As I mentioned in a previous post about this topic, our school uses catechism as part of the spiritual formation of students. The use of catechism as an instructional tool has a long history. The history of its use is comparatively short in North America, where it dates back to the 17th and 18th centuries. Catechism was included in the New England Primers, the intent being to prepare children to be readers of the Scriptures. These reading textbooks relied on the classics and included the Westminster Shorter Catechism. By teaching the catechism to children, it ensured they had the tenets of faith memorized by the time they could read the Bible for themselves (Schnorbus, 2010). The use of catechism in this way ensured that it was common among Christians in the United States.
By the beginning of the 19th century, the New England Primer was no longer a primary textbook in American schools. This changed the access that children had to catechism (Scnhorbus, 2010). The 19th century also saw the rise of the Sunday School movement, a parachurch movement that was influential in shaping church congregational life and pushed the use of catechetical instruction aside (Osmer, 1997). Sunday Schools replaced the vocational minister with untrained lay people in the spiritual formation of children. The positive impact of the movement was a familiarity with Bible stories. Conversely, the use of catechism as an instructional tool diminished (Packer & Parrett, 2010).
Today, the use of catechism has been largely lost in churches to the point that many evangelical Christians have never experienced its use (Packer & Parrett, 2010).
Losing the Art
How did catechism become a lost art? Several factors contributed to its decline of use. These included changes in educational theory, changes in Christian orthodoxy, and the decline of rote memorization as an educational tool.
The Enlightenment brought a critique of dogmatic authority in the classroom that was used in a humanistic pedagogy. Beliefs about authoritarian indoctrination changed as education theory changed (Osmer, 1997). Contemporary education theory places more value on the active role of the learner in the learning process. Teaching methodologies have been more focused on the experience of the student (Smith, 2020). Recently, the humanistic text-based methods and dependence on the classics have been portrayed as authoritarian and antichild (Osmer, 1997). Because of the close association that catechism has with a humanistic approach to education, many educators have questioned the contemporary use of catechism (Osmer, 1997).
Another criticism of the catechisms is that they embraced the Calvinistic doctrines of total depravity and original sin. The doctrine of original sin focused on the person’s separation from God. Because all people were born into sin and prone to return to that sin, the education of children took this depravity into account. The catechisms reflect this approach. They were intended to help students focus on God’s authority and stressed the importance of obedience to Him (Schnorbus, 2010). Critics believe catechism accomplished this by emphasizing a person’s need for salvation and the negative consequences of bad behavior. They believe this approach is contradictory to a Rousseauian understanding of the stages of development of children, and instead treat children as small adults (Schnorbus, 2010). However, Calvinistic doctrine aside, Christianity teaches that, since the Fall, all humans have been born with a basic internal nature that seeks to go its own way and ignore God’s will, especially when it contradicts their own desires (Romans 5:14, Romans 7:18-19). The catechisms also reflect the truth that all people who turn from sin, and place their trust in Christ to redeem them, will experience salvation (John 1:12, Ephesians 2:8).
Some criticize the use of catechism as simply an exercise of rote memory that is not beneficial to the student’s spiritual formation. Both Calvin and Luther worked to avoid this familiarity and warned against using the catechism to cram the heads of children full of words that had no meaning (Kienel, 1998). Instead, Calvin advocated for distilling the catechism into little “drops,” repeated two or more times, until the student came to the stage of reason and judgment (Kienel, 1998). He connected the use of catechism to Isaiah 28:10, “Do this, do that, a rule for this, a rule for that; a little here, a little there.”
Others take issue with the archaic nature of the question-and-answer format, or an improper interpretation of theology expressed in the catechisms that makes them unsuitable for contemporary use (Osmer, 1997; van de Beek, 2014). However, some still believe that catechisms are needed in contemporary society, and advocate for their continued use.
Recognizing the Need
People currently live in a pluralistic landscape, replete with intellectual relativism and cultural eclecticism. Because of this landscape, many young people leave the church after being exposed to so many differing beliefs. What a person believes is now understood to be a product of where one grew up and the things a person experienced (Osmer, 1997). There is little attention paid to orthodoxy. Some make the case that the church failed to provide people with the intellectual and spiritual resources needed in order to navigate this postmodern world. This happened while the use of catechisms was on the decline.
Some, like the Reformers, advocate for the use of catechetical instruction because they believe that catechism helps people navigate the humanistic trends of the day. The use of catechism as an instructional tool is based on an understanding of the church’s and Christian school’s purpose to prepare people to understand and apply their faith in their contemporary context. Catechism applies to life as a universal whole, and can be taught at home, at church, and at school to demonstrate that wholeness. It provides people the opportunity to learn and confess the truths of the faith. It equips the laity with theological and biblical knowledge so they could be involved in ministry (the priesthood of all believers). It also provides people with a Christian context for entering the vocational world (Osmer, 1997). Because of these positive benefits the use of catechism brings, there is concern that the church and Christian school have stopped applying catechism to the life of students in the ways that it did in the golden age of the catechism. Therefore, it has left congregants without a spiritual rudder, causing them to enter a pluralistic society without proper preparation (Osmer, 1997).
As I mentioned in Part 1 of this post, the church continues to experience the negative consequences of allowing congregants to continue uncatechized. It has become obvious that something should be done to help churches steer a better course. I believe it is time once again to encourage the church and Christian schools to return to the wisdom of building Christians the old-fashioned way, through the use of catechism. I would urge you to consider, what could the use of catechism look like in your school?
Holy Bible, New International Version. (2011). Zondervan. (Original work published 1978)
Kienel, P. (1998). A history of Christian school education (Vol. 1). Purposeful Design Publications.
Osmer, R. R. (1997). The case for catechism. Christian Century, 114(14), 408. https://ezproxy.liberty.edu/login?
Packer, J. I. & Parrett, G. A. (2010). Grounded in the gospel: Building believers the old-fashioned way. Baker.Schnorbus, S. D. (2010). Christianity, the Enlightenment, and primary education: American children’s textbooks and schooling, 1700-1810 (Order No. 3418266) [Doctoral dissertation, University of Southern California.] ProQuest Dissertations and Theses Global.
Smith, S. J. (2020). Windows into the history and philosophy of education. Kendall Hunt.
Van de Beek, A. (2014). …But also just: Reflections on the severe God of the catechism. Acta Theologica, Suppl 20, 115-128. http://dx.doi.or/10.4314/actat.v20i1.8S