“What is Catechism?”

Greg Strand – January 20, 2017 3 Comments

Catechisms have been used as a means/method of imparting truth and passing on the faith once for all entrusted to the saints (Jude 3). One of the early ones written in the wake of the Reformation was The Heidelberg Catechism

One of the main authors of this catechism was Zacharias Ursinus (1534-1583). At the beginning of his commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, Ursinus included a section, “Special prolegomena with reference to the catechism.”

Ursinus’ prolegomena addresses five key issues:

  1. What is catechizing, or the system of catechization?
  2. Has it always been practiced in the church, or what is its origin?
  3. What are the principal parts thereof?
  4. Why is it necessary?
  5. What is its design?

Ursinus lists nine reasons for the necessity of teaching the catechism in the church, with a summarizing warning.

  1. Because it is the command of God . . .
  2. Because of the divine glory which demands that God be not only rightly known and worshipped by those of adult age, but also by children . . .
  3. On account of our comfort and salvation; for without a true knowledge of God and his Son Jesus Christ, no one that has attained to years of discretion and understanding can be saved, or have any sure comfort that he is accepted in the sight of God.
  4. For the preservation of society and the church.
  5. There is a necessity that all persons should be made acquainted with the rule and standard according to which we are to judge and decide, in relation to the various opinions and dogmas of men, that we may not be led into error, and be seduced thereby, according to the commandment which is given in relation to this subject . . .
  6. Those who have properly studied and learned the Catechism, are generally better prepared to understand and appreciate the sermons which they hear from time to time, inasmuch as they can easily refer and reduce those things which they hear out of the word of God, to the different heads of the catechism to which they appropriately belong, whilst, on the other hand, those who have not enjoyed this preparatory training, hear sermons for the most part, with but little profit to themselves.
  7. The importance of catechisation may be urged in view of its peculiar adaptedness to those learners who are of weak and uncultivated minds, who require instruction in a short, plain, and perspicuous manner, as we have it in the catechism, and would not, on account of their youth and weakness of capacity, be able to understand it, if presented in a lengthy and more difficult form.
  8. It is also necessary, for the purpose of distinguishing and separating the youths, and such as are unlearned, from schismatics and profane heathen, which can most effectually be done by a judicious course of catechetical instruction.
  9. A knowledge of the catechism is especially important for those who are to act as teachers, because they ought to have a more intimate acquaintance with the doctrine of the church than others, as well on account of their calling, that they may one day be able to instruct others, as on account of the many facilities which they have for obtaining a knowledge of this doctrine, which it becomes them diligently to improve, that they may, like Timothy, become well acquainted with the Holy Scriptures . . .

The summary: “A neglect of the catechism is, therefore, one of the chief causes why there are so many at the present day tossed about by every wind of doctrine, and why so many fall from Christ to Anti-Christ.”

A few questions of application:

  • What would you identify as weaknesses in the church today?
  • How do you address this personally in your own life and in the life of your family?
  • What content, plans and structure are in place to address it in the church?

Greg Strand


Affectionately called “Walking Bible” by his youngest daughter, Greg Strand has a ministry history that goes back to 1982. Since that time, he has served in local church ministry in a variety of ministry capacities: youth pastor, associate pastor of adult ministries and senior pastor. He is currently the EFCA's Executive Director of Theology and Credentialing. Greg reads voraciously and never stops learning — a passion reflected in the overflowing bookshelves that spill from his library to multiple offices. And he could tell you about each of those books! His hunger for learning pales in contrast to his great love for God and for teaching the Word of God.

3 responses to “What is Catechism?”

  1. Greg, although the Westminster Standards are the creedal standards of my own denomination– the Orthodox Presbyterian Church– the Heidelberg is actually one of my favorites of all Christian statements of faith.

    Does this mean that there is a movement to resurrect catechism in the EFCA?

    I hope so.

    • It is great to hear from you, John. You know the history well enough to know some of the concerns and fears with catechisms. However, I am not sure those who do not use them, or something like them, have considered the implications of not using them, or something like them. At our upcoming Theology Conference, one of the messages will address this issue. Are you able to join us? In our past, we have had a catechism, though I am not sure of its acceptance or use: E. A. Halleen, Lessons in the Bible: A Brief Catechism (1945). I am considering ways we in the Free Church can impart the faith. As I noted, it is not that if we do not do something intentional, or unintentional, in the realm of spiritual formation, or discipleship, that nothing will get passed on. Spiritual formation will happen with or without intention and purpose. We need to consider seriously, purposefully and intentionally, what we are or are not doing to pass on the faith, to impart biblical truth, to model spiritual life in the context of the local church. The use, or not, of a catechism ought to be part of that discussion.

  2. While I would love to be there for the conference, it’s probably not likely that I can get there. I do plan to listen to the recordings and I’m pleased that TEDS and the EFCA are emphasizing these themes.

    Yes, I’m aware of the dangers of catechisms. Years ago I was a grad student at the U of Wisconsin–in history, before I went to TEDS– and got to know W. Van Gemeren as he was finishing up his doctorate then. He was a licentiate in the OPC and supplied a Christian Reformed congregation one Sunday in central Wisconsin. There was an older Dutch lady in the congregation who thanked him for his biblical preaching, but added something like this in her Dutch brogue, which Wim– — as he was known to me then–could imitate quite well– “Domine, it was so good to have you preach today, but it will be so good when we have a regular pastor and can hear the Heidelberg Catechsim preached again”. Needless to say, Dr. Van Gemeren was not pleased as this sentiment!

    Yet, the dangers of neglecting catechesis are greater than the dangers of sentiments such as those of the old Dutch lady in my opinion.

    I’ll follow this development with interest, especially since EFCA churches like the one my brother is an elder in have dropped both adult and children’s SS. I’m not sure how systematic biblical and theological training gets passed on in those contexts.

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