Instructions in the Faith – Some Pages from the Past (2)

This is the second half of an article reprinted from the July-August 1968 issue of The Outlook (then known as the Torch and Trumpet) in commemoration of the sixtieth anniversary of the founding of Reformed Fellowship, Inc. in April, 1951.

The deliberations and decisions of Dort

The synodical sessions were officially opened with appropriate ceremonies on November 13, 1618. While awaiting the arrival of the foreign delegations who were to assist in settling the Arminian controversy, synod decided to proceed with and dispose of ecclesiastical business that was the more direct concern of the Dutch churches alone.

Likely we may find in the order of business evidence of some basic Reformed convictions. The matter of a sound Bible translation was first discussed at great length, the delegates being committed to the position that only the most accurate as well as perspicuous rendition of the Holy Scripture in the Dutch language would serve the churches well. Having decided on this, they could proceed to a consideration of preaching and teaching as it should be conducted among them. Here catechism preaching, established in the earliest years of the Reformation, was discussed.17 In not a few congregations this had, in spite of repeated decisions by classes and provincial and even a national synod, been greatly neglected. In addition, the incessant clamor of the Arminians that the catechism stood in need of some revision and that it was simply a man-made document cast a dark shadow. Here the foreign delegates, whose advice was not obtained until after synod took its decisions, unanimously commended the practice of the Dutch churches as regulated by the Church Order and urged its continuation.

From that discussion to a consideration of the catechesal instruction of children, young people, and others whose knowledge of the Christian religion was deemed deficient but who were willing to receive such teaching was a short step. For how could the gospel as presented in this systematic and thorough way be communicated effectively, unless the people were somewhat prepared to understand what was being preached?

This subject of the proper instruction of catechumens was introduced by the president, Johannes Bogerman. A summary of what he said on that occasion has been preserved for us by the English secretary Hales, whose Letters still provide interesting and instructive comments on the synodical proceedings.

The Praeses first spake many things learnedly of the necessity of Catechizing, that it was the basis and ground of Religion, and the sole way of transfusing the principles of Christianity into men; that it was very ancient, practiced by the Patriarchs, by the Apostles, by Origen, and approved by the consent of the Fathers; that from the Neglect of this came the ignorance of the common sort, and that multitude of sects among them, of Papists, Anabaptists, Libertines, &c. whereas if an uniform course of teaching them their first Principles had been taken up, there would not have been so many differences; that there now was greater necessity than ever of reviving this custom, because of the Jesuits who mightily labour in this kind, as appeared by some of their Acts lately in Frisia . . . 18
Immediately the foreign delegations were requested to present their advice on this. The president limited the initial discussion to the manner of catechizing, postponing any consideration of the manual or manuals to be used until later. The influence of the foreign delegations on synodical decisions was substantial. Thereafter the professors and the delegations from the several provincial synods submitted their judgments. All of these were discussed, not the least the view of the Remonstrant delegation from the province of Utrecht, which urged that a catechism be composed consisting solely of Scripture quotations.

Thereupon synod took its decisions. Since these are found in detail form in the Acta, only a summary of the main points will be given.
Dort declared that in order that Christian children and young people may be more thoroughly instructed in the true religion, three kinds of catechesis should be maintained: in the homes by the parents, in the schools by the teachers, and in the churches by the ministers, elders, or assistants such as lezers (readers) and ziekentroosters (comforters of the sick).

The responsibility of parents was to teach their own children the first principles of the Christian faith. This was to be done regularly and faithfully according to the abilities of each child. Especially the “practice of godliness” was to be the concern of parents, who were to admonish and encourage their children in the fear of the Lord. Only by these means, so synod judged, would they learn to accustom themselves to family devotions. Parents were also to take their children to church regularly and review with them the content of the sermons, especially those preached according to the order of the Heidelberg Catechism. Children were not only to be stimulated at home to memorize basic Scripture texts; these were to be explained to them by their parents, in order that the children might be better prepared to receive the catechesal instruction given in schools and churches. All who were negligent should be warned by the officebearers of the congregation. If this did not avail, then such parents would be subject to church discipline.

