Wendy has recently blogged about the idea of teaching her children a catechism, a supplement to learning Bible stories in helping her kids to grow as Christians. It got me thinking about the usefulness of catechisms today.
Catechisms were quite popular in the European Reformation(s). They’re question-and-answer style statements of belief so they can be quite conversational. The idea is to know what you believe and be able to articulate it in a coherent way. A famous catechism is the Westminster catechism (see Wendy’s simplified version here). The historic creeds (like the Apostle’s Creed, Nicene Creed, Athanasian Creed) are common to all Christians. Catechisms assume what’s in the creeds and then build on that. The creeds define Christianity; catechisms define a particular brand of Christianity.
The great strength of catechisms is that they were written to respond to the issues of the time. By the sixteenth century, the Trinity was a well established Christian doctrine but how people are saved was up for discussion. Hence the Westminster catechism deals perfunctorily with the Trinity but focuses on salvation by grace and the role of works. It’s historically bound by what it was responding to.
The issues the Reformers fought for continue to be relevant. There are important things to be protected there and I happily see myself in the Reformed tradition. However, our historical context is not the same as that of the Reformers. For example, when I think of some of the main challenges in Christianity, the uniqueness of Christ in a pluralistic world springs to mind. Yet, in the Westminster, it’s discharged in one question (#59) compared with 15 on the sacraments. That’s not a criticism of the Westminster but a recognition that a catechism may not answer the questions we’re dealing with today, or at least, not as fully as it answers the questions of its day!
Over our time at college, we’ve done Early Church History, Reformation History in Context and History of Evangelicalism. The first two were important building blocks in helping us understand our faith and the shoulders we stand on. They were relevant but there was a distance there. However when we got to ‘History of Evangelicalism’, we felt like the questions on view were our questions: the role of the Holy Spirit in the Christian life; the implications of Christianity for social justice; the use of means in evangelism and mission.
Just as I’m a big fan of saying the creed(s) in the church (providing it’s done well – perhaps I’ll save that for another post!) I think there’s a place for catechism(s). But I also think there’s more to be said. However, the danger of saying more is that the more you say or the more specific you get, the greater the chance of alienating other Christians whose brand is slightly different to yours. Woe to the person whose statement of belief is unnecessarily divisive! So it’s a tricky question – what to include; what to exclude. I’m planning to think more about it.
If you had to write a question-and-answer style belief document, what would you include? Would you keep the catechism and just add some extra questions on the end to address our issues? Or would you deal briefly with issues that were important historically and spend more time focusing on today’s issues?
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.