Visscher—Why Catechism Preaching

Discussion in 'Preaching' started by dannyhyde, Aug 3, 2007.

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  1. dannyhyde

    dannyhyde Puritan Board Sophomore

    Hi Adam,

    I hope I am not missing the force of your words, but are you saying it is permitted to preach "catechetical" (i.e., sermons dealing with the fundamentals of the Christian faith) sermons so long as they are organized by the local pastor and as long as he is not required to do so?
  2. dannyhyde

    dannyhyde Puritan Board Sophomore

    It was not my intent to paint you or anyone else as an Arminian. I wasn't seeeking to use this fallacy, but to point out the practice of history. My apologies.

    First off, catechism preaching is not a "Dutch" thing. Zwingli did it, Calvin did it (although there are no mss left of these sermons), Bullinger...

    Second, is not Thomas Watson's "A Body of Divinity" his sermons on the Shorter Catechism? And does not Matthew Henry have a series of the same? I was under the impression that catechetical preaching was a standard practice in the Brittish Isles (granted, it was not a requirement).
  3. JohnV

    JohnV Puritan Board Post-Graduate


    I can only go by your testimony, so I can't really refute what you're saying. I'll just believe you, as I've seen this done before too. But you still have to be careful not to judge too harshly.

    I've seen some ministers become apparently careless in their terminology. But in fact they were assuming that we all presumed the same thing concerning the catechism's authority. It is an ecclesiastical authority, and therefore has precedence over a single minister's authority and personal interpretation. It is the collective interpretation of the Church, met especially to determing the exact and precise interpretation, and to form an agreement purposely for each minister to adhere to. Every minister swears fidelity to that. All this the minister is assuming, presuming that we the hearers, are assuming the same thing. When he says, "because it is faithful to the Scriptures" he's assuming all this, that the Spirit is witnessing these doctrines to the Church through His ministers, conveying them to all the church in the form of a Church document. There is no hint of "man-made" in it, and the Bible still remains the sole authority for doctrine and government in the Church. It's about the teachings themselves, not the shape and size and contents of a book other than the Bible.
  4. JohnV

    JohnV Puritan Board Post-Graduate

    But then, hey, it's only me.

  5. Archlute

    Archlute Puritan Board Senior

    Hello Danny,

    I do prefer the preaching of exegetical/expository sermons in the "lectio continua" style, but I do see usefulness for catechetical/doctrinal-topical sermons at times. I think that I do have a problem with it being required of a minister, especially if that requirement is based upon the quia presupposition. Apart from that, I could accept a minister doing such where there might be a particular need for it in grounding a congregation with a weak foundation.
  6. Archlute

    Archlute Puritan Board Senior

    Thanks, Danny. Apologies accepted.

    Yes, Watson's "A Body of Divinity" originated as sermons based upon the Shorter Catechism. I am uncertain about any works along those lines by Matthew Henry, but someone here could probably dig something up on it. I am not certain that it was standard practice, but I know that it was practiced. Hughes Oliphant Old mentions a number of catechetical sermon series preached by Reformed ministers from the continent, the British Isles, and those who migrated to New England. It does seem to have been a practice, but I am uncertain how regular and widespread it was among all of the ministers taken as a whole.
  7. Archlute

    Archlute Puritan Board Senior

    Again, I appreciate your thoughts, John. I understand that you'll have to take my word for it without a citation, and I apologize for that. The essay is among my handouts from class that are locked up in storage somewhere right now. If it was easily accesible, I would get it out and post the quote and the name of the author for discussion.
  8. Archlute

    Archlute Puritan Board Senior

    Alright you all, I have to get off of this discussion and I won't be able to access the computer again until next Monday (d.v.). Just wanted to let you all know that I'm not hiding (Hyding? j/k). Take care brothers, and keep me in prayer as I travel eight hours down the coast to preach the Gospel of grace to this barren part of the Pacific NW. I've already killed one buck w/o doing damage to this little Corolla, and we can pray that God's hand continues to keep them out of my windshield. God Bless.
  9. py3ak

    py3ak They're stalling and plotting against me Staff Member

    Adam, I certainly don't mean to challenge you on this one. I agree that we don't need the authority of the confessions to preach Scripture --we have Scripture's authority to do that. What you said, though, raised a question in my mind about subscription.

