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What is Catechism?

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by Zacharias Ursinus (1534-1583)


The Greek word kataecaesis is derived from kataeceoh, as kataecismos is from kataecidzoh. Both words, according to their common signification, mean to sound, to resound, to instruct by word of mouth, and to repeat the sayings of another. Kataeceoh more properly, however, means to teach the first principles and rudiments of some particular doctrine. As applied to the doctrine of the church and as understood when thus used, it means to teach the first principles of the Christian religion, in which sense it occurs in Luke 1. 4, Acts 18. 25, Gal. 6. 6, etc. Hence, catechisation in its most general and comprehensive sense, means the first brief and elementary instruction which is given by word of mouth in relation to the rudiments of any particular doctrine; but, as used by the church, it signifies a system of instruction relating to the first principles of the Christian religion, designed for the ignorant and unlearned.


The system of catechising, therefore, includes a short, simple, and plain exposition and rehearsal of the Christian doctrine, deduced from the writings of the prophets and apostles, and arranged in the form of questions and answers, adapted to the capacity and comprehension of the ignorant and unlearned; or it is a brief summary of the doctrine of the prophets and apostles, communicated orally to such as are unlearned, which they again are required to repeat.


In the primitive church, those who learned the catechism were called Catechumens; by which it was meant that they were already in the church, and were instructed in the first principles of the Christian religion. There were two classes of these Catechumens. The first were those of adult age, who were converts to Christianity from the Jews and Gentiles, but were not as yet baptized. Persons of this description were first instructed in the catechism, after which they were baptized and admitted to the Lord's Supper. Such a catechumen was Augustin after his conversion to Christianity from Manicheism, and wrote many books while he was a Catechumen, and before he was baptized by Ambrose. Ambrose was also a Catechumen of this sort when he was chosen Bishop, the urgent necessity of which arose from the peculiar state and condition of the church of Milan, upon which the Arians were making inroads. Under other and ordinary circumstances the apostle Paul forbids a novice or Catechumen to be chosen to the office of a Bishop. (1 Tim. 3. 6.) The neophutoi spoken of by Paul, were those Catechumens who were not yet, or very lately had been baptized; for the Greek word, which in our translation is rendered a novice, according to its literal signification means a new plant; that is, a new hearer and disciple of the church. The other class of Catechumens included the small children of the church, or the children of Christian parents. These children, very soon after their birth were baptized, being regarded as members of the church, and after they had grown a little older they were instructed in the catechism, which having learned, they were confirmed by the laying on of hands and were dismissed from the class of Catechumens, and were then permitted, with those of riper years, to celebrate the Lord's Supper. Those who are desirous of seeing more in regard to these Catechumens, are referred to the Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius, the tenth book, and latter part of the fourth chapter. Those who taught the catechism, or instructed these Catechumens, were called Catechists.




The same thing may be said of the origin of catechisation which is said of the whole economy or service of the church, that it was instituted by God himself, and has always been practiced in the church. For, since from the very beginning of the world God has been the God, not only of those of adult age, but also of those of young and tender years, according to the covenant which he made with Abraham, saying, "I will be a God unto thee and thy seed after thee;" (Gen. 17. 7.) he has also ordained that both classes should be instructed in the doctrine of salvation according to their capacity; the adults by the public voice of the ministry, and the children by being catechised in the family and school. As it respects the institution designed for the instruction of adults, the case is clear and admits of no doubt.


Touching the catechisation of children in the Jewish church, the Old Testament abounds in many explicit commands. In the 12th and 13th chapters of Exodus, God commands the Jews to give particular instruction to their children and families in relation to the institution and benefits of the Passover. In the fourth chapter of the book of Deut., he enjoins it upon parents to repeat to their children the entire history of the law which he had given them. In the sixth chapter of the same book, he requires that the doctrine of the unity of God, and of perfect love to him should be inculcated and impressed upon the minds of their children; and in the eleventh he commands them to explain the Decalogue to their children. Hence, under the Old Testament dispensation, children were taught in the family by their parents, and in the schools by the teachers of religion, the principal things contained in the prophets, viz: such as respects God, the law, the promise of the gospel, the use of the sacraments, and sacrifices, which were types of the Messiah that was to come, and of the benefits which he was to purchase; for there can be no doubt but that the schools of the prophets Elijah, Elisha, etc., were established for this very purpose. It was also with this design that God delivered his law in the short and condensed form in which it is. "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart," etc., "and thy neighbor as thyself." So also as it respects the gospel; it was briefly comprehended in the promises, "The seed of the woman shall bruise the serpent's head." And in thy seed shall "all the nations be blessed." They had, likewise, sacrifices, prayers, and other things which God required Abraham and his posterity to teach their children and families. Hence it is that this doctrine is presented in such a plain and simple form as to meet the capacity of children and such as are unlearned.


