Article by: Gary Parrett, J.I. Packer
Historically, the church’s ministry of grounding new believers in the rudiments of Christianity has been known as catechesis. It is a ministry that has waxed and waned through the centuries. It flourished between the second and fifth centuries in the ancient church. Those who became Christians often moved into the faith from radically different backgrounds and worldviews. The churches rightly took such conversions very seriously and sought to ensure that these life-revolutions were processed carefully, prayerfully, and intentionally, with thorough understanding at each stage.
With the tightening of the alignment between church and state in the West, combined with the impact of the Dark Ages, the ministry of catechesis floundered in large measure for much of the next millennium. The line between natural and spiritual birth virtually disappeared. According to the centuries-old practice, infants baptized into the church were, in theory, to be catechized later in the faith. But too often nothing of the sort occurred. As a consequence of such neglect, great numbers of persons who claimed to belong to Christ had very little idea of what that might even mean.
The Reformers, led by heavyweights Martin Luther and John Calvin, sought with great resolve to reverse matters. Luther restored the office of catechist to the churches. And seizing on the providential invention of the printing press just decades before their time, Luther, Calvin, and others made every effort to print and distribute catechisms—small handbooks to instruct children and “the simple” in the essentials of Christian belief, prayer, worship, and behavior. Catechisms of greater depth were produced for Christian adults and leaders. Further, entire congregations were instructed through unapologetically catechetical preaching, regular catechizing of children in Sunday worship, and, in many cases, the renewed practice of congregational singing of psalms and hymns.
The conviction of the Reformers that such catechetical work must be primary is unmistakable. Writing in 1548 to the Lord Protector of England, Calvin declared: “Believe me, Monseigneur, the church of God will never be preserved without catechesis.” The church of Rome, responding to the growing influence of the Protestant catechisms, soon began to produce its own. The rigorous work of nurturing believers and converts in the faith once for all delivered to the saints—a didactic discipline largely lost for most of the previous millennium—had become normative again for both Catholics and Protestants.
Calvin declared, ‘Believe me . . . the church of God will never be preserved without catechesis.’
It could well be argued that the spirit and power of healthy catechesis was hampered by the hostile tone that entered the picture as Protestants and Catholics began increasingly using their catechisms to hurl attacks at one another. Nevertheless, this rebirth of serious catechetical discipling was a momentous step forward for all concerned.
The critical role of catechesis in sustaining the church continued to be apparent to subsequent evangelical trailblazers of the English-speaking world. Richard Baxter, John Owen, Charles Spurgeon, and countless other pastors and leaders saw catechesis as one of their most obvious and basic pastoral duties. If they could not wholeheartedly embrace and utilize an existing catechism for such instruction, they would adapt or edit one or would simply write their own. A pastor’s chief task, it was widely understood, was to be the teacher of the flock.
Today, however, things are quite different, for a host of reasons. The church in the West has largely abandoned serious catechesis as a normative practice. Among the more surprising factors that have contributed to this decline are the unintended consequences of the great Sunday school movement. This lay-driven phenomenon swept across North America in the 1800s and came to dominate educational efforts in most evangelical churches through the 20th century. It effectively replaced pastor-catechists with relatively untrained lay workers, and substituted an instilling of familiarity (or shall we say, perhaps, overfamiliarity) with Bible stories for any form of grounding in the basic beliefs, practices, and ethics of the faith.
Most evangelicals have not returned to their own catechetical roots.
Thus for most contemporary evangelicals, the entire idea of catechesis is largely an alien concept. The very word itself—catechesis, or any of its associated terms, including catechism—is greeted with suspicion by most evangelicals today. (“Wait, isn’t that a Roman Catholic thing?”) Ironically, as noted above, it was the Reformers who impelled the church of Rome to once again take catechesis seriously. In recent decades, while the Catholic church has renewed its catechetical labors with vigor, most evangelicals have not likewise returned to their own catechetical roots.
We hope to contribute to a much-needed evangelical course correction in these matters. We are persuaded that Calvin had it right and that we are already seeing the sad, even tragic, consequences of allowing the church to continue uncatechized in any significant sense. We are persuaded, further, that something can and must be done to help Protestant churches steer a wiser course. What we are after is to encourage our fellow evangelicals to seriously consider the wisdom of building believers the old-fashioned way—by taking up the practice of catechesis.
Editor’s note: This excerpt is adapted from Grounded in the Gospel: Building Believers the Old-Fashioned Way by Gary Parrett and J. I. Packer, Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group , 2010. Used by permission
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