This is a guest post by Drew Admiraal, a member of our church, a licensed exhorter in the URCNA, and an M.Div. student at Westminster Seminary California.
Most people outside of a Reformed church probably have never heard of catechetical preaching. Probably most even within Presbyterian and Reformed circles are not familiar with catechetical preaching. For some, hearing about a catechism brings them back to their youth in the Roman Catholic Church. For some, catechisms seem antiquated, a remnant of the days when Europe still had an emperor and people still got around on horseback. And for some, it just seems plain boring.
A catechism is a summary of important doctrines of the Christian faith often in question-and-answer format. Catechetical preaching is preaching the Word of God as it is summarized in a catechism. It has been the longstanding practice of many Reformed churches to have two services per Sunday. In the first service, an expository sermon is delivered, the minister preaching from a specific text of Scripture picking up where he left off the previous week (e.g. preaching through the book of Romans passage-by-passage). In the second service, the Word is preached as summarized in the catechism.
In the Dutch Reformed churches, including the United Reformed Churches (URC), catechetical preaching has normally been done using the Heidelberg Catechism. The Heidelberg Catechism is one of the most well-known and well-loved of the many confessions and catechisms which came out of the Reformation of the 16th century. It contains a faithful summary of some of the most important doctrines of the Christian faith in 52 sections called “Lord’s Days.” The intention in structuring the catechism in this way was that it would be used not only for private instruction by families in the home but also that the whole catechism could be covered each year in church by focusing on one of these “Lord’s Days” per Sunday.
Catechetical preaching is viewed by many in Reformed churches to be a very important and helpful practice in fulfilling the task of the shepherds and teachers which Paul describes in Eph. 4:12 and following, “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ…” Here are five reasons why catechetical preaching is so important and helpful:
1. A Pedagogical Reason
There is a reason from a pedagogical or educational standpoint that catechetical preaching is important and helpful. As mentioned above, the practice in Reformed churches has been to hold two services per Sunday, one in which Scripture is preached from a specific text, one in which it is preached as summarized in the catechism. In this model, the first sermon is expository (i.e. from a specific text) and the sermon based on the catechism’s summary of Scripture could be characterized as more doctrinal-topical (not a specific passage of Scripture, but all of Scripture’s teaching on a given doctrine).
Consider this example: a minister is preaching through the book of Romans in the first service and through the Heidelberg catechism in the second service. The minister arrives at Romans 3:21-3:31, one of Paul’s most important expositions of the doctrine of justification. But does this text say everything that one could or would want to say about the doctrine of justification? No. If this minister wants to treat this text in its context, in the flow of Paul’s argument in Romans, and give due attention to the text itself, it would be hard to also consider all of Scripture’s teaching on the doctrine of justification in the same sermon. And if he did try to do this, at some point the sermon would cease to be on Romans 3:21-3:31.
If, however, this minister preaches the Word as summarized in the Heidelberg catechism during a second service each Sunday, he will have the opportunity to give two sermons on all of Scripture’s teaching on justification as it is summarized in Lord’s Days 23 and 24. He does not have to choose between teaching his congregation what a given passage of Scripture says in its original context and teaching his congregation what all of Scripture has to say about various doctrines.
And so the expository sermon on a specific text and the catechetical sermon complement one another. The catechetical sermon reinforces what is said in the expository sermon and vice versa. Over the course of time, a minister who preaches through the catechism every year can be confident that his congregation will not only understand specific passages of Scripture and books of the bible but also what all of Scripture has to say about key doctrines.
Of course, for this to work, a church needs to hold two services every Sunday – another biblical and ancient practice – but that is a subject for another blog post.
2. A Historical Reason
There is wisdom in learning from the past. I once heard a theologian compare those who refuse to learn from church history to those who refuse to listen when their grandparents tell them that a mushroom is poisonous. He was using this to illustrate why we do not need to revisit certain reformulations of the doctrine of the Trinity which have been rejected by the church in the past, but this applies as well to other areas. We learn from things the church has rejected in the past and we also learn from things that the church has found to be successful, like catechetical instruction. The word catechesis simply means instruction and it has been the practice of the church from the earliest days to provide instruction in the most important doctrines of the Christian faith.
