Sunday, 29 November -0001 19:00

Catechism Preaching: words Of Man Or Word Of God?

Written by Rev. C. Pronk
The Heidelberg Catechism has been used for over 400 years in Reformed churches all over the world. Shortly after Zacharius Ursinus and Caspar Olevianus had completed their famous manual of instruction in Christian doctrine in 1563, it was translated into many languages and wherever Reformed churches were established it became the favoured tool for the instruction of covenant youth. But not only that, the Synod of the Dutch Reformed Churches in 1589 decided that ministers should also preach the Heidelberg Catechism every LordÕs Day. At the famous Synod of Dort the Heidelberg Catechism was adopted as an official creed, along with the Belgic Confession and the Canons of Dort. These three creedal statements, known as the Three Forms of Unity, express what Reformed Churches believe and stand for. Every office bearer in these churches is required to sign the Form of Subscription indicating not only that he agrees with the contents of the Reformed confessions, but also that he supports the practice of preaching the Heidelberg Catechism. When a minister receives a call from a congregation it is expressly stated in the call letter that he is expected to preach one so-called free sermon, based on a text from Scripture, and another sermon on the Heidelberg Catechism. This practice has been followed for more than four centuries with the positive result that generation after generation of Reformed believers and their children have been well grounded in the truths of Scripture as set forth in this catechism

Some Objections

Regrettably the practice of catechism preaching has been under attack in recent years. The objections against this type of preaching are many, but they may be reduced to the following three:
1. Catechism preaching is too doctrinal, abstract and impractical.
2. Catechism preaching is repetitious and boring, especially for children and young people.
3. Catechism preaching is wrong because it means preaching the word of man rather than the Word of God.

About the first two objections we can be brief. If catechism preaching emphasizes doctrine, so does Scripture. Take PaulÕs letter to the Romans, for instance. It is doctrinal throughout. Even when the apostle discusses practical matters he is still dealing with doctrine because these matters come under the heading of sanctification. As for the charge that catechism preaching is repetitious and boring, Scripture also repeats certain basic truths over and over again. Paul writes to the Philippians, ÒTo write the same things to you, to me indeed is not grievous, but for you is safeÓ (3:1). And if catechism preaching is boring, this may be due to the preacherÕs method rather than the material covered by him. But more likely the problem lies with the hearer who lacks interest in the things of God.

The Main Objection
It is the third objection that requires our careful attention because it is a serious one. If it is true that preaching the catechism means preaching the word of man rather than the Word of God, we are in trouble. Why? Because then the implication is that for over 400 years the Reformed churches have lived in error and in sin because during that long period of time they have preached countless sermons based on the ÒSimple HeidelbergerÓ (Kohlbrugge).

This objection is all the more serious because it comes not just from fundamentalists and evangelical Christians who donÕt care much for creeds and confessions anyway, but increasingly also from within the Reformed community. It is to be feared that in many cases the objections from the latter have something to do with the content of the Heidelberg Catechism, especially LordÕs Days 2 to 4, which deal with manÕs sin and misery. But there are also people who fully subscribe to the doctrines of grace taught in the Heidelberg Catechism, who nevertheless believe it is wrong to use the catechism as preaching material. Lloyd-Jones, for instance writes:

The function of a catechism É is not to provide material for preaching; it is to safeguard the correctness of the preaching, and to safeguard the interpretations of the people as they read their Bibles. As that is the main function of creeds and catechisms, it is surely wrong therefore to just preach constantly year after year on the Catechism, instead of preaching the Word directly from the Scripture itself, with the Scriptures always open before you, and the minds of the people directed to that rather than to menÕs understanding of it. (Preaching and Preachers, Zondervan, 1972, pp.187-188)

Answering This Objection
This objection is typical of English and Scottish Calvinists. Although they share with us a rich heritage of Reformed and Puritan theology, they differ with us and other continental Reformed churches when it comes to catechism preaching. How do we answer objections as raised by Dr. LloydÐJones, for whom we have the greatest respect? I suspect that many of our readers will find his argument against catechism preaching quite persuasive.

