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‘Christianity is Taught Not Caught’

Category Articles
Date July 19, 2019

Today more than ever attention focusses on young people. Newspaper headlines of their activities feature everything from revolution to drugs, student sit-ins to the generation gap, hooliganism to hijacking. Not that the news media are unfair or disproportionate: in a year or two the average age in America will be twenty-four. Most of these young people will be educationally superior to their parents, and an alarming number will be morally weakened by drugs or drink or both. In spiritual matters the vast majority will be isolated and confused on account of a culpable neglect by church and home with regard to their upbringing. These are facts which the Christian Church has chosen to ignore for some considerable time, and the implications are disastrous.

What, then, constitutes a ‘Christian upbringing’? Attendance at Sunday worship, Sunday School, evangelistic campaigns, and youth rallies are part of contemporary evangelical culture. But it is open to question whether any of these, or even all of them together, constitute a biblically-grounded Christian upbringing. Their appeal is far too confined and their emphasis, all too often, is emotional and volitional rather than educational. Basically, they assume the presence of a Christian nurture. Consequently, the effect on evangelism is frustratingly demoralizing; on the young it is one of catastrophic disillusionment. Without a sound Christian nurture, the experience of conversion can be presented as degradingly inadequate, a kind of psychological relief from feelings of insecurity, dissatisfaction, or, for that matter, any ‘complex’ which happens to be fashionable among young people at the time.

The task of Christian nurture, then, is to provide children and young people with Biblical thought-forms, an intellectual framework which is Scripturally informed, so that the message will be neither meaningless nor misunderstood by its being presented on a different cultural wavelength. That they recognize the difference does not necessarily follow, and this fact accentuates the problem of communicating the Gospel to the teenage generation of today.

It may be hard to admit that ‘the problem of communication’ is not just the fantastic creation of liberal theologians. The fantasy arises in the synthetic solutions which non-biblical thinking proposes, such as modifying the message and relying on human ingenuity. From a consistently Biblical standpoint, the evangelical is bound to reject such superstitions. That is the negative contribution he makes, and it is a necessary one, although not always recognised or practised today. Positively, the answer lies in presenting the same message to this generation in terms it can understand, and doing so with unqualified dependence on the power of the Holy Spirit. As a direct contribution to bridging that gap between the message of the Gospel and this word­-conscious generation, the Bible advocates the fostering of a Christian nurture.

Basic to this important aspect of the Christian faith is the principle that ‘Christianity is taught and not caught.’ The Christian message comes to man through his mind, often buttressed by acts of kindness or a show of genuine friendship on the part of Christian contacts, but no less through the mind because of them. In their commendation of the Westminster Confession of Faith and its Catechisms ‘To the Christian reader, especially heads of families,’ the seventeenth-century Puritan divines put the matter this way:

The two great pillars upon which the kingdom of Satan is erected, and by which it is upheld, are ignorance and error; the first step of our manumission [liberation] from this spiritual thraldom consists in having our eyes opened, and being turned from darkness to light, Acts 26:18. The understanding is the guide and pilot of the whole man, that faculty which sits at the stern of the soul: but as the most expert guide may mistake in the dark, so may the understanding, when it wants the light of knowledge: without knowledge the mind cannot be good, Proverbs 19:2; nor the life good, nor the eternal condition safe, Ephesians 4:18.

In this ‘battle for the mind’ truth does not find virgin soil, a sort of no-man’s-land through which it can advance unopposed. Original sin involves men in delusion as well as darkness. In this holy war for man­’s soul there is no neutrality. This makes a Christian nurture doubly necessary, as the same divines insist:

Corrupt and unsavoury principles have great advantage upon us, above those that are spiritual and sound; the former being suitable to corrupt nature, the latter contrary; the former springing up of themselves, the latter brought forth not without a painful industry. The ground needs no other midwifery in bringing forth weeds than only the neglect of the husbandman’s hand to pluck them up; the air needs no other cause of darkness than the absence of the sun; nor water of coldness than its distance from the fire; because these are the genuine products of nature.