Although it is often associated with the Reformed tradition, catechetical preaching and instruction has roots in the very early church, during which there was a group within the churches known as the catechumenate. The catechumens (those within the catechumenate) were generally converts learning the principle doctrines of the Christian faith as they prepared for baptism. There are also several writings from the early church period which shed more light on the practice of catechesis in the ancient church. One such writing is the Didache (c. AD 100) which is usually viewed as a catechism intended for new Christians based in part on its content and in part on a quote from Athanasius who says that it was, “appointed by the fathers to be read by those who newly join us, and who wish for instruction in the word of godliness.”
It seems that the first six chapters of the Didache are the main part of instruction for new Christians (i.e. catechumens) prior to baptism, as the seventh chapter opens with instructions for administering baptism to those who have “reviewed all these things,” referring to the previous six chapters of instruction. The first six chapters of the Didache are filled with quotes from Scripture and really do read like a catechism in many ways, exhorting readers to obey the commandments of Scripture that they may be “mature” (1:4). This is really the great purpose of the Didache and of catechetical instruction and preaching in general: to produce mature Christians. The Didache is one example among many which illustrates the early church’s emphasis on catechesis or instruction on the key doctrines of the Christian faith.
The Reformers of the 16th century, as with so many practices from the ancient church, picked up its emphasis on catechesis and it remains a staple in many Reformed churches to this day. They did this, however, not only because it was a practice of the ancient church but because it was a practice of the ancient church which was in conformity with Scripture. To this we turn next.
3. A Biblical Reason
It is of the utmost importance that any practice in the church’s worship be measured according to the Word of God. Catechesis is no exception. Is instruction in the most important doctrines of the Christian faith a practice which we find in Scripture? Yes.
In the Old Testament, the Shema (Deut. 6:4) is one of the most important examples of instruction in the fundamental doctrines of the faith. This confession of God as one set the people of Israel apart from all the nations around them. Their God was the one true God. This is an absolutely foundational doctrine which many Jews to this day recite morning and evening. Only two verses later, Moses says, “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 the house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise…” It is clear that what is envisioned here is consistent instruction in the most important doctrines of the faith of the nation of Israel. It must be consistent and repeated instruction if the words are to be on their hearts and if they are to talk of them as Moses commands. And the people of Israel are to teach these words diligently to their children. Neither the early church nor the Reformers made this up. They got it from Moses.
In the New Testament, there are plenty of examples of catechesis as well. Think about 1 Cor. 15:3 and following, “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures…” Many scholars believe that verses 3b and 4 are from a creed written in the earliest days of the church. Notice that Paul tells the Corinthians that he “delivers” this teaching to them “as of first importance.” It is instruction in the most important doctrines of the Christian faith, and it is clear given that Paul considers it of first importance, that it is to be taught to those who join the church and its meaning expounded often for those in the church. I could point as well to the various hymn fragments in Paul’s letters which detail some of the most foundational doctrines of the Christian faith (e.g. Phil. 2:6-11; Col. 1:15-20; 1 Tim. 3:16). As these hymns were sung, Christians would be instructed and thereby grow in their understanding of their faith.
4. It is still preaching
A common objection to catechetical preaching is that it is closer to a lesson a minister might give in a Sunday school class but it can’t be classified as preaching. But note that I defined catechetical preaching not as simply preaching the catechism but as preaching the Word of God as summarized in the catechism. Since the Heidelberg catechism is a faithful summary of the teaching of Scripture, to preach the truths which are summarized in it is to preach Scripture.
A good example of this that will resonate with most is the doctrine of the Trinity. The Heidelberg catechism asks in question 25, “Since there is only one divine being, why do you speak of three: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?” and answers, “Because that is how God has revealed himself in his Word: these three distinct persons are one, true, eternal God.” The catechism here picks up the ancient church’s language for talking properly about the Trinity: one God, three persons. No Christian will object to this formulation. Although these precise words are not found anywhere in Scripture, that our God is Trinity is the heart of the Christian faith. There are not many Christians I would imagine that would object to a minister using this language from the pulpit in a topical sermon on the doctrine of the Trinity. These same Christians would very happily acknowledge that a minister who uses this formulation in a sermon is still preaching the Word.
