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Many years ago I was privileged to know several great men of faith in the generation just preceding my own. I regarded these men with deep respect and even held them in awe because of their great knowledge and even greater piety. Looking back, I realize that one of the many things they all held in common was a passionate love for the basics of biblical, Reformed doctrine. Because of this, they were dedicated students and teachers of that often neglected document known as the Westminster Shorter Catechism. But beyond mere reference to it and frequent quotes from it, the doctrines contained in the Shorter Catechism saturated their minds and their ministries.
Two of them stand out in particular. Dr. Henry B. Dendy was my boyhood pastor of the First (and only) Presbyterian Church of Weaverville, North Carolina. He was a man with unlimited talent and abounding in energy. He was a quintessential pastor and preacher, the kind every church needs and wants. Dr. Dendy was also co-founder of the Presbyterian Journal and its editor for twenty-some years. This magazine was the forerunner of World magazine. Dr. Dendy loved Scripture and he loved, lived, and breathed the Shorter Catechism. He encouraged parents to teach the catechism to their children, and he helped them do this.
Another spiritual giant of his day was the late Dr. Darby Fulton, who for many years was the general secretary for foreign missions in the Presbyterian Church. Once, when Dr. Fulton was lecturing at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, a student asked him how he could be such a well read and brilliant theologian given his unending labors with the world missions efforts of the Presbyterian Church. Dr. Fulton’s reply surprised us all when he said, “I learned all my theology before I was twelve; my mother taught me to memorize the Shorter Catechism.” “But Dr. Fulton,” the student asked, “what did you learn of theology in seminary and graduate school?” His reply was classic. With a twinkle in his eye he said, “I learned how to say it so no one could understand it.” He was truly a brilliant scholar, but never did he preach over the head of the man in the pew. His skillful use of the catechism enabled him to preach the great truths of our faith in a lively and understandable way, even to little children.
The point of all this is to say that if young men in the ministry want to remain true to “the faith once delivered” (Jude 3), keep their ordination vows, and pass on this heritage to another generation, one of the best means of doing this is to mould their teaching and preaching around the Shorter Catechism. In this way they will preach the whole counsel of God. They will be beacons of truth and hope to their own and succeeding generations.
Let me offer some sound reasons why the use of the catechism as the foundation for your preaching and teaching is one of the best ways to be faithful to your vows and to your people, and how it may assist you in getting beyond shallowness and the latest fads that dominate most preaching — even in evangelical and Reformed churches.
The Shorter Catechism is biblical. As might be expected, there are Scripture references given for each question and answer as proof texts, but it is biblical in a far deeper sense. It is an apt summary of all the doctrines of the Bible, and the use of it as a guide in preaching will enable the preacher to ground his people in the truths of God’s Word.
I have heard people say that we need to revise the catechism to include references to the poor and disadvantaged, and even to include statements on our environmental duties. Utter nonsense! I spent the first several years of ministry in one of the deepest pockets of poverty in this country. I was called upon to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, transport the wheel-less, educate the ignorant, and shepherd the children and teach them how to play. In one week I rushed five mountain women to the hospital to have their babies (the last one was my own Miriam, but I was sure getting some strange looks from the nurses on the floor). I buried old folks, babies, and all ages in between, conducting the services and digging the graves. I did all this and more and did not need a revision of the catechism to tell me my duty. As for environmental concerns, being an avid outdoorsman helped me to understand the need for good stewardship of God’s creation and creatures, but again this does not require a revision of the catechism.
The catechism is intensely practical and deals with real issues of life and death. Often I hear fervent sermons about things that are only of contrived urgency based on what book the preacher is reading or what program on television he has been watching. But what is more practical than to discover and declare what man is to believe concerning God and what duty God requires of man?
Preaching and teaching from the catechism keeps us linked to the generations who have gone before us and passes on their wisdom and godliness to succeeding generations. There is a tendency in each generation to think we are the beginning and end of all things. We tend to think that wisdom and godliness will perish with us. They won’t, and the wise and wide use of the catechism will enable us to take our part in the flow of truth, faith, and life from generation to generation.