"Catechism Preaching" - Rev. G. VanDooren (bio)
Taken from Clarion Vol. 25, No. 11, 12, 13, (1976)
Although as Reformed Christians we take Catechism-preaching for granted, it is worth our while to meditate about this important part of preaching.
No less than 50% of the sermons we hear is "about the Catechism" (whether this is a correct expression will be discussed later). A minister who has completed his forty years of ministry, has delivered at least 2000 sermons "on the Catechism" (another expression that will have to be considered closer).
We are bound by our mutual agreement in the Church Order, Article 68, to prepare such sermons, and to listen to them, half of the time. Thus it is as important for preachers as for the congregation, for the pulpit and for the pew, to take a closer look at this one half of all preaching.
Why did we bind ourselves to that obligation? Was and is it a biblical binding? Is it not true, "in the Church nothing but God's Word"?
NO LONGER TAKEN FOR GRANTED.
We started with stating that Catechism-preaching is taken for granted, but is that indeed still the case today? The answer must be that this type of preaching is being questioned, also among us. We have even, in recent years, met with some aversion against it, even rejection of it. Thus seems to be the mood of the times in which we live: all "established" patterns are being questioned today.
I see as some of the reasons for this:
a. a misunderstanding of this kind of preaching, as though it is, indeed, a "preaching about or on the Catechism." But can a "minister of the Word" bind himself, then, to such an obligation? Did not his letter of call demand from him to preach the Word and "nothing but the Word"? The Word is divinely inspired; the Catechism, however beautiful and faithful, is the work of men, of fallible men, and therefore should never be put on a level with the Word of God.
b. the cause may lie with ministers who treat the Catechism as though it is inspired, and in their sermons "explain and apply" the text of the Catechism in exactly the same way as they do explain and apply a text chosen from the Holy Scriptures. Is this not against Article 7 of our Confession: "Neither may we consider any writings of men, however holy these men may have been, of equal value with those divine Scriptures"? The Catechism is not inspired! Therefore it can never be "the text for the sermon" in the same way as a passage of Scripture is "text for the sermon"!
c. a different kind of reason why Catechism preaching is no longer taken for granted by everyone is, I fear, what Paul mentions in his letter to Timothy, II Timothy 4:3, 4, "For the time is coming that people will not endure sound teaching but, having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths."
d. closely related to this is the fact that some reject Catechism preaching, even Catechism teaching in the classes, because they have fallen victim to another, unwritten, Catechism. They have fallen victim to some sect or other, in whose midst, often with dictatorial force of the "leader," the Holy Scriptures are "robbed" of certain sayings which then are put together in a sectarian doctrine, as is the case among Jehovah's Witnesses, Adventists, Baptists, "The Brethren," "The People of God," and so on . . . .Their minds have been poisoned by such sectarian indoctrination and brainwashing and for that reason, as Paul said, "will no longer endure. sound teaching . . .but wander into myths."
e. Finally, a reason for not taking Catechism preaching for granted anymore, is the accusation that Reformed people usually know their Catechism better (even by heart) than they know their Bible. They hardly know their way in the Bible and are unable to meet, for example, Jehovah's Witnesses, on the level on which these people come to your door: "The Bible says . . . ." Then a reference to the Catechism does not help. Sure, "infants should be baptized." The Catechism says it clearly in Lord's Day 27, question 74, but a phone-call to the minister is needed: "Reverend, I'm talking with a Baptist: where does the Bible say that infants must be baptized? I can't find it in the New Testament!" (This is just one quote from my experience.)
This deplorable situation, some say, is the result of all that stress on the Catechism, in teaching as well as in preaching. Let the ministers teach Bible in the Catechism class, instead of Catechism! And call it then a Bible class!
The conclusion of all this is that "maintaining Article 68 of the Church Order" (more details later) is, first, a human invention. Then, it is an unbearable yoke. Finally, it tends to replace the Bible by the Catechism.
