September 26: The Prominent Place of Catechesis

by Prof. Wm. C. Robinson

[excerpted from The Christian Observer 121.38 (20 September 1933): 7.]

Recent research is giving an increasingly prominent place in the establishment of early Christianity to catechizing. The Greek verb, “katecheo,” occurs seven times in the New Testament. In five of these instances it is used in our technical sense of elementary religious instruction. Luke wrote the third Gospel to confirm Theophilus in the irrefragable certainty of the topics, “logoi,” in which he had been catechized (Luke 1:4). Mark labored as a catechist under Peter. His Gospel may be described as Peter’s catechism “concerning the things Jesus began to do.” Indeed, the fact of this early Christian catechizing is so well recognized that it has become one of the basic presuppositions of the new investigation in the origins of the Gospels known as “Formegeschichte.”

Paul exhorts the Thessalonians: “Stand fast and hold the traditions which ye were taught whether by word or by epistle of ours” (II Thessalonians 2:13). He reminds the Romans of that “pattern of doctrine which had been delivered unto them” by teachers other than himself (Romans 6:17). A fragment of the original formula or belief is preserved in I Corinthians 15:3f. This confessional formula “was made known to Paul already at the time of his baptism” (Cf. I Corinthians 15:3f. with Romans 6:3f.).

Professor R. Seeberg says that “the primitive Christian ‘traditions’ (I Corinthians 11:2; cf. ‘first principles,’ Hebrews 6:2) offered more or less fixed formulas and traditions of the faith and moral life.” “Thus over against the freely working spirit principle, the individualization of inspiration and enthusiasm there stood from the beginning a structure of fixed representations, doctrines, regulations, morals, usages, historical authorities. The interworking of these two features made possible an ordered historical development. The form did not remain an empty form, but the personal experience gave it content; on the other hand, the experience did not become a formless enthusiasm but inclosed itself in the forms of the primitive knowledge of Christ.

The contents of “The Catechism of Primitive Christianity” have been carefully collated by A. Seeberg, R. Seeberg, and A.D. Heffern. It included:

(1) The Formula of Belief. In the case of Jewish converts this was chiefly “the things concerning Jesus” (Luke 24:19), the “elucidation and defense of the Gospel facts.” In the case of the Gentiles it certainly included the Jewish catechesis concerning monotheism (Hebrews 11:6, Romans 3:30). R. Seeberg offers ample New Testament evidence to show “that to this belonged also the triadic formula,” which “trinitarian belief in God” rests on the revelation which Christ made during the forty days.” “The words of faith,” I Timothy 4:6, gradually crystallized into the Roman symbol, the primitive form of the Apostles’ Creed. This “pattern of sound words” was taught the neophyte just before baptism, and was confessed by him at that sacrament.

(2) “The Ways,” I Corinthians 4:17, or “how one ought to walk and to please God” (I Thessalonians 4:1). This “sound teaching” was a rule of morals, a catalog of virtues and vices which became the “Two Ways” of the Didache.

(3) Instruction concerning the new life of Christian fellowship or “how to conduct oneself in the Church of God” (I Timothy 3:15). This included the formula of baptism, the words with which Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper, the Lord’s Prayer, the gift of the Spirit, offices, ordination with the laying on of hands, and other instructions concerning the work, worship and discipline of the Church.

(4) “The Last Things” or “Concerning the times and the seasons” (I Thessalonians 5:1, Acts 3:20). Catechizing on the eschatological hope, the resurrection, the judgment, etc., seems to have depended directly on Christ’s own discourse “on the last things.”

Such examples as Timothy (especially II Timothy 1:5; 3:14, 15; I Timothy 6:20), Polycarp and Irenaeus indicate that this catechetical instruction was not limited to adult converts. From their childhood these men continued in the “deposit” of the “good doctrine” which had been early committed unto them. At the time of his martyrdom Polycarp had served Christ eighty and six years. Near the end of his life he was able to rescue many Roman Christians from the toils of Marcion and Valentinus just because he was “stedfast” in the doctrine which he had received at such an early age from the Apostle John. Irenaeus declares that he remembers the instructions received while “still a boy” from Polycarp “better than events of recent occurrence; for the lessons received in childhood, growing with the growth of the soul, become identified with it.”

