Catechetical Preaching

by Rev. R. E. Knodel, Jr

Extracted from Ordained Servant vol. 7, no. 1 (Jan. 1998), pp. 16-19

Has the reader ever experienced catechetical preaching? Does he think it sounds dull? By way of testimony, let me say that catechetical preaching has been one of the richest discoveries of my life. I can’t rave enough about it, nor encourage others too much to become practitioners of it.

I don’t claim this on account of my predilection for this kind of preaching; nor because of my ease in preaching this way, nor because of its inherent popularity. My endorsement arises out of twenty-five years of doing it. The deeper I have gotten into my ministerial career, the more cumulative blessing has accrued from my sermonic exercises in the catechisms. And the more dynamic I have observed this phenomenon, the more I have wondered: “Am I alone? How many others have allowed themselves to be tutored by the great catechisms of Protestantism?”

Today I am fully convinced that good catechetical preaching holds one of the main keys for the future blessing of the church. With this in view, how could I not want to share my findings? The following then would serve as an introduction to the enjoyment I have discovered. I hope it tantalizes the reader to pick up this homiletical rubric if he has not already; or to dust it off if he has used it, but not recently, or consistently.

Introduction and background

I first considered using the Westminster Shorter Catechism as the foundation of a preaching series because I had seen another, older minister, doing so. After listening to him for a number of months, I could see benefits in my life. It was natural then to take up the challenge in my first charge, once I had been ordained. But at that time, I really had no idea of the depth or breadth that I would one day assign to this medium. In other words, I took it up trying to be a “good reformed pastor.” Later on I learned how, by trying to be obedient in small ways, I had received abundant blessings I had never foreseen!

When I first began this project, I found it very, very difficult. In fact, I would say that it was not until I had gotten into my third series that I began to thrive on this kind of preaching. It wasn’t easy. But I felt it was right. And so I worked at it, and worked at it and worked at it. In the end, I have seen the Lord add His mighty blessings to my meager effort. Catechetical preaching is “right.” And when we do the “right,” we get God’s blessing! (Psalm 1:4)

But is it really right? Can we not be accused of “creed-olatry,” or the idolatry of the writings of men? Indeed, this was one of my early methodological problems because being a strong sola scriptura man I found it difficult to be scriptural and catechetical at the same time. If I spoke of the latter, did it not obscure the former? While much of this will be considered in the “how to” section below, let me make a small “apology” or defense here in the introduction.

First of all, we know that our catechetical documents are scriptural. If one uses the edition of the Westminster Standards printed by the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland which is easily available from the major book distributors, the voluminous scriptural references which prove each clause usually fill the bottom two-thirds of every page.

Recently I was intrigued to find an edition of the Westminster documents in a used book store which dated from 1813. These were the years of Asahel Nettleton’s evangelistic preaching, and Archibald Alexander’s teaching, in the American colonies. I was intrigued: What did the men have available back then? Opening the palm-sized leather volume I laughed. It was the exact same material and layout of which I just spoke above. When our presbyterian forebears went preaching on the frontiers, they took not only the confession, but the larger and shorter catechisms. They did this because these documents were the best summary of Scripture known. If they wanted to be scriptural, they had to be confessional. And if they were confessional they were scriptural! The bottom line is that if we want to be scriptural in our preaching, we can hardly do better than to aim at the catechisms which summarize our biblical doctrine in a question/answer format. The catechetical division provides both preachers and hearers with bite-size portions which easily accommodate themselves to the sermonic format. And as we’ll see later on, catechetical preaching has no need of being “style-bound.” It allows us, as preachers, to be varied and stimulating in our presentations.

At this point in my ministry, I have worked my way through the Shorter Catechism four times, while also traversing the Heidelberg Catechism, the canons of the Synod of Dordt, and finally the Larger Catechism—with which I am almost finished after a two year effort! This has been spread out between three churches and twenty-five years. As I said: It has all been good! My people have never complained. On the contrary, every time a new series has commenced they have greeted it with expressed excitement!

