Arrows in the Church's Quiver
By Richard E. Bacon.
Copyright 2001 © First Presbyterian Church of Rowlett

Review: Rediscovering Catechism by Donald Van Dyken: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishers, $7.00 (114pp. plus appendices), perfect bound.

This book is a real breath of fresh air in the midst of a plethora of books coming from Christian publishers, all claiming to be “practical” and “relevant” for today. What makes this book a breath of fresh air is that it is a biblical approach to the training of the next generation of the church – and so it is for that very reason eminently practical and relevant.

Pastor Van Dyken does not write from the vantage of an ivory tower. Rather, he speaks the pastor’s language and helps the pastor to deal with the very real difficulties that arise in the life of a church; difficulties that seem to many to militate against the kind of catechism program of which churches are desperately in need.

The book could easily be divided into three sections. In the first, Van Dyken does his best to encourage his readers that catechising is both biblical and useful. Or perhaps it would be better to say that because catechising is biblical, it is therefore useful. The author compares catechising to the older ideas of journalism: using questioning to get to the root of the story. Just as the good journalist uses the “Five W’s” to interview and question their way to answers, so also a good catechist uses questioning and answering to get to the story (or stories) of God’s dealings with men. So, too, lawyers question and probe until they get to the truth of a witness’s testimony. A catechism class will therefore resemble a courtroom as catechist and catechumens together search out the truth by means of questions and answers.

Catechism, while it is undervalued in today’s churches, is really the foundation for the church of tomorrow, i.e. of the next generation. Van Dyken quotes the Preface of the Genevan Catechism, “One of the first and most laudable efforts of the Reformers was to revive the practice [of catechising], and restore it to its pristine vigor and purity; and hence, in many instances, when a Church was regularly constituted, catechising was regarded as part of the public service.” Van Dyken continues, “From a human perspective, if the Reformers had not regarded the catechetical instruction of its children one of its foremost responsibilities, the church would not be here today.” Even the enemies of the truth recognized the power of the Protestant example. Referring to the Protestants, the Council of Trent maintained, “The heretics have chiefly made use of catechisms to corrupt the minds of Christians.” Of course, from the Protestant point of view, we would say that the Reformers made use of catechisms to keep the youth of the church from becoming corrupted by Rome and other infidel religions.

Van Dyken’s book is quick to acknowledge the many difficulties that are placed in the paths of ministers, parents, sessions, and even the children that make not catechising far easier than catechising. Even things that are otherwise good and valuable activities can be used to make catechising inconvenient. Soccer practice, band practice, football or basketball games, school activities and even vacations often have a place in the child’s life and if pastors and parents let them, these things can quickly crowd out the importance of catechism classes. A genuine grasp of the purpose and potential of catechism will help a church place this important activity in the proper perspective.

The second section of Van Dyken’s treatise moves from the importance of catechism to the implementation of catechism. It is important to recognize that catechising is decidedly not the same thing as lecturing. The art of catechising is really nothing less than education in its etymological sense. Just as the word “education” comes from two Latin words that mean “draw out,” so is catechism a “drawing out” of the catechumen truths that he has learned. And this is done in a question and answer format. As the Scottish theologian Samuel Rutherford pointed out, “There is as much art in catechising as in anything in the world.”

Van Dyken deals admirably with the objection that some raise that we are making rationalists of our children. Put in another way, there are some who claim that catechists are “trying to take the place of the Holy Spirit.” The catechist must be sensitive to this objection in the sense that we cannot by our own power make believers of our children. Yet, we do not claim that a farmer is trying to take the place of the Holy Spirit because he plants seeds after praying that God would give him a harvest. So, neither should the catechist think he is taking the place of the Holy Spirit when he makes use of means that God has instituted for pressing Christ and the gospel upon the next generation of the church.

Finally, this little handbook has some very useful appendices. The first is a list of the historic creeds, confessions, and catechisms of the Reformed and Presbyterian churches. In the same appendix, Van Dyken lists a large number of catechetical aids that are available from a number of publishers, and the addresses of those publishers are included in a second appendix.

If your church is not currently catechising the youth of the church, it is simply a question of time as to when your church will be closing its doors for the last time. A church that is firing arrows into the next generation must realize that the only opportunity most of us will have to minister to the generations to come will be through our children and our children’s children. That will be done by means of teaching and calling to their remembrance “the wonderful works of the Lord.” This book will help a church to begin a catechism class or classes that have just that effect.

If your church already has catechism classes as part of its ministry to the youth of the church, this book will help you to encourage others, both parents and sessions (consistories). It will give you some good practical pointers and will warn you about some of the pitfalls you will encounter.

There is one short-coming of the book that is almost not worth mentioning. Reverend Van Dyken at one point in his book equates the child’s role before God as prophet, priest, and king to his intellect, emotions, and will. We agree fully that every child of God is a prophet, priest, and king. Furthermore, while not endorsing a “faculty psychology,” we also would agree that children do have intellect, emotion, and will. Where we would disagree is with the equation of prophet = intellect, priest = emotions, and king = will. Rather, we would insist that the intellect, emotions, and will are involved in each of those believer-offices.