Why use a catechism?
For the past 10 years, our most widely used publication has been the little catechism, Simple Truths. As of this writing, the book has been translated into 37 languages and more than 400,000 are in print distribution in over 30 countries. Few evangelicals use a catechism today. But some Christian leaders are hoping to fuel a return to the use of this helpful teaching tool. One of those leaders is theologian and church historian Tom Nettles. What follows is an interview with Tom conducted by our friend Fred Zaspel of Books at a Glance. If you would like more information on any of the publications we have done at Clear and Simple Media, visit our contact page. We would be pleased to answer your questions.”
Just how important is it that our children learn the teaching of the Scriptures? It’s a question Christians dare not take lightly, and it’s a question the church collectively in fact has taken seriously. The catechism has long been the tool of choice, and it would be impossible to calculate the wonderful impact it has had in the life of the church throughout its centuries.
Dr. Tom Nettles’ newly re-issued book, Teaching Truth, Training Hearts, charts out the use of the catechism on Baptist life. I warn you—his excitement about it is contagious, and he’s here to talk to us about it today.
Zaspel: Tom, it’s great to have you back with us—welcome!
My privilege, thank you.
Just what is a catechism? How did this method of instruction come about in the church? And has it been intended for teaching children only?
Well, the catechism simply is just a way of instructing. It comes from the word katecheo, which basically means to instruct. And the method devised was a question and answer method in which pertinent questions about different subjects, mainly about the Christian faith based on the Apostles Creed, would have been asked and in each an answer was provided so that people would memorize the answer and that would become lodged in their mind, become a part of their cognitive understanding with the hope, of course, that they really did believe that and that it would become a seedbed for deeper understanding.
It came about in the church because of the need to make sure that people were being baptized, as they were coming out of paganism, basically, were thoroughly instructed in the Christian faith and looked at things from a biblical standpoint and had really been cleansed of all of their tendencies toward paganism and polytheism and all of those things. So there was a period of instruction. A person who wanted to become a part of the church and be baptized had to go through about a year’s worth of these questions and answers and memorization. He was called a catechumen at that time. Normally, the church would have baptism once a year, on Easter, and everyone who had completed their courses in the catechism, and had passed them, would be baptized.
It wasn’t just for children. It was for children that wanted to become Christians, become a part of the church, but they had to be of such an age in which they could learn and memorize and affirm these answers; but mainly it began as the way in which adults were trained and were given instruction in the Christian faith.
Okay, talk to us about its value. What is it about the catechism that has proven so effective?
One thing that we know about the Christian faith and the fact that we define it from the Bible, is that whatever else it is, and it is much more than this, but at bottom it is this – it is a way of looking at life, eternity, man, God, sin, evil, all of these things; and these are described for us by divine revelation. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 2, that these words of divine revelation are given in order that we might know the things freely given to us of God. In other words, the grace of God that comes and gives us salvation has been put in words. And so, a person first of all has to have a cognitive understanding of the truth before he can consent to it and then before he can trust in it. And the idea about the catechism is that it lays the groundwork of truth. It sets in motion a way of thinking about life. It establishes, as it were, a worldview built upon divine revelation and all the different issues of life are defined from divine revelation. The more clear and even thorough a catechism is, the better prepared I think a person is, not only for an understanding of what the basic ideas of the Christian faith are, but of how to negotiate his way through all of life.
Now, it doesn’t save, of course. We know the cognitive information by itself does not save; but it is fundamental to trusting in the things that the faith says. So, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, you have to have instruction as to what it means to say that Jesus is Lord. If you believe in your heart that God has raised him from the dead, you have to have an understanding of why he died and why he was raised from the dead, because his death was accepted as a full payment for our sins and so accepting that in the heart means that there is a very powerful understanding of all the things involved in the death of Christ. So, the catechisms prepare the way; the catechisms give that bedrock of truth that is necessary for the full consent of the heart and mind to these things. And, of course that can only be brought about by the Spirit of God and his effectual calling and implanting these truths in the affections.
We believe the Spirit of God only can give life, but this is the stuff he uses in giving life, right?
Exactly. That’s what I think. That’s the apostolic way, isn’t it? They would sit down and discuss these things, and Paul would sit down in the synagogue and he would reason for days from the Old Testament Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ. He would be teaching them these things and it was on that basis that he called for faith. And when they heard all this reasoning and they rejected it, he says, okay, you’ve rejected it, I’ll go to the Gentiles. So that foundation of demonstrating from divine revelation that these things are true was fundamental to faith in the apostolic age.
Exactly. It’s the Spirit and the Word together.
What about the catechism in Baptist life? Is the picture here any different from other Protestants?
Well, in one sense, I think it’s not any different because Baptists have employed the same catechisms that other Protestants have used. They’ve borrowed questions and answers out of different catechisms. There have been two in particular that Baptists historically used. One was the Heidelberg Catechism, which was adopted by one of the early particular Baptists, a man named Hercules Collins. Wouldn’t you like to have a name like that – Hercules? (Both men laughing.) And he was the pastor of the Wapping Baptist Church. (Still laughing.) So, he was a tough dude. Anyway, he adopted this Orthodox catechism which was the Heidelberg Catechism, and adapted it then for Baptists. Because he didn’t want to just pile up new words and new concepts when they had already been clearly expressed within quite a wonderful catechism that had the best of positive cognitions from the standpoint of explanation; but also just dripping with the necessity for absorbing this into the heart and believing it with the soul; and then also placed within a very elegant linguistic framework. It’s just wonderful and Collins saw all that and didn’t want to just duplicate words without necessity.
