Catechism: The Old Path, the Good Way (3)
Previous article in this series: September 15, 2008, p. 484.
"Thus saith the Lord, Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls. But they said, We will not walk therein."
In the last two editorials I showed that the church's practice of catechizing her youth is an old path. From the very beginning, the church taught her own youth the ways of God in Jesus Christ. In the Old Testament the Levites had this special privilege. In the New Testament, pastors are the teachers appointed by God to do this work. The second editorial reminded us of the importance of good qualifications for the catechism teacher, because doing it poorly is almost as bad as not doing it at all.
That catechism is a (compulsory) old path does not mean that there cannot be development and improvement in the content and methods of catechism instruction. The Protestant Reformed Churches have a long history of developing and improving their materials and curriculum.
In the PRC's youth, Herman Hoeksema wrote two catechism books for the covenant young people—in 1927 the Essentials of Reformed Doctrine (now revised, but still in use today), and in 1929 the Heidelberg Catechism for Juniors (a book the Synod of 1974 determined, for significant reasons, not to revise and reprint).
Books for the instruction of the younger children in Bible history were not approved until more recently. Prior to the 1950s and 1960s, this Bible history instruction of ages 6-12 was done in various ways. In the 1930s the consistories decided that the ministers should prepare their own materials. Some of our older members will remember their own pastor's mimeographed notes or notebooks. I have in my possession a few of these early books, some of which were used in more than a few of the churches (by Revs. A. Cammenga and P. DeBoer), although not with official sanction of synod. Before these materials were produced, ministers used books from our mother denomination, by Revs. Beets, Borstius, and Bosma. A report to classis in 1934 says that these books were "commonly used."¹
This report came from a committee appointed to study the advisability of making our own books for Bible history. Without hesitation the committee recommended in favor of the idea, because of both doctrinal and pedagogical weaknesses in the existing books. We did not complete the project, though, until the 1950s, and then only after various consistories had to plead for them. Official synodical approval of the Bible history books was delayed until the 1960s (see the publication data on the inside of the books by Revs. C. Hanko, J. Heys, H.C. Hoeksema, G. VandenBerg, and H. Veldman). These books are used by all Protestant Reformed Churches.
Books for teaching the Heidelberg Catechism were most recently approved, with the workbooks by Rev. Dale Kuiper (1979) predating the memory books by Rev. W. Bruinsma (2000).
Thus, there developed a catechism curriculum that has a broad perspective and a unified aim at the spiritual preparation of covenant youth to take their place in the church. Better: the curriculum took sharper and sharper aim at teaching God's children to love God with their minds, hearts, souls, and strength. These good catechism books enable the ministers to teach Christ's lambs the "whole counsel of God."
But the catechism curriculum developed.
Still today, development and improvement are needed.
This is the expressed and official intent of the churches.
Synod's Catechism Book Committee
One of synod's standing committees (a committee appointed by synod to do the work of synod in the interim between meetings—see the Church Order, Article 49) is called "The Catechism Book Committee." I have printed the constitution of the committee in the "box" on this page. This committee, reorganized in 1993 after disbanding twice, is comprised of ministers and elders from the Chicago-area churches. The first duty these men are charged with is to "Make recommendations to synod regarding the improvement of the existing catechism material and the addition of new material." They must also "review catechism materials submitted to the committee and make recommendations to synod," which implies that others in the churches are making suggestions for improvement.
Right in the committee's constitution, the fathers of the PRC embedded the familiar theme: "Reformed but always reforming."
This committee has done good work over the years, much of which is little recognized and probably hardly thanked (but most work goes that way, which is why God's servants labor not for the praise of men, but of God; see John 12:43). All of us, though, see the fruit of this committee's work—it appears week after week and year after year in every PRC across the country and even in some other churches world-wide.2 God is using the committee's work. Nightly the books are in the hands of the churches' children and their parents. There is not an evening, from September through April or May, when these books are not opened, read, and discussed. It would not be an exaggeration to say that these books are opened and studied a hundred times more than any other book we have published.
So these editorials, as well as calls to faithfulness in teaching catechism, may also be calls to all of us to be thankful for the materials we have and for the men who produced them. For almost 25 years now I have used these books—to teach our six children; to teach the covenant youth in the two churches I served; and now to teach aspiring ministers to be faithful catechism teachers. In my heart lives profound gratitude for the activity of catechism instruction in our churches, for the materials we all employ, and for the men who produced them.
And I haven't even taken the time and space to mention some of the beautiful answers that will always live in the hearts of the children who have memorized these answers each year.
Improvement of Old, and Production of New
The Catechism Book Committee's constitution, however, maintains its call to the churches for both improvement of existing materials and for production of new. The busyness of pastors leaves precious little time to make suggestions for revisions, much less produce new materials. With the congregations becoming larger each year, the workload of the pastors does not get lighter either.
Yet the churches do well to keep in view the wisdom of regular reviews of existing curriculum: can improvements be made? And reviews of the curriculum as a whole: would something new be of benefit to the churches?
After reviewing the old decisions of our synods on the matter, reading some ministers' papers given at officebearer conferences on the subject of catechism, and looking at my tattered folders labeled "catechism improvements" and "catechism—misc. ideas," I would like to suggest some possibilities for improving our materials for edifying Christ's growing lambs. Considering that 18 of our 34 active ministers have over 15 years' experience teaching catechism, and at least 7 emeriti ministers are still able to give good thought to the matter, we have many men qualified to do this work.
