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How Much Catechesis? The Case for a Maximalist Approach to Membership Classes

Ken Golden

The Orthodox Presbyterian Church requires prospective members to make credible profession of faith by taking solemn vows in corporate worship. Often this marks the end of an extensive process of studying the essential Christian teachings that are summarized in the vows. Many of these classes also include summaries of Reformed distinctives such as TULIP and worship. This raises a number of questions. How many class sessions should be required? How many topics should be covered? How much information should be imparted in order that vows can be taken in good conscience? A philosophy of curriculum is helpful in order to answer these questions. The purpose of this essay is to examine our philosophy of membership curriculum (hereafter catechesis) in light of biblical, historical, and practical issues. In this essay, I argue that catechesis should take on a maximalist or comprehensive character, not only for public profession of faith, but also for long-term assimilation into the OPC. I support this thesis with biblical and historical data, interact with practical concerns, and offer a sample curriculum.

Biblical Support

The New Testament approach to indoctrination falls under the category of catechesis. This means more than the familiar question and answer format we find in the Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechisms. Catechesis (κατήχσις) is derived from the verb κατηχέω, (katēcheo) that means “to report/inform” or “to teach/instruct.”[1] At least one of Luke’s reasons for writing his gospel was for a certain Theophilus to “have certainty” (katēchēthēs, κατηχήθης) about the doctrines of the faith (Luke 1:4). Additionally, the Alexandrian Jewish convert Apollos was described as being “competent in the Scriptures” and “speaking accurately the things of the Lord,” because he was instructed (katēchēmenos, κατηχημένος) in “the way of the Lord” (Acts 18:24–25). The way of the Lord is the religion of God that finds fulfillment in the person and work of Jesus Christ (cf. Judg. 2:22; Isa. 40:3; Jer. 5:4–5).[2] Based on its New Testament usage, catechesis can be described as the transmission of Christian doctrine from the mature to the untrained.

Catechesis also has deep roots in the Old Testament. God chose Abraham and his progeny in order to “command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord” (Gen. 18:19). The purpose of Abraham’s election was to create a “God-fearing community” through the instruction of covenant children—an obligation that was reiterated in the Mosaic Law.[3] At the time of the Exodus, God commanded Moses, “Go in to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants, that I may show these signs of mine among them, and that you may tell [tesaper, תְּסַפֵּר] in the hearing of your son and of your grandson how I have dealt harshly with the Egyptians and what signs I have done among them, that you may know [vidayetem, וִֽידַעְתֶּ֖ם] that I am the Lord.” (Exod. 10:1–2) The verb סָפַר (safar) in the piel frequently describes a transmission of information.[4] The verb יָדַע (yada), however, expresses “a multitude of shades of knowledge gained by the senses” including “God’s knowledge of man (Gen. 18:19, Deut. 34:10) and his ways (Isa. 48:8; Pss. 1:6; 37:18), which ... begins even before birth (Jer. 1:5).”[5] Such knowledge is intimate and enfolding. In Deuteronomy 4:9–11, the command to make known (vehodayetam, וְהֹודַעְתָּ֥ם—hiphal of יָדַע) is accompanied by the exhortation to teach (yelamedun יְלַמֵּדֽוּן) the entire history of the law to the next generation.[6] Here, the piel form of the verb לָמַד (lamad) suggests the idea of training as well as educating.[7]

