The mode of teaching religion by catechisms is as distinct a system of teaching as the lesson, the training, or the intellectual systems.
Of all these systems, it has been the most popular. It has held its ground for several centuries against many rivals; and from the numerous catechisms daily issuing from the press, its popularity appears to be but little on the wane. All denominations employ it; it is equally in favour in the school as in the family, and as a book for the young and the adult. Among the causes of this general popularity may be named the following:—
1. The denominational character of many of the catechisms. The Church of England Catechism, The Wesleyan Catechism, and the Assembly's Catechism, partake of this character. It was the object of these catechisms, while inculcating the general truths of religion, to guard against the real or supposed heresies of other sects. This feeling, a praiseworthy one when enlightened, has made them be largely employed in the different denominations from which they issued, and by those who sympathise in their views.
2. As the catechism presents a clear and condensed view of religion, it is plausibly supposed that if we transfer the system which the catechism contains from the book to the mind of the scholar, we shall furnish him with a complete knowledge of divinity. The clearness of the definitions of doctrine, it is supposed, will make them easy of apprehension, and their compactness will render them memorable. It is imagined, therefore, that the shortest road to an acquaintance with religious knowledge, is to drill a child into a good system of divinity.
3. The catechetical form of the catechism has had no inconsiderable influence upon its popularity. By a strange illusion, the teacher invests the scholar who repeats the catechism with all the knowledge and accurate perception which are contained in his answer, as if it were his own deliberately expressed convictions.
4. We feel constrained to add, that with careless parents and teachers, the catechism owes much of its popularity to the ease it affords them. They can quiet their consciences with the form of religious instruction, and yet spare themselves the slightest mental effort. Were the catechism withdrawn, they would be compelled to think before they could teach.
A system so popular demands considerable attention. Let us, then, inquire into the nature of the catechism, and the manner in which it should be taught.
There are two aspects in which every subject may be studied. It may be studied either practically or scientifically. Let us take an oak-tree, for example: A person examining it for practical purposes, would consider such things as these—the best soil for it to grow in, how and when it should be planted, when it comes to maturity, the market price of oak, and the uses to which it can be applied. A person examining an oak-tree for scientific purposes, considers its trunk, branches, bark, and leaves; he determines to what tribe of plants it belongs; or he considers its physiology. Religion, also, can be studied in both of these aspects. When we consider it popularly, we inquire, What does it command or forbid 1 What are we to believe and do? When we examine it theologically, we occupy ourselves with the definition, classification, and defence of doctrine. For example, prayer is taught practically in the Bible in such sentences as these: "Pray without ceasing;" "In everything, by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known unto God." In the Shorter Catechism, it is taught theologically, in these words: "Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God for things agreeable to his will, in the name of Christ, with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgment of his mercies." A religious catechism teaches the science of religion : it is a system of theology. Many text-books, schemes of lessons, and abridgments of doctrines, which do not take the form of question and answer, possess the same character. They are to religion what botany is to plants, and geology to the rocks and strata of the globe.
But though the majority of religious catechisms are designed to teach religion in a systematic form, they may be taught popularly as well as theologically. Let us see how they may be taught in both ways.
1. Popularly. In this case the catechism is regarded as a mere list of subjects, which are to be expanded by the teacher in his lesson. Let the questions be those found at the commencement of most of the catechisms for infants— "Who was the first man?—Adam." The teacher having obtained the answer, begins to tell his scholars, that about six thousand years ago there was not a single person in the whole world. "You might have travelled," he says to his class, "north or south, east or west, as far and as long as you chose, and not one man or woman, or boy or girl, would have been seen : it was then that God made Adam, out of the dust of the ground." In the same manner we might amplify the question, "Who made you?—God;" pointing out that God made all the people in the school, and in the town, and the country, and the whole world. The same principles, adapted to the circumstances of the scholars, may be used in the more advanced catechisms. The teacher is to regard the question as a mere , outline which he is to fill up by his instructions. Thus, "What is the work of creation?—The work of creation is God's making all things of nothing, by the word of his power, in the space of six days, and all very good." In teaching this, we should dwell in succession upon the power of God in making all things of nothing, and in making them by a word; upon the different things created on each of the six days, and upon their perfect character as they'came from the hand of their Maker.
2. The catechism may he taught theologically. No religious education is complete where theology is neglected. It is for want of a systematic study of the doctrines of the Bible—from not perceiving the boundaries and dependencies of the different doctrines—that many of our religious errors arise.