Multiple Benefits

Many are the benefits of this type of preaching for both preacher and people. Here follows a partial list in summary form:

(1) The benefit of balanced, scriptural thought. We need tools to help us avoid the prejudices and hobbyhorses which come naturally to us as fallen, sinful men. Using the catechisms shows homiletical humility! Many have been the occasions that catechetical preaching forced me to deal with issues of which I either saw little relevance, or didn’t fully understand. But sermonizing through a catechism forced me to deal with those issues, and learn that which I had not previously! Because of the catechism’s theological balance, sermons from them imbibe the same. I have improved my seminary education many times over by preaching through the church’s catechisms. Without such tools we guarantee ourselves narrowness, superficiality or peculiarity. With them we tutor ourselves with the best minds of church history. We better approximate the apostolic command of preaching “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27).

(2) The benefit of better understanding the “system of doctrine” to which we subscribe. Can the reader quickly explain how God brings His Eternal Decrees to pass, or how His Counsels manifest themselves in time? He can, if he understands the Westminster Shorter Catechism, Question 8! To the Question of “How doth God execute His decrees?,” the catechism answers, “God executeth His decrees in the works of creation and providence.” This simple formula answers some of the deepest philosophical questions posed. It shows that the complexity of God’s decrees—His Eternal Counsels—come into time and space in either of two categories: creation or providence! Further, it grounds both of these ideas in the idea of God’s decrees.

Creation cannot be contained under the study of science alone! Science can never explain the creation without incorporating God’s revelation concerning His decrees. Further this answer shows that all of God’s will is sovereignly brought to pass in either his sovereign control over creation, or his sovereign control over the subsequent events—providence—of that creation. Every catechism question relates to its neighboring questions. The truths they promulgate relate with each other and interact!

When we preach through these catechisms, we give our people a theological skeleton by which their thinking can be organized. Without such systems their minds tend not to grasp the corpus of the Scriptures. By default they remain an amorphous mass. But with a skeletal structure God’s revelation more readily imposes itself upon us! God himself shows us this with the law, summarizing myriads of ethical commands in the “Ten Commandments.” Learning the “ten” we have a structure by which the “hundreds” can be understood and remembered.

(3) The benefit of wonderful scriptural serendipity. Part of the responsibility of preaching catechetically involves the selection of Scripture texts as the basis of the sermon. It is rare when I have gone beyond the texts the divines offered as “proofs.” And so often when I turn to such texts, I am brought to see insights not previously seen. For example in studying the Fourth Commandment in Question 121 of the Larger Catechism, I noted the citation of Ezekiel 20:12.

Upon study of that larger passage it was obvious that Sabbath observance becomes a covenant community’s signal that it acknowledges God’s sovereignty. In verse 25, God says that because of Israel’s neglect of this signal law, He “gave them up to statutes that were not good and judgments by which they could not live.” I was stunned! Here was scriptural proof that civil Sabbath neglect led, in Israel’s case, to systemic vanity in their whole law code. Having thrown off God’s sovereign claim, God gave their government’s sovereignty over to vanity. Their legislators legislated, but God made sure their machinations were flawed.

Then I thought of our own day where so many of our “well-proposed” laws have had dramatically unintended, negative consequences. Could it be that our modern legal vanities were tied directly to our lack of recognition of the Lord? That was the obvious implication. And it was just as obvious that if we would change just one part of our behavior, Sabbath observance, that God would begin to allow us efficacy in regards to our larger system of jurisprudence! Where else can one simple behavioral change lead to such fruitful results? Yet this is the testimony of God I discovered through the catechism’s Scripture proofs! It was something I had never noticed previously in reading Ezekiel. And it made a wonderful sermon whereby we could see how the church—through its preaching—could help the state in unimaginable ways!

Such discoveries have been innumerable in the series I have preached. The Scriptures have come alive simply because I have been forced to observe how my forebears used them! They have referenced them to doctrinal points I never would have considered. But when I did consider them, refreshment and understanding resulted!