Thus, the reader will agree, it is no luxury to study this phenomenon of "Catechism preaching" together. Let's try to find out what "Catechism preaching" is; anyway, what it should be. Then also why it should be maintained because it is so important. And finally, maybe, also a few remarks on how it should be done.
SOMETHING ABOUT THE HISTORY.
Notwithstanding the mood of our time that history is of no importance and consequence, we believe that it is always wise and helpful, for any topic, to have a look at the past.
Catechism preaching has a history!
The beginnings of this kind of preaching (and teaching) are much older than the Age of the Reformation, although that Age became undoubtedly the Golden Age of Catechisms.
Already after the return from exile a system of Catechesis, preaching as well as teaching, developed around the synagogues. And since then there has been a remarkable continuity of Catechism-contents in the history of the Church.
In that early period, just mentioned, religious instruction was centered around what I call "the four fundamentals." Jewish young people were taught in the same four main subjects that still form the main body of our Catechism. Of course, at that date in the history of revelation and redemption, these "four" were partly different. The synagogue taught:
1. The Creed (a combination of biblical statements under the heading, "Hear Israel, the LORD our God is one Lord").
2. The Law (same as we have in Catechism 34 - 44).
3. Prayer (called "eighteen-Prayer" because it had 18 lines or petitions).
4. The Sacraments (but then, Old-testamentic of course: Passover and the other festivals; also about sacrifices and liturgy in the temple).
These same "four fundamentals," but now in New-testamentic attire, are found in the Early Church as contents and summary of Christian preaching and teaching. Now they became The Apostles' Creed, The N.T. Sacraments, The Ten Commandments, and The Lord's Prayer. They were preserved all through the Middle Ages, notwithstanding the apostasy in the Church. And then, look and behold! The Reformation did not start something completely new. Indeed, countless Catechisms were written in the 16th Century. Only a few survived as permanent. But, in one way or another, Lutheran as well as Reformed and/or Presbyterian, they were all built, in different order, around these "four fundamentals." In our Catechism in this order:
1. Apostles' Creed (Lord's Days 722);
2. Sacraments (2531);
3. Ten Words (34-44);
4. The Lord's Prayer (45-52), with an introduction (Lord's Day 1) plus some connecting Lord's Days.
But now the reason why all this was mentioned in an article on Catechism Preaching: The Heidelberg Catechism (to confine ourselves to this one) was written for two, even three, distinct purposes!
The first, as teaching guide for the young generation. Hence the form of questions and answers.
The second, as a program for preaching in the afternoon services. Hence the division into 52 "chapters."
The third, to accomplish a reconciliation (in Heidelberg) between "Calvinists," "Zwinglians" and "Philippist Lutherans" (those Lutherans who kept more to Philip Melanchton than to Luther in the doctrine of the Sacraments, etc.). For that reason so much attention to certain doctrines like Ascension, Lord's Supper, justification, etc.
We are now especially interested in the second purpose.
CATECHISM PREACHING STARTS.
Already at a very early date the Catechism became the guide for preaching. Martin Luther, building upon the "rest" of the truth that had been maintained during the Middle Ages in the "four fundamentals," started preaching his Catechism in Wittenberg in 1533. Bullinger, a fellow-worker with Calvin, had already started it in 1532. In London, England, where a congregation of Dutch refugees was instituted, A. Lasco started preaching on the Catechism of Geneva in 1550, and replaced it by the Heidelberg Catechism the same year the latter was published: 1563.
In The Netherlands itself Rev. Peter Gabriel, Amsterdam, was the first one to take the Heidelberg Catechism as theme for his afternoon preaching in 1566, soon followed by many other ministers.
When the Synod of Dort, 1571, convened, the second (!) item on the Agenda was Catechism preaching. All Synods that followed up to the great Synod of Dort 1618/9 which completed Article 68 Church Order in its present form, made regulations for this kind of preaching. They had, at certain times, to deal with requests to provide books with Catechism-sermons for the benefit of preachers who were not able yet to do it without help.
Thus Article 68, the rule that every Sunday the Catechism be preached, grew until it became complete. (The only change was made in 1905, when the words were added, "as much as possible"; see below).
