For You And For Your Children

Tim Keller’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York has partnered with The Gospel Coalition to produce a new catechism for a new generation.  The New City Catechism is a blend of the best of the Reformation catechisms, most notably the Westminster Larger and Shorter catechisms and the Heidelberg Catechism.  The language of the questions and answers remains mostly unaltered from the originals, but this new catechism is shinier and, most notably, sleeker.

It is “shinier” because it is designed for the iPad (though there is also a version for normal web browsers), with each Q&A including not only a written commentary from a famous theologian of the past (Chrysostom, Augustin, Calvin, Spurgeon, Lewis, etc), but also a short video commentary from respected pastors and council members of TGC.  One of the great beauties of a catechism is that it’s question-answer format allows almost anyone to pick it up and begin learning the faith as if they had a teacher right along side them.  Expanding the simple questions and answers to include these supplemental expositions of key themes and doctrines greatly enhances this already practical feature of the catechism.

The video commentary from Q&A 1:

This new catechism is “sleeker” for two reasons.  First, it is a “joint” catechism for both children and adults.  Each question has a shorter child’s answer that is contained within the longer adult’s answer.  For example, question 1 is “What is our only hope in life and death?”  The two answers are:

Child: “That we are not our own but belong to God.”
Adult: “That we are not our own but belong, body and soul, both in life and death, to God and to our Savior Jesus Christ.”

In this way there is a unity between the child’s catechism and the adult’s catechism.  Really, they are not even two catechisms.  As the child grows, their own answers simply grow into a more complete answer, rather than using different words to respond to different questions.

Second, there are only 52 questions, one for each Lord’s Day (that would be Sunday) of the year.  This is where I see a potential for criticism.  Some in the Reformed community are already mocking this new catechism.  While such mocking is mostly unwarranted, 52 questions is less than half the number of questions in the Westminster Shorter, which does beg us to question whether this catechism is ultimately a sorry, watered-down replacement for its predecessors.

My initial response is no, with one caveat.  Running quickly through all 52 questions, I didn’t notice any troubling gaps in doctrine, save that infant baptism is nowhere to be found.  This isn’t surprising, since TGC is a partnership between paedobaptists and credobaptists, but for those in Reformed and Presbyterian denominations this absence may serve to highlight the superiority of the old catechisms already in use.

And yet that may be the point.  Since those denominations still use the Westminster and Heidelberg, this new catechism is not really designed for them, rather it is designed for those broadly “Reformed” churches who identify with organizations like TGC, but who do not already have a built-in structure of catechesis.  I certainly wouldn’t use the new catechism to replace the Heidelberg or Westminster in my own classroom, but I would gladly make use of it as a supplement.

In the end, the New City Catechism is a wonderful way to help the modern evangelical church back to the ancient and indispensible practice of catechesis.  I will leave you with Pastor Keller’s excellent summary:

 At present, the practice of catechesis, particularly among adults, has been almost completely lost. Modern discipleship programs concentrate on practices such as Bible study, prayer, fellowship, and evangelism and can at times be superficial when it comes to doctrine. In contrast, the classic catechisms take students through the Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer—a perfect balance of biblical theology, practical ethics, and spiritual experience. Also, the catechetical discipline of memorization drives concepts deeper into the heart and naturally holds students more accountable to master the material than do typical discipleship courses. Finally, the practice of question-answer recitation brings instructors and students into a naturally interactive, dialogical process of learning.

In short, catechetical instruction is less individualistic and more communal. Parents can catechize their children. Church leaders can catechize new members with shorter catechisms and new leaders with more extensive ones. Because of the richness of the material, catechetical questions and answers may be integrated into corporate worship itself, where the church as a body can confess their faith and respond to God with praise.

One last thing, to The Gospel Coalition:  I do not have an iPad, so please release an android version soon.  Thanks!

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David Nilsen

David graduated from Biola University in 2008, with a B.A. in Philosophy. He studied Historical Theology for three years at Westminster Seminary in California (his essays on Theology, Church History and Eastern Orthodoxy can be found here). David has been blogging about Philosophy, Politics and Culture since 2004. He has contributed to The White Horse Inn and The Gospel Coalition. You can also follow him on Twitter.

  • Soujirou7

    I recognize that catechisms provide a succinct presentation of doctrine in a memorizable format and are a good teaching tool. However, I think it is somewhat unfair for Keller to imply that there are problems with the “bible study, prayer, fellowship, evangelism” method of discipleship that are not present in the use of catechisms. To suggest that memorization is not at times superficial just ludicrous. While memorization may drive “concepts deeper into the heart,” it does not guarantee understanding.will be achieved. I also have difficulty believing how natural and dialogical the learning process will be with the use of catechisms; in an ideal world, maybe. Bible studies have their shortcomings to be certain, but I believe the problems are inherent with the human condition, which places any tool or method beyond the realm of perfection.

  • David Nilsen

    Catechism certainly can be superficial, but I think the point is that memorization is a great tool that we simply don’t use anymore. The focus on catechism isn’t meant to end all other activities, like bible studies or discipleship groups, but to add to them and enhance them.

    Also, I’ve taught 9th grade catechism for several years now, and it’s been wonderful. Because it is question-answer format, rather than just a set of statements to be believed, it definitely makes the teaching process more natural and dialogical.