What are Catechisms?


The word catechism comes from the Greek word κατηχέω (Katecheo; Strong’s G2727), meaning “to instruct” or “to teach”. Catechisms are used primarily in reference to teaching Christian doctrine, although they may be used in other contexts.1

Κατηχέω is used several times in the Greek New Testament:

  • Luke 1:4 (ESV) – that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught
  • Acts 18:25 (ESV) – He had been instructed in the way of the Lord. And being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John.
  • Acts 21:21 (ESV) – and they have been told about you that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or walk according to our customs.
  • Acts 21:24 (ESV) – take these men and purify yourself along with them and pay their expenses, so that they may shave their heads. Thus all will know that there is nothing in what they have been told about you, but that you yourself also live in observance of the law.
  • Romans 2:18 (ESV) – and know his will and approve what is excellent, because you are instructed from the law
  • 1 Corinthians 14:19 (ESV) – Nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue.
  • Galatians 6:6 (ESV) – One who is taught the word must share all good things with the one who teaches.

Two related topic are creeds and confessions. Creeds tend to be short and are a summary of what a person believes. Because they’re short, creeds teach the essentials of faith, and may not touch on issues that are controversial among Christians. The Apostle’s Creed, written prior to the First Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325, is probably the most famous creed

  • I believe in God, the Father almighty,
  • creator of heaven and earth.
  • I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.
  • He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit
  • and born of the virgin Mary.
  • He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
  • was crucified, died, and was buried.
  • He descended to the dead.
  • On the third day he rose again.
  • He ascended into heaven,
  • and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
  • He will come again to judge the living and the dead.
  • I believe in the Holy Spirit,
  • the holy catholic Church,
  • the communion of the saints,
  • the forgiveness of sins,
  • the resurrection of the body,
  • and the life everlasting. Amen.

Confessions are usually longer than creeds and are often specific to a denomination. These address more issues such as: unitarian vs. trinitarian, infant baptism, predestination and communion/eucharist.

Catechisms try to balance the short statements in creeds with the deeper theology in confessions, often by using a question-and-answer format (although some catechisms have very long answers). The teacher (or master) uses questions to prompt the student (or supplicant) to remember the answer. Not all catechisms use the question-and-answer format, so the differences between creeds, confessions and catechisms are not sharply defined. All three use Biblical passages to teach doctrine, and often confessions and catechisms are published with scripture references, so the student can independently verify the answers are Biblical.

Creeds, confessions and catechisms have been used since the early days of the Church. The question-and-answer format became popular by Martin Luther, when he wrote the Small Catechism in 1529, as part of the Protestant Reformation. Luther’s goal was to provide short teachings to theological ideas, particularly for children to memorize. Luther’s Large Catechism was written the same year, but it is not in a question-and-answer format. The Protestant Reformation, and Luther’s Small Catechism in particular, was the catalyst for the release of many catechisms. Luther and other reformers wanted to clearly teach the doctrines where there was disagreement with the Roman Catholic Church; the Catholic Church also uses catechisms to teach doctrine refuting the differing beliefs of Protestants.

Some catechisms are named after the author, some named after the place they were written, while others are named after the church or denomination. I found several lists of catechisms, but wasn’t able to find out much information about many of them. Here’s a compilation of the lists I found, with links to some of them.

Footnotes

  1. An example of a non-religious catechism used in fiction is in the Sherlock Holmes story The Musgrave Ritual:

    • Whose was it? His who is gone.
    • Who shall have it? He who will come.
    • What was the month? The sixth from the first.
    • Where was the sun? Over the oak.
    • Where was the shadow? Under the elm.
    • How was it stepped? North by ten and by ten, east by five and by five, south by two and by two, west by one and by one, and so under.
    • What shall we give for it? All that is ours.
    • Why should we give it? For the sake of the trust.

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