Why Catechism: Theological Laziness

It seems that there are few other pursuits that require such a little working knowledge than that of Christianity.

– Paul Watson –

Introduction

I have quoted my friend Paul Watson before, but I believe that the accuracy of his statement is poignant and worth repeating until it awakens the senses that the church has a real problem on its hands. Perhaps this quote was further engrained into my memory a couple of Sundays ago as I was commissioned to preach and teach at a church in south-eastern Kansas. As I concluded the sermon, on the Superiority of the Priesthood of Christ, the reaction of the audience was everything but enthusiastic and thankfulness to God. The congregation seemed completely disengaged and unaffected by the joy and blessing of having our salvation secured in the eternal priesthood of Christ as preached in Hebrews 5-10. Unfortunately the attitude did not stop at the end of the service. As I began the college sunday school class, we started with the first question of the Heidelberg Catechism which asks, “What is your only comfort in life and death?” As I started to work through the answer, evaluating each line and asking why each phrase was a comfort in life and death, I was met with an obstinate attitude and the question, “Why are you making us think?” Surprisingly this is not the only time I have encountered this question in the church or even in a college setting where thinking is your occupation for 2-4 years.

What follows in this post in strictly an evaluation of the current problem. In order to learn my proposed solution to this problem, you will have to wait for the following 3 posts. For, in order to understand the significance of a change in tactic, we must understand the position in which we currently stand. Please understand, the position in which we currently sit is by no means a pleasant one to deal with, but believe me when I say that there is hope and that it is completely within the means of the church.

Theological Laziness

It is evident that the level of biblical knowledge or theological clarity in the church is poor at best. However, it is not absent, which is a silver line in this otherwise gloomy cloud. But what is meant by theological laziness? By the use of this term I wish to communicate that the lack of biblical literacy in regard to the individual is not due to a lack of resources, for certainly we have an abundance of biblical/theological resources available to us in America. However, there is a growing trend of aliterate congregants in the church. That is to say, they have the tools and resources available to them to learn and grow, yet they willingly choose to not use them.

For an illustration of this point it is beneficial to pull from the experience of Dietrich Bonhoeffer when he attended Union Theological Seminary in 1930. It is telling that the experience had by him there is not all that different from our current position in the church. Upon observing the students there, he once wrote to a friend:

There is no theology here…they talk a blue streak without the slightest substantive foundation and with no evidence of any criteria. The students – on the average twenty-five to thirty years old – are completely clueless with respect to what dogmatics is really about. They are unfamiliar with even the most basic questions. They become intoxicated with liberal and humanistic phrases, laugh at the fundamentalists, and yet basically are not even up to their level. (Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer, 101)

This is the first aspect to the term “Theological Laziness”. The second aspect is what some have coined as ‘Parroting’. This is stated to denote those individuals who only quote and repeat books, systematic theologies, or the ‘right’ preacher and theologians. Rather than being fluent in the Scriptures, developing theological convictions from that, and using Scripture as the basis for checking theological systems, they rely on what certain individuals have said. While this may mean that they have a large understanding of theology, they are not much better off than those who choose not to learn because they fail to base their theological convictions on Scripture. (This is not to deny the value of Theologies and books however.) Further, the person has not spent time wrestling with Scripture and relying on the Holy Spirit to illuminate their understanding of Scripture. Again, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s words are beneficial in this regard as well.

Not only quietness is lacking, but also the characteristic impulse towards the development of individual thought which is brought about in German universities by the more secluded life of the individuals. Thus there is little intellectual competition and little intellectual ambition. This gives work in seminar lecture or discussion a very innocuous character. It is more a friendly exchange of opinion that a study in comprehension. (Ibid., 104)

In case the individual plight is not sorrowful enough, the situation in the church is not much better. Preaching in the church tends to be shallow, application driven speeches rather than preaching Christ and Him crucified every Sunday. Further, hearing deep theology from the pulpit is a rarity these days. In the 1920’s and 30’s the church was hit with a wave of ethics and sociological centered preaching where the sermon was replaced with a message responding to the news paper and the ‘fundamentalists’. (Thank you Harry Emerson Fosdick). Further, due to the liberal emphasis in the church that arose, the Bible was subject to malicious attacks under ‘higher criticism’ that sought to discredit much of what Scripture tought on life and salvation. With this assault from the pulpit, many congregants forgot catechism or theological instruction and the emphasis on applicatory sermons was driven to such a degree that J. Gresham Machen stated there was no Christianity left to apply. Since that time, true Gospel preaching, preaching Christ and Him crucified has become rare or absent. Again Dietrich Bonhoeffer encountered this.