In the New Testament we are, told that Christ laid his hands upon little children and blessed them, and commanded that they should be brought unto him. Hence he says, in Mark 10. 14, "Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not, for of such is the kingdom of God." That the catechisation of children was diligently attended to in the times of the apostles, is evident from the example of Timothy, of whom it is said that he knew the holy Scriptures from infancy; and from what is said in the epistle to the Hebrews, where mention is made of some of the principal heads included in the catechism of the apostles, such as repentance from dead works, and of faith towards God, of the doctrine of baptism, and of laying on of hands, and of resurrection from the dead, and of eternal judgment which the apostle terms milk for babes. These and similar points of doctrine were required from the Catechumens of adult age at the time of their baptism, and of children at the time of their confirmation by the laying on of hands. Hence, the apostle calls them the doctrine of baptism and laying on of hands. So likewise the Fathers wrote short summaries of doctrine, some fragments of which may still be seen in the Papal church. Eusebius writes of Origen, that he restored the custom of catechising in Alexandria, which had been suffered to grow out of use during the times of persecution. Socrates writes thus in relation to the system of catechising in the primitive church: "Our form of catechising," says he, "is in accordance with the mode which we have received from the Bishops who have preceded us, and according as we were taught when we laid the foundation of faith and were baptized, and according as we have learned from the Scriptures," etc. Pope Gregory caused images and idols to be placed in the churches, that they might serve as books for the laity and children. After this period the doctrine of the church, through the negligence of the bishops and the subtlety of the Romish priests, became gradually more and more corrupt, and the custom of catechising grew more and more into disuse, until at length it was changed into the ridiculous ceremony which to this day they call confirmation. So much concerning the origin and practice of catechisation in the church.




The chief and most important parts of the first principles of the doctrine of the church, as appears from the passage just quoted from the Epistle to the Hebrews, are repentance and faith in Christ, which we may regard as synonymous with the law and gospel. Hence, the catechism in its primary and most general sense, may be divided as the doctrine of the church, into the law and gospel. It does not differ from the doctrine of the church as it respects the subject and matter of which it treats, but only in the form and manner in which these things are presented, just as strong meat designed for adults, to which the doctrine of the church may be compared, does not differ in essence from the milk and meat prepared for children, to which the catechism is compared by Paul in the passage already referred to. These two parts are termed, by the great mass of men, the Decalogue and the Apostles' creed; because the Decalogue comprehends the substance of the law, and the Apostles' creed that of the gospel. Another distinction made by this same class of persons is that of the doctrine of faith and works, or the doctrine of those things which are to be believed and those which are to be done.


There are others who divide the catechism into these three parts; considering, in the first place, the doctrine respecting God, then the doctrine respecting his will, and lastly that respecting his works, which they distinguish as the works of creation, preservation, and redemption. But all these different parts are treated of either in the law or the gospel, or in both, so that this division may easily be reduced to the former.


There are others, again, who make the catechism consist of five different parts; the Decalogue, the Apostles' Creed, Baptism, the Lord's Supper, and Prayer; of which, the Decalogue was delivered immediately by God himself, whilst the other parts were delivered mediately, either through the manifestation of the Son of God in the flesh, as is true of the Lord's Prayer, Baptism, and the Eucharist, or through the ministry of the apostles, as is true of the Apostles' Creed. But all these different parts may also be reduced to the two general heads noticed in the first division. The Decalogue contains the substance of the law, the Apostles' Creed that of the gospel; the sacraments are parts of the gospel, and may, therefore, be embraced in it as far as they are seals of the grace which it promises, but as far as they are testimonies of our obedience to God, they have the nature of sacrifices and pertain to the law, whilst prayer, in like manner, may be referred to the law, being a part of the worship of God.


