January 16, 2021

Where’s the Evangelical Catechism?

0842339604t.jpgThere’s no doubt that the current success of Roman Catholic apologetics has been greatly assisted by the publication and distribution of the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church. Mark Noll, among others, has given considerable credit to the catechism for the change in Protestant-Catholic relations in the last 40 years. It is, in my opinion, the most prominent fruit of Vatican II and the leadership of Pope John Paul II assisted by then Cardinal Ratzinger.

If you’ve not read the Catechism- and it is a big book- you’ve missed one of the finest statements of the Christian faith every penned. The prose is appealing. The arrangement is friendly. References are plentiful and the entire design is inviting, elegant and effective. (If the Catechism is too much for you, there is a brief Compendium also available. Both can be found at the Vatican Web site, and the Catechism is published on the web in several places.)

Of course, as an evangelical, I am aware that the Catechism reflects the strengths and weaknesses of Roman Catholic doctrine, particularly since Vatican II. Even with many defenses and explanations from capable apologists and teachers, one cannot remove the insertion of unBiblical Marian dogmas, the near-Universalist attitude toward Muslims and other religions, the errors regarding justification and authority that prompted the Reformation, and the constant reminder that the Roman Pontiff stands above scripture in the Roman Catholic system of doctrine.

One cannot read the Catechism without wondering, “Could evangelicals pen a comprehensive statement of their own faith?” It’s a rather depressing question to contemplate, because Catholicism’s charge that Protestants are 20,000 sects each headed up by a little Pope inventing doctrine and promoting division at every whim seems to be quite true. How could a catechism possibly reflect the diversity within evangelicalism and the commonality of faith and doctrine that evangelicals share.

We are living in a time of considerable evangelical ecumenical effort and accomplishment. This isn’t happening in the union of denominations, but it is happening in the work of confessional fellowship and common efforts in service. Para-church organizations continue to exert considerable influence in evangelicalism, and this has created several commendable efforts at proclaiming a common faith. Most notable would be The Lausanne Movement, The Chicago Council on Inerrancy and The Cambridge Declaration. These confessional and missionary movements have brought together evangelicals from a wide- and differing- spectrum to promote theological confessionalism and missional cooperation. Even denominations as rigidly sectarian as the Southern Baptist Convention have seen prominent leaders participate in evangelical versions of ecumenism that would have been unheard of in the past.

(Don’t get too excited about Southern Baptists, though. They resigned their leadership and support in The Baptist World Alliance for reasons that had all the dignity of a 2 year old throwing his food on the floor.)

Still, it is virtually unthinkable that evangelicals could approach anything as comprehensive and well-done as the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church. If I’m wrong, I hope someone will prove me wrong by moving in the direction of forming a body to do the work. An evangelical catechism that would be a worthily compared volume with the Catechism of the RCC would be a valuable gift to evangelicals for generations.

In the meantime, I have a suggestion for a book that deserves a much wider recognition and use than it’s had up to this point; a book that is a viable evangelical version of a confession that covers the broad spectrum of diverse evangelical beliefs with minimal sectarianism.

The book is Concise Theology, by the closest thing evangelicals have to a good pope, J.I. Packer. Monergism has a good price right now and you can preview the book in Google Reader.

Concise Theology is a collection of 90+ short essays on major and minor theological topics. Each essay is from 1-3 pages long, is elegantly written, includes plenty of scriptural references and is seasoned with Packer’s irenic, comprehensive appreciation of evangelicalism. I know of no one else whose personal commitment to one stream of evangelicalism is combined with a warmer, more helpful attitude to all of evangelicalism.

Yes, the book is reformed as well as evangelical, but on the “doctrines that divide” denominations, Packer is no polemicist. While this book can never speak for evangelicals as a whole, it is a sophisticated, yet accessible look at almost everything a larger Systematic Theology would cover, but done in a style every bit as accessible and easy to read as the RCC’s Catechism.

