Friday, February 03, 2006

Catechize your Children

Our shingles were replaced a few weeks ago, finally reversing the damage done by a hail storm early last year. The banging and clanging overhead was steady for a good bit of the day, starting at 7:30 (good thing I'm an early riser), and finally ending late afternoon. My mom, brother, and I were home for most of the day, enduring the noise. That morning, as I stepped out of the shower, I could hear, barely discernible above the noise of the roofing, my mom and brother conversing. They were in the living room sifting through my brother's things as he prepared to move to Seattle the next day (he's now living out there working for Evil Emperor Gates).

Because of the noise, I normally would not have been able to hear anything they were saying, except that it was something very familiar to me; I mentally zone in on familiar sayings or phrases even amid clamor. I have been known to discern the episode or scene - even the point in a conversation - of an Andy Griffith Show rerun from several rooms (or a floor) away, merely by the tones of voices and the background noises :).

My mom's voice: What befell our first parents when they had sinned?

I couldn't make out Ben's reply, as he was slightly farther away, but I mentally replied with him: Instead of being holy and happy, they became sinful and miserable.

When I emerged into the living room a few minutes later, I was in time for:

Q. Can any one go to heaven with this sinful nature?
A. No; our hearts must be changed before we can be fit for heaven.

"I thought I heard the catechism!" I exclaimed. Sure enough, my mom had pulled out my brother's old copy of The Catechism for Young Children and was testing his memory. Even after more than a decade, many of the questions were still fresh in his mind. I felt inspired to get out my own worn catechism, and I took a trip down memory lane as I reread the questions I had poured over and committed to memory so many years ago. I can still recall most of the answers, though the ones at the end of the catechism are a bit rusty.

My brother is only a year older than me, so we often had Sunday School together growing up. When we were respectively in 4th and 5th grade, we were together in Mrs. Thigpen's class (I also had Mrs. Thigpen in Kindergarten and then in 5th grade). Under the instruction of Mrs. Thigpen in Sunday School and my mother at home, Ben and I both memorized The Catechism for Young Children by the end of 5th grade, along with many memory verses that went along with the related Sunday School lesson. I still have my key chain full of colored, laminated memory verse cards, and I occasionally flip through them and recall them to my memory.

Let me stop here and say that catechetic instruction is rarely beneficial unless supported and propelled by parents in the home. I've mentioned before how important parental religious instruction is, and how sad it is that often Sunday Schools downplay parents' (particularly the father's) spiritual responsiblity to train their children. I believe that Sunday Schools and catechetic instruction should be in addition to (or impemented by) parents, particularly by fathers. The main reason the catechism proved beneficial for me was that my mom incorporated the catechism into homeschooling, as well as related activities. As one who has taught Sunday School, I can attest that it is very tough to have a lasting spiritual influence on children without the support and reinforcement of parents.

My old Sunday School teachers, Mr. and Mrs. Thigpen, founded Children's Ministry International a number of years ago; CMI is a non-profit organization that writes and publishes reformed children's curriculum based on The Catechism for Young Children and The Westminster Shorter Catechism; I recommend the CMI curriculum for anyone looking for a solid, Bible-based Sunday School or homeschool curriculum that is grounded in reformed principles, while presented at an introductory level. I learned the catechism in conjunction with the CMI curriculum.

Some of you may be scratching your heads at this point, as catechetic instruction is often associated with the Catholic church. The Catholics do not have a monopoly on the use of catechisms to train young children, however (and I do applaud their recognition of the importance of such instruction). Catechisms have been used for centuries, and continue to be used today, by protestants as well as Catholics to train the next generation in basic Biblical truths. Catechetic instruction is particularly favored in Catholic and reformed circles, although other groups also find such a method to be beneficial.

For those unfamiliar with catechetic instruction, perhaps a definition of a catechism would be helpful at this point. Here is the definition given by Webster's Dictionary:


1. A form of instruction by means of questions and answers, particularly in the principles of religion.

2. An elementary book containing a summary of principles in any science or art, but appropriately in religion, reduced to the form of questions and answers, and sometimes with notes, explanations, and references to authorities.

