An Encouragement to Use Catechisms (Part 2)

An Encouragement to Use Catechisms (Part 2)

Tom J. Nettles

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(The first part of this article is found in FJ 10 and consists of historical testimonies to the usefulness of catechetical instruction for believers. This is the second of three installments on the subject by Dr. Nettles.)

The Bible Encourages Their Use

In addition to the lessons of history, Scripture itself encourages the use of catechisms in our efforts to be transformed by the biblical message. The divine out-breathings which produced Scripture create both an assumption and a purpose which are consistent with this approach to instruction. The assumption is the authority, sufficiency, and consistency of Scripture; the purpose is the increase of spiritual maturity in the children of God.

Examples or models of instruction used by the first-century church abound in Scripture, both in method and content. These make it clear that the use of summaries, readily digestible portions of revelatory truth, make for effective instruction in the church. In addition, implicit admonitions for this form of education are scattered throughout the pages of the Bible and mixed with the models mentioned above.

The catechetical approach should not be used to serve any fascination with systems and abstractions or to puff one’s self up with speculative knowledge instead of increased love for God (1 Cor. 8:1). Instead, it is one way that Christians may enhance their ability to use Scripture in accordance with its purpose. Instruction with this kind of precision constitutes an obedient response to the Bible itself and fulfills biblical principles undergirding the process of disciple making.

Fulfillment of Scripture’s Purpose

Preaching, teaching, and meditation (biblical means of spiritual growth) require slightly different emphases in the use of Scripture and accomplish slightly different tasks in conforming us to Christ. Preaching comes in the form of a proclamation, challenging and correcting our thoughts and actions, teaching us of the grace of God in the gospel, and calling us to deeper repentance and obedience. Teaching, no more content-oriented nor less confrontive than preaching, employs a format less monologic and more oriented toward questioning and discussion. Meditation involves extended personal appraisal of one’s own thoughts and actions in comparison to the beauty and holy character of God as revealed in Scripture and impressed on the heart by the Holy Spirit.

In each of these, not only does the person who is well catechized have a distinct advantage, the use of a catechetical approach is a basic element of the procedure itself. Those who have good scripture knowledge gain more from good preaching. If, in addition, they have been trained to see the coherent structure of biblical truth and can define its leading principles, their knowledge of Scripture is more precise and thorough. The consequent benefit from preaching in-creases. More will be said about this in the discussion of practical advantages.

A well-catechized hearer doesn’t view the words and ideas of the preacher as isolated fragments of truth; he understands them as constituent elements of the “one faith” which must govern our efforts to achieve “unity in the faith.” Matthew Henry, a seventeenth-century Puritan biblical scholar, states, “Catechizing does to the preaching of the word the same good office that John the Baptist did to our Saviour; it prepares the way, and makes its paths straight, and yet like him does but say the same things.”

This relationship between preparatory instruction and purity of worship was woven into the very fabric of the history of Israel. The people were commanded to instruct their children in the ways of God. When an Israelite child asked his father, “What mean the testimonies, and the statutes, and the judgments, which the Lord our God hath commanded you?” the parent was to answer with a summary of the mighty works of God for the redemption of the people (Deut. 6:20-25). These acts of God might be more fully expounded in other contexts, but the summary served as a basis of all conduct and worship.

One could conclude that the entire history of Israel was catechetical preparation for Peter’s sermon at Pentecost. Of course, it was much more than that. Peter explained what the people observed with the words, “This is what was spoken…” (Acts 2:16) and the explanation was sufficient. His appeal to the attestation of Jesus’ ministry by miracles, wonders, and signs (2:22) was consistent with their understanding of God’s activity in pivotal redemptive eras of their history (Moses and Elijah). His recitation of the Messianic prophecies through David made immediate appeal to the orientation of his audience. Also, his references to the pouring out of the Spirit did not refer simply to Jesus’ promises during his earthly ministry about the coming of the comforter. This would have meant little to Peter’s audience. More likely he referred to the coming of the Spirit as the sign of ultimate redemption and the new covenant (Ezekiel 11:19; 18:31; 36:27; 39:29; Jeremiah 31:31-34). Peter’s announcement of Jesus a both “Lord” and “Christ” met with immediate understanding and conviction. Both words were filled with meaning for the hearers and the string of evidence he presented pointed to the conclusion they drew.

