Of Catechizing and instruction of Youth.
by Richard Greenham
There has been a sect both among the heathen and also in our age that thinks religion should not be brought down to the level of children. They believe that children should be allowed to grow up without religious instruction and that they should only be taught about religion when they reach a certain age. This idea can be traced back to the ancient philosophers, as seen in the beginning of their moral teachings and the opinion of the Orator in the defense of Caelius. The heathen philosophers often advocated letting youth have their way until their youthful passions had subsided. However, it's important to note that if we were to consider the authority of the heathen philosophers, we would find that their practice of teaching children catechism and instruction in religion contradicts this opinion. It is well-documented that the Gentiles used the practice of catechizing, as seen during the time of Porphyry. In Athens, it was customary to teach youth, and the histories of the heathen reveal that children were instructed. They even had a tradition of not cutting their children's hair until they had been taught, at which point they would burn the hair as a sacrifice to Apollo. After this, the children were allowed to carry tambourines in their processions and ceremonies. Aristotle's statement in this context refers to a statement of fact rather than what ought to be done. If we were to consider what should be done, we would refer to his seventh book on politics, chapter 17, where he states that it is necessary to withdraw young people from evil influences. When the Israelites requested permission from Pharaoh to go into the wilderness to worship, he ridiculed the idea that their children should accompany them, as if religion were not relevant to children (Exodus 10:11). Similarly, when children were brought to Jesus to receive His blessing, His disciples initially tried to prevent them, as if children and Christ had no connection (Matthew 19:13). However, Christ opposed His disciples, welcoming children to come to Him and pronouncing a curse on anyone who hindered them from doing so. The law is given not only for adults but also for young people to cleanse their ways (Psalm 119:9). Jewish scholars note that children are mentioned three times in the Ten Commandments. In the practice of catechizing, which is included in the Sabbath day's exercises, our sons and daughters are obligated to do less than we are. When children ask about the meaning of the Passover, the Lord commands their parents to explain the sacrament to them (Exodus 12:6). Even when children do not ask, parents are instructed to teach them God's laws (Deuteronomy 6:7).
2. Some people believe that the actions of children are not significant and that children should not be examined or judged based on their behaviour, even if they behave in an immature and childish manner. However, this notion is refuted by Proverbs 20:11, which states that children will be judged by their actions. Just as God's blessing is upon those who pursue wisdom (Psalms 127 and 128), comparing them to a quiver full of arrows and olive branches, He does not spare those who do evil, even if they are children. When boys mocked Elisha, two bears tore them apart (2 Kings 2:24). There is a Hebrew proverb that says, "In Golgotha are seen souls of all sizes," meaning that death, the consequence of sin, comes to the young as well as the old. As John states in Revelation 20:12, he saw both small and great awaiting judgment. Christ, who said of Himself, "I have given you an example" (John 13:13), and whose every action serves as our instruction, set an example for our children by growing in wisdom and the fear of God at the age of twelve. He accepted the children's singing of "Hosanna" (Matthew 21:16) when the Pharisees regarded it as foolishness. Christ demonstrated that His Father values children and does not want them to be denied teaching. He commands that children be allowed to come to Him and pronounces a woe on anyone who prevents them from doing so. In John 21:15, Christ charges Peter not only to feed His sheep but also His lambs. Focusing on the spiritual development of children is essential because the growth of the entire flock depends on the readiness of the lambs. When the lambs are well-fed, less effort is required to tend to the older sheep. Promises should always be kept as faithfully as possible. In our baptism, we made a solemn promise to learn the fear of God. Children's susceptibility to vice, as seen in their willingness to engage in profane or vulgar jests, should prompt us to take advantage of their receptiveness to good things. If children can insult Elisha, they can also praise Christ with "Hosanna."
3. The office of the Catechist is to make his doctrine easy to understand by presenting it clearly and systematically. The catechised should often revisit the same material, repeating and iterating it until they have mastered it. This can be observed in the original words, especially the Greek word "ἐκχωρέω" (ekchōrēō), from which we get our English word "Echo." "ἐκχωρέω" means to sound out the whole, not just a part, as an echo does. Catechizing is distinguished from preaching in that preaching expands on one aspect of religion in a comprehensive manner, while catechizing condenses the entirety of religion into a summary. Preaching is for all audiences, whereas catechizing is for the younger and less educated. Preaching is not required to be repeated, but catechizing is expected to be reiterated.
For support in creating summaries, we can turn to Christ, who condensed the entire law into two commandments (Matthew 22:37). An abridged version of the Gospel is found in John 3:16, "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son," etc. Ecclesiastes 12:13 summarizes Solomon's extensive teachings, "Fear God and keep his commandments." The Apostle in Hebrews 6:1 reduces all the principles of Christian religion to two: repentance and faith. Some scholars believe that this form of teaching is what Paul referred to when instructing Timothy to "hold fast the pattern of sound words" (2 Timothy 1:13) and when mentioning "the form of doctrine" (Romans 6:17) and "the analogy of faith." The reason behind this approach is twofold: it allows us to organise our reading and learning around key principles, and it serves as a protective hedge around the broader doctrine, preventing us from wandering aimlessly. The early Church Fathers also endorsed this method. Clement referred to it as "Crepis," a foundational plot. Athanasius called it a "Synopsis," the initial draft of a picture. Additionally, catechizing enables us to learn and understand in a shorter period, similar to the brief sermons of the Apostles when they baptized hundreds in one day.