The catechism of which we shall speak in these lectures consists of three parts. The first treats of the misery of man, the second of his deliverance from this misery, and the third of gratitude, which division does not, in reality, differ from the above, because all the parts which are there specified are embraced in these three general heads. The Decalogue belongs to the first part, in as far as it is the mirror through which we are brought to see ourselves, and thus led to a knowledge of our sins and misery, and to the third part in as far as it is the rule of true thankfulness and of a Christian life. The Apostles' Creed is embraced in the second part inasmuch as it unfolds the way of deliverence from sins. The sacraments, belonging to the doctrine of faith and being the seals that are attached thereto, belong in like manner to this second part of the catechism, which treats of deliverance from the misery of man. And prayer, being the chief part of spiritual worship and of thankfulness, may, with great propriety, be referred to the third general part.




This necessity may be urged,


1. Because it is the command of God: "Ye shall teach them to your children" etc. (Deut. 11. 19.)


2. Because of the divine glory which demands that God be not only rightly known and worshipped by those of adult age, but also by children, according as it is. said, "Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings hast thou ordained strength." (Ps. 8. 2.)


3. On account of our comfort and salvation; for without a true knowledge of God and his Son Jesus Christ, no one that has attained to years of discretion and understanding can be saved, or have any sure comfort that he is accepted in the sight of God. Hence it is said, "This is life eternal that they might know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent," And again, "Without faith it is impossible to please God." (John 17. 3, Heb. 11. 6.) And not only so, but no one believes on him of whom he knows nothing, or has not heard; for, "How shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard?" "So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God." (Rom. 10. 14, 17.) It is necessary, therefore, for all those who will be saved, to lay hold of, and embrace the doctrine of Christ, which is the chief and fundamental doctrine of the gospel. But, in order that this may be done, there must be instructions imparted to this effect and of necessity, some brief and simple form of doctrine, suited and adapted to the young, and such as are unlearned.


4. For the preservation of society and the church. All past history proves that religion and the worship of God, the exercise and practice of piety, honesty, justice, and truth, are of the greatest importance to the well-being and perpetuation of the church and of the commonwealth. But it is in vain that we look for these things among barbarous nations, since they have never been known to produce the fruits of Piety and virtue. Hence, there is a necessity that we should be trained to the practice of these things from our earliest years; because the heart of man is depraved and evil from his youth; yea, such is the corruption of our nature, that unless we early commence the work of reformation and moral training, we too late apply a remedy when, through long delay, the evil principles and inclinations of the heart have become so strengthened and confirmed, as to bid defiance to the restraints we may then wish to impose upon them. If we are not correctly instructed in our childhood out of the sacred Scriptures concerning God and his will, and do not then commence the practice of piety, it is with great difficulty, if ever, we are drawn away from these errors which are, as it were, born in us, or which we have imbibed from, our youth, and that we are led to abandon the vices in which we have been brought up, and to which we have been accustomed. If, therefore, the church and state are to be preserved from degeneracy and final destruction, it is of the utmost importance that this depravity of our nature should, in due time, be met with proper restraints, and be subdued.


5. There is a necessity that all persons should be made acquainted with the rule and standard according to which we are to judge and decide, in relation to the various opinions and dogmas of men, that we may not be led into error, and be seduced thereby, according to the commandment which is given in relation to this subject, "Beware of false prophets." "Prove all things." "Try the spirits whether they are of God." (Matt. 7. 15, 1 Thess. 5. 21, 1 John 4. l.) But the law and the Apostle's creed, which are the chief parts of the catechism, constitute the rule and standard according to which we are to judge of the opinions of men, from which we may see the great importance of a familiar acquaintance with them.


6. Those who have properly studied and learned the Catechism, are generally better prepared to understand and appreciate the sermons which they hear from time to time, inasmuch as they can easily refer and reduce those things which they hear out of the word of God, to the different heads of the catechism to which they appropriately belong, whilst, on the other hand, those who have not enjoyed this preparatory training, hear sermons for the most part, with but little profit to themselves.


