basic Bible stories, the Lord’s prayer, the significance of the sacraments, ten commandments, the Sermon on the Mount,….

    Has anyone read the children’s literature coming out of Lifeway or other evangelical publishing houses! worthless.

    Off my soapbox now.

    • hahahahaha yes Allen yes! Today in church I was DYING as I listened to the preacher discuss about half of these topics you just mentioned…

      • Robin,

        I know you have heard the gospel purely preached and taught. I have a funny feeling you will never hear the preachers in the holiness churches, or ‘do-gooder’ preachers, quite the same… ever again.

        Once one knows how to distinguish the law from the gospel, one’s ears becoming acute to all the law that is trying to passed off as gospel. And it just won’t fly.

    • This morning we had a baptism in our Lutheran church. One question the pastor asked the parents was, “Will you teach her the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer?” I like how, from very beginning of life, these foundational Scriptures are commended as the way to form our thinking and our lives.

    • Allen, Yet isn’t it interesting how youth in Evangelical churches know their Bibles better than the youth in Mainline churches. Funny how that happens.

      • Youth in Evangelical churches may have a greater knowledge of what is in their Bibles, but it does not necessarily follow that they know what it means.

        The inability to distinguish between God’s law and His gospel is the most glaring example, and it does not only affect the youth.

        Don’t get me started with the problems of the Mainline churches. So many of them have just thrown out God’s law altogether. While many others are just engaged in do-goodism, feel-goodism, and just about every other ‘ism’ that is out there. Quite often at the expense of Jesus Christ and His gospel for the forgiveness of sins.

      • I’d be careful about such generalizations, Michael. Evangelical churches have recognized a pretty big problem with Biblical illiteracy too. It’s probably more complicated than a simple mainline/evangelical breakdown. Plus, I would argue that mere Bible knowledge is not a sufficient gauge of spiritual health or formation.

        • Chaplain Mike,

          Allen was the one making the original generalization. I was just reacting to the evangelical bashing and showing that statistics do not support his thesis.

          That being said, I agree with you totally on your first two points.

          1. That Evangelical churches have a pretty big problem with Biblical illiteracy too.
          2. Its more complicated that a simple mainline/evangelical breakdown.

          And I would partly agree with your third point. Bible knowledge may not be sufficient gauge, but it is a gauge. Especially when the topic is memorization!

          • What “statistics?” How do you measure one’s “knowledge of the Bible” and how do you compare one group’s “knowledge of the Bible” with another? Maybe there should be a new Jeff Foxworthy game show – “Do you know your Bible better than an Evangelical”

          • There was a survey published a few months ago that was in one of Jeff’s Saturday Ramblings links. People were given questions on a number of topics and then grouped by their religious upbringing.

      • David Cornwell says

        I go to a mainline church that does a better job of teaching the bible than any other church I’ve attended or been a member of (including the ones I pastored). The pastor conducts a lectionary study each Wednesday evening that looks at the passage he will be using the following Sunday. I’ve never heard a far out “liberal” interpretation by either him or the others of us in the study. Our pastor often quotes from his catechism he was taught as a youth.

        Now this church is what many would call liberal because of the political views of the majority of the members, has a number of public servants among its membership such as teachers, professors, health professionals, and others. It also It is also known as a center for the arts and music.

        It has an endowed lectureship almost every year with some speakers that stretch your thinking, such as Luke Timothy Johnson who is a a professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at a Methodist seminary, although he is a former Benedictine monk. He is a critic of the Jesus Seminar, and believes that the creed should be at the center of the church’s belief and teaching.

        This is far from a perfect church of course. It has its shortcomings of which I could make a list. But for me, after I left the ministry, it was a fresh wind that saved me in many ways.

        So be careful about black and white thinking concerning mainline churches.

