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Jonathan Master (PhD, University of Aberdeen) is professor of theology and dean of the School of Divinity at Cairn University. He is also director of Cairn’s Center for University Studies. Dr. Master serves as executive editor of Place for Truth and is co-chair of the Princeton Regional Conference on Reformed Theology.

Article by Jeffrey Stivason

Catechizing: The Value of Catechizing

October 27, 2015 •

I love old sea stories.  I especially enjoy reading them when the book gives a tidbit of inconsequential information that provides a window into the world at the time of the tale.  In the Heart of the Sea, Nathaniel Philbrick's true account of the old Moby Dick yarn is an excellent example.  A first time sailor suffering from sea legs was given a treat that he would not soon forget!  The sailor would swallow a piece of fat tied to a string and when the fat hit his gullet a friend would yank the line!  We need to praise God for antiemetic medication! 

Sounding is a navigational technique that is as old as sailing.  However, after years of casting a line into the sea, an early twentieth century German inventor came up with a clever contraption that would change the nautical world forever.  He measured the depth of the water using reflected sound waves.  He took the old method of sounding seriously!  Today sound pulses transmitted into the water can measure water depth by measuring the time interval between the emission and return of the pulse.  This is a wonderful illustration of catechizing.  How so?

Catechism is like sounding.  In fact, the Greek word literally means to echo or sound down.  So, when we catechize a child we are checking for depth of knowledge and even understanding.  Think of it this way.  The parent emits the theological pulse by asking, "What is the chief end of man?"  Unlike nautical sounding we are hoping for a short time of return.  The sooner the child says, "Man's chief end is to glorify God, and enjoy Him forever" we know that knowledge is present.  Catechizing by means of questions and answers like those found in the Westminster Shorter Catechism is helpful achieving a depth of knowledge in children and adults.       

But perhaps someone will ask, "What is the value of having our children memorize information?"  Not long ago I spoke with a teacher about study techniques.  I mentioned memorization approvingly as a first step in good study habits.  The teacher looked at me as if I were an academic Neanderthal.  She explained that the new methods of education are not so archaic.  Information, she said, is attained by organic absorption.  My friends, my experience has been that organic absorption is an excuse to pass on the hard work of preparing the mental soil.  In order to understand something we first need to know it and to know it we first need to commit it to memory. 

But that brings us back to the question; what is the value of a catechetical workout?  Perhaps this story about the Westminster Shorter Catechism from Benjamin B. Warfield will be enough of an answer.

What is "the indelible mark of the Shorter Catechism"? We have the following bit of personal experience from a general officer of the United States army. He was in a great western city at a time of intense excitement and violent rioting. The streets were over-run daily by a dangerous crowd. One day he observed approaching him a man of singularly combined calmness and firmness of mien, whose very demeanor inspired confidence. So impressed was he with his bearing amid the surrounding uproar that when he had passed he turned to look back at him, only to find that the stranger had done the same. On observing his turning the stranger at once came back to him, and touching his chest with his forefinger, demanded without preface: "What is the chief end of man?" On receiving the countersign, "Man's chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever" - "Ah!" said he, "I knew you were a Shorter Catechism boy by your looks!" "Why, that was just what I was thinking of you," was the rejoinder.  It is worth while to be a Shorter Catechism boy. They grow to be men. And better than that, they are exceedingly apt to grow to be men of God. So apt, that we cannot afford to have them miss the chance of it. "Train up a child in the way he should go, and even when he is old he will not depart from it."

What more can be said to convince you?  It is true that knowledge will need to become understanding and understanding must grow into wisdom.  True enough.  But if we fail to provide our children with the Biblical and theological knowledge found in the catechism, well then, we might one day find them doing the spiritual equivalent of yanking pork fat from their throats!

Jeffrey A. Stivason has been serving the Lord as a minister of the gospel since 1995.  He was church planter and now pastor of Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church in Gibsonia, PA. He also holds a Ph.D. in systematic theology from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA.  Jeff is the Managing Editor for Place for Truth.

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