Why Catechism: An Introduction

1563's edition.

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What do Zion’s children know these days? How steeped are they in the solid joys and lasting treasure that rightfully belong to them as heirs of the kingdom? We may be saving up for their college or material inheritance, but are we passing on the inheritance of the faith? Do we greet the Lord’s Day as a gift of communion with the Triune God as we taste the powers of the age to come and soak up the water of life together with the saints? Do we use it as a day to be swept into the new creation, or as just another day on the calendar of this passing age? At a time when we’ve put so much emphasis on new programs, strategies, and techniques for spiritual and numerical growth, we need desperately to recover the neglected practice of catechesis in Christian homes and churches. – Michael Horton, “Trees or Tumbleweeds”, Modern Reformation Magazine, pg 12.

If you are like me and grew up in the church, you probably remember your Sunday School classes growing up. Further, upon recollection, you may notice that there was a tendency to paint the accounts of Scripture in a more ‘fairytale’ sort of fashion. Hence, when you grew up and entered your teen years and encountered life’s problems, the stories probably did little for you in the way of solidifying your faith at those times.

Today, the church in America faces a tremendous problem among its young people. Hordes of young people are leaving the church when they hit high school or college. The root of the issue is that they have not been properly brought up in the faith. Essentially, the church has failed to “Hold on to the pattern of sound teaching”, “commit to faithful men who will be able to teach others also”, and “contend for the faith that was delivered to the saints once for all.” (2 Timothy 1:13, 2:2; Jude 3)

Further, it appears that a minimalist approach has been taken towards the education of both new believers and children in the church. Rarely is the question asked “how much should I teach”, but rather “how little do I need to teach” is often the preferred question. All too often the retention of the happiness of members is emphasized to the detriment of diligent theological teaching. Not only do clergy give into this, but those in the pew as well. Quite often the attitude toward disciplined theological learning is one of disinterest or reluctance. They either believe it benefits them nothing in their everyday life (though nothing could be farther from the truth) or they believe that diligent theological education is out of their reach and only for ministers. Unfortunately this is not a new problem for the church. During his pastorate at Kidderminster in 17th Century England, Richard Baxter charged his congregation with this:

Were you but as willing to get the knowledge of God and heavenly things as you are to know how to work in your trade, you would have set yourself to it before this day, and you would have spared no cost or pains till you had got it. But you account seven years little enough to learn your trade, and will not bestow one day in seven in diligent learning the matters of your salvation.

It may be argued that it is natural to place so much time into learning a trade for by that trade you earn your living, while theological learning is beneficial to those who seek to make a living out it. Yet, theology is not a matter of making a living, it is a matter of God making dead men live. J.I. Packer pointed out the extreme importance of this when he wrote,

If we do not preach about sin and God’s judgment on it, we cannot present Christ as Saviour from sin and the wrath of God. And if we are silent about these things, and preach a Christ who saves only from self and the sorrows of this world, we are not preaching the Christ of the Bible. We are in effect bearing false witness and preaching a false Christ. Our message is ‘another gospel, which is not another’. Such preaching may soothe some, but it will help nobody; for a Christ who is not seen and sought as a Saviour from sin will not be found to save from self or from anything else. (pg 164, A Quest for Godliness by J.I. Packer)

It is of utmost importance that the Church begin passing on the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. (Jude 1:3) We must not waste another moment to begin this great work. This is where the catechism comes into play. In conjunction with Scripture, a catechism sets to teaching doctrine in a Question and Answer format equipping the believer with not only the theological knowledge, but its Scriptural basis. These catechisms start with the condition of Man and move through Scripture to topics such as: God, Sin, Christ, Christ’s Atonement and the Church. Through repetition and diligent instruction catechism are often memorized and become a common basis of fellowship among believers.