I am not contending that a strong background of knowledge when combined with a compelling argument always makes a convert. NE conviction or conversion will come without the effectual working of the Spirit of God (Eph. 1:19; Col. 2:11, 12). A connection, however, between prior knowledge and proclamation is a part of God’s ordained means of salvation.

The same is seen in Paul’s sermon at Athens. He appealed to what he knew they had discerned from general revelation and had put within their system of worship (Acts 17:22-29). In a sense, nature and conscience had catechized them.

Also, more quickly than those not so trained, those catechized become capable of preaching and teaching. The appeal of preaching he in proclaiming the new (whether it be insight into content or application) based on known truth. Jesus said, “Every scribe who has become a disciple of the kingdom of heaven is like a head of a household, who brings forth out of his treasure things new and old” (Mt. 13:52). The scribes were the most thoroughly educated people of Israel during the time of our Lord. They were professional students of the law and gathered around themselves pupils to whom they taught the law and the oral tradition which accompanied it, much of which they themselves produced. They taught their students to pass on this content without alteration. Jesus indicates that the person with scribal training, when converted and freed of the idol of human tradition, is capable of teaching others the truths of the kingdom of God. He can understand and communicate how Christian revelation relates to the new challenges the world constantly presents. He gives insight in how one can make fresh applications of the unchangeable truths divine revelation.

Apollos, before he met Aquila and Priscilla, was literally “catechized” in the way of the Lord and was teaching with accuracy the things concerning Jesus (Acts 18:25). Upon receiving more accurate instruction concerning some details, he continued his teaching being of great help to believers and an irrefutable apologist for the faith in public debate with the Jews (Acts 18:27, 28). It was no small contribution to his eventual effectiveness that he was so thoroughly “catechized.”

The biblical evidence for the value of catechisms is not derived solely from inference. The specific admonitions of Scripture support the use of this method. “Teach them diligently to thy children” and “talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up” were the instructions accompanying the second giving of the commandments (Deut. 6). This sort of instruction included memorization of fundamental precepts. The psalmist assumes the existence of this knowledge in his numerous exhortations to meditate in the law of the Lord. No meditation can occur where no content is present; and the more accurate and precise the content, the more edifying and uplifting the meditation.

David says, “The unfolding of thy words gives light” (Ps. 119:130 NASB). The word for “unfolding” may mean “entrance” or “opening.” Its root often is used metaphorically for “understanding” or, in a phrase, “grasping the true meaning.” The illumination of the Holy Spirit alone accomplishes this, particularly as it relates to one’s transformation by the renewing of the mind (Rom. 12:2). From a human standpoint, however, the purpose of a catechism is to present true contextual understanding of the biblical revelation. It can give significant and enlightening help in the Christian privilege of meditation on the truths of divine revelation, a practice which gives understanding to the simple.

Admonitions and Examples

Much of the educational task of the church today is parallel with that of the Levites in Nehemiah’s day. When the Israelites were at the threshold of recovering their significance as the people of God, central to this reorientation was the learning of the word of God. Ezra led the scribes and the Levites in intensive sessions with the people: “They read in the book of the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understanding the reading” (Ezra 8:1-8).

Scripture itself gives clear warrant to the use of external aids in order to enhance and accelerate biblical understanding. The Levites “gave the sense.” Preeminently, the preacher serves in that capacity; but providing the same kind of touchstone given by the “rule of faith” in the early Christian centuries, a catechism helps perform the same function. When it has a comprehensive scriptural orientation and is organized logically, a catechism can enhance understanding and give immense help in grasping the sense of Scripture.

Summaries of faith, either in confessional or catechetical form, appear in the New Testament. These are used in situations where strong clear reminders of the distinctiveness of the Christian faith are needed. They serve to exhort, encourage, warn and edify. Bits and pieces of confessions, or perhaps catechetical responses, are very likely present in such passages as Ephesians 4:4-6; 1 Timothy 1:15-17; 3:12-16; 2 Timothy 1:8-10; 2:11-13; and Titus 1:11-14.

The faith Paul mentions in Eph 4:5, 13 could be the experience of grace of faith. Another and more likely, possibility is that it denote an objective faith, that is a body of teaching. The context seems to favor that understanding. Paul emphasizes the gift of pastor-teacher in verse 11 and, in verse 13, has in mind a doctrinal core around which believers should be united. This is contrasted to the instability of the doctrine characteristic of deceitful teachers in verse 14. At any rate, the words in verses 5 and 6 have an easily memorable form which expressed a foundational and minimal confessional standard for some first-century Christian churches. The simple but clear and exclusive confession could serve as an effective shield of faith against many fiery first-century darts of false teaching.