If every evangelical church would use this book as the RCC uses the Catechism, it would be a great blessing. It is perfect for everything from group discussions, to classes, to individual reading. Packer is particularly appropriate to pen a book that is an alternative to the views of Roman Catholicism, because he loves the wider church and understands the great traditions that have shaped the church. As an Anglican, he is close to the RCC in many ways, but he is a Reformational teacher, and his book is a wonderful example that when tradition is appreciated, but scripture is the authority, the Christian faith is presented beautifully without the inclusion of non-Biblical doctrines, errors on justification and constant resorts to the authority of the Pope.

If my non-Reformed, Arminian friends have a similar volume as well done and as appropriate for comparison with the RCC’s catechism as this one, please bring it to my attention. Lutherans and Presbyterians, you have great confessions, but they do not purport to be any attempt at stepping outside of a denominational confession. We need an evangelical catechism. Not another systematics text, but a match for the RCC’s work in their Catechism. Until then, keep Concise Theology in print. Please! We need it desperately.


  1. I haven’t read “Concise Theology” but how about Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology? He shows with how clear and balanced that book is, that he could pen the Evangelical version of the RCC’s Catechism…

  2. It’s a systematic theology. It’s broadly evangelical and well written. But it’s not 1-3 pages per topic. It’s exhaustive. The RCC catechism is deftly brief and to the point.

  3. Bob Sacamento says

    If my non-Reformed, Arminian friends have a similar volume as well done and as appropriate for comparison with the RCC’s catechism as this one, please bring it to my attention.

    On the Arminian side, C.S. Lewis was pretty much Arminian. You could cobble together a pretty decent little catechism from much of his work. I guess that’s not exactly what you’re asking for, but there it is for what it’s worth.

  4. The “Mere” in Lewis is pretty thin, and he has a lot of views that are outside of the mainstream of evangelicalism. I love the guy, but he’s got little to offer in this category, and I say that owning several books that try to do it with his writing. See Mere Theology by __________.

  5. Well, I don’t know what I am since I fail to see the the logic in placing a Western philosophic system on an Eastern text. But I’m a Methodist so I guess I would be classified as an Arminian (but I probably tell you what you could do with that label).

    N.T. Wright’s book called Simply Christian comes to mind. It was criticized like hell by the TR crowd for not including such “distinct” Christian doctorines as penal substitution(got to have “penal”) and real eternal torment in a hell with real fire.

    Huston Smith has a unique book called The Soul of Christianity. It has a little flavor of Liberalism and espouses universalism but the universalism is quite different from the usual stuff and the take on the faith has some really good takes on orthodox theology (note: I’m a conservative evangelical[classical sense]; but it was good stuff).

    I’m really a little tired of the systemized stuff that compartmentilizes everything.

    I’m also tired of the stuff that does theology with refering the person of Christ. According to Paul, Jesus, and the author of Hebrews, Jesus is God and manifests the character and person of God most fully.

  6. I’d suggest that anyone in this discussion look at the RCC Catechism on line, then look at Concise Theology on-line and see why I am comparing the two.

    Simply Christian is a good book of a different type. It certainly isn’t an evangelical catechism or anything like the RCC catechism.

  7. You are right on the money – I am reading through the catechism and it is a wonderful document. I’ve thought that maybe Protestants of all stripes should use it as a starting point. In other words, use it word for word and cut and paste our own theology into the sections where we disagree. This way we could each see the wide areas of agreement and be honest about where we disagree. We would have a common format and structure to use for comparison, and a worldwide format for doing theology. I know it’s a pipe dream, but I think it would be cool.

  8. Packer and Arminian Thomas Oden penned a brief work on the commonality of Evangelical creeds that is pretty helpful.

    Packer’s excellence is in no small part due to what an elegant stylist and wordsmith her is–that and the irenic spirit you nailed.

    BTW, I believe the Reformation Study bible has all the sections from Concise theology included as topical notes.

