The Case for Catechism

by Richard R. Osmer

Richard R. Osmer was Thomas W. Synnott Professor of Christian Education at Princeton Theological Seminary when this article was written (1997). He was also chair of a special committee working on a new catechism for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

This article appeared in The Christian Century, April 23-30, 1997, pp. 408-412. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This article prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The leaders of the Reformation had some good reasons to foster catechetical instruction. So do we. After almost a century of experience-based education, how well do mainline Protestants know the faith?

Paula is 19 and a sophomore at a well-respected private university. She lives in an apartment several miles from the main campus. On this particular day, she splashes on a bit of French perfume after putting on her grunge clothes, jumps in her Toyota, and turns on a tape of reggae music as she drives to school. After attending classes in Eastern religion and the 19th-century English novel, she walks down the main street of this small university town with her new friend, Helen Kim to one of their favorite eating spots, Hoagie Haven, which is owned by Greek immigrants and run by Guatemalans.

While raised in her Presbyterian church back home and confirmed just four years ago, Paula no longer believes that Christianity is the only way to God. She is not even sure that it is the best way to God. As she puts it: "What you believe is a matter of what part of the world you happen to be born in and where your life journey takes you. You have to be open to what life teaches you. I don’t believe the same things I did when I was still living at home, and I don’t imagine I’ll believe the things I do now in ten years."

While we do not know where Paula’s journey will take her, we do know that as she enters young adulthood the church does not mean much to her. She lives in a world of intellectual relativism and cultural eclecticism.

Paula’s context is the church’s context. There is overwhelming evidence that mainline Protestant churches have been slow to respond to the challenges this context presents. Research repeatedly has found a mass exodus of young people like Paula from the church during late adolescence and young adulthood. As Dean Hoge, Benton Johnson and Donald Luidens have documented in Vanishing Boundaries: The Religion of Mainline Protestant Baby Boomers, many young church members have departed, never to return. Based on a study of 500 Presbyterians confirmed in their youth, who at the time of the research were between the ages of 33 and 42, the book documents that nearly 50 percent had become firmly ensconced among the religiously "unaffiliated." These were not people still struggling with personal identity issues and zigzagging their way through young adulthood. They had established a permanent life structure, one in which their childhood faith and confirmation vows had been left far behind.

Somewhere along the way, the church failed these people. It failed to provide them with the intellectual and spiritual resources needed in a postmodern world. Of particular importance was its failure to teach the Paulas in its midst the most elementary beliefs and practices of the faith. Research by the George Gallup organization has found an appalling deficit of basic knowledge of the Bible. In one national survey of teenagers, only 35 percent could name all four Gospels, 44 percent did not know how many disciples Jesus had, and 29 percent did not even know what religious event is celebrated at Easter. The future of mainline Protestantism may well depend on its ability to correct the failure this represents.

In light of this reality, I want to make a case for the place of catechism in Paula’s postmodern world. I will not argue that catechism alone will solve the church’s problems. But it is a symbolic point of reform.

The practice of catechetical instruction that emerged out of the Reformation of the 16th century was shaped by two different strands of thought. One was theological and rested on the Reformers’ convictions about the nature and purpose of the church. The other was educational and grew out of the reforms being instituted by the Renaissance humanists of that era.

The influence of the humanistic educational program on the Reformers is not always recognized. Even a cursory glance, however, at the curriculums of John Calvin’s academy in Geneva and Johannes Sturm’s in Strasbourg reveals its impact. In today’s language, we would call this a "great books" or classical approach to education. Education focused on the study of classic texts that represent authoritative models of good speech and writing. Students internalized these models through imitation and practice. Recitation, for example. was widely used, placing emphasis on memorization and imitation and not on personal creativity.

Drawing on the humanists’ assumptions about teaching and learning, the Reformers viewed the catechism as a kind of classic text to be internalized through imitation and practice. The close association of catechetical instruction with humanistic education has led many educators to question the value of this practice throughout the modern period. At a later point we will take up the continuing validity of this critique.

The Reformers’ theological convictions about the nature and purpose of the church led them to stress the importance of baptismal catechesis in congregational life. Baptismal catechesis had been an important part of the adult catechumenate in the first centuries of the church’s life but had fallen on hard times during the Middle Ages. Martin Luther aimed to rectify this situation.

Luther created a new genre, the catechism, which brought together in a single book the traditional material covered by baptismal catechesis: the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed and the Lord’s Prayer, plus teaching on the sacraments. He ordered this material in a manner that reflected his convictions about the Christian life: first the law (Ten Commandments), then the gospel (Apostles’ Creed), and finally the life of gratitude and dependence on God (Lord’s Prayer). Luther also inaugurated a program of catechetical instruction which he located between the baptism of infants and their later admission to the Lord’s Supper. Teaching of the catechism was to take place in a number of settings: home, school, university and congregation. Teaching in the congregation often included preaching on the catechism during Lent and special catechism classes for children offered by the minister. Following successful mastery of the catechism, children confessed for themselves the faith it represented as part of a special service in which they were admitted to the Lord’s Supper.

