Doctrine Still Matters

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We need a theological key to open up the treasures of the Bible.

Having worked for Faith Alive for six years, I was drawn to the news story on faith formation resources after the break-up of the Faith Alive denominational publishing agency a few years ago.

Last month, in my first editorial, I wrote that during this year I wanted to help us rediscover our common identity as a denomination. Knowing who we are is essential to finding our way forward. One of the important markers of our identity is, I believe, our commitment to our Reformed doctrinal heritage and teaching it to our children and youth.

Many of us grew up going to weekly catechism classes in which we studied the Heidelberg Catechism, sometimes from 3rd grade through high school. While the methods of teaching may not have been very exciting or effective, generations of CRC members grew up with a basic understanding of Reformed theology.

Why is that so important? Isn’t it more important to just know the Bible? Of course, and the news story indicates that our new Faith Formation team plans to roll out new Bible study materials, which I’m sure will be very helpful.

But the Bible is not enough. From the earliest days, our Christian ancestors understood that we need theological keys to open up the treasures of the Bible. We can’t understand it apart from such keys as the Trinity, the humanity and divinity of Christ, providence, atonement, and divine sovereignty. Of course, these doctrines are derived from Scripture, but, in turn, they provide the keys to unlocking its truths.

But this is exactly what has been effectively eliminated. A caller who reached out to churches on behalf of the new Faith Formation team was quoted as saying that her contacts indicate a clear call from the churches for catechism materials for youth.

A lot has been written about the trend of young people leaving the church as well as the vague and shallow theological concepts many of them have. Numerous studies have shown that the answer is not more mission trips or more active youth groups but deeper involvement in ordinary church activities—and a more thorough theological understanding of the Christian faith.

All of this indicates to me that this is not the time to pull back on producing educational material for youth. Our Faith Formation team needs to be on the lookout for good catechism material already out there, and, as I expect will be necessary, begin developing new materials for our churches.

Traditionally we have used the Heidelberg Catechism as our default curriculum model. It would be wise to create a curriculum that covers the three elements common to all catechisms: the Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer. The church has always considered that these three elements provide the basic knowledge every Christian needs.

However, the Catechism, for all its solid truth and beauty, employs an outdated question and answer pedagogy that tends to inhibit the creativity necessary for teaching today’s youth.
I think we need a brand new approach that offers the same basic material without using the Q and A methodology and sophisticated theological language of the Catechism.

Or we could use the Contemporary Testimony, our beautifully written, almost poetic confession of the faith that follows the biblical story from creation to new creation. It deals, biblically and imaginatively, with all the major Reformed doctrines, while also touching on many of the moral issues that we face in our time.

This is precisely the moment when solid new catechism materials are needed more than ever. If you agree, you can help by contacting the Faith Formation team and encouraging them to develop these materials. This is one of the most important ways our denomination can serve its churches. And I’ll bet our churches are willing to pay for it.

About the Author

Len Vander Zee is a retired CRC pastor now serving as interim minister of preaching at Church of the Servant CRC in Grand Rapids, Mich.

See comments (4)


Amen.  It seems to me that the CRC has tended of late to want to involve itself in matters outside it's area of "sphere responsibility," resulting in the neglect of responsibilities within its sphere.

First things first, whatever the person or organization.  If it is not a core responsibility of the churches (via denominational resources) to produce these kinds of materials, whose would it be?


   Ever thought of the "So What?" catechism materials from Great Commission Publications? Why re-invent the wheel?


Thank you for this article.  I wholeheartedly aggree that our young people do not need more high octane youth activities, they need deep doctrinal roots.  Though they'd never admit it, kids CRAVE it.

Over the past 20 years I've taught 13-15 year olds the Belgic Confession, Canons of Dordt, parts of the Heidelberg (other men in our church teach that as well) along with the book of Romans in a two year format.  No bells or whistles, no video or hip graphics, just straight up doctrine.  Who is God, who is man, how are we saved, and how should we therefore live.  Guilt, grace, gratitude.  The reponse from the kids over the years has been very positive.

Certainly the rote memorization of bygone eras was ineffective, however I do cringe a bit when I hear calls for 'new' materials.  Our Confessions were written for the primary purpose of instructing, and they've worked well in that capacity for half a millenia, and they still work well today.  The verb form of catechism - catechize - is a very effective pedagogy for many disciplines; the teacher asks questions, listens to and analyzes the anwser, then steers the student to the right answer in much the same way a submarine uses sonar.

For the teacher this is a huge job, as it takes hard work and preperation to be ready for class.  Publishers talk it down because it doesn't sell many books.  But the payoff of going through these documents line by line, explaining difficult words and concepts, and then guiding the student into answering questions in a way that Ursinus himself would be proud of is tremendous.  

Thanks Leonard for your editorial that suggests “doctrine still matters.”  I especially like the highlighted phrase, “We need a theological key to open up the treasure of the Bible.”  I have often thought of the Bible theologian as the maze expert.  As we all know, some mazes or maze puzzles can be incredibly difficult to get from start to finish.  Well, if the Bible is a maze, then the theologian is the expert who should be able to get through the twists and turns of an incredibly difficult maze.  The expert theologian has to weave his way through the difficult teachings of the Bible in a way that shows the consistency and non-contradictory character of the Bible and its teachings.  Many people think the Bible is full of inconsistencies (to which I agree), and they are right unless someone can smooth out or make those inconsistencies coherent and part of a whole sensical revelation.  That this is a difficult job to accomplish is verified by the huge variety of theological perspectives such as Baptist, Lutheran, Pentecostal, Methodist, Mormon, Reformed, etc. etc. Each group finds inconsistencies in the other theologies but find the true path through the Bible maze in their own theological perspective.  Hence, we hold to a Reformed theology as the most consistent theological key by which to open up the treasure of the Bible or to twist our way through the Bible successfully from start to finish.

So indeed, theology is very important.  Without doctrine or theology, we would have a hard time understanding the Bible at all.  We would be running into road blocks at many points. When we take away doctrinal teaching from our children, as well as from adults (what’s happened to catechism sermons?), the Bible will make less and less sense.  So I applaud your concern, Leonard, about losing our theological and Reformed heritage.  And although I appreciate our Reformed perspective, I still see a number of glaring inconsistencies in the Bible.