7. The importance of catechisation may be urged in view of its peculiar adaptedness to those learners who are of weak and uncultivated minds, who require instruction in a short, plain, and perspicuous manner, as we have it in the catechism, and would not, on account of their youth and weakness of capacity, be able to understand it, if presented in a lengthy and more difficult form.


8. It is also necessary, for the purpose of distinguishing and separating the youths, and such as are unlearned, from schismatics and profane heathen, which can most effectually be done by a judicious course of catechetical instruction.


Lastly. A knowledge of the catechism is especially important for those who are to act as teachers, because they ought to have a more intimate acquaintance with the doctrine of the church than others, as well on account of their calling, that they may one day be able to instruct others, as on account of the many facilities which they have for obtaining a knowledge of this doctrine, which it becomes them diligently to improve, that they may, like Timothy, become well acquainted with the Holy Scriptures, and "be good ministers of Jesus Christ, nourished up in the words of faith, and of a good doctrine, whereunto they have attained." (1. Tim. 4, 6.)


To these considerations, which clearly show the importance of catechisation, we may add many others of great weight, especially with the great mass of mankind, such as the arguments which may be drawn from the end of our creation, and from the prolongation and preservation of our lives from childhood to youth, and from youth to manhood, etc. We might also speak of the excellency of the object of the doctrine of the catechism, which is the highest good, even God himself, and might show the effect of such a course of instruction, which is a knowledge of this highest good, and a participation therein, which is something vastly more important and desirable than all the treasures of this world. This is that pearl of great price hidden in the field of the church, concerning which Christ speaks in Matt. 13:44, and on account of which Christians in former times suffered martyrdom, with their little children. We may here refer to the example of Origen, of which we have an account in the sixth book and third chapter of the Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius. So the fourth book and sixteenth chapter of the history of Theodoret may be read to the same purpose. But if we are ignorant of the doctrine and glory of Christ, who from among us would be willing to suffer on their account? And how can it be otherwise but that we will be ignorant of these things, unless we are taught and instructed in them from our childhood? A neglect of the catechism is, therefore, one of the chief causes why there are so many at the present day tossed about by every wind of doctrine, and why so many fall from Christ to Anti-christ.




The design of the doctrine of the catechism is our comfort and salvation. Our salvation consists in the enjoyment of the highest good. Our comfort comprises the assurance and confident expectation of the full and perfect enjoyment of this highest good, in the life to come, with a beginning and foretaste of it already, in this life. This highest good is that which makes all those truly blessed who are in the enjoyment of it, whilst those who have it not are miserable and wretched. What this only comfort is, to which it is the design of the catechism to lead us, will be explained in the first question, to which we now proceed, without making any further introductory remarks.


From Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, "Special prolegomena with reference to the catechism," reprinted from a 1852 edition by Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing.