I believe that the route of Catechesis is the surest route of succesful teaching of the Scriptures and Doctrine to children and new and old believers alike. With the catechism, there is no big production or heavy emphasis on entertainment which can be hindrances more than aids to teaching; it is the believer and their Bible communing with God and learning the particulars of their Salvation. I know that this word ‘catechism’ immediately brings the Roman Catholic Church to mind, but in the coming weeks I shall dispel that notion from your thinking. I am afraid that the church, having stepped away from a formal instruction in faith, has subjected generations of believers to a view of God and Scripture that is man centered and self-promoting because after all, it is all about ‘what Scripture says to you’.

For the next four weeks I will write a series of posts regarding this very topic and why it is vital to church stability and maturity. First we will cover the current theological laziness of the church. Second, I will write on the importance of doctrinal knowledge. Third, I will cover the language of the faith and its necessity to the Christian outside of pastoral ministry. Finally, I will cover samples of the Heidelberg catechism to demonstrate its depth and ease of use in the church.

Below you will find the three most common catechisms of the reformed faith. Take some time, read them over, and dwell on the simplicity of their structure yet the complexity which they teach. These will come of great use in the coming weeks.

The Heidelberg Catechism

The Westminster Larger Catechism

The Westminster Shorter Catechism

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Are the Qur’an and Scripture ‘Near-Perfect Matches’?

In his response to the “Voices of Faith” question, “What’s the best religious book you’ve read other than your faiths”, found in the Saturday, July 23, 2011, edition of the Kansas City Star, Syed E. Hasan, Ph.D., stated that while comparing the accounts of Joseph (son of Jacob) and the Virgin Mary, “I was struck with the near-perfect match between the stories.” Further he stated that, “Overall, I found that both books carry the same messages of compassion, peace and justice toward humanity, along with beliefs in accountability, Day of Judgment and life in the hereafter.” With this explanation it would seem that the two books are almost identical thus bringing to question why the Christians and Muslims have a dispute after all. But are the Qur’an and the Bible really ‘near-perfect matches’?

At the beginning of his answer, Hasan states that “I have studied the Bible” in order to establish credibility with his intended audience but as I studied the accounts he referenced in his article in both the Qur’an and the Bible, I really began to question the legitimacy of his claim to have studied Scripture. A simple reading of the accounts in both books quickly shows that neither account is anywhere near a ‘near-perfect match’. Indeed the accounts differ quite dramatically.

In the following response to his answer, I will only analyze the account of the Virgin Mary in the interest of the length of this post. If I were to respond to both here and now, this article would be longer than is proper for a blog post. In coming days I will post a response to the Joseph account.

The Account of the Virgin Mary

The account of the Virgin Mary can be found in Luke 1 in the Bible and in chapter 19 and 3.33-51 in the Qur’an. For his demonstration of the similarity between the Qur’an and the Bible, Syed Hasan relies on the general knowledge of his audience of the Biblical Account of the Virgin Mary (that she was a virgin) and quotes Mary from the Qur’an saying: “Mary asked: How shall I have a son, seeing that no man has touched me and I am not unchaste? The angel replied: So it will be. Thy Lord says this is easy for Me. So she conceived him, and she retired with him to a remote place.” Undoubtedly the general knowledge of the Biblical account in the minds of the reader will be evoked by this quotation and the readings will seem to be similar. Hence the reader will walk away from Syed Hasan’s answer and conclude that the accounts really are similar.

However, Syed Hasan has not been honest with his audience and has failed to show just how strikingly different the two accounts are. It is beneficial for a quotation of the two accounts be produced here in order that you may be able to discern their differences at face value, followed by an explanation of the more intricate details.

The Qur’an, Chapter 19.16-35:

Mention in the Scripture the story of Mary. She withdrew from her family to a place east and secluded herself away; We sent Out Spirit to appear before her in the form of a normal human. She said, ‘I seek the Lord of Mercy’s protection against you: if you have any fear of Him [do not approach]!’ but he said, ‘I am but a Messenger from your Lord, [come] to announce to you the gift of a pure son.’ She said, ‘How can I have a son when no man has touched me? I have not been unchaste,’ and he said, ‘This is what your Lord said: “It is easy for Me – We shall make him a sign to all people, a blessing from Us.”‘ And so it was ordained: she conceived him. She withdrew to a distant place and, when the pains of childbirth drover her to [cling to] the trunk of a palm tree, she exclaimed, ‘I wish I had been dead and forgotten long before all this!’ but a voice cried to her from below, ‘Do not worry: your Lord has provided a stream at your feet and, if you shake the trunk of the pal tree towards you, it will deliver fresh ripe dates for you, so eat, drink, be glad, and say to anyone you may see: “I have vowed to the Lord of Mercy to abstain from conversation, and I will not talk to anyone today.”‘ She went back to her people carrying the child, and they said, ‘Mary! You have done something terrible! Sister of Aaron! Your father was not a bad man; your mother was not unchaste!’ She pointed at him. They said, ‘How can we converse with an infant?’ [But] he said: ‘I am a servant of God. He has granted me the Scripture; made me a prophet; made me blessed wherever I may be. He commanded me to pray, to give alms as long as I live, to cherish my mother. He did not make me domineering or graceless. Peace was on me the day I was born, and will be on me the day I die and the day I am raised to life again.’ Such was Jesus, son of Mary. [This is] a statement of Truth about which they are in doubt: it would not befit God to have a child. He is far about that: when He decrees something, He says only, ‘Be,’ and it is.

The Bible, Luke 1:26-38: (For the birth account of Christ and Circumcision/Presentation, read Luke 2)

In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man named Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And the angel came to her and said, “Rejoice, favored woman! The Lord is with you.” But she was deeply troubled by this statement, wondering what kind of greeting this could be. Then the angel told her: Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Now listen: You will conceive and giver birth to a son, and you will call His name JESUS. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His Father David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end. Mary asked the angel, “How can this be, since I have not been intimate with a man?” The angel replied to her: The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the holy One to be born will be called the Son of God. And consider your relative Elizabeth – even she has conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” “I am the Lord’s slave,” said Mary. “May it be done to me according to your word.” The the angel left her.

Do those accounts seem ‘near-perfect’? In fact, they differ quite a bit.

Particular Differences

At this point I wish to highlight three significant differences in the two narratives. Once this has been accomplished I will evaluate the Christological impact of the differences.

  • Absence of Joseph in the Qur’an account
You may notice that there is no mention of Joseph in the account of the Qur’an. This difference may seem rather minor but it is through the lineage of Joseph that Christ has his right to rule on the throne of David (Matthew 1:1-17).  Without the line of Joseph, Christ is disconnected from the Davidic line and right to the throne, thus for the Muslim the account of the Qur’an aids in portraying Christ as nothing more than a prophet appointed by Allah.

This is a significant difference because in the account of Luke 1, one of the expressed purposes of Christ’s incarnation is that “the Lord will give Him the throne of His father David,” and that “His kingdom will have no end.” By leaving this out of the Qur’an, the Mohammedan has seemingly contradicted the very predictions of a future Messiah found in the Torah, which they claim to hold to.

  • Portrayal of Mary

Further, you may notice a significant difference between the portrayals of Mary. First, in the Qur’an Mary is chosen by Allah and made pure, whereas in the Bible Mary is chosen by God because she has found favor with the Lord (granted, not out of her human righteousness) and is called as such. Second, Mary’s reaction to the news of being chosen is drastically different in the two accounts. In the Bible, Mary breaks out into a hymn of praise (Luke 1:46-55) saying, “because He has looked with favor on the humble condition of His slave. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed because the Mighty One has done great things for me, and His name is holy.” However, in the account of the Qur’an, Mary clings to a tree ‘when the pains of childbirth drove her’ and says, “I wish I had been dead and forgotten long before all this.”