    Would you agree that we subscribe to a Confession because it is biblical? Not only that it is Biblical to have a Confession, a statement of faith, but also because the statement we have chosen to subscribe to is in accord with the Scriptures? I understand that the allowance for exceptions certainly seems like a tacit admission that either the Confessions need some work or that they embody some views which ought not to have been given confessional status. But in a general way, you wouldn't subscribe to something that was unbiblical: and therefore when you subscribe it is because you believe it to be biblical. Or am I missing something?

    (And let me say that I for one see no difficulty in taking a catechism as a guide for preaching, or using it in the pulpit, while we don't fall into a: "Thus saith the Westminster Assembly of Divines" method of proclamation.
  10. JohnV

    JohnV Puritan Board Post-Graduate

    I think you've got the right idea, Ruben. Especially the last paragraph (in brackets) is right on the money.

    Now, let me take that as an example. Is it right what Ruben said because Ruben said it? No, of course not. We agree with him because he is saying something that strikes a truth chord in all of us. He's pointing to something that is not himself, but a truth that he himself is also willingly subject to. He's not now "the boss" in this area. He's an underling just like all the rest of us. Yet it is indubitable that what he said is true. I don't think I could say it better than Ruben can, but maybe someone else can. But that doesn't mean that this someone else disagrees with Ruben. No, he's perfecting what Ruben said because he agrees with it so much, and is one with it. He's not Ruben's subject, but his fellow.

    That's how we view the Catechisms and Confessions too. It strikes a chord with all of us not because the Confessions is "the boss", but because it so elegantly and precisely summarizes that truth to which it too is a servant just like all of us. Someone might find better words, as fits the occasion. But that doesn't mean that he's trumping the Confessions. No, he's agreeing with, and willingly subjects himself to the common witness. Not the Confessions as a piece of paper printed by a Church, but because the truths live in the people of God from generation to generation through the subservient use of this piece of paper.

    I hope this helps.
  11. fredtgreco

    fredtgreco Vanilla Westminsterian Staff Member

    Is not any form of "required" preaching a violation of the office of minister? I was unaware that the URCNA compelled its ministers to preach on the catechism (I may be wrong here - please correct me). I could not minister in that context, regardless of the merits (or not) of catechical preaching; any more than I could be compelled by a BCO to preach only from the NT, or Genesis, or any specific text.
  12. bookslover

    bookslover Puritan Board Doctor


    Very good posts. I providentially ran across this quote from John Newton (1725-1807) in the August/September, 2007 issue of The Banner of Truth magazine:

    Christ alone is Lord of the conscience; and no ipse dixit is to be regarded but His. Men are to be followed so far as we can see they speak by His authority; the best are defective; the wisest may be mistaken...Study the text of the good Word of God. Beware of leaning too hard on human authority, even the best; you may get useful hints from sound divines, but call no man master. There are mixtures of infirmity, and the prejudices of education or party, in the best writers. What is good in them they obtained from the fountain of truth, the Scriptures; and you have as good a right to go to the fountain head yourself.

    Use catechisms and confessions for personal study and teaching, but ministers must preach only from the Word of God.
  13. JohnV

    JohnV Puritan Board Post-Graduate

    Once again:

    What catechism preaching requires is a systematic teaching of all the Bible's doctrines. It's not a requirement to preach something else, a booklet or work of men's hands. It's the doctrines that are required, not some book of the church's documents.

    Second, this does not mean that the minister doesn't preach in the morning service. Of course he still does that. And here he can preach either in series on a book, or topically, or according to a specific need, or whatever else method is used.

    Third, catechism sermons are sometimes suspended for one Sunday, and maybe more, for specific reasons. There's fifty-two Lord's Days, but it rarely is managed in fifty-two weeks. Most often it takes longer. That's not a problem.

    Fourth, men who use the catechism to systematically preach the doctrines of the Word of God are following the same basic idea as those who go through books of the Bible systematically. They're being systematic about the Bible's teaching.

