Why a Catechism?

In my experience, the confessions are largely neglected in contemporary Reformed churches, not for their content, but for their tone. I was raised in a fairly conservative Reformed church that continued to use the Heidelberg Catechism (a contemporary curriculum format) in its Christian education programs for high school students. It’s hard for me to look back critically on the experience, because my dad was one of the teachers, but it seems to me that the Catechism was only moderately well-received by my peers, and I haven’t really thought to the reasons until now.

I wonder if the Catechism is too prescriptive, too limiting in its questions’ scope. I do think that the Heidelberg’s structure — important questions followed by thorough answers — is one of its greatest strengths for this generation of new Christians, who aren’t satisfied with pat answers or platitudes. But maybe the Catechism isn’t answering our questions: What is the Lord’s will for homosexuals? How are we to participate in the political arena as Christians? How do we enter into meaningful dialogue with Muslims, or people of other faith traditions?

Or maybe we simply don’t understand what the right questions are anymore. As Billings writes,

“There is widespread biblical illiteracy both in and outside of the church, and while many Christians know a set of particular Scripture verses, it’s not at all clear to them how the verses fit together; it’s more like a potpourri than an integrated story of how God has become known in Christ. This situation is aggravated by a culture which encourages a cafeteria spirituality where you get to pick and choose what’s most appealing.”

I would add, to our churches’ biblical illiteracy and “cafeteria spirituality”, the culture’s pervasive ignorance and undervaluing of history, a kind of “arrogance of youth,” which haughtily assumes what is new is also improved and therefore best, and therefore what is old must be outmoded and useless. This field of related presumptions is rampant in American culture at large, not just within young people; it’s what feeds our update-crazed consumerism.

Introduce a Reformation-era document — drafted in an anonymous committee and not by a famous personality, without a drop of controversy or scandal — into our hypermodern milieu, and it can quickly get lost. The Catechism accounts for the entire biblical narrative, and teaches us how to read our Bibles more carefully. It encourages and sustains Christian practices like the sacraments and prayer that are funded by and founded on a particular tradition’s reading of Scripture, and it reflects the teaching of the historical Church. In offering these good gifts to the contemporary church, the Heidelberg Catechism teaches us what questions we should be asking, what is really important. We have tried the hyper-individualized, consumer-centered approach to reading the Bible. Praise God that his renewal is not just a technological update of the old systems, but is a new thing, and that an inconspicuous, historical document can be a surprising agent in that new thing.

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