Catechizing: Grounded in Scripture
The act of catechizing, though somewhat foreign to the ears of modern evangelicals, was part of the regular diet of our early Christian forbearers. The word catechize comes from the Greek word katecheo simply meaning to teach, or instruct. In the Old Testament we see God commanding older generations to raise up and teach the younger generations those things God has revealed (see Deut. 6:6-7; 11:18-19; Psalm 1; 78:4-5; 119). Similarly, in the New Testament we see the same imperatives. Fathers are to bring up their children “in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). Indeed, young Timothy himself was taught at an early age the teachings of God’s word, which Paul says was used to bring him to faith in Christ (2 Tim. 3:15).
Catechizing is therefore concerned with teaching biblical truth. We see this in 1 Timothy 4:6 where Paul instructs Timothy to “put these things before the brothers… being trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine that you have followed.” Verse 7 gives us the result, that they will have trained themselves for godliness. Important to see is that tiny phrase found in verse 6, the faith. It’s most likely describing a body of recognized doctrine essential to the Christian faith, and it was this good doctrine with which Timothy was to “put before the brothers.” In other words, if someone were to ask Timothy “what exactly do you believe as a Christian”, Timothy wouldn’t answer by reading the Scriptures, beginning in Genesis and going right through to the end. His answer would need to be statements of good doctrine derived from Scripture; concise teaching about the truths of Scripture. It’s here where Christian catechizing finds its start.
Interestingly, Paul in 1 Corinthians 11 intentionally uses a technical Greek word, paradidomi, meaning to deliver, to describe the manner in which Paul taught the church. He first commends them “because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you” (1 Cor. 11:2). These traditions were established gospel-doctrine. Where did they come from? Well, a few verses later he says that he “received from the Lord what I also delivered to you…” (1 Cor. 11:23). What becomes striking is that later in chapter 15 Paul, using the same technical word to deliver, gives us a summary of what these traditions, these doctrines were. He says, “I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3-4). Here then was the substance of Paul’s catechizing.
J.I. Packer comments in light of these passages that “we who worship the Lord today receive God’s word through the ministry of preachers and teachers and through our own reading and study of the Scriptures. Beyond the issue of how Paul received this instruction, however, is the simple but crucial fact that he received it. If ‘passing on’ or ‘delivering’ describes the catechetical process from the vantage point of the teacher or catechist, ‘receiving’ describes the same process from the vantage point of the disciple or catechumen. In fact, all who engage in the ministry of catechizing others are continually exercised in both directions – they pass on what they have received. Catechesis, then, is not concerned with novelty – certainly not in terms of content. It is concerned, rather, with faithfulness in both learning and teaching the things of God.” (J.I. Packer, Grounded in the Gospel: Building Believers the Old-Fashioned Way, 42).
And this pattern of both receiving and delivering, hearing and teaching, accords entirely with the repeated commands we see in Scripture to teach sound doctrine. Here are just a few examples:
• “Command and teach these things” (1 Tim. 4:11).
• “Timothy, guard the deposit entrusted to you” (1 Tim. 6:20).
• “Follow the pattern of sound words that you have heard from me… guard the good deposit entrusted to you” (2 Tim. 1:13-14).
• “What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2).
• “As for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1).
All these passages are concerned with the right reception, keeping, and teaching of good biblical doctrine, the pattern of sound words. In fact, this was seen as such an essential aspect of church life that Paul in Galatians 6:6 instructs those who are being catechized to give honor and support to the faithful men doing the catechizing. “The one who is taught (literally, catechized) must share all good things with the one who teaches (literally, catechizes).”
Again, this has always been the way in which God’s people have kept the faith. In the opening verses of Psalm 78 we see perhaps one of the clearest expressions of what true catechizing is: God’s people concerned with the reception of and keeping of and teaching of biblical truth - all to the end of maintaining godliness, generation after generation.
“Give ear, O my people, to my teaching; incline your ears to the words of my mouth! I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings from of old, things that we have heard and known, that our fathers have told us. We will not hide them from their children, but tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders that he has done. He established a testimony in Jacob and appointed a law in Israel, which he commanded our fathers to teach to their children, that the next generation might know them, the children yet unborn, and arise and tell them to their children, so that they should set their hope in God
and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments” (Psalm 78:1-7).
May our churches continue to catechize well so that future generations may cherish the glorious deeds of our Lord!
Stephen Unthank (MDiv, Capital Bible Seminary) serves at Greenbelt Baptist Church in Greenbelt, MD, just outside of Washington, DC. He lives in Maryland with his wife, Maricel and their two children, Ambrose and Lilou.