“For, the grounds of religion must be taught and learned as truly as the grounds of anything else. Let us make no mistake here. Religion does not come of itself: it is always a matter of instruction.”
--B.B. Warfield, Is the Shorter Catechism Worthwhile?
Catechisms are a bright jewel in the Reformed tradition. Those brought up on catechetical instruction may not notice the shine and wonder, having known nothing else, but to those who were raised on nothing more than “Jesus Loves Me” and John 3:16…well, catechisms are almost blinding in their splendor.
Mr. Brown and I matriculated from modern evangelicalism to Reformed thought in our early/mid twenties. A church-led study through the Westminster Confession soon afterward was one of our first seven-course theological meals, and permit me to say that, after decades of watered milk, we’d never felt so full. Around this time my antiquarian nature was emerging, and I found myself working my way eagerly through Philip Schaff’s Creeds of Christendom in the break room at work during my lunch hour, much to the shock of an atheistic coworker (who was under the impression Christians didn’t really read books without Chicken Soup in the title). Fast-forward not even a decade later, and I’m barreling through a substantial supply of reformed creeds and catechisms—on an app, no less—in only a cumulative handful of hours. The linguistic beauty of the Heidelberg, the thorough scholasticism of the Westminster, the frank candor of the Scots—they are bread and breath to me. It should come as no surprise that I was keen to start catechizing my children early.
But a problem quickly presented itself. Most of the shorter or “children’s” catechisms I could find were geared more towards school-age children or older. My child? She was two. She’d been speakingwords for barely a year. She knew the lines to the Apostles Creed and the Lord’s Prayer, but she couldn’t comprehend the faith behind the language yet. The heart was willing and eager, but the mind was desperately trying to catch up. Now I could have pressed on, despite that awareness. After all, David Chilton taught his 3-year-old the Westminster Shorter. And that’s the old path we wanted to walk down. So why not? Because…bruised reeds, smoldering flaxes, and “hinder them not.” 107 questions for someone still trying to figure out the potty and stumbling over three-syllable words seemed like an overwhelming amount of breaking, quenching, and hindering.
So the preferred standards would have to wait a bit, which landed us in a second quandary. The half-handful of “catechisms” I could find for younger children were theologically deficient—dangerously so. I didn’t want her first grasp of her faith to be a gospel rendered so simplistically that it robbed God’s Word of fundamental truth, creating a false gospel we’d one day have to un-teach. We found ourselves stuck in the Reformed pedagogical equivalency of the Goldilocks dilemma, and it was a bleak, barren, and lonely hinterland. She needed something to challenge her mind and heart, something to launch the soul-wrestling process and earnest endeavor of working out her salvation with fear and trembling. Her Christian conscience was emerging, and it needed shaped, pruned, and tended purposefully and with care.
So I wrote my own catechism.
Deep in the foothills of West Virginia, I hear the myriad echoes of “Who do you think you are?!?!” reach me from the incensed mouths of…well, if not hundreds and thousands, perhaps dozens of outraged brethren who would promptly charge me with growing too big for my spiritual britches. And I suppose that is to be expected. So grant me the mercy and ecumenical patience to answer the outcry.
Who am I? At the end of the day, I am a mother: nothing more, but nothing less. I am charged with raising my children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, regardless of the conditions on the path or my skill in navigating them. I am not allowed to look at my child, begging me for spiritual milk, and answer, “Oh, I’m so sorry—the milk is all poisoned, and you’re not ready for the pan-seared beef medallions we have hot on the table. You’ll need to wait a few years to eat.” Nope. It’s my job to fetch my pail, go milk the cow and bring my child the nutrition he/she needs. Which is what I did. It wasn’t easy, it wasn’t perfect—but it was done dutifully, and in humble fear. What came out of my afternoon’s prayerful endeavors was a series of eight question-and-answers meant to capitalize on the emerging servant’s heart in my toddler.
It begins with a parallel to the Westminster, but in household language she was already trained in: “What is your duty?” Then it proceeds to orient her heart and thoughts toward the godly tasks appointed to children: learning, working hard, obeying. But the jewel in our catechism, the part most commonly referenced in our day-to-day ventures, is the eighth and final question:
8. Do you understand all this?
Not today, but one day I will.
It seemed simple at first, but I cannot begin to express the myriad and sundry ways this simple concept has shaped and is still shaping our household. We speak the truth and fullness of the Word of God without hesitation, because we’ve built a foundation that not only allows but encourages us to listen and try to figure out things that are beyond our grasp. We speak of theology in everything, because while the comprehension has yet to be achieved, her heart and mind are being conditioned with each passing day to view everything theologically. We take the opportunity to reinforce that Mehmie and Adda don’t understand everything either, but we’re still working to learn and understand more (which is just as much a heart/mind shaping of Mehmie and Adda as it is of our children). We regularly, intentionally acknowledge that we are supposed to be growing in the knowledge and wisdom of the Word, and we eagerly await the fruition of these endeavors. We learn to operate our lives grounded in the hope that comes only from the fulfillment of God’s eternal Word: “not today…but one day”.
Four years later, we have put away our spiritual sippy cups and are working ardently and eagerly through our local congregation’s children’s catechism as a part of her integration into the life and fellowship of the body of believers. We begin our studies in the Westminster Shorter in homeschooling this coming fall. We already see the fruition of those early endeavors, and it gusts fresh wind in our sails for the ongoing journey. One day my daughter will share in my joy of plumbing the depths of the Westminster, the Heidelberg, the Scots, and the like. One day she will be asking me if I understand, and I will answer her back in kind. One day I will be encouraging her in the catechizing of her young.
Not today…but one day.