What another Puritan, Richard Baxter, summed up neatly in the phrase, ‘Ignorance is your disease, knowledge must be your cure,’ his Westminster colleagues expound more fully: ‘A most sovereign antidote against all kind of errors, is to be grounded and settled in the faith: persons unfixed in the true religion, are very receptive of a false; and they who are nothing in spiritual knowledge, are easily made anything. Clouds without water are driven to and fro with every wind, and ships without ballast liable to the violence of every tempest. But yet the knowledge we especially commend, is not a brain-knowledge, a mere speculation; this may be in the worst of men; but an inward, a savoury, an heart knowledge, such as was in that martyr, who, though she could not dispute for Christ, could die for him.’

Here was the excellence of Christian nurture: under the blessing of God it led to saving knowledge of Christ. The work is initiated in the mind, it carries the day over the will, and brings delight to the affections. The quotation highlights what has come to be called ‘Pre-evangelism’, which is merely a modern term for the more traditional phrase ‘Christian nurture’. Be that as it may, the neglect of it has had seriously detrimental effects on twentieth-century Christianity.

Responsibility for Christian nurture falls upon two important agencies: the family and the church. It is not difficult to trace the Biblical basis for this essential ministry, indeed Scripture abounds with references to the vital task of Christian nurture, an indication of the solemnity and magnitude with which it was regarded in Biblical times. Abraham’s blessing was assured because God had every confidence ‘that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the Lord, to do justice and judgment; that the Lord may bring upon Abraham that which he hath spoken of him.’ (Gen. 18:19). By way of contrast Eli was reprehensible for the neglect of this ordinance: ‘I have told him that I will judge his house for ever for the iniquity which he knoweth; because his sons made themselves vile, and he restrained them not.’ (1 Sam. 3:13).

Religious nurture was recognised practice in the Jewish Church. The Passover was to be commemorated not only by festival, but also by instruction, Exodus 12:26-27, ‘when your children shall say unto you, what mean ye by this service ?. . . ye shall say, It is the sacrifice of the Lord’s Passover.’ The grand body of the law, as well as its introduction, was to be rehearsed to the children, Deuteronomy 4:9, ‘keep thy soul diligently, lest thou forget the things which thine eyes have seen, and lest they depart from thy heart all the days of thy life: but teach them thy sons.’ Especially solemn was the recital (twice daily by pious Jews) of the ‘Shema’, Deuteronomy 6:4, solemnly concluding with the injunction, ‘These words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart: and thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children.’ The practice found expression in the conviction of Proverbs 22:6, ‘Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it.’

Coming to New Testament times, two notable instances of religious upbringing are Paul, Acts 22:3 (‘I am verily a man which am a Jew. . . nurtured according to the perfect manner of the law of the fathers’), and Timothy, who ‘from a child’ had known the holy Scriptures (2 Tim. 3:15) which had brought him to the same ‘unfeigned faith. . . which dwelt first in thy grandmother Lois, and thy mother Eunice’ (2 Tim. 1:5).

 In the New Testament the classical text on the subject is Ephesians 6:4, where the word ‘nurture’ is given by the translators for a Greek word meaning education and training by discipline, ‘Ye fathers, provoke not your children to wrath, but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.’ Linked with it is a word which denotes training by word of encouragement or reproof, as the case may be. The elements of education and discipline are prominent, as can be seen from the use of the former word in Hebrews 12:5, ‘My son, despise not the chastening of the Lord.’ Both home and church are to be schools of Christ where he exercises discipline by word (instruction) and act (chastisement). For the purpose of ‘nurture in righteousness’, the Holy Scriptures are ‘God-breathed and well-suited’ (2 Tim. 3:16). 

Inevitably, another word comes to mind in thinking of Christian nurture: catechising. Its first occurrence in the New Testament is at Luke 1:4, where the careful historian gives as the purpose of writing, ‘that thou mightest know the certainty of those things, wherein thou hast been catechised.’ Apollos, similarly, was ‘catechised in the way of the Lord’ (Acts 18:25). Let one more text suffice, a double occurrence of the same word, Galatians 6:6, ‘Let him that is catechised in the word share all good things with him who catechises.’ Matthew Henry’s comment on Ephesians 6:4 summarizes the Biblical practice of Christian nurture: ‘Instruct them to fear sinning; and inform them of, and excite them to, the whole of their duty toward God.’

