In order to know what they believe and why they believe it, Christians need to be well catechized and grounded in the central doctrines of the faith. In his pastoral visits to the homes of parishioners, Martin Luther was astounded to find that few knew the Lord's Prayer, the Ten Commandments, or the Apostles' Creed. He therefore wrote his Small Catechism. Other Reformers followed suit, and generations of Christian families have been saturated with biblical teaching through catechisms to this day. Studies show, however, a staggering ignorance of the basic teachings of the Christian faith even among professing evangelicals. We need to get beyond shallow slogans and movements, grounding ourselves and our children in "the faith once and for all delivered to the saints." Given the statistics we regularly encounter, Luther's description of the desperate need for serious doctrinal instruction (catechesis) in his day sounds eerily relevant. In the preface to his Small Catechism, he explains,
The deplorable, miserable condition which I discovered lately when I, too, was a visitor, has forced and urged me to prepare [publish] this Catechism, or Christian doctrine, in this small, plain, simple form. Mercy! Good God! what manifold misery I beheld! The common people, especially in the villages, have no knowledge whatever of Christian doctrine, and, alas! many pastors are altogether incapable and incompetent to teach. Nevertheless, all maintain that they are Christians, have been baptized and receive the holy Sacraments. Yet they do not understand and cannot even recite either the Lord's Prayer, or the Creed, or the Ten Commandments; they live like dumb brutes and irrational hogs; and yet, now that the Gospel has come, they have nicely learned to abuse all liberty like experts....O ye bishops! to whom this charge has been committed by God, what will ye ever answer to Christ for having so shamefully neglected the people and never for a moment discharged your office?Luther implores pastors "to have pity on the people who are entrusted to you, and to help us inculcate the Catechism upon the people, and especially upon the young." Following the example of the ancient church, the Reformation restored catechesis. So crucial was catechesis to the Reformers that they personally assumed responsibility for teaching it to the youth. The catechism was also taught in the home, usually after dinner, as parents—especially fathers—took responsibility for their "little parish," as Luther called the family. Instead of lazily accommodating superficial and nominal profession, pastors and parents took up the responsibility of raising God's people to the standard of honest Christian conviction.
Michael Horton is the J. Gresham Machen professor of apologetics and systematic theology at Westminster Seminary California (Escondido, California), host of the White Horse Inn, national radio broadcast, and editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation magazine. He is author of many books, including The Gospel-Driven Life, Christless Christianity, People and Place, Putting Amazing Back Into Grace, The Christian Faith, and For Calvinism.
Issue: "Social Justice: Social Gospel?" Sept./Oct. 2011 Vol. 20 No. 5 Page number(s): 64
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