Trans-Confessional Catechism? A Review Of The New City Catechism

It’s encouraging to the see the The Gospel Coalition talking about the importance of catechesis. I was encouraged when The Resurgence did a series on the Heidelberg Catechism (which I can no longer find) 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.

When this new project was announced there were things to applaud and questions to be answered. The New City Catechism is now out and since the HB is devoted to recovering the Reformed confession, a healthy part of which is recovering catechesis, we owe this project a careful look.

There is a lot to like in the New City Catechism.

Anyone who knows the Heidelberg Catechism or the Westminster Shorter Catechism will recognize most of the language of this catechism. The answers are abbreviated but the substance of several of the answers is present and generally well done. The questions are well formed and the answers are crisp and clear. This will make the catechism easier to put to memory.

My students (and catechism students) have heard me complain for years about the 1976 CRC translation of the Heidelberg Catechism. In their attempt to mimic the New International Version translation of Scripture the translators made the answers wordy and even poetic. The translators did not appear to assume that the catechism would be memorized and so they gave up the repetition essential to a sound catechism. Finally, the translators omitted essential vocabulary by substitution and thus weakened its doctrinal content.

The New City Catechism does not suffer from these ills. Rather, in Q. 3 it asks, “How many persons are there in God?” The answer is just right. We have to admire a catechism that gets to the Trinity so early. Sometimes in the Reformed tradition, the Trinity has been treated as sort of second blessing for the illuminati.

There is a question and answer for each Sabbath/Lord’s Day of the year. In our distracted age if parents can get their children to memorize a question each week and recite it on the Lord’s Day, that would be an accomplishment but such a goal seems to be within reach in with this catechism. By contrast, the Heidelberg Catechism has 129 Q/A (divided into 52 Lord’s Days) and the Westminster Shorter Catechism has a 107 questions and answers.

It contains the elements of a classic catechism: the decalogue, the Apostles’ Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer. Those who know classic Reformed theology will recognize the substance of the covenant of works and federal (representative) theology in questions 7 and 14 The summary of the law seems adequate for such a brief catechism. It seems to get both the pedagogical use and the normative (third) use of the law. Questions 18 and 19 seem to reflect Dr Keller’s emphasis on idols of the heart by going back to that topic after the survey of the ten commandments. This might be judged by some as an idiosyncratic pedagogical decision. The doctrine they teach is certainly biblical.

It teaches historic evangelical doctrine regarding the substitutionary atonement and justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone (eg., Q/A 29–32). We would expect nothing less from a PCA congregation. Those committed to cultural transformation will be encouraged by Q/A 26. Others may wonder whether this Q/A has more to do with Redeemer PCA’s particular cultural mission. Those worried about a possible shift at Redeemer regarding the doctrine of hell will be reassured by Q. 28’s affirmation of the biblical and traditional doctrine.

There is a clear articulation of the moral, spiritual necessity of Spirit-wrought sanctification as a consequence of justification. The language of Q/A 34 comes almost verbatim from the Heidelberg Catechism. There is a brief but solid account of the nature and importance of prayer for the Christian.

There is a brief, accurate account of the church and sacraments. Baptism is described as a sign and a seal. There is a warning about the danger of communing with an impenitent heart. Roman Catholics will find no comfort in Q. 47. The difficulty for some will be what is left unsaid. More on this below.

The most revolutionary aspect of this catechism is the way the material is presented. It makes terrific use of the touch-screen iPad technology, which is how I accessed the catechism. There is a hide and seek feature for each answer. When the question appears on the screen, the answer is blurred. This gives the student an opportunity to test himself. When ready, the user may tap the screen to reveal the answer and then tap it again to obscure it. This is terrific. The iPad does this well and this is exactly how catechisms are memorized, by self-testing and repetition.

I believe that it is also available as a PDF and perhaps in hardcopy, I don’t know. At a certain point, if the document is used traditionally, students and teachers will want hard copies to hold in their hands and read. In my experience, catechisms tend to get beat up and an iPad may not be quite up to that sort of abuse.

