Why Evangelicals need Catechisms
How contemporary Evangelicalism could benefit from going back to Protestant catechisms.
21 NOVEMBER 2015 · 16:54 CET
It was almost this very week 360 years ago when several of Richard Baxter’s ministerial colleagues got together to pray.
Having neglected their pastoral duty to teach the Protestant faith, three motives undergirded their intercession that day. To quote Baxter, “These servants met together at Worcester, December 4, 1655, to pray earnestly for three requests: pardon of their previous neglect; God’s special help in the work they now committed themselves to undertake; and the success of their renewed teaching with their church members”.
The ministers were all agreed that such teaching would be carried out by means of catechism, that is, doctrinal instruction taught in a question-answer format.
In a day and age when droves of Evangelicals are heading back to the Roman Catholic Church due to Protestantism’s perceived shallowness, it certainly seems that such a prayer meeting would be a step in the right direction for us all. Sadly, Protestantism has spent the best part of one hundred years without taking confessions of faith or catechisms seriously. Catechisms have all but disappeared from many of our leading denominations.
Today, then, I want to make the case for recovering Evangelical catechisms. But before I do so, I think it would be important to share my disagreement with some of the anti-catechetical statements that I have heard over the past few years from my fellow Protestants.
I.- Arguments Against Catechisms
1.- We only need the Bible!
I think the most common objection I come across has to do with the doctrine of Sola Scriptura. Many brethren have told me: “We only need the Bible!”
I confess that I admire the intent behind such a slogan; but the Protestant teaching of Sola Scriptura was never formulated in such a way as to exclude other authorities. Yes, Scripture was to be the supreme rule of faith and conduct; however, it was by no means opposed to the presentation of thoroughly biblical documents such as catechisms. In fact, all key Protestant theologians such as Martin Luther and John Calvin took their turn at penning theological texts in order to reflect the truth of Scripture.
Somewhat ironically, the Bible itself contains various statements of faith that were well-known even in apostolic days such as “Jesus is Lord” (Romans 10:9) or the excellent doctrinal summary quoted in 1 Timothy 3:16 or the primitive hymn recorded in Philippians 2:6-11. The Bible, let’s not forget, is a theological masterpiece.
At a practical level, I have always noticed how folk who preach “We only need the Bible!” inevitably end up accepting things that are nowhere mentioned in the Bible i.e. playing musical instruments in a New Testament church; the use of microphones for preachers; obliging congregants to wear their Sunday best for meetings; calling people to the altar after the sermon, etc.
So we do indeed need the Bible as the foundation rock but other pious aids also come in handy. In my opinion, Protestant catechisms do a marvellous job of summing up key Scriptural teaching in pithy pastoral sentences.
2.- We only need the Holy Spirit!
Today, in most Evangelical minds, the Holy Spirit is a synonym of spontaneity, emotionalism and hype. The main thing about a church meeting is no longer straight preaching from the Word of God, but sweet sensations and butterflies in one’s stomach.
Truth has lost its appeal; we have all gone Post-Modern. It’s just feeling, feeling and some more feeling. That’s why sermons have lost their element of doctrinal exposition, becoming solely focused upon application. And that’s why there is a new type of ministry in town called ‘Christian DJs’ who just pump our young folk full of volume, beat, blinding lights and ‘worship songs’ void of any Christian content.
No matter how popular these new ministries may become, this brand of cheap emotionalism is non-Christian. It is emotion for the sake of emotion. It is not emotion based upon the precious truth of God’s Word. It has no connection to the believer’s mind.
How many false worshippers, false prophets and heretics justify their ‘ministries’ appealing to the “Holy Spirit”? We must recall Luther’s emphasis that the Spirit and the Word always work together. Catechisms, therefore, are profoundly spiritual documents given that they seek to be faithful to the blessed revelation of Scripture.
3.- Catechisms are dull and boring!
Another objection to catechisms is that they are just tedious and uninteresting. That may be so, but it’s not so much an indictment of catechisms as it is of the heart of the one who is reading them. How can a Christian heart fail to be overcome with bliss as he/ she contemplates the beauty of the Triune God, His sovereign work in salvation and the glories that await the elect in the age to come?
Catechisms make us think. They penetrate our minds with truth. We have forgotten the Lord Jesus’ command to love the Lord our God with all our heart, strength and “mind”. Not a bit of wonder so many Evangelicals are getting fed up with contemporary Protestantism! Anyone with half a brain cell would think there’s nothing on offer. We need to recover the mind in Protestant worship.
I recall an illustration once used by the apologist William Lane Craig. When studying for his doctoral exams, he recalled how a simple lady by playing a guitar led several people to the Lord via worship songs. Lane Craig thought, “What am I doing with all these books and all my studies if all I need is a guitar to convert people to Christ?” One of his friends said to him, “Yes, but you see those newly converted people; they’re going to need you in the future”.
4.- Catechisms are too authoritarian, too Roman Catholic!
Not only is truth being downplayed in our generation in the name of feelings, but also in that of anti-authoritarianism. Truth, as it is believed, is inherently oppressive.
That may be the view according to French Post-Modernist scholars; nevertheless, the general biblical teaching regarding authority is conspicuously positive. What is the fifth commandment all about? God uses authority. Paul urges Timothy and Titus to oppose false teachers with divine authority so as to defend the wellbeing of the church. Authority protects God’s people. It does not have to be bad.
With regards to the Roman Catholic accusation, it was the Catholics who followed the lead of the Protestants in the sixteenth century with a renewed emphasis on catechisms. Catholicism observed how Protestant Theology was revolutionizing Europe and so they sought to put a halt to their advance by means of their own confessional documents. Hence the Council of Trent!
5.- Catechisms belong to the past! And the past is the past!
