12.22.2009

On CATECHISM Preaching

The other day I was reading R.L. Dabney's little book called Evangelical Eloquence: A Course of Lectures on Preaching. Dabney wrote something that I found interesting with regard to catechism preaching. He writes,

But I would argue that the expository method (understood as that which explains extended passages of Scripture in course) be restored to that equal place which it held in the primitive and Reformed Churches...But the course of sermons on the Confession would still be inferior to the course of sermons on the Bible, because the latter gives us God's infallible arrangement, natural, historical and germinant, which the former gives us man's.

In the church in which I grew up (CRC) and the one in which I now preach (URC), it is customary to preach a catechism sermon from the Three Forms of Unity once a Lord's Day--typically the PM service. Over the years I have heard this done in various ways. Some did this very well, preaching with enthusiasm and excitement over Biblical truth (such enthusiasm is infectious by the way), but, on the other hand, some of the catechism preaching that I have been exposed to seemed more appropriate for the lecture hall than the pulpit. The results didn't help the matter. After the service, it was painful to hear more discussion over the milk prices and the weather, than the Word of God.

It's easy, of course, to blame the state of the listener, especially if tolerance for the sermon length has come to be measured by the intake of Wilhemena mints. But let's not pass the blame too quickly. The kind of catechism preaching that some are exposed to does not always drive the hearer to a proper response. It's not too hard to figure out why. In my experience, typically, the minister would invite the congregation to read with him a few verses of the Bible, and as soon as he had finished reading, it sounded like a bowling-alley throughout the sanctuary. All the Bibles went back into the pew as we were then invited to turn to the back of the Psalter-Hymnal to the catechism, and for the next thirty-five minutes or so the Minister expounded the LD, rarely again making a reference to the Bible. Dabney cautions that highly doctrinal preaching, done in the manner described above, tends to cultivate an antinomian spirit within the congregation.

My main concern here is how best can we honor this practice of catechetical preaching while ensuring that we are instilling a love for God's Word in our hearers. The practice itself has found warrant in much of the Dutch Reformed tradition based on the premise that the confessions are summary statements of Biblical doctrine. Such a practice is justified precisely because there is no dichotomy between the Bible and the confessions. Simply put, since the catechism is Biblical truth it is legitimate to preach these truths in a systematic way.

In terms of the application of this principle, some believe quite strongly that fidelity to the tradition is to preach the catechism itself (Catechism-Text Method). Others I know in URC churches believe that the adopted practice of Reformed churches has always been to preach the Bible and employ the catechism for clarity purposes in defining what we mean when we confess certain doctrines (Bible-Text Method). Both methods follow the course of the fifty-two Lord Days, but the latter is more concerned to communicate that what is being preached is God's Word and not a subordinate document.

In light of this discussion, I believe Dabney makes an interesting point, namely, that all catechism preaching is de facto inferior to expository preaching because the form of the catechism is man's. In other words, the Bible gives us even an inspired form but the catechism does not. Dabney writes, "What can one expect save a cluster of ruse, shapeless indentations rather than the symmetrical imprint of the Redeemer's beauteous image on the soul?"

So, what do you think of Dabney's point here? Is it valid? If so, does it require the Bible-text method over the Catechism-Text Method? Just some questions that came into my mind as I was reading this fine volume on preaching.

CJG



10 comments:

  1. Chris, our consistory has studied this over the last few years, and have settled on what I believe is a satisfying solution. A thumbnail description: we start with the premise that the catechism is the preaching text. Thus, the structure and content of the Lord's Day Q&A provide the general structure and content of the sermon. However, under each point of the sermon, we *require* exposition of a sufficient number of biblical text(s) to bring forth and support the truth of the catechism doctrine being preached. In this fashion, we avoid setting confessional preaching in opposition to biblical exposition, but rather honor what we believe to be the harmony of catechism preaching with Scriptural exposition.

    P.S... it's Wilhemena peppermints :-)

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  2. Hi Mark, thanks for the interaction. What you describe here is something that I commonly do. Interacting with Dabney's point, though, I think this approach still leaves us to preach the form of the catechism. But it is equally a struggle to try and make a LD fit a particular passage if one chooses to follow the form of the text. This is just the challenge of our Reformed "topical" way of preaching. It's not necessarily a bad thing, actually, it provides for ready-made sermon outlines. But I think your description does answer my main concern, namely, that we demonstrate a serious interaction/exposition of the Word in every sermon. I admit, I am a bit reactive to the method I described in the post--it never seemed to draw any sincere response in the hearer. Thanks!
    BTW--Wilehema?--I should have known that, it's fixed.