The catechism I learned, The Catechism for Young Children, is a simplified version of The Westminster Shorter Catechism, which was written centuries ago by the Westminster Assembly of Divines. After learning The Catechism for Young Children, I did begin The Shorter Catechism, but only barely. I have since regretted not taking the time to commit The Shorter Catechism and its scripture proofs to memory (many catechisms, including The Shorter Catechism, contain reference Bible verses, called "scripture proofs", which are memorized along with the catechism questions).

As my attention to The Shorter Catechism was brief, to this day I only remember the first (and perhaps the most important) question in The Shorter Catechism:

Q: What is the chief end of man?
A: To glorify God and enjoy Him forever.

I would be hard-pressed to find a more excellent summary of a Christian's purpose and duty here on earth than the one given above. The purpose of a catechism is to instruct and train minds to be more like Christ as they learn to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.

Young children are like young plants, eager to drink in whatever food you feed them. What better food to feed them than the truths of God? Rather than (or at least in addition to) filling their young, impressionable minds with Sponge Bob, Mario Brothers, and Barney and Friends, fill their minds with the truths of God. It will not be in vain.

Proverbs 13:14 The teaching of the wise is a fountain of life, turning a man from the snares of death.

Catechetic instruction is not about brainwashing children to become Christians, or brainwashing them to become reformed, Catholic, or any other ideology. No instruction can make someone become a Christian; only the Holy Spirit can quicken a person's heart at the direction of the Father. Catechetic instruction is about instructing children in the way they should go, in the faith that God will draw them to Him in His timing. Parents are responsible for planting and watering seeds, but the growth is up to the Lord, lest we become prideful of our success.

Brad Winsted, the current director of CMI explains it this way: We are wiring the house of the child's mind and are waiting for the Holy Spirit to flick the switch translating the head knowledge to heart knowledge.

Many wonder why the catechism? Why not just have children memorize scripture? Wouldn't that be better, since scripture is the very Word of God, and any catechism is a human interpretation of the Word and therefore open to error.

At this point, I would like to offer the necessary disclaimer: I do not hold any catechism to have the same authority as the Word of God; as such, all catechisms (and creeds and confessions) should be tested in light of Scripture. When evaluating any man-made document we should be as Bereans, diligently searching the scriptures "to see if these things are so."

I am not discounting the importance of memorizing scripture. I highly encourage the memorization of scripture. Children have an especially easy time memorizing things, so by all means feed them scripture when they are young! The best catechetic instruction is coupled with scriptural references and memorizations; I have already mentioned scripture proofs that are often included in the catechism. The catechism is a companion to and an interpretation of scripture, not on par with scripture.

Every Christian parent uses some form of human interpretation to religiously instruct his child, whether it be verbal instruction, Bible storybooks, sermons, or even spiritual songs that are not part of the inspired psalms. It is inevitable to teach and instruct based on our own understanding of scripture. The Word of God is meant to be discussed, disected, and explained. No parent would allow his child's entire knowledge of God be exclusively based on direct reading of scripture. Since such training is inevitable, it is right and good to organize and solidify training into something the child will internalize. The catechism is systematic and organized. When properly implemented, it gives a child a structured basis for belief and an organized system from which to learn - sort of a "My First Systematic Theology" book. What a child internalizes becomes part of him, and he will carry it with him the rest of his life.

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Brad Winsted, director of CMI:

Let me tell you a true story about a Presbyterian pastor who was asking a Catholic priest about why so many Catholics, when they are older and have been away from church so long, seem to want to come back. The Catholic priest's answer was immediate. "We catechize our little children and it is part of them, therefore, when they are seeking again the answers to life, their memorized catechism questions come back to them and they return again to the source of that learning.".
I still refer back to many things I learned as a young girl studying the catechism. The solid Biblical truths I learned come back to me unprompted because they are part of me. To me, sin will always be want of conformity unto or transgression of the law of God. It was through the catechism that I first internalized the realization that sin has two aspects: not being and doing what God requires and doing what God forbids. That is something I will never, ever forget.

Now that I am older, I have the ability and desire to search out the truths I first learned at my parents' knees and between the covers of my catechism. At the time, I took what I was taught in faith, believing my parents and teachers. Now I can be a Berean, searching the scriptures to test what I was taught. By the grace of God I am continuing a journey that began at the feet of my parents, as they taught me the very basic truths of God.

For those further interested in catechetic instruction, I invite you to read the following articles on CMI's website:

Why Use the Children's Catechism Anyway?

