The word Catechism can refer to oral teaching or a manual for that teaching. Usually it is a summary of religious doctrine that is often in the form of questions and answers. A catechist is a person who catechizes, especially one who instructs catechumens in preparation for admission into a Christian church. Catechumens, then are those being catechized or prepared for church membership. The question and answer format itself is old as we will recall Socratic dialogues from the ancient Greeks. The format can also be used to teach other things including Church History as we will see.

When I was a lad I had friends who went to Catechism after school but it was unclear to me whether they really understood what they were learning. (Mostly they thought it was boring.) Even though I was raised in the Church and our tradition did not have a formal catechism; still I thought I had a better clue about Christianity than my friends. The fundamental issue is that the catechism can be used to teach doctrine and that knowledge may well lead to a relationship with Christ but for many it just leads to head knowledge. This is especially true if all you do is memorize the answers in the book without actually engaging the questions. Sadly this is what was happening to my friends.

Throughout history the Church has struggled with what exactly Church membership means and how to instruct neophytes. The quality of Christian education and the commitment of church members has fluctuated over time. Charlemagne, who was was King of the Franks from 768 and Holy Roman Emperor of from 800 until his death, had great power in the Church of his day: "He sought to improve the standard of Christian living of the clergy and through them the laity: in theory all Christians were to know the Lord's Prayer and the Apostles Creed." (Latourette p 96) These are pretty minimal objectives by any modern chatechismal standards but it does show where the church was at one point in time, perhaps it was not that much different than today. It comes a no surprise then when J. I. Packer, on the occasion of his eightieth birthday, would say that we need to catechize the evangelical church. He was complaining that we have, by and large, theologically illiterate congregations.

Many in Charlemagne's day were political converts with no real commitment to the Gospel; many were basically uneducated nad vewed the church largely in terms of sacraments or perhaps even magic. When I was growing up in the 1960s there was a cultural Christianity that permeated much of our society. The formality of the catechism classes that my friends experienced belong to a time such as that when Christianity was the majority religion and it was designed to communicate the facts of Christianity on something like an assembly line basis. Graduating from any sort of a class, however, does not necessarily produce a Christian because that is as much a heart thing as a head thing.

There are many today, even among among the clergy, who may have the head knowledge of doctrine without the relationship with Christ that is life transforming. That is what John Wesley found. We see his story in catechismal form in this excerpt from the CATECHISM OF ECCLESIASTICAL HISTORY of the old Methodist Episcopal Church (I have replaced Episcopalian with Anglican in the following quote):

Q. Who was the founder of Methodism?
A. John Wesley.
Q. Who, and what was John Wesley?
A. He was the son of Samuel Wesley, a rector in the [Anglican] Church at Epworth in Lincolnshire, England, and was born at that place June 17, 1703. Religiously, he was an [Anglican] and became an eminent priest in that denomination.
Q. Did he ever leave the [Anglican] Church?
A. No. He lived and died a member of the [Anglican] Church and went to St. Paul's Church, England, to commune.
Q. Did he start Methodism as a church?
A. He did not, but simply as a society in the [Anglican] Church to foster good morals, and a holier state of living, and a greater zeal in Christian work.
Q. Was John Wesley a great and good man?
A. He was a great man intellectually, and a good man from a moral point of view, though he was not a converted "New-life" man when he started Methodism.
Q. You do not mean to say that John Wesley began to preach, and started the great Methodist movement when he was yet an unconverted sinner, do you?
A. Yes, I mean to say that very thing.
Q. How long after he started Methodism until he was genuinely converted?
A. Eight and one-half years. He began Methodism in November, 1729, and he dates his own conversion May 24, 1738, "about a quarter before nine o'clock." He says: "Till then (May 24, 1738) sin had dominion over me. I, who went to America to convert others, was never myself converted to God. I had the faith of a servant, though not of a son." "I am 'a child of wrath,' an heir of hell." These things John Wesley said of himself, eight and one-half years after he started Methodism. (See McTyeire's Hist. Methodism, p. 126). (http://www.reformedreader.org/ccc/grime/cat04.htm 7/8/10)

Wesley was more than catechized, he was ordained a priest prior to his conversion. He certainly had head knowledge and great study but no relationship with the risen Christ. This and similar stories are probably why the idea of formal catechism has fallen by the way side. Some blame the Sunday School movement of the mid 1700s for dumbing down theological education but that too is probably overstated. That was certainly not the goal. The Sunday School movement was focused on building relationship by communicating how that relationship worked with the Bible stories. Rather than focusing on points of theology as the catechism does. That should have been more approachable for children but it can leave a void in theological learning as one matures.

In Catholic circles the sacraments are thought to confer grace. In his darker days, Luther looked back to his baptism for his assurance of salvation. In this context the sacrament of confirmation that would have followed the teaching of the catechism would confer the grace but the theology was taught in the catechism. Luther retained the notion of catechism and indeed his shorter catechism repeated here and is commonly cited today.

God searches for us until we find Him. This in spite of our best efforts as the church.

Packer and Parrett 4/5/10

http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/catechism  4/5/10

http://www.thefreedictionary.com/catechist  4/5/10