CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

Christians, Catechesis, and Contemporary Culture

Sep 2, 2016

We live in a dumbed-down age in which basic knowledge, understanding, discernment, and reasoning are all but shot to pieces. People seldom think carefully and analyse things, they tend to just emote instead. And sadly this is just as true for far too many Christians as well.

Thus we almost need to begin from scratch to educate an entire generation which has lost the ability for sustained reflection and critical reasoning. And that means going back to basics with biblical truths as well. We cannot assume that all believers today think biblically or have a biblical worldview.

teachingIn fact, most don’t. Most are biblically illiterate and think much more like the world around them. Their view of life comes more from pop culture, MTV, and movies than it does the Bible, theological studies and church history. They simply parrot what the surrounding culture says and thinks on most issues.

Thus the need is greater than ever to properly train, equip and teach all believers in the basics of the Christian faith so that they think and speak in terms of a solid biblical worldview, instead of just regurgitating what the secular culture throws at them.

Six years ago an important book on this issue came out by J.I. Packer and Gary Parrett: Grounded in the Gospel: Building Believers the Old-Fashioned Way (Baker, 2010). In it the authors call us back to a long-neglected practice: catechesis.

They offer this definition: “Historically, the church’s ministry of grounding new believers in the rudiments of Christianity has been known as catechesis – the growing of God’s people in the gospel and its implications for doctrine, devotion, duty, and delight.” And they find it to be totally biblical:

We catechize because of the model and mandate of our Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus was and is the model catechist. He was the Teacher of teachers. It is not only his example that moves us to catechize, however. We catechize by command of Jesus. Jesus charged his followers with the task of teaching on several occasions during his earthly ministry (e.g., Matt. 10:14; 13:52). Just before ascending to the Father’s right hand in glory, the risen Christ commanded his followers to disciple all the nations. This task requires the ministry of serious, sustained, systematic, and substantive teaching – “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:20). Catechesis is a faithful and fruitful ministry that flows from this “Great Commission” of Jesus.

Yes, this is simply about basic religious instruction and teaching for believers. Sometimes it has been done in preparation for things like baptism or confirmation, but it is not just a Catholic thing, as some might think. As the authors remind us:

“Thus, for most contemporary evangelicals the entire idea of catechesis is largely an alien concept. The very word itself—catechesis, or any of its associated terms, including catechism—is greeted with suspicion by most evangelicals today. (‘Wait, isn’t that a Roman Catholic thing?’)”

Image of Grounded in the Gospel: Building Believers the Old-Fashioned Way
Grounded in the Gospel: Building Believers the Old-Fashioned Way by Gary Parrett, J.I. Packer Amazon logo

In fact, this practice began early on in Christian history, and most Protestants in the past engaged in this as well. Just recall Luther’s Smaller Catechism or the Westminster Shorter Catechism as examples of teaching tools for children, or Luther’s Larger Catechism, the Heidelberg Catechism, or the Westminster Larger Catechism for adults.

As Calvin said in 1548 to the Lord Protector of England, “Believe me, Monseigneur, the church of God will never be preserved without catechesis.” Solid teaching for all believers is essential, and catechesis was for centuries an integral part of achieving this.

But now most Protestants at least have fallen away from this. That explains why there is so much shallowness, carnality and heterodox teaching in the churches today. We have failed to properly train, teach and disciple others, and now we are paying the price for it.

We see this happening all over the place. Take for example any basic Christian truth, and see how it is understood and expressed today by so many believers. Consider the notion of love. Now there is a term which has been beaten to death, misused and abused for decades now – even by Christians.

Instead of speaking about love biblically, too often we speak about it as the world does. And let me assure you, the world’s understanding of love has absolutely nothing to do with the Scriptural understanding of the term. It is easy enough to demonstrate this.

Consider this scenario. You go to a doctor because you sense something is wrong, so you get a thorough check-up. A malignant cancer is discovered. Here are two possible ways the doctor can respond. Tell me which one is the most loving:

-he says you are OK, because he knows that if he tells you the truth about your condition, it will upset you, offend you, and hurt your feelings.
-he tells you the truth and offers the tough course of action needed to help deal with the cancer.

Obviously the loving thing to do, the Christian thing to do, the sensible thing to do, is the second option. Yet so many believers today have been so steeped in worldly concepts of what love and other related concepts are, that many might actually wonder if the first option is the way to go – the more “loving” thing to do.

They certainly act that way when it comes to spiritual matters. The most loving thing we can do for a lost sinner is tell him he is lost, and give him the gospel. But so many believers today feel this is being intolerant and arrogant and pushy and unloving. So they refuse to truly love their lost neighbour by telling them the most vital thing they need to hear.

