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“Instructing Our Children” – 4
Catechizing and the Family Pew
XX. Texts that Transform
Every Christian parent wants nothing more than to see his/her children trusting in Christ and walking with Him. How then are we to lead them to Christ? The normal practice among Reformed Christians has been to baptize their children on the basis of the promises of the covenant (e.g. Gen 17:7; Acts 2:39). Baptized children were regarded as “children of promise” (Gal 4:28) and “holy” (1 Cor 7:14), and they were reared as Christians in the hope that they might never know a day apart from faith in Christ. Davidson College professor of a previous generation, Lewis Bevens Schenck (1898-1985), demonstrated in his classic work, The Presbyterian Doctrine of Children in the Covenant, that this has been the practice of Reformed Protestants from Calvin to the 20th century. Revivalism sowed confusion in the 18th and especially in the 19th centuries, yet our major spokesmen have been clear, beginning with Calvin (1509-1564) and ending in the 20th century with B. B. Warfield (1851-1921). Our children are members of the church (non-communing) and normally are to be led to Christ by Christian nurture, not crisis conversion. They are to be taught from birth that they are children of God, they belong to Christ and are members of His church.1
Conversion for the church’s children would look more like a gradual process than a sudden crisis. As they progress from infancy to childhood, to adolescence, to adulthood, they would experience a dawning awareness of their identity as believers. Progressively they would grow in their knowledge of God, humanity, sin, Christ, salvation, and the Christian life. They might never know a day of unbelief, just the growing content of their belief; never a day uncommitted to Christ, just growing commitment to Christ as they mature.
Yet we have also taught that the efficacy of baptism as a means of grace and the fulfillment of God’s promises to parents regarding their children’s salvation are conditioned on the faith and faithfulness of parents. They must utilize the means of Christian instruction, prayer, discipline, and so on. As Charles Hodge once wrote, there is
an intimate and divinely established connection between the faith of parents and the salvation of their children; such a connection as authorizes them to plead God’s promises, and to expect with confidence, that through his blessing on their faithful efforts, their children will grow up the children of God.2
The marriage bed has always been the normal and most effective method of increasing and spreading the church. Parental nurture of Christian children, Schenck summarizes, is “the appointed, the natural, the normal and ordinary means by which children of believers (are) made truly the children of God.”3 Train them, then, to act, feel, and think as children of God.
How are we to provide that training? So far we’ve seen that we are to provide a “godly example,” apart from which all other means are doomed to failure. Then we commended family worship as a discipline that Scripture requires and provides a format for praying “with and for” our children and “teaching them the doctrines of our holy religion,” as indeed we promise to do in our baptismal vows. This brings us to the next means, that of catechizing.
My first exposure to catechizing took place the year of my internship at Coral Gables, Florida, in 1981-82. Two beautiful little girls, Amanda and Janna Levi, Danny and Susie’s daughters, were invited to the front of the church during a morning worship service. They were then asked to recite the first 20 or so questions of the Catechism for Young Children which they did, word-perfect. I was so moved, so impressed that I determined at that moment that I would catechize my children should God be pleased ever to give me any. For me it was an “of course” moment, a self-authenticating exercise, one which said to those who would listen that, of course, this is the method by which to introduce children to Christian doctrine. Of course this is the way to train their minds to think in a Christian way.