The electronic version also shows Bible texts in the right-hand column. Users may adjust the settings in various ways including an option to switch between the ESV and the NIV. The controls are clear and intuitive.

The introduction says rightly that “catechetical instruction is less individualistic and more communal.” That’s certainly true but there is also a sort or romance about catechism implied in the introduction that may ultimately disappoint the user. Darryl Hart at Old Life has outlined some interesting criticisms on this point. By “romance” I mean the tendency to structure religious life around the quest for exquisite experience or the quest for illegitimate religious experience (QIRE). The truth is that catechizing children, while ultimately joyous, is often hard and sometimes tedious. Sin corrupts things and the QIRE-ish vision of the Christian life is just too eschatological, i.e., it paints an unrealistic picture of life in fallen world. It implies that we have more experience of heaven than we should expect. The problem is that such a vision is powerful and persuasive to Americans who are always looking for the next taste of heaven and rarely do they look for it Word and sacrament ministry. In short, my concern here is the same as James Boice’s. What we use to get them here will shall have to use to keep them here.

The chief concern expressed in part one touched on ecclesiology and sacraments. This catechism reflects the strengths and weaknesses of its Gospel Coalition milieu. It is sound on soteriology and basic Christian doctrine. In that sense it has the spirit and sensibilities of a sort of catechism of “mere Christianity.” Commentary and prayers have been included for each answer and the breadth is remarkable—from Chrysostom to Francis Schaefer. It includes Wesley, Spurgeon, Booth, Lloyd-Jones, and Stott.

It is not entirely inclusive, however. Those steeped in the confessional Lutheran tradition will not find themselves at home in the questions and answers on the sacraments and they might have the sense that the Christology implied in Q. 49 leans more Reformed than Lutheran.

Our Young, Restless, and Reformed friends, however, will find themselves right at home. There is nothing here to exclude them. Reformed confessionalists may wince here and there. The answer to the question, “What is the Church?” might encourage children to think that all the members of the visible church are elect. I doubt that this potential implication was intended. Rather it appears to be unintended consequence of collapsing Heidelberg numbers 54 and 55.

In this respect it is interesting that the word covenant appears quite infrequently. This will comfort those evangelicals who regard “covenant” something imposed on Scripture by “covenantalist” Reformed types but the biblical words for covenant occur more than 200 times. Reformed folk might expect to see more explicit references to the covenants.

In question 46 and 49 the impression is given that the kingdom of God is wholly future. Was this intentional? Most Reformed folk affirm that the Kingdom of God, though essentially eschatological (heavenly), has been inaugurated in history by Jesus, is being administered through its embassy on earth (the visible church), and will be consummated at Christ’s return. Again, this may be a function of the compression necessary to squeeze everything into 52 short answers.

All the 60+ Reformation and post-Reformation era Reformed Catechisms and confessions teach infant baptism. If such doctrine and practice is essential to the Reformed faith then the New City Catechism has omitted a Reformed essential. Of course this makes the project more inclusive but for those Reformed congregations that may be thinking to take up this tool as a substitute for the Heidelberg or the Westminster Shorter Catechism this will be a significant drawback.

Confessional Reformed congregations may also be reluctant to replace the older catechisms with this one because of what is omitted from answer 46 on the Holy Supper. It says that the Supper is “feeding and nourishing our souls” but it does not say with what or by whom exactly. There is no language about being fed by his body and blood. It’s true that such language has roots in Reformation arguments but it is also biblical language. It wasn’t Luther or Calvin who said, “This is my body.” It was Jesus. Instead we get language about remembering, which is biblical and confessional, “celebration,” and “communion with God and one another.

What should we make of the New City Catechism? Despite my criticisms and misgivings we should give a hearty thanks to those who produced it for their good work. They have pioneered a new and very interesting way to renew catechesis in our day. Those of us who are unwilling to omit a more full account of the church and sacraments (among other things) should take this project as a stimulus to produce our own new confession and catechism(s). This project shows that it can be done and it can be done well.

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