10 Things You Should Know about Catechesis

This article is part of the 10 Things You Should Know series.

1. Catechesis is a form of instruction.

Catechesis a form of religious instruction, typically presented in oral form. The instruction is usually based on a book or document known as a catechism, which contains a summary of principles, especially of religious doctrine, often in the form of questions and answers.

2. Catechesis includes five related and easily confused terms.

While the catechism is the content of the instruction, the person being taught is called the catechumen (from the Greek for “one being instructed”) and the catechist is the person doing the instructing. The instruction is called catechesis and the process is referred to as catechizing.

3. Catechesis is biblical.

The terms related to catechesis are derived from the original Greek word transliterated as katecheo (i.e., to teach orally, to instruct). The word is found is passages such as Luke 1:4 and 1 Corinthians 14:19. Paul uses the term and concept in Galatians 6:6 when he says, “Let him who is taught the word share all good things with him who teaches.” Also, in Acts 18:25, Paul says that Apollos, “was an eloquent man, competent in the Scriptures. He had been instructed in the way of the Lord.”

4. Catechesis is historical.

Almost every denomination and tradition in church history has used some form of catechesis for the religious education of Christian children and adults: Lutherans (e.g., Luther's Small Catechism), Presbyterians (e.g., Westminster Shorter Catechism), Baptist (e.g., Keach’s Catechism), Catholics (e.g., Catechism of the Catholic Church), Anglicans (e.g., The Catechism from the Book of Common Prayer), etc.

5. Catechesis often includes four main elements.

While the doctrinal content of catechisms has varied widely, from the early church until today, most catechesis has included four staples: the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, and teachings on the sacraments or ordinances (e.g., Lord’s Supper and baptism).

6. The Reformers believed they “recovered” catechesis.

After the Reformation, many Protestant clergy believed that what their medieval forebears had taught should not really be considered catechesis. In the introduction to his own catechism John Calvin wrote that the devil had overthrown catechism and “left nothing but certain trifles, which only beget superstition without any fruit of edification.” And Martin Luther said, “By the Grace of God I have brought about such a change that nowadays a girl or boy of fifteen knows more about the Christian doctrine than all the theologians of the great universities used to know in the old days. For among us the catechism has come back into use: I mean the Lord’s prayer the Apostle’s Creed, The Ten Commandments…”

7. The Q&A format is associated with Luther.

Almost all catechesis requires some form of memorization. But not all catechisms use the common format of scripted questions and answers. Luther, anxious to ensure Christians understood what they were memorizing, included in his shorter catechism of 1529 a “What does this mean?” type of question with an answer he devised. Although Luther didn’t invent the question-and-answer format, he made it the popular form for Protestant catechesis.

8. Catechisms were an influential tool of the Reformation.

During the Reformation era, the printing press not only allowed people to have Bibles printed in their own language but also helped spread Protestant catechizing materials. John Tillotson, England’s Archbishop of Canterbury from 1691 to 1694, said that “catechizing and the history of the martyrs have been the two great pillars of the Protestant Religion.” And the Roman Catholic Council of Trent complained that Protestants had done great “mischief” by means of catechisms.

9. Catechisms supplement preaching.

One of the reasons catechisms were so influential after the Reformation is that, as Kenneth Brownell explains, they “gave many people a doctrinal framework that provided preachers with well-prepared minds to which they could address the gospel.” Ian Green also notes that many catechists in the post-Reformation era “drew a close connection between success in catechizing and success in ensuring their congregations understood the sermons they heard.”

The New City Catechism

This modern-day catechism sets forth fifty-two questions and answers designed to build a framework to help adults and children alike understand core Christian beliefs.

10. Catechism is an important form of discipleship.

In his own adaption of a Baptist catechism, John Piper lists five reasons why the practice of catechesis is important:

  1. We are required to “continue in the faith, stable and steadfast” (Colossians 1:23).
  2. We are urged to “attain to the unity of the . . . knowledge of the Son of God . . . so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about by every wind of doctrine” (Ephesians 4:13–14).
  3. There are many deceivers (1 John 2:26).
  4. There are difficult doctrines “which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction” (2 Peter 3:16).
  5. Leaders must be raised up who can “give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.” (Titus 1:9).

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