Editorial: The Necessity of a Doctrinal Road Map

Gregory Edward Reynolds

In my first pastorate in New Rochelle, New York, I was thrilled to discover a series of maps produced and published by Hagstroms. These maps of the five boroughs of New York City and of Westchester County saved countless hours of driving over the years. They also prevented me from ending up lost in one of the many dangerous parts of the New York metropolitan area. Best of all, they helped me to become increasingly familiar with the fascinating place in which we lived.

Discovering the Westminster Confession and Catechisms was even more thrilling. With this accurate Bible map I became familiar with the terrain, avoided getting lost in dangerous places, and become at home with the complex and wonderful world we call the Bible.

As Darryl Hart points out in "The Religion of the Catechism" (in this issue), our radically individualistic culture has little patience with being formed by someone else's ideas. Thus the thought of using the words of a group of dead men is simply not plausible. I often hear this expressed by Christians: "I want to listen to what God says, not the words of men." This is tantamount to saying, "I don't need a map. I can find my own way." But, while this stance may first appear to be humble, it is actually supremely arrogant. The Reformed Baptist preacher C. H. Spurgeon, who retained many of the Presbyterian instincts with which he was raised, had a sharp answer to people of this ilk:

Of course, you are not such wiseacres as to think or say that you can expound Scriptures without assistance from the works of divines and learned men who have labored before you in the field of exposition. If you are of that opinion, pray remain so, for you are not worth the trouble of conversion, and like a little coterie who think with you, would resent the attempt as an insult to your infallibility. It seems odd that certain men who talk so much about what the Holy Spirit reveals to themselves should think so little of what He has revealed to others. My chat this afternoon is not for these great originals, but for you who are content to learn from holy men, taught of God, and mighty in Scriptures.[1]

When Washington's troops built their fortifications in Brooklyn, he insisted that they explore the terrain before battle in order to be surefooted during the rapid movements often required in the fight. Likewise catechizing should be a chief concern of the church militant.

The concept of catechizing is found in many places in Scripture, even where the word itself is not used. From the beginning, the leaders of God's people have been given the task of forming the thinking and living of the church. Therefore, the religion of the covenant of grace has always been a religion of the catechism. In Genesis 18:19 the LORD said of Abraham "I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice, so that the LORD may bring to Abraham what he has promised him." Catechizing is the way of guarding and keeping the church in the way. In the Shema we have an Old Covenant command to catechize:

Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. 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. (Deut. 6:4-7)

An example of this kind of Old Testament catechizing is found in Psalm 119. Psalm 119 is structured catechetically as an alphabet acrostic based on the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet to aid in memorizing. In New Testament times catechizing continues. Paul describes his fellow Jews as those who "know his will and approve what is excellent, because you are instructed from the law" (Rom. 2:18; cf. 1 Cor. 14:19, Gal. 6:6). And, in this issue of OS, Mark Garcia demonstrates that Peter's first letter has a catechetical concern ("Pilgrimage in the Mode of Hope: Thoughts on the Usefulness of Catechism").

In our congregation we teach our young people that when it comes to biblical truth, dogs and cats get along. The certainties of historic Christian faith, known as dogmas, are formed in us by the process of catechizing. Of course, memorizing is only the beginning of that spiritual formation, but it is an essential ingredient. As Paul tells Timothy: "Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus" (2 Tim. 1:13). We could translate the phrase "pattern of sound words" (ὑποτύπωσιν ὑγιαινόντων λόγων, hypotypōsin hygiainontōn logōn) as "standard of healthy doctrines." The specific form, as well as the systematic relationship, of sound teaching is crucial to biblical discipleship.

Many people are surprised to discover that the actual word "catechize"—as well as the idea of catechism—is found in Scripture. Luke told Theophilus that he wrote the gospel in order to catechize Theophilus: "that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught" (Luke 1:4). The Greek verb for "taught" is κατηχέω (katēcheō), from which we derive our English word catechize, which means literally "to sound a thing in one's ears, impressing it upon one by word of mouth..."[2] "[T]hose things" are literally "the words" (vs. 2, 4), i.e. the doctrines, the truths. The question and answer format has become a time-tested way of achieving this end. So one of the central tasks of the New Testament church was to inculcate the truth through oral instruction. Inculcate means "to impress upon the mind by frequent repetition or persistent urging..."[3] The passive voice in the verb "taught" indicates that Theophilus did not seclude himself to privately study the Bible but humbled himself and sought out the teaching of the church. The ancient church continued this apostolic tradition in preparing new converts to publicly profess their faith in Christ through catechizing them. They were appropriately referred to as "catechumens."