Our readers may have seen a leaf in winter which had been tossed about by the winds, and bleached by the sun and rain, till all the softer parts had been washed away, and there remained nothing but a beautiful network of fibre. This was the framework of the leaf, and shewed how the parts were connected, and in what way nourishment was conveyed to the furthest extremities. A catechism, taught theologically, is intended to exhibit the framework of religion—the plan of salvation. It is the anatomy of religion, and shews how the doctrines are constituted, and the relation they bear to each other.
Or we may regard a catechism of divinity, to use a commercial illustration, as a ledger into which the doctrines which lie scattered in the Bible are inserted under their respective heads. Thus, all the attributes of God are nowhere recorded in Scripture in a single verse ; the catechism presents them at one view, as in the following question: "What is God?—God is a spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth."
This view of the catechism will guide us to the proper mode of teaching it theologically. Our aim in teaching it should be to give the scholars a clear and comprehensive knowledge of what the Scriptures say on every particular doctrine or duty. We are not to neglect the practical uses of the doctrines which it teaches; but our first attention is to be given to a thorough discussion of its contents by the light of the Bible.
We shall take an example of this mode of teaching it from Dixon's Church Catechism Illustrated.
"What is the last article of the creed respecting our Saviour?—From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead."
The following is the manner in which the question is taught; we give an abstract only:—1. There shall be a day of judgment. Arguments are drawn, ls£, from the Old Testament; as 1 Sam. ii. 10, "The Lord shall judge the ends of the earth;" Eccles. xii. 14, " God shall bring every work unto judgment;" and, 2d, from the New Testament; as Rom. xiv. 10, "We shall all stand before the judgment-seat of -Christ;" Heb. ix. 27, " It is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment."
2. The Lord Jesus Christ shall be judge—2 Tim. iv. 1, "The Lord Jesus Christ, who shall judge the quick and dead."
3. Why he assumes this office—John v. 27, "And hath given him authority to execute judgment also, because he is the Son of man."
4. The manner of his coming—Matt. xvi. 27, "The Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father, with his angels."
5. All men shall then be judged—Rev. xx. 12, "I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God."
6. The accusation—evil thoughts, words, and actions— Rev. xx. 13, "They were judged every man according to their works."
7. The standard—John xii. 48, "The word that I have spoken, the same shall judge him in the last day."
8. The sentence of the righteous—Matt. xxv. 34, "Come, ye blessed of my father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you."
9. The sentence of the wicked—Mark ix. 44, "Their worm dieth not, and their fire is not quenched."
Lastly, The application—Ezek. xxii. 14, "Can thine heart endure, or can thy hands be strong, in the days that I shall deal with thee?" '
There can be but one opinion, we think, of the value of teaching Scripture doctrine in this manner. We doubt if a catechism, except for young children, should ever be taught without Scripture proofs. It is not what the catechism says, but what the Bible says, that is important. Teachers must be careful of the kind of proofs they adduce. A number of those often found in catechisms are strangely inapplicable.
To this extent, then, and for these purposes, a systematic form of teaching- is invaluable; but it must not be allowed to usurp the ground of the other modes of teaching-, which, in their own place, are equally important. It is not adapted for the young and ignorant; it cannot supersede Bible history, parables, and conversational teaching ; it must be kept to its own sphere at the end of a course of instruction, to reduce into order the materials which had been previously acquired.
In some schools and families the catechism is the principal lesson book. We have often seen the most advanced catechisms in the hands of children of five and six years of age. They were taught without explanation of any description, the only thing required being accuracy. Indeed we believe that they are much oftener taught by rote than in any other way. We do not know that a greater affront can be put upon the high character of a work like the Assembly's Catechism, than by teaching it to such young-scholars.
That catechisms taught in this way, or even taught theologically, are unsuited to the young and ignorant, will appear from the following considerations :—
1. They are very uninteresting. Let any person compare the interest with which a child will read a Bible lesson, and listen to a conversation about religion, with the apathy with which he repeats his catechism, and he will see how foreign the style of the latter is to the child's disposition. A child may be found spontaneously reading the Bible, quoting some of its beautiful sayings, and chanting a hymn; but who ever heard of a child turning to the catechism with interest?
"Many catechisms now in use keep up a continual state of irritation between the teacher and his scholars, on account of their unwillingness to learn them." In a Roman Catholic school, where the Controversial Catechism was taught, in which the answers to the questions are very long, we heard a scholar say, "Teacher, I cannot learn this question, it is so" dreadfully long. Only allow me to miss it, and I will learn the next one without a word !"