The other Reformers followed Luther’s lead, writing their own catechisms and making catechetical instruction an important part of congregational life in virtually every part of the reform movement. Why did they believe this practice was so important? There were three reasons. First, they believed that persons baptized as infants should be given the opportunity to confess the baptismal faith for themselves. They rejected any notion of an "implicit faith"—the acceptance of beliefs on the authority of the church hierarchy. Second, their commitment to Luther’s theological concept of the priesthood of all believers (or its equivalent) led them to view catechetical instruction as a way of equipping the laity to take up the ministries that were properly theirs, providing them with the biblical and theological knowledge necessary to this task.

Finally, the Reformers viewed catechetical instruction as a prerequisite to the mature exercise of individual conscience in pursuit of Christian vocation in the world. By loosening the hold of the medieval penitential system, the Reformers created a space in which Christians were free to follow the dictates of their own conscience. The church’s task was to nurture the conscience of its members in ways that taught them how to seek the mind of Christ in the concrete circumstances of their lives.

The sequence of infant baptism, catechetical instruction and then admission to the Lord’s Table provided a structure for education that dominated most Protestant churches from the Reformation period through the 19th century. It was gradually weakened, however, by a series of challenges in the modern period. The earliest of these was the Enlightenment’s critique of dogmatic authority. In some corners, teaching of the catechism came to be viewed as the epitome of authoritarian indoctrination. More important in the U.S. was the challenge of the Sunday school movement. Lay-led and evangelical in its theology, this parachurch movement came to shape congregational life over the course of the 19th century and pushed. catechetical instruction into a secondary position.

By the turn of the 20th century, moreover, the language of the catechisms seemed increasingly archaic; and questions were being raised about the viability of the theology expressed in the catechisms. Many Presbyterians, for example, no longer found the standard Calvinist teachings on double predestination and limited atonement compelling, and efforts were made to alter the Westminster Shorter Catechism to reflect a "modern" point of view.

Despite these challenges, the pattern of infant baptism/catechetical instruction/admission to the Lord’s Table remained intact through the first two decades of the 20th century by way of "communicants’ classes" or confirmation programs. But these programs were undermined by two further developments. The first was the rise of modern educational and psychological theory that attacked the basic assumptions of the humanistic education program with which catechetical instruction had long been associated. Briefly put, these emerging fields placed far more emphasis on the active role of the learner in the construction of knowledge and advocated a teaching style that was oriented toward the emerging experience of the child. The text-based methods of humanistic education, which stressed internalizing classic modes of speaking and writing, were portrayed as antichild and authoritarian. Leading voices of the Religious Education Association, established in 1903, were deeply influenced by this critique and began to assail catechetical instruction on exactly these grounds.

A second, more recent development was the decision by most Protestant denominations practicing infant baptism to admit children to the Lord’s Table by virtue of their baptism. This decision disrupted the logic of the older paradigm in which special classes to introduce baptized children to the basic beliefs of the baptismal faith were viewed as a prerequisite to admission.

While some denominations, most notably the Lutheran, continued to offer catechetical instruction as part of their confirmation program, there has been a steady decline in this practice. Annual sales of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, for example, was 130,000 in 1892 but declined to 22,200 by 1938. The decline has continued over the course of this century.

How, in the face of this sustained critique of catechetical instruction, can I advocate its revival? I have three reasons, each of which is directly related to the context faced by Paula and other young people growing up in a postmodern world.

The Reformers’ vision of the church, which led them to establish the practice of catechetical instruction, remains valid in our context. The three theological convictions informing the Reformers’ commitment to catechetical instruction are more important than ever to our efforts to preach and teach the gospel to the Paulas in our midst.

We, too, need to make sure those baptized as infants are given the opportunity to claim the baptismal faith at some point in their lives. Two factors have made this more difficult in our postmodern world: the emergence of a new stage in the lifecycle, adolescence, which focuses on issues of identity formation; and the reality of massive cultural pluralism. Paula faces the task of choosing the faith as never before. She stands in need of an intellectually challenging presentation of the gospel that requires her to think about the faith in a rigorous manner.

We, too, need to empower the laity to view themselves as engaged in ministry and provide them with an adequate biblical and theological vocabulary to envision what this entails. Paula is growing up in a world in which she must master multiple vocabularies and roles located in many different life spheres: the business world, science, the political arena, therapeutic relationships and leisure activities. It is common for the language and values of one sphere to "colonize" others. How can we bemoan the fact that Paula is likely to draw on the expressive values of youth culture or on the languages of therapy and the marketplace to construe the role of religion in her life when we have not given her the opportunity to build an equally powerful theological vocabulary?

We, too, need to nurture and support maturity of individual conscience in the pursuit of worldly vocation. It will not be obvious to Paula that the church has anything to do with her life at school, her political commitments and her career aspirations. The church needs to provide Paula with theological and ethical concepts that stretch beyond the private sphere and provide her with real support in linking faith to life in a postmodern world.

