The Drama of Doctrine

The Christian theological drama is a counter-story to the world’s story.

I’ve heard it over and over from pastors and elders in the Christian Reformed Church. As a decreasing number of young people come forward for public profession of faith, too many display a general ignorance of the basic doctrines of the Christian, much less the Reformed, faith. They say they love Jesus but can’t really explain what their faith means.

In his book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, Christian Smith describes the religious beliefs of the majority of teens in the church as “moral therapeutic Deism.” It goes like this:

  1. A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth. 
  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions. 
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about yourself. 
  4. God does not need to be particularly involved in a person’s life except when needed to resolve a problem. 
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

It’s plain to see that this version of Christianity has little to do with the Bible or with the Christian faith. But I have little doubt that it actually describes the lived faith of a large number of Christian Reformed teens. It seems that the church has failed to teach an adequate understanding of the Christian faith to many of its youth.

It was not always so. Many of us remember having to go to those midweek catechism classes, often taught by the minister. In third grade we learned our little summary catechism called the Compendium. Growing older, we memorized at least some Q&As of the Heidelberg Catechism. We had some basic theological foundation that could inoculate us to the banal religion of moral therapeutic Deism.

Most of us would not want to return to those sometimes dull classes and their rote memorization. What we have done instead is far worse. Over the last 20 years or so, a large number of congregations have abandoned catechism classes altogether and parents have given the theological education of their teens a low priority.

In many congregations Sunday school (which often consists only of telling Bible stories) and youth groups (often defined by activities and mission trips) are the only kind of education on offer for children and teens. Other churches don’t include children and teens in worship services where they can hear the sermon or participate in the drama of worship. By sending them out to be with their own age group, we send the message that worship is not really that important.  

Teaching the theology or doctrine of the church to our teens is not optional. Theology is essential alongside the Bible for an understanding of the Christian faith. Doctrine is a key that unlocks the biblical treasury. To put it another way, doctrine offers us a map through the often confusing and trackless biblical terrain.   

That’s why our confessions and creeds and catechism are so important. It’s theology that helps us understand that the God we meet in the Bible is the triune God, the original and eternal community of love who made this world and everything in it. It’s theology that enables us to grasp the enormity and depth of human rebellion and the covenant of grace by which God set out to save us. It’s theology that teaches us that Jesus Christ is the new human that God intended us to be, that his death and resurrection usher in a new creation, the kingdom of God, and that this world will be made new in him.

Dorothy Sayers once wrote that the gospel “is the greatest drama ever told . . . a terrifying drama of which God is the victim and the hero.” Evangelical theologian Kevin VanHoozer picks up on this with his book The Drama of Doctrine. Theology is what the church does when it takes up the biblical script and stages it for the church and the world to see, he says. But it’s more than a drama we watch for entertainment or inspiration; it’s a drama in which we are also actors every day. It is the drama of life in God’s world.

The Christian theological drama is a counter-story to the world’s story. It changes how we perceive our place in the world and transforms how we live. The Bible is the indispensable script, the underlying true story, but it’s the theological drama written over the centuries and told afresh in every generation that enables the biblical story to come alive in every age.

The 16th century Heidelberg Catechism does so with the ringing words of Q&A 1: “I belong, in body and soul, in life and in death, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ. . . .” The catechism goes on to provide a powerful outline—guilt, grace, gratitude—of how we are to live into that belonging. Did you ever stop to think how important it is, for example, that the law of God comes under the rubric of gratitude? Law and gospel coalesce, obedience becomes freedom. That’s the kind of important insight doctrine can give.

More recently in the CRC we have another treasure that tells the drama of Christian theology even more vividly, the contemporary testimony “Our World Belongs to God.” In stirring, poetic language, it tells the biblical story as the drama of life in this world that belongs to God.  

In the contemporary testimony we discover that God is not a benevolent deity out there somewhere but a divine community of love intimately and deeply involved with the world God made. Sin is not some unfortunate mistake but an act of radical rebellion against our Creator that infects every aspect of our lives. Salvation is not just that Jesus died for our sins, but that he, as our human brother, brings us into the fellowship of our Abba Father as adopted children through the Holy Spirit. Jesus Christ, now enthroned as Lord and King, calls us to share the message of his saving love and to bring the transforming power of his kingdom into every area of life. And no matter how the powers of evil seem to flourish, we are people of hope, looking for a new heaven and a new earth purged of sin, injustice, pain, and death. 

