What’s in a question?

Question 1: What is your only comfort in life and in death?

Answer: That I, with body and soul, both in life and in death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ, who with His precious blood has fully satisfied for all my sins, and redeemed me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, that all things must work together for my salvation.  Wherefore, by His Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live unto Him.

Both the Heidelberg Catechism and the Westminster Shorter Catechism set forth their purposes in their first question.  The Heidelberg sets out to explain the Christian’s “comfort” (assurance of salvation in Christ) and the Westminster Shorter, how God is to be glorified in mankind.  These goals are intimately related.

The difference in their first question may be partially explained by their differing historic contexts.  The Heidelberg was written in the midst of both persecution and confusion about the true gospel message, as many priests in the Late-Medieval Church had stripped Christians of their assurance of salvation in Christ and replaced it with works and ceremonies.  It was intended to function as a tool of pastoral care for these sick sheep.  The Westminster Shorter was written in the midst of theological debate.  It met their need for doctrinal clarity and consensus.  The two goals are entirely compatible; for, when someone knows gospel comfort, that person will respond by bringing glory to God.

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Photo credit to Nataraj Metz

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What is a catechism?

The term “catechism” did not originate in Roman Catholicism as some assume. Rather, the term is derived from the Greek word katecheo, which simply means “to teach or instruct” (Rom. 2:18; 1 Cor. 14:19; Gal. 6:6). Therefore, “to catechize” is simply to instruct in doctrine.

Instruction in doctrine has been the Church’s practice since its earliest days.  In the Old Testament, parents were called to instruct their children in both God’s works and His commands (see Deut. 4:9; 6:7; 11:19; Psalm 78).  The New Testament Epistles also evidence this careful, thorough instruction.  Paul’s Epistles begin by giving instruction in the Gospel (God’s works) and proceed to God’s commands.  Once the New Testament canon was completed, ministers adopted this form of instruction to instruct converts and children in the basics of the Christian faith.  The Apostles’ Creed was created to summarize the faith and used to prepare adult converts for their baptism.

During the Reformation, catechisms were developed to serve a similar function. They contain a question and answer format to facilitate memorization in adults and, especially, children. After memorizing these basics, a Christian would be far more able to have an intelligent conversation about the Scripture and to understand more of what they believed and why they believed it.

Though many catechisms were produced, the two that have held positions of distinct prominence in Reformed churches are the Heidelberg Catechism and the Westminster Shorter Catechism.

Photo credit to Nataraj Metz