    Confining someone to the catechism in no way compares to confining someone to one or two particular books of the Bible, or confining someone to a subjective interpretation of the Bible. Catechism preaching is meant as an opposite to that, a preventative, a guarantee agaist it. It is also supposed to guarantee that the minister doesn't slip in giving an inadvertant slight against a Christian who is possibly in that church's congregation at that time, who holds a particular view which is different, and perhaps mutually exclusive to his, but is not disqualifying view. For example, a minister may not preach as if Postmillennialism is what the Bible teaches, possibly putting Premillennialists and Amillennialists ill at ease while worshipping God. He may not hinder true worship by anyone in any way. Being of the other views is not disqualifying. So this would be strictly out of bounds for him. Catechism preaching has the effect of not only regulating the second service, but also the first. A minister can't sysematically preach the doctrines of grace and then go off on his own tangents in the other service.

    It's a regulation which keeps a minister to the Word and to his task. But it also keeps a congregation in the Word and on their course of godliness.
  14. JohnV

    JohnV Puritan Board Post-Graduate

    And the emphasis is on keeping the congregation in the Word and on her course to godliness and thankful living.
  15. py3ak

    py3ak They're stalling and plotting against me Staff Member

    Oh, thanks, John, for pointing that out. I was hoping no one would notice that me being right didn't mean I was the boss: you have now cut the nerve of my bid to take over the Puritanboard, and eventually the entire Internet!
  16. py3ak

    py3ak They're stalling and plotting against me Staff Member

    Oh, and Richard here's a quote I found the other day that you might like.

  17. Semper Fidelis

    Semper Fidelis 2 Timothy 2:24-25 Staff Member

    I think this is well put. I completely agree that a doctrine is not binding merely because the Confession says so nor that the Church's Confession of a doctrine adds to the authority of the Scriptures.

    This does, however, touch on the fact of who has the ministry within the Church of teaching and nurturing the flock.

    Thus teachers and pastors are given to the Church to prepare God's people, build them up in knowledge, help them to strive for the unity of the faith, avoid schism, and bring them to maturity.

    Insofar as they are faithful to the Word in that task they are to be regarded as authoritative - not because they are infallible in themselves but because God Himself vests them with the authority and charge to do these things in His Word.

    Are men supposed to test what they receive by the Word? Certainly but it would be naive to assume that their testing is always accurate. Heretics could never be put out of the Church if it came down to us and our Bible individually. This is why the witnesses and why, eventually, the Church has to put some men out. The man has no foot to stand on with regard to individual interpretation in such instances.

    Whenever these discussions come up, it's almost as if the fact that the WCF does not comport to the Scriptures is assumed. I don't even begin by assuming that so maybe that's where some get the idea that I'm ascribing authority to the Confession in itself. It's authority is derivative but, remember, teachers of the Word have come together and accurately interpreted the Word of God. This is why I submit to it because they have accurately interpreted it and not on some fide implicitum.

    I, thus, can't simply turn to a teacher and say: "That's your interpretation..." when I've come to the conclusion that the teacher repsonsibly interpreted the text. I also can't be a party to the idea that "...that was just the WCF Divines' interpretation..." when I'm of the conviction that their interpretation was true and I receive the interpretation from the Church as an accurate Confession of the truths of key doctrines found in the Scriptures.

    At that point, it's become more than just a "guide" or a "help" but it's what I believe the Scriptures accurately say about a doctrine. It would be like interpreting Romans 4 about Abraham's faith accurately, taking it on board, and then merely saying "that's a helpful guide to understanding justification." If it's a right interpretation then it has an oughtness to it that I can't simply say: "Well, any interpretation or summary is secondary."

    In fact, such summary statements are enough to put men out of the Church and always have been. It's the favorite ploy of heretics to call the Trinity merely an interpretation of the Scriptures. The Nicene, Chalcedon, and Athanasian creeds may not be Scripture but the Church has always recognized them as containing the accurate creedal formulations of the doctrine and enough to call men heretics and put them outside the Church.
  18. py3ak

    py3ak They're stalling and plotting against me Staff Member

    The only "mere" interpretation is a wrong one.
  19. Semper Fidelis

    Semper Fidelis 2 Timothy 2:24-25 Staff Member

  20. JohnV

    JohnV Puritan Board Post-Graduate

    I had to read this twice, Rich. It's so well thought out and written. :up:
  21. VictorBravo

    VictorBravo Administrator Staff Member

    Well, I finally got around to reading the article referenced in the opening post. It seems one thing got lost in the whole discussion. The catechism preaching is done in a second service.

