by Rev. Lee Johnson
In 1563 in Heidelberg Germany, early February, a catechism was published for the people of the region. A catechism. A catechism is a series of questions and answers to those questions usually meant to be asked and answered from student to teacher. It had been commissioned the year before to prepare the way for Elector Frederick III to change the religion of his people from Lutheran to Reformed. Now at the time in Germany, it was legal to be Lutheran and legal to Roman Catholic, but illegal to be Reformed. To prepare his people to defend the new, and illegal faith, he ordered a catechism. Why? Keep that question in mind as we will return to it.
Turn now to Matthew 16:5-20. Now this is probably a familiar section to most of you. In fact, I would bet more ink has been spilled discussing Matthew 16:16-19 than any other section. But that is not what I want to get into in this blog post. I want to discuss what comes before. Jesus has just warned his disciples about the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees, which we know is the teaching of those two groups. Now they have finished crossing the water, and have gone north out of Israel into Caesarea Philippi. This city was an imperial city built up in Roman style. It is here that Jesus then asks “Who do people say that I am?” What is Jesus doing? He is doing catechism!!! Structured questions and the students give answers to his questions. This is nearing the end of Jesus’s earthly life and he is taking them away from the fray for one last trip of training. He is preparing them to withstand false teaching coming from the Pharisees and Sadducees and to do so and to prepare them for what is coming next, Jesus begins with Catechism! Who do they say I am? Who do you say that I am? Note the different answers. This section is not just so we can get a confession of faith from Peter and arguments about the Rock, but rather so we can see the difference between the two ways of thinking: between what they think Jesus is and what the disciples know Jesus is. They are to beware of the first way and follow the second!
The answers have one thing in common. They all, as spiritual and religious as they may sound, they all deny that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the Savior. This is the fundamental point. The leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees ends up with a denial of Jesus as the Messiah. That was something they could not accept, this is why they are demanding a sign at the beginning of 16 and they constantly attack him and question him. They could live with Jesus the prophet, but not Jesus the Christ.
This is not the only place we see training through catechism. Look at Exodus 13:14-16. Here we see the institution of the Passover, and we see a section where the son asks “What does this mean?” and then the father is to answer. In fact, he is told what to answer. “You shall say to him…” We something similar in Joshua 4:6-7 as the children of Israel set up memorial stones after crossing the Jordan on dry land. The children ask “What do those stones mean to you?” And then they are to reply.
Luke writes at the beginning of his gospel that he is writing it to help make Theophilus certain concerning the things in which he has been instructed (Luke 1:4). And the word for instructed there is indeed “catechized.” Acts remember is a continuation of Luke to the same Theophilus. The point is simply this: we must instruct, catechize, our children and ourselves in the Lord. It is an important defense against the world, the flesh, and the devil.
In Psalm 48:12-14, we are told to walk about Zion, consider her, and tell the next generation that this is God. The people of Israel were to walk about the city and use the city as a way to teach the glory greatness of God. Through instruction and applying one’s mind to the walls and towers and palaces, the mind could be raised up to see God and His greatness. And the process then was to be taught to the children and the next and next generations after that. Calvin argues that this is still to be done today, but not about physical Jerusalem, which was always a sign, but about the church. Walk around the church and consider her blessings and protections, and from that through faith gaze upon the grace of God. We of course cannot do this for the next generation if we ourselves are not walking around and considering the walls. So, then, are we to teach the next generation about the church and her savior, to teach them to consider it and understand?
Jesus has shown us a very effective and important way … catechism. Read Galatians 6:6. The word being used is the word for catechism. The one who is already catechized with the word of God must share all good things with the one who is catechizing. This sounds an awful lot like what we are told to do in Psalm 48 with teaching them about Jerusalem.
If a child tugs on your sleeve when an infant is being baptized and asks “Why are they doing that?” you can explain Baptism. You can say, “That is not the washing away of sin, only the blood of Jesus and the Holy Spirit do that, but babies just like their parents belong to the covenant and people of God and the blood of Jesus and the Spirit are promised to them just as to their parents. And as a sign of that promise, we baptize and distinguish between children of believers and children of unbelievers” (HC #74). Catechism. And did you catch this: “distinguish between children of unbelievers and believers”? Distinguish between them and us – or to go back to Jesus in Matthew 16 “who do the people say that I am and who do you say that I am.”
Back to our question about why Catechism. I hope it is becoming apparent. Catechism, instruction in the Christian faith, is an important and valuable tool we have to pass on the faith. To prepare others to be able to defend the faith, live out the faith, and know the faith inside and out. To avoid the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees. Before 1563 there are many catechism written to teach the Reformed faith. Calvin had three. The Anglican church authored two. Jan Laski wrote a few. Wolfgang Capito had one for Strassborg. Leo Juda wrote one. Bern had one. They all had one because it was an important tool to help people against the Leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees. Jesus tells us to beware of it, to prepare against it. And then He catechized.
So, why catechize? Because it is a Scripturally endorsed defense against the leaven of the world. It really is that simple.
Rev. Lee Johnson is a member of the Board of Trustees of Heidelberg Theological Seminary and currently serves as Pastor of St. John’s Reformed Church in Lincoln, NE.