        • Richard Hershberger says

          I’m not sure what you mean by a ‘far out “liberal” interpretation’. If the mention of the Jesus Seminar is meant to reflect this, then I am not surprised. The Jesus Seminar is a bete noir of the religious right, but has almost nothing to do with what mainline churches actually preach or practice. Pointing to it is not quite a strawman argument, but it is close.

          And don’t get me started on Bishop Spong…

          • David Cornwell says

            Richard, I agree with you. I just meant that mainline churches are often painted as being ” far out liberals” by evangelicals and therefore should be avoided at all costs. I’ve heard that exact phrase. I’ve seldom heard the Jesus Seminar discussed one way or the other. As for Spong, I don’t care for him either. But nothing is black and white, either with mainlines or evangelicals. Some mainline congregations seem to be almost devoid of the gospel message. But that’s my opinion of many evangelical churches also.

            If I was setting up a straw man, then I apologize. We all probably have a tendency to the straw man thing.

          • Richard Hershberger says

            No, I don’t think you were setting up a strawman. I think you were responding to one (or something very close to it). My response to those you point at the Jesus Seminar and claim that this is what mainlines preach and teach is to point at Fred Phelps. Would it be fair to paint all Evangelical churchs with that brush? Of course not.

            And yes, it is sadly easy to find mainline congregations with little evidence of the Gospel. I am a (mainline) preacher’s kid. I remember once, as a teenager, when a visitor to our church complimented my father on preaching the Gospel. I thought it odd at the time, since that was simply what I expected to be preached. As an adult, I found out what this visitor was talking about.

            But as you say, this isn’t a peculiarly mainline issue. The problem is far broader than that.

          • Richard Hershberger says

            Edit: “My response to those _who_ point at the Jesus Seminar…”

        • Nice post, your church sounds like one I’d love to visist, then visit often, and then defect to. With the wife, of course……

    • Are you saying loving SEC football ISN’T part of Christianity? Blasphemer!

  2. “Over the course of church history, Jesus’ followers have sought to welcome outsiders into the faith and train them “in this way of life” with many such catechetical resources. Over time, instructing people to follow Jesus as “the Way, Truth, and Life” was done through a standardized three-part way of teaching, using:

    * The Ten Commandments (the Way)
    * The Apostles’ Creed (the Truth)
    * The Lord’s Prayer and the Sacraments (the Life)”

    It may make for a nicely-constructed parallelism in someone’s book, but I’m sorry, you ain’t gonna convince me that the Ten Commandments are the Way, the Apostles’ Creed is the Truth, and the Lord’s Prayer and the Sacraments are the Life. Jesus said, I am the way, the truth, and the life, no man comes to the Father but by Me.” Tell me that you aren’t seriously saying that no man comes to the Father except by the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, The Lord’s Prayer and the Sacraments. It is good to learn and do all of these things, but they aren’t the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Jesus is.

    Either I’m missing something or you are.

    • Yes, Bob, Jesus is the way, truth, and life. These Scriptures point to him as such.

    • You may have missed the point. Parallelism is NOT a one to one relationship as you suggest the author meant. He is saying that in the same way that Jesus is “the way, the truth, the life” the three areas of teaching of catechism are the way the truth the life. These areas do NOT replace God and His Son but, rather CONFIRM the Godhead over mere rules and regs. There is no salvation of the teaching itself, but when the teaching is internalized THEN salvation can be found in the persons of the Godhead.

      Perhaps you were a little too literal minded when you read the statement. Then again, perhaps I am a little too oblique in MY thinking.

  3. I have been involved with a mentor for some time using The Navigator’s “Topical Memory System” for memorizing scripture topically. It has been such a blessing and help in my walk and discipling of others. I now do the system with 2 other guys that I’m helping along.

    Hiding truth, story and song in your heart and mind is what gets you thru tougher times….and also help you live as light to those around you.