It is about time to have a look at that article. Here it is in the draft-translation of 1968, the only one we have as Churches.
ARTICLE 68 CHURCH ORDER.
The ministers, everywhere, shall on Sundays, ordinarily in the afternoon service, briefly explain the sum of Christian doctrine, comprehended in the Catechism, so that, as much as possible (1905!), the explanation shall be annually completed according to the division of the Catechism itself.
OF ARTICLE 68 CHURCH ORDER
Here is Article 68 again, now with some stress here and there on important expressions which deserve closer scrutiny:
The ministers, everywhere, shall on Sundays, ordinarily in the afternoon service, briefly explain the sum of Christian doctrine, comprehended in the Catechism, so that, as much as possible, the explanation shall be annually completed according to the division of the Catechism itself.
Now some remarks on the underlined terms.
"ORDINARILY IN THE AFTERNOON"
During the struggle around the Liberation 1944, quite some discussion went on about the meaning of the word "ordinarily." It also occurs in the article about General Synods: "The National (General) Synod shall ordinarily be held once every three years (unless there is an urgent reason to convene one sooner)" (Article 50 Church Order). Synodicals said that "ordinarily" means, as a rule . . . but it need not always be so. That was during the years that the Synod Sneek-Utrecht prolonged its life beyond the three years, and we told them to go home in order to make room for the next synod! An urgent reason may force us to have a General Synod sooner, but certainly not later! Therefore the Liberated people said, "Ordinarily" means according to the rule. This is the rule that we have agreed upon; we'll have to stick to it.
I mentioned this in order to warn against the ease with which churches take "ordinarily" in Article 68 as being different from that in Article 50. Catechism preaching shall be held in the afternoon according to the rule - not as a rule, from which rule anyone who wants may deviate according to his own pleasure.
Quite some time ago the present writer published an article about the special character of the P.M. service, exactly because of the rule of Article 68. I do not have to repeat that but still maintain it: in the afternoon the preaching is somewhat different in character from that in the morning service. The preaching in the P.M. is a "two-way" business. The Word of God is preached, but also we as congregation confess it (in the words of the Catechism). As Rev. M.J.C. BLOK called his book with Catechism sermons: Beleden Beloften (Confessed Promises). The promises of the LORD are proclaimed; and we confess them.
Conclusion is that the Churches should stick to the rule: Catechism preaching in the afternoon. We know the practical reasons for which Churches have changed the rule: Catechism alternately in A.M. and P.M. But this is not according to the accepted rule.
CATECHISM CLASS A LATE-COMER
In this context something should first be said about the fact that the Catechism Class as we-know-it, appeared on the scene at a very late date. The reader may be somewhat surprised to hear that not earlier than about the middle of the 19th century the specific ecclesiastical catechism class became a reality.
John Calvin's set-up, which was closely followed by Dort 1618-19, was that Home, School, Church (in that order!) work together in the teaching of the Catechism.
The parents were supposed to teach their children at home. (For that purpose it was decided to prepare a "shorter catechism." This summary was published around 1580 or 1585 in Heidelberg but we have not [yet] been able to lay our hands on it. In 1610 Rev. Faukelius of Middelburg composed the well known Compendium [Kort Begrip] but that one has never been officially adopted [happily so].)
The School was to add to this primary teaching of the Home. "The Consistories everywhere shall see to it that there are good teachers who shall teach the children . . . in godliness and the Catechism" (Article 21 Church Order). In those days the schools were under the supervision of the consistories. Usually the teachers taught the Catechism on Saturday afternoon, the same Lord's Day that the minister would preach about the next day in the P.M. service.
Thus the Church took over, not in a special Catechism class as we have now, but on Sunday afternoon, teaching young and old the sum of Christian doctrine from the Catechism.
Now this has changed. After the Secession 1834 the need for a Catechism instruction by the minister was felt (although that should not mean that the Schools have no task here anymore!). Yet, with the arrival of the Catechism class in the Church building, the preaching on the Catechism in Church was not abolished. The need for this kind of preaching has not disappeared; it has grown, I would say.