Reformed churches have constantly emphasised the importance of family religion as a necessary counterpart to public worship. The multiplication of catechisms at the time of the Reformation, as a parallel development to that of Confessional statements, bears ample witness of this. Speaking generally of family religion, Baxter portrays the Puritan ideal in this way: ‘Keep up the government of God in your families: holy families must be the chief preservers of the interest of religion in the world. Let not the world turn God’s service into a customary, lifeless form. Read the Scripture and edifying books to them; talk with them seriously about the state of their souls and everlasting life; watch over them diligently; be angry against sin, and meek in your own cause; be examples of wisdom, holiness, and patience; and see that the Lord’s day be spent in holy preparation for eternity.’

Applying himself to the matter of catechising, Baxter commended it with the greatest vigour. He wrote several catechetical books, and his most famous work, The Reformed Pastor, is a lasting monument to his zeal for ministerial catechising. Certainly in his own parish at Kidder­minster this ‘familiar personal instruction’ bore rich harvest in a time of religious revival under his ministry. He justified the practice in this way:

Q. How must parents teach their households? A. Very familiarly and plainly, according to their capacities, beginning with the plain and necessary things; and this is it which we call catechising, which is nothing but the choosing out of the few plain, necessary matters from all the rest, and in due method, or order, teaching them to the ignorant.

Q. What need we catechisms, while we have the Bible? A. Because the Bible contains all the whole body of religious truths, which the ripest Christians should know, but are not all of equal necessity to salvation with the greatest points. And it cannot be expected that ignorant persons can cull out these most necessary points from the rest without help.

For the purpose of imparting Christian nurture — the ‘Pre-evangelism’ of today — the Puritans reckoned that catechising was secondary to nothing else.

A century before the flowering of the Puritan catechisms saw the appearance of John Calvin’s own production along these lines. For the great Protestant Reformer the necessity for it arose from a consideration of the welfare of the Church, as he explained to the English Protector, Somerset, in 1548: ‘The church of God shall never be conserved without catechism, for it is as the seed to be kept, that the good grain perish not, but that it may increase from age to age. Wherefore if you desire to build a work of continuance to endure long, and which should not shortly fall into decay, cause that the children in their young age be instructed in a good catechism.’

What has come to be known as ‘Calvin’s Institutes‘ was intended by Calvin as a summary of the Christian Religion and first appeared in 1536. He issued his first catechism as a synopsis of its teaching, in French the following year, and in Latin in 1538. Only in 1542, on his return to Geneva after a period of exile, did he produce Catechism of the Church of Geneva, an enlarged version of the earlier work in the classical form of question and answer.

It is evident that he regarded a catechism as more than a simple manual of instruction for children, although that might be its primary purpose. In the preface to the 1538 edition he called it ‘an authentic public testimony of our doctrine.’ Clearly, Calvin looked upon it as a rallying-point for the unity of the Reformed churches. His ‘Dedication’ of the later edition ‘to the faithful ministers of Christ. . . who preach the pure doctrine of the Gospel’ makes this even more explicit: ‘that we are all directed to one Christ, in whose truth being united together, we may grow up into one body and one spirit, and with the same mouth also proclaim whatever belongs to the sum of faith.’

More important, perhaps, was the fact that he saw in catechising a necessary complement to preaching. He had already made this clear in the 1538 preface: ‘Whatever others may think, we certainly do not regard our office as bound in so narrow limits that when the sermon is delivered we may rest as if our task were done. They whose blood will be required of us, if lost through our slothfulness, are to be cared for much more closely and vigilantly.’ Along with preaching and discipline, Calvin was convinced that catechising occupied a strategic position in the reformation and life of the church. Consequently, as a condition of his resuming the work of reform at Geneva he insisted that the authorities agreed to its acceptance: ‘On my return from Strasbourg I made the Catechism in haste, for I would never have accepted the ministry unless they had sworn to these two points; namely, to uphold the Catechism and the discipline.’

Evidently for the churches of the Reformation a full Gospel ministry was only possible when sustained by discipline and catechising, the most essential features of a Christian nurture.

As summaries of the faith Reformed catechisms in the main have followed Calvin’s pattern, expounding the ‘Apostles Creed’, the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, the Word and Sacraments. The Heidelberg Catechism, which dates from 1563 and received wide acclaim and acceptance, was later conveniently arranged into 52 sections, one for each Lord’s Day. The first of these introduces the rest under the heading of things necessary to be known to enjoy comfort, to live and die happily: ‘the first, how great my sins and miseries are; the second, how I may be delivered from all my sins and miseries; the third, how I shall express my gratitude to God for such deliverance.’