The phrase “a faithful saying” (literally Faithful the word), in Timothy 1:15 and 3:1 and 4:9, introduces a confessional, or perhaps catechetical formula. The sentences which follow could possibly stand alone as pithy and pregnant epigrams, “one-liner” confessions such as “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” More likely they are part of larger statements as in 1 Timothy 3:16. That particular confession called by Paul “The Mystery of Godliness” begins with a phrase which contains an adverbial form of the word “confess” and literally translates “confessedly great.” Idiomatically it means “undeniably.” That which is “confessed” with such certainty is a six-article Christological confession.

Apparently, Paul considered this confession a helpful safeguard against the encroachment of heresy, for immediately in 1 Timothy 4:6, Paul warns Timothy about the errors of ascetic dualism. That heresy by implication denies the goodness of creation as well as the reality of the incarnation, death, resurrection, and bodily ascension of Christ into heaven. Paul points to the “words of faith” and the inherently good, noble and praiseworthy doctrine he has been following. He uses the same word to describe the “teaching” (v.6) as he does to describe the inherent goodness of the creation (v.4).

The phrase “words of faith” in verse 6 has a strong verbal relationship to the “faithful sayings” in 1:15, 3:1,4:9, and 2 Tim. 2:11. The first uses the noun form of “faith” and the second uses the adjective form. Conceptually, Paul is making the same affirmation. A “faithful saying” incorporates words which summarize certain truths of the faith; thus, “words of faith” becomes “faithful words”, or “faithful sayings.” These are in turn identified with “the sound doctrine” (NASB) Timothy has been following.

Paul is reminding Timothy that spiritual and doctrinal nourishment he received in his early instruction is a strong, and even essential, foundation for an effective ministry with the people of God. Verse 9 then repeats the formula “It is a faithful saying and worthy of full acceptance” that exercising oneself to godliness (v.7) striving and laboring for life now and to come (vv.8, 10) are all part of putting one’s hope in the living God “who is the Savior of all men, especially those who believe.”

These faithful sayings consisted of the teaching of the apostles and N. T. prophets (the foundational gifts to the church) and served as the Christ-centered guide to the interpretation of the 0. T. Scriptures and as paths to life in the presence of the Living God.

In 2 Timothy 1:8, Paul encourages Timothy not to be ashamed of the “testimony of our Lord.” The word “testimony” which serves to translate two Greek words contains a rich fabric of meaning. Among the several things that both unite are the following: an event, word, or thing that serves as proof or evidence (John 8:17); a personal conviction about the truth which can not be compromised no matter what the consequences (2 Cor. 1:12); the spoken message about Christ’s person and work (1 Cor. 1:16); and, in The Martyrdom of Polycarp, it refers specifically to the martyr’s death. In 1 Tim. 2:6 the “testimony” is used as an appositive to “ransom.” The death of Christ was thus Christ’s personal witness to and irrefutable evidence of the truth that there is one God and that reconciliation is possible only through a mediator who provides an effectual ransom (antilutron). The death of Christ speaks volumes, infinite volumes, about the unique efficacy of the gospel; it is the testimony in God’s ordained time. And to that specific testimony that Christ made in his death Paul was appointed a preacher, and apostle, and a teacher. When he speaks of the “testimony of our Lord,” therefore, in 2 Tim. 1:8 he has in mind that historical witness of Christ in his passion which is communicated to all generations in the words called the Gospel (“be a fellow-sufferer in the gospel”).

John’s Angel in Revelation 19:10 speaks of those messengers who “hold the testimony of Jesus.” Indeed, the angel continues, the “testimony of Jesus is the Spirit of prophecy.” Isaiah, when hounded by the false religionists of his day to consult mediums, replied, “To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, it is because they have no dawn” (Isa. 8:20 NASB).

The testimony of our Lord, or the testimony of Jesus, is the fulfillment of all the prophets. This testimony (marturion) is given a form so that witnesses (martus) may testify (martureo) verbally. An elevated prose portion of that testimony is presented in the words of verses 9 and 10 of 2 Tim. 1: “Who has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his purpose and grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began, but has now been manifest by the appearing of our Saviour Christ Jesus, who destroyed death on the one hand, and, on the other, brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.”