How then do we, descendants from a continental Reformed church, counter this argument? We agree, of course, that preaching worthy of that name, must be the preaching of the Word of God. But we insist that catechism preaching meets that criterion. It too is preaching the Word of God. As Dr. T. Hoekstra wrote in his Gereformeerde Homilitiek, a Dutch standard textbook on preaching:

In catechism preaching the Lord comes to his people and opens up the mysteries of his covenant of grace for his congregation. Therefore catechism preaching is administration of the Word. Strictly speaking it is not preaching from the catechism but from the Word. (p. 371)

Who is right, Lloyd-Jones or Hoekstra? To answer that question we need to ask another question first, namely what is a creed or a confession? What is its function and character and how is it related to Scripture?

Function and Character of Creeds
For Lloyd-Jones, the function of a creed is to safeguard the correctness of the preaching as well as the interpretations of the people who read their Bibles. We certainly agree with that, but we also believe creeds serve an additional purpose. They summarize what Scripture teaches about God and man, his creation and fall, as well as his redemption through Christ, the way of salvation and the means of grace and whatever else is necessary for us to know.

Admittedly, these summaries, no matter how faithful to Scripture, are not Scripture itself. They contain many words and phrases that are not found in the Bible, although many others are directly quoted from Scripture and every doctrine set forth in these summaries is supported by texts placed in the margins

The question at issue is, what is the character and status of these summaries as given for instance in the Heidelberg Catechism? We agree with Lloyd-Jones and others that they are human documents. But what about the doctrines contained in these documents? Are they man-made too? In theory, of course, they could be. Not all catechisms reflect biblical truth accurately The Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church contains many doctrinal statements that are true to Scripture, e.g., when dealing with the Trinity and the two natures of Christ. But its formulations re justification and the sacraments, to mention only those two, are far off the mark. But the Reformed creeds, including the Heidelberg Catechism, we believe to be faithful to Scripture in every way. We believe this, not because we take the authorsÕ word for it. The Reformed churches examined the writings of Ursinus and Olevianus carefully and found them to be completely, though not exhaustively, true to GodÕs Word. They accepted the Heidelberg Catechism officially at the Synod of Dort, along with the Belgic Confession and the Canons of Dort.

But this still does not mean that preaching the catechism is right, the objector will say, because whether one or two individuals or a whole federation of churches accepts it as a faithful summary of Bible truth, this does not change the fact that it is a human and therefore fallible document.

We readily admit that the wording of the catechism is not infallible. But the truths expressed in it are those of the Word of God and therefore may be preached in that creedal formulation.

All Sermons Contain Human Elements
What many people do not understand is that God always communicates His truth through the medium of human instruments. During the Old Testament dispensation He made His Word known to Israel. How? Through the prophets. The Word did not come directly from God to His people, but via His authorized spokesmen. So also today, when a minister takes a text from Scripture, and preaches a sermon based on it, the Word of God is preached--but through the medium of a man who has but a limited understanding of the Holy Scriptures, no matter how well trained he may be in the original languages. He is liable to make errors in judgment and present faulty exegesis--yet provided he does not preach heresy, the congregation accepts it as GodÕs Word; in fact as a Òthus saith the Lord.Ó It is GodÕs word even though the sermon contains many words, sentences and expressions that are not explicitly stated in the Bible.

If catechism preaching is rejected on the ground that it replaces the Word of God, then the same argument can be used against sermons preached on Bible passages. Why? Because a sermon does not consist of Bible verses strung together, but on explication and application of these verses to the congregation. So, technically speaking, preaching of the Word in its absolute sense, can take place only when Scripture is read and nothing else. Of course, no one will insist on this. No one will say that a sermon based on GodÕs Word is just the word of man.