The New Testament is the fulfillment of the Abrahamic promises. According to Paul, Abraham received the gospel in advance. The gracious covenant that bears his name was not annulled by the law (Gal. 3:8, 17) but fulfilled when God the Son assumed its responsibility on the cross of Calvary. As spiritual heirs of this everlasting covenant by faith in Jesus Christ, Christian parents must diligently transmit the faith to their children.[8] Paul specifically had this in mind when he wrote, “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up (ektrephete, ἐκτρέφετε) in the discipline (paideia, παιδεία) and instruction (nouthesia, νουθεσία) of the Lord.” (Eph. 6:4) The verb ἐκτρέφω (ektrepho) occurs only in the book of Ephesians, denoting “to nourish” (5:29) and “to rear, bring up” (6:4).[9] Παιδεία (paideia) entails “the act of providing guidance for responsible living” (Eph. 6:4; Heb. 12:5, 8, 11) or describes “the state of being brought up properly” (cf. 2 Tim. 3:16).[10] Finally, νουθεσία (nouthesia) expresses an “avoidance or cessation of an improper course of conduct” (1 Cor. 10:11, Eph. 6:4; Titus 3:10).[11] In describing that these various forms of instruction are “in the Lord,” Paul connected the Old Testament mandate of catechesis with New Testament families who were the spiritual inheritors of the Abrahamic covenant (Acts 2:39). With the unfolding of redemptive history, fathers must now pass on their doctrinal heritage in light of its fulfillment in Jesus Christ.[12] Timothy was such a covenant child who from his earliest years was “acquainted with the sacred writings” (2 Tim. 3:15).[13]

All this language suggests a comprehensive approach to the transmission of covenantal knowledge from one generation to the next. While the covenantal context involved transmission from parent to child (Deut. 6:7; Ps. 78:2–8; Eph. 6:4), the maximalist principle can be broadened from nuclear to ecclesiastical families. It can inform the catechesis of converts, lapsed persons, and even Christians seeking a deeper understanding of the faith.

Historical Support

Catechesis was an indispensable tool for the early church. Catechumens, the students of catechesis, included adult converts preparing for baptism and the children of baptized parents. Instead of the question and answer format that typifies later catechesis, teaching often involved the study of creedal or doctrinal statements of faith.[13] Although catechetical philosophies varied, there is evidence for curricula that was lengthier in duration and fuller in scope. The renowned catechetical school of Alexandra usually involved a two to three year curriculum.[15] Some, like Augustine of Hippo, took on a narrative approach. He wrote: “The narrative is complete when the beginner is first instructed from the text, ‘In the beginning God created heaven and earth,’ down to the present period of Church history.”[16] Augustine was not implying that catechumens receive the minutiae of biblical information; rather he suggested “a general and comprehensive summary.”[17]

Others were more topical in their approach. Cyril of Jerusalem’s Catecheses were lectures intended for students approaching baptism. Beginning with repentance and baptism, they moved on to a systematic discussion of faith, the Trinity, Christ in his humiliation and exaltation, and the holy catholic church. In his Protocatechesis, Cyril explained the reason for his systematic program:

Let me compare the catechizing to a building. Unless we methodically bind and joint the whole structure together, we shall have leaks and dry rot, and all our previous exertions will be wasted. No: stone must be laid upon stone in regular sequence, and corner follow corner, jutting edges must be planed away: and so the perfect structure rises.[18]

Here, Cyril underscored the importance of systematic study. While the order of topics differed considerably from later dogmatic presentations, his principle of theological connections not only appeals to the academic mind, but strengthens the rank-and-file catechumen in pursuit of discipleship.

As the church became more and more identified with the world and ecclesiastical pomp and ritual developed, evangelical teaching began to decline. Nevertheless, remnants of the evangelical church remained faithful to catechesis. As John Murray noted, “It stands out clearly in the history of the dark Middle Ages that where this kind of instruction was adhered to most closely [e.g. Waldenses and Lollards], Christian life remained purest.”[19] During the Reformation and post-Reformation periods, catechesis experienced a renaissance. By this time, the question and answer format became commonplace, with larger confessions and “institutes” providing deeper reflection.