This brings us back to Article 68 itself again.
"BRIEFLY EXPLAIN" - "THE SUM OF CHRISTIAN DOCTRINE"
"COMPREHENDED IN THE CATECHISM."
We take these three important expressions together because they describe in a lucid way what "Catechism Preaching" really should be.
There is the word, "briefly." "Aha!" someone says, "the Catechsim sermon should be short, Reverend; shorter than your morning sermon!" That would, however, be a completely mistaken conclusion.
Why? Because "the sum of Christian doctrine" has to be preached in P.M. sermon. "Sum" means here: sum-total. Fulness, completeness. An example may clarify this. If the minister preaches on Matthew 28:19, his theme will be something like, "Christ's mandate to preach the Gospel to the whole world." In his sermon he will also preach about "baptizing them . . . .", and consequently say something about God's being the Triune, thus emphasizing the difference between "the baptism of John" and "Christian baptism." But the main message is "the great commission."
Now, in the afternoon he preaches on Catechism Lord's Day 8, "that these three distinct Persons are the one true God." Now he must preach the "sum," the completeness of this main Christian doctrine: God is Triune. He will take his congregation for a walk through the Scriptures, mention several "texts" and thus make clear that God "has so revealed Himself in His Word" (Catechism 8).
Again, it must be clear to us that this "sum" (i.e. fulness, completeness) is not found in the Catechism!! That would be impossible. The Catechism would become as big as the Bible itself. Therefore, Article 68 Church Order says that this sum "is comprehended in the Catechism." In other words, the Catechism gives only a "skeleton" of the fulness of that specific Christian doctrine. For that fulness the pastor has to lead his flock into the green pastures of Scripture itself. But he does this by using the Catechism as a "guide." Again: Why? Simply because we as Churches have agreed in our Confession that this is the way the Bible should be understood. Not as the Jehovah's Witnesses or Liberals do it, but as Reformed people, in agreement with the Ecumenical Symbols of the Early Church.
But - and here we return to the word "briefly" - if the minister would try to repeat everything in his sermon what the Bible reveals about the Triune, or about justification, etc., it would take him hours and hours. It would become a day-long session. Therefore: "briefly." But in that "briefly" he has to do justice to the "sum" or completeness and fulness of that doctrine. It has to be a well-balanced (not one-sided) presentation of a complete doctrine, with all its nuances and effects for us.
From what has been said some conclusions may now be drawn as to the special character of a "Catechism sermon."
1. It is clear by now that the P.M. sermon is not "about" or "on" the Catechism as though the Catechism is the text for the sermon the same way as the inspired Word of God is the text for the A.M. sermon. It would be against our Confession to do it that way. The text for the P.M. sermon is the "Christian doctrine" as found in the Bible, and comprehended in the Catechism as a "skeleton."
2. The preacher, however, is bound to read, not only the Catechism in the light of the Bible (that goes without saying) but also to read the Bible in the light of the Catechism. And that may not go without saying . . . . Does that mean that the Catechism has more authority than the Bible? Certainly not, but the minister is bound to read (and preach) the Bible, not as a Romanist does it, or a Jehovah's Witness, or a Liberal, or a Pentecostal, and so on . . ., but as the Church of the Reformation has always understood and preached the Word of God. Call that prejudice, but everyone is prejudiced, a Liberal or Jehovah's Witness as much, even much more, than a Reformed believer.
3. The Bible belongs to the Church, not to the preacher. It is not enough that he preaches from here and there, on texts chosen by himself (in which choice he may be one-sided in whatever sense) but he has to preach the fulness of the Word of God. Article 68 "forces" him to preach on many parts of the Bible which, maybe, he would never choose himself. For 50% he may choose his "own text," but for the other 50% he is bound - and every minister ought to be happy with this binding.
4. Once again: "the sum" has to be preached. In the morning the minister should stick to his text, understand it in its context, and not wander away from it, going afield in an erratic walk through the whole Bible (as one can often hear in radio-broadcasted sermons). Stick to your text!