At that time I knew little of the background of catechesis. Here is what I later learned. Luke wrote to Theophilus regarding the things he had been “taught” (katēcheō), from which we get our word “catechize” (Lk 1:4). The Apostle refers to the one who is “taught” sharing all good things with the one who “teaches,” or the one who is catechized sharing with the one who catechizes (Gal 6:6; cf Rom 2:18; Acts 18:25; 1 Cor 14:19). He also speaks of “a form of teaching” (Rom 6:17) and “a form of sound words” (2 Tim 1:13), which J. W. Alexander (1804-1859) suggests “some little compend or syllabus of catechetical instruction.”4 The question and answer format goes back to Socrates (d. 399 BC) and the ancient Greeks. It was adapted by the early Christians such as Cyprian (199-258) and Origen (c. 184-c. 253), and examples of which include Clement of Alexandrea’s Pegagogus (c. 198), Lactantius’ Institutes (c. 303-311), Cyril of Jerusalem’s Catechetical Lectures (c. 350), Augustine’s On the Catechizing of the Uninstructed (c. 400), and Enchiridion (c. 420). Catechizing flourished in the patristic era, waned in the Middle Ages, and was revived by the Reformers, beginning with Luther as early as 1516-17. “First of all,” he wrote in 1526, “we stand in need, for God’s service in German, of a rigged, plain, simple, good Catechism.5 His Small Catechism (1529) was among his most successful publications, doing much to popularize Protestant doctrine. A number of Reformers followed suit, the most important being Calvin’s Genevan Catechism, first published in 1537 and revised in 1542 and again in 1545, followed by the Heidelberg Catechism of 1563, the standard for the Dutch and German Reformed churches.
In the English speaking world, Thomas Cranmer provided a catechism in the first Book of Common Prayer (1549). However, by far the most important catechism in the English-speaking world has been the Westminster Assembly’s Shorter Catechism, first published in 1648 and utilized by Protestants across denominational lines for generations. Reformed luminaries from Calvin to the Westminster Assembly; from the Puritans, Richard Baxter (1615-1691), John Owen (1616-1683), Thomas Watson (1620-1686), John Flavel (1627-1691); to the revival era’s Philip Doddridge (1702-1751) and George Whitefield (1714-1770); to the Princetonians Charles Hodge (1797-1878), B. B. Warfield (1851-1921), and Princeton/Westminster’s John Murray (1898-1975) all enthusiastically endorsed the catechizing of children.
When I was an elementary school student in the Los Angeles School District, the Roman Catholic students were dismissed at 2:30 on Wednesday afternoon in order to attend catechism class. None of the Protestant children (the majority) even knew what a catechism was. We assumed that whatever it was, it was something Roman Catholics did, not us. Appreciate the irony. Catechizing had so fallen out of use among Protestants by the mid-20th century that what was once a characteristic Protestant childrearing tool copied by Roman Catholics because it was so successful had come to be exclusively practiced by Roman Catholics.
The Reformers rightly reconnected baptism with catechizing, as was the case in the ancient church. They wrote the catechisms and instituted catechetical instruction for those baptized as infants. The recitation of the catechism at the time of the child’s public profession was seen as a baptismal profession of faith, both affirming the faith into which the child was baptized as an infant, and confirming that upon that faith he/she would live thereafter. Recitation and public profession of faith was understood as the fulfillment of the baptismal covenant. Parents who wish to lead their children to sincere commitment to Christ should not neglect this tool.
Matthew Henry, who in so many ways represents the apex of Reformed pastoral theology, not only provides the best treatment of family worship, but also the best treatment of catechizing with his “Sermon Concerning the Catechizing of Youth.”6 The sermon is an exposition of 2 Timothy 1:13.
Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. (2 Tim 1:13)
What is gained by catechizing? First, your children will learn doctrinal truth. That is, they will learn what the Bible teaches across a comprehensive range of topics. Henry argues that the “form” (NASB, KJV) or “pattern of sound words” of which the Apostle Paul speaks are the doctrines which comprise “the main principles of Christianity.” However, these principles “lie scattered in the Scripture” and must be “collected and brought together” if we are rightly to understand them and believe them. This is what our catechisms and confessions do. They “pick up from the various parts of holy writ those passages which… contain the essentials of religion, the foundations and main pillars upon which Christianity is built.” These “truths of God” are then “arranged and put in order” so that one might easily see “how one thing tends to another, and all centre in Christ, and the glory of God in Christ.”7
Second, they will learn Bible truths in manageable proportions. The whole, says Henry, is “brought down to the capacity of young ones.”8 Catechizing is like feeding food to children. Bite-size portions are provided. Digestible bits of truth are fed to their souls.