There are other benefits upon which I could elaborate but for space restraints. Catechetical preaching saves the preacher effort in being creative. He doesn’t have to find new pearls, but just understand that which has already been discovered! Often it solves hidden problems in one’s church even before they become apparent. But we will limit ourselves to mere mention of these benefits, so as to consider some practical “how to’s.”

“How To” Hints

(1) I have used catechetical preaching primarily in the evening worship. That way, Scripture text alone has been the focus of the morning sermon, and the beginning of the Lord’s Day. No confusion between form and substance offers itself. With that foundation laid, a good scriptural sermon which has one of the catechisms as its foil can be brought to one’s people in the second service. With this, there’s also an interesting balance between pure, textual exegesis (A.M.), and exegesis and doctrinal formulations (P.M.).

(2) When using the Westminster Shorter Catechism (and this would be my advice for a first step in this procedure) one can easily print each question and answer out in the bulletin so people can find direct reference to it as the pastor speaks. With longer catechisms, I have printed out the formulations on a separate insert. Without such aids, it is very difficult for the people to grasp textual comments, or to follow the sermon.

(3) The preacher should not think that he has to cover every question and answer exhaustively! That manner is more suited to the lecture or Sunday School. He either has to subsume a number of points under one main theme, or speak to one main idea. He’s called to sermonize and proclaim, not plod on, substituting a lecture for the kerux of Christ. He also has to discover for himself how and why each question is important and relevant for his people! Without this, his presentation will inevitably appear merely academic, or as something which is an end in itself. The end of our preaching must be to glorify the Father through the ministrations of the Son and the Spirit. Is this not the essence of worship?

Many catechism questions would overwhelm listeners with their complexity. This is especially true of the Larger Catechism. But focusing on various points within the questions allows the pastor to more closely tailor his catechetical preaching to the needs of his church.

(4) Along these lines, I would advise those first tackling this enterprise to err on the side of Scripture and not creed. When I first began this exercise years ago, I found efforts at referencing myself to the catechism very distracting. It was like I was trying to ride two horses at once. So I decided right away to only use the foil of the catechism so as not to overshadow the text of Scripture.

As I have worked on this over the years I believe the Lord has blessed me with greater and greater ease in using the creeds alongside the text without eclipsing God’s word with man’s. Sometimes at the end of the Scripture reading I can immediately deal with the Catechism, asking, “Is this what the Scripture teaches?” At other times I focus on the text with barely mentioning the catechetical formulation. Then later I will say, “Is this not precisely what the Divines discovered and taught in their answer?” Other times the text of Scripture brings out one main point of the Catechism, after which I can shortly make reference to additional lessons and applications brought out by the whole of the answer. As time avails, short scriptural references can teach many shorter, additional points without obscuring the salient core of the presentation. These may almost appear as applications of the main point, or proofs in-and-of-themselves of the saliency of the main point!

Whatever immediate manner the preacher uses, the best part of his procedure involves the progressive dealing with a doctrinal system biblically. What is missed during his first series may be published during a second series, a year or two or three later. If done well, the end result of this procedure—this catechetical preaching—will be a loving flock of people more in awe of their Great God, and better able to teach their faith to their children, and to their children’s children!

The following books are suggested as useful helps for Catechetical preaching.

  1. Thomas Vincent’s The Shorter Catechism Explained from Scripture. Banner of Truth.
  2. Thomas Watson’s The Body of Divinity (in three volumes). Banner of Truth Trust. (Cf. each one of the three volumes deals with a major portion of the Westminster Shorter Catechism.)
  3. Thomas Boston’s Commentary on the Shorter Catechism, Vol. 1 & 2, Still Waters Revival Books.
  4. G. I. Williamson’s The Shorter Catechism, vol. I & II. Presbyterian & Reformed Pub. Co.
  5. Thomas Ridgeley’s Commentary on the Larger Catechism, Vol. 1 & 2, Still Waters Revival Books.

Richard Knodel is pastor of Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church of Lynchburg, VA. Catechetical preaching has characterized his ministry there during the past eleven years.