With respect to catechizing in the schools much that had been practiced and decided by the Reformed churches in earlier times was reiterated. Everywhere the churches were urged to encourage the civil magistrates to establish and maintain schools throughout the land. Only those should be appointed as teachers who were members of the Reformed church, sound in doctrine and godly in conduct. They were to subscribe to the Belgic Confession and Heidelberg Catechism, pledging themselves to teach the children with great care and precision the fundamentals of the Christian religion “according to the catechesal method.”19 Such instruction was to be given at least twice each week. In addition, the schoolmasters were responsible for taking their pupils to divine worship, especially when the catechism was preached, and thereafter to discuss with them what had been heard.

For this catechizing in the schools synod judged that three manuals of instruction were necessary. Herein it clearly recognized that accommodation must be made to various levels of age and understanding. Yet it was not minded to undermine unity in teaching, urging as it did a “threefold manual” (drieerlei leerboek). This is plain especially from the details that were delineated in the decision. For the very young children a simple manual comprising the six basic parts of the Christian religion, together with a few prayers, some simple questions and answers following the order of the “three parts” (drie stukken) of the Heidelberg Catechism, and some Scriptural passages exhorting to godliness was to be used. For the more advanced there was to be a summary or compendium of the Heidelberg Catechism after the fashion of either the abbreviated catechism of the churches of the Palatinate or the Compendium (1608) of Faukelius, which had won widespread approval, especially among the churches of Zeeland. All the older catechumens were to be instructed in the Heidelberg Catechism itself. Other manuals were to be prohibited, and the civil magistrates urged by the churches in their respective localities to remove from the schools all Roman Catholic and other dangerous writings.

The tasks of the ministers of the Word with respect to catechizing were also specified. Much attention was to be given to catechism preaching. Here the pastors were admonished to speak in simple language and with appropriate brevity, bearing in mind that they were to preach for children as well as adults. In addition to supervising the catechesis given by the schools, they were to direct special attention to those no longer attending school but whose knowledge of the Christian faith was still deficient. These were to be catechized by the minister in the presence of an elder each week, either at home or in the consistory room of the church. Those who desired to profess their faith publicly in the church were to receive final and detailed instruction for a period of some weeks preparatory to taking this step. All such catechizing was to be opened and closed with appropriate prayers.

Having adopted these decisions, synod now faced three questions proposed by the president. Were certain persons to be appointed for the purpose of drawing up these proposed abbreviated manuals of instruction? In the preparation of such manuals, were the words of the Heidelberg Catechism to be preserved as much as possible? Was this work to be undertaken immediately, so that upon its completion synod might express itself officially on what was being proposed? To all three questions synod responded affirmatively, reminding itself in the course of taking its decisions of an earlier directive adopted by the synod of Middelburg (1581).

Now a committee was appointed to prepare such manuals, which would later be submitted to synod for its judgment and thereupon be officially approved for use in the churches and schools.

The original committee consisted of Polyander, professor at Leiden; Gomarus, professor at Groningen; Hermannus Faukelius, who had drawn up the Compendium of 1608 and served the church at Middelburg; Ralthasar Lydius, the pastor of Dordrecht; and Godefridus Udemannus, the pastor of the church of Zierikzee. To this number was added some time later Antonius Thysius, who served as professor at Harderwyk.

At the 177th session on May 27, 1619, after the foreign delegations had already left for home, synod again took up the matter and dealt with the work of the committee. Meanwhile, however, at the 148th session, when the Heidelberg Catechism again was officially approved, synod took a position that was not completely consonant with its earlier judgments. It now declared that this catechism was not only “in all respects an accurate summary of the orthodox Christian doctrine;” it also insisted that it was eminently suitable to serve as a manual for instructing those of tender years as well as the more mature.20 Thus the necessity of elementary manuals of instruction appeared upon further reflection less urgent.

