New Horizons

The Importance of Catechism Instruction

Anthony A. Hoekema

In an address given (in 1952) to the members of the First Reformed Church in Paterson, New Jersey, the Rev. John P. Muilenburg, former missionary to China, said, among other things, "Since I have come back to America, I look out upon the church with fear and trembling because so many of our people do not really know what the church stands for. In our American Christianity we have had a silly tolerance which says that it makes no difference what you believe so long as you try to live a good life. This attitude is all wrong. We must know what we believe and what we stand for."

"The Communists do not make this mistake," Mr. Muilenburg went on to point out. "They really train and teach their people." Did not our Lord say at one time, "The sons of this world are for their own generation wiser than the sons of the light" (Luke 16:8)? Perhaps we can learn a lesson even now from the Communists. The question often occurs to me: is the average member of our churches of Reformed persuasion as ready to defend the doctrines we believe and teach? If not, whose fault is it? Is it perhaps the fault of the church?


There was no catechesis—in the sense of the ecclesiastical pedagogy of covenant youth—in the medieval church. Instruction of children was considered a domestic rather than an ecclesiastical duty. Protestantism, however, with its emphasis on the Scriptures as the sole rule of faith and life, stressed the indoctrination of children as one of the ecclesiastical implications of infant baptism. The Reformed particularly began to think in terms of the covenant of grace as logically correlated with the doctrine of infant baptism. This emphasis on the covenant of grace naturally implied an emphasis on the catechetical instruction of the children of the covenant.

Catechetical instruction continued to flourish as the Protestant Reformation spread to other lands. In America too, at first, there was much emphasis on catechism. The instruction, in those early days, was chiefly a matter of memorizing answers to questions, and catechism books consisted solely of sets of questions and answers.

Since 1850, there has been in the American churches in general a definite swing away from catechism instruction. Gradually the Sunday school, which was originally intended to be a missionary institution, crept into the churches and took the place of catechism classes. In many American churches today, catechism classes no longer exist.

Covenant Obligation

This, however, is not as it should be. Catechism instruction is definitely a part of the church's obligation towards its youth. This obligation, in fact, as indicated above, is rooted in the very covenantal relation that exists between God and his people. The question may be asked, Is it the church's task to indoctrinate children? May this task not be left to the home, or to the Christian school (when there is one)? The answer to that question is that it is most decidedly the church's business to indoctrinate its youth, since the youth of the church are included in the covenant which God makes with his people. The doctrine of the covenant is a fundamental principle of Reformed theology—so much so, Herman Bavinck said, that Reformed theology cannot be understood on any point apart from the doctrine of the covenant.

But the doctrine of the covenant is more. It is also the regulative principle of Reformed life, all of which should be lived in the light of the fact that we are God's covenant people, his peculiar possession. Out of this regulative principle flows the necessity of catechesis. The church, which administers baptism as a sign and seal of covenant membership, must, after baptism, assume the responsibility of training the covenant child into the understanding of his covenantal relationship, and of leading him to the acceptance of his covenant obligations. Having received the first seal of covenant membership (baptism), the child must be trained so that he may in time receive the second seal of covenant membership (the Lord's Supper), and may live a full-orbed life of covenantal obedience and kingdom service. The church, which administers the seals of the covenant, cannot escape its obligation to train those to whom it administers these seals. The task of training covenant youth in the doctrines of the covenant is therefore one of primary importance. It is to be ranked alongside of preaching as one of the main tasks of the church.

The Covenantal Approach

May I add here that catechetical instruction is precisely the covenantal, as over against the noncovenantal, approach to the training of the children of the church. Noncovenantal child training, exemplified, for example, by the Child Evangelism Movement, ignores the distinction between children within and without the covenant of grace, and the significance of infant baptism. Chiefly concerned with having children accept the Lord Jesus Christ as personal Savior, this type of approach tends to ignore the second part of Christ's Great Commission: "teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I commanded you" (Matt. 28:20). But the catechetical approach, recognizing the blessing of covenant membership, strives to help the baptized child to appreciate his distinct privilege as a member of the covenant of grace, to understand the implications of that covenant membership, and to accept the obligations involved in that covenant membership, by the power of the Holy Spirit. This is the only proper approach for any church that teaches and practices infant baptism.

We may look at the importance of catechetical instruction from still another point of view. The covenant child must learn what is the main message of the Bible (as interpreted in the light of the Reformed standards), what is the doctrinal teaching of his church, and wherein his church differs from other churches. In other words, he must know what it means to be a Reformed Christian. Although the home and the Christian school play a part also in the process of teaching him this, the church must assume primary responsibility for three reasons. First, according to the Bible the church is "the pillar and ground of the truth" (1 Tim. 3:15). Hence, the teaching of doctrinal truth is peculiarly its task. Secondly, this doctrinal material can best be taught by the pastor, who has had a theological education. Third, because the mastery of this type of subject matter calls for a definite amount of memorization and assimilation, the official catechism classes of the church are the best place for it to be done.

I conclude by venturing a definition of catechesis: Catechesis is the ecclesiastical training of the children of the covenant, aimed at preparing them for profession of faith, active church membership, and kingdom usefulness. In the light of this definition, the purpose of catechesis will be to teach the covenant child such material as he needs to know in order to make an intelligent profession of faith within the church to which he belongs, to be a well-informed member of that church, to be a ready witness to the teaching of the church, and to live a full-orbed Christian life in accordance with the principles taught by his church.

Excerpted from a still timely address given on March 15, 1952, at a meeting sponsored by the OPC's Committee on Christian Education. Reprinted (with slight editing) from The Presbyterian Guardian, April 15, 1952, pp. 57-58. The author quotes the ASV. Reprinted from New Horizons, January 2003.

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