That’s the Christian drama! It’s exciting, it’s transforming. It challenges our minds, feeds our souls, warms our hearts, and stimulates our imagination.

It is the task of the CRC to discover new ways to make that theological drama real for our teens. Our most recent synod called on Faith Formation Ministries to report on the feasibility of new curriculum materials. Hopefully, this will include catechetical materials as well. We can do this at a time when we have new tools—digital technology and the Internet—with which to accomplish this important task. We have access to a variety of media that can deliver imaginative and engaging teaching materials to our churches and our homes.

We have the world’s greatest drama to excite our teens, and we have the technological tools to deliver it to every church and every home. What remains is the commitment of parents and congregations to expect our youth to have that drama of doctrine in their spiritual DNA, and to provide the financial and pedagogical resources to make it happen.


Discussion Questions

  1. What do you think accounts for the church’s failure to adequately teach its young people the basics of the Christian faith? How does your own church do at this task?
  2. How does theology help us understand “the drama of life in God’s world”?
  3. The catechism uses the outline of guilt, grace, and gratitude. How does that to help us understand the overarching story of salvation in God’s Word?
  4. Many Christian Reformed folks have memorized Q&A 1 of the Heidelberg Catechism, and it is often printed in the service outline at funerals. What other treasures have you found in the creeds and confessions of the church?

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 (35)



There is no greater investment we can make than catechizing our youth.  I've had the blessing of teaching doctrine to 14 year olds for the last twenty years.  The kids are hungry for the truth, eager to learn, quick to discuss, and consistent in applying the solid, Reformed worldview they gain in their lives.

The greatest assets we have as a denomination are the Three Forms of Unity.  All three of them are incredible teaching tools and we need to take advantage of the centuries of wisdom and Biblical truth they contain.  

Thanks, Leonard, for your insight in regard to preparing our young people for adulthood (or profession of faith).  When the author of Proverbs 22:6 taught his readers to “train up a child in the way he should go...,” I don’t think he was speaking of teaching children doctrine, but rather how to live responsibly in our world, and if a Christian, how to treat people with compassion.  To teach children doctrine is simply a way to indoctrinate our children in a particular religion.  What Christian Smith describes as “moral therapeutic deism” isn’t all bad.  Deism according to my dictionary is “belief in the existence of a God on the evidence of reason and nature only, with rejection of supernatural revelation...”  To young people in the church the tenets of this deism is what makes logical sense in regard to God and our place in his world.  It doesn’t rely solely on a supernatural revelation (the Bible) to interpret life (or reinterpret life) in a way that contradicts one’s common sense.  Consider the five tenets (of the typical church attending teen) that Smith describes:
 1. “A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.“   That sounds like a reasonable tenet.
 2. “God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.”  That sounds good to me, as well.  Although Jesus did teach that our actions toward others should go beyond fairness.  But maybe that would be covered by people being “good.”
 3. “The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about yourself.”  This statement is a bit like answering the Heidelberger question, “What is your only comfort in life...”  God wants us to enjoy his world, while at the same time having a sense of self-esteem.  After all, we are part of his creation.
 4. “God does not need to be particularly involved in a person’s life except when needed to resolve a problem.”  Such a statement obviously comes from young people seeing that God doesn’t seem any more involved in the lives of Christians than anyone else.  To say that God is involved in our daily lives is more a matter of subjectivism than realism.  Young people tend to look at life objectively.  But this tenet does leave room for God to intervene when needed.
 5. “Good people go to heaven when they die.”  This seems to make common sense and matches Jesus’ teaching in the parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25, in which he says those who are good to those in need will meet with God’s approval and will be welcomed into heaven.  Jesus also taught the golden rule which reinforces the idea that God is pleased with those who do good unto others.
You suggest, Leonard, that such a teaching has little to do with the Bible or with Christianity.  It sounds like it has much to do with Christianity, as well as common sense.  In fact I would suggest, for church going young people, it is a common sense expression of responsible living before God and others.  Most parents would be proud that their children are living such God fearing lives.  I think such a philosophy of living would meet well with Solomon’s wisdom in Proverbs 22.

