Should we study catechisms or memorize Scripture? It’s a really good question that comes to us from a listener named Sarah in North Carolina. “Pastor John, I am a stay-at-home mom with three young children. We currently homeschool, and I love the opportunities the kids and I have multiple times a day to talk about the glory of God in our adventures in education. It truly is a joy to point them to Christ every day. My question is this: What are your thoughts on teaching children a catechism? Is it worth the huge amount of time that we would spend on it, or would our time be better served in only memorizing Scripture that points to the same truths?”
It sounds like a wonderful home to grow up in, talking about the glory of God and concerned about whether Scripture memory or catechism is to be chosen. When we think about the time that we have with our children (and I’m talking about a family where a child is born, grows up, and goes away to school; there are other kinds of families, but let’s just address this one), we would be realistic to remember that Bible memory and catechism could start about age two or three until they leave at about eighteen. We’ve got roughly fifteen years.
When I pose myself the question, “Catechism versus Bible memory?” I say there’s plenty of time here. We can do this. We could do both of these. This is not an either-or. My encouragement to all families is that they definitely read the Bible together every day — real Scripture, real reading, real discussion, real prayer from the heart. Connect it with real life every day. Yes, Bible has priority.
The Role of a Catechism
The question is what’s the role of a catechism in that process of Bible saturation? I would describe the role of the catechism in four words: interpretation, selection, organization, and completeness. Here’s what I mean briefly.
1. A catechism is tremendously valuable for providing an overall interpretation for the sweep of Scripture. We all need the particularities of texts. Yes, we do. I need concrete texts in my mind in order to fight the fight of faith.
But we also need a sense of what those texts mean in the larger picture. Catechisms are one means that God, over the centuries, has brought out of the wisdom of the church, which he’s given to provide interpretation for how the texts fit together in a larger, coherent meaning.
“Our children can be left in a great confusion if they only learn random Bible verses.”
2. Catechisms provide help in selecting what things in Scripture to prioritize. There are thousands and thousands of verses in the Bible, like 31,000 plus. Most of us need some help in knowing which of these 31,000 verses are most important for knowing God and living a life of faithfulness. Catechisms are the distillation, the collective wisdom of the church, as to what parts of the Bible need to be emphasized for the health of believers.
3. It really helps the mind of a child (and adults, I would say) to have the vast array of ideas in the Bible brought into some sense of organization. What is foundational? What’s built on the foundation? Where’s it all going? It gives some kind of flow — some kind of order.
Our children can be left in a great confusion if they only learn random Bible verses. That’s ten thousand times better than not learning them, but they can be left in some confusion if they just learn random Bible verses that are never brought in to any particular order, sequence, or progression of thought. Catechisms are a great help in this.
4. The last function, I would say, is the idea of comprehensiveness or completeness. Here’s what I have in mind. When Paul addressed the elders of Ephesus in Acts 20:27, he said their blood wasn’t on his hands because he had not failed to deliver the whole counsel of God. He uses the phrase in Romans 6:17, which says that you have all received a type of teaching. Even clearer in 1 Timothy 6:20, he talks about the good deposit that Timothy should deliver to the people.
You get these phrases: whole counsel of God, type of teaching, good deposit, all of them suggesting that in the bigness and detail of the Bible, there is a core, unified, comprehensive body of truth that we need to make sure as a pastor we deliver to our churches and as parents we deliver to our children. I think catechisms are an effort — no doubt not perfect — an effort to try to fulfill that mission.
Cherish the Bible
What I’m saying is don’t neglect the Bible reading and don’t neglect Bible memory. But somewhere along the way in those fifteen years, build a catechism into your instruction. Maybe she’s thinking, “Oh, you’ve got to do catechism all of those fifteen years.” Oh no, no, no, no. That’s not what I’m saying.
“I would describe the role of a catechism in four words: interpretation, selection, organization, and completeness.”
Noël and I used the catechism for our kids some years and not other years — some school years and not others. That’s what we did, mainly in the evening. We did it twice at least — a little, simple one and then a more complicated one.
I’m not saying it has to have a big part of every day of every year of a child’s life, just somewhere along the way that gets built in. I would just mention, in closing, a few catechisms to think about:
1. Westminster Shorter Catechism from the Reformed Presbyterian tradition.
2. The Baptist catechism that I adapted. It’s 118 questions that I adjusted and put my comments on. That’s available for free at Desiring God.
3. There’s a little simple one, My First Book of Questions and Answers. It’s a little yellow book. It has two- or three-word answers for little tiny kids to questions like “Who is God?” — with little tiny answers — and we used that very early for Talitha and shifted over.
4. Then, more recently, there’s the New City Catechism from The Gospel Coalition. It has its own website with video helps and more. That’s a good one, too. My answer basically is not either-or, but both-and.