    Young rabbinic trainees would be required to memorize whole books of the Torah….funny how we have surrendered knowledge of the scriptures and their meaning to our church leaders and pastors. I personally need and want to do a better job taking the responsibility for “training up your child in the way they should go…”. My 9 year old daughter has started doing some scripture memory but it is hit and miss…..this blog was a good reminder to me that this is my responsibility to insure not only biblical reading, but keeping up the oral traditions of our faith in knowing the stories of those before us! thanks…

    • In the age of Google why memorize?

      • What if we lost the Internet tomorrow? And electricity? And satellites?

        What good would Google do you then?

      • “I have hidden your word in my — Blackberry? Blog? Iphone?” I think the heart is more fertile ground, although I love the resources available online. I generally use Google, etc., to confirm or go deeper into something I’ve memorized or at least remembered. It helps but doesn’t replace memorization.

  4. I remember being learning part of the cathechism at age 6:

    Who made you? Answer: God made me.
    Why did God make you? God made me to know, love and serve him on this earth and to spend eternity with HIm in heaven.
    What is a sacrament? A sacrament is an outward sign of an inward change, insitituted by God to give grace.
    Plus we were taught the prayers.

    I don’t know if the Roman Catholic Church teaches it this way now. But my local church is about to begin a 6 week process of small groups studing the cathechism and why Catholics do what they do. I am looking forward to it. Hopefully there will be a small group I can fit into that will work out with my work schedule.

  5. this way takes too long and is too simple; it’s not quick or complex enough for our cultivated, so knowledgeable and contemporary sensibilities, which require everything now and post-modernly deconstructs practically everything into convoluted forms. are we that fearful and distrusting of time and simplicity? just as our day and age is gripped in an anxious flight from aging, so too with our discipleship. we fear and run from the hard reality that time happens, and that it is exactly the slow passage of decades, decades filled with joy and sorrow, decades spent relating with God, learning from Him, that most elegantly and better form us into the image of Christ.

    it aint quick, and it aint pretty.

    • Would love to hear Chap Mike’s take on this , but (for maybe different reasons) I think BOTH modernity AND post-modernity would fight catechesis. Way too formulaic and rigid for post-modernity, but not nearly as quick and neat at the pragmatism that drives most of modernity. If this is so, then expect our culture to fight this direction , and probably not even know why they do.. Comments welcome.


      • “I think BOTH modernity AND post-modernity would fight catechesis.”

        I think you are exactly right, Greg.

        That is why churches ought be, and remain counter-cultural.

      • greg – really appreciate the inclusion of modernity! i would wholeheartedly agree that modernity poses similar obstacles/problems as post-modernity, just at the other end of the spectrum. whereas post-modernity convolutes, modernity is guilty of not trusting that aspect of our discipleship and burgeoning transformation(s) that operate outside of a structured and well defined paradigm that can easily be automated. i love how Christ likened the HS to the wind. Where did it come from? No clue. Where is it going? No clue.

        may be a bit off topic, but here goes:

        personally, i look at it like this. God has purchased me. God has ransomed me. for whatever reason He looked at me and said, ‘I’ll take him.’ now, with that being the case, i do not believe that God will throw away what He bought, or that He would allow what He bought to fall into a state of ruin and despair. God knows what He is doing, and for whatever reason, He chose me. rarely do i understand Him or His ways, and i am o.k. with that because i know that He is good. the path that God has laid out before us, the path that He wants his church to walk in is a path of love and of simplicity. sadly, much of christianity has apparently chosen this path instead:

        ‘But as Christianity follows John in emphasizing the Second over the First Coming, and apocalypse over incarnation, it finds itself waiting for God to act violently while God is waiting for us to act nonviolently.’

        we’ve got it soooooooooooo sdrawkcab.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          ‘But as Christianity follows John in emphasizing the Second over the First Coming, and apocalypse over incarnation, it finds itself waiting for God to act violently while God is waiting for us to act nonviolently.’