Not everyone has shared this vision. In recent centuries, catechesis has been met with resistance, especially in the modern Sunday school movement that favors Bible memorization. While one would be hard-pressed to criticize this activity, an overemphasis at the expense of systematic teaching warrants some concern. Accordingly, Murray’s insightful critique is worth repeating:

A misguided reverence for the Bible has prevented some from forming a systematic outline for the main doctrines of the Word, and consequently when confronted with a systematic challenge to their faith, which also alleges Scripture for its authority, they are ill equipped to defend their position. As we are so painfully discovering today, such people are the easy prey of Romanism and false cults.[20]

Today, many cults are re-packaged versions of ancient Christian heresies. Their command of proof texts can be overwhelming to Christians who have not gained a systematic understanding. Furthermore, Christians are confronted negatively by skeptics seeking to undermine the Bible and positively by seekers desiring to deepen their understanding of the Scriptures. A maximalist approach to catechesis enables Christians to meet these challenges.

Practical Concerns

So far, we have seen how catechesis has served as an integral component of transmitting biblical truth from the mature to the untrained, whether adults or children. Since this essay concerns training for public profession of faith, both groups are in view. Different people have different needs. Some people come from other Reformed churches and have already been catechized. Others come well versed in Reformed doctrines even though they attended less consistent churches. Still others come with an extensive but fragmented knowledge of the Bible. Finally, there are those who come with no biblical knowledge at all. Does this mean that churches need to design separate curricula to accommodate every situation? Few would find this practical. Instead, one curriculum that could be tailored to various needs would serve the purpose.

Here, it is helpful to compare the maximalist approach to other strategies. Some principally subscribe to the minimalist maxim of “less is more.” While brevity can be a virtue in many things, the transmission of the Christian faith requires more understanding. The seriousness of taking membership vows—including the fifth vow requiring fidelity to the church—requires counting the cost beforehand. Those with insufficient knowledge may find themselves at odds with the church concerning such issues as predestination, paedobaptism, the regulative principle of worship, or fencing the table. This can prevent assimilation and commitment. Studying these issues ahead of time can help avoid problems down the road.

Others take these issues seriously but feel that a maximalist approach may be impractical for teachers or a stumbling block for inquirers. Lengthier catechesis involves time commitments for pastors who are already juggling busy schedules. Moreover, the busy lifestyles of inquirers may cause some to expedite the process. Wisdom needs to be employed in these matters, but pragmatic concerns should not trump pedagogical needs. While pastors should be seen as the primary catechists, they could be supplemented by session-approved teachers. Catechists can also be flexible with inquirer schedules. Classes do not have to take place at one specific time in a classroom. In fact, conducting classes in the homes of inquirers according to their schedules can lead to ministry opportunities. This can build trust between teacher and student.

A Sample Curriculum

Having evaluated the strategies and their perceived motives, the question still remains, how much catechesis is needed? One specific solution is now being proposed. My own search for a maximalist approach to catechesis led me to write a curriculum titled “The OPC Class.” This rather ordinary title provides the structural divisions of the book: (I) Orthodox—Christian Essentials, (II) Presbyterian—Reformed Distinctives, and (III) Church—Means of Grace. The purpose of this division is to differentiate what one must believe in order to make profession of faith from other important doctrines that will be taught in an OPC congregation. Consequently, inquirers can approach membership with the freedom to disagree about certain teachings and the opportunity to grow in their understanding of the Reformed faith.

The Orthodox section is subdivided into familiar categories with accessible titles. Chapter 1 begins with the Bible as God’s Word to man. This includes discussions on general and special revelation, attributes of Scripture, biblical authority, and the canon. Chapters 2 and 3 introduce inquirers to the Triune God and the image-bearer with whom he entered into covenant. Chapters 4 through 6 alternate between what man has done in sin and what God has done in salvation through Christ and is doing through the Holy Spirit. The latter chapter includes a summary of the law for further reflection.

The Presbyterian section introduces the familiar Reformed distinctives of TULIP, church government, and worship. The Church section focuses on the means of grace: Word, sacrament, and prayer. Rather than being short summaries with proof-texts, these chapters provide full biblical and theological treatments of the subjects covered. Questions for further discussion are found at the end of every chapter.

