The sun was shining as I parked my car in front of a new sandwich shop downtown when my college classmate in the passenger seat posed the frequently asked question, “What do you as a Presbyterian believe, anyway?” Almost instinctively, I began “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth…” and so on through the Apostles’ Creed. My Egyptian Coptic friend burst into a big grin as he half-jokingly cried foul, “Hey! That’s plagiarism!” Returning the smile, I began to explain how the historic standard of Christian theological orthodoxy is an appropriate answer to his question, but the rest of our conversation has faded from my memory.
If someone were to ask you, “what do you believe,” how would you answer? Would you struggle to put into words the content of your faith? What if someone asked you to describe the purpose of human existence, the Bible, the Person and work of Jesus Christ, what happens when we die, or what is forbidden and required by God? This is just a sampling of topics that could populate a “Frequently Asked Questions” list for churches, Christians, pastors, and people who think deeply about theology and spiritual things. For hundreds of years, Reformed and Presbyterian theologians and Churches have published such lists of questions, answers, and relevant Bible verses in the form of catechisms.
A catechism is a summary statement of beliefs organized in a questions-and-answers structure intended for use as an instructional device. While some churches have lengthy catechisms that serve as reference tools, Presbyterian Churches originally intended for their two principal Catechisms to be memorized. Today, many Presbyterian Church members and ministers memorize the Shorter Catechism, which is made up of 107 questions and answers dealing with the basics of the Christian faith: what we believe about God, and what God requires from mankind.
Much like the Apostles’ Creed in my anecdote above, the Shorter Catechism gives us go-to responses to many frequently asked questions. When someone recently asked me what happens when Christians die, I immediately thought of question and answer 37, “What benefits do believers receive from Christ at death? The souls of believers are at their death made perfect in holiness, and do immediately pass into glory; and their bodies, being still united to Christ, do rest in their graves, till the resurrection.” This thoroughly biblical answer brings together doctrinal truth derived from various passages of Scripture (e.g., Hebrews 12:23, Luke 23:43, 2 Corinthians 5:6-8, Philippians 1:23, 1 Thessalonians 4:14, Daniel 12:2, John 5:28-29, and Acts 24:15). We might use an answer like this to structure a full discussion or conversation about what happens after death. Most of the material in the Shorter Catechism is helpful in this way. For in-depth answers, the Larger Catechism (traditionally intended for adults to memorize) is a helpful resource.
Over the course of 2023, the members of Antioch Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Woodruff, SC will be working together to memorize (or to refresh our memories of) the Shorter Catechism. Each week, we publish one question and answer in our midweek email and worship service bulletin. Every other week, our children will spend time together on Wednesday evenings to review the Shorter Catechism questions and answers we’ve been learning, and to discuss the biblical basis for each answer.
For members who have already committed the Shorter Catechism to memory, we are recommending that they do one of the following to advance their understanding of the doctrines expressed in this rich “Frequently Asked Questions” document:
- Memorize one (or more) of the Scripture verses published along with each question and answer, or
- read along with an historic or modern commentary on the Shorter Catechism. Below are some recommended commentaries available for free online, some of which are available in print for purchase.
Historically, teachers at every level of education considered memorization and catechesis to be the foundation of effective learning. Nowadays, rote memorization and recitation have fallen into disrepute in most learning environments. However, resources such as the Shorter Catechism can help us learn how to think critically through difficult questions that need to be broken down into parts (as shown above).
Consider how you might answer the question, “what do you think the purpose of life is?” If you know the opening question and answer of the Shorter Catechism, you can respond “to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever,” or you could rephrase the statement in your own words. Memorizing the Shorter Catechism is one method (among many) to “sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence” (1 Peter 3:15).