“Q. What is the chief end of man? A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” Those words are the first question and answer in the Westminster Larger Catechism, which was completed 347 years ago this week. The Westminster Catechisms—both the Larger and Shorter versions—would become some of the most influential catechisms in Christian history.
Here are nine things you should know about catechisms and catechesis.
1. The catechist engages in catechesis when using the catechism to catechize the catechum.
Catechesis a form of religious instruction that typically involves a recitation of information in oral form. The instruction is usually based on a book or document known as a catechism, which contains a summary of principles, especially of religious doctrine, often in the form of questions and answers. While the catechism is the content of the instruction, the person being taught is called the catechumen (from the Greek for “one being instructed”) and the catechist is the person doing the instructing. The instruction is called catechesis, and the process is referred to as catechizing.
2. The terms related to catechesis are derived from the Bible.
The terms related to catechesis are derived from the original Greek word transliterated as katecheo (i.e., to teach orally, to instruct). The word is found in passages such as Luke 1:4 and 1 Corinthians 14:19. Paul uses the word and concept in Galatians 6:6 when he says, “Let him who is taught the word share all good things with him who teaches.” Also, in Acts 18:25, Paul says that Apollos “was an eloquent man, competent in the Scriptures. He had been instructed in the way of the Lord.”
3. Almost all catechisms include the same four main elements.
While the doctrinal content of catechisms has varied widely, from the early church until today, most catechesis has included four staples: the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, and teachings on the sacraments or ordinances (e.g., the Lord’s Supper and baptism).
4. The Protestant Reformers “recovered” catechesis (at least according to them).
Many Protestant clergy during the Reformation era believed that what their medieval forebears had taught should not really be considered catechesis. In the introduction to his catechism, John Calvin wrote that the Devil had overthrown catechesis and “left nothing but certain trifles, which only beget superstition without any fruit of edification.” And Martin Luther said, “By the Grace of God I have brought about such a change that nowadays a girl or boy of fifteen knows more about the Christian doctrine than all the theologians of the great universities used to know in the old days. For among us the catechism has come back into use: I mean the Lord’s prayer, the Apostles’ Creed, The Ten Commandments . . .”
5. Catechisms and the printing press were two of the most influential tools of the Reformation.
During the Reformation era, the printing press not only allowed people to have Bibles printed in their language but also helped spread Protestant catechizing materials. John Tillotson, England’s Archbishop of Canterbury from 1691 to 1694, said that “catechizing and the history of the martyrs have been the two great pillars of the Protestant Religion.” And the Roman Catholic Council of Trent complained that Protestants had done great “mischief” by means of catechisms.
6. Martin Luther popularized the question-and-answer format.
Almost all catechesis requires some form of memorization. But not all catechisms use the common format of scripted questions and answers. Luther, eager to ensure Christians understood what they were memorizing, included in his shorter catechism of 1529 a “What does this mean?” type of question with an answer he devised. Although Luther didn’t invent the question-and-answer format, he made it the popular form for Protestant catechesis.
7. The Westminster Confession of Faith inspired most of the important catechisms of Reformed Christianity.
In 1646, a gathering of pastor-theologians meeting in Westminster Abbey completed both the Westminster Larger Catechism and also the Westminster Shorter Catechism. Both of the catechisms were designed as companion texts to the Westminster Confession of Faith. But the popular confession inspired other catechisms too. “Terms and phrases found in the Confession almost immediately became the preferred parlance of English-speaking Reformed churches,” Chad Van Dixhoorn says, “and when Congregationalists, Baptists, and Methodists wished to create confessional or catechetical texts of their own, they often resorted to revising and reissuing works produced by the Westminster Assembly.”
8. Just about every church tradition has created its own catechism.
Almost every denomination and tradition in church history has used some form of catechesis for the religious education of Christian children and adults: Lutherans (Luther’s Small Catechism), Presbyterians (Westminster Shorter Catechism), Baptists (Keach’s Catechism), Catholics (the Catechism of the Catholic Church), Anglicans (The Book of Common Prayer’s Catechism), and so on.
9. TGC helped create a modern-era catechism.
In 2012, The Gospel Coalition and Redeemer Presbyterian Church released the New City Catechism. This catechism was developed and adapted by Timothy Keller and Sam Shammas from Reformation catechisms. It comprises 52 questions and answers, making it simple to fit into church calendars and achievable even for people with demanding schedules. It’s also a joint adult and children’s catechism. In other words, the same questions are asked of both children and adults, and the children’s answer is always part of the adult answer. Attached to each question and answer is a short written teaching from a historical preacher (Augustine, Edwards, Spurgeon, Wesley) and a short video teaching from a modern one (Don Carson, Mark Dever, Timothy Keller, John Piper).