All this can be understood when we remember what took place at synod. Repeatedly the Arminians and those who to a degree sympathized with them had undermined the influence of the Heidelberg Catechism. Heyngius, secretary of the Political Commissioners appointed to serve at the synod, explains in his report that many of the delegates feared that the smaller manuals, if adopted, would come to be regarded as “new catechisms and thus would provide occasion for confusion in the congregations and for discrediting the Heidelberg Catechism which had again been approved.”21

Yet synod could not rescind a decision adopted in the presence and with the cooperation of the foreign delegations. Thus it tacitly sought a satisfactory compromise. The shortest catechism was read and approved upon condition that a few matters drawn from the Heidelberg Catechism would be included. Bogerman judged that the summary to serve those somewhat more advanced in years and understanding seemed too long to be read. Thereupon synod decided that the churches might be permitted to use either the proposed summary of the committee or the Compendium of Faukelius, which had already gained quite widespread acceptance. Actually, therefore, the Heidelberg Catechism remains as the only manual that has complete official endorsement in the Reformed churches. The “A.B.C book” for the youngest catechumens remained in use in the schools until early in the nineteenth century. The Compendium of Faukelius, twice recommended by the synod at its sessions, received no competition in the churches from the summary drawn up by the committee. Since 1637 this work of Faukelius has been included in the Dutch psalter to find its way into countless homes and hearts. In this rather strange and surprising way synod concluded its considerations with respect to catechesis.

Evaluation of the work of synod

Since that assembly—which met three and a half centuries ago—has so strongly influenced the life and labors of Reformed churches ever since, we do well to reflect on its work.

At the outset it should be remembered that we have no right to fault synod for failing to provide the churches with an exhaustive set of regulations for this work. Such an attempt, according to the polity prevailing in the Reformed churches, would have threatened the rights and responsibilities of local congregations. To these first of all has Christ entrusted the teaching ministry of his church on earth. Synodical regulations, no matter how well-intentioned and solidly grounded, can never make up for deficiencies and derelictions that are allowed to continue by the churches themselves.

But when this is observed, there still remains grave inadequacy in what Dort said and did.

First of all, synod adopted too much without reflection a pattern that had developed throughout the Reformed ecclesiastical world since the days of Calvin. While insisting that all education in the Christian religion should be unified and integrated, so that home and school and church would speak the same language of faith, it did not clarify to any helpful degree the contributions that each could and should make. Not a few of the practical problems that plague catechesis to this day, even though they assume a somewhat different shape than three centuries ago, stem from this. It may well be questioned whether the schools, even when sustaining a close and cooperative relationship to the churches, should ever provide instruction in the confessional standards of the church. The issues surrounding the proper relation between church and school demand much more attention than they are receiving also among us today.

Closely connected with this is synod’s description of the duties devolving on the church, more specifically, on the minister of the Word. Much of his catechesal responsibility was limited on the one hand to catechism preaching and on the other hand to supervising catechesis in the schools. Thus the unique pastoral care that the church through the ministry of the Word should exercise in the lives of children and young people was obscured. Parents and school teachers were required to inquire into what the children remembered of the sermon and, if necessary, to explain this more clearly. But this task actually belongs to the pastor first of all. If we take seriously what Reformed churches have always maintained—that preparation for profession of faith requires an introduction of the catechumen into the living confessional language that the church employs as it seeks to communicate the gospel—then an official representative of the church should be charged with providing this.

Undoubtedly because of this decision of Dort catechesal classes for all baptized children did not become common ecclesiastical practice until the days of the Secession (1834). The three or four weeks of special instruction required immediately prior to making such public profession were totally inadequate to make church membership truly meaningful for those who received it.

