An important aspect of pastoral ministry is the task of catechesis. The English word “catechesis” is derived from the Greek word used in the New Testament for instruction or teaching, katecheo. We see this in Luke 1:4, where St Luke says he is writing to Theophilus so that he “may know the certainty of those things in which [he was] instructed (catechized).” Catechesis can also refer to a specific kind of instruction, which consists of question and answer, which we will discuss below.

One of the qualifications for the office of elder is that the man is “able to teach” (2 Tim. 2:4). A minister “must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Tit. 1:9). One of the primary venues for this instruction is the Lord’s Day sermon, but this is not the only way in which a minister is to instruct his congregation. Teaching can take place in other formal venues, such as Sunday School classes or in prepared materials for community groups. Or it can be accomplished in informal settings, where the minister equips husbands and fathers to lead family worship or walk their children through a Reformed catechism. It can also look like a well-curated book table in the church foyer or the promotion of a Bible reading plan. 

Traditionally, one primary method of communicating doctrine to God’s people was through the use of catechisms. The earliest known work used as a catechism, the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles or Didache, is referred to by St Athanasius as appointed by the Fathers “to be read by those who are just recently coming to us, and wish to be instructed in the word of godliness.”[1] Over time as the church became in need of reform, the faithful catechizing of the laypeople (and even sometimes the priests!) in the basics of the faith was neglected. And when this occurred, Lancelot Andrewes remarked that the church “soon became darkened and overspread with ignorance.”[2]

The Reformers then picked up this neglected tool and with the wisdom of God applied it with great effect, causing the Papists to “acknowledge that all the advantage which the Protestants have gotten of them hath come by [catechetical instruction].”[3] Or in the very words of the Council of Trent, “The heretics have chiefly made use of catechisms to corrupt the minds of Christians.”[4] John Calvin championed the use of catechisms in Geneva, writing that “we who aim at the restitution of the Church, are everywhere faithfully exerting ourselves, in order that, at least, the use of the Catechism… may now resume its lost rights.”[5] Likewise, Protestant rulers took note of the need to have a people instructed in the faith. It was Elector Frederik III, sovereign of the Palatinate, who commissioned Ursinus and Olevianus to write one of the most loved Reformed documents, the Heidelberg Catechism.[6]

Regardless of our exact methods or resources, we know that knowledge is basic to faith and godliness (Rom. 10:17) and that eternal life is to know God the Father and Jesus Christ (Jn. 17:3). To neglect this duty is to be a shepherd who does not feed his sheep, and ministers should not be surprised when their flocks wanders off in search of other food (Jn. 21:15–17).

Find other posts in this series here.

[1] Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, eds., A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church (New York: Christian Literature Company), xii.
[2] Donald Van Dyken, Rediscovering Catechism (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing), 9.
[3] Ibid. 31.
[4] Theodore Alois Buckley, ed., The Catechism of the Council of Trent (London: George Routledge and Co.), 4.
[5] John Calvin, Catechism of the Church of Geneva (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society), 36.
[6] Donald Van Dyken, Rediscovering Catechism (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing), 29.

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