Capacity to memorize
Third, it takes advantage of children’s capacity to memorize. When our oldest child was learning the Children’s Catechism, his younger brother was often in ear-shot of his recitations. On one occasion it occurred to me to find out how much he had absorbed. “Who made you?” I asked, starting with question #1. He rattled off the first 20-plus answers! Within a few weeks of utilizing the Heidelberg Catechism’s first question, “What is your only comfort in life and in death?”, my 6th grade history students had it memorized.
Catechizing is a time-tested method of passing on one’s faith to one’s children, utilizing a method used throughout the educational process. How do they learn their A-B-C’s? How do they learn the vowels, their numbers, their times-tables, vocabulary, dates, names, and so on? Through memorization. Comprehension comes later. “It is,” Henry insists, “a very great advantage to young people, to hear and learn the Christian forms of sound words in the days of their youth; to have been well taught some good catechism, or confession of faith.”9 Parents who wish to lead their children to sincere commitment to Christ should not neglect this tool of catechizing. This is especially important in this day of appalling theological ignorance. Theological ignorance means religious vulnerability. To what? To the teachings of cults, false religions, and skeptics. The catechisms expose our children to the whole body of doctrines that we cherish. Thomas Manton (1620-1677) speaks of recommending “with the greatest earnestness the work of catechizing.”10 According to Whitefield, citing Genesis 18:17, Deuteronomy 6:6, 7, and Ephesians 6:1, 2, “Scarcely any thing is more frequently pressed upon us in the holy writ than this duty of catechizing.”11
What does it mean to utilize “all the means of God’s appointment?” Primarily it means to bring them to church and under the public means of grace. Bring them to church, where Jesus promises to be (Mt 18: 20). Jesus can be present anywhere at any time. We don’t limit His sovereignty. Yet doesn’t it make sense to bring them where He has promised to be, to bring them to church services Sunday morning and evening? Establish the discipline of the family pew and stick to it.
Among my earliest and warmest memories are those of sitting in church with my family. I recall sitting close to my father, his giant hand (comparatively) enveloping mine. I recall his finger guiding my eyes across the hymnal page, enabling me to sing what was otherwise a confusing musical score. By way of contrast, my memories of Sunday School are not warm. I associate it with nervousness and awkwardness. I am sure that was my fault, not the Sunday School’s. Yet I do note the difference. I have only positive associations with our family pew. I might also note that among the most important sermons I ever heard were those of those early years. I recall one on hell that was particularly arresting. Another on the consequences of sin, “The Unfunny Joke” it was called, made a lasting impact. Don’t underestimate the value of what they hear even as young children. The family and the church together are the authorized and commissioned means of bringing the children of believers to Christ. The biblical expectation is that children are present when the covenant community gathers. For example, the “little ones” are present in Deuteronomy (29:11; 31:12), Joshua (8:35) and again in Joel (2:16). Jesus welcomed the little children and insisted that the kingdom of God belonged to them (Mt 19:13-15; Mk 10:13; Lk 18:15). The Apostle Paul addressed children, urging that they obey or honor their parents (Eph 6:3, 4). Don’t miss the obvious. The children were present to hear the Apostle’s letter read. This apparently was the normal practice. For 19 centuries nurseries and “children’s church” were nowhere to be found. The older authors urged that they be brought to church as soon as practical, that is, “without the disturbance of the church,” as the Puritan Thomas Lye (1621-1684) recommended.12
We found that the value of the family altar was closely related to the value of the family pew, and vice versa. As they learned to participate and otherwise sit quietly and listen for family devotions, they learned to participate and otherwise sit quietly and listen for public worship. As they learned the fixed forms of public worship at home (e.g. doxology, Apostles’ Creed, Ten Commandments, Lord’s Prayer), they were able to participate actively in the public services. The counter-intuitive is true: children are better able to participate in a more traditional and formal service with regular fixed forms than in a service with no fixed forms which they can learn. Henry saw the connection between the family worship and public worship long before we did. He urges, “Let families be well catechized, and then the public preaching of the word will be the more profitable, and the more successful.”13
The same can be said of prayer.