A Personal Family Catechism

Why Bother Catechizing our Children?

It is worthwhile to be a Shorter Catechism boy. They grow to be men. And better than that, they are exceedingly apt to become men of God. - B.B. Warfield

Soli Deo Gloria


zan said...

You are so lucky to have been catechized. My parents switched from one church to another trying to find the "perfect church" and trying to find the "perfect doctrine." They really didn't find reformed theology until I was about 14.

I really want my children to be catechized and hopw that I am consistent in this.

btw, Since when did Bill Gates become evil? He was Times' person of the year. I thought that made him OK.

And Mario Brothers? You are dating yourself :). The only video game we ever had growing up was the first Mario Brothers game. I never liked video games very much. I was able to win it thanks to my sister who found a secret way to get a gazillion lives.

Susan said...

Strange. I think David's comment got lost by blogger yesterday due to all the technical difficulties.


Perhaps I should have explained the Evil Emperor Gates remark. My brother used to jokingly refer to Bill Gates as such, because of the "computer empire" he rules. This was before he started working for Microsoft 3 summers ago ;). Now I get to remind him of his past remarks :).

And Mario Brothers? You are dating yourself :).

That's true :). I was going to just mention video games (okay, x-box to prevent further dating) in general, but it didn't run as well with the flow of the sentence.

Adrian C. Keister said...

Great stuff.

I would only add two comments. One is that, as you've correctly pointed out, the catechisms are a systematic theology. Systematics are absolutely essential for the Christian. However, the catechisms are also an apologetic tool. Some of the questions the catechisms answer are the age-old questions men have been asking since the dawn of time. The Bible answers so many of those questions, and the catechisms put those questions into a real nice organized format. So that is another great use of the catechisms.

One thing I might throw out for discussion. I recognized a passage from Proverbs that you indirectly quoted, which reads in most translations, "Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it." Bruce Ray, in his book Withhold not Correction, claims this is a mistranslation. He would say it should read thus, "Train up a child in the way he wills to go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it." The first translation sounds like a promise: teach them the right way, and they'll do it. The second sounds like a warning: give a kid too much slack, and he'll always be wanting his own way even when he is old. I'm not sure I know which translation is more correct, but the first one has this danger: becoming mechanistic. It's almost a guarantee, people think. I just train them this way, and they come out that way, like an assembly line. Children are much more complicated than that. However, the second translation is much more in line with other proverbs. So I like it better.

In Christ.

zan said...

Good thoughts, Adrian, I have never heard of the second translation. A lot of people seem to think if the kids rebel or turn out bad the parents must not have done their job well. I always think of that verse.

Susan said...


I never thought of the catechism as an apologetic tool, but of course you are quite right. I do love the organized format of the catechism, and it would lend it self to an apologetic's aid, especially a catechism with scripture proofs.

I've never heard of the alternative translation to that Proverb, though I do like the alternate very much. The more accepted translation can be misused, as you and Zan indicated. I like the warning the second translation gives, and it well matches many other warnings in Proverbs that concern not letting a child have his own way. Thanks for sharing. I'd be curious to hear from a Hebrew scholar regarding that verse.

Anonymous said...

Hiya Susan!!!!!
I finally got on here and looked at what exactly your blog was!! Hannah had told me about it a while ago and I never remembered to do it then she mentioned it again and I decided to check it out!
Nice work!! I like it!!!
Can't wait to see y'all!!!!

Susan said...

Grace!!! *virtual hug* I'm glad you finally got on here :).

We are so excited about this weekend! Not the drive, but the shower :). We'll see you Saturday!!

Mr. Baggins said...

Adrian currently has my best commentary on Proverbs (what does it say, bro?). But I will weigh in a little on Proverbs 22:6, which would be literally translated this way: "Train a child according to his way, and when he is old, he will not depart from it." The problem here is that "his way" is completely ambiguous. It is possible that both interpretations are legit. "His way" could mean the way he should go, or the way he wants to go. I think it refers to the power of education: if done according to a right path, that person will not depart from it (not intended as an absolute promise); but if done in accordance with a bad path, then you will have to face the consequences of it. I think we cannot restrict the meaning to the ironic meaning, because the first word in the verse is a command (an imperative). The word "train," interestingly enough, is also used for "dedicate," and is the root of our word "Hanukkah." Hope this helps.