But in the afternoon he may, he must, "run through the whole Bible" in order to find the "sum": what the whole Bible has to say on election, providence, justification, regeneration, marriage, daily bread, etc., etc., etc. It is tempting to give more examples, like on the keys of the kingdom, the threefold office of the believer, the Church, and so on, but we hope that the reader got the message all right.
5. Some more things should be stated, however briefly. The word "doctrine" is used by Article 68. That means a positive, well-balanced exposition of the revealed truth of God's Word as confessed by the Church, but also - by the same token - a rejection of all that is not in agreement with this doctrine. The Catechism is strong in "controversies," those of the 16th century. Essentially not much has changed, though these same errors may now come in a different attire. The congregation must be protected against them and be trained in rejecting them, wherever they meet them. But the word "doctrine" in our church-language should not be understood intellectualistically! Doctrine is life. Therefore Catechism preaching can and must be very practical. The Catechism itself gives the lead. "What is your only comfort . . .?" One may think of the third part, the Ten Words and the Lord's Prayer. How immensely practical is that whole third part. Lord's Days 45-52 is no less than a training course in prayer, and ministers should keep it that way, instead of giving a series of lectures on "the Name," "The Will of God," "The Kingdom," "Daily Bread," "Temptations." Sure, he must teach the sum of Christian doctrine on all these themes, but in such a way that the prayers of the membership become enriched by it, and more pleasing in God's sight, so that He may hear us, and give abundantly what we ask of Him.
IMPORTANCE OF CATECHISM PREACHING
We should all agree on the tremendous importance of such Catechism preaching as described in the previous article.
As fruits of faithfulness on the part of the preacher in this respect may be mentioned, first, that the congregation may become well informed about the "complete doctrine of salvation." Thus they will be able to discover the errors of heresies before it is too late. They will even become able to "speak with the enemy in the gate," a very important part of "evangelism."
An illustration from my experience may illustrate this.
Two young ladies, who had attended our church services for some time already (it was in Holland), applied for membership. Both were communicant members of some Evangelical Group. They wholeheartedly believed, and confessed with joy that Jesus was their Saviour. Then we started to ask some simple questions. One of them had used the words "faith," "Church," and more like them. I asked, "What is faith?" The answer was, "Faith is . . . uh yes, faith is something like . . . , yah, how do you say that again . . . , it is . . . oh well, you know what I mean . . . ." The same hesitation or rather incapability of giving a definition of such central biblical terms showed when I asked, "What is the Church . . .?" etc. Then she interrupted herself, and said, "Look, that is now exactly the reason why I want to join the Reformed Church. I have heard enough Catechism sermons by now to know that in your Church, people really learn to put into words what they believe and I want to learn that too! I want to become a Reformed believer!"
Both were admitted. Some years later one of them was president of the women's society.
That is one of the results of Catechism preaching, if it is done well, and if the congregation listens well.
Everyone will, at some time, have met believers from other churches, who love the Lord, but - when it came to discussing the divine truth were unable to exactly put into words what the LORD teaches us in His Word on any issue.
Only by maintaining Article 68 Church Order faithfully, we have a message for the world, an answer to ethical, political, and other problems. With Dr. B.D. KUIPER we say that the only method of winning others for the Church of Christ is the Reformed truth.
In the first article we mentioned some objections against Catechism preaching. One of them, "it is not 100% Biblical preaching."
This accusation, as well as the one that says that we "brainwash" our children in the catechism class, is invalid.
What else is the Catechism but a sign-post to the Scriptures? Every word is taken from them. For every expression there are reference texts. The Catechism says, all the time, "Don't believe me, go to the Bible!"
This "going to the Bible" should take place in the Catechism classroom all the time. The Bible open, and used!
The same in the P.M. sermon. Children as well as adults have to learn to find their way in the green pastures of the Scriptures. The teaching and preaching of the Catechism is the best way to reach that goal. Not isolated texts but the Scriptures in their unity must be known by every mature Christian.
