Preaching the Catechism...

I made a bit of a break with my normal routine today to read an article that Yinkahdinay had mentioned a while ago: "The Second Sunday Service in the Early Dutch Reformed Tradition," Donald Sinnema, Calvin Theological Journal 32 (1997): 298-333.

I don't think that I've ever been a big fan of catechism sermons, and this article didn't really do anything to improve my perception of them. The sense that I got from the opening pages of the article was that the catechism emerged as a potentially useful tool, but gradually was utilized to the point at which it seemed to be superceding scripture. There's a blurb in the article reputed to be from the president of the prominent Synod of Dordt which I found rather disturbing:

To the point of premising a text of Scripture before the catechetical sermon, he answered that the determination of the Synod was not to take that custom away there where it was in use, but only to prohibit the urging of it there where it had a long time been disused. (p. 327)

Unless I'm misinterpreting that sentence, it sounds rather like the president and the Synod were prohibiting people to advocate for reading scripture prior to reading the catechism! That certainly sounds like the catechism being given an inordinate amount of authority.

From the article it sounds as though in its original form (if not in the later Dutch forms), the catechism held a relatively less prominent place in church services. For Zwingli's Zurich (p. 299), catechism preaching started out twice annually in 1523 and soon thereafter a children's catechism service was added, but only in a one location. This was in addition to two preaching services on Sundays as well as shorter services weekday mornings and evenings. In this situation, while the catechism might play a role it was a clearly subordinate one and one that was targetted at instruction of the youth.

Another thing that I would like to mention is that it seems that catechism services were conducted in somewhat less of a lecture style than is currently the case in those churches that I know of which practice this style of preaching. There are comments about the pastor meeting with the children below the pulpit, and talk of asking questions of the youth who would then be required to respond. If the youth did not understand, then it seemed that the pastor was directed to elaborate things further. It seems that the pastor for this service was also to use simple speech that the children could understand, rather than elaborate theological terminology.

While catechetical preaching is suggested to have existed from the start of the reformation in the Netherlands, this is seems not to have been the case in practice. In many cases, particularly in rural areas, there appears not to have been a second service at all. If in fact there was such a service, according to the article generally few individuals attended. This service appears also to have been directed mainly at children, with gradually the adult population being roped in as well. (To get the adults to attend, seems to have required action on the part of the local judiciary - this usage of the civil authorities seems to me to encourage a sort of nominal Christianity). BTW, there's some further discussion over at Yinkahdinay's blog on second service attendance if you're interested.

The only scriptural justification offered in the article for the practice of Catechetical preaching was Hebrews 6:1, although the focus of the article was more historical than theological. I'm still not quite sure how to interpret these verses, as it seems to me that they can be used both in support of as well as in opposition to catechetical preaching:

Therefore we must progress beyond the elementary instructions about Christ and move on to maturity, not laying this foundation again: repentance from dead works and faith in God, teaching about baptisms, laying on of hands, resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. (Hebrews 6:1,2 NET)

Roman Catholicism historically has discouraged (or even forbidden) ordinary people from reading the Bible, with the argument that they would misinterpete it. Yet, while Protestantism has put a much greater emphasis on Biblical literacy, at times it seems that confessional churches use documents such as the Heidelberg Catechism as a replacement for scripture with a similar justification. Catechisms seem to have originally been used for the teaching of children and new converts, but now seem to suck up roughly half the preaching time in certain circles. Are people being fed spiritual milk to those who should be consuming solid food? At the same time, by aiming catechism sermons at the entire congregation, are such sermons missing their original target - children and those ignorant of the basics of the faith?

I don't think that in my life having the catechism dominate over the Bible is something that I need to be particularly watchful for. Yet, at the same time, I have similiar things to be wary of. One of the concerns that I've spoken about with some others recently, is whether I focus on too much on "theology" and too little on "bible" in my reading habits. At a Bible study last night night someone spoke of the unique power of God's word. Is a catechism, or some other literature - even if correct - a tool that we use to shield ourselves from this power?


I don't think anything can compare to Bible reading when it comes to spiritual growth. I'm sure I've mentioned this before, but Rev. Huijgen challenged the congregation (when he was our pastor) to read the entire Bible in 3 weeks and see how our lives were affected. While I didn't come close to accomplishing this, I started the Bible from Genesis 1 very soon after, and read a several chapters each night. I ended up getting stalled around Leviticus, I think. But there was something about that time in my life that was particularly different - something that perhaps I wish I had back. I don't know. Maybe I should consider reading (much) more of Scripture than I currently am (which is too little).

IMHO, having two services and the contents of the second service are separate issues. I would venture to say that the original purpose of the second service is less relevant than the purpose of it today. Before Rev. Holtvluwer left, he did a sermon series on the Canons of Dort in the afternoon service. A surprising number of people didn't know much about the Canons of Dort. The second service doesn't necessarily have to be about Catechism; it can be about the Canons of Dort, the Belgic Confession, some sort of theme, or even a series of verses just like the morning service. It's just that the Catechism is most common.

I'm not sure what my feeling is on the Catechism. I've been on both sides of the argument and now I feel like I'm sitting on the fence. The confessions in general bring together related verses from different books of the Bible in support of a particular argument. Sounds like a good idea to me. However, when you look up some of the "supporting" verses, the connection is sometimes hard to see. To say that the Catechism is infallible is not right, and the Bible should always be the final word. That's not to say we should be constantly skeptical or doubtful with regards to the accuracy of the confessions. I think the quantity and quality of the proof texts need to be revisited to make the arguments more clear, such that it is easier to verify the accuracy.

My previous church cancelled their evening services and encouraged that time to be "family time" or fellowship time for those without families. They found that Sundays were often the only day for families to spend some decent time together without interruption. Our family would often go on picnics out-of-town on Sunday afternoons, sometimes with other families in the church. The lack of an evening service gave us time to get there and back without rushing.

The church would have an evening service once a month or so with a unique emphasis i.e. potluck dinner, prayer meeting, music/worship, etc. I found this to be a good balance.