The scene is familiar to many elders when examining covenant children who are making profession of faith. You ask questions about the Bible, the Trinity, the deity of Christ, and the benefits of redemption. The child is making terrific progress, and the reason has to do with her knowledge of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. The answers roll right off her tongue because of the superior brevity and clarity of the catechism. You are impressed and think what a wonderful addition she will make to the communicant membership of the church. What a fantastic job, in addition, the child's parents have done. You are actually excited about being a Presbyterian in ways that border on indecency and disorder.
And then you proceed to questions about the Lord's Supper. The reason, of course, is that one of the privileges of communicant membership is participating in Communion. And partaking of the Lord's Supper requires some consideration of the Lord's body and how we are to discern it in the sacrament. Suddenly, the wheels on the communicant member bandwagon come off. The child fumbles questions, lacks clarity, and in some cases doesn't even understand what the elders and pastor are asking. What becomes clear is that memorization of the Shorter Catechism has not progressed to the back part of the questions and answers. The child appears to have mastered the first thirty-eight questions. But the ones about the "outward and ordinary means" are unfamiliar.
One possible reason for this gap in catechetical knowledge is that we conservative Presbyterians are a low-church bunch. We do take doctrine very seriously, and so the first third of the Shorter Catechism is our meat and drink. The three persons of the Trinity? That's an obvious doctrine in need of clarity. The two natures of Christ? Heresy is just around the corner if we don't get that right. The foundational nature of justification for Reformed teaching on salvation? Of course, that is the crux of the Reformation and will always define who we are as Protestants. But the meaning of the Lord's Supper or eligibility for baptism? Of course, these parts of worship need to observed correctly, and our ministers attempt to explain the teaching of Scripture about these ordinances whenever they administer them. Still, conservative Presbyterians are not sacramental by temperament. We are known not for the beauty or complexity of our liturgy but for the clarity of our doctrine.
So the problem we see in the examination of covenant children may stem from the place where we put the sacraments in our corporate life. Of course, sacramental theology is doctrine and that should be red meat for doctrinalists like us. But too much emphasis on the sacraments could turn us into liturgical Protestants. And those who know modern church history know where that path leadsit leads to putting aesthetics and liturgy over preaching and teaching.
As plausible as this explanation is, a more likely explanationand one that does not traffic in low-church stereotypes of conservative Presbyteriansstares straight at us in the Shorter Catechism. To get from the benefits of redemption in the catechism to the means of grace, students need to go through the Ten Commandments. This is formidable territory. Not only does each commandment have at least two questions explaining its requirements and prohibitions (of course, the Fourth on the Lord's Day merits an entire five questions), but the content of the answers indeed reminds the believer of his ongoing sin and how far short he falls from God's righteous standard. In effect, the section on the "duty which God requires of man" may be functioning as a speed bump to the successful examination of our covenant children. It could very well be that the questions and answers on the Decalogue prevent children from attaining to "outward and ordinary means" of the word, sacraments, and prayer.
Of course, the Westminster divines never intended or imagined such an outcome. Their effort, like most catechists before them, was to explain the three main areas of Christian understanding for the ordinary believerthe Apostles' Creed, the Decalogue, and the Lord's Prayer. Although the Shorter Catechism does not follow this pattern slavishly, it does cover the basic teachings and practices of the Christian religion. To remove the teaching on God's law would not serve the aim of summarizing what God has revealed in Scripture, and it would contradict the very nature of catechetical training throughout the history of the church. So the solution to helping covenant children understand the nature of the Lord's Supper and the privilege that will be available to them through communicant membership cannot be doing an end run around questions thirty-nine to eighty-four.
Short of encouraging sessions and parents to spend more time with the Shorter Catechism so that children learn it in its entirety, the way around the "speed bump" of the law may lie in the very words our ministers use from our Directory for Public Worship while administering the Supper. Orthodox Presbyterian pastors rightly "fence the table" both to preserve the integrity of the meal and to warn about the consequences of eating and drinking unworthily. At the same time, our Directory makes clear that these warnings should not "keep the humble and contrite from the table ... as if the supper were for those who might be free from sin." In fact, the Directory reminds ministers to make sure that those invited to the table come "as guilty and polluted sinners and without hope of eternal life apart from the grace of God in Christ" and base their hope of salvation only on "his perfect obedience and righteousness" by virtue of his keeping the law.
Perhaps the road for catechumens then to the section of the Shorter Catechism on the sacraments is similar to the path to the Lord's Supper itself. Children should not let their own sinfulness any more than their imperfect memorization of questions thirty-nine through eighty-four keep them from either partaking of the Supper or learning the catechism's summary of the sacraments' meaning. They should try to master the questions on the Decalogue as much as possible with an eye on the prize of the means whereby Christ communicates the benefits of redemption. Indeed, the structure of the catechism is a welcome reminder that only as we become aware of our need for Christ's body and blood do we appreciate the benefits signified and sealed in the Supper's provision of bread and wine. The law is no speed bump to the Lord's Supper. It is an incentive.
Ordained Servant, April 2009.