The sum of human knowledge is increasing exponentially, it is said. This is the total amount of knowledge produced and known in the world. Before World War I the sum of human knowledge doubled every 100 to 200 years. After World War II the sum of human knowledge doubled every 25 years. Currently, it is doubling every year. By 2020, the sum of human knowledge will be doubling every month. We may know many things, but do we know the right things? More than this, how well do we know the right things? This is our own and our children’s greatest need.
The Church has always used a well-worn method to address this need. It is called catechising. As William Bridge put it, catechising has two goals. Firstly, to increase knowledge. Secondly, to test it. We must “continue in the faith grounded and settled” (Colossians 1:23). In a sermon on this verse, Thomas Watson shows that catechising is the best method for ensuring that we are grounded and settled in the faith.
Catechising is the most important things taught in the most memorable way. A catechism is not just a document or statement. It is living and kept in the memory rather than just on paper. This makes it invaluable for future reference. Truth is ready, on the tip of the tongue (1 Peter 3:15).
The word catechise is a Greek word for teaching used in Galatians 6:6 and elsewhere. It is vital that children, in particular, come to learn and remember Bible truth (Deuteronomy 6:6-7). We teach them so “that they might set their hope in God, and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments” (Psalm 78:4-7).
The Church has proved the effectiveness of catechising. John Owen observed this. “More knowledge is ordinarily diffused, especially among the young and ignorant, by one hour’s catechetical exercise, than by many hours’ continued discourse.” Thomas Watson believed that: “To preach and not to catechise is to build without a foundation”.
Recent generations have neglected it, however. It runs against the grain of modern thinking. We expect to have a digital slave to retain knowledge for us. This may be useful in many contexts, but truth is different. As the Saviour taught, the most important truths are meant to “sink down” into our ears (Luke 9:44). They are meant to take hold of our hearts and the way that we think.
Memorisation is different to merely remembering. To memorise the truth is to engage with it actively. It also requires focus and attention, things that run contrary to a distracted, hyper-stimulated age. In a culture that values emotive self-expression, rote learning seems rigid and repressive. Yet this ignores the need for foundations and first principles. Any sphere of learning or skilled activity requires this.
Memorisation retains knowledge as a necessary preparation for explanation and comprehension. As John Macleod observes, the Reformation approach:
aimed at the opening up of the form of sound words in which they set forth the truth of the Gospel. And when what was committed to memory was opened up by loving teachers at the fireside or in the congregation, the good of having learned the letter of such statements, which were a valuable exhibition of the Faith, came out.
And, what was more, those who, in the immature years of childhood, had their minds stored with what at the time when they learned to repeat it might be beyond their reach had, in later years, when their powers came to a measure of ripeness, the chance of working in their mind what they once had learned only by rote. They carried with them from childhood a treasure the good of which they had been long familiar.
Often have those who have gone through a course in catechistic training in their early days come to discover how useful this teaching is to them now that in later days they have come to feel the power of the truth. They are like a mill with all its mechanism in order that waited for the turning on of the water that it might work. Once the power is brought to bear upon them they learn to their profit the connections in which the various portions of divine truth stand to one another. And thus they start their new life of discipleship with valuable assets to their credit. When bread is thus cast upon the waters it may be found when most needed – in after days. There is this over and above the blessing that often attends at the time the opening up and explanation of these statements to the mind of the child. For those who teach a Catechism are expected to open up its teaching and explain its meaning (Scottish Theology, pp.101-102).
David Dickson shows the importance of catechising from the example of Christ teaching His disciples. In Matthew 13:51 Christ asks them if they have “understood all these things”.
Christ takes account of whether His disciples understood His teachings.
1. Those who hear the gospel should labour to understand what they hear. Christ asks if they have understood.
2. Ministers should use catechising to take account of whether their hearers have understood their teaching. This is what Christ did in asking this question of the disciples.
3. No matter what capability they have, everyone should be willing to give account to their teachers of whether they have progressed in knowledge. The disciples answer, “Yea, Lord”.
Basic instruction remains necessary. The recent popularity of instructional courses like the Alpha Course demonstrates this. Unfortunately, in reinventing the wheel such courses often alter or dilute the truth. The Westminster Shorter Catechism covers the body of truth comprehensively but with concise treatment. It sets out we are to believe concerning God and what duty God requires from us. It has not been possible to improve on its approach. Any Christian will benefit from it and any Christian parent will value from using it with their children. Any minister will find that it helps reinforce their preaching.
The following free leaflet also explains about Catechising and the value of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. Among other questions it answers the following query about catechising: Why not just memorise Bible verses?