So afraid are we today of “offending” anyone, or appearing to be “unloving,” that far too many Christians will not share their faith with non-believers, nor speak out on vitally important social issues from a biblical perspective for fear of being rejected, or seen as not being “nice”.

Thus we have utterly destroyed the biblical understanding of love. Consider this analogy: When a bridge down the road is out, and unless you give warning, other cars will crash into the ravine, killing everyone inside, the obvious, loving thing to do is to warn, to try to stop the traffic, to do anything you can to prevent pending disaster.

Not to warn and not to seek to avert such horrible outcomes is certainly not loving. It is being hateful in fact. You are not loving your neighbour as yourself. It is the same in the spiritual arena. We must warn others of their fate if they continue in the wrong direction with the bridge ahead out of action.

I just read again what the Bible says about refusing to make such warnings in Ezekiel 33:1-9. Let me just share verse 6: “But if the watchman sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet to warn the people and the sword comes and takes someone’s life, that person’s life will be taken because of their sin, but I will hold the watchman accountable for their blood.”

Biblical love is willing the highest good for the other person. It is not about emotions, feelings, moods and whims. It is about making right choices for the good of others. And warning others is a crucial part of biblical love, be it warning the sinner of his ways, or the believer of his carnal conduct or dangerous doctrine.

This is why we need a new movement within the churches today to properly teach the basics of the Christian faith. It is time for catechesis at all levels, for young and old. The appalling biblical illiteracy found in our churches is doing tremendous damage and it is time for a change. And that time is now.

Of course to say we have an urgent need for teaching and sound doctrine is not to say that this is all that is needed. One can be well taught and full of correct doctrine but still be spiritually dead. We need both right teaching and right living. We need orthodoxy and orthopraxis. But genuine Christian living flows out of proper Christian believing. The two always go together.

So we need to concentrate on both aspects of the Christian life. And this volume by Packer and Parrett is a very good place to begin. But for those who do not want to read the entire book, you can at least look at a very short summary excerpt of it which is found here: www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2010/march/14.26.html

Let me conclude with the closing paragraph of the book. There the authors remind us that catechesis is necessary for both individuals and

the entire church as it seeks to deepen its experience of unity of the Faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, and so become mature (Eph. 4:13). Jesus had been the Teacher of the Twelve (Matt. 23:10; John 13:13). To the Twelve, and for our sakes as well, he promised that another Counselor would come—the Spirit of Truth whom the Father would send to us in Jesus’ name to be our Teacher and guide us into all truth (John 14:26; 16:13). It is by the work of the Spirit that lives are transformed and catechesis can be found faithful and fruitful.

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10 Responses to Christians, Catechesis, and Contemporary Culture

  • Brilliant – So spot on. Lest We Forget to teach our children.
    Give “language” and a common set of understandings in a concise package makes so much sense.
    Yes personal faith grows individually but at least families and the generation within have points of reference for dialogue and conversation.
    Used to be wider than family, as in school church and community (culture) mostly knew of the Catechism. The mere fact of trying to learn Catechism was a worthwhile exercise.
    In my childhood Catholics learnt their catechism. In adult life I discovered Presbyterians had a children’s Catechism. In church circles for the last 20 yrs i haven’t heard the word catechism. Perhaps because my children are adult.
    Thanks Bill for this timely post as I now hope to bring the catechism to my grandchildren.

  • I searched Koorong-
    2x Children’s Catechisms -OUT of PRINT
    1x Children’s catechism -out of stock.
    (That could be a good sign)

    Finally searche Internet.
    http://www.reformed.org/documents/index.html?mainframe=http://www.reformed.org/documents/cat_for_young_children.html
    Must add
    When learning Catechism please link to the bible. Use the bible to add key scriptures.
    At school I was taught The Lord’s Prayer as a child but didn’t realise it was actually in the bible until my early 30s.
    The Lords Prayer is actual scripture As opposed to Nicene Creed and Apostles Creed which are not actually on the bible.

  • The format of a lot of Protestant churches has the alpha male taking up too much of the service with his take on the scriptures. Discussion at the end of the ‘sermon’ is not encouraged. Men see there is not much for them to do to do, leave, and the pastor is left with his ‘harem’ of mainly ageing passive ladies. Oh dear, what to do? Maybe catechesis would help?

  • Tim and Kathy Keller developed a Reformed Catechism around 2011-12 perhaps partly as a result of the book by Packer and Parrett. It is probably right that most (but not all) evangelicals have moved away from this basic practice. It can be downloaded here – http://www.newcitycatechism.com/

    I have pasted a bit about it from the introduction below for anyone interested:

    New City Catechism is comprised of only 52 questions and answers (as opposed to Heidelberg’s 129 or Westminster Shorter’s 107). There is therefore only one question and answer for each week of the year, making it simple to fit into church calendars and achievable even for people with demanding schedules.