Why then insist that catechism preaching is wrong? Catechism preaching brings us the Word of God by way of the churchÕs confession. What we have in the catechism is not just the opinion of one or two men, no matter how learned and godly they may be. Rather, what we have in the catechism is the accumulated wisdom and understanding of the Church, guided by the Spirit and corporately expressed in her official creed or confession. Whenever men who are called to preach, open this little book called the Heidelberg Catechism, they hold in their hands a document, which spells out what the Reformed churches confess about sin, salvation and gratitude. Here we have the Reformed position on the doctrines of grace clearly and powerfully stated. If ever there was a time when catechism preaching is needed, surely it is today because so many ÒreformedÓ people are open to Arminian and other dangerous influences.

Methods of Catechism Preaching
Granted then that a good case can be made for preaching from the catechism, how should this be done? Should we preach only the words of the catechism and exegete them as if they were the very words of Scripture? This was more or less the method used by preachers in the past, but I donÕt think that is the correct way, for the impression is given that the catechism and the Bible are one and the same, which is not true, even though we believe the catechism is a faithful summary of GodÕs Word.

A better approach, perhaps, is to select one or two Scripture passages and use them as a launching pad for the sermon, as well as referring to additional Bible verses throughout the exposition of the catechism. This is not always easy to do, for many of the LordÕs Days are based on a great number of passages and it is not feasible to mention all of them, let alone expound them all. The latter should not be attempted anyway, because then the danger is that one ends up with a sermon that is neither Õfish nor fowl.Õ I believe the following advice given many years ago is still worth listening to. In an article that appeared in the January 1954 issue of The Banner, the official publication of the Christian Reformed Church, Rev. Nicholas J. Monsma wrote:

I would not be so presumptuous as to prescribe for others a definite method for the preparation and preaching of Catechism sermons. I suppose that in course of time every minister will develop his own method--a method best suited to the congregation he serves and to himself. However, possibly due to the difficulties of preaching these sermons to the edification of the congregation, ministers have resorted to a method which, it seems to me, subverts the very idea and purpose of the Catechism sermon. A passage of Scripture or a single text is selected and expounded at length and in course of the exposition the Catechism is mentioned, but not explained or applied. Of course, there is no objection to the use of Scriptural passages. How could there be? But the idea and purpose of the Catechism sermon is to take all of Scripture in purview as much as possible. This purpose is not attained by treating a single text exclusively. Either the text will be neglected or the Catechism. Besides, no LordÕs Day rests upon a single text or passage. Such sermons do not deserve to be called Catechism preaching. No congregation is permanently edified by them.

Catechism Preaching and the Whole Counsel of God
That last statement is very important. The purpose of all preaching, whether textual or catechetical, is that by it the congregation may be edified. Catechism preaching serves that purpose very well because it covers the whole range of biblical doctrine. What Paul said to the Ephesian elders may also be applied to the catechism. When I was with you he said, ÒI have not shunned to declare unto you all the counsel of GodÓ (Acts 20:27). This counsel or plan refers to what the apostle in the same speech calls,Ó the gospel of the grace of GodÓ (v.24). When Paul says that he has preached the whole counsel of God, he means that no part of GodÕs work of salvation had been neglected by him while he preached and did pastoral work in the church of Ephesus. Therefore, he added, no one can blame me if any of you should perish in your sins. ÒI am pure from [or innocent of] the blood of all men.Ó(v.26). The point I am making is that in preaching we must make sure that no part of the plan of salvation may be left out or short-changed by us. This is very easy to do. As Dr. N.H. Gootjes explains:

When a minister chooses a text he can handle or he has an idea about, he can easily be one-sided in his choice of a text. When a minister has the need of the congregation foremost in his mind he can choose texts he thinks the congregation needs and again be one-sided. The catechism, concentrating on the doctrinal structure of GodÕs revelation contains a survey of the content of Scripture. As such the catechism is helpful for the congregation to grasp the central content of GodÕs revelation. It is helpful for the minister, too, since it can prevent one-sidedness in his preaching. Just as continued text preaching is beneficial to keep catechism preaching fresh, so continued catechism preaching is beneficial to keep text preaching well rounded. (Catechism Preaching, II, paper presented at the ICRC meeting in Zwolle, The Netherlands, September, 1993, p.3).

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