    I just don't see the problem. Our church has an early service that is devoted to teaching. We spent years on the London Confession, comparing it to the Westminster and Savoy, reviewing the history, working through the whole thing as a systematic theology. It falls under the rubric of teaching. The elders have cleverly called this service a "class", but we open with prayer, sing a psalm or two, and remain in good order.

    Our main service contains exegetical preaching from scripture.

    So, we have "preaching" that is teaching on a man-written document that points to scripture and requires analysis. Isn't this part of what an elder should do? We also have regularly appointed corporate worship that presents the Word of God.

    I'd like an answer to Fred's question too, perhaps with clarification. Does the Dutch tradition require preaching the catechism, or, instead, does it require teaching the catechism as a separate function from regular preaching?
  22. fredtgreco

    fredtgreco Vanilla Westminsterian Staff Member


    No one has still answered my questions, but the thread has become sidetracked on the issue of whether creeds and confessions have authority (which neither I nor Dabney would dispute).

    Two other issues:

    1. Preaching, Biblically speaking, is distinct from teaching. Preaching the Word of God is a means of grace that is different from teaching Biblical truths.

    2. There is a significant difference between a corporate worship service and a "class." A few hymns and a prayer do not make a worship service. The most fundamental difference is that a corporate worship service is mandatory for members of a congregation. A class is not.
  23. VictorBravo

    VictorBravo Administrator Staff Member

    That's my understanding too. Thanks.

    (Edited to add):

    To clarify, my understanding about the difference between a class and corporate worship is the same as Fred's. I'm wondering if the Dutch tradition is in fact doing the same thing, having a class and also having separate corporate worship, but using the word "preaching" for both. If that is the case, it is really more a matter of the definition of preaching vs. teaching rather than the use of the catechisms.
    Last edited: Aug 9, 2007
  24. dannyhyde

    dannyhyde Puritan Board Sophomore

    Sorry for missing your question, Fred. The original church order of the Synod of Dort says:

    The Ministers everywhere shall briefly explain on Sunday, ordinarily?in the afternoon sermon, the sum of Christian doctrine comprehended in?the Catechism which at present is accepted in the Netherland Churches,?so that it may be completed every year in accordance with the devision?of the Catechism itself made for that purpose. (Art. 68)

    Among the many sources of this article in our historic Church Order is the Ecclesiastical Ordinances of Geneva (1541), which required three services per Lord's Day, morning, noon catechism, and afternoon. Typically Calvin preached the Gospels in the morning and Old Testament books in the afternoon.

    The Church Order of the URCNA follows this in saying:

    At one of the services each Lord's Day, the minister shall ordinarily preach the Word as summarized in the Three Forms of Unity, with special attention given to the Heidelberg Catechism by treating its Lord's Days in sequence. (Art. 40)

    The differences are the inclusion of "ordinarily," of the language of "the Three Forms of Unity," and not just the Catechism, as well as the language that this preaching is "preach[ing] the Word" as it is summarized in the confessions.

    Also, it is not accurate to say that "the URCNA compels" ministers to do this. Our understanding of church polity as it relates to the Church Order is found in the introduction to our CO, which says in part:

    The churches of the federation, although distinct, voluntarily display their unity by means of a common confession and church order. This is expressed as they cooperate and exercise mutual concern for one another. Since we desire to honor the apostolic command that in the churches all things are to be done decently and in good order (1 Cor. 14:40), we order our ecclesiastical relations and activities in the following articles covered under the following divisions:

    As one writer has said, we are "bound, yet free" as churches in covenant together.
  25. Calvibaptist

    Calvibaptist Dallas Cowboys' #1 Fan

    So, would this be similar to what Baptist churches (particularly in the South) have done for years by having a morning worship service, afternoon training class and then an evening service?
  26. Semper Fidelis

    Semper Fidelis 2 Timothy 2:24-25 Staff Member

    Thank you John. I've appreciated this interaction.

    Rev. Hyde,

    Thank you for elaborating on this. I want to personally apologize if it feels like I sidetracked your thread. I normally like to help keep the discussions pretty tight here but, even on a Reformed discussion board, it bears repeating why Confessions are important. I do hope that the fact that they are secondary does not dimiish their great importance to the Church.

    Your latest post caused something to dawn on me.

    The interesting thing that is lost on most of the Presbyterians who are condemning the practice is a great neglect that I've seen in nearly every PCA and OPC I have ever attended: adult catechism.

