Calvin on Confirmation as Catechesis

John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.19.13 - "True Confirmation"
"How I wish that we might have kept the custom which, as I have said, existed among the ancient Christians...Not that it would be confirmation as they fancy, which cannot be named without doing injustice to baptism; but a catechizing, in which children or those near adolescence would give an account of their faith before the church. But the best method of catechizing would be to have a manual drafted for this exercise, containing and summarizing in simple manner most of the articles of our religion, on which the whole believers' church ought to agree without controversy. A child of ten would present himself to the church to declare his confession of faith, would be examined in each article, and answer to each; if he were ignorant of anything or insufficiently understood it, he would be taught. Thus, while the church looks on as a witness, he would profess the one true and sincere faith, in which the believing folk with one mind worship the one God.

If this discipline were in effect today, it would certainly arouse some slothful parents, who carelessly neglect the instruction of their children as a matter of no concern to them; for then they could not overlook it without public disgrace. There would be greater agreement in faith among Christian people, and not so many would go untaught and ignorant; some would not be so rashly carried away with new and strange doctrines; in short, all would have some methodical instruction, so to speak, in Christian doctrine."
I have long been convinced that lack of serious catechesis is one of the things that has lead to the continuing decline and prostitution of the church in North America, and that it is therefore one of its surest remedies. That Calvin took catechesis so seriously is something that I very much appreciate in him. Of course, I imagine that I picked it up from him to start with.


Drew Tatusko said…

Actually attendance rates in the US have been consistent for about 80 years - hovering around 34%.

Mainlines are in decline, but research indicates this is primarily due to the demographic imperative - they do not have enough babies.
Hi Drew,

I don't judge on the basis of attendance rates, I'm afraid. It would be difficult, indeed, to convince me that the general Christian knowledgeably of the average contemporary church-goer even remotely approximates that found in the 19th century, Europe or America, for instance.

One phenomena that I would suggest indicates this is precisely the decline of the mainline denominations, that is, denominations whose strength is and has always been in the area of doctrinal identity and sophistication. Let's face it, when an average church-goer no longer knows nor cares what the difference between a Presbyterian and Lutheran is, it is the non-denominational churches who benefit. Now, I don't have anything against non-denominational churches per se, but they tend not to have the same depth of theological resources and tradition to draw upon.

In any case, to make a long story short, we need to catechize.
Anonymous said…
Sounds to me like Calvin was describing Luther's small catechism.... :)
Hi Eric,

Luther's small catechism just may be my favorite of Luther's works. Of course, Calvin wrote his own catechism and had a hand in a few others (if my memory serves correctly).
Erik said…

I hear you, but I will register a brief rebuttal. Those churches that traditionally still do some type of catechesis (I'm thinking here of Mainliners) are actually some of the least articulate young people of faith according to Christian Smith's seminal study (*Soul Searching*). Now before you say, 'That proves my point,' you need to that the two most articulate groups were Mormons (which would support your thesis) and conversative Protestants (i.e. evangelicals), which I don't think does support your claim. They are not all that into catechesis.

The substance of their (conservative Protestant) theology may not be terribly robust, but they are able to articulate what they believe more clearly than most young Christians. So, in some way, it seems they are being catechetically trained without official catechesis. Would you, then, grant that maybe the official classroom type catechesis as I envision from Calvin's quote (and how you describe your own issues) is not the best way to instill a theological grammar in young people?

I'm with you. You need to know that. But, I think you also need to understand the inherent reality of youth ministry in our churches. There is a way to help young people start to develop a theological language for who they are, but I am convinced that it is not through traditional catechesis.

I also think you look back on history with a type of Romanticism. Even if they *knew* the substance of the Christian faith, the injustices perpetrated in the name of Christianity (slavery, racism, etc.) show a practical inarticulacy.

I value your continued engagement!

First, let me say that I am NOT advocating that youth ministry be entirely reconfigured along an outdated “classroom style” catechesis system. I have a very open mind about the methods that may be useful in shaping of theological identity. However, I do think that there needs to be a more rigorous and, shall we say “scholastic”?, aspect as well.

This gets at what I want to emphasize: I am not simply speaking of the shaping of theological identity, I am after a certain level of theological sophistication. Two comments follow upon this:

(1) I am not impressed that conservative / evangelical youth score higher on surveys that ask them to articulate what they believe, because the fact of the matter is that these “traditions” aren’t theologically sophisticated; i.e., it doesn’t take much to say that “Jesus died for my sins” and that “The Bible is true.”

(2) I will admit that conservative / evangelical churches have at least this much going for them: their congregations – including the youth – know Scripture much better than their mainline counterparts. I have had direct experience with – and much indirect engagement with, by virtue of my being at a PCUSA seminary – common mainline catechetical and other instructional practices, and they are simply not up to snuff. When you need to explain on multiple occasions how chapters and verses in the Bible function, something is wrong.

So, even if I bash the conservative / evangelical non-denominational churches, I do think that they have a much better foundation on which to build. When push comes to shove, I want a shot at further molding the people who have a basic biblical knowledge. My problem with catechesis, or instruction in general all the way up through adult education, in non-denominational churches is that those churches lack the necessary theological sophistication. Indeed, their polity almost necessitates this, and certain elements of their sub-culture celebrate it.

I will not try to defend what apparently well catechized Christians in the past perpetuated in the name of, or at least in tacit conjunction with the name of, Christianity.

Oh, I should say something about Calvin’s catechetical method. It was very interactionary, and not based on rote memorization. The youth studied from written catechisms in the company of a pastor and their peers, but were interviewed personally and allowed to frame their responses to questions in their own words according to their own best understanding, and in keeping with the doctrinal positions of the church; that is, they were not asked to reply with memorized answers. This sort of procedure, I think, has great potential and immense practical value.
Shane said…
I'm pretty suspicious of the statistical data here:

mainly I just want to know how the sociologists who did these studies control for all the variables?

Basically, to get anything that I would consider a statistically interesting comparison you would need to compare a group of mainline kids and a group of evangelical kids who:

1. were approximately the same educational level (and possibly economic level--since rich people presumably have more resources to pursue education, including religious education, for their children)

2. went to church with about the same frequency (presumably children who go to church more often will have a greater understanding of what happens there)

It also might be that evangelicals are 'catechizing' in different ways. Which would make the evangelicals not a counterexample to WTM's point--although it might show that the phenomenon of catechesis can be intelligibly broadened in some ways. I think this is the line Erik is pushing.

I think I support the idea of a more classroom style catechesis (I am an academic, so of course I'm inclined to see more value in classrooms than others might). My reason for this is simple: I think it matters if what you believe is correct. The doctrine of the trinity, for instance, is important and it is important that people understand what it is, but I have never yet seen a youth group drama, music video, or interpretive dance that seems to me to capture what's at stake.

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