Wow, Roger. 

It's hard to imagine Solomon just meant "live responsibly" and "treat people with compassion" when his book of Proverbs opens with "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction."  Without a doctrinal understanding of who and what God is, derived from His supernatural revealtion to us, we are but fools.

I would be devestated if the only thing my students knew of Christianity were the 5 tenents Smith mentions.  The first two, as Smith indicates, are so generic that they are taught by all deistic religions.  The last three are patently un-Biblical.  Should we not be alarmed that many, if not most, of our denomination's children would affirm these as truth? To be quite honest, I'm quite alarmed that you (an ordained CRC minister?) affirm these as true.

The question is NOT whether we should or shouln't indoctrinate our children (or any of our members, for that matter). We're all constantly being indoctrinated by media bombardment and the ideas we develop in our own sin infected minds.  The question is by what means shall we indoctrinate our members: with clear, consice Biblical doctrines taught in our Confessions, or our own "common sense expressions"?

You seem to have this artificial disctinction, Roger, between "doctrine" (or "religion") and "living."  I don't so much.  If one's doctrine/religion and one's living is different, my conclusion is that the person's doctrine/religion is merely a claimed doctrine/religion, but not real or actual.  In fact, one's actual (not merely claimed) doctrine/religion will largely determine in how one lives.

It is a rich heritage of the CRC to have the creeds and confessions that it has, and to have a tradition of teaching doctrine, as disrepected as that word has become, apparently by you as well.  I agree with Len that that heritage and tradition needs some revival, among other reasons, so that we might live well.

Thanks Chad for your comment.  I think your response is understandable for one who is arguing from within a Christian (Reformed) world and life view (or box).  It’s hard for us to understand that most people, and often our children, increasingly see life much more broadly than we do.  In our more open culture (multi religious), life and living isn’t seen as narrowly as we see it. They see beyond our boxed in view of life.  So their world and life view is not seen through the lens of Scripture alone or through our confessional standards.  Our young people look at life much more logically.  They ask, what makes sense?  What does a reasonable religion look and feel like?

You, Chad, suggested that we are fools to try to understand God apart from his supernatural revelation.  I imagine that applies to our young people, as well as all people.  But of course such an understanding of God is foolishness to all people apart from the empowering influence of the Holy Spirit.  The Bible presents an understanding of life that defies logic and reasonableness and therefore has to be accepted by faith, a faith given only by God.  We can’t even conjure up such a faith ourselves.  And that is because the basic tenets of Christianity make little common sense.  The Bible, itself, confirms this in 1 Corinthians 14:18-25, saying that the teachings of salvation are foolishness to the world.  The world (and I’m especially speaking of our Western culture) tries to understand life and living (world and life view) logically.  But Christians look at life through the lens of a supernatural Scripture, and Reformed Christians look at life through a Reformed interpretation of that Scripture.

