Child’s Catechism of Scripture History

Stephen Tracey

To help with the training of our children in the ways of the Lord, the Committee on Christian Education has recently published a little catechism entitled Child’s Catechism of Scripture History.

Catechesis involves more than learning doctrine. It also involves learning Scripture history. Deuteronomy clearly directs parents “to instruct their children about God’s redemptive deeds and holy commands” (J. I. Packer and G. A. Parrett, Grounded in the Gospel, 34). Deuteronomy 6:6–7 states, “And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.” (See also Deut. 11:18–19.)

This instruction clearly involved learning the flow of history from the creation through the fall, the call of Abraham for the sake of “all the families of the earth,” through Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and the Exodus, and so on to the days of Moses and Joshua on the verge of the Promised Land.

In 2 Timothy 3:14–15, Paul encourages Timothy to “continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it.” He goes on to comment on how well Timothy was instructed as a child, “and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” Timothy’s mother and grandmother did not simply teach him doctrine, they taught him the Scriptures, which clearly includes the flow of Bible history.

Of course, we do not believe that a catechism of Scripture history replaces the memorizing of Scripture; rather it helps in understanding the flow of that history, which is the flow of redemption. J. Gresham Machen understood this. He contributed a chapter on a survey of New Testament history to a book entitled Teaching the Teacher, a First Book in Teacher Training (1921). In the introduction to that book, Harold McA. Robinson wrote, “This book surveys the history of God’s redeeming grace. It reviews Old Testament history, disclosing the stream of God’s redeeming purposes flowing down through the older times. It reviews New Testament history, disclosing the broadening and deepening of that purpose for us men and for mankind in our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ and his Church.” Replace “This book” with “This catechism” and read that sentence again. That is what the Child’s Catechism of Scripture History aims to do.

An Irish Cadence

Child’s Catechism of Scripture History, which the Committee on Christian Education has reprinted (with minor adaptation), was published by the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. We have not yet established when it was first published, but I learned it as a child over fifty years ago! Such a catechism, however, is not unique to Ireland. In America, Joseph P. Engles produced The Child’s Catechism of Scripture History (Presbyterian Board of Publication, Philadelphia, 1841). This is the same Joseph P. Engles whose Catechism for Young Children, Being An Introduction to the Shorter Catechism (1840) forms the basis for the Great Commission Publications Catechism for Young Children (1991) and The First Catechism (2003).

Engles followed up his work on the Shorter Catechism with two volumes of a Scripture history in simple catechetical form. These two volumes contain a total of four parts, with questions on Scripture history from Genesis to 1 Samuel. He never completed the work. His catechism is lengthy—2,116 questions, and we only get as far as the end of King Saul!

Perhaps Engles was adapting and expanding the Irish version. Or perhaps someone adapted his work for an Irish Presbyterian version, if so, improving and abbreviating it considerably to 129 questions, covering Genesis to Acts (the CCE version adds a question on the Lord’s prayer for a total of 130).

The style of answer in the original Irish version is also to be preferred to Engles’s. For example, speaking of Adam and Eve’s punishment, Engles asks,

Q. 34. What did God say they should suffer?
A. Toil, and sorrow, and death.

Whereas the Irish catechism asks,

Q. 6. How were they punished?
A. They were doomed to sorrow, toil, and death and driven from the garden.

The pithy rhythm of that careful answer never left my mind. Nor has it left the mind of my children. One of my sons would repeat the answer while looking out into our garden, obviously wondering what it was like to be driven from one’s garden by angels with flaming swords.

This is followed in the Irish catechism with,

Q. 7. What promise did God give them before driving them from the garden?
A. The promise of a Saviour.

Clearly the catechism does more than teach Scripture history; it interprets it. Before I arrived in a seminary class, I had learned that Genesis 3, though speaking of curse, also speaks the gospel. This little catechism is marked by brevity, but is also pithy, in a good catechetical way. Engles’s version is clearly too long for little children.

A good program of catechesis would be to begin, as early as possible, with this Child’s Catechism of Scripture History, followed by the Catechism for Younger Children, then the Shorter Catechism. And is it too much to hope that our youth could go on to memorize the Larger Catechism? It can be done. That program of catechesis will be covenant marrow for the bones of covenant youth!

We recognize this should not replace the reading and learning of Scripture. We must also recognize that “the church of God will never be preserved without a catechism (or modern translations read ‘without catechesis’)” (John Calvin letter to Edward Seymour in Letters of John Calvin, vol. 2 [1858], 191).

J. I. Packer and G. A. Garrett lament, “Superficial smatterings of truth, blurry notions about God and godliness, and thoughtlessness about the issues of living—careerwise, communitywise, familywise, and churchwise—are all too often the marks of evangelical congregations today” (Grounded, 16). It is our prayer that, by the help of the Holy Spirit, this shall not be true of our children, or our children’s children, or to a thousand generations of our children.

The author is pastor of Lakeview OPC in Lakeview, Maine.


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