Ben Garrison said...

Well, I suppose starting a $49 Billion foundation does remove "evil status", but because of my chatechism, I know that he's just as evil or good was he was he was before. ;-)

Susan said...

Thanks for the insight, Lane. 'Tis an interesting Proverb to consider. The insight on the word "train" was especially helpful.

Ben said:
Well, I suppose starting a $49 Billion foundation does remove "evil status", but because of my chatechism, I know that he's just as evil or good was he was he was before. ;-)

See! Real-life application to the catechism! Thanks for the illustration, Boy ;).

Adrian C. Keister said...

According to Waltke:

First of all, his translation: "Dedicate(10) a youth(11) according to what his way dictates; even when he becomes old,(12) he will not depart from it.(13)"

Footnotes to the translation:

(10) The Vulgate renders proverbium est adulescens ("it is a proverb: a young man"), perhaps because the first word was missing from its Vorlage.

(11) Lamed marks the direct object (IBHS, pp. 210-11, P. 11.2.10g).

(12) The Hiphil prefix conjunction of zqn, attested otherwise only in Job 14:8 with the same ingressive sense, is probably the counterpart to the Qal suffix conjunction, which occurs 24 times (see 23:22). The waw relative with the prefix conjugation occurs in the Qal in 2 Chr. 24:15 but has the same preterite value as the suffix conjugation.

(13) The verse is omitted in the LXX.

And now for his commentary.

While the proverbs are addressed to youth (1:4-5), now at the end of Collections I-II the wise pedagogue is admonished to reorient the youth away from the folly of his endemic selfishness (vv. 6, 15). Verse 5 implicitly admonished the youth to stay clear from the sinister road the perverse travel; now its pair implicitly admonishes the educator, especially the parent (see 10:1), to start him on the right way to steer him clear of danger. The proverb's topic, the early moral education of youth, is stated in verset A and referred to by the neuter pronoun "it" that closes verset B. Verset A presents the admonition (i.e., the cause), and verset B the reason (i.e., the consequence). The relatively rare imperative dedicate (h(dot)anok) means to start the youth off with a strong and perhaps even religious commitment to a certain course of action. Dommershausen says arbitrarily, "In this context, hanak means continual 'training,'" but Clifford argues that it has this meaning in rabbinic Hebrew (B. T. Nazir 29a). To be sure, dedication entails continual training, but the almost ubiquitous translation "train up" misses the lexeme's emphasis on inauguration and possibly consecration. In the book of Proverbs, Israel's moral primer (see 1:2-6), this initiative refers to religious and moral direction, not professional activity. Although the age of the youth (na'ar; see 1:4) can vary from infancy to adulthood, a child is certainly in view in 20:11 and probably implied in the verb "dedicate." He can be molded by verbal instruction (1:4; 23:13; 29:15) and, according to its parallel in 22:15, by corporal punishment. Since he is still teachable, the dedication must take place while there is still hope (23:13; cf. 19:18). The uniquely definite construction "the youth" may imply that he must be assessed individually to design personally the appropriate moral initiative. According to (lit. "according to the mouth of") refers to what someone or something dictates. Here his way dictates the orientation of his dedication. The nature and/or the moral content of "way" depends on its possessor, be it God (Prov. 8:22), the wise (11:5; 14:8; 16:7), human beings in general (16:9; 20:24), or fools (19:3). Although outside of Proverbs the gloss "according to the way" can refer to "according to the nature of" (cf. Gen. 19:31; Isa. 10:24) - here it would mean dedicating the child according to the physical and mental abilities of the developing youth (Saadia, Malbim, Delizsch) - the construction is kederek in those passages outside of Proverbs, not 'al-pi ("according to the dictate of"). The other six references to na'ar univocally charactarize his way as foolish. He is grouped together with the gullible in 1:4, is said to lack sense in 7:7, to have folly bound up in his heart in 22:15, to dissemble in his evil deeds in 20:11, and so to be in need of correction in 23:13. Left to himself, he will disgrace his mother (29:15). Gramatically and rhetorically, as in 19:27, the command could be sarcastic (i.e., "Dedicate a youth according to his foolish way, and when he grows old he will not depart from it!"). However, the proverb would then assume that the youth attained old age in his folly. In this book the wise, not fools, are crowned with the gray hair of age (20:29). In sum, the proverb implies that the religious and moral initiation of the youth should be oriented from the first to counteract his foolish way: "The fool's mouth cries out for a beating" (18:6). This instruction and discipline must not be withheld from him (cf. 13:24; 19:18; 23:13, 14; 29:15, 17).

