What's a Catechism?
The Joy And Usefulness Of The Catechism, Part 1
What Is A Catechism?
When you hear the word “catechism”, perhaps it brings to mind some dusty old practice, or something you’d more likely see in a Roman Catholic setting than a Protestant church. But catechisms are a teaching tool that have been used by faithful Christians for hundreds of years. Like confessions, catechisms are useful when they direct us back to the Bible, defining proper doctrine and a reading of the Word in an easily digested format. They never supplant God’s Word, but rather are a teaching tool, just like a teacher would do a review of any topic. Used properly, they can be a wonderful gift to the Christian’s growth in the truths of God, in organizing family worship, and in Christian education.
Catechisms are arranged in a Question and Answer format on a series of subjects, and generally include Bible verses that provide the answers to each question. As an example, let’s look at Question 1 of what is usually referred to as Spurgeon’s Catechism:
Q1. What is the chief end of man?
A. Man's chief end is to glorify God (1 Cor. 10:31), and to enjoy him for ever (Ps. 73:25-26).
Here’s another example, this time from the Westminster Shorter Catechism:
Q34: How many persons are there in the Godhead?
A: There are three persons in the Godhead; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost; and these three are one God, the same in substance, equal in power and glory. (2 Cor. 13:14, Matthew 28:19, Matthew 3:16-17)
So as we see, a proper Catechism instructs in what the Bible systematically teaches on any number of topics. At its heart, it is simply that—a teaching tool. The Greek root of the word, katecheo, simply means “to teach”. As we seek to teach ourselves, our churches, and our families in proper Christian doctrine, catechisms are a time-honored, simple way to do so.
Are Catechisms Biblical?
Sadly, catechisms have somehow picked up a reputation for being somehow unbiblical or only about academic knowledge. This is both false and unfortunate; used properly, catechisms are a tremendous help in what Christians are instructed to do in Scripture. “Catechism” actually comes from the Greek word katecheo, which simply means “to instruct”. We read in Acts 18:25 of Apollos being “instructed” in the ways of the Lord. 1 Timothy 4:10-11 sees Paul urge Timothy to “teach these things and insist everyone learn them”. Speaking of Timothy, we know that his mother and grandmother taught and raised him in a knowledge of God (2 Tim. 1:5). To catechize, as a verb, simply means to teach or instruct. We are all to catechize, just as surely as we know we are to “train up a child in the way he should go” (Proverbs 22:6).
Some Christians and Christian parents may decide to teach and instruct from a catechism, pointing back to Scripture, while some may not. The important thing is that the teaching and instruction takes places—and that is where catechism is a long-proven way of doing precisely that.
How Do I Use A Catechism?
The first caution is that a catechism is never a substitute for Bible reading and prayer! Rather, use of a catechism should drive us to pray deeply, to better know God and His Word, and to ensure our handling of Scripture is informed, well-considered, and thorough. If a catechism is leading us away from study and understanding of God’s Word, something is wrong.
With that said, there are several ways in which a catechism may be used. Many churches use them as a medium for small group or Sunday school study. They often also may complement a church’s statement of faith: for example, many churches holding to the New Hampshire or London Baptist Confessions use a form of Keach’s or Spurgeon’s Catechism to put forth what they believe about the Bible in an easily digestible format.
For home use, parents often utilize the catechism in question-and-answer format with their children. For example, in our family, we cover one question each week, while also spending time covering previous questions. Whether the question that week has to do with God’s Law, the Attributes of God, or another topic, it gives us a starting point to discuss the issue, going to the Scripture proofs, and spinning off of those to ask (and be asked) questions that probe deeper and clear up misconceptions. With their Scripture proofs, they also offer a ready regimen of Bible verse memorization opportunities, or even a daily/weekly devotional format to study and pray over.
Even for those without children, a catechism is a fine way to ensure that we understand and embrace the orthodox Christian faith. In a world where deviant theology and serious error has crept into Christian teaching, it is a relief and a blessing to go back to a resource that outlines and guides so well in basic Christian truths. Whether one has been a Christian for six weeks or six decades, a solid catechism, used with one’s Bible, is a valuable tool for instruction and learning.
In the next installment, we will look at some of the catechisms presently available for us to use.