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    • The Geneva Catechism

      Seeing it becomes us to endeavour by all means that unity of faith, which is so highly commended by Paul, shine forth among as, to this end chiefly ought the formal profession of faith which accompanies our common baptism to have reference. Hence it were to be wished, not only that a perpetual consent in the doctrine of piety should appear among all, but also that one Catechism were common to all the Churches. But as, from many causes, it will scarcely ever obtain otherwise than that each Church shall have its own Catechism, we should not strive too keenly to prevent this; provided, however, that the variety in the mode of teaching is such, that we are all directed to one Christ, in whose truth being united together, we may grow up into one body and one spirit, and with the same mouth also proclaim whatever belongs to the sum of faith. Catechists not intent on this end, besides fatally injuring the Church, by sowing the materials of dissension in religion, also introduce an impious profanation of baptism. For where can any longer be the utility of baptism unless this remain as its foundation — that we all agree in one faith?   Wherefore, those who publish Catechisms ought to be the more carefully on their guard, by producing anything rashly, they may not for the present only, but in regard to posterity also, do grievous harm to piety, and inflict a deadly wound on the Church.   This much I wished to premise, as a declaration to my readers, that I myself too, as became me, have made it my anxious care not to deliver anything in this Catechism of mine that is not agreeable to the doctrine received among all the pious. This declaration will not be found vain by those who will read with candour and sound judgment. I trust I have succeeded at least so far that my labour, though it should not satisfy, will be acceptable to all good men, as being in their opinion useful.   In writing it in Latin, though some perhaps will not approve of the design, have been influenced by many reasons, all of which it is of no use to detail at present. I shall only select such as seem. to me sufficient to obviate censure.   First, In this confused and divided state of Christendom, I judge it useful that there should be public testimonies, whereby churches which, though widely separated by space, agree in the doctrine of Christ, may mutually recognize each other. For besides that this. tends not a little to mutual confirmation, what is more to be desired than that mutual congratulations should pass between them, and that they should devoutly commend each other to the Lord? With this view, bishops were wont in old time, when as yet consent in faith existed and flourished among all, to send Synodal Epistles beyond sea, by which, as a kind of badges, they might maintain sacred communion among the churches. How much more necessary is it now, in this fearful devastation of the Christian world, that the few churches which duly worship God, and they too scattered and hedged round on all sides by the profane synagogues of Antichrist, should mutually give and receive this token of holy union, that they may thereby be incited to that fraternal embrace of which I have spoken?   But if this is so necessary in the present day, what shall our feelings be concerning posterity, about which I am so anxious, that I scarcely dare to think? Unless God miraculously send help from heaven, I cannot avoid seeing that the world is threatened with the extremity of barbarism. I wish our children may not shortly feel, that this has been rather a true prophecy than a conjecture. The more, therefore, must we labour to gather together, by our writings, whatever remains of the Church shall continue, or even emerge, after our death. Writings of a different class will show what our views were on all subjects in religion, but the agreement which our churches had in doctrine cannot be seen with clearer evidence than from catechisms. For therein will appear, not only what one man or other once taught, but with what rudiments learned and unlearned alike amongst us, were constantly imbued from childhood, all the faithful holding them as their formal symbol of Christian communion. This was indeed my principal reason for publishing this Catechism.   A second reason, which had no little weight with me, was, because I heard that it was desired by very many who hoped it would not be unworthy of perusal. Whether they are right or wrong in so judging is not mine to decide, but it became me to yield to their wish. Nay, necessity was almost laid upon me, and I could not with impunity decline it. For having seven years before published a brief summary of religion, under the name of a Catechism, I feared that if I did not bring forward this one, I should cause (a thing ! wished not) that the former should on the other hand be excluded. Therefore if I wished to consult the public good, it behooved me to take care that this one which I preferred should occupy the ground.   Besides, I deem it of good example to testify to the world, that we who aim at the restitution of the Church, are everywhere faithfully exerting ourselves, in order that, at least, the use of the Catechism which was abolished some centuries ago under the Papacy, may now resume its lost rights. For neither can this holy custom be sufficiently commended for its utility, nor can the :Papists be sufficiently condemned for the flagrant corruption, by which they not only set it aside, by converting it into puerile trifles, but also basely abuse it to purposes of impure and impious superstition. That spurious Confirmation, which they have substituted in its stead, they deck out like a harlot, with great splendour of ceremonies, and gorgeous shows without number; nay, in their wish to adorn it, they speak of it in terms of execrable blasphemy, when they give out that it is a sacrament of greater dignity than baptism, and call those only half Christians who have not been besmeared with their oil. Meanwhile, the whole proceeding consists of nothing but theatrical gesticulations, or rather the wanton sporting of apes, without any skill in imitation.   To you, my very dear brethren in the Lord, I have chosen to inscribe this work, because some of your body, besides informing me that you love me, and that the most of you take delight in my writings, also expressly requested me by letter to undertake this labour for their sake. Independently of this, it would have been reason sufficient, that what I learned of you long ago, from the statement of grave and pious men, had bound me to you with my whole soul. I now ask what I am confident you will of your own accord do — have the goodness to consult for the utility of this token of my goodwill towards you! Farewell May the Lord increase you more and more in the spirit of wisdom, prudence, zeal, and fortitude, to the edification of his Church.    

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