Its definition of faith is worth repeating: ‘True faith is not only a certain knowledge whereby I hold for truth all that God has revealed to us in His Word, but also an assured confidence, which the Holy Ghost works by the Gospel, in my heart; that not only to others, but to me also, remission of sin, everlasting righteousness and salvation are freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits.’

The section on ‘conversion’ is a salutary corrective to the superficial ‘only-believism’ and decisionism of much contemporary evangelistic activity.

‘Q. In how many parts doth the true conversion of man consist? A. In two parts; in the mortification of the old, and in the quickening of the new man.’ The two parts are then defined. Mortification ‘is a sincere sorrow of heart; that we have provoked God by our sins; and more and more to hate and flee from them.’ Quickening ‘is a sincere joy of heart in God, through Christ, and with love and delight to live according to the will of God, in all good works.’ The section finishes by filling out the meaning of ‘good works’ : ‘Only those which proceed from a true faith, are performed according to the law of God, and to His glory; and not such as are founded on our imaginations, or the institutions of men.’

Subsequent eras in Church history, down to the last century, have reaffirmed their conviction of the necessity and validity of catechetical instruction. Spurgeon’s Catechism, for instance, appeared with the following introduction: ‘I am persuaded that the use of a good Catechism in all our families will be a great safeguard against the increasing errors of the times, and therefore I have compiled this little manual from the Westminster Assembly’s and Baptist Catechisms, for the use of my own church and congregation.’ By and large today such manuals have fallen into disuse, if not into disrepute. To the extent that Christian churches, ministers, and parents have been party to this grave erosion of the main­stay of a truly Christian nurture they have thereby abrogated what is clearly a Biblical responsibility.

Several factors are responsible for this retrograde trend, Defection from a Confessional position in the churches has belittled their doctrinal standards, catechisms included. The subjectivism of existentialist principles has eroded faith in propositional truth, and this in turn has further undermined confidence in the informative statements of catechisms. A drive for organizational unity between the denominations has led to a disparagement of doctrinal statements as ecumenically divisive and unconducive to effective witness.

Nor has the catechetical method itself been exempt from the most cynical criticism. Modern educational theory frowns on what it regards as a robot-like repetition of an unenlightened age. But the theory seems to have lost more than a little credibility in the face of the success enjoyed by Mao Tse-Tung’s ideology, summarized in a little red book and slavishly repeated by convinced Marxists the world over.

Perhaps it merits a moment’s reflection that revolutionaries — Christian or Marxist — have never turned the world upside down apart from the impact of their revolutionary ideas on men’s minds. It seems that the Christian Church has yet to realize the full significance of Paul’s claim, made from prison, ‘the Word of God is not jailed’ (2 Tim. 2:9). Freely and effectively inculcated in the minds of children and young people, it fills out the meaning of subsequent Christian experience, and propagates its own revolution in their lives.

Is a Christian nurture, then, feasible today? Is it necessary? In the last resort, is it Biblical? The answer must lie in the affirmative. Biblical teaching on the nature of truth, of man, of the work of the Holy Spirit in conversion, on the nature of the Church, and on the necessity for discipline in the believing community as a private and public worshipping family — all these considerations emphasise the cruciality of a Christian nurture, a Christian ‘Pre-evangelism’. ‘Catechising’, said another Puritan, Zachary Crofton, ‘must be used in the Church of God, because it is as necessary as ABC to a child first going to school; as a foundation to building, without which it cannot stand.’

For the advancement of reformation and revival, of fellowship and evangelism, of true Church unity and profitable, lively preaching, a Christian nurture is imperative. Christ called on Peter to feed the lambs as well as the sheep, John 21:15-17. Too many generations of Christians have been negligent in their provision for the lambs. A blind eye has been turned to family religion, and parents have chosen to leave the evangelism of their children to others.

Already much precious time has been lost, many opportunities missed, large numbers of young people deprived of this signal ‘means of grace’. Christian nurture has become virtually the Cinderella of evangelical churches and homes. An urgent return to this Biblical pattern of evangelistic strategy is of paramount importance.

This article was first published in the July – August 1982 edition of the Banner of Truth magazine.

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