Things are not much different in the church. The sermon has been reduced to parenthetical church remarks about newspaper events. As long as I’ve been here, I have heard only one sermon in which you could hear something like a genuine proclamation, and that was delivered by a negro (indeed, in generally I’m increasingly discovering greater religious power and originality in Negroes). One big question continually attracting my attention in view of these facts is whether one here really can still speak about Christianity….There’s no sense to expect the fruits where the Word really is no longer being preached. But then what becomes of Christianity per se? The enlightened American, rather than viewing all this with skepticism, instead welcomes it as an example of progress. The fundamentalist sermon that occupies such a prominent place in the southern states has only one prominent Baptist representative in New York, one who preaches the resurrection of the flesh and the virgin birth before believers and the curious alike. In New York they preach about virtually everything; only one thing is not addressed, or is addressed so rarely that I have as yet been unable to hear it, namely, the gospel of Jesus Christ, the cross, sin and forgiveness, death and life. (Ibid., 106)

This situation has resulted in two pitfalls for the church. First, the church has become infested with false teaching and errant theology. Men have arisen in the spotlight preaching a false gospel that tickles the ears and have gone virtually unchallenged as they feed the self indulgent tendencies of mankind. Second, the congregants of the church have eroded their defense against false teaching by failing to be well versed in the truth. These two pitfalls have been the reef that many a ship of faith has wrecked upon. Pastors unconcerned with the diet of their sheep have produced sheep who care nothing of their diet. The watchmen of God’s flock have failed to keep watch and have allowed the wolves of false teaching into their pasture with the result of their anemic, defenseless sheep being devoured.

Born Out of Sunday School?

What is the root problem of the current situation? For years the church has implemented the Sunday School technique as a way to curb theological laziness and illiteracy but have the actual results matched the desired impact of the program?

Ken Ham in his book Already Gone explored this very question and found this: “Sunday School is actually more likely to be detrimental to the Spiritual and moral health of our children.” Perhaps this is due to the fact that Sunday School has not aimed to be as theologically accurate as it has aimed to provide an age appropriate story time. This is how Ken Ham described Sunday School.

In the hallways, the kids will split up by age and be welcomed into classrooms full of laughter and life and hope. Teachers will embrace these kids as if they are their own for about 45 minutes. They will pour their hearts and souls into the children and teens with the help of videos, various curricula resources, Bible stories, crayons, crackers, CD music, computer graphics, flannel graphs, white boards, cookies, cotton balls, popsicle sticks, prayers, and pipe cleaners…It all looks so safe and healthy – an inseparable part of the fabric of spiritual life in the western world. (Ken Ham and Britt Beemer, Already Gone, 37)

However, his findings completely demolished previously conceived ideas about the Sunday School program. According to his study, students who regularly attended Sunday School were more likely to: not believe that all the accounts/stories in the Bible are true/accurate, doubt the Bible because it was written by men, doubt the Bible because it was not translated correctly, defend that abortion should continue to be legal, defend premarital sex, accept that gay marriage and abortion should be legal, believe that God used evolution to change one kind of animal into another, view the church as hypocritical and believe that good people don’t need to go to church just to name a few. (Ibid., 39)

Conclusion

It would appear that the church’s effort to build the faith through Sunday School has not produced the desired result. In reflection upon my own experience with Sunday School, the accounts of Scripture were notoriously portrayed in a ‘fairy-tale’ manner rather than a Historical, Redemption fashion. As a result, when trials came later in life, the ‘fairy-tale’ approach left me with little to no foundation to fall upon and almost resulted in the shipwreck of faith. Indeed for some this lack of a proper foundation has resulted in just that.

Obviously, the Sunday School method is not the sole culprit to this condition. To look at this method alone and place the whole blame upon it is naive. It is a combination of factors that has led to this current situation, which will be addressed in later posts. Further, it is unwise to criticize a particular method without a plan to carry out in its place. Accordingly, in the following post (next Monday) we will cover the importance of theological knowledge and how methods certainly play a role in the success or failure thereof.

For now let it be said that I do believe that the Sunday School system needs an overhaul and in the coming weeks I will lay out an exact plan as to how this current mess we find ourselves in can be remedied. Perhaps it is time for the church to return to a historically proven method “forged through a kind of wisdom and life experience gained during an era in which Christians were less apt to simply react to the secular agenda and uncritically imitate its glitz, glamour and noise.” (Kim Riddlebarger, The Need to Recover the Practice of Catechism)

To read the Introduction to the Catechism series Click Here.