The Achilles’ heel of Dort’s decisions with respect to catechesis, however, must be found in its ambivalence on the score of the suitability of the Heidelberg Catechism as a manual for catechumens of all ages. While understanding the difficulties in which it was placed by continued Remonstrant carping, we can hardly justify what it did. No justice was done to the decision taken in the presence and upon the advice of the foreign delegations. Nor can it be regarded as honorable that synod, having assigned a specific task to its committee, failed to deal openly and conclusively with its proposed manuals.

The consequences of this ambivalence have haunted the Reformed churches ever since. Here it is impossible to enter into a detailed discussion of the question itself, namely, whether the Heidelberg Catechism can or cannot serve well in instructing younger and less-advanced catechumens. In its final decision, which recommended for use some elementary manuals, Dort showed that it was not wholly committed to what had been declared in the 148th session. To be sure, synod insisted that the number of catechetical manuals was to be kept to those specifically recommended. But because there was no officially authorized “small catechism,” the doors in time swung open to give entrance to a multitude of manuals, most of which did not consistently follow the pattern that synod itself sought to safeguard in the interest of a unified and sound program of catechesis. Biesterveld employs strong language when decrying this practice, which is also current in the Christian Reformed Church today. According to him, and with this judgment we concur, all such manuals that neglect or obscure or minimize giving direct attention to Scripture and to the Heidelberg Catechism (including the approved Compendium) do disservice in a confessional and confessing church by confusing the catechumens through a multiplication of the materials to be memorized, discussed, and appropriated. It may well be that we accomplish too little in our catechesal classes because we attempt too much.

Yet in making up the balance sheet, we may not forget the contributions of Dort. Correctly it insisted that catechesis is primarily an ecclesiastical responsibility. No church can long remain sound in Christian doctrine and conduct if it neglects its teaching responsibilities to the baptized children and young people. Its emphasis on “unified material” to be taught faithfully and perseveringly to all within the church’s reach also deserves praise. The church should learn to speak “with one mouth and heart” concerning the mighty works of God in Christ for man’s salvation. This should alert us to the far-from-imaginary danger of teaching Bible stories in isolation from the total context of God’s progressive redemptive self-revelation to his people, or of teaching Christian doctrine by means of a proof-text method that so frequently ignores the underlying unity of the Scriptures. Meanwhile it should be underscored that Dort warned sharply and strongly against a purely intellectualistic approach to catechesis. The goal that it clearly championed was that of instruction “in the faith unto faith,” a faith explicated in the Heidelberg Catechism as “not only a sure knowledge, whereby I hold for truth all that God has revealed to us in His Word, but also a firm confidence, which the Holy Spirit works in my heart by the gospel, that not only to others, but to me also, remission of sins, everlasting righteousness, and salvation are freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits” (Lord’s Day VII, 21).

No one can rightly accuse Dort of paving the way for a cold, impersonal, abstract scholasticism in the catechesal classes. It inveighed against both human speculation that spends its time in seeking answers to illegitimate questions raised by either catechete or catechumen and sterile orthodoxy that contents itself when children have learned words and phrases without understanding their meaning. Both of these threaten Reformed catechesis in our day. And against both of these, continuing faithful in this respect to Dort, we should warn ceaselessly.

But the challenge of Dort goes deeper. Little is more appalling than the doctrinal latitudinarianism prevalent in much present-day Christianity. This has not left the Reformed churches unscathed. In all areas of learning men urge greater precision—in logic, philosophy, economics, sociology, psychology and especially the “physical” sciences; in matters of Christian teaching almost every notion is not merely tolerated but even openly defended. What is impermissible in office and factory receives accolades in the churches as new, stimulating, relevant! This should alert us to the extent to which irrationalism, existentialism and subjectivism in various subtle forms are sucking the life-blood of the church which, according to Scripture, is “pillar and ground of the truth.”