Even a cursory examination of this outline will show that Calvin and the Westminster divines were but following the apostolic example in placing the Catechism in such prominence in the Church. The Westminster Catechisms follow with remarkable exactitude the lines of catechesis marked out by the primitive Christian Church. In teaching the Shorter Catechism parents and teachers are following directly in the footsteps of Paul and Mark and the host of unnamed teachers who brought victory to the Christian banner in the first four centuries.

Our Catechisms have that noble fourfold balance which is evident in the Catechism of Primitive Christianity. They take account of the four elements which Professor Pratt attributes to a sound religious consciousness, i.e. (1) the “traditional” or “historical;” (2) the “rational” or “intellectual;” (3) the “volitional;” and (4) the “mystical.” They minister to faith, duty (love), worship, and hope. The Shorter Catechism includes Professor F.L. Patton’s comprehensive summary of religion: Creed, code and cult.[1] It feeds head, hand and heart. Its emphasis on the commandments opposes exaggerations of Gospel grace which become antinomian. On the other hand it gives those great “concentrations of theology” toward which the student mind is now turning wearied by the “unreality” of that trinity of nothing but war, race and industry with which Sherman Eddy and Kirby Page have plied them in the summer conferences.

Dr. C.E. Burts, prominent Baptist divine and dry leader, expressed the regret that his denomination did not have the equivalent of the Presbyterian Shorter Catechism. And yet we have not used as we may this great asset. Among the American soldiers, Dr. W.A. Brown found that only the Roman Catholics and the Lutherans knew the common tenets of Christianity. The former had learned them in the parochial schools; the latter in the catechetical classes.

At the Jerusalem Congress Professor Hocking protested against the pedagogical error that the young mind could not comprehend metaphysical truth. After teaching theological students six years, I can testify that my theological classes have brought me no more metaphysical questions than have been raised by two young minds in my own home. Dr. Lynn, of Thornwell Orphanage, declares that it is easier to preach doctrine to the children of his orphanage than to the business men in the First church of his city. The children respond; the business men are preoccupied.

It belongs to the minister’s office, “to catechize the children and youth.” Jesus’ first command to Peter was not “discipline My sheep,” not “feed My sheep,” but “feed My lambs” (John 21:15). To meet this primary obligation of a pastor I found it necessary to put in a week-day hour of religious instruction in which, with the help of public school teachers, I taught the Bible, the Shorter Catechism and great hymns to the children of my congregation. This week-day hour met such a felt need that it continued to be carried on even during pastoral interims. As a second step in meeting this pastoral responsibility I attended the closing exercises of the Sabbath school and heard each class recite a Catechism answer. One result of this intensive inculcation of the Catechism was that after a long dearth of candidates from the congregation, several of the most promising young men decided to enter the Gospel ministry. Other methods, such as those which are being so successfully used in Thomasville, Georgia, might well be suggested by the respective pastors.

Few services will pay greater dividends in time and in eternity than a faithful following of the apostolic and Presbyterian custom of catechizing.

Decatur, Ga.

[Footnote 1] :
1885 —
The earliest found use of the phrase “creed, code, cult” appears in The Religious Aspect of Philosophy, by Josiah Royce. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co., 1885.

It is only fair, however, that we should also judge this book from the author’s point of view, and we must do Dr. Royce the justice to say that he appears to be an earnest man seeking light in regard to very pressing and very profound religious problems. In short, he is a philosopher in quest of religion. Very correctly he declares that religion must contain the three elements of creed, code and cult; and in his opinion the most important of these, or rather, the one that is first to be sought, is a code. Before inquiring whether there be a God, or propounding any theory of the universe, the writer begins to seek for a moral ideal. Here, we think, he is mistaken,…”
[Patton, Francis L., Review of The Religious Aspect of Philosophy by Josiah Royce. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co., 1885, in The Presbyterian Review, Volume 7 (1886): 197-200.]


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