This year 2013, faithful Reformed churches worldwide are commemorating the 450th anniversary of the first publication in 1563 of the Heidelberg Catechism, written by Protestant Reformers Zacharius Ursinus and Caspar Olevianus in the German province called the Palatinate.
Three years later, in response to this Protestant Catechism, the Roman Catholic Church, through the Council of Trent, published its own catechism, the Catechismus Romanus.
The Protestant Reformers started writing their own catechisms long before the Heidelberg Catechism was published. These included Martin Luther (1529) and John Calvin (1541). Catechism teaching was one of the most effective tools used by the Protestants to spread the Reformation. Unfortunately, catechism teaching by Protestants was on the decline by the end of the 17th century. In contrast, the Roman church continued this practice from then on up to the present. The Council of Trent even acknowledged the effective use of catechism instruction by the Reformers, saying, “The heretics [Reformers] have chiefly made use of catechisms to corrupt the minds of Christians.”
The word catechism comes from a New Testament Greek verb, katēcheō, which literally means to “sound down” or to “echo back.” After the apostolic era, the katēchizein or catechism teacher would ask a question and the student or catechumen—usually new converts to Christianity—would then repeat or “echo back” the answer taught by the teacher.
Here are the eight instances of the use of the word katēcheō in the New Testament:
Luke wrote his Gospel to Theophilus so “that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught (katēchēthēs)” (Luke 1:3-4 ESV).
Apollos was “instructed (katēchēmenos) in the way of the Lord” (Acts 18:25).
Paul, defending himself against charges by the Jews that he was teaching against Moses, “and the [Jews] have been told (katēchēthēsan) about you [Paul] that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles … (Acts 21:21)
“Thus all will know that there is nothing in what they have been told (katēchēntai) about you, but that you yourself also live in observance of the law” (Acts 21:24).
The Jews are “instructed (katēchoumenos) from the law” (Rom 2:18).
Paul says regarding the disorderly speaking in tongues in the Corinthian church, “Nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct (katēchēsō) others, than ten thousand words in a tongue” (1Cor 14:19).
“Let the one who is taught (katēchoumenos) the word share all good things with the one who teaches (katēchounti)” (Gal 6:6).
Biblical catechism teaching of children finds its roots all the way back to Genesis 17:7, “And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.” How does God become the God of Abraham’s covenant children if he does not teach them? The commandment to teach Israel’s covenant children is next seen in the command to commemorate the Passover, “a memorial day … a feast to the LORD; throughout your generations, as a statute forever … at its appointed time from year to year” (Exodus 12:14; 13:10).
Year after year, the parents will teach their children about God’s mighty works of redeeming his people from slavery in Egypt, including this question-and-answer (“sounding down”) portion of the Passover ceremony (Exod 12:26-27; 13:14-16):
Children: What do you mean by this service?
Father: It is the sacrifice of the LORD’s Passover, for he passed over the houses of the people of Israel in Egypt, when he struck the Egyptians but spared our houses.
Just before they entered the Promised Land across the Jordan River, the LORD again reminded Israel of their duty to teach their covenant children all his commandments, including the Ten Commandments,
And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise (Deut 6:6-7; 11:19-20).
By the time of the prophets Elijah and Elisha, there was already a prophetical guild called “sons of prophets” in several places in Israel, including Bethel, Gilgal, Jericho and Jordan (2 Kings 6:1-3). Apparently, these were training “schools of the prophets,” as some commentators believe.
In the New Testament, we first see children being taught by their parents in the raising of Jesus by Joseph and Mary, so that he “increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:52). By the time he was twelve, he was ready to discuss the Scripture with the teachers at the temple! (Luke 2:41-47)
Paul also knew the importance of parents teaching their children about the Scripture, mentioning to Timothy how the young pastor received instruction from his ancestors, “I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, dwells in you as well” (2Tim 1:5; see also Eph 6:4). His faith in Christ was passed on from generation to generation through instruction. In the apostolic church, the basic or “elementary” doctrine of Christ are taught to new believers: repentance and faith in God; baptism and laying on of hands; and the resurrection of the dead and judgment. More instruction will allow them to go on to maturity (Heb 6:1-3).
Post-Apostolic Catechism Teaching
In the ancient pre-New Testament world, the dialogues of Plato (427-347 BC) records Socrates’ use of this question-and-answer method of teaching his disciples, called “the Socratic method.”
By the 4th and 5th centuries, especially in Augustine’s (353-430) Catechizing of the Uninstructed, and Anselm’s (1033-1109) Cur Deus Homo, the question-and-answer method developed into a process consisting of several steps. Socrates Scholasticus (born ca. 380), wrote, “Our form of catechizing is in accordance with the mode which we have received from the Bishops who have preceded us, and according as we were taught when we laid the foundation of faith and were baptized, and according as we have learned from the Scriptures.” However, in the medieval age, the emphasis on the Roman Catholic Church as the dispenser of all things related to religion led to the decline of the use of catechism teaching, which in turn led to the “dark age” of Biblical illiteracy of Christendom, including the highest officials of the Roman church.
During the 16th century Protestant Reformation, Luther, Calvin and John Knox, reversed this Biblical ignorance by reviving the use of catechism teaching by writing their own catechisms and teaching them in the Reformed churches. Many other catechisms were written, which followed Calvin’s pattern of teaching basic Christians doctrines by expounding the Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and and the Sacraments. Even Erasmus (1466-1536), Luther’s opponent, wrote that his Ten Colloquies is “a school text, a short book of formulas, question-and-answer sentences … and [it] continued to be used for three centuries.”
Catechism Teaching for a 21st Century Reformation
The history of catechizing from the beginning of the 18th century to the present is mainly a story of decline. Even where its use continued, it became a mere routine memorization, not a matter of both knowledge and zealous piety. Today, catechism teaching in Sunday schools is very rare; only a handful of Reformed churches continue to use it. It has been replaced by color pictures, videos, and play-acting Bible stories. Adult Sunday classes have become discussion groups about relationships, self-help and financial management.
Evangelical churches have no clue as to the benefits of catechism instruction of both children and adults. Catechism builds up and strengthens the doctrine, worship and life of believers. And, it is a much better evangelistic tool than trite, dumbed-down presentations like the Four Spiritual Laws.
The state of evangelical churches today, riddled with Biblical ignorance, corruption and immorality, mirrors that of the medieval Roman church before the 16th century Reformation recovered the true gospel. If the 21st century evangelical church needs another Reformation, catechism teaching in the Christian home, church and school needs to be revisited.
So in using catechisms, faithful Reformed churches are actually continuing an ancient evangelical, Protestant and Reformed practice, not a Roman Catholic invention.