Timothy also is admonished to “guard the deposit” and follow the pattern or standard of “sound words” given him. This deposit and these sound words he was to entrust to faithful men who would b able to teach others. Paul had already written against those who live in a moral squalor opposed to the “sound teaching which is according to the glorious gospel of the blessed God” (1:10-11). In 1 Tim. 6:3, Pat warns Timothy against those who want to teach other things and will not receive “sound words.” Nor will they receive “the teaching” that according to godliness. Instead, they are men who understand nothing and, among other things, are deprived of the truth. He gives similar instruction to Titus that he would select overseers who hold firmly to the sure word which is in accord with “the teaching.” This is so they may exhort others in “the teaching, the sound teaching” and may reprove those who oppose them.

2 Tim. 3:14, 15 pictures Timothy as having learned from his grandmother, mother, and Paul’s sets of truths stated not exactly in Scripture language but founded upon Scripture truth. In the same vein the writer of Hebrews speaks of the need of some to be instructed in the “elementary principles of the Oracles of God” (5:12).

Paul’s emphasis on “the teaching,” the “deposit,” the “sound teaching,” the “sound words,” and his instruction that it serve as corrective guideline to false teachings, false teachers, an nonessential subtleties creates a form with clearly recognizable features. Thomas Watson and Matthew Henry are convinced that the “form, pattern, standard of sound words” is a type of catechism: “the first principles of the oracles of God.”

The apostles and other teachers in the New Testament worked with several clear, concise, verbally friendly confessional and catechetical devices to establish a foundation for the entire teaching ministry. The practice of learning by exact verbal patterns was well established, by divine mandate, in Jewish culture. A continuance that would not only be natural but an expected response to the divine disclosure of the words of the gospel. Nothing should hinder the conclusion that memorization of the deposit of truth is biblical. The catechism appears to meet this need most acceptably (See Birger Gerhardsson, Memory and manuscript: Oral Tradition and Writt, Transmission in Rabbinic Judaism and Early Christianity).

Sola Scriptura

Some object to catechisms because they fear a tendency to replace Scripture. If viewed in terms of the medieval practice, such a fear might have legitimacy, In addition the period of Lutheran Orthodoxy: produced an implicit creedalism that was opposed by the founder of the pietist movement. While Pietism developed its own set of problems, its renewed emphasis on Bible study was a needed practical application of the Protestant emphasis on sola scriptura. The most consistent practice in Protestantism, however, gives positive relief to this important concern. Spurgeon noted the tendency of this fear and addressed it forcefully:

If there were any fear that Scripture would be displaced by handbooks of theology, we should be the first to denounce them; but there is not the shadow of a reason for such a dream, since the most Bible-reading of all the nations is that in which the Assembly’s Catechism is learned by almost every mother’s son [cited in Cathcart, The Baptist Encyclopedia, s.v. Creeds, advantageous).

Matthew Henry, in his “Sermon Concerning the Catechizing of Youth,” expressed, a century before Spurgeon, the same confidence:

Bear us witness, we set up no other rule and practice, no other oracle, no other touchstone or test of orthodoxy, but the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament: these are the only fountains whence we fetch our knowledge;…and far be it from us that we should set up any form of words in competition with it, much less in contradiction to it; or admit any rival with it in the conduct an guardianship of our souls, as some do the traditions of the church, and others I know not what light within. Every other help we have for our souls we make use of as regula regulata – “a rule controlled”; in subordination and subserviency to the Scripture; and among the rest our catechisms and confessions of faith [The Complete Works of Matthew Henry 2 vols. (Grand Rapids; Baker Book House, 1979) 2:159, 160].

Allow a contemporary to testify to the eminently safe and edifying character of a scriptural catechism. In his introduction to his own revised version of Keach’s Catechism, Paul King Jewett anticipates this objection with a strong answer:

It would be anomalous indeed to say that in teaching that the Scripture is the only rule of faith and practice, the catechism is setting itself in the place of Scripture. All that the authors of our catechism have sought to do is to state in a plain, orderly and concise manner what the Scripture teaches. And do we any less in the sermon, which is the very central act of evangelical worship? What is a sermon, or at least what ought it to be, but a clear and forceful statement in the preacher’s own words of what the Scripture means? And if this may be done in a sermon, why may it not be done in a catechism?

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