The question people of our culture ask is, who is more foolish, us or Christians?  Consider some of the Christian doctrines that comes from the Bible and maybe you can tell me why non-Christians think such teachings are foolish.  Nearly all religions believe in a single God or multiple Gods. Of course, Christians deny the Gods of other religions, saying they’re foolish.  But Christianity believes in a single God made up of three distinct persons who are each fully and completely God of themselves.  Most Christians don’t understand this idea of the Trinity so how would this make sense to non-Christians or to our youth?  Christianity teaches that Jesus Christ is both fully divine while at the same time fully human.  How can a person have two distinct natures at the same time?  That doesn’t make sense either.  Christianity teaches that God (in the person of Jesus) came to earth from heaven and took upon himself a human nature, lived a perfect and sinless life, was crucified, died, and was buried before rising from the dead and ascending into heaven, from where he will one day come to earth again, this time not in defeat, but in victory as a king.  This is really rather illogical.  All the miracles recorded in the Bible don’t really make sense to the scientific mind either.  The Bible’s accounting of a six day creation, taking place less than eight thousand years ago simply does not stack up to the vast majority of scientific evidence today.  The Bible teaches all people are sinners and therefore are condemned to eternal damnation.  Why would a good and loving God do that?  According to our doctrinal teachings God holds all people accountable for their sins and so no matter how good a person may have been, their sin is enough (one sin is enough) for God to condemn him/her to hell.  This is a good God?  God’s standard for his approval is absolute perfection which is impossible for any human to accomplish.  Does that make sense to set an impossible standard in order to have God’s approval?  God credits all humans with Adam and Eve’s original sin, making all human beings failures at righteousness even before  being born.  Is this logical?  God also imputes to all people the fallen and sinful nature of Adam and Eve, even before people are born.  This means, with the sinful nature given to all people by God, the natural inclination of all people is to sin, making people even greater failures.  And yet God holds all people accountable for such sin, even when it was he who gave all people this sinful nature from birth.  Does this make sense to you?  So now with all of humanity having fallen into sin and condemned by God for eternity, the God of the Bible decides to choose a limited number of fallen sinners for salvation and leave the rest of humanity for eternal damnation. Those that he chooses have no more merit or goodness than anyone else.  So many of the doctrinal tenets of Christianity, simply do not make logical sense.   But these tenets and many others are all in this supernatural revelation, the Bible, so it is unquestionable.  It doesn’t have to be reasonable or logical.  Because it’s in the Bible, we accept it, logical or not.  So we should teach it to our children anyway?

Just one more example, and there are many.  When we think of justice, we think the punishment should fit the crime.  That’s our justice system.  A person convicted of a crime may receive a one year or two year sentence, or life imprisonment depending on the severity of the crime.  Or when evaluating a person’s life, we look at the totality of their life and most people fit somewhere on the passing scale, whether being a grade A person, or a B, C, D, or even an F student.  We have an adjustable or sliding scale.  Reasonable people think the same when it comes to God. People tend to think, although I haven’t been perfect, I’ve been a reasonably good person.  And seeing as God is a good and gracious God, he certainly loves and accepts me and will welcome me into heaven.  That is how logical people would naturally think.  That’s how our young people think according to the tenets of Smith that our Banner editor describes.  It is such thinking as this that our national justice system is built upon.  But the doctrinal teaching of Scripture (which the Bible says is foolishness to the world) is that one sin is enough to convict a person (in fact all people) to an eternity of damnation.  Can you imagine how terrible it would be if our justice system applied the same principles.  The very people that God created are unacceptable to God because they are not perfect like God himself.  We are people, human beings, not gods.  Why judge us as though we were gods? You can see how such thinking is foolishness outside of Christian circles, and even makes our own young people cringe. 

Of course, we mask these foolish teachings of the Bible in a nice sounding gospel, that God loves everybody and wants everyone saved.  But we know better, don’t we?  After all we have our confessions, such as the Canons of Dort that we subscribe to.  I think we often forget or overlook the deeper teachings of the Bible, teachings that supercede the teachings of freewill.

So I understand how our young people, being reasonable and logical, as well as more open in their thinking, will easily come to a different world and life view than you do.  It’s in light of the foolish thinking (the Bible’s terminology) of the Bible that young people will naturally gravitate toward a more reasonable world and life perspective.

Hey Doug, I often appreciate your comments, and think this comment of yours has something to commend, as well.  I agree that doctrine has an impact on our living.  That’s true whether we are talking about good doctrine or bad.  Bad doctrine impacts on our living poorly.  See my previous comment to Chad concerning some of our doctrine.  I think our Reformers and many today have misdiagnosed Jesus and his ministry.  Our Reformed emphasis on law demonstrates such a misdiagnosis.  I would suggest taking a closer look at Jesus’ ministry if one is looking for a good impact on living.