Against this Dort took its position. Nor was this position inspired by a narrow-minded and uneducated provincialism. Among the delegates were men who stood head and shoulders above most European scholars of that day. Their knowledge of Greek and Hebrew, of literature both “sacred” and “profane,” of history and astronomy and jurisprudence, and—last but by no means least—of Christian theology in all its branches was nowhere excelled at that time. Philip Schaff, himself no advocate of its decisions, pays this tribute to Dort,

It was undoubtedly an imposing assembly; and, for learning and piety, as respectable as any ever held since the days of the Apostles. Breitinger, a great light of the Swiss Churches, was astonished at the amount of knowledge and talent displayed by the Dutch delegates. . . . Even Paoli Sarpi, the liberal Catholic historian, in a letter to Heinsius, spoke very highly of it.22

What concerned Dort when it spoke of catechesis was “the doctrine which is according to godliness.” The spiritual consolation of the individual, the unity of the confessional and confessing church, and the praise of God for his rich grace in Christ Jesus compelled it to speak as it did. Here the best (i.e., the clearest and purest expression of the gospel) was none too good. In season and out of season it was to be taught. No bare intellectual assent to a series of propositional truths, but a vibrant, intelligent and heart-full faith-response is what it sought to cultivate in the lives of young and old. And for a century and more this endeavor of Dort bore rich fruit.

Some fifty years after synod convened, the lines of decadence began to be etched on the face of the Dutch congregations. Prosperity unknown before charmed the hearts and lives of the members. Although not a few warned against the worldliness that threatened to engulf the churches, the majority of ministers as well as members smiled benevolently at the “prophets of doom.” The next century and a half proved their words altogether too true. What men wanted and got was a “reasonable religion,” much after the fashion advocated by the Remonstrants. Respectability became the chief mark of church membership. And throughout that period, catechesis continued as a venerable tradition, but one that set little stamp on the lives of the people.

These are the incontrovertible lessons taught by history. The church today does well to take heed, lest it repeat in its negligence the sins of omission and commission that would condemn it in God’s sight as “holding a form of godliness, but having denied the power thereof.” The possibility of such corruption lies wide open. Against it one remedy has been given—that of faithfully preaching and teaching the Word that makes men wise unto salvation.

17. That “catechism preaching” was no invention of the Dutch or for that matter of the Reformed churches is evident from Reformation history. Early Lutheran church orders make mention of it as mandatory, although within a few decades it was discontinued. Even the catechizing of children soon was dismissed by pastors as beneath the dignity of their learning and position; hence it was assigned in many places to the church custodian. In the earliest Reformed churches it was introduced as either a second public worship service on the Lord’s Day to replace “vespers” in the Roman Catholic Church or as a sermon held during the week. The clearer distinction between catechism preaching and catechesis came some decades later.
18. H. Kaajan, op. cit., p. 173; quoted from John Hales: Golden Remains . . . (London: Tho. Newcomb, 1673), pp. 9, 10.
19. Subscription by the schoolmasters to the Belgic Confession was already stipulated by the Synod of Dordrecht (1574) in art. XXII, 4 (Biesterveld and Kuyper, op. cit., p. 69) and to the Catechism by the Synod of The Hague (1586) in art. XLVIII (Ibid., p. 205).
20.  Quoted by Kaajan, op. cit., p. 211.
21. Ibid., pp. 211, 212. The relation of this decision to the repeated Remonstrant criticisms of the Heidelberg Catechism is considered by H. H. Kuyper: De Post-Acta of Nahandelingen van de Nationale Synode van Dordrecht (Amsterdam-Pretoria: Hoveker & Wormser, 1899), pp. 316–324. He also quotes Breytinger as judging these objections as “frivolas” and Hales as saying that they were “a poor, impertinent stuff,” p. 322.
22. Schaff, op. cit., vol. I, pp. 514, 515.

Dr. P. Y. De Jong (1915–2005) wrote frequently for The Outlook. He is well-remembered as a prolific writer, professor at two seminaries, and brilliant preacher of God’s Word.