Thus, partly repeating and/or summarizing, let's conclude with some remarks on:
CHARACTER OF CATECHISM
1. It is, and must remain, one hundred per cent ministry of the Word. For that reason a minister need not read one or two texts together with the Lord's Day. He is going to weave many more texts into his sermon. Of course his "public reading of the Scriptures" should be chosen well: a combination of Bible passages which are relevant to the doctrine to be preached. But he is not allowed to preach on one such passage, or even on one text. Remember, he has to preach the "sum of Christian doctrine," be it "briefly."
2. Catechism preaching is only possible because of the unity of the Bible, which is its own interpreter. Then it will become a bulwark against biblicism, fundamentalism, sectarianism, and any other "ism" which pulls the Bible apart and is left with only fragments. "ledere ketter heeft zijn letter" (every heretic has his text).
3. The difference between the A.M. sermon and the P.M. sermon is not: in the morning God's Word, in the afternoon the Church's confession. But, as has been said before, in the morning preaching one "text" in its fulness (a "text" is not "a verse" of course; it may be a whole chapter). In the afternoon a sermon, not just on some texts, but on the whole Bible regarding one specific doctrine, the sum of which is "comprehended" by the Church in its Creeds.
4. The Bible is not an encyclopedia of many loose sayings, but fundamentally it is "one text," as the Catechism has it in Lord's Day 6 Question and Answer 19, The holy Gospel which God himself has first revealed in paradise, then through patriarchs, prophets, ceremonies, etc., and finally fulfilled by his own Son. Dr. H. BAVINCK did not hesitate to say that the Bible is a "system," taking this word in its real meaning: su-stema, i.e. every part "stands together with the other parts." As Calvin said, the New Testament is hidden in the Old Testament, and the Old Testament opens wide in the New Testament.
This biblical "system" has to receive its due in the preaching, especially in the Catechism preaching.
5. Every minister, in his study preparing his sermons, discovers that the Catechism, with all its beauty, is only "a pail filled from the ocean."
The "fulness" is not in the Catechism, it is in the Bible. Every Catechism sermon must try to draw as many pails from that ocean as possible. And the longer he has been preaching, the more the preacher discovers that the ocean is still full, and that he will never empty it.
6. That's why we are happy with the addition to Article 68, made in 1905: "as much as possible." Apart from the fact that there are special Sundays on which Catechism preaching may be interrupted (like Easter, Pentecost, etc.), which would already render it impossible to complete the Catechism annually, a minister should have the full freedom to either take only one question and answer at one time, or prepare a whole series on just one Lord's Day, according to the need of the time and of the congregation.
7. Aversion. against Catechism preaching, as was voiced in Rijsbergen (older readers know what I hint at), and as is sometimes also heard among our own number, must be considered suspect. That aversion cannot base itself on any part of the Catechism, or on Catechism preaching as such, but usually betrays that one does no longer agree with what the Church Order calls "the Reformed Religion." "None shall be admitted to the Lord's Supper except those who . . . have made a profession of the Reformed Religion" (Article 61 Church Order). Both words get a capital "R." What else is "Reformed Religion" but that Religion which, in the age of the Reformation, has Returned to the Scriptures!
8. In his Pastoral Letters to Timothy and Titus, Paul uses the words "sound doctrine," "sound words" no less than eight times. We find this expression nowhere else in his letters. That is significant. Timothy and Titus were called upon to maintain the pure doctrine. "O Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to you. Avoid the godless chatter and contradictions of what is falsely called 'knowledge'!" (I Timothy 6:20). And again, "Guard the truth that has been entrusted to you by the Holy Spirit who dwells within us" (II Timothy 1:14).
The only way is the way Article 68 Church Order shows: regular preaching of the sum of Christian doctrine, the sound doctrine. It should be a joy for every minister of the Word to fully maintain this article.
If that is done, we may expect that "the pastor and teacher will equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the cunning of men, by their craftiness in deceitful lies. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into Him who is the head, into Christ" (Ephesians 4:11-16).
Catechism preaching? Let's keep it! Let's love it! Let's improve it!