Title: Grounded in the Gospel: Building Believers the Old-Fashioned Way
Authors: J.I. Packer and Gary A. Parrett
Publisher: Baker Books (2010)
In Jr. High, I had a friend name Charlie. He was a pretty good guy and had great parents. He also had a Nintendo, which was a pretty big deal even as far back as 1991. Anyway, I remember asking him one day what he was doing after school, and he said, “Ugh, I’ve got to go to catechism.” His family was Catholic (I think), so he had to do this catechism thing until his confirmation (which I’d also never heard of).
Whatever catechism was, it sounded positively dreadful (after all, think of all the Nintendo he was missing out on…)
Likewise, in modern evangelical circles, the idea of catechism is shunned. It’s too Catholic, too dry, too dull. Instead, we rely primarily on self-learning, children’s church and sparsly-attended adult Sunday School classes for our doctrinal formation.
J.I. Packer and Gary A. Parrett want to change that. In Grounded in the Gospel, the authors strive to illustrate the biblical foundations of catechism and provide helpful outlines for how we can integrate it into our churches’ ministries. As they work they build their case, the picture of catechism they describe is anything but dreadful—for one who desires to know more about the Christian faith, it can be downright exhilarating.
I greatly appreciated the thoughtfulness and thoroughness the authors applied to the subject, particularly as they wrestled first with the historical and biblical foundations of catechism. Because in many evangelical circles, there is a discomfort about the idea of doing things because of historical tradition, it is essential to understand that the idea of catechism finds its roots in Scripture. The authors explain that the our word “catechesis” is derived from the New Testament word for “teaching,” katēcheō. Jesus, according to the authors, was and is the model catechist. And to catechize is to not only follow His example, but to obey His command (p. 49, c.f. Matt. 28:20).
After establishing the foundation, Packer and Parrett move to the content. If catechism is a biblical idea, what then, should its content be? Again, their breakdown of content in both the macro and micro is extremely helpful. The authors suggest that:
There are five founts, or frames, for catechesis → the fifth element of which is the Faith → which has been traditionally communicated through the four fixtures of the catechism → which together bear witness to the three facets of the Faith → the third of which is the Way → which has two fundamentals: love of God and love of neighbor → which Jesus alone has fully obeyed, and whose grace alone enables us to begin to obey. Therefore Jesus Christ must ever be the one focus of all our ministries of catechesis. (p. 94)
Practically this means that the Gospel is always central to catechesis. Believers never grow out of their need for the gospel, but only deeper in their understanding of its necessity, even as catechesis moves from issues of Christian consensus (beliefs which all Christians at all times affirm), to evangelical essentials (those which necessarily divide evangelical Protestants from Catholics and Orthodox Christians), to denominational distinctives (beliefs that distinguish various Protestant groups from one another), and finally to congregational commitments (the vision, values and practices particular to your local church).
“We need not be shy about these differences,” the authors explain (p. 164). “But we should not go out of our way, on the other hand, to magnify these differences at the earliest stages of our catechetical work.”
Our focus instead should be on how the message of the Gospel is so very different from all the false gospels of the culture that surrounds us. This will mean that we also distinguish the Christian vision from the message of other major religions. (ibid)
In short, while these distinctives are important, we must be careful to not allow them to overtake matters of first importance.
The final chapters are, in my estimation, worth the price of the book alone. Here we get into the nitty gritty as Packer and Parrett look at three phases of catechism and corresponding forms of curriculum. Phase one, “protocatechesis” is all about giving people their first glimpses into the Gospel. This would be, for example, where a program like Alpha or Christianity Explored would be beneficial, as their focus is on introducing the essentials of the Faith. Phase two, catechesis proper, is a formal grounding in the Gospel, usually in conjunction with preparation for baptism or confirmation and for official leadership. Phase three, ongoing catechesis, focuses on the continuing growth in depth of knowledge of God and His ways. This can be done in the form of weekend seminars, Sunday School or midweek classes, small groups… whatever is most appropriate for your ministry context.
The authors obvious passion is to see readers begin to understand the purpose of catechism and develop a desire to implement it in their churches and homes. And what they’ve offered, truly is a compelling solution to one of the greater concerns in our era—rampant biblical illiteracy within evangelicalism.
Today, according to statistics at least, it appears that most who would call themselves evangelical Christians have no idea what the fundamentals of the Faith are. The authority of Scripture, the nature of God, the atonement, the person of Christ… nearly everything is up for grabs, it seems. But the truth is, we can’t expect people to know their Faith if they’re not taught it. That’s why catechism has such an important role to play (even if we never use the name).
Grounded in the Gospel is a compelling call to return to the practice of catechism. It’s a call that I hope many of us will heed.