The Jewish religion was a very prohibitive religion and by the time it had reached Jesus’ day, it had become even more prohibitive. The ten commandments when applied to daily living entailed thousands of further legalisms and prohibitions.  And this, in my opinion, is what Jesus saw as his mission, to criticize and reject such a religion that thrived mainly on prohibitions.   When Jesus was asked to identify the greatest of the commandments, instead of identifying any of the expected commandments (even from the ten commandments), he said the greatest is to love God and neighbor.  Instead of living according to a list of prohibitions, Jesus sanctioned a life of compassion.  Live by the golden rule, of doing for others, Instead of living by the rules, which meant stoning the woman caught in adultery, show compassion for her and offer forgiveness.  Instead of passing by the man dying alongside of the road (which the Jewish law sanctioned), show compassion for him whatever it might take.  And as you live such a life of compassion for others, you at the same time show love for God (in a tangible way) and win his approval, both, now and in eternity (as you have done it unto one of the least of these you have done it unto me).  Jesus endorsed a life of love and compassion, in place of prohibitive religion.  It doesn’t take love or compassion to live by the rules, even the ten commandments.  The Pharisees demonstrated  that very clearly.  And we (as a denomination - our churches) often demonstrate the same today.  So perhaps when Christian Smith reflects on the five tenets of churched young people today, maybe our youth are not so far from the truth.  Thanks for your insight, Doug.

I'm glad we can agree, Roger, that what one thinks/believes, including what we call "doctrine" does relate to how we live and what we do in life.

Our remaining disagreement appears to be about the virtues of traditional reformed doctrine.  It would seem, from this exchange and others we've had, that I'm much more a fan of that than you.

I suspect I'll continue to pitch for my perspective on that, and you will yours, each realizing that the doctrinal perspectives we each advocate do indeed affect how we live our lives. :-)

Roger, I appreciate your comments as well as your perspective very much. I also appreciate the time and effort you have invested in making them known. The CRC has avoided these discussions for far too long. It's about time the church took the concerns you express seriously.

Sadly, I would say that I know a lot of adults, not just teens, who share a "moral therapeutic Diesm". And I agree that teaching doctrine is important, not just for youth. However, it must be so much more than going to a weekly class and memorizing questions. What we're missing, I believe, is the Spirit that empowers us to live out the doctrine that we profess. If there is not power from above, if our lives don't match what we say, if our communities don't reflect the values of the Kingdom of God, then no amount of doctrine knowlege will help us. 

God's good providence never ceases to amaze!  Your timely article is just what we need as we struggle with replacing teachers, and, more importantly, convincing those teachers, along with the parents of our youth, that "moral therapeutic Deism" just won't cut it.  Now to figure out a way to get every parent in our congregation to open the Banner to page 34.

I am very interested in this discussion, coming as one who taught Bible to high school students for forty years.  First, I need to say our students do not know their catechism as folks my age once did.  Then I quickly need to say, they know their Bible much better, they know of the Kingdom of God, they understand Biblical justice and the idea of bringing shalom to chaos.  I believe we need to admit the questions have changed from the sixteenth century.  We are no longer asking how we are different from or set apart from the Catholic faith or our Mennonite brothers and sisters.  We no longer need a condensed version of the Bible when we all own several Bibles.  I cannot lament that young people do not know their catechism as much as I lament that older "saints" have no idea what Amos, Habakkuk, and Isaiah said about caring for the hurting in the world. I am all in for teaching the doctrines of the Bible, and I would put forth we have an excellent tool for doing that, it is the Bible.

Thanks Dan for your comment.  I agree that knowing the Bible is more important than knowing sixteenth century doctrine.  I think the battle for the Christian faith was different in that age than it might be today and therefore the teaching of that day has little relevance for today.  Just as knowing the legalisms and prohibitions of the Old Testament along with the added Pharisaical legalisms didn’t help people in Jesus’ day to live a meaningful God pleasing life.  So also today, I doubt that knowing the doctrines that were relevant in the sixteenth century have much impact on living a God pleasing life today.  That’s not to say that some of the teachings of the Catechism, Belgic Confession, or Canons of Dort might not be helpful.  But for the most part those teachings are pretty much meaningless, and therefore easily  forgotten today by young people.  Perhaps we need to distill some of the essential teachings of the Bible, especially the New Testament, as to how to experience an authentic Christian life.

Most Christians recognize that the New Testament interprets the Old Testament.  We don’t understand the Old Testament by itself, as would be the custom of the Jews.  We donot understand the Old Testament as a stand alone interpretation of Christianity.  That’s why the New Testament is the essential source and lens to the Christian faith.

