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Catechisms: A Guide to Faithful Bible Reading

Catechisms: A Guide to Faithful Bible Reading

Writing in his typical provocative fashion, Stanley Hauerwas begins his essay Taking the Bible Away from North American Christians with these words:

Most North American Christians assume that they have a right, if not an obligation, to read the Bible. I challenge that assumption. No task is more important than for the Church to take the Bible out of the hands of individual Christians in North America. Let us no longer give the Bible to all children when they enter the third grade or whenever their assumed rise to Christian maturity is marked, such as eight-grade commencements. Let us rather tell them and their parents that they are possessed by habits far too corrupt for them to be encouraged to read the Bible on their own.             

As the paragraph progresses, I can feel the blood pressure of Sola Scriptura affirming Christians rising. Is Hauerwas trying to take our Bibles away? Is he advocating some weird form of Medieval Methodism that would throws us back into the Dark Ages? A closer look reveals that Stanley might be cranky about Americans and their Bibles for good reason.

Me, Myself, and My Bible

I hope you read your Bible. In fact, if there's one sermon that's been preached at our church at least a hundred times, it's been the exhortation that God's people be diligent in their study of Scripture. As a pastor, few experiences give me greater joy than watching the Spirit ignite a hunger in God's people for pure, spiritual milk (1 Pet. 2:2). And, confessional Lutheran that I am, it's in my theological blood to affirm that "the Prophetic and Apostolic Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments [are] the pure, clear fountain of Israel, which is the only true standard by which all teachers and doctrines are to be judged" (FC SD, Rule and Norm, 3). But when the Reformers advocated their Scripture Alone stance, they were not suggesting that we read the Scriptures alone. They intended that we read the sacred pages of the Bible in company with the saints who have gone before us - Irenaeus, Athanasius, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, etc., rather than in the company of our own self-centered projects and American ideals. Hence, Hauerwas would take the Bible out of our hands, place the hand of our brother/sister in Christ in one hand, and the collective interpretive wisdom of the church in the other hand - and only then would he place the Bible open in our lap. Doing so keeps us from maligning the sacred text by reading it from the popular perspectives of Joel Osteen, Oprah Winfrey, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, or that ungodly trinity known as "me, myself, and I."

Alien Frameworks

We all run the risk of making the Bible mirror our own opinions and priorities. We can't escape the reality that we all approach the Bible with our own set of culturally conditioned frameworks for understanding and integrating the text on our own terms.

Robert Kolb puts it this way:

We think within a conceptual framework. This conceptual framework or set of presuppositions guides the way in which we understand and apply specific topics. This conceptual framework expresses our basic view of reality. It shapes the way we establish what questions about life are important, what answers about reality we need to have (The Christian Faith, pg. 15).

For example, if you attended more than a few school assemblies in your day - you know, the kind where a motivational speaker tells hyperactive third graders they can do anything they dream - then how might you approach the narrative of the underdog David meeting the overgrown Goliath as you encounter that text in third grade? You can identify with David - he's small and limited in power. You can also make a connection between Goliath and those "giants" that stand in the way of your future dream of becoming a major league baseball player. The interpretation and application are simple; if I trust God and do my best, I can overcome any giants that stand in the way of my dreams. The same principle works for adults too. Giants come in many forms - bad credit, a difficult boss, a car over 100,000 miles, or even a church that doesn't seem to be growing.

In the above scenario, the biblical text is being engaged, however, it gets assimilated into a preexisting framework that has more to do with the American dream than the kingdom of God. In other words, as Hauerwas says, we're possessed by habits (or frameworks) "far too corrupt" to read the Bible on our own. Very often these frameworks are even alien to the Biblical worldview itself.

Catechisms to the Rescue!

We need a better framework for understanding and assimilating the Scriptural narrative - a framework that reflects the sanctified ideals of the Holy Spirit rather than the misguided idolatries of our culture. Here enters the church's best interpretive guide to Scripture - catechisms. 

The church of God will never preserve itself without a catechism - John Calvin

A catechism is a teaching tool used by the church to instill the basic beliefs and habits of the Christian life into the hearts and minds of God's people. As Charles Arand writes:

In the catechism, the church has gathered the fundamental components of Scripture that go to the heart of defining what it means to be a Christian... the catechism deals with the formation of a Christian habitus of the mind and heart, which looks at life and lives[s] not from our perspective - that's philosophy - but from God's perspective - that's theology (That I May Be His Own, pgs. 27-28)

In short, catechisms introduce us to the world of the Bible and its view of reality. By way of a structured series of questions and answers, they orient our hearts and minds toward the "big picture" of the text before we navigate smaller sections of the divine narrative.