First, the Bible history books could be improved by an attempt to harmonize them. The books should explicitly build on each preceding book, repeat more of the same, biblical language, and ask for memorization of some of the same Bible texts, lists of kings, tribes, judges, and books of the Bible (which now is required only once). This repetition, year after year, would help the slower students in the later years, but help all of the students really retain what is taught year after year.
In my judgment, all of the history books could be improved by eliminating the questions that ask things like, "What else did he do?" or "What further significance . . ."; by making some of the answers more complete sentences, so that the children give answers that mean something without the question; and by changing words here and there that are not appropriate for their age. Also, some ministers have suggested blocks of Scripture for memorization, rather than isolated texts. This is better. I remember Hebrews 11 because we worked on it all year. There ought to be more of that kind of memorization.
The "History for Seniors" course is intended to be a transition from simple history to an understanding of doctrines. The original report in 1934 indicated this, and the introduction to the books calls for this. Let us consider revising the books so that each lesson includes an important but basic doctrinal concept (calling, covenant, testament, faith, antithesis, regeneration, promise, prophecy, repentance, miracle, etc.) that comes out of the history and is illustrated by the history. The word could be simply defined for memorization. At the end of two years, the children would know 25 to 50 new words, all in anticipation of helping them understand the comforting doctrines in our Heidelberg Catechism. Even the definitions should use the language of the Heidelberg. Perhaps some of the ministers already have such lists and give these definitions. They would be in a good position to suggest revision of the existing books.
A harder question, but one worth asking, is how (and whether) to coordinate the history instruction in catechism with the good instruction given by the teachers in our good Christian schools. Most pastors have experienced the discomfort of attempting to teach in 45 minutes or less the history that the school teacher has five days to cover.
But my special interest is the older, doctrinal classes. I limit myself to my two main interests.
Essentials of Reformed Doctrine
The Essentials book would benefit from a closer tie to the approach and language of the Belgic Confession. This would have at least three main benefits. At a younger age the students would become more familiar with and appreciative of another of our Three Forms of Unity. After the Heidelberg, the Belgic Confession. How natural! What could be better for a Reformed young person than to learn the "essentials" of the Reformed faith more directly from the Reformed creed?
Second, an essentials book with the language and approach of the Belgic Confession would have our young people make a more explicit confession of their faith—the fathers' faith—as they learn their catechism. What beautiful language the creed employs: "We believe . . . We confess . . . We all believe with the heart and confess with the mouth . . . ."
Third, this revision of the Essentials book with the language of the Belgic Confession would make room in the post-essentials class for another book and a different study (see below). Often, after the Essentials book is finished, the students go directly to the Belgic Confession or the Canons of Dordt. In the way I propose, they will already have learned the Belgic Confession. Later, perhaps, they should study the Canons. But before that there is an even more pressing need.³
The Church Order of Dordt
What I have already suggested speaks to revising or improving existing catechism books. But there also seems to be a striking lack in what the church's youth learn as they prepare to confess their faith, approach the Lord's table, and become members in full standing in Christ's church. Unless the pastors have made some special provision for this lack, the young people have not learned Reformed church government.
A study of the PRC's Church Order would remedy this. Just consider all of the important subjects treated in this venerable Reformed document (the "old path"). The Church Order shows how ministers are called and examined, who may and may not preach, what are the qualifications and duties of ministers. It explains that a Reformed church supports her pastors (also pastors in training and retired pastors), trains her own ministers, and calls seminary professors to expound Scripture and oppose heresy. It shows the relationship of the consistory to the "good Christian schools." It explains the election process for elders and deacons, what their work is in the congregation, and how long are their "terms." The Church Order describes consistories and their meetings, classes and synods, what is and what may and may not be treated in them, and the manner of conducting their business. This Reformed document puts in plain words what a congregational meeting is, how new churches are organized, and who regulates the church's mission works. There is description of the important "Formula of Subscription" that every officebearer must sign. There are rules regarding baptism and the Lord's Supper that are not treated in the Heidelberg Catechism, and treatment of special worship services, Catechism preaching, and Psalm-singing. The document concludes with a thorough description of Christian discipline.
How important for Reformed youth to learn all this! Familiarity with the Church Order should not wait until someone suggests a study of it in an adult Bible study. Consistory members ought to be thoroughly familiar with the document before they read it (as many do), article by article, at their monthly meetings.
A textbook, although not essential for teaching the Church Order, would be very beneficial. It could include 25 or 30 lessons, covering the major topics of the Church Order's 86 articles. As the Church Order itself is divided into four main sections—Offices, Assemblies, Worship (basically), and Discipline—the book could be also. Each lesson would quote pertinent articles, give brief explanation of that aspect of the church's life, offer biblical basis for the articles, and perhaps propose some questions for preparation.
A class on the Church Order! It would teach the covenant youth the whole system of Reformed church government, which otherwise they will not learn, at least not thoroughly.
Are the churches open to revisions of existing books? To a new textbook on the Church Order?
The old path involves being Reformed, but always reforming. In catechism, too.
1 "Report of Committee on Catechism Books, to the classis of the Protestant Reformed Churches met at Oskaloosa, Iowa, June 6, 1934," signed by HH, PDB, and JDJ.
² A useful, newer book, Rediscovering Catechism, P&R Publishing, by Donald VanDyken, includes the books of the PRC in their suggested curriculum for catechism instruction.
³ A revision of the Essentials book could add requirements for Scripture memorization, give more definitions that would build on and develop the simple definitions given already in History for Seniors, and include extra work questions with answers that would come mainly from the creeds