The Mormons, in difference to most Christians, interpret both the Old and New Testaments through the lens of the Book of Mormon.  The Book of Mormon, for those of the Mormon faith, becomes the final authority for authentic Mormonism.  Most Christians discredit the Book of Mormon as a true interpretation of the Bible.  But we, as Reformed Christians, more or less do the same thing, as the Mormons, by suggesting that our three forms of unity are the interpretive lens by which to understand the Bible’s teaching.  Our church office bearers are even required to subscribe to the teachings of our confessions.  And yet these doctrinal confessions were much more relevant for the sixteenth century than they are today. 

I would suggest that if we were really concerned with how to live a Christ pleasing life (a life that matters now and in eternity) then go to the source himself.  If Jesus is God incarnate, then it makes the most sense to first and foremost consider his teachings.  How can one go wrong there?  And certainly this would put our young people in good stead for living authentic and meaningful lives.  That again, is where the moral therapeutic Deism described by Christian Smith comes closer to being a reasonable Christian standard than what is described in much of our confessional doctrinal standards.  So Dan, although we may not be exactly on the same page on all things, when it comes to Reformed doctrine, we may be close.


you said:

"the Christian faith was different in that age than it might be today and therefore the teaching of that day has little relevance for today."

"But for the most part those teachings are pretty much meaningless, and therefore easily forgotten today by young people."

Here's your big chance, Roger.  Please help save me and my students who have been sucked into this 16th century "cult" that you have so eloquently discredited and insulted.

Please elaborate so I might fully repent of the error of my ways:

How, specifically, is the Christian faith different today than what is taught in our oldest confession (Belgic)?

What different things must a modern Christian know to "live an authentic Christian life" other than what is listed in HC QA 2?

Please give me a few examples of "meaningless" portions of any one of the three confessions so that I might stop wasting my time teaching them.  On the same note, please include some of the "essential teachings of the Bible, especially the New Testament" which are excluded from the Confessions that I should be teaching.

You seem keen on focusing on the "source Himself" - Jesus incarnate.  Fantastic! We've found common ground!  Please, then, give me some scriptural texts that would support the tenets of moralistic, therapeutic deism (especially # 3-5) as being "closer to being a reasonable Christian standard than what is described in much of our confessional doctrinal standards."

Until you can truthfully answer these questions, please refrain from criticizing something which you clearly do not understand.

Wow Chad, you really got off on the wrong foot.  You totally misquoted me.  I hope your misquote wasn’t intentional, but the altered statement changes the entire thrust of your argument.   You quoted me as saying “Christian faith was different in that age....”  But actually I said, “I think the battle for the Christian faith was different in that age...”  You assumed somehow that I was saying Christian faith was different.  I didn’t say that.  But you, assuming that I had, built your whole argument on something that was not said.  I’m sorry you didn’t catch that.   If you want to re-frame your comment in light of what I did say, I’ll be glad to respond.

It might be helpful to go back several comments to my last response to you concerning Reformed doctrine, as well as my following comment to Doug.

Responding to Dan/Roger, I'm not sure it is helpful to distinguish so much between knowing doctrine and knowing the Bible.  I would suggest that the process of getting to know the Bible means that one is neccessarily developing doctrine.  The two are really the same.

Notice that in Dan's post, he emphasizes that the young people he knows have learned about certain themes in scripture, drawing from certain OT books.  Well, that's developing doctrine.  Call it something else if you like but it isn't any different that what those who wrote the CRC creeds and confessions did.

Perhaps the disagreement is about what doctrines, or doctrinal statements are good or bad, or better or worse, or more or less important.  And as to that, it seems to me at least that Dan has a bit of a doctrinal inclination that favors what has been historically been called "liberation theology," which today is more referred to as "social justice." Depending on the nuances of that doctrinal bent, I might or might not be there too.  My occupational life of 37 years has been all about justice.

That said, I often find that when folks find a "new doctrinal perspective," (today's social justice movement is that), they can forget or neglect the importance of more fundamental doctrine that actually underlies the newer perspectives they have become enamored with.

And this is where the reformed faith, historically understood, as expressed in its creeds and confessions, has great strength.  It is systematic, foundational, yet relevant to life, and not merely fashionable or limited to what today's hot doctrinal topic is.