The book also offers two appendices. The first one concerns the five membership vows, breaking them down into a number of questions about each vow. This gives inquirers a chance to review what they learned and better understand the vows they will be taking. The second appendix is a sample liturgy offered in table format with biblical proof texts for each element and their dialogical progression from beginning to end.

In keeping with the maximalist approach to catechesis, The OPC Class contains some chapters that are longer due to the complexity of the subject matter. While most chapters can be taught in one 60 to 90 minute session, the longer ones would require multiple teaching sessions.

Conclusion

In seeking to prepare inquirers for public profession of faith, OPC sessions need to consider the consequences of their philosophy of curriculum. As argued in this essay, a strong biblical, historical, and practical case can be made for a maximalist approach to catechesis. Such an approach will not only provide adequate preparation for entrance into our congregations but undergird the need for long-term assimilation into the OPC.

Endnotes

[1] “κατηχέω,” Walter Bauer, Frederick W. Danker, ed., A Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. (BDAG) (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2000), 534.

[2] Cf. C. K. Barrett, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, The International Critical Commentary (ICC) (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1998), 2:887. “In Acts, Christianity is described as the Way, ἡ ὁδός, at 9.2; (16.7); 18.25, 26; 19.9, 23; 22.4; 24.14, 22.” Ibid.

[3] Gordon Wenham, Genesis 16–50, Word Bible Commentary (WBC) vol. 2 (Dallas: Word, 1994), 50.

[4] “סֵפֶר,” Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner, eds., The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (KB), 2 vols. (rev. Walter Baumgartner, Johann Jakob Stamm, Benedikt Hartmann, Ze'ev Ben-Hayyim, Eduard Yechezkel Kutscher, Philipe Reymond; trans. and ed. M. E. J. Richardson; Leiden: Brill, 2001), 1:766.

[5] R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer, Jr., and Bruce K. Waltke, eds., Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, 2 vols. (Chicago, Moody, 1980), 1:366; cf. “יָדַע,” KB, 1:392.

[6] Zacharias Ursinus, The Commentary of Zacharias Ursinus on the Heidelberg Catechism, trans. G. W. Williard, 2nd American ed. (Columbus, OH: 1852; repr., Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, n.d.), 12.

[7] “לָמַד,” KB, 1:531; cf. Harris, Archer, and Waltke, Theological Wordbook, 1:480: “The training aspect can be seen in the derived term for “oxgoad,” מַלְמָד. In Hosea 10:11 Ephraim is taught like a heifer by a yoke and goad.”

[8] John Calvin, Calvin's Commentaries, trans. William Pringle (repr., Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2003), 1:481.

[9] “ἐκτρέφω,” BDAG, 311.

[10] “παιδεία,” BDAG, 748–49.

[11] “νουθεσία,” BDAG, 679.

[12] Cf. Andrew Lincoln, Ephesians, WBC 42 (Dallas: Word, 1990), 408.

[13] Ursinus, Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, 12.

[14] John Murray, “Catechizing, A Forgotten Practice,” Banner of Truth 27 (October 1962): 15.

[15] Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church (repr., Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2002), 2:257.

[16] Augustine, De Catechizandis rudibus, trans. Joseph Patrick Christopher (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America, 1926), 3.5.

[17] Augustine, Catechizandis, 3.5. Note: Chapters 17–24 provided an example of his narrative program.

[18] Cyril of Jerusalem, Procatechesis 11 in The Works of Saint Cyril of Jerusalem, trans, Leo P. McCauley and Anthony A. Stephenson (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America, 1969), 1:79.

[19] Murray, “Catechizing,” 16.

[20] Murray, “Catechizing,” 23.

Ken Golden is the pastor of Sovereign Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Moline, Illinois (Quad Cities). Ordained Servant Online, January 2012.

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