    It is a joint adult and children’s catechism. In other words, the same questions are asked of both children and adults, and the children’s answer is always part of the adult answer. This means that as parents are teaching it to their children they are learning their answer to the question at the same time, albeit an abridged version. The adult answer is always an expanded version of the children’s answer. In the adult version the children’s answer appears in color to differentiate it from the longer adult answer.

    New City Catechism is based on and adapted from Calvin’s Geneva Catechism, the Westminster Shorter and Larger Catechisms, and especially the Heidelberg Catechism, giving good exposure to some of the riches and insights across the spectrum of the great Reformation-era catechisms. The hope being that it will encourage people to delve into the historic catechisms and continue the catechetical process throughout their lives.

  • Many thanks for that Robert.

  • I wholeheartedly agree, that as Christians, we need to hold fast to solid biblical teaching. I am quite determined about this, and I diligently scrutinize all sermons given at church, and if the opportunity arises, I will speak to the preacher if they have ‘dumbed down’ biblical doctrine. However, what comes into play here, is HOW that correction is presented. Philippians 4:5 says ‘let your gentleness be evident to all’, Titus 3:2 ‘always be gentle towards everyone’ and 1 Peter 3:15 ‘Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect’. Over the many years that I have been a Christian, I have learnt of the mistakes I have been making in the presentation of firm biblical truth. You will be aware that of our communication, only 7% are the words we speak, while the other 93% is made up of body language (55%) and tone of voice (38%). If I don’t get the balance of these right, then my communication of the biblical truth, can come across as overbearing, self-righteous, and judgmental. Bringing this correction and firm stand on biblical truth, needs such wise spiritual guidance from the Lord, to do this gently as we are admonished, and in the best way that the person hearing it, will receive it. This needs to be tailored specifically to that person and depends on your relationship with them, but in all circumstances, we need to do it humbly and gently, so as to show them the love that is so crucial to our being a Christian. I am still finding my way, on how to do this successfully, but I will continue to hold unwavering to the truth, whilst listening to God guiding me by the Holy Spirit in my conscience.

  • At the risk of causing apoplexy among some readers may I suggest that some of the small booklets published by the Catholic Truth Society may be useful (I am not RC). Most Christians would agree with much of what is in many of these booklets. ‘A Catechism of Christian Doctrine’ could be very useful – Protestants would doubtless ignore some parts they consider ‘too Roman’.

  • Hi Bill, it’s me your supporter from New Zealand (across the ditch) again.

    First of all, let me send my warmest greetings to you and your wife. How’s she doing after having gone through her recent hospitalization? Has her health come back right now? I have been remembering her in my prayers.

    This ‘Christians, catechesis, and contemporary culture’ is another excellent piece that you have penned. I am completely with you that this generation has lost the ability of critical thinking and many clueless Christians are biblically illiterate, deleteriously influenced by the surrounding secular culture. There’re so many believers who are reluctant to tell the truth about the other ones’ malignant conditions (for instance, my long-time friend’s being taken in by the deception of homosexuality) fearing that it might upset, offend, or hurt their feelings.

    In this article, your analogy of the broken bridge brings to mind the cogent parable related by Søren Kierkegaard, in which “A fire broke out backstage at a theatre. The clown came out to warn the public of the approaching blaze. But the audience didn’t pay heed to him. They thought it was just a jest and applauded. He repeated his warning, but the shouts from the public got louder.” Kierkegaard concluded by saying, “I think the world will come to an end amid general applause from all the wits, who believe that it is a joke.”

    Could I juxtapose this parable with your analog? Kierkegaard recognizes Jesus Himself as a clown ridiculed, rejected, and finally crucified by the rebellious world. I think I’m willing to join the rank of these clowns (among this rare but noble species you are one) today who warn the present age (that on’t understand and can’t be bothered to listen) of the cataclysm in the offing. I found this good comment about this parable somewhere: “If you aren’t careful the laughter can easily turn to genuine tears as the paradox of faith, that clownish Christ, leaps off the stage.”

    Every blessing,

    Paul

  • Many thanks Paul. Yes my wife is doing much better now.

  • I tend to agree with you that systematic biblical instruction is lacking, but I fear that this is a product of people cutting themselves off from being dependent on the word of God. When people forsake the only source of real moral and intellectual enlightenment, they lapse into folly as a natural consequence.

    I was gratified to see solid references to the Reformation and to Martin Luther. The Reformers certainly knew how to blend intelligent theology with the heart, and zeal, and love. We need to get back to that.

    BTW: A frightfully mean-spirited and mendacious article about Luther appeared on a conservative Roman Catholic magazine recently. It implies that Protestant beliefs are akin to Islam. I’d love to see you take them to task, or even give your views on it! Their website is:

    http://www.crisismagazine.com/2016/luther-looks-islam

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