A Transformational Tool
Christian history has a strong and rich tradition of catechetical teaching. Most Catechisms consist of a series of questions and answers with the purpose of instructing another individual in the content of the Christian faith. There are a variety of denominational catechisms: Luther and Ursinus each composed their own catechisms during the Reformation Era. These provided their perspective movements with a common and unified vision.
St. Paul mentions a tradition of catechesis in his letter to the church in Galatia, “Let him that is taught in the word communicate unto him that teacheth in all good things.” (Galatians 6:6) St. Paul uses two greek phrases: katēchoumenos and katēchounti to mean “being taught” and “teaching.” Both begin with the same “kata-echeo” root, where we get the English word catechism.
The Divine Echo
Commentators have noted that this Greek verb “echeo” attaches the idea of learning to audible sound. The Apostle certainly implies that we are to learn by oral tradition. In Greek mythology, a nymph called Echo is cursed with a speech impediment by the goddess Hera. The consequence is that Echo is only able to repeat back what others have said. Christian catechisms with their prewritten questions and given answers free us from Echo’s hopeless repetitions. To our human questions, we receive the promises of God’s reciprocity. Unlike the curse of the nymphs, we are made whole in our echoed answers. The antiphonary nature of questions and answers in the catechism help build up the wholeness of the body of Christ. “Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ.” (Ephesians 4:12)
Your Voice in God’s Story
My Bishop Todd Hunter (ACNA/C4SO) describes the importance of catechism in the context of your story: “Everyone is looking for a story to live in – that is why the catechism is important.” He continues with, “Catechism is not best understood as a bunch of bullet-point doctrines. When we understand catechism that way, we are actually doing ourselves a disservice.” Bp. Hunter argues that limiting catechism to just doctrine can limit the practice to only mental assent. “Catechism is a way of summarizing this amazing cosmic story from divine intention to divine completion. A story that invites our participation.”
Bishop Hunter is describing catechism as more than a theological exercise. The questions and answers of our catechisms create a vision and story that we can invite others into, “that becomes the life of discipleship.” Beyond being a pedagogical tool, the catechism is a way for Christians to be formed into new spiritual realities. Our personal narratives are supplanted by the united and concerted voice of the Church on earth. As the world asks, “What is thy only comfort?” The church responds: “my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ.” This is more than an ammunition of answers for apologetics. As Christians, it is the real participation in our vocation as divine image bearers. Our answers transform us, as the very sounds we form with our mouths become our story. Just as the first creation came to be by the Word of God, so each image bearer speaks his own new creation into being. St. Paul describes this process as putting on a new man, “When Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then shall ye also appear with him in glory.” (Colossians 3:4) Our catechisms help us redirect our lives and our story back to the life and story of Christ. May we “put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him” (3:10)
Just as in Crosby’s famous hymn Blessed Assurance, where the familiar lines “this is my story” are coupled with the lines, “echoes of mercy, whispers of love.”
Resources on Catechisms
- Our family uses an Anglican Catechism called, “To Be A Christian” which was guided by the steady hand of Rev. JI Packer. (Online Version)
- Our friend Joffre the Giant recommends these homemade editions of the Heidelberg Catechism and Westminster Shorter Catechism by The Purple Carrot. (Online Versions: Heidelberg & Westminster Shorter and Larger)