Using an Ancient Teaching Method for a New Generation
By Paul V. Harrison
Have you ever wondered why God took six days to create the heavens and the earth when he could have done it in a heartbeat? The best answer I know is that He likes time and the things it makes possible. Time makes stories possible: “It came to pass in those days, there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus.” Time allows for development: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth… and the earth was without form and void…and there was evening and there was morning—the first day.” Time allows for crescendo and consummation: “The Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout and the voice of an archangel.”
A monarch butterfly possesses inherent beauty, and captured in a snapshot, it is a thing to behold. But seen in time-lapse photography—first as a crawling pupa then entombed in a chrysalis before bursting into a winged wonder—its beauty somehow increases.
I think another question “Why doesn’t God make Christians perfect at the moment of salvation?” has the same answer. God likes time and process, the gradual unfolding of splendor. He likes watering a tiny acorn and seeing the mighty oak reach for the sky in time. He likes to watch helpless babes develop into strong men and women. He likes sinners transforming into saints. He likes progress.
In the Christian life, this means God smiles at all we do to plant and nurture faith, to move people along spiritually. Progression from milk to meat pleases him. Paul, in step with Heaven’s mindset, labored so he could “present everyone fully mature in Christ.” Prompting and directing this gradual development toward mature faith is our task. Mushrooms spring up overnight. Mighty oaks take time.
A collection of simple questions and answers called a catechism is one of the tools at our disposal for leading souls into spiritual progress. They have a long and rich history. In the early church, the period of catechetical instruction often lasted three years, consummating in baptism on Easter morning and then participation in communion. The use of catechisms especially flowered during the Reformation. John Calvin wrote to the English leader Edward Seymour in 1548: “If you desire to build an edifice which shall be of long duration, and which shall not soon fall into decay, make provision for the children being instructed in a good catechism, which may shew them briefly, and in language level to their tender age, wherein true Christianity consists.”1
Catholics and Presbyterians are perhaps best known for using catechisms, but Baptists also have a history of employing them. Men such as Thomas Grantham, Hercules Collins, Benjamin Keach, and John Broadus all made great use of catechisms.2 It has been a joy to see the Free Will Baptist Catechism put to widespread use at home and abroad. I am most appreciative of Eddie Moody and Eric Thomsen’s encouragement to churches and families to add the catechism to their instructional tools for pointing little ones to the Lord.
Congregations have innovated and used this tool in any number of ways. Some print one item from the catechism in their bulletin each week. Others incorporate it into their video loop before services. Still others teach it in children’s church. Pastors use it in a series, allowing it to guide their preaching for perhaps a year. Youth ministers use it for teaching and memorizing sessions with children each week. Learning the truth of God is the aim, and many approaches can be used to achieve this goal.
However, someone might object that the catechism is not Scripture, and therefore, should not be used for teaching or preaching. I am quite sensitive to this concern, for it strikes at the heart of what we stand for as Free Will Baptists. We believe in what the Reformers called sola scriptura, that Scripture alone guides us as to our faith and practice. In practical terms, that means the Bible and the Bible alone prescribes what we believe and do.
Sola scriptura means all other documents—the Free Will Baptist Catechism, our church constitutions, our Free Will Baptist theology books and articles, and even our official denominational documents like the Treatise or Church Covenant—are subject to correction by Scripture. None of them are above the Bible or above being questioned on the basis of “thus saith the Lord.”
This truth is one of the great things about our movement. We honor the Bible as the Word of God, as the document that settles Christian disputes. That is why, in a very real sense, the Scripture references accompanying the catechism’s answers are more important than the answers themselves. The one is inspired, written by men indeed but overseen by the Holy Spirit Himself. The other is merely human and subject to correction. With this in mind, some have edited the catechism by deleting this or that part or changing wording. Some have beefed up the Scripture references. This is healthy and natural, for the catechism, like all our documents, is to be judged by Scripture.
This is what Matthew Henry was getting at when, in his sermon encouraging the use of catechisms, he said: “Bear us witness, we set up no other rule and practice, no other oracle, no other touchstone or test of orthodoxy, but the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament: these are the only fountains whence we fetch our knowledge…Every other help we have for our souls we make use of as regula regulata—‘a rule controlled’; in subordination and subservience to the Scripture.”3
With that said, the catechism offers a great opportunity to impact our movement, especially our children. Young minds and hearts are most impressionable, and the opportunities presented by the early years must not be missed. In the same sermon noted above, Henry said: “If the tree must be bent, it must be done when it is young and tender, and with a very gentle, easy hand, for the spirit is not to be broken but bowed.”4
Timing here is critical. The great poet and hymnist William Cowper in his poem “The Progress of Error” wrote:
‘Tis granted, and no plainer truth appears,
Our most important are our earliest years;
The mind, impressible and soft, with ease
Imbibes and copies what she hears and sees,
And through life’s labyrinth holds fast the clue
That education gives her, false or true.”5
The catechism can also be helpful in that it focuses on the most basic aspects of the faith. Unlike the famed Westminster Larger Catechism with 196 questions, the Free Will Baptist Catechism treats only the fundamental teachings of Christianity, things on which all Christians agree. It indeed touches on our distinctives, but, since our movement is aligned with the basic orthodoxy of the ages, the bulk of the catechism teaches mere Christianity and would be acceptable in any church.
The catechism is not the simplest of documents, that’s for sure, but efforts were made to keep answers short and to use easy-to-understand words. Unfortunately, this was not always achieved. Though it admittedly presents challenges to children, it seemed appropriate to introduce terms such as justification, sanctification, and incarnation. Though little ones will likely only memorize these words without understanding at first, initial learning can develop later into comprehension.
God has gifted us with time to incubate faith. This is His desire and our responsibility. We must seize this opportunity to teach the next generation about the Lord Jesus. The Free Will Baptist Catechism is a tool especially designed to help us in this crucial endeavor.
1 John Calvin, Selected Works of John Calvin, ed. Henry Beveridge and Jules Bonnet, 7 vols. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983, 5:191.
2 See Thomas J. Nettles with Steve Weaver, Teaching Truth, Training Hearts: The Study of Catechisms in Baptist Life, rev. ed. Cape Cod, FL: Founders Press, 2017.
3 Matthew Henry, The Complete Works of Matthew Henry, 2 vols. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979, 2:159-60.
4 Henry, 157.
5 William Cowper, The Complete Poetical Works of William Cowper, Oxford ed., ed. H. S. Milford. London: Oxford Press, 1913, 25.
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