Catechisms

(Gr. katemcheom, “to teach, to instruct”). Probably from the second century onward, there came into use a “catechumenate,” or period of instruction preparatory to baptism, and there grew up well-drilled quasi-liturgical procedures, including responsive material. Some of this was proper to the baptismal service itself (i.e., the interrogations and responses), but other features (e.g., the redditio symboli) came at an earlier stage. The universal use of infant baptism after the sixth century meant that basic instruction of this catechetical sort had to be given to young children within the church after their baptism rather than as a preparation for it. Thus, in England popular expositions of the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and the Lord's Prayer are found as far back as Anglo-Saxon times, and these formed the basis for the later, considerably elaborated, medieval manuals of instruction. The term “catechism” itself seems to be without primitive precedent, and evidently not until the Reformation was it used to mean specifically the documents setting out instruction by the responsive method-though it could and did mean simply any manual of instruction. These latter became particularly popular with the rise of printing in the latter half of the fifteenth century.

At the Reformation the term was employed by Luther to describe his Kleiner Katechismus (1529), and this meaning attaches to virtually all Protestant and Reformed use of the word thereafter. Luther's Catechism was based upon the Ten Commandments, the Creed, the Lord's Prayer, and the sacraments, and these became the staple components of Reformed instruction. Catechizing by this responsive method was a great instrument of reformation of the common people throughout Europe.

Three uses of the manuals may be discerned. One was simply instructional, applicable to all ages and classes. A second was preparatory for confirmation. In the pre- Reformation church the idea had grown up that confirmation should not be administered until “years of discretion.” The Reformers grasped the concept as affording opportunity to teach every Christian while still in adolescence and as giving expression to their desire for intelligible theology purged of childish superstition. Thus Calvin cites some wholly mythical church history to make the case (Inst. IV.xix.4), and recommends the restoration of the same discipline (xix.13). Catechisms became linked in the Reformers' minds with a Reformed practice of confirmation; the English Reformers ensured that from 1549 to 1662 the catechism was actually included in the Prayer Book confirmation service.

A third use of catechisms is only slowly discernible. As the contents expanded to include detailed discussion of justification and other finer points of theology, the catechetical form tended to conceal a confessional purpose to the documents (cf. the Heidelberg Catechism, 1563, written by Olevianus and Ursinus, and revised by the Synod of Dort*). For this purpose the form was purely a literary convention, but catechisms, however elaborate, never served this purpose solely. With few books available and with widespread illiteracy, passages of great length and complexity were committed to memory by ordinary worshipers. Nevertheless, the catechisms tended to take their place among the formularies of the respective churches and to declare their public stance. The Church of England Catechism to this day is part of the Book of Common Prayer,* its doctrine being cited in detail in the famous heresy hearings of Gorham versus the bishop of Exeter (1846-50), and still included within the doctrine of the Church of England to which all ministers declare assent when they are ordained, instituted, or licensed. This catechism is much less confessional in appearance than other Reformation counterparts on the Continent (e.g., the catechisms of Calvin, Oecolampadius, Bullinger, etc.). The origins of the Prayer Book Catechism of 1549 appear to lie in William Marshall's Goodly Primer in English (1534), itself an approved version of a banned (more Lutheran) predecessor.

At the Hampton Court Conference* (1604), the Puritan impatience with the brevity of the Prayer Book provision led to Dr. Reinolds urging that, as Nowell's Catechism (1563) was too long, a uniform via media should be produced. The idea arose of adding a section on the sacraments to the Prayer Book one, and this was “penned” by Dean Overall. This is usually taken to mean he was the author, but he may have been the amanuensis of a small group working from Nowell's catechism, which obviously lies behind this section. The additions to the Prayer Book were made by royal proclamation (1604). At the 1661 Savoy Conference* this same section was cited by the Puritans as a model for the expansion and augmentation of the rest of the catechism. Their hopes were not fulfilled.

The seventeenth century saw the production of the most famous catechism of history-the Westminster Larger Catechism (1647). Closely related to the Westminster Confession of Faith and Shorter Catechism, this again combines the three uses of catechisms set out above and has become a foundation document of the English-speaking Presbyterian churches. It is obviously largely confessional in purpose, though in fact traditionally learned by heart by some. Less well known, because abortive, is Richard Baxter's own program for instruction and preparation in Confirmation and Restoration (1658). He follows Calvin in urging a laying on of hands, completing the course in catechizing and examination.

The use of the Church of England Catechism was the subject of visitation queries by many bishops in the century or more following 1662. In the nineteenth century the revival of a pastoral concept of confirmation led to increased use of the catechism, which persisted until the second quarter of the twentieth century. The Anglo-Catholics of the nineteenth century wrote their own catechisms, giving expression to the new emphases they had brought into the teaching of the Faith. Gradually, in the twentieth century, other teaching methods replaced learning by rote for confirmation preparation, and the catechism became an auxiliary aid to the teacher, not the verbal substance of the teaching, nor the basic procedure for instruction. The Convocations of the Church of England approved in 1962 A Revised Catechism (which includes questions on the church and ministry, the Anglican Communion, and, along with the sacraments, five other sacramental “ministries of grace”). This, perhaps because of its catechetical form, has not passed into general use or found widespread favor.

The Church of Rome also employed the printing press, this time to rebut the Reformers and confirm the faithful by way of catechisms. The great sixteenth-century work of this type is Canisius's Summa Doctrinae Christianae (1554). This had 211 questions and was in time issued in many different translations. Others have succeeded it to the present day, and catechizing is still used in the Church of Rome. There is, however, no one document in which instruction is mandatory prior to first confession, first Communion, or confirmation. One catechism of historical interest was the Irish Keenan's Catechism. This, in the editions prior to 1870, asked “Is then the Pope infallible?” and gave the answer “No, this is a Protestant calumny.” The text was predictably changed after Vatican I.* There has been a tendency in the Church of Rome to call other teaching manuals “catechisms” even when not in catechetical form. Thus the Catechism of the Council of Trent (1566) is not in this sense a catechism at all, nor indeed is the recent Dutch avant-garde manual A New Catechism (1968).

W.A. Curtis, A History of Creeds and Confessions of Faith (1911); T.F. Torrance, The School of Faith (1959); B.A. Gerrish, The Faith of Christendom (1963).