An odd usage of the word "catechize" is "to charm or fascinate."[4] This is precisely what the church seeks to do with what is memorized: to show how utterly charming and delightful is the truth of God's Word as start-to-finish it reveals his amazing grace. In other words, to teach God's accomplishment and application of our redemption in Jesus Christ is to captivate and, thus, mold the hearts and lives of God's people with God's truth. This became the all-consuming task and passion of Apollos as Luke describes him in Acts 18:25: "This man had been instructed [catechized] in the way of the Lord; and being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things of the Lord..."

The doctrinal map helps us find our way. Many are justly concerned that an extensive written statement of faith like the Confession, and its teaching instruments the Catechisms, will undermine the authority of the Bible. Properly understood, however, confessions and catechisms help us appreciate the Bible more. Without them the Bible becomes either a closed book or a seriously misunderstood book.

Just as no one confuses a map with the reality of the terrain it depicts, so we understand that the Satechism helps us understand the terrain of the Bible itself. It is not a stand-alone source of truth. So, reading the Bible confirms the terrain, just as traveling confirms the accuracy of a map. A map teaches us what to look for and keeps us from getting lost. "Desire without knowledge is not good, and whoever makes haste with his feet misses his way" (Prov. 19:2). Learn the map and you will find your way. Forsake it and you will soon be lost.

One of the reasons the church is presently filled with so much error is that she has forgotten her past. She has lost the map and is floundering in the dark and often in dangerous places. We are fortified with true doctrine "that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes" (Eph. 4:14). The ancient church struggled with much doctrinal error. It took centuries to develop sound theology after the New Testament record was completed. Eventually the church fleshed out a very important segment of the doctrinal map by defining the Trinity and the two natures of Christ. The authors of our Confession and Catechisms relied heavily on these formulations in stating these doctrines. It is dangerous to travel as pilgrims without the map our forefathers have labored so arduously to provide. It is positively foolhardy.

The doctrinal map helps us to make spiritual progress individually and corporately. Without a good map we make our own way very slowly, if at all. Imagine moving into a new area and refusing to buy a map; while insisting on making your own. Each time you went out to explore you would add to and revise your map. Your progress would be painfully slow.

But with a good map the wisdom of others helps us make quicker, and more importantly better, progress. Confession writers throughout church history are like biblical cartographers. Their collective wisdom, tested and verified over the centuries, is an accurate systematic guide to the teaching of the Bible. "No creed but Christ. No book but the Bible" is a half truth. Everyone has a system of doctrine which answers the basic question: What does the Bible teach about God, sin, salvation, Christ, etc.? The real question is: Is your system—however informally constructed—what the Bible teaches? American Christians often sound like Thomas Paine, who once proclaimed that his only church was his own mind. But, as Presbyterians, the Catechisms should be ringing in our ears.

So, in order to insure safe and profitable travel through the terrain of Scripture, ministers and elders should be fostering the time-honored practice of catechizing in our congregations.

If you are interested in a sermonic treatment of this important subject go to Pilgrim Crossings and click on "Sermon Audio," then "Topical Messages" for two sermons on catechizing.


[1] C. H. Spurgeon, Commenting and Commentaries, 1876 (reprint London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1969), 1.

[2] Henry Liddell and Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon (New York: Harper and Bros., 1853), s.v. "κατηχέω (katēcheō)."

[3] Webster's New World Dictionary of the American Language, College Edition (1964), s.v. "inculcate."

[4] Henry Thayer, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (1889), s.v. "κατηχέω (katēcheō)."

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Contact the Editor: Gregory Edward Reynolds

Editorial address: Dr. Gregory Edward Reynolds,
827 Chestnut St.
Manchester, NH 03104-2522
Telephone: 603-668-3069

Electronic mail: reynolds.1@opc.org

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Ordained Servant: February 2007

Catechism: Our Doctrinal Map

Also in this issue

The Religion of the Catechism

Pilgrimage in the Mode of Hope: Thoughts on the Usefulness of Catechism

Review: Truths We Confess

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