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On Catechisms, VBS, and Teaching/Learning the Christian Faith

July 18, 2018 6 comments

Recently I’ve started reading through the Heidelberg Catechism, according to the weekly plan of the outline available in my phone app.  As I’ve heard before, the Heidelberg Catechism is a good devotional type study with questions that build on each other; also, that it’s a good one for children to memorize (done in Reformed, Confessional churches).

My childhood church experience at a small mainline Presbyterian church did not include any type of memorization, Bible or other, and I was unaware of the Reformed confessions and catechisms until a few years ago.  The only place I saw Bible memorization, of various verses, was one day at a VBS program at my grandmother’s large Southern Baptist church (she was one of the teachers) during summer vacation in Texas.  In my early Christian years as an adult, I briefly tried a Bible memorization plan and memorized a few verses, but didn’t continue after the initial set of verses.

All that to say, that at this point I find Bible reading, review and study something more achievable than strict memorization (which is best done when young, when memorization comes more easily to the developing child’s mind).  The Heidelberg Catechism provides a useful three-part outline:  The Misery of Man, Of Man’s Deliverance, and Of Gratitude.  The study plan features a few questions (usually two to four) for each Lord’s Day (for 52 weeks total, a full year):

Week 1 – questions 1 and 2                                     Week 3 – questions 6-8
Week 2 – questions 3-5                                            Week 4 – questions 9-11

and so on.  It makes a good devotional study, to spend several minutes each Lord’s Day afternoon at home, as well as a few minutes a few days throughout the week, reading through the set of questions for each week, and referencing the scripture ‘proof-texts’—as well as re-reading the previous questions back to the beginning.  (I’m now in week 4, so a long way to go.)

So far in this reading, I am (again) struck with amazement at the great wording, the way that the meaty doctrinal truths of the Bible are described with such detail, clarity and precision, here in the Heidelberg  as well as the other Confessions and Catechisms.  These really are excellent teaching tools to provide the doctrinal framework of a full-orbed, whole counsel of God robust theology for Christian living.  Yet further, the catechisms – especially the Heidelberg Catechism and the Westminster Shorter Catechism (WSC) – are designed for teaching to school-age children.  As one Reformed preacher described it, the adults are not exempt either; the WSC is for the children, but the WLC (Westminster Larger Catechism) is for adults to study.

In sharp contrast to this, is the unfortunate reality that so many churches – including the many Calvinistic Baptist churches, which promote the Reformers and Calvinism but do not actually hold to Reformed Theology  — do not follow the Reformed pattern of using the confessions and catechisms for educational purposes.  Instead, classes and summer VBS programs tend toward a watered-down approach that may involve the children watching skits that portray Bible events, or learning Bible-story songs.

Here also are issues related to the Second Commandment.  As well explained in Ten Commandment studies, images and portrayals of Jesus are finite, and do not do justice to the attributes of God, to the awe-full, infinite reality of who Christ is.  When God revealed Himself to His people (Exodus 20 and throughout the Bible), what God provided was not pictures or any type of visual representation, but words.  A picture of Jesus just does not convey the great truths about Him.

Though not fitting precisely within the bounds of the Second Commandment, when people at a church (as for instance, as part of a Bible education program for children) dramatize certain scenes from the Bible, the drama, and pictures taken of it, come across in a light-hearted and humorous way.  After all, it’s the church leaders we know, and they’re in costume — a funny picture.  But the scene is depicting something of serious theology from the Bible.  The effect of the casual dramatized scene and picture is to laugh; the association to the serious and great truth behind it, tends to irreverence and lack of full appreciation of the teaching itself.  After all, it’s far easier to think about a funny picture, than to consider points of theology, to meditate upon God’s word, to meditate upon the doctrine of the fall, of man’s rebellion and sin and the awful reality of sin in the world.

Again, God taught His people with words and ideas – yes, in many different genres of literature including narrative stories and parables – but the words themselves are the communication of spiritual truth.  Certainly artwork (the full range of art including pictures and paintings as well as drama) has its place, regarding the created world, scenery, people, animals and so forth.  But a visual portrayal of a scene from the Bible — especially using people we see and know in our everyday lives, with costumes and hand-crafted props – is a very limited way to present biblical truth: a very superficial level that conveys a few basic facts of the Bible story but without the ‘meat’ and substance.  This pictorial approach at best only teaches a few basic facts.  Especially when we have the rich treasure of knowledge from Christians who have gone before us, including the framework of the Reformed Confessions and Catechisms, it is mind-boggling as to why anyone would prefer that shallow visual presentation, ignoring and rejecting the far greater treasure.

In closing, a brief sample from the Heidelberg Catechism, regarding the fall of man and sin.  Questions 7 through 12 especially consider man’s sinful nature, and the remedy that we all need:

7.  Whence then comes this depraved nature of man? From the fall and disobedience of our first parents, Adam and Eve, in Paradise, whereby our nature became so corrupt, that we are all conceived and born in sin.

8.  But are we so depraved, that we are wholly unapt to any good and prone to all evil? Yes; unless we are born again by the Spirit of God.

9. Does not God then wrong man, by requiring of him in His law that which he cannot perform? No: for God so made man, that he could perform it; but man, through the instigation of the devil, by wilful disobedience deprived himself and all his posterity of this power.

10. Will God suffer such disobedience and apostasy to go unpunished? By no means; but He is terribly displeased with our inborn as well as our actual sins, and will punish them in just judgment in time and eternity, as he has declared: Cursed is everyone that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law, to do them (Deut. 27:26).

11. Is then God not merciful? God is indeed merciful, but He is likewise just; wherefore His justice requires that sin, which is committed against the most high majesty of God, be also punished with extreme, that is, with everlasting punishment both of body and soul.

and

12.  Since then, by the righteous judgment of God, we deserve temporal and eternal punishment, what is required that we may escape this punishment and be again received into favor? God wills that His justice be satisfied, therefore we must make full satisfaction to the same, either by ourselves or by another.

13.  Can we ourselves make this satisfaction? By no means: on the contrary, we daily increase our guilt.

14.  Can any mere creature make satisfaction for us? None: for first, God will not punish, in any other creature, that of which man has made himself guilty; and further, no mere creature can sustain the burden of God’s eternal wrath against sin, and redeem others therefrom.

15.  What manner of mediator and redeemer then must we seek? One who is a true and sinless man, and yet more powerful than all creatures, that is, one who is at the same time true God.