Opening up the Catechism

-Ben Nelson-

Found amid the familiar accessories of our Presbyterian identity – our committees, the burning bush emblem,’Presbyterian blue’ and the PWMU cookbook – rings out a grand and glorious statement: ‘the chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.’

Wonderful words from the opening answer of our Shorter Catechism, simple yet profound.

Also perhaps one of the few Presbyterian statements known in the wider church.

A good friend of mine, a retired Baptist minister, says it’s so wonderful he doesn’t have any energy to consider the rest of the catechism!

But what comes next?

As a young boy I to found myself floored by this statement, especially when I worked out that ‘end’ really meant ‘purpose’ and so found myself at the ‘beginning’ of a long series of questions and answers my Dad was making me learn.

How was I to know the further riches that would be mine? To glorify and enjoy God was not left for me to define, but was unfolded for me with clarity and richness – the truth of God, his law and his gospel, the grace of Christ and the Spirit’s work in me.

That’s why this first opening statement in the Shorter Catechism, despite its beauty, is not my favourite. That’s why I am now passing the catechism on to my own children. Which is why, over the next few months, I would love to introduce you to some of my favourites from the Shorter Catechism as well.

But that’s also when some of the objections begin.

Why learn the catechism when you can learn the Bible instead?

Sounds like a no-brainer and who can argue with giving God’s Word priority?

But when I read the Word, I find things that sound awfully like a catechism: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one (Deut 6:4)”; “Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness: He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory (1 Tim 3:16).”

The Word doesn’t just’flesh out’ truth, but ‘sums it up’ as well.

In fact, catechisms actually underscore the Word’s power. If God is clear and consistent in what he says to us, then it should be possible to distill from his Word what is most essential for us to know, and put it in a form that we can learn and teach. That’s simply what a creed or catechism is.

What good is it to believe in the Word, but refuse to spell out what we believe it teaches?

Isn’t catechism just indoctrinating children? Shouldn’t we let them make up their own mind instead of telling them what to believe?

But really this means surrendering to others who will make up their minds for them.

The ‘catechising’ of mass media. The ‘creed’ of the school playground. The ‘discipling’ of the class room where ‘critical thinking’ is so often code for overturning parental values in favour of the latest ideology. None of these claim to indoctrinate, and so their indoctrination is all the more powerful.

In fact, by being so blatant, a Christian catechism actually gives space for our children to respond. It appeals to memory and argument, not emotion or subliminal messaging. Alongside Bible verses, Christian songs and family prayer times, a catechism gives our faith sharp and clear outlines. Our children are free to reject this one day, but they can’t say they weren’t told what Christianity is.

They won’t understand the catechism anyway.

There are some very simple introductory catechisms available that are pretty easy to understand – Carine MacKenzie’s My First Book of Questions and Answers for example, or the simple version of the New City Catechism. Quick to learn and easy to explain, they are tailor-made for family devotions.

But to be provocative for a moment: do we always have to understand something first in order to learn it?

We think that it’s obvious, but it’s actually a very recent idea. It explains why multiplication tables and classical poetry have also been thrown out of many classrooms, although thankfully they are starting to sneak back in.

Earlier generations of teachers knew that if you were going to teach people how to think, they needed something already in their minds to think about! What better use for young memories than to be stored with what is of highest quality and will last the rest of their lives?

If my children only get to learn one really good catechism, then I am happy to give them the Shorter Catechism. I know they won’t understand everything to begin with, but I also know that God will bring them understanding one day in his own good time.

So come along with me next time, as God willing we begin to explore some of the ways this catechism teaches us what it means ‘to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.’


Ben Nelson is married to Jen and is father to Hephzibah, Esther, Beatrice and Oliver. He is an elder at South Yarra Presbyterian Church and is now studying for the ministry at PTC Melbourne, after working for many years as a schoolteacher.’

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