It’s encouraging to the see the TGC talking about the importance of catechesis. I was encouraged when The Resurgence did a series on the Heidelberg Catechism (which I can’t find now) and it’s encouraging to see Carl Trueman’s new book, The Creedal Imperative. One might give a somewhat different list of Reformed catechisms than Tim Keller does in his brief encouragement. Richard Baxter (1615–91) was not Reformed and we need to stop calling him Reformed. Anyone as confused as Baxter was about the “article by which the church stands or falls” (justification) can hardly be called “Reformed.” Nevertheless, his main points stand:
…in the evangelical Christian world today the practice of catechesis, particularly among adults, has been almost completely lost.
The catechetical discipline of memorization drives concepts in deep, encouraging meditation on truth.
Amen. One of the first things the Protestants did was to confess the faith, as churches, and to instruct children and adults in the basics of the Christian faith through the use of questions and answers or catechisms. Luther published two catechisms in 1529 (the Large and Small). Calvin published two catechisms for Geneva. The Palatinate Church published the Heidelberg Catechism in 1563. The Church of England adopted a catechism (1549). There were many (now) lesser known catechisms written by a variety of figures (e.g., Johannes a Lasko) through the sixteenth century that were used by churches locally or regionally.
So, TGC is on firm historical footing when they advocate for a return to more serious catechesis. Clearly the flannel graphs and power point haven’t done the job. Catechesis and confession also follows a biblical pattern. See Recovering the Reformed Confession for more on this.
The issue here is not the creation of a new confession or catechism. One of the burdens of RRC was to argue the case for a new confession (and catechism). We may be sure that our confessing forebears would be quite surprised that we have gone this long without confessing the faith again in response to the issues facing the visible church in our own time.
What might give one pause, however, is the prospect of an organization such as TGC writing and publishing a summary of the faith. To be sure, as noted above, private individuals have written documents that became major ecclesiastical documents. Guido de Bres was a French-Speaking Reformed pastor in the Lowlands (Belgium) when he wrote what became known as the Belgic Confession. He wrote it as a pastor but it was not drafted by a commission of the church. The Second Helvetic Confession was written by Heinrich Bullinger (1504–75) was a private work that became an ecclesiastical document. Nevertheless, there are differences between these examples listed above and the TGC project just announced.
The main concern is that TGC comprises folk who do not confess the same understanding of the church and sacraments. Some Reformed and covenantal in their reading of redemptive history and, as a consequence, reach a certain view of the sacraments. TGC also embraces teachers who read redemptive history quite differently and thus have reached rather different views regarding the church and sacraments.
Typically Protestant catechisms contain expositions of the Decalogue (Ten Commandments), the Apostles’ Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer. They contain summaries of the Gospel (the Creed), the moral norms of the Christian life (the law), and an account of Christian piety (the Lord’s Prayer). The sections on the church and sacraments are usually placed under the Creed, under the 9th article, “the Holy Catholic Church.” The Reformed understanding holds that salvation is, by divine ordination, administered through the visible, institutional church. We confess that the visible church is a divinely established institution.
In Belgic Confession article 28, the Reformed Churches confess:
We believe that since this holy assembly and congregation is the gathering of those who are saved and there is no salvation apart from it, no one ought to withdraw from it, content to be by himself, regardless of his status or condition.
The Westminster Standards confess the very same doctrine in Westminster Confession of Faith 25.2 when it re-states Cyprian’s dictum: ”out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.”
The point here is that, according to the Reformed churches in the British Isles and Europe, the doctrines of church and sacraments are essential to instruction in the Christian faith. This is why the various confessional traditions produced their own documents that reflected their particular reading of redemptive history, their hermeneutic, and their understanding of the Biblical teaching on church and sacraments.
When an organization that is Together for the Gospel but not together regarding the church and sacraments, where and in which the gospel is administered, what can they confess about those issues that separate the various members ecclesiastically? One fears that, in order to satisfy the needs of such an ecumenical organization, the temptation will be to downplay church and sacraments or else to create two parallel catechisms, one for those who confess the Reformed faith and those who affirm elements of the Reformed faith but who dissent from the Reformed ecclesiology and theology and practice of the sacraments.
Finally, regular readers of TCG have reason to wonder whether their recent pattern of publishing articles by the leading proponent of the Federal Vision signals a shift in how they define the gospel and whether their new inclusiveness will include a nod to the Federal Vision.