If every family were a praying family, public prayers would be the better joined with, more intelligently, and more affectionately; for the more we are used to prayer, the more expert we shall be in that holy divine art of entering into the holiest in that duty.14
The church is meant to play a vital role in the Christian nurture of your children. Jesus gave to the church the keys to the kingdom of heaven (Mt 16:19). Typically those keys have been understood to be the ordinary means of grace: the word, sacraments, and prayer. Under the ordinary means souls are regenerated (1 Pet 1:23-25), faith is awakened, salvation received (1 Pet 2:1, 2; Jn 17:17). Are children exempted from this pattern or should we expect the same benefits should accrue to them as accrue to adults through the ministry of the church?
Consider, then, that to which children of the church are exposed during the first 18 years of life in the church (like ours) committed to worship “according to Scripture,” morning and evening, 52 weeks a year.
Over the last 18 years we have read a chapter of Scripture in every service, a total of 62 books or almost the entire Bible. Your child will have heard that. During that same period, 28 books of the Bible have been preached in their entirety, 10 from the Old Testament (including 1 Kings – Job) and 18 from the New Testament. Topical series have been preached on a wide range of subjects including the Attributes of God, the Beatitudes, the Lord’s Prayer, the Fruit of the Spirit, the Christian’s Identity, the Family, Calvinism, the Solas of the Reformation, the Sermon on the Mount, the Parables, and many others.
Over an 18-year period your children, more or less, will have attended 936 Sunday School classes and 1872 worship services in which they will have enjoyed the fellowship of the saints and heard 1872 sermons. Your children will have sung 1872 psalms and 3744 hymns reinforced by learning 216 psalms and hymns of the month. These will have provided constant exposure to the rich devotional language of the Christian tradition. They will have seen and heard the Lord’s Supper administered and explained roughly 216 times and baptisms 180 times. They will have heard 1872 prayers of praise and 1872 pastoral prayers which will have included confessions of sin as well as prayers for sanctification, for the church and its ministry, the sick, the nation, the Christian mission around the world, and for the illumination of the Spirit. These prayers not only will have provided models of prayer for your children but also will have expressed priorities of the Christian life.
Do not underestimate the cumulative effect of all of this: the word read, preached, sung, prayed, and seen, in the context of the fellowship of the saints, morning and evening, fifty-two weeks a year for 18 years. The evidence is so compelling that it raises the question: why would any parent not have his/her children in the services of the church every time the doors are open? Given that Jesus is present and the gospel is the power of God for salvation (Rom 1:16), why would you not have your children in church under the ministry of the word, week in and week out, year after year after year?
Afraid they might rebel if they are in church so much? So the solution to the problem of rebellious children is to have them sitting by their parents in church less? Reduce their exposure to the means of grace? Minimize the likelihood of waywardness by exposing them to less of the word read, preached, sung, prayed, and seen? Really? Parental attitude is crucial. “Tell them of the duty and privilege of going to the house of God, and joining in the prayers of the congregation,” Ryle counsels.15 “Set it before their mind, as a high, holy and solemn duty.”16
When they make a profession of faith and are admitted to the Lord’s table, they are not “joining the church.” They already are members.
Cited in Lewis Bevins Schenck, The Presbyterian Doctrine of Children in the Covenant (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 1940), 140, citing Hodge’s review article of Horace Bushnell’s Christian Nurture.
J. W. Alexander, “The History of Catechising,” in Princeton and the Work of the Christian Ministry, Volumes 1 & 2 (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2012), 77.
Cited in Ibid., 83.
Henry, “Sermon Concerning the Catechizing of Youth,” Works, II:157-173.
Manton, “Epistle,” 8.
Whitefield, “Family Religion,” 39; see also Lye, “Profitable Catechizing,” Puritan Sermons, 2:101; 105-108; 112, 115.
Thomas Lye, “By What Scriptural Rules May Catechizing Be So Managed as That It May Become Most Universally Profitable,” in Puritan Sermons, 1659-1689 (1844; Wheaton: Richard Owen Roberts, 1981), II:118.
Henry, “Church in the House,” Works, I:262.
Ryle, Duties of Parents, 12.