The consequence of this strong spiritual initiative is that the dedicated youth will never depart from the original initiative. Even (see 14:13) probably aims to prevent the misinterpretation that there may be a moral lapse between the dedication and old age. The point is that even when the youth attains old age, he will not turn off from the chosen course. When shows that the two situations of verset B (i.e., becoming old and not departing) are contemporary. He grows old (see 17:6) refers to beginning and continuing in the state of being aged; the majesty of the aged is their grey hair (20:19). He will not depart [see 3:7] from it (a neuter feminine pronoun)refers to his not turning aside from the situation formulated in verset A. The proverb, however, must not be pushed to mean that the educator is ultimately responsible for the youth's entire moral orientation. "Rather, it gives a single component of truth that must be fit together with other elements of truth in order to approximate the more comprehensive, confused patterns of real life." (Hildebrandt, "Proverbs 22:6a," p. 16.) Other proverbs recognize the youth's freedom to choose sin (cf. Ezek. 18:20)and apostatize by taking up with villians (Prov. 2:11-15) and whores (5:11-14). The book is addressed to youths, not parents. Were the parents ultimately responsible for his moral choice, there would be no point in addressing the book to youth (see 1:4). Moreover, Solomon himself stopped listening to instruction and strayed from knowledge (19:27). In sum, the proverb promises the educator that his original, and early, moral initiative has a permanent effect on a person for good. But that is not the whole truth about religious education.

So, Lane, can you make heads or tails of that? Thanks!

In Christ.

Mr. Baggins said...

Sure. The upshot of the whole is that Waltke holds to the non-ironic interpretation. He heavily stresses the nature of the verb "train," which he translates "dedicate." He emphasizes the once-for-all aspect of this verb. "Inaugurate" is another way of thinking of the verb. Another argument he gives is that only wise people attain to old age, according to Proverbs. Therefore, this verse cannot be talking about training fools in a foolish way, since that would imply that the fool would reach old age. I wonder a bit about this argument, since I know of many fools who are old, Ted Kennedy, for one.

The footnotes to the translation are not all that important. Just a brief explanation of them might be helpful, however. Footnote 10 gives us the Vulgate translation, which was missing the verb "train." He says it is possible that the parent manuscript, from which the Vulgate was translated (German "Vorlage") might have been missing that word also, which could explain why it was missing from the Vulgate. Footnote eleven refers to the Hebrew letter "lamed" (our "l") as normally a preposition, but now doing duty telling us that "the youth" is a the direct object of "train." This is an unusual construction in Hebrew. He references his own grammar book _Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax_ (IBHS). I could explain footnote 12, but it would take several rather lengthy paragraphs. Besides, it is not all that useful to establishing the sense of the verse.

Footnote 13 is significant, however. I was rather frustrated to discover that this verse does not exist in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew OT). The reason this is significant is that the Septuagint (almost always abbreviated LXX) is considerably older than any Hebrew manuscript that we currently possess, certainly older than any complete Hebrew manuscript. This raises an interesting problem for textual criticism of the OT: does a difference between the LXX and the Hebrew mean that the parent manuscript of the LXX is different from our currently extant Hebrew manuscripts, or does it mean a difference in translation only? This problem is the bane of OT textual criticism.

In the commentary itself, the term "verset" refers to one half of the verse (one line of text). He gets at the meaning of the verse when he says, "In sum, the proverb implies that the religious and moral initiation of the youth should be oriented from the first to counteract his foolish way." He carefully guards against misinterpretation when he says that "The proverb, however, must not be pushed to mean that the educator is ultimately responsible for the youth's entire moral orientation." The instruction has a permanent effect, but it is not the whole picture. Hope this helps.

Susan said...

Thank you, Adrian, for typing up that commentary, and thank you, Lane, for your own input. Great stuff.

I think the important thing is to realize the great importance of early religious training, but not to think of it as a magic formula for godliness. You summarized that nicely, Lane.