The Reformed Family: Catechism

Mrs. Lubbers is a wife and mother in the Protestant Reformed Church of South Holland, Illinois.

"Feed my lambs, Feed my sheep."

John 21

"I am persuaded that the use of a good Catechism in all our families will be a great safeguard against the increasing errors of the times. Those who use it in their families or classes must labor to explain the sense; but the words should be carefully learned by heart, for they will be understood better as years pass." 

C.H. SpurgeonIn just a few weeks, catechism classes for the instruction of children in the Protestant Reformed churches will begin. The same questions and answers which we and our parents and grandparents learned will be resounded (echoed down) to the children. "That ye may tell it to the generation following" (Ps. 48:13b).

My earliest memories of catechism begin with Rev. Heys in the poorly-lit basement of the old white clapboard Hope Church. How impressed we were that a minister could play the piano! We always began catechism class by singing Psalter number 53, and we always ended the class with Psalter number 65. "Grace and truth shall mark the way." Those two virtues became closely associated with catechism, and grew dearer and more meaningful as the years rolled by. 

I thought memorizing questions and answers would always be a cinch.

Q."Who made the world?"


Q."In how many days did God create the world?"

A."In six days."

That was easy. And who couldn't understand it? When Dad sat down to check my catechism memorization at the end of the week, I remember telling him that I would recite both the questions and the answers! That was in 1947. Just 10 years later, and those six days to which I so glibly responded in 1947 were infused with new meaning by the popular theologians of the day — and the questions had much more difficult answers. (See H.C., Q and A 26.) Now, I was asking Dad for just a little start, and all sorts of assists here and there.

Sometimes Rev. Heys wasn't able to lead catechism. Then we were taught by one of the elders. When we were in the 8th grade, an old, unschooled — but learned and wise — elder taught the lesson about Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. Only, he spent the entire hour calling him the Ethiopian Enoch. Like us, I don't think he knew precisely what a eunuch was. But no one laughed. No one so much as cracked a smile. No one showed a hint of amusement. We knew better than to let such a report reach our fathers' ears. Only when we were walking home later that night did we double over with laughter. To our eternal good fortune, no she bears came out of the Riverbend woods that evening to teach us a sobering lesson about respect.

With the three examples in the paragraphs following, I hope to illustrate three essentials which should characterize a Reformed catechism class. These could also be summed up as The Pedagogy of Three Professors.


"Discipline has an important place in catechetical instruction. In fact, without discipline, instruction soon breaks down completely" (Catechetics, p. 31, Prof. H. Hanko).

A former catechumen remembers it this way.

We thundered down the church steps to the basement where Professor Decker (then, Rev. Decker) sat at the head of the table in the catechism room. We were only first and second graders, and with all the boisterousness of unbridled colts we scrambled for chairs, scraping them noisily across the floor as we began the settling down process. 

So far, our new minister and catechism teacher had not spoken a word, and even if he had, we scarcely would have heard him. Gradually, the shuffling and noise subsided. Still, no word. If we had had any sense at all, we would have perceived the ominous stillness emanating from the head of the table. Then, with eyes flashing lightning, and no ceremonious "good mornings," Professor Decker reached for the heavy wooden gavel lying handily nearby, and brought it down on the table with all the force of a lumberjack. With authoritative words and in the sternest of voices, he warned us once and for all that catechism began just outside the church building; he never wanted to hear that din again; let us open with prayer. 

For the remainder of Professor Decker's stay in South Holland we crept down those stairs and into that catechism room as silently as a Chicago fog. Professor was always sitting at his customary place at the head of the table when we arrived. He never got up to head us off at the pass. He didn't have to. And the dent from that gavel has to be embedded in the table, as it is in our memories, to this day.


"... the catechete must take his work as seriously in the catechism class as he does on the pulpit. Rev. Hoeksema writes: 'Instruction of the children and the early adolescents is no less important than the preaching of the Word. It is the ministry of the Word for the coming and growing church. And this is of greatest significance. Even the preaching of the Word depends on the work that is done in the catechism class. The minister therefore must not take his catechetical task too lightly. The temptation is not imaginary that while he faithfully prepares himself for the pulpit, he soon imagines that he can go to the catechism class without preparation. This is a serious mistake'" (Catechetics, p. 38, Prof. H. Hanko).

Former catechumens recall their young adult catechism experiences this way. 

These were the "glory days" of our catechism life. We were teenagers. We had jobs. We were involved in sports programs. There were birthdays and anniversaries celebrated in our families. But very little deterred us from attending the catechism classes. We wanted to be there. Professor Engelsma's (then, Rev. Engelsma) classes were highly structured and intensely personal. "Sometimes I thought I was the only teenager in the room, and he was talking to me alone." Old doctrines came alive with new practical implications for living out one's salvation in the modern age. He answered our typical teenage questions and addressed our concerns, slaying heretical dragons with rapier wit and aplomb. 

Nor was he naïve about young people. I remember the boy who was unable to answer the catechism questions, explaining to Professor Engelsma that he had a learning disability when it came to memorizing. Professor asked him, "Do you have difficulty writing?" Well, no. No problem writing. "Well, then," saidEngelsma, "you stay after class, and we'll decide how many times you'll write the questions and answers each week." That catechumen's memory improved markedly. 

