Exploring Catechisms

In preparation for the theological education of my children, I’ve been studying catechisms. Since we’re a classically protestant family, the obvious place to look is the catechisms of the Reformation. I picked up Luther’s shorter catechism, the Heidelberg catechism, the Westminster shorter catechism, and (more for reference than use) Calvin’s own Geneva catechism.

Catechisms flourished during the Reformation because it was a fundamentally educational movement. In an age when the laity didn’t have access to Bibles, theological education was minimal, and the liturgy was in Latin which in some cases the priests didn’t even understand, the Reformers sought to pass on as much theological and Biblical knowledge as possible. Services were done in the local languages, Bibles were translated and printed, and catechisms were written and used. Here is Calvin’s justification for his own:

It has ever been the practice of the Church, and one carefully attended to, to see that children should be duly instructed in the Christian religion. That this might be done more conveniently, not only were schools opened in old time, and individuals enjoined properly to teach their families, but it was a received public custom and practice, to question children in the churches on each of the heads, which should be common and well known to all Christians. To secure this being done in order, there was written out a formula, which was called a Catechism or Institute... What we now bring forward, therefore, is nothing else than the use of things which from ancient times were observed by Christians, and the true worshippers of God, and which never were laid aside until the Church was wholly corrupted.

The big take-home of my study is how incredibly good the Heidelberg catechism, but there are good things to be said about the others as well, so I’ll start there.

Lutherans and the Reformed place different emphases on the law as summarized by the 10 commandments. Lutherans stress its role in condemning us and showing us our sin, as our schoolmaster to lead us to Christ. Without denying that, the Reformed are more likely to stress the Law as the standard of God’s perfect righteousness, at which Christians aim in their pursuit of holiness.

Nevertheless, the treatment of the 10 commandments in Lutheran and Reformed catechisms is remarkably similar. Heidelberg, Westminster, and Luther all present the 10 commandments through the lens of Christ’s summary of the law (love the Lord your God and love your neighbor as yourself) and his interpretation of the spirit of the law (Matt. 5:17-28). They both present the first table (commandments 1-4 or 1-3. Luther’s numbering is non-standard) as related to loving God, and the second table as related to loving neighbor. They both interpret the spirit of the commandments as not only forbidding vice but enjoining the opposite virtue. So the sixth commandment forbids not only murder and hating your neighbor, but requires love for your neighbor. In the most interesting and wonderfully holistic application of this, Westminster interprets the seventh commandment as requiring us to support and work for the chastity of our neighbors as well as ourselves.

Of the catechisms I read, Luther’s is best designed to integrate family and church spiritual instruction. He presents a condensed series of questions and answers specifically for fathers to use in instructing their children, which is expanded and explained in more detail by the full catechism for use in a more formal examination by the pastor.

The Westminster catechism is very good as well. Although I loved the content, as a product of the 17th century it has a precise and propositional feel that makes it rather unsuitable for use with young children. Only Calvin’s is less accessible (his reads more like a dialog, is not very memorizable, and I can’t imagine it being used with anyone short of a bright high-schooler).

Westminster’s famous opening question - “What is the chief end of man?” – is adapted from the opening question of the Geneva catechism - “What is the chief end of human life?" Calvin’s answer - “To know God by whom men were created” – is affirmed but also expanded upon: “To glorify God and enjoy him forever”. The additions are definitely an improvement in their focus on the personal benefit of redemption.

Particularly surprising is the high view of the instrumentality of baptism in the Geneva Catechism. It is not Lutheran, but doesn’t shy away from attributing efficacy to baptism:

Master. – ...what is the meaning of Baptism?

Scholar. - It consists of two parts. For, first, Forgiveness of sins; and, secondly, Spiritual regeneration, is figured by it. (Eph. v. 26 ; Rom. vi. 4.)

Master. - What resemblance has water 'with these things, so as to represent them?

Scholar. - Forgiveness of sins is a kind of washing, by which our souls are cleansed from their defilements, just as bodily stains are washed away by water.


Master. - But do you attribute nothing more to the water than that it is a figure of ablution?

Scholar. - I understand it to be a figure, but still so that the reality is annexed to it; for God does not disappoint us when he promises us his gifts. Accordingly, it is certain that both pardon of sins and newness of life are offered to us in baptism, and received by us.


Master. - How are these blessings bestowed upon us by Baptism?

Scholar. - If we do not render the promises there offered unfruitful by rejecting them, we are clothed with Christ, and presented with his Spirit.

Next time: Heidelberg!

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