A Test Case - Moralistic Therapeutic Deism

The "corrupt habits" Hauerwas warned us against are readily observed in the smattering of pseudo-Christian beliefs labeled by sociologist Christian Smith as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD). This term is old news -it's been floating around the church for over a decade - but the presence of these beliefs are firmly rooted in the American religious mind, and likely will be for some time. Unlike biblical Christianity, MTD is not a coherent worldview. As Kenda Creasy Dean puts it in her book Almost Christian, MTD is more like a parasite. It cannot survive on its own, and so attaches itself to biblical Christianity until there's nothing biblical or Christian left - just a bland, generic "Christian-ish" religion. And very often this parasitic framework can attach itself to our Bible reading.

Christian Smith identified five key tenets of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. What happens when we bring the bland beliefs of MTD into direct confrontation with the rich orthodoxy of the Reformation catechisms? We're reoriented toward a faithful framework that interprets and integrates the Scriptures in agreement with the rule of faith found in the pages of Scripture. Below is a sampling of affirmations from three Reformation Catechisms - Luther's Small Catechism, The Heidelberg Catechism, and the Shorter Westminster Catechism - all of which stand in direct opposition to MTD, and thus sanctify our minds for faithful Bible reading.

MTD Belief #1 - A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.

I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary, is my Lord (LSC, The Second Article of the Creed)

Q. 4. What is God?
A. God is a spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth. (WSC)

MTD Belief #2 - God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.

We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things (LSC, First Commandment)

4. Q. What does God's law require of us? A. Christ teaches us this in a summary in Matthew 22: You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets. (HC)

MTD Belief # 3 - The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.

[He] redeemed me, a lost and condemned person... that I may be His own and live under Him in His kingdom (LSC - Second Article of the Creed)

Q. 1. What is the chief end of man?
A. Man's chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever. (WSC)

MTD Belief # 4 - God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.

I believe that God has made me and all creatures; that He has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my members, my reason and all my senses, and still takes care of them. He also gives me clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, wife and children, land, animals, and all I have. He richly and daily provides me with all that I need to support this body and life. (LSC - The First Article of the Creed)

Our Father, who art in heaven. What does this mean? With these words God tenderly invites us to believe that He is our true Father and that we are His true children, so that with all boldness and confidence we may ask Him as dear children ask their dear father. (LSC - The Lord's Prayer)

He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, all things must work together for my salvation. (HC, Q.1)

In Him I trust so completely as to have no doubt that He will provide me with all things necessary for body and soul,[4] and will also turn to my good whatever adversity He sends me in this life of sorrow. (HC, Q. 26)

MTD Belief # 5 - Good people go to heaven when they die.

I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith. (LSC - Third Article of the Creed)

Q. 33. What is justification?
A. Justification is an act of God's free grace, wherein he pardoneth all our sins, and accepteth us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone. (WSC)

62. Q. But why can our good works not be our righteousness before God, or at least a part of it? A. Because the righteousness which can stand before God's judgment must be absolutely perfect and in complete agreement with the law of God, whereas even our best works in this life are all imperfect and defiled with sin. (HC)

Can you see the difference? A careful comparison of these catechetical assertions with the watered down civil religion of MTD reveals an entirely different worldview - one that is is theocentric (God-centered) rather than anthropocentric (human-centered), and grace-centered rather than works-centered.

Use the Catechism as a Road Map

Going back to Hauerwas, I think he overstates his case. We should place the Bible in the hands of our young people as they grow up. But as we place the Bible in one hand, we should also place a catechism in the other. Doing so will instill a Spirit-filled framework for faithful Bible reading.

If you're a Christian of the Lutheran brand, make it a goal to study Luther's Small Catechism daily alongside your Scripture reading. In fact, you can even direct your prayer life according to it. This is essentially what Luther did when he wrote to his friend Peter the Barber in A Simple Way to Pray.

As parents, teach Luther's Small Catechism to your children as early as you can! Concordia Publishing puts out resources for young children (my seven year old and I have been using My First Catechism).

And pastors, try to tie in quotes from the catechism as you preach the biblical text. Doing so will help your people see the forest among the trees.

I must still read and study daily, and yet I cannot master it as I wish, but must remain a child and pupil
of the Catechism - Martin Luther

If you're a Christian from another theological camp, obviously I'm biased towards Luther's Small Catechism, but make it a goal to dig into the catechism behind your denomination's historic confession of faith. Doing so will draw you into the long theological conversation sustained in the Western catholic church. I can't agree with Westminster and Heidelberg on some detailed points, however, I find many of their affirmations moving. For example, I love the opening question and answer of Heidelberg:

What is your only comfort in life and death?                                                                              

That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ.

Words like these lead us to read the Bible the way it was meant to be read.

Pastor John Rasmussen

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