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  3. Hi Chris,

    I think we need to be careful of pitting the two methods against one another and ruling out the possibility of a synthesis of the two. Personally, I use the Catechism as an outline, but take care that nearly everything I say is biblically supported in an explicit way. When I announce what the text will be, I say something like, "Our text is the truth of God's Word as it's been summarized by the church in Lord's Day x." I've become increasingly convinced that our congregations should never get the idea that our catechism preaching is not the preaching of the Word of God. I think I may have picked that up from discussions with some preacher in Lynden. :-)

    However, at the same time, we should never be ashamed to mention our confessions and interact with them from the pulpit. They are the church's confessions and if the church can't mention her confessions, there's got to be a problem.

    I would also add that there are dozens of ways to creatively (yet faithfully)approach each Lord's Day of the Catechism. Years ago, the Reformed churches would publish collections of catechism sermon sketches. Unfortunately, they're all in Dutch. But I have translated some of the themes and divisions at my resource website:

    http://yinkahdinay.wordpress.com/heidelberg-catechism-themes/

    I always find it helpful to reflect on what others have done as they've preached on the "Heidelberger."

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  4. Hi Wes, We need to talk to that guy in Lynden and get that straight. Just curious, though, what do you think of Dabney's point here? If I were set on the Catechism-text method, I am not quite sure how I would argue against his point.

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  5. Hi again,

    Sorry for taking some time to get back to you on this. But here's what I would say to the esteemed Mr. Dabney:

    What you say might very well hold true for the Westminster Shorter and Larger Catechisms (though Thomas Watson might disagree). They *are* largely arranged according to human wisdom, albeit wisdom informed by the Scriptures. However, Mr. Dabney, I wonder how familiar you are with the Heidelberg Catechism and its structure. The Heidelberg Catechism reflects God's infallible arrangement because it is deliberately modeled on the Epistle to the Romans (sin, salvation, service). So, not only is the content eminently biblical, so is the structure. Moreover, when we follow the Ten Commandments for several weeks, are we not following "God's infallible arrangement"? Isn't the same true when we follow the Lord's Prayer for several weeks? So, even if you aren't convinced by the overall structure, for at least 18 Sundays through the Catechism we are in fact following "God's infallible arrangement." That has to count for something, no?

    I don't think your argument can really be applied to those of us in Reformed churches which trace their heritage to the continent.

    Historically speaking, I don't think your argument holds water either. Bullinger's Decades would be a prime example of preaching in the early Reformed churches which was doctrinal and which didn't expressly follow "God's infallible arrangement" of the matter of Scripture.

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  6. Hi Wes,

    Thanks for the helpful answer. I don't think, however, Mr Dabney was thinking of the Presbyterian Reformed tradition only when he made this statement. "Does anyone ever hear of an instance where one of these preachers has faithfully carried his charge though the Confession of faith, or any similar didactic summary, in a series of doctrinal sermons. NO...A prime object of pastoral teaching is to teach the people how to read the Bible for themselves. A sealed book cannot be interesting...Expository preaching is necessary to show them how truth affects truth, and how to connect the parts of their creed. We have found no better description of the preacher's work than that given by Nehemiah of Ezra's: he 'read in the book of the law of the Lord distinctively, and gave ther sense, and caused them to understand the reading.' Fragmentary preaching, however brilliant, will never do this. The pastor must teach his flock how to expound for themselves, by frequent practice in company with them."

    I am very fond of working though the course of the catechism in the PM service. I am called, as our (URCNA) church order says, to preach the "Word (emphasis here) as summarized in the three forms of unity." For me it's just more a matter of wisdom and prudence in how best to do this. That's all. I am not questioning the practice, as you seemed to suggest about that Lynden guy :)

    Keep in mind, we are from two different countries, and I'm Californian--probably considered by many to be a third country. I have seen the catechism-text method have painful results down there, and this didn't need to be so. Someone from Ontario, Canada, or Grand Rapids, MI, taking a call to So Cal. might want to think about how best to do this, right? Just some thoughts.

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  7. Hello Chris, thank you for posting this. I am new to Lynden and question why you would even preach from a non Biblical source? Why would we not just use the Bible?

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  8. Hi Jeff, welcome to Lynden! Come see us sometime, would love to chat more with you. CJG

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  9. Chris,
    Interesting discussion, but I would agree with Wes when he mentions that the two practices need not be pitted against each other. When I was in seminary, we had much debate between the URC and the Presbyterians about this topic. Even among URC, there was a debate whether or not the catechism could be the text.

    But, I wonder what you think about preaching through the other confessions. Is there a difference in preaching them than the H.C.?

    I hope all is well in Lynden and we need to have coffee again one of these days.

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  10. Hi Steve, thanks for the interaction, hope all is well with you too. I have preached through the Canons, and plan to the Belgic. But I always communicate to the congregation that what I am preaching is specifically a text from Scripture. I never give the impression that I am preaching one of our documents as something disconnected from the Scriptures. They may be Scriptural truth, but they still are subordinate documents, as our Belgic states. So I believe you need to be clear that what you are preaching is the inspired text, as our confessions provide a systematic/topical approach to cover the whole of Christian doctrine. Again, our CO says we are to preach the WORD as summarized in the Three Forms (emphasis on Word) Thanks

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