Why Catechism Preaching?

This article appeared in the October 1987 issue of The Outlook. It was reprinted from June 1986 (Australian) Trowel and Sword.

A recent song had these lyrics:

Don’t be so hard on the ones that you love; It’s the ones that you love that you think so little of . . .

These words are particularly apt to describe the way some Reformed Church members look at catechism preaching without fully realizing that it is their own foundation that they are undermining—their own faith. This attitude began already at the time of the Reformation. Even after the decision regarding catechism preaching made at the 1578 Synod of Dort (in the Netherlands), and included for all the churches in the Church Order of the Synod of 1586, the catechism did not readily find acceptance. By the time of the 1618–19 Synod of Dort, the situation had deteriorated so much that synod took strong measures to ensure that catechism sermons were preached every Sunday; that these sermons should be brief and understandable; that the government was to forbid all unnecessary Sunday labor; and that church visitors were charged to take close note of this matter regarding every church.

Our Reformed Churches in Australasia have continued in that Reformational line by retaining the requirement of catechism preaching. Article 61.b of the Australian Church Order states, “Ordinarily the minister shall, at one of the services of the Lord’s Day, preach the Word as summarised in and according to the sequence of the Heidelberg Catechism.” The New Zealand Reformed Churches have a similar article, though allowing for a wider variation in the term “Confessional Standards,” rather than the Heidelberg Catechism specifically (Art. 56). Catechism preaching, then, has a long history, and a continued entrenched position in the church order.

The Challenge of Expositional Preaching Only

The objections continue, however, though their substance may change over the years. The current major objections to catechism (or confessional) preaching is that it does not grow out of an intensive exegetical study of one specific passage of Scripture. It is pointed out that it analyzes a human compilation and formulation of Scripture—something that we could do by using cross references and a concordance.

The supporters of this objection point to Scripture itself as the inspired Word of God, and to the confessions as man-made documents. Their preaching is solely a “free-text” choice, whereby the minister makes his own selection from week to week, according to which passage in Scripture may have struck him as being particularly suitable, or the Bible book from which he may be preaching a series. But already several anomalies arise. The first of these is that those who strongly support the “free text” approach, also, at times, appear to preach topically. By preaching topically they address what they (or the session) see as a particular difficulty within the church, which reflects upon its mandate as the church of the risen Lord and Savior.

Preaching topically invariably involves the pooling together of several Scripture passages to present the biblical teaching upon that difficulty within the congregation. Thus a concession is already made to the basis on which catechism preaching is founded. Catechism preaching is unashamedly topical (or thematic), but it is good topical preaching, and this is to the preacher’s and congregation’s benefit.

Subjectivism of the Preacher

Second, if the choice were exclusively left to the minister as to which texts were to be preached from Sunday to Sunday, the choice would become subjective. It’s unfortunate, but true, that even the most balanced of ministers would be hard-pressed to consistently preach what the whole of Scripture teaches.

There is a well-known illustration of four blind men being confronted by an elephant. One, feeling the trunk, describes the animal as consisting of a softish trunk-like body; another, at the side of the elephant’s body, declares that the elephant is like a huge, strong wall. The third, feeling the elephant’s ear, believes the animal to be made up of a flat, thinnish flapping material. The fourth man, holding the elephant’s tail, asserts that it is long but thinnish, with a brush­like object at one end.

Looking at Scripture solely through the “free-text” method inevitably makes our choices one-sided. We each have our hobby horse, and preachers are no exception. Consistent catechism preaching avoids throwing the choice on the one individual (except in the other worship service). Instead, the Word of God is expounded and applied as adopted by all the churches, and as agreed to by all the members of the churches. It also has the strength of continued relevance throughout the past four hundred years, together with the manifested talents of those who originally compiled our confessions.

The time of the Reformation, like ours, was one of much confusion concerning what was the right way of thinking and living, and the right person to follow. The confessions “confessed” the beliefs of the Reformers, and thus helped the Calvinist community answer when questioned about its faith.

In the third place, much of the objection to catechism preaching, and the support for the “free-text” method alone, has come from those who are influenced by the legacy of Dr. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. A strong expositional preacher, Lloyd-Jones preached consistently through various books of the Bible, in a ministry at Westminster Chapel in London that lasted some twenty-five years. His sermons have become very popular in their published form, and are often referred to as being “true, scriptural” preaching.

Without minimizing the accomplishments of Dr. Lloyd-Jones, one must yet be aware of his situation and background. Lloyd-Jones was a Congregationalist. Congregational churches have long been known for their stance as independent churches, much in the line of Brethren Assemblies. They have little to do with other Congregational churches, and do not have the background of unity under the Confessions as the Reformed Churches have. Thus there is a major difference. Another difference concerns the pastoral situation of Dr. Lloyd-Jones. As is pointed out above, he was the minister at Westminster Chapel for twenty-five years, and before that he had been the associate minister for five years under the previous minister, G. Campbell Morgan. Lloyd- Jones did not have to think about the possibility of shifting every five years or so, and thus the necessity of ensuring that within that period the teaching of Scripture was preached in a clear, understandable way to the congregation. So he was able to preach long series of expository sermons through various books of the Bible.

Thus the comment, “preach like Lloyd-Jones and you’ll be right,” is invalid. None of us can hope to be like a Lloyd-Jones, or a John Stott, John Chapman, or whomever. We must be aware that we are members of the Reformed Church. We’re members of that church because we believe it to be the closest to a truly biblical position. Any harping after what is on “the other side of the fence” has to be measured in the light of the faith and practice of our Reformed Churches.

