Experimental Catechesis

The news of the gospel allies teaming up with Tim Keller to produce a catechism is a target too big to miss. Given the urban hipster brand of TKNY, one can only wonder if the catechism (which is supposed to include material from the older catechisms) will have Q&A’s like this:

Q. What is the chief end of man?
A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him hedonistically, especially in the city.

Q. How does God execute his decrees?
A. God executes his decrees in the works of creation, providence, and urbanism.

You get the point.

Keller’s own explanation for the import of catechesis, however, did not produce laughs but did cause some head scratching. He begins with a Jeremiah-like lament:

The church in Western culture today is experiencing a crisis of holiness. To be holy is to be “set apart,” different, living life according to God’s Word and story, not according to the stories that the world tells us are the meaning of life.

This is a curious way to begin for someone whose church has been such a booster of a city not exactly known for its restraint and modesty. If you wanted to be holy, you might pick a different city — say, Toledo — in which to live and minister. Granted, New Yorkers also need to be holy. But the pro-city rhetoric of Keller and Redeemer PCA has not echoed Tertullian, as in what has Jerusalem to do with Athens? Instead, the refrain has been more like how can Athens embody Jerusalem.

When Keller turns to his brief for catechesis he invokes the sort of experiential piety that Old Lifers have long associated with New Life Presbyterianism.

Catechesis is an intense way of doing instruction. The catechetical discipline of memorization drives concepts in deep, encouraging meditation on truth. It also holds students more accountable to master the material than do other forms of education.

Truth be told, catechesis can actually be dull, tedious, and hard. And the results of mastering the doctrines taught in the answers will not necessarily be immediate. If you carry around the truths long enough, you may begin to see their significance. But just like the process of learning the difference between the nominative and accusative cases in Greek grammar seems pedantic until the student goes farther in reading and even writing (as is the case with grammar instruction more generally), so to the doctrinal grammar of the catechism will likely strike many students as boring. The new case for catechesis really should set expectations at the right level.

Keller appeals to another warm and fuzzy reason for catechesis when he writes:

Catechesis is also different from listening to a sermon or lecture—or reading a book—in that it is deeply communal and participatory. The practice of question-answer recitation brings instructors and students into a naturally interactive, dialogical process of learning.

Again, I wonder if Keller is getting catechumens’ hopes unrealistically up. Communal and participatory is not what comes to mind when I think of taking out my Shorter Catechism pocket cards while I was out walking and memorizing the catechism. “Deeply” communal and participatory produces a giggle. Of course, catechesis done in a certain environment could turn out to be communal and participatory. But the catechism itself won’t do this. It will require a pastor, elders, parents and teachers creating settings that may have such qualities.

And if that’s the case, if the deeply communal nature of catechesis depends more on the environment than the catechism itself, then I sure hope the gospel allies are going to provide a manual that describes wall colors, carpeting or wood floor covering, lighting options, room temperatures (radiators or forced air?), seating arrangements, and which cookies are best dunked in milk to go with the topic of baptism. Call it New Measures Catechesis (and hear John Williamson Nevin’s bones rattling around in his grave).

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  1. mark mcculley
    Posted October 17, 2012 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

    question 25, keller’s new catechism—Christ’s death on the cross fully paid the penalty for our sin,

    The “our” being all sinners, since the catechism says Christ died so people “can be” saved. What Arminian could object to that? There is no idea of God having imputed the sins of the elect alone to Christ or of the justice of God demanding the salvation of all the elect. The idea of election is reduced to that which enables the elect to believe the Arminian proposal.

    So do I care which “covenantal theology” Tim Keller believes in? Does he agree with John Fesko or with Peter Leithart? With Kline or Shepherd?With Mark Karlberg or Richard Gaffin? With John Murray or Herman Hoeksema? Of course if you are naive enough to think that all “covenantal theology” is pretty much the same, with only minor discontinuities, then you might also believe that all the covenants in the Bible are not only pretty much the same but exactly add up to one.

  2. Donald Philip Veitch
    Posted October 17, 2012 at 9:49 pm | Permalink


    What’s with the new gig over catechesis with the T4G crowd? Were their leaders reared on the old catechisms? What about Tim Keller? Are they new joins and–now–advocates of what we’ve known for so long?

    Catechism is hard work.

    Case in point. Some facts: (1) my nephew, Benjamin Robert Veitch, age 19, died in July 2012, (2) the family, or my brother’s family, lives in/near Detroit, (3) my own family lives at Camp Lejeune and we travelled 868 miles for the funeral in MI, (4) two days ago, my brother, sister-in-law, and their three daughters, were “getting away” for “some time together” in VA BCH, VA, about 4 hours north. (5) they called and wanted to stop in, and (6) we had 24 hour notice.

