September 29, 2020

Catechism: A Final Word (for now)

Luther's Small Catechism, 1529

By Chaplain Mike

A number of years ago, after having read some books by J.I. Packer, including the classic Knowing God, I picked up a small book he had written called, Growing in Christ. It claimed to be a guide to Christian basics, and it focused on the Apostles’ Creed, the Sacraments, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments.

How odd! I thought. Why would someone choose those particular texts as a foundation for making disciples?

I was confused. Didn’t Packer know about the Navigators memory program or Campus Crusade’s follow-up studies for the Four Spiritual Laws? Why, one of those texts he was calling us to study isn’t even Scripture! And what’s all this “sacrament” stuff? Didn’t he know that infant baptism has no Biblical basis? And sure, Communion is special, but why talk about it in a book about basic Christian beliefs?

Such was the extent of my youthful evangelical ignorance.

Valedictorian at Bible college and I didn’t really know much about the Reformation or, indeed, anything at all about the history and traditions of the church. I was a “solo Scriptura” kind of guy. And all the poorer for it.

It’s time to give Dr. Packer his due for bringing the concept of the Reformation catechism back and introducing it to clueless evangelicals like me. As one small act of penance, I will let him have the last word this week on the subject.

From the introduction to Growing in Christ:

Christianity is not instinctive to anyone, nor is it picked up casually without effort. It is a faith that has to be learned, and therefore taught, and so some sort of systematic instruction (catechumenate) is an essential part of a church’s life.

In the first Christian centuries there was a steady stream of adult converts and enquirers, and catechetical instruction took the form of lectures, given at their level. The Reformers’ strategy for revitalizing a Christendom that was ignorant of Christianity led them, however, to concentrate on systematic instruction for children. During a century and a half following Luther’s pioneer Little Catechism of 1529, literally hundreds of catechisms were produced, mostly though not exclusively for the young. Some of these were official church documents, others the private compositions of individual clergymen. The English Prayer Book catechism, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Westminster Shorter Catechism are among the best known. Probably most Protestants today associate catechisms and catechizing exclusively with nurturing children and would not think of presentations like C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, or Billy Graham’s Peace with God, or John Stott’s Basic Christianity, or G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, as catechetical, because they are written for adults. But inasmuch as they are intended to instruct outsiders and establish insiders in the fundamentals of the faith, catechetical is their proper description.

One great need today is a renewal of systematic Christian instruction—catechetical teaching—for adults. It need not be called that, nor need it take the form of rigid drilling in preset formulae, which is how old-time Protestants taught their children; but somehow or other, opportunities must be given for folk in and just outside the churches to examine Christian essentials, because there are so many for whom this is a prime need. Preaching often does not help them, for preaching ordinarily assumes in both speaker and hearers confident certainty about the fundamentals of the faith, and where this is lacking, sermons are felt to be remote and even irritating because of what appear as their unexamined assumptions. But the proper place for examining, challenging, and testing the intellectual ABCs of Christianity is not the pulpit, but rather the systematic instruction given in catechetical teaching—at least, so Christian history suggests.

• Growing in Christ, xiif


  1. Thumbs up. Packer rocks!

    • Wow for the first comment I really should have thought of something more…thoughtful. Allow me to redeem myself with a question:

      If perhaps rote memorization of the catechism is not the best (or only) way of teaching children and adults, how can it be taught in a way that sticks? By this I mean, rote memorization doesn’t always guarantee a grasping of concepts but most “teaching” I’ve seen or even produced doesn’t have the ability to stay with the learner like memorization does. Thoughts?

  2. luther’s original title for the small catechism was “enchiridion”, latin for little handbook, from the greek for “little dagger”…. a good reminder that the one offensive weapon we have in our armor is the sword of the spirit, the word of god.

  3. I think catechisms only retain their value insofar that they spur us to love one another more deeply. God’s truth only has intrisinic meaning to us insofar that we can embrace the greatest truth (that is, the best news for us as human beings) that begins: “God so loved…” Because without God’s love for us, no other truth even gets off the floor of our hearts. And without Christ’s love in us, all other works are just vain attempts to achieve what Christ already did perfectly well as he labored for the cross. I like Packer’s call for memorizing and taking in more truth. But without the proper lens and clinging to the great truths to force our shallow faiths into real love, we’re just talking about another merit based, intellectual exercise.

  4. I miss reciting the Apostles’ Creed every week. A lot of theology seeped in that way, and I joyfully missed the debates about the rapture and predestination.

  5. The book was great and unfortunately it seems to have not developed any feet. There seems to be a disconnect today between memorization, etc., and labeling it too much ritual (for evangelicals we call it being RC and therefore its okay to ignore it) but there is such a subtlety through formation of habits that we miss the power of those habits for defining who we are. The Amish practice this idea well – hymns and the Lord’s Prayer from toddler age on up. Maybe we can learn something.

  6. In my most recent bolt from a mega church, I reengaged with liturgical services. I found I had missed the recitation of the creeds. Even though I read a lot of theological stuff, the creeds and catechisms gives doctrinal framework that charismatics could do well with. I can’t help but wonder if a regular catechism in the average pentecostal church would keep some of the superstition and weirdness at bay that we charismatics sometimes indulge in.

  7. You had me going with the word “catechetical.” That’s a new one on me, though it may not be new to my husband, who was raised Lutheran and considers himself deeply indebted to his confirmation in that church. He says the scripture memorization required of him there, plus the teaching he was given, helped him to grow and mature in his faith.

    Just wondering… is “catachlysmic” a term we could use instead? 🙂 Let me add that I’m just kidding, before the grammar police jump all over me. 🙂

  8. Great post! The one thing I miss about the Catholic Church is the structure and liturgy. The church I attend now has little respect for the Lord”s Supper, nor is there much understanding of the Trinity, Apostle’s Creed, or any of the historic affirmations of the Christian Faith. Not to say the church hasn’t any strengths. Anyway, I need to reread Packer!!

  9. One of my favorite catechism series is the series of pre-Pascha (Easter) lectures by Cyril of Jerusalem, which can be found in several online Christian libraries. I particularly like his lecture on Baptism which is so descriptive one is almost present at an early church baptism.

    Lecture XX. (On the Mysteries. II.) Of Baptism.