The Reformers’ vision of the nature and purpose of life remains as valid today as ever. In order for it to become a reality in congregations, it may well be that new forms of catechetical instruction will have to be devised. It is not difficult to imagine a catechism for children teaching them the biblical narrative and helping them construct a sense of the whole that goes beyond the bits and pieces of scripture which they typically are taught. Nor is it difficult to imagine new forms of catechetical instruction in conjunction with confirmation, new members classes and officer training. There is no reason that the internalization approaches of humanistic education cannot be replaced by forms of teaching consistent with the best contemporary research on human development and learning.

The massive shift in the ecology of education in the 20th century has made it more important than ever for congregations to teach their members the basic theological and ethical concepts of the Christian faith. It is useful to recall a simple fact: in years past, much Christian education, including the teaching of the catechism, took place in a wide range of institutions: the home, common school, congregation and university. This is no longer the case.

The church can no longer take it for granted that many institutions are working together to teach the faith to persons like Paula. Indeed, the opposite is often the case. If Paula follows the pattern of the average American child, she will watch 30 hours of television a week and, by the age of 12, will have viewed on TV approximately 100,000 violent episodes and 13,000 people violently destroyed. At her public school, she will receive no Christian education and little moral education. If she follows trends found in every major study of higher education since the 1950s, Paula’s experience of college will have a secularizing impact on her faith, mediating the intellectual relativism and cultural eclecticism that is so much a part of her postmodern world.

Not only must churches assume more of the teaching once performed by other institutions, but they must do so in the face of an increasingly hostile and seductive environment. How can they compete with MTV? Perhaps they should not try. Perhaps the shallowness of the surrounding culture is best exposed by a faith community of moral, spiritual and intellectual depth. Teaching people to think out of a theological tradition, which catechetical instruction at its best should do, is only one small step toward this kind of community. But it is a starting point, especially if viewed as part of a broader effort by the church to establish disciplines and practices which foster a clearer sense of its identity and mission.

We have good reason to rethink the criticism of catechetical instruction issued by early 20th-century education theorists. The critique of catechisms, as noted above, went hand in hand with a critique of the humanistic educational program with which it was closely associated. Modern educational theory advocated experiential, interactive forms of education. This theoretical turn was widely accepted by the leading figures of the mainline’s teaching ministry—academics, denominational leaders and curriculum writers alike. How well has the church fared under this modern approach? After almost a century of experiential religious education, with its heavy emphasis on process over content, personal creativity over communal identity, and emergent experience over biblical-theological knowledge, it is safe to say that the members of mainline Protestant churches know less about the faith, are more tenuously committed to the church, and are less equipped to make an impact on the surrounding world than they were at the turn of the century.

Recent research in cognitive psychology and communication studies have called into question many of the assumptions on which modern education has been based. It has made it clear, for example, that an emphasis on process over content is grounded in a false dichotomy. Internalizing the language, concepts and communicative norms of a particular field is crucial to the development of competencies in that field (see, for example, P. N. Johnson-Laird, Mental Models: Towards a Cognitive Science of Language, Inference, and Consciousness [Harvard University Press, 19831 and George Lakoff, Women, Fire and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal about the Mind [University of Chicago Press, 1987]). To put it simply, you cannot think, speak or act unless you have something to think, speak and act with. Unless explicit attention is given to the acquisition of biblical and theological knowledge, the members of the church will not be capable of using the faith to interpret their lives or their world. They will employ concepts from other areas of life in which they do have competence.

Moreover, recent research by Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner has devastated the optimistic assumptions of modern developmental psychology which has set the terms for much modern educational theory (see Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences [Basic Books, 1983] and The Unschooled Mind: How Children Think and How Schools Should Teach [Basic Books, 1991]). Drawing on metaphors of organic growth, modern educational theory has tended to portray development as something that unfolds naturally if the environment provides the right nurture. In the theories of Jean Piaget and Lawrence Kohlberg, for example, the "higher" stages of cognitive and moral reasoning are thought to provide the human organism with greater adaptive competence.

Gardner, in contrast, has found that development is not a natural process. His research has shown the continuing power of the "unschooled mind" of the five-to-seven-year-old child. People who have achieved a high degree of cognitive sophistication in one domain may make use of relatively simple cognitive strategies in other areas or may resort to such strategies when taken out of contexts with which they are familiar. Students who are capable of writing highly complex papers about World War I, for example, may resort to the level of a Star Wars script when describing the 0. J. Simpson trials. Development does not come naturally or easily. It requires the ongoing support of communities that encourage rigorous, complex thinking in order to offset the continuing lure of the unschooled mind.

This is as true of the theological thinking of faith communities as it is of the thinking of political and scientific communities. Without exposure to practices that help people develop a solid biblical and theological foundation and which encourage them to develop their capacities to think ethically and theologically, the unschooled mind of the child will pull Christian communities and individuals toward simplistic understandings of the faith. Our postmodern world has more than enough of this sort of thinking. It needs mainline Protestantism to provide an alternative.

Such is the case for catechism. This is not a call for a repristinization of past practice. Rather, it is a call for mainline Protestantism to be self-critical about the present state of its teaching ministry and to retrieve what is usable from the past while drawing on the best of contemporary research. Teaching of the catechism is not a cure for the ills currently besetting the church, but it can represent the starting point of a movement toward reforms that are desperately needed.