Keeping Uniquely Reformed

Our confessional standards keep us uniquely Reformed. They ensure that we know why we are in our present faith. Their faithful exposition must be continued. Heretical teaching invariably attacks the confessional standards. Already in the late 16th century the Remonstrants (Arminians) were opposed to catechism preaching, and that trend has continued, as can be seen, for instance, in recent GKN renovations of the Canons of Dort (i.e. Articles 6 and 15, together with paragraph 8 of the First Head of Doctrine being made optional in the subscription form for office bearers).

As Van Dellen and Monsma (in The Church Order Commentary) point out, “Catechism preaching is beyond a doubt one of our strongholds. Consequently we must guard it against any and all dangers which threaten its continuance or which may help bring the custom into disfavor.” The confessional standards illuminate the central teaching of various parts of Scripture by placing these truths in the context of related Scripture. We argue that “Scripture must be read in the light of Scripture.” Catechism preaching is the logical end-product of this. Thus it is doctrinal teaching. Doctrine as a word does not go down too easily in many evangelical churches today. But we all have a belief in doctrine because we all believe in something, even if it is only oneself. It is impossible to avoid belief of some form or other.

What catechism preaching involves is the exposition of the biblical position, known commonly as the Reformed faith. In a world where there is much shallow Christianity, and self-conceived, self-constructed delusions, a thorough understanding of God’s truth is very necessary. And not only a more thorough knowledge results, but also there is much comfort for the believer. The confessions, at the time of the Reformation, were useful in times of stress. So too, now, we can turn to these Confessions to reassure us in times of difficulty.

The Richness of the Confessions

Ecclesiastes 1:9 tells us that “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” What we are experiencing in challenges to the church now, has been experienced before. The confessions are not time-bound but hold scriptural principles that are continually challenged, and thus continually relevant. It is to be pointed out, however, that several of the emphases of the confessions no longer continue to be relevant to the different context that we now live in (i.e. the strong emphasis on the incorrect teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, though still correct, yet is not as important now as it was then. There has also been a change effected in recent versions of the Westminster Confession as regards the role of the magistrate and the church).

In the modern Charismatic movement the emphasis on the work of the Holy Spirit has led to the detriment of His relationship within the Trinity. What is a better reply than the way Lord’s Day 20 of the Heidelberger summarizes the truth of Scripture? In answer to the question, “What do you believe concerning the Holy Spirit?” it tells us, “Firstly, he, as well as the Father and the Son, is eternal God. Second, he has been given to me personally, so that, by true faith, he makes me share in Christ and all his blessings, comforts me, and remains with me forever.” There is a saying, “Those who have not learned the lessons of the past are condemned to repeat them.”

Sermon Preparation and Dangers

There are two extremes to be aware of in the preparation of catechism sermons. On the one hand, there is the danger of complexity. That is, because of the richness of scriptural support for each part of the confessional statement, the preacher may easily go above the head of the ordinary congregation member. The 1618–19 Synod of Dort already pointed out that catechism sermons should be brief and understandable for the common people.

The other extreme is that of a short talk, or explanation of the confessional statements. It is vital that the confession be understandable; yet it must remain a sermon. It must be seen as holding an important position in Reformed church faith and life; otherwise it is too easily demeaned as either a primer in church doctrine, or short lectures on a particular part of church history. By either taking the confessional statement from its predesignated place according to the church order, or by turning it into a simple “talk,” the effect is one of denigrating the confessional basis that our Reformed churches stand upon. Inevitably this leads to further disregard and doubts concerning the importance of the confessions.

Some may say, at this point, that it is difficult to preach from the confessional statements, as they are such “dry, legalistic” documents. Although the confessions may differ in their formulation and language, this is not a valid argument. The Heidelberg Catechism, for instance, is very warm and personal, and lends itself well to preaching. Thus it is no wonder that it has become the confessional statement recommended for preaching in both the Christian Reformed Church in America and the Australian Reformed Churches.

Is the Use of One Text Alone Correct?

A word must be said at this point regarding using a text to represent a particular part of the confessional statement. Thus the sermon that is preached becomes a sermon on that particular passage, with only a reference being made to the relevant aspect of the confessional statement, rather than a sermon on that aspect itself.

This is not confessional preaching. Rather, this practice leads many people to believe that a catechism sermon is not a sermon on the Word of God. It is also incorrect in that a single Scripture reference is used to represent an aspect of the confessional statement that actually covers several Bible passages. As Van Dellen and Monsma point out, “If a Minister desires to quote the Biblical foundation for any given Lord’s Day division, then he shall have to quote a good many passages. And in some instances the doctrine deduced is not found in so many words in any Bible passage, but is rather the legitimate conclusion based on certain facts clearly revealed.” We deem that it is better, far better, for the minister to quote and interpret Scripture in the body of the sermon so that the congregation feels instinctively that the minister is really bringing them God’s own Word.

Back in 1902 the Christian Reformed Church Synod gave its churches this warning:

With a view to dangers from without that threaten sound doctrine, and in consideration of the great need of, and the very meager interest in the regular development of dogmatical truths, Synod emphasizes the time-honored custom of catechism preaching, and the Classes are urged to give proper attention to this matter, that the regular consideration of the catechism may be observed. Are we giving proper consideration to this matter?

Rev. Sjirk Bajema is pastor of the Reformed Church of Mangere (RCNZ), South Auckland, New Zealand.