How Catechesis Forms the People of God
Catechesis is Inevitable
We are always being catechized. The world is feeding us questions and answers all the time. We are swimming in questions as simple as, “What should you eat for lunch?” and as serious as, “What is the purpose of life?” We are also swimming in answers. Every movie or show we watch, every book we read, every conversation we have gives us questions and answers. If we do not catechize our children and ourselves, the world will.
If this is true, we need to be intentional, especially in the church, of teaching people how to ask good questions and find good answers. Catechesis is a valuable means towards this end.
Catechisms Function Like Our Minds
The church needs catechisms because catechisms meet us where we are. They speak to the very format in which our brains work. We tend to think in questions and answers. “What is this feeling? Hunger.” “How do I make it go away? Eat food.” “What food should I eat? Pizza.” The list goes on.
In this very way, catechisms fill our minds with what we need and want. When someone is made to memorize a statement of faith, it can be harder to memorize and harder to apply because they do not know what question this statement of faith is answering. With catechisms, we are able to grasp both questions that we need to consider, and answers to which the Bible points.
In his book, Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus, Nabeel Qureshi writes of his early life growing up in Islam. When he writes on the first time the question, “Is Jesus God?” comes up in conversation, he immediately feels deep guilt and shame and apologizes to Allah immediately for even questioning him for a moment.
When I first read that, I felt a deep gratitude for the fact that we serve a God that allows us to ask questions. They are all over Scripture. In fact, it is incredibly important to explore the nature of questions in the Bible and in the Christian life. An excellent book on this topic is Matthew Lee Anderson’s The End of our Exploring. He discusses the first question ever asked: “Did God really say to not eat of the tree?” (Genesis 3:1) and God’s question after the Fall of Adam and Eve by asking, “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:9).
By the first question being from the serpent, we learn that our questions are not free from the reign of sin. But God also uses questions to meet us in our shame. Anderson beautifully states:
The question, ‘Where are you?’ expresses an interest in Adam and Eve, Even from the beginning in the moment of our sin, God does not only want to be Lord over us but God with and among us. Relationships demand mutual self-disclosure…By posing a question, God moves toward Adam and Eve and gives them the opportunity to speak with Him. His question rebuilds the ground between them that their sin had ruptured…It is the first moment of God’s redemptive activity: in asking, God reminds us that He will listen as we speak, even if we utter a confession. And the question helps Adam and Eve find themselves by acknowledging where they had gone to.
And these are just the first two questions in Scripture. They are all over the Bible. From David asking, “How long, O Lord?” (cf. Psalm 13) to Peter saying to Jesus, “O Lord, to whom else shall we go?” (John 6:68). Questions are everywhere. We must know how to ask good questions, and learn to embrace the “exploration” that comes with question asking.
Catechisms Teach Us Questions and Answers
By offering a list of questions, and not just a list of statements, catechisms model how to question well. We learn the kinds of questions to ask, as well as learn that it is good to be asking questions such as, “What is our only hope in life and death?” or “What is the chief end of man?” These are huge questions, and catechisms ask them for us. It is almost inevitable to ask questions such as these in life, whether spoken or not. Catechisms affirm our wonderings and show us what it looks like to bring those into discussion, to bring them into the light.
However, catechisms do not leave us in our questions. They provide answers to the significant questions in life and in our walk with Christ. By catechisms providing us both questions and answers, our questions are validated and a starting point is given. We have a home base answer to go explore more fully. It is never a good idea to take catechisms as canonized scripture, but they can be a helpful resource. We must always rely on Scripture to point us toward questions and answers, but catechisms are incredibly helpful, and shape how we learn to hide important biblical truths in our hearts.
Catechisms Order Our Knowledge
Matthew Lee Anderson writes,
I was never catechized, and I feel the lack of it now and then. In fact, I would say that my theological education has proceeded in something of a haphazard fashion: I have generally followed my interests, rather than a set programme of learning, and the result is that I have somewhat serious thoughts about a wide range of issues—but little depth on many of them…This way of proceeding has some advantages, but I think they generally pale to the benefits that come from a more disciplined, rigorous approach…It seems to me that undertaking a catechetical process allows one to establish a coherent framework of answers out of which one can inquire and explore. Having a robust architecture developed within our minds allows us to put details in place that we would never notice or observe otherwise.
Anderson’s own personal story helps us see the benefits of catechisms as resources to provide a framework for our knowledge. In having a set of questions and answers that range a variety of theological points, we get to dip our feet into many different concepts, and put them in conversation with each other.
The New City Catechism, a more recent catechism, is a helpful example of this. Even the first two questions follow a logical progression and put different doctrines in context.
Question 1: “What is our only hope in life and death? That we are not our own but belong body and soul, both in life and in death, to God and to our savior Jesus Christ.”
Question 2: “What is God? God is the creator and sustainer of everything. He is eternal, infinite, and unchangeable in his power and perfection, goodness and glory, wisdom, justice, and truth. Nothing happens except through him and by his will.”
In just these first two questions, we not only learn important biblical principles, but we learn how to ask questions, and what questions should follow new information. In Question 1, we learn that we are not our own but belong to God. It logically follows, then, that we would want to learn more about who God is and what he is like. If we belong to someone else, we naturally would like to know more about them. We also see how the view of our own hope shifts when we know more about God.
J.I Packer writes,
…superficial smatterings of truth, blurry notions about God and godliness, and thoughtlessness about the issues of living—career-wise, community-wise, family-wise, and church-wise—are all too often the marks of evangelical congregations today.
Catechisms are incredibly significant and helpful in having a larger framework of essential theology, as well as learning how they inform each other.
Catechisms Create Dialogue
The introduction to the New City Catechism says
The catechetical discipline of memorization drives concepts deeper into the heart and naturally holds students more accountable to master the material than do typical discipleship courses. Finally, the practice of question-answer recitation brings instructors and students into a naturally interactive, dialogical process of learning.
When we are taught how to question and how to answer, we can begin to build confidence in bringing to the surface our own questions and doubts. Catechisms model dialogue, an essential aspect of the Christian life. We bring our questions both to God and to each other. By having questions and answers modeled, we can make questions and dialogue a much more commonplace aspect of our lives together in the church. Jesus came down to earth and had dialogue with his people. This matters, and we should do likewise.