It’s interesting how in life something you did not pay attention to earlier becomes important later on. It happened to me recently with missions but in this case it is far more peculiar. Though I am from a Pentecostal home I attended Catholic schools for a total of nine years. I learnt the prayers and observed their sacrament and liturgy but it never affected my denominational outlook. Back then I was too young to have a definitive theological perspective of my own so things did not change much. Now while recently writing a post, I began to reflect on something that I did in the past that was immensely helpful only to realize that it was a version of something done in the Roman Catholic Church. I am talking about the catechism.
Now the story of how I unwittingly participated in a catechism is unconventional but first we need to know what it is. For those who are not Catholic or belong to older Protestant traditions or have never been a part of their institutions it is a strange word you most likely have not heard before. Catechism is from a Greek word that means “to teach orally.” It is an instruction manual for churches that is arranged in a question and answer format. A person usually goes through catechism when they wish to become full participants in a particular denomination. Mostly older western church traditions use catechisms. What brought it back on my radar is a series over at Think Theology where they went through the Heidelberg catechism. To be perfectly honest I was not interested in it. Well I felt it was a bit formulaic and arbitrary. The answers weren’t particularly interesting in themselves and after all anyone can come up with whatever answers they want. I am interested in how claims are formulated, how ideas work so if I knew how they arrived at it might have considered it more seriously. It wasn’t until several weeks later that I did begin to take it seriously.
What happened was I was writing a post about the identity of Jesus from his titles and what they properly mean. So I addressed the classic confession of Peter that Jesus is the Christ in the region of Caesarea Philippi. It got me reminiscing back to several years ago when I attempted to answer that question. What I did was scour the Bible, mostly the New Testament, looking for more or less direct statements that can be answers to more or less direct answers. The questions may not be simplistic but they had to be stated simply with corresponding straightforward answers in the Bible. So in that instance the question was “Who do you say that I am?” i.e. who is Jesus? The answer was “you are the Christ, Son of the living God.” During that summer holiday about a decade ago, I remember typing out about 250 questions and answers in that format, on an old Toshiba laptop that ran Windows 2000 when Windows XP had been out for some years. I have since lost that document file but the fruits of that exercise have stayed with me ever since. It was a very important time that has left an indelible mark on me because it helped me to better memorize and recall the Bible.
As for the question of who Jesus was I had about three verses in response. Nowadays, I would ask what those verses actually mean and why they chose to say what they did in the way they did. Yet without knowing the content of the Bible you cannot ask those deeper questions of it. I have spoken many times on this blog on the need to be able to recall scripture. It is absolutely essential. I’m always saddened by the fact I know the Bible’s content better than almost every church going Christian I meet. For me it is something that should be standard for every Christian and I do not consider my powers off recall as precise as it should be yet it’s way better than most people’s. Knowing that is so frustrating. Reciting scripture is a tradition that has been part of the people of God ever since Moses and it’s really disappointing how poorly Christians know their own holy texts.
Now when you look at the exercise, which I did purely out of a desire to know what the Bible really says, it was actually an informal catechism that I had developed from the Bible and proceeded to learn. What I did was very intentional even though I didn’t realise it was a catechism nor was I even influenced by a desire to achieve that. At the time, I really didn’t know what it was even though I had heard the word several times and I was just not interested in finding out. Catechism, even a makeshift one like what I did as a teenager, is a type of Christian education presented in a question and answer format. They are used in churches as a teaching tool, after all it is an instruction manual. It’s effective in learning things because it has a very simple, easy to absorb format. Students will not be unfamiliar with that type of pedagogical aid. You can find something like it in textbook material that summarize various subjects and topics, especially those that help you prepare for exams. Even collections of past questions and answers have basically the same form. Like in a school, after catechists go through the catechism they are examined to see whether they align with the tenets of denominational orthodoxy. Catechisms are denomination specific.
Students can immediately see the advantages but also the drawbacks of the question-answer format. For one it is great if you want to cram and pass an exam. Beyond the test you do not have any more commitment to the information you temporarily absorbed. The same thing can happen with the catechism but that is a question of attitude. For instance, if you have already gone through the syllabus, as you’re supposed to, it is an excellent summary of course content. Similarly, if a person has been sufficiently educated in Christian fundamentals the catechism is very effective as a concise overview of all the key doctrinal issues. If we recognise the function and limitations of the catechism, with the right attitude to approach it responsibly it can be an effective pedagogical technique for the church. It is not a substitute for holistic discipleship.
Personally, I have more ecumenical tastes and I’m a bit suspicious of assuming dogmatic positions because you are a member of a particular denomination. Though we might not totally agree on everything in the Bible we can agree the Bible is central. Prima scriptura, the scriptures come first because they are the word of God. If we are to develop a catechism, I believe it should be focused on the content of the Holy Scriptures. I have personally experienced how effective the catechetical format is in learning scripture. Frankly, most believes are so poor in their knowledge of scripture we need an intervention. I believe it would be extremely helpful if churches can develop bare bones, catechisms of scripture itself as a way to teach their congregations the Bible. May be there are some intrepid souls like myself who will explore scripture and personally create one for themselves. Whether it is personal or congregational it has to be basic as possible.
For example, it is quite common to find at the beginning of Bibles before holy scripture actually starts various questions and Bible passages that answer them. Though that is an informal catechism as well and I do not have a problem with it, it is not what we are going for. With that approach you have preconceived questions which pre-determines the type of answers you will get from the text, the particular things you want to hear. What I’m after is learning what the Bible actually says. So you start with the text as the answer which determines the sort of questions the Bible wants to ask. That way you hear the text on its own terms. Again the goal is just to know what is literally in it.
It is quite interesting that a Pentecostal is advocating for a Roman Catholic tradition. Though there are some pretty hefty differences the Catholics have lasted for over a thousand years and they are the largest Christian denomination, so they must be doing something right. There is a lot we can learn from our siblings in other traditions. With this particular issue it is something useful and actually quite familiar, going beyond simple appreciation for other ways of being Christian as important that often is. We need to know scripture in and out, therefore we have to take every avenue that will help make that happen. What is in fact more important than catechism or any pedagogical method is our attitude. If we do not have a passion for scripture, there will be no impetus to commit it to heart let alone be immersed in its story.