‘If someone already knows all the basic doctrines of the faith, why must he receive instruction before being baptized?’ Many churches already have baptismal classes for baptism candidates to learn and discern their readiness together with the pastor. Why, indeed, would you want an even longer process?
Faith is a public act, and catechesis is as much about formation into the living practice of the Church as it is about information. For this reason, knowing and agreeing with the propositions of the Church – check, check, check – will not exempt anyone from learning through the catechism. First of all, far from being a mere checklist of propositions with nice, correct answers, a catechism establishes proportions upon basic foundational practices of the catholic Church. Second, moving through a catechism is itself the beginning of participation in the Church’s practice, both by what content the catechism includes and by training in following patterns.
The Heidelberg Catechism as an exemplar
The following, for example, is the apparent structure of the Heidelberg Catechism in outline:
I. The Misery of Man, Lord’s Days 2–4.
- The Fall;
- The natural condition of man;
- God’s demands on him in his law.
II. The Redemption (or Deliverance) of Man, Lord’s Days 5–31.
- The need for a Redeemer (Questions 12–21);
- The importance of faith, the content of which is explained by an exposition of the twelve articles of the Christian faith, known as the Apostles’ Creed (Questions 22–58) – the discussion of these articles is further divided into sections on:
- God the Father and our creation (Questions 26–28);
- God the Son and our salvation (Questions 29–52);
- God the Holy Spirit and our sanctification (Questions 53–58);
- Justification (Questions 59–64);
- The sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper (Questions 65–82);
- And the keys of the kingdom of heaven, namely the preaching of the gospel and Church discipline (Questions 83–85).
III. The Gratitude Due from Man (for such a deliverance), Lord’s Days 32–52.
- Conversion, which is continual, and good works (Questions 86–91);
- The Ten Commandments (Questions 92–115);
- The Lord’s Prayer (Questions 116–129).
The largest chunks here are those on the meaning of the Apostles’ Creed, of the Sacraments, of the Ten Commandments and of the Lord’s Prayer; the other material arguably supports these four.
Of the four, three are texts recited in the corporate worship of the Church: the Creed, the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer. As liturgical texts, they shape the Church’s being and character, and so they do with individual believers, that they learn (1) belief in the true God, (2) obedience to his commandments and (3) petition for his grace and Holy Spirit. The catechumen actually recites and reflects on the three texts as he progresses through the catechism, thus beginning to practise the things contained therein.
As for the sacraments, together they form the (intermediate) cause of the catechism itself. Though the catechumen doesn’t undergo sacraments during catechetical instruction, this instruction is intimately connected with the sacraments. It either flows from baptism, for those baptized in infancy, or leads up to baptism, for those about to make that crucial step of conversion; it also urges the catechumen, once baptized, to go up to the Lord’s Supper and receive it with confirming faith. Again, then, this part, though not itself the practice of the two sacraments, is closely tied to that practice by the very nature of the catechism.
The things I’ve talked about above are true not only of the Heidelberg Catechism but of other catechisms as well. Like the Heidelberg, the catechism in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer is obviously structured by the Creed, the Ten Commandments, the the Lord’s Prayer and the sacraments; similarly, Luther’s Small Catechism is explicitly structured by sections on the Ten Commandments, the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer and the sacraments (with a subsection on confession between the two sacraments), followed by extra instruction in daily prayers, a table of duties and some final questions. The Westminster catechisms seem to depart some from the fourfold structure, but even they contain its vestiges.
The pillars of a catechism are faith, law, prayer and sacraments. These things can’t be properly understood apart from the Church. And so we instruct covenant children and Gentiles considering baptism in formation in the holy Name.