And it is no different with a catechism like the Heidelberg, which is a faithful summary of Scripture. Sometimes the catechism uses explicit scriptural language, sometimes it summarizes the teachings of Scripture on a given topic. Either way, it is a faithful summary of what Scripture teaches and so a minister who structures his sermon around the questions and answers of a given Lord’s Day of the catechism and uses language from the catechism to talk about scriptural truths should be regarded as preaching the Word. He is expounding truths which are drawn from Scripture and summarized faithfully.
The Bible is a big book and so rather than being an imposition on Scripture or quasi-preaching, catechisms and catechetical preaching serve the important role of distilling the truths of Scripture into manageable, understandable, and helpful expressions of the most important truths of the Christian faith.
5. The Whole Counsel of God
As Paul bids farewell to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20, he says to them, “for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God” (20:27). Paul had spent three years ministering in Ephesus, teaching “in public and from house to house, testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.” What does Paul mean when he says that he proclaimed the whole counsel of God?
This seems to me to be talking about preaching and teaching all of the most important doctrines of the Christian faith as found in all of God’s revelation. We now have that revelation completed in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments and so for ministers now to preach the whole counsel of God means giving due attention to all of Scripture’s teaching on the most important doctrines of the faith.
Almost every minister has his own favorite subjects and doctrines to talk about, things which he is especially passionate about. A professor of mine talks about a minister who was intent on working Romans 1:16 (For I am not ashamed of the gospel…) into every sermon as he wanted to ensure that everyone knew he was really not ashamed of the gospel. While every case is certainly not this extreme and while most pastors sincerely desire to preach the whole counsel of God and not just their favorite topic or two, this can be hard to do when a pastor is the sole person responsible for determining what this looks like. Every minister is a fallible human with blind spots and the tendency to overemphasize some things and underemphasize others in his preaching. Catechetical preaching can be a major help here.
To illustrate the benefit which catechetical preaching provides to a pastor and congregation in ensuring that the whole counsel of God is being proclaimed in a given church, imagine that a minister is preaching through the book of Isaiah. A minister moving at a quick pace could make it through the book in a year. Some ministers have taken far longer. Isaiah certainly is a book which provides opportunity to discuss many different doctrines, but it can hardly be called the whole counsel of God. It is the revelation of God from one particular point in redemptive history, it does not contain every key doctrine of the Christian faith, and for those which it does, it certainly does not contain the full breadth of Scripture’s teaching as a whole. But if a minister is also preaching through the catechism, his congregation will still be receiving the full counsel of God while the minister will be free to preach through longer books of the Bible. During the year in which he preaches through Isaiah, his congregation will have also heard a summary of Scripture’s teaching on the fall of Adam, on the Trinity, on justification, etc.
In addition, a catechism can help a minister to ensure that he is not falling prey to his own blind spots and tendencies to overemphasize some things and underemphasize others in his preaching. A catechism like the Heidelberg has been used by countless ministers and adopted by many denominations over hundreds of years. It has received numerous stamps of approval as eminently helpful for instruction and aiding Christians to grow in maturity as they are truly receiving the whole counsel of God year after year. It allows a minister to not be the sole person to determine what preaching the full counsel of God looks like, but to make use of a time-tested resource for doing this effectively.
So, catechetical preaching serves a pedagogical purpose in complementing and reinforcing the truths proclaimed in an expository sermon, catechetical instruction and preaching has been the practice of the church since its earliest days, is an eminently scriptural practice, and ensures that a minister is preaching the full counsel of God to his congregation (and it is indeed preaching). Far from being a Roman Catholic practice, it is a lower-case “c” catholic practice, originating long before the Roman Catholic Church existed. Far from being outdated, it remains relevant today as God’s people always need to hear his Word proclaimed in its fullness. And far from being boring, it ultimately provides a way in which Christians can more effectively grow in our knowledge and faithfulness to our Triune God. Nothing is more exciting than that.