I guess the first question one might ask, why is a Baptist talking about catechism? Well, did you know that one of the first publications of the Southern Baptist Sunday School Board (now called Lifeway) was a catechism? It was A Catechism of Bible Teaching by John Broadus. I have even taught it at my church some years ago.
The word “catechism” means a body of teaching. To “catechize” means to systematically instruct, especially by means of questions and answers. Often catechism is associated with teaching children basic Bible and church instruction. I went through this when I was about 10 years old when my family was Methodist. I have no idea why Baptists stopped using Catechisms. It was a requirement for children who wanted to join the church. I know that many catechisms have been published by Baptists and some were used on the mission field.
What caused me to think about this was an interview with J. I. Packer in World magazine. Packer is a world famous as an evangelical theologian. But, according to this interview, Packer does not consider himself a theologian. Instead he sees himself as an adult catechist. I find this interesting.
The answer to your question, why this emphasis, is first of all five years ago when I came to realize that this is the deep truth about me. I am an adult catechist: It was quite a discovery. You may or may not know that Alister McGrath wrote a theology biography of me up to the age of 75—or was it 70? When he finished the biography he didn’t know quite what to say about me. This man didn’t want to call me a theologian because I didn’t move around in the world of the guild like he does. He writes excellent textbooks and he also engages on some of the frontiers, which is what he in his own mind thinks of a theologian as doing. So he didn’t want to call me a theologian and he ended up calling me a “theologizer.” But it was after that that I realized I’m a catechist . . .
Would you give me a kind of concise definition of what you mean by catechetical teaching? Going back to my formula that a catechist teaches the truth that Christians live by and also teaches how to live by those truths, I would say that the raw material of catechisms is the doctrines of the gospel. Now, I’ve been a professor of systematic theology for quite a lot of my life, and at the start of all my theology courses I say: First of all, you’ve got to realize that theology is a compound of 10 distinct disciplines: Exegesis, biblical theology, and historical theology are the first three. They are the resources out of which systematic theology builds its wisdom. And systematic theology is, in fact, biblical theology rethought in relation to the questions and debates of the day so that it’s material ready for use by catechists and preachers and teachers of all shapes and sizes. Also, from systematic theology using its raw material, the following six disciplines are resourced: apologetics, ethics, worship or liturgy, spirituality or Christian devotion, mythology, misology, and pastor theology or practical theology—all the know-how you are able to share with one another about ministering, ministering truth in light of truth.
The Evangelical understanding (and many others) of the Bible is that we meet God in Scripture and it is our primary means of knowing God. We have our personal experiences but all personal experiences must comport with Scripture or it cannot be trusted. If we want know God deeply then we must all be students of the Bible and of theology. It is a lifelong learning experience.
I think this is a tradition that needs to be rediscovered by Christians of all denominations. And I think it is most worthy for adults to become catechists. This practice would go a long way toward correcting biblical illiteracy that is so common among Christians. And I think it will cause us all to draw closer to Christ as we learn more about God.
So, are you an adult catechist?