2. The catechism presents the doctrines of the Bible in a form which renders them almost powerless of moral influence. They are stated with all the precision, indeed, but also with all the calmness, of a philosophical treatise. The question, "What is sin ?—Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God," could not be answered more coldly, so to speak, had it been the definition of a philosophical term. The questions and answers, "Who is the Saviour of sinners?—Jesus Christ. Who is it that sanctifies you?—The Holy Ghost"—are not calculated, except in a very slight degree, to draw the mind of a child up to God. They are essentially dry and cold. We believe a person might read through the greater number of the catechisms which were ever written, without having either his fears or his hopes excited ; without feeling his conscience addressed; or being impressed that he had any interest in the numerous questions his eye glanced over. A person might nearly as well plant the dried and systematised specimens of a botanist, and hope that they would grow, as look for much fruit in teaching the catechisms in this way as a first book to the young.
We do not quarrel with catechisms for wanting the power of attraction. It is in their very nature. They purposely pi'esent doctrines in their most general form. But then, this abstractness, which is the great merit of the catechism in one point of view, is fatal to its use with the young and uninstructed, unless we make it merely the topic of our remarks, and develop and amplify the thought which it contains.
3. Many portions of our catechisms are unintelligible to children, and cannot be made intelligible in their theological form. For illustration of this head we shall take the doctrine of Justification, as it is taught in the Assembly's Shorter Catechism. It is thus expressed:—"Justification is an act of God's free grace, wherein he pardoneth all our sins, and accepteth us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone." An intelligent teacher having this doctrine to explain to a child, to whom it was quite new, or to any child who had made little progress in thought or religious knowledge, would take great pains to explain each word and phrase separately, and would illustrate the meanings of his terms by appropriate examples. He would then expect that the whole sense of the doctrine should be understood. Thus—
Justification would be explained as pardoning—setting free from punishment—treating as if a person had not sinned; and Joseph's conduct to his brethren might be cited for illustration.
Free Grace would be described as unmerited favour— undeserved kindness, like the pardon David granted to Shimei, 2 Sam. xix. 23.
When every difficult word has been carefully explained in this manner, the teacher thinks he has a right to expect that, with ordinary attention, any child shall comprehend the meaning of the whole question, and is very much mortified on discovering how little of it was understood. But is a teacher justified in such an expectation? We think not.
For, in the first place, look at the amount of compacted thought which is given to the child's mind to carry at once. He must be able to say at one view (otherwise he will not understand the question), that justification is an act, and not a work, that this act is of free grace; that in this act a person is pardoned, and treated as righteous; that he is so treated because of the righteousness of Christ; that this righteousness consists in what Christ has done and suffered for us; and that it is imputed to us, and we receive it by faith. All these closely connected and theologically expressed ideas it is supposed a child may understand by a little pains in explaining the terms. We do not think the expectation very reasonable. Even though the child understood the separate expressions, he might find no small difficulty in passing from one to another, and catching their connexion; and though he could even join two sentences together, it would require a much stronger grasp of mind than most young persons possess, to take in at once the whole of this carefully worded doctrine, in which each expression, by itself, and in its connexion, is so significant. Some new ideas they may carry with them about the meaning of particular words; but the doctrine of justification, as a whole, will not be understood. The staple has not a firm enough hold in the soft mind of a child to bear the weight of such a long train of thought.
But, again, it is to be recollected, that the train of thought above mentioned is to be followed by the pupil, though it is expressed in theological language, to which, previous to the explanation of the teacher, he was an entire stranger. Can it be supposed that, by one or by several lessons, the full meanings of such words as righteousness and imputation shall be so readily apprehended— that a doctrine, in itself rather abstract, shall be understood when couched in this phraseology? Reason, no less than experience, might disabuse us of such a hope. An example will make the nature of the difficulty better appreciated. Let us substitute Greek words for the terms faith, imputation, &c., and then explain the Greek in the same way that a teacher explains the words faith and imputation to a child. Would a person unacquainted with that language follow our meaning very freely? Make the experiment.
Dihaiosune is an act of God's charis, wherein he pardon-eth all our amartia, and accepteth us as clikaios only for the sake of the dikaiosune of Christ imputed to us, and received by pistis alone. Dikaiosune, means justification ; charis, means free grace ; amartia, sin ; dikaios, righteous; and pistis, faith. Will this explanation be sufficient to make the above sentence fully understood 1 Now, if the reader does not follow this perfectly and easily, how can we expect our children to follow us through all the difficulties of the doctrine of justification, when the words accept, righteousness, imputation, and faith, are as new and difficult to them, as the words dikaiosune and pistis are to a stranger to the Greek tongue!
