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Rediscovering Catechism by Donald Van Dyken

Everett A. Henes

Rediscovering Catechism: The Art of Equipping Covenant Children, by Donald Van Dyken. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2000, viii + 146 pages, $9.69, paper.

“Why do you catechize?” This was a question that I received shortly after arriving at Hillsdale OPC in 2008. The college student asking had been raised in a Christian home and trusted Jesus for the forgiveness of her sins. She had read the Bible but had never delved into studying theology. She couldn’t understand the purpose of catechism, and she’s not alone. In answer to her question, I simply asked, “What is God?” After she thought about it for a few moments she responded, “I don’t know; he’s God!” I explained that this was the purpose for catechism and introduced her to question number four in the Westminster Shorter Catechism.

The topic of catechism continues to raise the eyebrows of those who have never been involved in it. To some it seems legalistic as we teach our children these questions and answers. Sometimes it can feel that way to parents. What family hasn’t had a family-worship melt down as both children and parents become frustrated over the daily Q&A? To others it looks as though we are trying to indoctrinate our children. The challenge, from a practical and pastoral perspective, is heightened when we consider the number of people who are coming into Reformed churches from a non-Reformed background. With no history of catechism, the case for its importance must be made first.

This is where a book like Rediscovering Catechism can be helpful. The book itself is quite short, only 115 pages devoted to the topic with two appendices covering a brief catalog of confessions and catechisms (Appendix A) and publishers (Appendix B). The chapters are divided between a very brief history and explanation of catechism (1–7) and the practice of catechism (8–16). The concluding chapter is one last defense of the practice under the title, “Battle Proven.”

This book has the rare quality of being both a blessing and a frustration to the reviewer. From the outset, however, it must be said that the blessings far outweigh the frustrations. This is a book that you can put into the hands of new families for a small price. It gives a good explanation of the responsibility Christian parents have to catechize. Think of the baptism vow they must affirm, “Do you promise to teach diligently the principles of our holy Christian faith, revealed in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments and summarized in the Confession of Faith and Catechisms of this Church?”

The author does not content himself, however, with bare catechism. The goal is not just to memorize answers to questions so that a child’s name can appear in the next issue of New Horizons. The goal is to help them understand God’s Word and to know God (56–57). In this way, the catechism questions are just the beginning (69) as parents, teachers, and pastors have the responsibility to follow up and make certain that the children understand what they have memorized. This is where Dyken’s book is gold for pastors and catechism-class teachers. He gives insights into organizing, preparing, and teaching the classes.

What about those frustrations I mentioned? These might be more imagined than real but I’ll give just three. First, the nature of the book requires short synopses of subject-matter. I understand that. However, devoting only six pages to biblical material on catechizing (and these are small pages) and less than four pages to the entire post-biblical history of catechism (the chapter is subtitled, “From Alexandria to Massachusetts”) is an injustice to the very premise of the book: catechism is biblical and essential. Second, as a Presbyterian minister who doesn’t have specific “catechism classes,” there is much in this book that needs to be reworked in order to be effective for families (where much of catechizing is encouraged in many Orthodox Presbyterian congregations). Finally, there is little emphasis on prayer and the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of covenant children. Dyken writes, “Faithful instruction of the next generation is the normal mechanism God employs for the advance and growth of his people” (7). While I don’t completely disagree with this statement, the emphasis on mechanism is clear throughout the book. Surely it is not the intention of the author to put prayer out of the picture, but it comes across that way.

Even with these weaknesses, this book is a wonderful tool for those involved in the lives of covenant children. Perhaps it could be paired with a book that gives further examples of family-based catechism lessons, like Star Meade’s Training Hearts, Teaching Minds.[1] This, along with sound instruction regarding the place of prayer for and with our children, will aid us as we instruct parents to trust in and act upon the Lord’s promise to be a God to them and to their children.

Endnote

[1] Star Meade, Training Hearts, Teaching Minds: Family Devotions Based on the Shorter Catechism (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2000).

Everett A. Henes is pastor of Hillsdale Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Hillsdale, Michigan. Ordained Servant Online, April 2015.

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