    It seems that, as long as you're not calling this a stated worship event and calling it preaching, the discussion would then have to be focused back on the issue of why the Dutch Reformed in the URC seem to take adult catechism much more seriously than Presbyterians do - at least in the way they organize their Sundays.

    Richard Baxter, in The Reformed Pastor, makes a solid observation about how many assume that, just because a man hears sermons week in and week out that he is being instructed (or understands) the basics of the Christian faith. It's not until he started meeting with them and taking them aside that he realized this was not the case.

    I remember when I first joined the OPC in 1999 that there was a couple that kept struggling over the Pastor's sermons. They thought they weren't useful (too Redemptive Historical) while others thought his sermons gave too much Law (too many imperatives - they loved Lee Iron's ways).

    I remember interacting with them and noting their basic theological ignorance of some doctrines. The Pastor was addressing their needs but they couldn't understand how he was because they needed to be catechized so they could understand the language better and get a broader context for what he was preaching.

    Even though we had regular adult catechism, it was pretty scattered - a series on parenting here or Church government there. In fact, the Church had started out going over the WCF but then quit on it because the congregation were complaining that it wasn't practical enough.

    When I moved to VA and joined a PCA Church, the situation was much worse. There were men and women giving testimony and would say things that were rank Arminian in their understanding. The elder's class I took was so cursory and quick that there was only enough time to practically read what the Confession said with little interaction. The Sunday School was interesting and sometimes very scholarly but about 5% of the Church attended and it was very topical and quick.

    I then started teaching the Junior High boys. I've taught children of all ages for several years and I always jettison the GCP curricula because I don't think it's very good and, frankly, nobody ever knows the catechism which is ready-made curriculum. To my dismay, only one in 12 boys were even remotely familiar with the Westminster Shorter Catechism. The adult I had helping me was not even able to help me teach as he was learning alongside the kids. Teaching through that is a commitment and I had to PCS before I could even get to question 40. I always leave such teaching experiences a bit depressed because theres little tenacity as a Church to train in the Catechisms.

    The Church had "home groups" but the leaders of those groups, including (sadly) a few of the Elders, were only scarcely familiar with the Confessions or Reformed theology more broadly. Except for the sign on the Church that said it was a PCA Church, the instruction might resemble any other broadly evangelical Church.

    I lamented to the Elders on this fact and mentioned that they really ought to try and create more classes where adults are catechized so they can, in turn, be training their own children but such ideas are increasingly foreign in many Reformed Churches.

    And so we come to what you wrote above and, for my part, I'm very happy to see a Church that takes the catechizing of its members seriously. Many Presbyterians on this board attend two worship services a day. Others do not. I think the reason that Calvin and other Reformed insisted on catechizing regularly was wise beyond what many here are recognizing. Even if some may disagree with the actual catechizing while the element of preaching is occuring in a stated worship service, they ought to at least be shamed into thinking more seriously as large denominations as to why our Churches continue to ignore their responsibility to catechize their members.
  27. VirginiaHuguenot

    VirginiaHuguenot Puritanboard Librarian

    Matthew Henry, A Sermon Concerning the Catechising of Youth:

  28. bookslover

    bookslover Puritan Board Doctor

    In another place in his writings, Baxter put it another way: he said that he started catechizing because he realized that his sermons ("...and now, 17thly...") were over most of his people's heads. Apparently, it never occurred to him to simplify and shorten his sermons.
  29. Calvibaptist

    Calvibaptist Dallas Cowboys' #1 Fan

    You two are speaking past each other rather than to each other. Neither one of you is suggesting that you step to the pulpit, close the Bible and open up the WCF or the Catechism so you can exegete the catechism.

    One of you is suggesting that you preach through a book of the Bible and, when the WCF or Catechism speaks to what is in that text, you use it to illustrate. The other is suggesting that you preach a theological sermon using the Scriptures as the authority and the WCF or Catechism as the summation of what those Scriptures teach. Basically it is the same thing.
  30. Semper Fidelis

    Semper Fidelis 2 Timothy 2:24-25 Staff Member

    That too is important but it doesn't solve the problem. There is a place for the Preaching of the Word that is distinct from catechesis. Doing the former well once a week does not suffice to also fulfill the latter requirement.
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