    Things got real real fast. Three hours of queries on the theology of life and death. I was not anticipating it. But, we covered about every loci of systematics and Biblical theology, as their insistence. They questions were non-stop. It paid or pays to have one’s catechisms ingested and digested by way of study and prayer. Nothing new for old school Churchmen. Although schooled principally in the Westminster standards and “that old Prayer Book,” the Heidelberg Catechism worked particularly well, including a review of Baptismal promises and more…including the Apostles’ and Nicene Creed. It was like the years of study and reading “zeroed” in for those three crucial hours of tear-filled and faith-filled questions with my brother, sister-in-law, and nieces.

    Tim and T4G offers little on this subject insofar as I can see. The old school ways still obtain and work.

    The prayer we closed with was informed by the old Prayer Book, not some wing-it-as-you-go-enthusiasm, but as shaped by Biblical phrases and important petitions…petitions forged by solid minds through the centuries.

    Enough said. I hope Tim is requiring catechetical memory work from the WSC for children and WLC for teens, collegians and young adults.

    Nuff said, but T4G offers little for old schoolers. I take leave of the issue and this affiant avers nothing further.


  3. mark mcculley
    Posted October 17, 2012 at 11:13 pm | Permalink

    “Jonathan Edwards, in his Religious Affections, argues that belief and behavior are inextricably linked and that any failures in Christians are due to unbelief. The antidote to unbelief is a fresh telling of the gospel.” Tim Keller, Preaching for Effect


  4. mark mcculley
    Posted October 17, 2012 at 11:17 pm | Permalink

    Keller: “It has been said that the heart is not so much the center of emotions as it is the control center of one’s personality, where you make your decisions and decide on the direction of your life. No one expounded this in greater detail than Jonathan Edwards, and one of his most enduring contributions is his Religious Affections. Instead of accepting the typical Western division of will versus emotions, Edwards gave a more central place to the heart and spoke of the heart’s “affections,” by which he meant “the inclination of the soul” to like or dislike, to love or reject. The affections are, of course, related to emotions, but they are not the same thing. For example, we feel the emotion of anger when we are insulted, because we have set our affections too fully on our own reputation, human acclaim, or approval. The affections are what Edwards called the most ”vigorous and sensible exercises” of the heart; and in the Bible true religious affections are called the “fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22-26). Edwards’s contribution is especially important regarding the unity of the faculties. He refused to pit one’s understanding and one’s affections against each other. Gracious affections are raised up only when a person has a spiritual understanding of the true nature of God. In other words, if a person says, “I know God cares for me, but I am still paralyzed by fear,” Edwards would reply that you don’t really know that God cares for you, or the affection of confidence and hope would be rising within you.”

  5. Posted October 18, 2012 at 10:02 am | Permalink

    This thread has probably lost some steam, but I read through the catechism quickly yesterday (yes, on my iphone, during a Classis meeting… you can do that when a catechism only has 52 questions), and these were my thoughts:

    1. I slowed the jerk of my knee by reflecting on a recent article I wrote on “Catechisms in the Reformed Tradition.” There were north of 1,000 arguably Reformed catechisms written between 1550 and 1700, say, and there were a lot of local and congregational catechisms. So there’s nothing wrong with a local and particular catechism. So there’s nothing wrong with writing a new catechism.

    2. Why 52 questions? Heidelberg was divided into Lord’s Days post facto, and it’s not like this catechism is going to be preached through an annual cycle. It forces odd, artificial groups of the ten commandments, and over brief treatments of other topics. Dumbing down of catechesis.

    3. Despite obvious abundant debt to Heidelberg, the means of grace are decimated, perhaps the biggest, glaring change in the catechism’s teaching of salvation. “sacraments or ordinances” are portrayed as “signs and seals” in a Zwinglian and “communal” sense. Ugh. This is what happens when you write a least-common denominator catechism for use by Baptists and Presbybaptists alike.

    4. But of course, the vast majority of these catechisms weren’t adopted as confessional statements, or forms of unity. So here you have a least-common-denominator, less than merely Reformed catechism written for instructional purposes which is insufficient to be a truly Reformed symbol… yet is no doubt intended to supplant the current instructional use of symbolic catechisms (WSC, HC).

    5. Is this a rejoinder to the argument that:

    Q: But Redeemer isn’t CONFESSIONALLY Reformed.

    A: Yes we are… haven’t you seen our catechism?

    I don’t mean to ascribe cynicism or polemicism to the GC folks… there is a much more functional argument for how you get to this point. “Hey, isn’t catechesis neat… too bad all the good catechisms divide baptist and Reformed folks. Let’s write a new one that gets rid of this distinction.”

  6. Creediii
    Posted October 18, 2012 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

    I understand your reservations about Keller and his catechis – I share them! – but what do you think of John Piper’s efforts? http://www.desiringgod.org/about/our-distinctives/our-beliefs/a-baptist-catechism

  7. Posted October 18, 2012 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    Creediii, a quick glance reveals that Piper’s catechism is much more substantial, which makes it inappropriate for the Gospel Coalition. Does that make Keller Piper-lite?

  8. mark mcculley
    Posted October 18, 2012 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

    John Calvin–“We have professed faith in God alone, not in Athanasius, whose creed has not been adopted by any properly constituted church.”, quoted in Warfield, Calvin and Augustine, p209

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