4. It is crucial to recognise two important points. Firstly, we will stand before God's judgment seat without excuse if we do not seek knowledge of God when it has been presented to us in such a concise and clear manner. Secondly, our sins should not make us complacent or indifferent towards seeking more advanced instruction, as catechizing serves only as an easy introduction and not as a means to achieve complete knowledge.
Catechizing can be likened to milk, while more in-depth knowledge represents solid food (2 Peter 3:18, 1 Corinthians 14:20, Ephesians 4:13, Hebrews 5:12-13). Catechizing serves as the shallow water where a lamb can wade, while more detailed knowledge is the deep sea where an elephant can swim. Both of these aspects are found in the Scriptures, as Christ exhorts us to "Search the Scriptures." Before the Flood, Cain and Abel's sacrifices indicate the teaching of religion, even in the absence of written words. It is reasonable to assume that their father taught them, as some suggest, to ensure the preservation of God's word. After the Flood, some scholars believe that similar practices continued and were eventually recorded in writings like the books of Sibylline Oracles, which contained traditions transmitted orally. In Abraham's time, God affirmed that He knew Abraham would teach his family and, for that reason, would grant him special favour. The essence of what Abraham taught can be found in Genesis 17:2 (the summary of the law) and Genesis 18:18 (the summary of the Gospel). Abraham's catechizing bore fruit, as evidenced by his son Isaac's prayer (Genesis 24:37), his servant's prayer before and after his mission (Genesis 24:12, 24:26), and the servant's refusal to eat until he had delivered his master's message. During the time of the Mosaic Law, God commanded parents to teach their children as soon as the law was given (Deuteronomy 6:7). This practice can be seen in Hannah, who delivered Samuel to Eli, his instructor, as soon as he was weaned (1 Samuel 1). David also engaged in this practice, as Solomon attested (Proverbs 4:4). Jehoiada taught the young King Jehoash (2 Kings 12:2). After the Babylonian captivity, since the Bible ends there, we rely on other historical accounts to continue our understanding.
5. According to the Rabbins, there were never fewer than 400 houses of catechizing in Jerusalem from the time of Christ to Antioch. During this period, they also decreed that children should begin catechizing at thirteen years of age. Paul may have referred to this practice in Romans 2:18 when he asserted that the Jews were catechized in the law. Ephesians 6:4 instructs parents to bring up their children in instruction. Some believe that Paul, at times, held this office, as seen in 1 Corinthians 14 where he mentions his desire to catechize. We find instances of catechizing in Luke 1:3 (Theophilus), Acts 18:25 (Apollos), and 2 Timothy 3:15 (Timothy). Catechizing in Alexandria, particularly by Mark, was highly commended by Philo Judaeus, as documented by Eusebius. The tradition continued with Clement, Origen, Cyril, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine (who wrote about catechizing the ignorant and the symbolism in four books for catechumens), Athanasius (with his Synopsis of sacred Scripture), and Fulgentius (in De Fide ad Petrum Diaconum). Catechizing is also evident in various Church councils, such as the Sixth Canon of the Council of Neocaesaria, the Sixth and Seventh Canons of the Council of Iberis in Spain, and the First Canon of the Second Council of Braga, as well as the 24th Canon of the Council of Toledo. However, after this period, there is no mention of catechizing until the time of Luther. The impact of this exercise has been significant. Aegesippus claimed that, by virtue of catechizing, every kingdom embraced a shift away from pagan religion within 40 years after Christ's crucifixion. Even Julian the Apostate, considered one of the Church's most intelligent adversaries, chose not to use torture to suppress Christianity but instead abolished schools and all catechizing. When catechizing ceased, ignorance began to grow. The Papists themselves acknowledge that catechizing is how they lost ground to us, as evident in the Pope's Bull "De Motu Proprio" before the Catechism of the Council of Trent. If they ever regain ground, it will likely be through more diligent catechizing. Hence, there are valid reasons to reintroduce the catechism. Christ's reason, "Thou shalt render an account," should motivate us, as we all must give an account of our faith. Moreover, examining our faith before a catechist will prepare us to do so before strangers. Furthermore, because Christ is our Prophet, Priest, and King, we should engage in exercises that help us grow as prophets who examine the doctrine we have heard (1 John 4:1), examine ourselves (2 Corinthians 13:5), and admonish our brethren (Romans 15:14). This exercise allows us to demonstrate our commitment in a special way. Finally, pastors or catechists benefit from assurance that their hearers are profiting individually. Therefore, as the entire Church has practised catechizing by God's command, we must understand that our participation in this holy exercise pleases God.
6. Children should be taught precept by precept and line by line. At times, the catechism should be used to instruct them, while other times, historical narratives should be employed to reinforce their understanding.
7. A person's lasting actions, rather than their initial enthusiasm, should be the measure of their character. Many individuals who initially receive doctrine with anger later prove to benefit more than those who received it cheerfully at first.
8. It is a grave sin and worthy of public rebuke to publicly show reverence for doctrine while privately opposing it. Such behaviour indicates a concern for appearances rather than a genuine conscience that embraces the doctrine.
9. Many individuals reject doctrine immediately, seemingly attaching no value to it, but later willingly embrace it after reflection and under the influence of God's spirit.
10. Children must be taught early to prevent hardness of heart. This should involve godly and prudent correction and instruction. Children often inherit the sins of their parents, so when correcting them, parents should consider whether they themselves committed the same sin. If they find a correlation, they should first humble themselves, then proceed with correction through prayer, fear of God, wisdom, love, and a desire for the child's conversion. Without regeneration, parents pass on their sins to their children as a natural consequence, whereas in regeneration, they do not pass on spiritual gifts as they have received through grace.