Finally, the largest difference in the two accounts is the beginning of Christ’s existence. In the Bible, Mary is told that, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the holy One to be born will be called the Son of God.” (Luke 1:35) However, in the Qur’an, Mary is told, “It is easy for me – We shall make him a sign to all people, a blessing from us,” (Qur’an 19.21) and “This is how God creates what He will: when He has ordained something, He only says, ‘Be,’ and it is. He will teach him the Scripture and wisdom, the Torah and the Gospel.” (Qur’an 3.47-48)

The words of Allah in 3.47-48 heavily imply that Christ would be ‘created’ not necessarily born of the virgin. Further, it is highlighted that it was by no means a supernatural act of the Holy Spirit within Mary infusing her womb with the Incarnate Christ. There is not only the messenger’s words to Mary but later in the Qur’an, 3.59 to be specific, this is what is said: “In God’s eyes Jesus is just like Adam: He created him from dust, said to him, ‘Be,’ and he was.” With this view of Christ, Ergun Mehmet Caner states this, “Since the work of the Holy Spirit in the womb of Mary is rejected, the virgin conception of this dust-made child was by divine spoken fiat.”

  • Narrative Focus

The final particular difference I wish to highlight at this time concerns the Narrative focus of each account. Obviously, the highlight of the Biblical account is that of the Incarnation of Christ for the deliverance of His people and His rule on the throne of David. However, the main focus of the Qur’an account is that of Allah’s decrees and the beginning of Christ for the purpose of being a messenger (prophet) to Allah’s people. Accordingly, Jesus is merely a human prophet and not the Son of God to the Muslim. This comparison ultimately boils down to the Deity of Jesus Christ.

Christological Impact

Perhaps the most interesting aspect to the Qur’an account of Christ is found in 19.30-33 where Christ speaks to a group of people as an infant. In the account, Christ as an infant, denies his Deity and states that he is merely a prophet. How interesting that the first words out of Christ’s mouth are a direct repudiation of the Christian doctrine of His deity. I sense an underlying motive in this account. Further, as it has been stated earlier in this article, Christ is attested to being like Adam in that he was created from dust in the Qur’an.

This is by far the most critical area of difference to understand between the Mohammedan and the Christian. When they are conversing, it is vital to know the difference in their view of Christ because when they use the term Christ, they are speaking of a different idea entirely. To the Mohammedan, the term Christ is not really a stumbling block as one might suspect because in their defining of the term, ‘Christ’ is taken as ‘Anointed One’ rather than a specific title for Jesus. With this in mind, it is not surprising that the Mohammedan might agree to calling Jesus ‘Christ’. It is the definition of the term that makes the world of difference.

With the Mohammedan view then, Jesus Christ is not the Savior and if he is not the Savior, then the Law has not been fulfilled and if the Law has not been fulfilled, God still expects an appeasement of His wrath incurred by sin. To the Mohammedan, their expectancy of the afterlife is based upon their living up to God’s expected standard and hoping that your good works outweigh your evil deeds when judgment comes. Therefore, when you enter into eternity, your good works must in someway appease God’s wrath for sin.

“For no flesh will be justified in His sight by the works of the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin. But now, apart from the Law, God’s righteousness has been revealed – attested by the Law and the Prophets – that is, God’s righteousness through faith in Jesus Christ, to all who believe, since there is no distinction. For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. They are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. God presented Him as a propitiation through faith in His blood, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His restraint God passed over the sins previously committed. He presented Him to demonstrate His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be righteous and declare righteous the one who has faith in Jesus. Where then is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By one of works? No, on the contrary, by a law of faith. For we conclude that a man is justified apart from works of law.” (Romans 3:21-28)

Conclusion

In conclusion, the Qur’an and the Bible really are not as similar as Syed Hasan would have you believe. It is only when the definitions are changed and the major differences ignored that one can say that they are similar. This also comes into play when you evaluate Syed Hasan’s comment that “both books carry the same messages”. However, the fact that they use the same words does not mean that they are teaching the same thing.  Our beliefs about Christ being the major example.

The unfortunate fact about Syed Hasan’s answer is that most of his audience will take him at face value and do little to no homework on their own, thus buying into the egregious belief that the Qur’an and the Bible really aren’t that different while failing to see the Grace of God in Jesus Christ for the redemption of sin revealed in Scripture and the damnation of man secured by Satan in the Qur’an.