Home Schooling: Recovering the Disciplined Art of Catechesis

Michael S. Horton
Tuesday, June 12th 2007
Jan/Feb 2001

Historically, many Christians have thought that the main context of religious and moral instruction takes place in the home, not in church. That is why the Protestant Reformers prepared catechisms-manuals of instruction summarizing the Bible's basic teaching, to be learned by rote in the earliest years (like a new language) and then investigated, elaborated, and even tested by mature scriptural reflection in later years. There was a time when an average Christian young person knew by heart the questions and answers of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, the Heidelberg Catechism, or Luther's Small Catechism. A few years ago I recall a woman returning to Church after she had abandoned it for a life of immorality. "I just couldn't get those questions and answers or the Bible verses I had to memorize along with them out of my head," she said concerning the catechism of her youth.

Not too long ago, it was still common for children to be dropped off after school or on Saturdays for weekly catechism classes, supplemented by the parents around the evening meal. To be sure, it was a matter of going through the motions for a lot of kids, but that was the fault largely of the parents who sent them. The kids returned home and found little of the practical, living reality of that truth, and they learned from the home to separate theory from practice. Imagine the enormous practical difference that this could make on so many levels-practical differences that a month of "practical" sermons and programs have fallen far short of matching. Abraham Kuyper, pastor, theologian, and Dutch prime minister, said it well, commenting on Philippians 3:6: " 'Let us walk by the same rule, let us mind the same thing.' … For that reason study is necessary. A Church which does not teach her youth can never hope to retain a pure confession, but relinquishes it, cuts off all contact with the past, divorces herself from the fathers, and forms a new group…. If you desire to confess, you must learn."

Richard R. Osmer, a Princeton Seminary professor, points to the declining use of the catechism as a major source of mainline disintegration. "Somewhere along the way, the church failed these people," and now they are out the door-attracted to exotic religions or none at all. "It failed to provide them with the intellectual and spiritual resources needed in a postmodern world." (1) In addition to public worship, Osmer observes, catechism shaped generations of believers who-even in their early youth-had a better grasp of scripture and its teachings than many pastors today. "The sequence of infant baptism, catechetical instruction and then admission to the Lord's Table provided a structure for education that dominated most Protestant churches from the Reformation period through the nineteenth century." Osmer briefly summarizes the changes:

The earliest of these was the Enlightenment's critique of dogmatic authority. In some corners, teaching of the catechism came to be viewed as the epitome of authoritarian indoctrination. More important in the U.S. was the challenge of the Sunday school movement. Lay-led and evangelical in its theology, this parachurch movement came to shape congregational life over the course of the nineteenth century and pushed catechetical instruction into a secondary position. By the turn of the twentieth century, moreover, the language of the catechisms seemed increasingly archaic; and questions were being raised about the viability of the theology expressed in the catechisms…. But these programs undermined two further developments. The first was the rise of modern educational and psychological theory that attacked the basic assumptions of the humanistic education program with which catechetical instruction had long been associated. Briefly put, these emerging fields placed far more emphasis on the active role of the learner in the construction of knowledge and advocated a teaching style that was oriented toward the emerging experience of the child. The text-based methods of humanistic education, which stressed internalizing classic modes of speaking and writing, were portrayed as antichild and authoritarian. (2)

According to Osmer, restoring catechism is essential particularly because the average young person today is now speaking multiple "languages" and living in multiple worlds of thought and action. He or she needs to have fluency in Christian speech. While in the past a number of public and private institutions would combine to inculcate some knowledge of Scripture, today that simply is not the case. If churches and homes will not catechize the next generation, it will not happen at the YMCA or Boy Scouts, much less at the arcade machines or the mall.

If Paula [a young woman who illustrates this trend] follows the pattern of the average American child, she will watch 30 hours of television a week and by the age of 12, will have viewed on TV approximately 100,000 violent episodes and 13,000 people violently destroyed. At her public school, she will receive no Christian education and little moral education. If she follows trends found in every major study of higher education since the 1950s, Paula's experience of college will have a secularizing impact on her faith, mediating the intellectual relativism and cultural eclecticism that is so much a part of her postmodern world. (3)

1 [ Back ] Richard R. Osmer, "The Case for Catechism," Christian Century, April 23-30, 1997, 408.
2 [ Back ] Ibid., 409.
3 [ Back ] Ibid., 411.
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Michael S. Horton
Michael Horton is editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation and the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.
Tuesday, June 12th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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