The second catechism that Baptist have used would be the Westminster Shorter Catechism. Which was adapted also by the particular Baptists, with William Collins and Benjamin Keach being the main ones who put it together.
So, they have used the catechisms of other Protestants. Now, there’s a slightly different purpose in it. These Protestants used the catechism to train children who already had been baptized. This was to teach them the things to which they committed themselves before they were conscious that they were doing it. This is something that was pledged for them by their godparents, and then they are taught what it means to be a Christian. You see the same thing in the catechism of the Anglican church. What does it mean that you are a Christian? And they will cite what happened to them in their baptism and now what they are committed to, and so forth.
Baptists didn’t use it to explain what had happened when they were baptized. Baptists used it as a preparation, as an evangelistic tool, as we talked about a moment ago, to prepare the way for the work of the Spirit in bringing them to a saving knowledge of the truth. And I think, also, Fred, with the recognition that people who are well catechized, when they are converted become mature and able to function in a very helpful way much more rapidly than those who have not been catechized. Think about the apostle Paul and all the things he knew and he talks about how he advanced far beyond all of his peers in learning. And, of course, he was convinced from the way he read the Old Testament that Jesus was not the Christ and those who claimed he was were blaspheming, so he sought them out to try to imprison them and even killed them. But when he was converted, he says, in Galatians 1, “when he revealed his son” – and there are two ways that that can be taken: “he revealed his son in me,” which would be similar to effectual calling; or, “he revealed his son to me,” which would be part of the revelatory process that was happening. My personal persuasion, I think Paul was saying, “he revealed his son to me, I immediately conferred not with flesh and blood,” and so forth. So, what I think he is saying there, is that he had a complete reorientation to the meaning of the Old Testament, after he had this confrontation with Christ and he was identified as the one that Paul was persecuting. And then he began to see all of these things related to the necessity of Christ’s suffering before his glory and all of that, and that gave a complete reorientation to what the Old Testament was and Paul immediately becomes a mighty proclaimer of Jesus as the Christ. And it’s because of all this preparation that he had as to how quickly he became adept at that. So that’s one thing that Baptists believed was necessary, not that it saved them, but that it gave such a foundation for usefulness if God, by his grace, would move on them and give them the heart of the matter in their souls.
What is the contribution you hope to make with your book? Can you give us a brief overview?
Well, the book has the Orthodox Catechism in it. Steve Weaver, a friend of mine, has included that and has written an introduction to it explaining it. Then, it also has a text of the Baptist Catechism, which is the Baptist version of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. Then, there’s been in circulation a catechism that I can’t really locate exactly where it came from. I know it’s used in a little bit different form by several groups, and I’ve just called it, A Catechism for Boys and Girls. It’s a shorter version, even, of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, which is a wonderful preparation for kids when they are in the first, second and third grade, to introduce them to the ideas, to the order, and so forth, and prepare them for either the Shorter Catechism or the Baptist Catechism. I think that’s a very useful part of the book. And then there is a catechism by John Sutcliffe, who was a part of the Andrew Fuller, William Carey and Samuel Pearce group, called The First Principles of the Oracles of God.
And then, as an example, although there obviously are many unfortunate, to say the least, and horrific things that went along with the systems of slavery in the South, it might be necessary for us to know that there were conscientious people who sought to evangelize their slaves and there was a fair number of catechisms developed for slaves. One I’ve included there was written by a Southern Baptist called E. T. Winkler. It has the quaint title, Notes and Questions for the Oral Instruction of Colored People. It has 52 lessons in it that consist of a statement of a passage of Scripture, then an exposition of a doctrine that arises out of that passage of Scripture, and then a series of questions and answers related to that doctrine, and then a hymn that would be memorized. That was the way they would seek to catechized their slaves. Then, there is a catechism that was written by J. P. Boyce, who was the founder of Southern Seminary, and a catechism written by John Broadus, who was a New Testament professor and, of course, everyone probably knows him as the writer of On the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons.
Those of the catechisms in it, so, a person wanting to use it can read these catechisms and select different questions and answers out of the different catechisms and construct their own.
You have a historical introduction to each of them, too, right?
That’s right. It has a historical introduction and something of a theological introduction to try to show what the direction of the catechism is and the history out of which it arose.
And the introduction to the book I think is a wonderful historical overview of catechetical work and it effectively infects people with your enthusiasm for catechism use. I think it’s worth the price of admission, right there.
We’re talking to Dr. Tom Nettles, author of Teaching Truth, Training Hearts: The Study of Catechisms in Baptist Life. I can hardly tell you how excited I was reading it. I wish every church leader and every Sunday School teacher and every parent would read it and catch the vision of this wonderful tool of biblical instruction.
Tom, always a pleasure to talk to you. Thanks so much.
Thank you, Fred.