Professor Engelsma taught by this axiom: "Know your stuff, know whom you are stuffing, and then stuff the children elegantly." When that "stuff" is the Word of God echoed down by one who "shows by his actions and words that there is nothing quite so important in all life as the knowledge of God whom to know is life eternal" (Catechetics, p. 38), and when the children are not just any children, but rather, children of the covenant, then the "stuffing" is truly elegant.

Refuting Heresy:

"The instruction which he (the catechumen, MBL) has received and is in the process of receiving must become his own in such a way that he receives it, not because anyone else has said that this is true, but because he is convinced that it is the truth of the Word of God. It is precisely for this reason that youth during this period in their lives are so often questioning. This has a way of frightening parents and teachers because the impression is often left that the child wants every conceivable heresy under the face of the heavens. And, indeed, if such a child is not given guidance and is not brought repeatedly to the Word of God, this is the time of life when such a one will quickly go astray, running after every promise of men and being pushed by every wind of doctrine. The catechete must not be unduly alarmed by the many questions which are asked. He must treat them all patiently and seriously. He must not quickly wring his hands in despair when many of the questions seem to suggest heretical opinions on the part of his catechumens. But the catechete must, above all, lead these youth to the fountain of all truth and emphasize times innumerable the obligation of God's people to bow before the authority of God's Word" (Catechetics, pp. 48, 49, Prof. H. Hanko).

I recall it so.

The year was 1959. Professor Hanko (then, Rev. Hanko) had accepted the call to Hope PR Church, Walker, Michigan, right from seminary. Several of us in his Wednesday night catechism class were freshmen in the local Christian college. We planned to make confession of our faith that spring, and often spoke of that commitment walking home after catechism. I speak for all of us when I say that we loved Professor's classes. This was our fourth year under his tutelage, and the stimulating discussions that took place night after night were one of the reasons why we were not eager to make confession of faith. 

But, as I said, we were collegians now — challenging the system and testing the waters. The waters in the church world that year were the theory of theistic evolution, taught openly in the college which we attended. Our catechism lessons that fall centered on the doctrine of creation. Week after week, with variations on the same theme, we baited Professor Hanko — rather poorly, I now am convinced — with questions gleaned from our several college courses. "Why did it matter how long each creation day was, as long as we believed that God created?" "Why did a day have to be a 24-hour day?" "Isn't it just possible that the first few days might have been great, long periods of time?" And, then, the particularly annoying question posed by teenagers: "Are you implying that a person can't be saved if he believes this theory?!" Patiently, but without compromise, Professor Hanko explained the heresy implicit, and the path down which this error would eventually lead. Professor was not the avuncular fellow which some mistakenly might think him to be today. He never smiled until Christmas. He brooked no "free" memorization of the H.C. Every preposition — every "of," every "in" — must be recited verbatim. So, when after weeks we were forced to move on in our treatment of the catechism with the warning that we would not be making confession of our faith if we adhered to any part of this false doctrine, we understood the terms clearly. 

As it turned out, we all did make confession of our faith that spring. Nor did Professor let us down: the last question asked to each of the five young people was as he had promised, "Do you believe in the period theory?" Each answered firmly, "No." I know this is true because we asked each aspirant for full church membership as he came out of the consistory room. My turn was last. I had convinced myself that I could honestly answer "No," but hold to a few unspoken reservations. Professor Hanko, and the elders, asked all the routine questions about the doctrines of grace, the chain of salvation, and did I attend movies? Then came the question for which I was now prepared, "Do you believe in the period theory?" Without hesitation, I answered, "No." Without batting an eye, Professor looked up and asked, "Why not?" I couldn't believe my ears. Professor caught me completely off guard. He had not required this response from any of the others. In spite of myself, but with added respect for this wily interrogator, I flawlessly and with conviction gave back to him the six reasons that he had so carefully taught us why the period theory must be condemned. They are in my catechism notes to this day. And I never knowingly tinkered with the glorious doctrine of creation again. The time had come to defend the faith, rather than to continue attacking. I have only one remaining question: "How did Professor know 40 years ago that tampering with the doctrine of creation would lead to a full-scale denial of any and all Scripture?"

I think I speak for hundreds of God's saints everywhere when I say thanks to all the faithful ministers and elders for the wonderful catechism classes. How can we ever thank you enough? Some, undoubtedly, have sat under this means of grace, and then left the church altogether. God will be the judge of that, although such ones will never escape or shake off the instruction which they have received. A faithful remnant by grace, however, will continue to use the Scriptures to instruct their covenant children and bring them to a conscious faith in and saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.

What a heritage!

Parents, make it your primary concern that your children and young people be instructed in catechism. Make sure that the children learn their questions and answers word for word as much as they are able. Only on very special and rare occasions should they ever skip catechism. It's that important. The times are evil, lax, and indiscriminate. We, therefore, must be especially pure, strict, and discerning.

Children and young people, respect your catechism teachers as if you are sitting at the feet of Christ Himself. For you are. Learn your questions and answers thoroughly as if it is your very life's blood. For it is. Above all, reverence the Scriptures.

Pray for all our catechism teachers because "Grace and truth shall mark the way." The way that leads to heaven.