I suppose the most nonsensical objection I have heard against catechisms is the idea that they should not be used because they belong to the past.
Yet again, this only serves to show how we are more influenced by Post-Modernism than biblical thinking. Was not the Bible written in the past? Did not Jesus die and resurrect in the past? Did the Holy Spirit not work in the past? What about the Reformers, the Puritans, the Whitefields, the Wesleys, the Spurgeons, the Ryles, the Lloyd-Joneses etc.? Shall we just pass them by because they belong to the past? What preposterous balderdash! This is nothing more than “chronological snobbery” (as C.S. Lewis put it).
Our problem is that we are too centred on the here-and-now. Egocentrism is a word that would suit most of us well. The past of Protestantism has so much beauty and depth to teach us; but it appears that our disrespect for the past and our spiritual laziness are doing us serious theological damage.
I am glad to see that in our generation, thousands are going back to the Reformers, the Puritans and their catechisms to get to grips with the grandeur of robust Evangelicalism.
II.- Arguments For Catechisms
Having opposed five common arguments I have heard against the use of catechisms, I would like to offer five more powerful reasons why we definitely should consider reusing or even rewriting Protestant catechisms in the twenty-first century.
1.- Catechisms are wonderful for discipleship!
Discipleship has a lot to do with bringing saints unto doctrinal maturity. What better and more efficient way to do so than by catechisms? They are ever so useful thanks to their content-centred approach. They fill the minds of the godly with delightful truths that serve as an anchor for the soul.
It also enables Christians to have something of worth to pass onto their offspring. During the Puritan age, parents who did not catechize their children or who did not give importance to catechisms were not even considered to be converted! Parents are not supposed to leave their children’s doctrinal instruction in the hands of Sunday School teachers or youth leaders. Christian parents are called to be theologians!
This type of doctrinal training also sends out a clear message to young kids growing up in a Christian household, namely: you don’t have to be stupid to be a believer!
2.- Catechisms root us in our Protestant identity!
What do we do when we find ourselves surrounded by false prophets, apostates and folk heading back to the Roman Catholic fold as well as other religions? Answer: get back to Protestant confessions and catechisms!
Catechisms connect us to our rich Evangelical heritage and help us to understand that Protestantism is a whole lot bigger than what we are. Catechisms root us into the ground of biblical truth and strengthen our doctrinal muscles. Here’s a question. What would you say if someone asked you: “Why are you a Protestant?”
3.- Catechisms lead to deeper worship!
Instead of characterizing the success of worship by the volume of songs and the quantity of coloured spotlights on display, our Protestant forefathers were concerned about the truth. They wanted to worship the Father in spirit and “in truth”. They realized that not worshipping according to truth is non-worship. As Thomas Watson put it, “To seem to be zealous, if it be not according to the Word, is not obedience, but will-worship”.
Today’s songs have gone slushy and romantic. Jesus has become our cosmic boyfriend. I am not surprised that many Christian men feel that their masculinity is being compromised in some of our services. Worship is supposed to be truth-based. Catechisms do a great job of drawing our minds to what really matters as we direct ourselves God-wards. They take us to the heart of worship, to the contemplation of God’s mighty works and to respond with joy and thankful praise.
4.- Catechisms summarize Scripture!
I do not know of any type of Christian literature that does a better job of resuming Scripture’s chief tenets in a more condensed, concise and to-the-point manner than confessions of faith and catechisms.
Before my wife and I got married, we studied the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) together and I was immediately taken aback by how much truth the authors were able to squeeze into one or two short phrases (all biblically documented, of course!) We recently finished the Belgic Confession (1561) and have since moved onto the Canons of Dort (1619). It is our devotional habit to read through the Bible systematically from beginning to end (normally two chapters a day as well as a Psalm or a chapter of Proverbs) and to end with a reading from a confession of faith or catechism.
Such a method has paid great dividends and I am noticing how our prayer life is becoming more in tune with the central marrow of Scripture. There is no other type of book on the Christian market that is so biblically faithful in so few words. I only wish I had discovered catechisms earlier in my Christian walk.
5.- Catechisms are easy to memorize!
In an ideal world, we would all be studying Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology or writing our own confessions and catechisms, but since contemporary life is often busy and demanding, catechisms are a great entrance into the grand truths of the Evangelical tradition.
Back in the Puritan era, there were families who could recite the Westminster Shorter Catechism or the Heidelberg Catechism off by heart (to name but two examples). Catechisms produced a generation of Bible experts. It is no surprise that the great Protestant thinkers who shaped posterity were all fully confessional and immersed in the task of catechizing.
One of easiest catechisms is Spurgeon’s Catechism (1855), penned by the prince of preachers himself –Charles Spurgeon- who resumed the heart of Christian teaching in 82 short questions and answers. He wrote, “I am persuaded that the use of a good catechism in all our families will be a great safeguard against the increasing errors of the times [...] Those who use [my catechism] in their families or classes must labour to explain the sense; but the words should be carefully learned by heart, for they will be better understood as years pass. May the Lord bless my dear friends and their families evermore, is the prayer of their loving pastor”.
It only remains to be said that Protestantism should call a prayer meeting similar to the one of Baxter’s friends and get catechisms back on the spiritual menu for today’s church.
We need catechisms in contemporary Evangelicalism because they are wonderful for discipleship, they root us in our Protestant identity, the lead us to deeper worship, they summarize Scripture and they are easy to memorize.
So what are you waiting for? Go on! Dig into a good catechism! Get learning!
 BAXTER, Richard, The Reformed Pastor (Multnomah Press: Portland, 1982), p. 3
 WATSON, Thomas, The Ten Commandments (Banner of Truth: Edinburgh, 2009), p. 1.