what is a catechism? ~ guest post by Chaz Reed

Chaz is a close friend of Papa’s, and has been since childhood. We now have the blessing of living within driving distance of him, his wife, and their four girls. Chaz is a pastor of a nearby church, and after seeing how he and his wife incorporated the Westminster Shorter Catechism into the raising of their children, we decided to use it as well. I have talked a bit about the spiritual life and training of our children, but because of his learning and experience, I was very excited when Chaz agreed to share with you. This is the first post in a series of three that will be published here on the topic. If you have questions, do share!


Catechesis: To teach the Word of God and pass on the language of our holy faith so that the baptized learn how to receive God’s gifts in the Divine Service, how to pray, how to confess, and how to live where God has called them in the freedom of the forgiveness of sins, with faith in Christ and love to their neighbor

– Peter Bender

We live in a land of theological ignorance. Nations we once sent missionaries to are now sending missionaries to us. Church program after church program has been put forth as a remedy, but to little avail. It’s odd that we feel the need to reinvent the wheel when there’s a method that’s been used for longer than we’ve been waiting for the return of Christ: catechism.

In 1st Corinthians 14:19 Paul says, “In the church I would rather speak five words with my mind, in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue. “ In Galatians 6:6 he says, “Let him who is taught the word share all good things with him who teaches.” Acts 18:25 says that Apollos “had been instructed in the way of the Lord.”

In each of these verses the Greek word for “instruct,” “taught,” or “teach” is katecheo (literally, “to make hear,” hence “to instruct”). From this word we get our English word “catechize.” Simply put, catechism is instruction in the basic doctrines of the Christian faith. Its primary purpose is to instruct new Christians and our children in the basics of the Christian faith.

what is included in a catechism?

Most Reformed catechisms, such as the Heidelberg Catechism and the Westminster Shorter Catechism, have similar content which includes such teachings as:

  • š The doctrines of God, including his nature and attributes
  • š The doctrines of man
  • š The doctrines of grace, sin and salvation
  • š The offices of Christ as prophet, priest and king
  • š The Ten Commandments and its relationship to the Gospel
  • š The Lord’s Prayer as a pattern for our fellowship with God
  • š The place and meaning of the Sacraments as our means of spiritual nourishment
  • š The doctrines of resurrection, judgment and the Lord’s second coming

Thus catechism is formulated to introduce us to the basics of the Christian faith – things that all of us should know and believe – a “mere Christianity.” It’s something we never graduate from.

Instead of replacing or supplanting the role of the Bible in Christian education, catechism ideally serves as the basis for it. The practice of catechism, as properly understood, is the Christian equivalent of looking at the box top of a jigsaw puzzle before one starts to put all of those hundreds (thousands?) of little pieces together. It is very important to look at the big picture and have it clearly in mind, so that we do not get bogged down in minor details, or get endlessly sidetracked by some unimportant or irrelevant issue. The theological categories given to us through catechism help us to make sense out of the many different details found in the Scriptures themselves. Catechism serves as a guide to better understanding Scripture. That being noted however, we need to remind ourselves that Protestants have always argued that catechisms are authoritative only in so far as they faithfully reflect the teaching of Holy Scripture. This means that the use of catechisms, which correctly summarize biblical teaching, does not negate or remove the role of Holy Scripture. Instead, these same catechisms, as summary statements of what the Holy Scriptures themselves teach about a particular doctrine, should serve as a kind of springboard to more effective Bible study. When this is the case, these catechisms are invaluable tools to help us learn about the important themes and doctrines that are in Scripture.

what is the history of catechism?

The formal use of catechisms is an ancient practice reaching all the way back to Old Testament times, where priests, rabbis and parents partnered in a catechetical method of instruction. It was also the practice of the early church, before Constantine and the legalization of Christianity, to catechize converts before they were baptized. This could take anywhere from one to three years. The catechumen was usually baptized at Easter after having been examined to see if his faith was sound. This might seem a bit extreme, but bear in mind that there were many threats facing the early church in the form of persecution and false teaching. Protecting the purity of the church was a great priority.

After Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, so many people were immediately added to the church (the majority were nominal Christians at best), that the practice of catechism greatly diminished. By the medieval period, catechism had virtually disappeared.

The practice was revived by almost all the major Protestant Reformers who saw catechesis as a great way to teach God’s Word and the doctrines of the church. In 1489, the Waldensians published their catechism. Martin Luther published his Large Catechism in 1529 as an aid to pastors as a response to the deplorable ignorance he encountered. He then summarized it for children in his Small Catechism. John Calvin published his catechism in 1537.

The Heidelberg Catechism was published in 1563 at the request of Elector Frederick III, the German ruler at the time. This catechism incorporated a bit from Luther and Calvin and is divided into 52 sections so that one section could be studied each Lord’s Day of the year. The Synod of Dordt, meeting from November 1618 to May 1619, approved the Heidelberg Catechism and it became the most warmly praised of all the Reformation catechisms.

From 1643 to 1649 Puritan ministers and theologians met at Westminster in London to make preparations for a common church and faith for the whole kingdom. They published the Westminster Standards, which consist of a Confession of Faith, and two catechisms, the Shorter for children , and the Larger for adults. The former has been the most popular and widely used catechism in the English language.

The practice of catechism was revived so successfully by the Protestant Reformers that even the Roman Catholic Church began to mimic them, publishing its first catechism, The Roman Catechism, in 1566 under the authority of the Council of Trent. “The heretics [the Reformers] have chiefly made use of catechism to corrupt the minds of the Christians.”

Catechism is nothing new. But is it something you and your family should do? In my next post, we’ll take a look at more reasons why you should catechize. It truly is a great practice that will help build a stable and firm generation who hopes in the Lord.

3 responses to “what is a catechism? ~ guest post by Chaz Reed

  1. Pingback: Almost There! | American Family Now

  2. Cool! 52 of them would be a great thing to add to our homeschooling routine. Right now we have scripture based book for kids on character/wisdom building and another that addresses major stories and what to get out of them but catechisms sound great. I have to admit I thought it was a “Catholic thing” only, I had no idea they stole it from Protestants!

    • I didn’t know about it either until our friend Chaz shared it with us. We are using a family devotional that teaches one catechism question a week (if you follow the schedule), called Teaching Minds, Training Hearts. I really like it, and it’s working with Buddy, though we haven’t really tried to do much with Girlie yet.

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