In advance of the release of Something Worth Living For Matthew Barrett and Credo blog asked me to write a series of blog posts touching upon the value of a catechism. With their permission I am reposting these here for those who did not see them there.
Charlie Mora was one of the finest and most solid men with whom I’ve ever served in the church. He was an elder in the congregation to which I was called out of seminary and he taught me how to be a pastor. But as a commercial fisherman with no more than a high school education, Charlie was an unlikely mentor.
As a young man, during a downturn in the fishing industry, Charlie moved from Cortez, Florida to New Jersey to find work. There he met Marge. He was so taken by this young woman that he was willing to attend her small Orthodox Presbyterian Church in order to date her. There Charlie heard the gospel. As he fell in love with Marge, he came to love Jesus as well.
Charlie was hungry to learn about this new faith, but the church had no adult classes for men like him. And so Charlie, revealing a deep humility that would stay with him his entire life, asked if he could attend the youth class. There, huddled in a room with teenagers, Charlie learned the theology of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. He emerged with a broad, deep, and profound love for God which would later have such a profound impact on me.
Charlie’s story reveals the beauty and mystery of the work of the Holy Spirit in the church. It also reminds us of the power of a well ordered, systematic teaching of the Christian faith. That is, it points to the value of a catechism.
A catechism is an ancient pedagogical tool that systematically presents a broad body of knowledge in small interrelated units. Using a question and answer format, catechisms have been written to serve well-seasoned theological meat in bite sized pieces for those hungry to know God and his ways. Particularly, the theology of the Protestant Reformation rode across Europe and sailed into North America in vessels of beautifully crafted and carefully framed catechisms by which one generation instructed the next. One of these, the last and most concise of these, the Westminster Shorter Catechism, was used to pass this faith worth learning on to my friend Charlie.
Published in 1647, the Westminster Shorter Catechism has had a wide influence. It was the product of 120 seventeenth-century theologians and pastors from England, Ireland, and Scotland meeting in assembly in Westminster Abbey in London (hence the name) over a period of four years. The products of committees and assemblies are usually bland. Not this one. The Westminster Assembly found a way to distill essential theological truth into memorably precise and matchlessly profound language. Its words have become widely known even to those unable to name their source. That our chief end is to “glorify God and enjoy him forever” and that “God is a spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth” are ideas that have lodged in the hearts of many even outside those Reformed and Presbyterian Churches which claim the Catechism as one of their confessional documents.
Of course, the very idea of theology is daunting to many Christians. The word conjures images of big books and fine and incomprehensible distinctions. Theology is imagined to be something boringly peripheral to the living of a full life. But a moment’s reflection suggests that we all embrace a theology of some sort. It may be poorly developed and it may be absolutely wrong, but we have a theology. And too often the theology we are give is couched in negative terms.
The acquisition of theological knowledge in our day is often erratic, spotty, and cloaked in controversy. We learn a bit about eschatology to counter the Jehovah’s Witnesses who come knocking at our door. We ponder how to understand God’s law only because we want to find a way to better argue our case against big government on Facebook. Rarely do Christians enjoy, and I choose that word purposely, the opportunity to consider a positive presentation of the beauty and breadth and practical relevance of our historic Christian faith. The Catechism offers that opportunity.
There are many Charlies in our churches, people curious about Christianity and hungry for some guidance. The Catechism is a good place to begin to satisfy that curiosity. To support this process is why I’ve written Something Worth Living For.
As pastors and churches we may not be able to help our Charlies fall in love with our Marges, but we certainly can use the rich tools of our heritage to help them fall in love with Jesus