Why Write New Catechisms?

In my previous post on this subject, I outlined how crucial the practice of catechesis is for the church, particularly when it is surrounded by a culture antagonistic to Christian teaching and truth. But, we may ask, “Why write new catechisms? What’s wrong with the older ones?”

After the high tide of the early centuries, the ministry of catechism diminished until the Reformation, when there was literally an explosion of catechism writing. T.F. Torrance edited a book that contains only catechisms that were used widely in the Reformed Churches of Scotland in the 16th and 17th centuries, and he provides ten. (See The School of Faith: The Catechisms of the Reformed Church, James Clarke, 1959.) A first thought of a reader of this volume may be, “They all agree on basic doctrine—then why so many?” The answer is in the first lines of Torrance’s introduction: “The Catechisms set forth Christian doctrine at its closest to the mission, life, and growth of the Church from age to age, for they aim to give a comprehensive exposition of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the context of the whole Counsel of God and the whole life of the people of God.”

So the first reason to produce multiple catechisms is that they must serve the whole people of God, and that has always meant catechisms for beginning, intermediate, and advanced learners. There were simple catechisms for very young children, more intermediate ones for those being admitted to the Lord’s Supper, and advanced ones for adults and Christian ministers. For example, Calvin’s Geneva Catechism (1541) was accompanied by the Little Catechism (1556).

A second reason is that catechisms have always been connected to the “mission of the church.” This may be surprising, since today we think of catechesis as strictly a form of education for Christians. It is that, but of necessity catechisms are selective in how much time is devoted to each aspect of Christian teaching, and it is quite evident—if you take the time to read through many catechisms—that each seeks to fortify against the ascendant theological errors in the culture at the time.

Richard Baxter and others of his time saw catechesis as a way not merely to disciple but also to bring people to conversion. So new catechisms were always needed, not in order to change basic doctrine, but to present doctrine in ways that most equipped people to address the idols and answer the errors of the age.

When the church has gone through a period of reformation there has always been a renewal of catechesis. If we are going to see our people live holy lives in the midst of a post-Christian and anti-Christian culture, we will need to write new catechisms that fit their capacities and equip them for Christian living in the world. We should be frank with ourselves that the even the “shorter” catechisms of the past—such as the Westminster Shorter Catechism (1648) and the Heidelberg Catechism (1563)—are now too long for the average contemporary adult to master, and even in Presbyterian and Reformed churches where these are official standards, relatively few people are being immersed in them.

One of the reasons to develop intermediate catechisms like New City Catechism is to fill a gap between children’s catechisms and the longer and more extensive older ones. New City Catechism is short—52 questions and answers, one for every week of the year. It is based on Calvin’s Geneva, and the Westminster Catechisms, and perhaps most of all on the Heidelberg. As such it gives people a strong dose of each, introducing them to the practice of catechesis, and developing in them an appetite and capacity for going deeper. It can therefore be used by church leaders as a bridge toward teaching members the older and more extensive catechisms of their respective denominations.

John H. Westerhoff, the editor of a book tracing the history of catechesis, argues that we are in the midst of a change period in history as significant as those of the first, fourth, and sixteenth centuries—all times when new catechisms were written. He concludes that it is time for catechesis again. I believe he is right.

 

New City Catechism is a joint project between The Gospel Coalition and Redeemer Presbyterian Church. It is available for iPad and online.