          This is the overarching theme of Slacktivist’s page-by-page analysis of Left Behind, and becomes especially blatant in Volume 12. The theme there (and of so much Grinning Apocalyptism) is that God’s The Biggest Boot and is About To Stomp. Nothing about God’s nature or benevolence, just God’s raw power and Omnipotence — “I’m Bigger Than You!” and that’s it.

  6. Here’s a link to a recent Barna study showing declining respect for the Bible among younger people:

    And here’s a link to several older articles showing the poor Biblical knowledge even among regular churchgoers:

    Substantial numbers of regular churchgoers think Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife. A minority of adults can name all for gospels, or more than 5 of the 10 Commandments. Billy Graham preached the Sermon on the Mount.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Every college instructor who’s had to read and grade essays has horror-comedy stories about hilariously wrong answers.

      However, “Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife” is pretty out there even for hilariously wrong answers (and being able to easily see the wrong connection makes it doubly hilarious). Right up there with “The Church made Galileo take arsenic because he said the world was round instead of flat.”

  7. Great post!

  8. Isaac (the poster formerly known as Obed) says

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. I think all Christian denominations are reaping several decades of crappy or non-existent catechesis. I recently read an article by J. I. Packer in which he mentioned stuff like the Alpha Course as a hint of a revival of catechesis, even if the folks who developed Alpha, etc. didn’t realize it. Not being familiar with those programs, I can neither confirm nor deny whether this is the case. Nevertheless, I’d like to explore them as potential tools for catechesis.

    I really think we’re going need a change in mindset if we’re going to combat the abysmal lack of biblical literacy, rank syncretism, and shallow consumer-Christianity. Discipleship, Christian education, and catechesis can’t be relegated to Sunday morning and left up to the clergy. We need to foster Christianity as a way of life in which these things are tackled as a whole community, starting with the individual families.

    As a postulant for Anglican orders, I’ve been thinking about some ways this can be done within the Anglican tradition and charism. I’m thinking that it probably has to start with a foundation in the semi-daily dose of systematic Scripture readings as part of the Daily Office. Granted, that’s a little institutional, but if the congregation’s culture fosters everyone reading the same things each day, Sunday school can be used to supplement what’s already going on at home rather than being the only source of Christian education. I remember one Anglican priest calling the Daily Office “catechesis by osmosis.” But I also know that it’s not widely practiced even by the clergy, let alone the laity.

    • I recently read an article by J. I. Packer in which he mentioned stuff like the Alpha Course as a hint of a revival of catechesis, even if the folks who developed Alpha, etc. didn’t realize it.

      That is certainly an interesting though Isaac. I believe the Alpha course was developed to introduce others to Jesus, but it certainly cover some of the same ground that a catechesis would.

      Here are the topic headings:

      * Is there more to life than this? (previously Christianity: Boring, Untrue and Irrelevant?)
      * Who is Jesus?
      * Why did Jesus die?
      * How can we have faith?
      * Why and how do I pray?
      * Why and how should I read the Bible?
      * How does God guide us?
      * Who is the Holy Spirit?
      * What does the Holy Spirit do?
      * How can I be filled with the Holy Spirit?
      * How can I resist evil?
      * Why and how should I tell others?
      * Does God heal today?
      * What about the church?
      * How can I make the most of the rest of my Life?

      • Isaac (the poster formerly known as Obed) says

        Ironically, less than 24 hours after reading that article, I found myself at a Church Planting Conference. For the first workshop, my priest sent me to a class on using Alpha in church planting and mission/evangelism. I think I was the only person in the room who hadn’t been through Alpha!

  9. This is great, thought-provoking topic. As a lifelong Southern Baptist, I have virtually no experience with catechesis. But I can see what a terrific tool it could be to ensure my three children are grounded…well as Packer says, “in the Gospel.” I found a generic website that listed the First Catechism and the Westminster Shorter Catechism and broke them into sections by grade level. Any general thoughts on using this as a tool to instruct children?