This article was originally published in the Presbyterian Banner (August, 2003). © R. Scott Clark, 2003. All Rights Reserved.
Both children and parents in Reformed congregations often ask, "Why must we (or our children) memorize the catechism? If they must memorize anything at all, should they not memorize Holy Scripture instead?" These are fair questions, but they rest on dubious premises.
The first premise is that memorization is somehow out of date or a backward practice. Quite to the contrary, in most circumstances (there not being any significant developmental disabilities) memorization is a most valuable skill to teach our children and further, contrary to much modern educational theory it is exactly what they want at a certain stage of their development.
The second premise sounds pious but contains within it a sort of sugarcoated poison since it juxtaposes implicitly the theology and teaching of the church against Scripture. As a matter of fact, we understand our catechism to be a good, sound, and accurate summary of the whole teaching of Scripture. As a matter of history, all heretics quote Scripture. What makes us Reformed is how we understand Scripture and this understanding is summarized in the catechism. This is why we have a catechism.
If we thought that catechism was not biblical, we would not use it and, if anyone can show that the catechism is unbiblical, the church ought to revise it to bring it into conformity with Scripture.
We ought to memorize Scripture, it is the Word of God which he uses to bring our children to faith and by which they grow in that faith and in sanctity, but our children also need a framework in which to understand the Scripture they are learning. So Scripture and catechism memorization go hand-in-glove.
God's Word is full of exhortations to "confess the faith" either by precept or by example. Deuteronomy 6:4 is perhaps the most fundamental biblical confession, "Hear 0 Israel, Yahweh our God, Yahweh is one." This is a confessional formula to be memorized by all Israelites. John 9:22 and Matthew 10:32-33 teach a Christian duty to confess Jesus as Messiah. Exodus 12:26-27 reflects the ancient practice of God's people of catechizing their children in the history of God's saving acts. This catechesis was part of the process of covenant renewal for those who had been initiated into the covenant through circumcision. In I Corinthians 10 (all) the Apostle Paul says that New Covenant Christians continue that pattern with the sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper. The Corinthian problem was that they did not regard sufficiently the holiness of the Supper as a feast of covenant renewal nor did they discern the presence of Christ in the Supper by the Holy Spirit.
Following the Apostolic pattern, catechesis of the children of believers (covenant renewal) and new converts has been the universal practice of the Christian church since the earliest days of the church. The pattern of Christian catechesis was to learn the Apostles' Creed; the Lord's Prayer and the Ten Commandments and the Reformation carried on this tradition.
The ancient Christian pattern of instruction is summarized by Dorothy Sayers' wonderful essay, "The Lost Tools of Learning,"' which is widely available in print and on the Internet. In this essay she distinguis-hed the three stages of childhood development as "parrot, pert, poet." Of course, this was her way of explaining the traditional educational pattern of the Trivium, i.e grammar, logic and rhetoric.
In the "parrot" stage (circa ages 4-9), children take great delight in the accomplishment of memorization and are capable of memorizing most anything in small units. In our family we simply divided the longer catechism answers into smaller units until they were learned. I have found in church and at home that if we begin catechizing children (including memorization) at 4-5 they memorize with great joy. To be sure, they do not always understand what they are learning but they don't need to understand everything yet. We are still preparing them to renew the covenant formally before the congregation.
In the "pert" stage (circa ages 9-12), children begin to analyze the raw data which they have memorized. Because they lack emotional maturity, the questions may be expressed rudely (hence "pert'), but in fact questions about the faith show that children are trying to make sense for themselves of what they have been taught. If properly catechized, children now have something interesting to discuss at Sabbath lunch, especially in the pert stage. They will also ask questions just before bed such as, 'Daddy, how can God be one in three persons?" This will be a good stimulus for parents to learn the catechism for themselves!
In the "poet" stage (circa ages 12-14), children begin to apprehend that there is more to reality than what they can taste, touch, see, smell and hear They begin to learn how to express themselves more appropriately and to appreciate the finer things in life.
Much more importantly, however, if we begin catechizing our children early enough, by the time they reach this stage, we can expect them to begin to "discern the body" (1 Corinthians 11:29), to be ready for profession of faith, to take up the covenant for themselves and to be ready to be fed by Christ's body and blood with Christ's congregation. If we catechize our children early on, by the grace of the Spirit, they are able to develop their powers of doctrinal discernment, which they will certainly need.
Covenant children may well object to this plan, but they also object to being taken to the dentist or physician and we do not normally listen to their objections because we know that if we do not take them to the dentist, their teeth will be the worse for it. As important as teeth are, we surely agree that there is much more at stake in catechism instruction. So, when our children object, we tell them, "I know you do not always like memorizing catechism now, but when you are old you will be glad we made you do it; (this is true! I have visited a good number of old folks who were glad to be able to confess their only comfort in life and in death when all sorts of indignities were being done to them)..
Therefore we tell our children "We are Reformed, We confess the Reformed faith and in order to commune in this congregation you too must confess the Reformed faith. Learning the catechism is the best preparation for the Reformed faith. How can you confess something with which you're not intimately familiar?"'
There are other things we can do to help our children to take up the covenant for themselves.
The first thing is to reclaim the Sabbath. One of the chief purposes of the Sabbath is Christian instruction of our children. Between morning and evening services the children have all afternoon to learn the catechism and to rest. If families follow this pattern from the start, their children will assume that is the correct thing to do and think it odd that others ignore Christ's command.
Though the dentist might not approve, there is nothing immoral about encouraging young children to accomplish a finite task (e.g. one-half of a longer catechism answer) with the reward of a piece of candy. The Orthodox Presbyterian Church pastor Leonard Coppes wrote some years ago about "candychism." It works because children value the candy as much as token of accomplishment and parental approval as for the sweet itself. Then, of course, there is the matter of duty. Sometimes it is necessary to use the same sort of approach we use with weekday schoolwork. Learning the faith thoroughly and intimately is a responsibility of a covenant child just as it is his responsibility to learn grammar and math. If they refuse, they should face appropriate discipline. Some parents have even been known to promise a talk with the "board of education." This last resort is effective when used sparingly by parents.
To reluctant Christian parents I ask some questions. Do you want your children to be Reformed when they grow up and if so, how do you expect to achieve this goal apart from the catechism? Why would you by-pass the prime season for catechizing your children?
One of the great losses of failing to catechize children in the "parrot" stage is that in these years children have perhaps the greatest facility for memorization they will ever possess. As we grow older, it becomes progressively more difficult to memorize new material. Any adult who has endeavored to learn a second language knows the truth of this axiom.
Recently I was reading the minutes of a North American ecclesiastical assembly from the early 1920's. Even then, they were establishing a committee to discuss the problem of children leaving the church. Eighty years later, we are still erecting such committees and asking the same question. Perhaps it is time to try something old fashioned? Rather than lamenting the fact that our children are leaving the church, perhaps we should try catechizing them again? As a minister on a Consistory (Session) I am bound to say that if parents will not catechize their children or bring them to church for catechism, they may not blame the church when their children come under discipline fifteen years later because they married a Roman Catholic or left the Christian faith altogether.
Reformed catechesis, however, is not mere obligation. It is a joy and a gift from our covenant Lord. If we do make catechesis a regular part of the religious life of our children, if we make regular use of the ordinary means of grace (Shorter Catechism 88), if we pray and read with our children, we may expect them to make a credible profession of faith in the congregation. Watching our children make profession and come to the table of the Lord, these are the answers to the prayers of all Reformed parents. May God grant us such graces.