But, finally, we doubt very much if young children understand even the words justification, act, and act of free grace, by the short explanation which a teacher is able to give of each. Take the word act, for instance. It is wanted to shew how justification is an act, and sanctification a work, and what is the difference between the two. As long as the teacher confines himself to his examples, the child understands him. We say, striking a blow with a hammer is an act; buildiug a house is a tuork; firing a gun is an act; mining is a toork. All this is perfectly intelligible. But when we try the analogy on the doctrines, the scholar fails to apprehend the distinction, simply because he does not know what justification and sanctification are in themselves; and being ignorant of the things themselves, he cannot understand their difference.
We have taken our illustration from the Assembly's Shorter Catechism, not only because it is the best catechism in itself, but because it is very frequently put into the hands of young children, as the first book from which they are to acquire a knowledge of the way of salvation. In many families, we believe, little less is ever taught.
But in catechisms written expressly for the young and ignorant, the same style of teaching doctrines prevails. Thus, in the Mother's Catechism for a Young Child, by Willison, we have the questions :—
"What is the condition of the covenant of grace?—Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved."
"Why is the covenant of grace so called?—Because all things in it are of God's free gift, and so even is faith itsel£ which is the condition required of us for interesting us in Christ and the benefits of this covenant."
Most other catechisms also abound in similar expressions. We have—"Receiving Christ—having an interest in Christ—Christ fulfilling all righteousness—God receiving satisfaction for our sins," and the like.
It is not the nature of the thought, so much as the form in which it is presented, that makes these things so difficult to be understood. The doctrine of justification may be made intelligible enough, if we take the proper mode of teaching it.
We think the foregoing reasons sufficiently decisive of the impropriety of putting abstract catechisms into the hands of children at an early age, unless accompanied with very copious illustrations.
We have already expressed our sense of the value of an accurate acquaintance with divinity; but to how many uneducated minds, both men and women, must theology be always incomprehensible! To them, anything like clear thinking, exact definitions, or a systematic arrangement, is of little use. Faithful admonitions, direct addresses, and instructions suited to their most pressing necessities, are what they require. It is not in a tempest that we have leisure to discuss the action of the waves or the law of storms.
The evils of confining religious instruction to teaching by catechisms, are greatly aggravated when the questions are learned by rote. How common is a scene like the following :—A teacher asks, "What is sanctification?—Sanetifi-cation is an act—Stop. What is sanctification?—Sanctification is the act—Stop. Is it an act 1—Sanctification is the work of God's free grace, wherein he pardoneth—Stop, stop. Try you it, John;" and it is passed from one to another, till some one repeats it correctly.
We fear that there is still a vast amount of such teaching. How many children know nothing of the doctrines of revelation but as the answers to certain questions! When asked, "What benefits do believers receive from Christ at the resurrection?" they can repeat—"At the resurrection, believers being raised up in glory, shall be openly acknowledged and acquitted in the day of judgment, and made perfectly blessed in the full enjoying of God to all eternity;" but the idea has perhaps never crossed their minds, that there are people now living in the world who shall enjoy the whole of this boundless feast of love ; or perhaps they have never understood in the least that, to be raised up in glory, to be acquitted at the judgment, and to be with God for ever, were anything more than the words, which they were to say when asked the question. Many of them might wonder, on being informed that the question, " What is effectual calling V' which they struggle through with so much hesitation, contains glad tidings for them, more valuable than the wealth of the world; that it tells them how they may know the state of their souls before God; how they may love Christ in the spirit of Paul, and Peter, and John ; how they may have every evil passion crushed, and every grace blooming in their souls; and how they may pass the pearly gates of heaven. That this form of sound words which children so often repeat contains truths like these, never enters the minds of multitudes to whom they are most familiar. It is their lesson, which, having committed to memory and repeated, they have nothing more to do with; and for much of this indifference, we fear, teachers and parents are to blame.
The world understands better how to reach the heart; there is no abstractness in its motives : its lessons of evil are never learnt by rote : there is nothing dry, formal, or technical in its temptations; they are all direct, personal, practical. Even a child understands the way to seduce his neighbour. We never heard one boy say to another, Come, and let us sin; or, Come, and let us break one of the commandments; or even, Come, and let us steal. Such invitations to evil he knows would be powerless. But he tells his companion of an orchard down the way, that the wall is low, the family from home, the fruit ripe, and that the trees are laden with fruit, which will never be missed; and thus he tempts him to sin. Why should the same intelligent principle not be acted upon to counteract such temptations? We believe it must have been a rare case in which a child has been moved to any duty, or deterred from any sin, by reading or repeating the abstract questions taught in our catechisms. The definition, "Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God," will be but a feeble barrier in a child's way when the passions are loose; and few precepts have ever been observed from merely knowing that "the duty which God requireth of man, is obedience to his revealed will." Religion can never influence the heart or the life, unless it is taught intelligently and practically; and there is not a doctrine in the Bible which is not intended to be taught in this manner.