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Archibald Alexander on Catechizing

The word “catechizing” seems to elicit a multitude of reactions ranging from scorn to confusion. Whether someone envisages a family whose definition of fun is sitting around quizzing one another on their knowledge of 17th century cultural norms, or whether hearing this word leads them to say, “Cate-what?” there is no doubt that this practice of catechizing is at an all time low due to the ignorance of its nature and importance. Catechetical training is something that everyone does! The questions that should be asked are, ‘What are you catechizing your children in,” and “How are you catechizing them?” The failure to understand the importance of this discipline compelled Archibald Alexander–the first professor of theology at Princeton Theological Seminary–to author the small pamphlet titled, “The Duty of Catechetical Instruction.” In this pamphlet Alexander persuasively explains what catechizing is and why we must be serious about doing it in our homes and churches. “Catechetical instruction,” wrote Alexander, “must have been coeval with the human family. At first all knowledge was communicated orally, and handed down by tradition. The first man delivered a stock of important ideas to his children; and they again to theirs, with different degrees of ability and fidelity.”

In order to prove the biblical precedent for catechizing, Alexander sets out a series of Scriptural injunctions for believers to teach their children the words and ways of the Lord diligently. He wrote:

The pious patriarch would spend much time in dealing out to his listening children the lessons which he had learned in his youth from his predecessors, and those which he had been taught by his own experience. These instructions were properly of the nature of catechizing, which may be defined to be ” the familiar communication of knowledge, orally.” As long as this duty was faithfully performed by parents, the darkness of ignorance and idolatry were prevented, but as soon as it fell into neglect, error and vice must have been the consequence. Of Abraham, God certifies, ” I know that he will command his children, and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the Lord, to do justice and judgment,” Gen. xviii. 1.9. And God, by Moses, insisted more upon no duty than this, of domestic instruction in the truths of religion. ” And the words which I command thee shall be in thy heart, and thou shah teach them diligently to thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thy house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down and when thou risest up,” Again, ” Only take heed to thyself, and keep thy soul diligently, lest thou forget the things which thine eyes have seen, and lest they depart from thy heart all the days of thy life; but teach thy sons, and thy son’s sons.” Deut. iv. 9, 10. vi. 7. To these precepts the Psalmist refers, when he says, ” He established a testimony in Jacob, and appointed a law ip Israel, which he commanded our fathers that they should make them known to their children : that the generations to come might know them, even the children which should be form, who should arise and declare them to their children,” and an apostolical appellation, is that given by Paul, viz. ” Christ crucified.”

Alexander then explains the etymological origin of the word “catechize.” While this may seem to some to be irrelevant, the very origin of the word suggests the nature of what is being promoted. Alexander noted that the Greek form of the word means “to instruct with the voice.” The word is found in six or seven places in the New Testament, and is commonly translated “instruct.” Alexander concedes that the word has come to mean, in English, “to instruct by means of questions and answers.” This is a distinctive means of “catechizing.” The main purpose of catechizing is to adequately communicate content.”

One may raise the objection that God has ordained preaching and not catechizing as the means by which Divine truth is to be communicated. It is in anticipation of this objection that Alexander wrote, “Preaching supposes and requires some preparatory knowledge in the hearers, to render it useful in communicating religious knowledge. Elementary principles must be acquired in some other way; and this was more especially the case before the invention of printing, when books were very scarce and few persons were able to read. It seems that the apostles and first teachers of the Christian religion, were much occupied in giving religious instruction from house to house; and we know from undoubted authorities, that in the earliest times of the primitive church, all who applied for admission into the church…were carefully instructed by catechizing; that is, by a course of familiar teaching, viva voce.” These are important facts to which we must pay careful attention. As pastors and teachers of the church, or fathers and heads of families, we must consider what is the best way to insure that the people of God are learning and retaining the words and doctrines of God.

Another objection that is often raised against the argument that catechizing is necessary has to do with the relationship of doctrine of Scripture. Many will, no doubt, insist that all their children need to do is learn the Bible, and that the doctrines contained in our Reformed Confessions and catechisms are human inventions that should not be given equal place in their lives. Alexander approaches this common notion by asserting that “there is, moreover, an unspeakable benefit from the possession of correct doctrinal information, when the mind falls under serious impressions of religion; for then the truths that have been early inculcated, and long forgotten, will revive in the memory, and serve to guard the anxious mind from those enthusiastic errors into which ignorant persons are so prone to fall when they are deeply excercised on the subject of salvation.” In short, Alexander is contending for catechetical instruction as a means of perseverance in the faith in the midst of a world that is anti-Christian in its thought and instruction. Everyone is being instructed, the question is, “In what form of doctrine are you ebeing instructed.” When our children meet with various worldly philosophies and doctrines of demons, will the doctrinal instruction they received in the home and church serve as a defense against the world, the flesh and the Devil?

One of the most helpful sections of this small pamphlet is the list of expositions that have been written on the Westminster Larger and Shorter catechisms. Alexander noted:

Most parents then stand in need of some helps to enable them to explain the meaning of the Catechism; and such helps have been amply provided, and should be in the hands of every Presbyterian family.  We have works of this description by Vincent, Flavel, Thompson, and others of former days; and more recently an excellent exposition of the Shorter Catechism by the Rev. Belfrage of Scotland ; and still more recently we have a set of Lectures on the Shorter Catechism from the pen of the venerable Doctor Green , in two volumes, which we sincerely wish might be found in every family in our church, as a work of sound theology, written in a correct and perspicuous style.  And while we are recommending expositions of this excellent little compend, we would not omit to mention with high approbation, the Rev. Matthew Henry’s Scriptural Catechism , in which all the questions are derived from those in the Shorter Catechism, and the answers throughout are in the very words of Scripture.  This in our opinion is an admirable work, and ought to be reprinted and widely circulated.  We are also free to recommend Fisher’s Catechism, as a valuable doctrinal work, which has been much used in Scotland, and by many Presbyterians in this country. The Key to the Shorter Catechism, we also approve, and from the testimony of those who have tried it, we are led to believe, it may be made very useful in aiding children to understand the meaning of words and phrases used in the Catechism.

There are many other useful arguments and examples set out in this work. Thankfully Naphtali Press has published a copy of it online. You can find it here. This is one of the most careful treatments of a practice that desperately needs to be revived in our day!


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