Today I want to pick up where we left off with our look at the history of catechesis. In today’s post I want to draw our attention to the ministry of the sixteenth century Protestant Reformers.
Between the fifth and sixteenth centuries, the practice of catechism began to wane in the church. With the Reformers came the rebirth of catechetical instruction in the life of the church. The practice was modified, since most of the Reformers practiced paedobaptism (the baptism of infants into the covenant community and as a sign of salvation). Therefore, catechism was utilized to primarily bring up children in the Christian faith, as well as uninformed adults.
Two Reformers who utilized catechetical instruction with great success in their ministries were Martin Luther and John Calvin. Luther initiated the catechism because pastors and church members lacked a basic understanding of Christian doctrine (Luther, “Small Catechism,” 61). Calvin published his catechism because the church desired it (Calvin, “The Catechism of the Church in Geneva,” 90) and for the purpose “that we are all directed to the one Christ, by whose truth, if we be united in it, we may grow together into one body and one Spirit, and with one mouth also proclaim whatever belongs to the sum of faith” (Calvin, “The Catechism of the Church of Geneva,” 89). In publishing a catechism, Calvin believed he was recovering something that had been misused for nearly a millennia by the Roman Catholic Church (Calvin, “The Catechism of the Church of Geneva,” 90–91). Both Luther and Calvin intended for the catechism to be used in family worship, for fathers in particular to provide basic Christian education to their children. Luther’s catechism included instruction on the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper. Luther strategically placed the Ten Commandments before the Apostles’ Creed. This reflected his conviction that the purpose of the Law was to expose one’s sin and show one’s need for Christ who was described in the Apostles’ Creed. Calvin, on the other hand, placed the Creed before the Ten Commandments in keeping with his understanding of the continued use of God’s Law (the moral law) for the Christian.
Luther’s concern for proper Christian education led him to preface his Smaller Catechism with several instructions concerning how the catechism could be used to promote basic Christian instruction. First, the catechist was to be consistent with regard to the wording of the entire catechism. This method particularly pertains to teaching the Smaller Catechism to youth. Consistency would help with memorization and internalization of the truths contained in the catechism. Second, after the catechumen became familiar with the Smaller Catechism, the catechist was to begin explaining the meaning of the catechism’s content. Luther instructed the catechist to take their time with this step. He also suggested the catechist move from one part of the catechism to the next according to the pace of the learner. Third, after this step one could add additional teaching, such as The Larger Catechism to increase the learner’s breadth and depth of biblical understanding. Finally, throughout the entire process the catechist should be looking for godly fruit in the catechumen. One should be looking for evidence of genuine faith in Christ. This is alluded to but not explicit. Luther actually encourages pastors to wait for people to come to them about celebrating the Lord’s Supper (Luther, “Smaller Catechism,” 62–65).
For more on the history and practice of catechesis I encourage you to check out some of the following resources:
Anthony, Michael J. and Warren S. Benson, Exploring the History and Philosophy of Christian Education: Principles for the 21st Century. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2003.
Calvin, John. “The Catechism of the Church of Geneva.” in Calvin Theological Treatises. LCC. Vol. 22. Trans. by J. K. S. Reid. 88–139. Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1954.
Eby, Frederick. Early Protestant Educators: The Educational Writings of Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Other Leaders of Protestant Thought. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 1931.
Noll, Mark A. Ed. Confessions and Catechisms of the Reformation. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1991.
Packer, J. I. and Gary A. Parrett, Grounded in the Gospel: Building Believers the Old-Fashioned Way. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2010.
Sittser, Gerald L. “The Catechumenate and the Rise of Christianity.” Journal of Spiritual Formation & Soul Care (2013): 170–203.