  9. Packer himself agrees, though he doesn’t offer a solution much different than some of the comments: Noting that all Christians are called to be lifelong learners, Packer predicted that adult catechism in evangelical circles will return in the next generation. “People have been hungry for this for a long time,” said Packer, referencing the “amazingly wide ministry” of his book, Knowing God.

  10. If you think the RCC Catechism is an outstanding achievement, you should see the New Catholic Encyclopedia. I don’t mean the on-line 1914 version (which is still impressive) but the 1967 or revised 2002 version. I was lucky enough to get all of the volumes at a library sale for less than $10 complete.

    It is a volume that explores a massive 15,000 entries on topics, on the scope of regular encyclopedias. All of them are discussed from a Roman Catholic perspective. The topics range from the theological to the mundane, but are handled with maturity as well as faith.

    I doubt any group in the Evangelical culture (or any other Christian culture for that matter) could come up with a resource with this level of depth and maturity.

  11. Neither of these books can really be compared to the RCC Catechism since they were not written for that purpose, but “Basic Christianity” by John Stott could qualify as a brief Compendium, and Robert P. Lightner does a good job in his “Handbook of Evangelical Theology” of explaining evangelical doctrines while being fair in explaining the differences that evangelicals have with each other theologically.

  12. Hi Michael,

    If it wasn’t so infuriating and so opinionated in places, so Paul Zahl, I’d recommend his A Short Systematic Theology!

  13. So Many Stones says

    For a Wesleyan/Armenian theology, there is “A Theology of Love” by Mildred Bangs Wyncoop.

  14. In reading up on RC beliefs, I’ve been really impressed by the form of their catechism and its accessibility online, with cross links and so on.

    I like Joel W.’s idea of compare-and-contrast catechisms from different denominations, letting us find point-by-point comparisons between the branches of Christianity.

    But as far as an evangelical-wide catechism, I don’t think that would be possible, at least not in the sense of something as detailed as the Catholics have. For us Methodists, we don’t even have a catechism for our own denomination. Our official doctrines are confined to only 24 points (there’s a number 25 for the [American] United Methodist Church, but it is simply an affirmation of the sovereignty of the United States, since our denomination was only formed in the wake of the Revolution, and the 39 Points of the Church of England speaks to the role of the king). We have as a characteristic of our church the idea that only the essentials of salvation need to be agreed upon, and we don’t have official stances on the rest.

    So we probably wouldn’t be able to agree to anything more extensive that would be put into an evangelical catechism. If the idea behind a catechism is that it is a statement and explanation of the required beliefs of a church, then you run into the roadblock that some churches don’t take this approach at all. Or, rather, that our required beliefs make a short list. I think of a catechism as being pretty long. Isn’t it?

    Still, for those denominations that do this kind of thing, it sounds like a great idea. We could have something like a Methodist Appendix, listing the subset of points we agree to.

  15. Caine:

    While Evaneglicals have not been able to crank out a Catholic Encyclopedia. I’d defensively argue that the today they are publishing the best stuff out there. Check out IVP’s catalog for starters. Depth indeed. And the ESV translation. And the NICNT. I really don’t see how anyone can accuse Evangelical scholarship today of lack of depth in any way, shape, or form. The CCC is outstanding in many ways, but remember it is the first universal catechism since Trent! In between Catholicsm has managed to produce every but a middling an amount of material as we have. I final thought: Protestant hymnals in many ways act as out catechisms, it seems to me.

  16. the Roman Pontiff stands above scripture in the Roman Catholic system of doctrine

    The pope doesn’t “stand above scripture” in Catholicism (or if he does, it’s only in the same way a Bible-interpreting individual Protestant “stands above scripture” in Protestantism):

    “But the task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office [magisterium] of the Church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. This teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed.” Dei Verbum

    As for “unBiblical Marian dogmas”, Catholics would of course assert that their Marian beliefs have a rich biblical foundation but that something doesn’t need to be spelled out explicitly in scripture to be true. But of course that’s where we disagree, isn’t it? 🙂

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