Again, we may disagree, which is OK.  I'll pitch my brand of doctrinal perspective (understanding ofscripture) and you will too.   But we are both engaging, formulating, and evaluating doctrine.

Once again, Doug, you make a valid point concerning studying the Bible and doctrine.  Indeed, by studying the Bible you naturally come to conclusions about what you have read.  You could call those conclusions doctrine.  But I think there is a significant difference.

By studying the Bible you come to certain conclusions for yourself.  By studying the Reformed confessions you entertain the conclusions of others, in fact, others who lived some 400 years earlier than you.  It is seldom that young people attending a catechism class, will study the relevant Scriptures, as much as they will study the doctrines themselves.  So they have to assume that our doctrines represent the truth of Scripture, but likely don’t have first hand knowledge of those Scriptures.  I think (my assumption) that Dan was more concerned with young people getting first hand knowledge of Scripture, the source, than with accepting second hand knowledge.

I had suggested that the battle for the Christian faith was different in the sixteenth century than it is today.  Dan had suggested that the questions today have changed from the sixteenth century.  I think we are pretty much on the same page as to this point.  Just a simple case in point.

The Canons of Dort were written in 1618 to refute a growing and popular perspective on salvation being promoted by Jacob Arminius and his followers (Arminianism).  Throughout history, from then on, both perspectives have grown.  Among evangelical Christians the basic Arminian perspective has been acknowledged as the accepted Biblical view.  And it would seem, from our own evangelical endeavors, we too have accepted this Arminian view, as well.  The Gospel is presented as a well meant offer to all with the assumption that those hearing this offer have a free will to accept or reject such an offer.  We (the CRC) present the gospel as truly good news for all who hear its invitation.  Of course, our Canons don’t make such assumptions, demonstrating that Christ’s sacrifice is a limited atonement, limited only to those chosen by God for salvation. The rest are left to a well deserved eternal damnation.  That was the battle that raged in the 16th century over doctrine, or the question that was prevalent in the 16th century.

Today, our young people, reading the Bible for themselves, especially the gospels will likely come to the conclusion that good people go to heaven (Smith’s 5th point of a moral therapeutic Deism).  And Jesus does indeed teach that good people go to heaven.   The Bible has many conflicting ideas and emphases.  We can hand down 16th century doctrine, which seems less than logical to many today (most evangelicals) or we can encourage the study of the Bible itself.  In our age of reason, I’d like to see our young people come to their own logical conclusions after reading the Bible.  Just because our Reformed forefathers came to their own conclusions many years ago, doesn’t make them absolutely right, as have most evangelicals, as well as hundreds upon hundreds of different denominations, have demonstrated.

Roger: I must be among your "seldom" group because I studied both doctrinal materials and straight scripture growing up, and I really haven't seen real life CRC situations (having lived in Iowa and Oregon) in CRC churches and/or CSI schools where doctrinal materials are taught to the exclusion of straight Bible.

But I would also add two other points.  First, you point to the Canons of Dordt, which of our three lengthy doctrinal statements (not to mention the Contemporary Testimony) best makes your case.  But in reality, the Canons are not much used in a youth (even adult) so-called catechism class.  Rather, classes use the Belgic and the Heidelberg, perhaps less often (my experience) the CT.  Why?  Simple, some are designed to teach, others  (Canons) aren't.  In other words, you are pointing to the Canons to point to something that doesnt really much exist (using the Canons to teach youth classes).  

Second, it is really important I think that the church function with the realization that it is a church of the ages.  No, this does not mean we can't  (or don't) ever change what we think compared to Christians hundreds or thousands of years ago.  But it does mean that we should, need to, inherit the benefit of that church of the ages.  After all, we don't learn biology or math or physics by ignoring what those before us said on those subjects. 

Don't misunderstand.  I firmly believe we need to directly read and study scripture.  But I'm confident that Len Vander Zee thinks so too.  But today's prevailing deficit is less that we directly study scripture and more that we ignore the benefits that can be derived by studying folks who we have as a church decided were good at clearly discerning and expressing themes and ideas they gleaned from directly studying scripture  (like Guido de Bres and John Calvin, etc).

I don't want to worship human history, but also I don't want to ignore it.  Refusing to benefit from those who came before us leads to, well, refusing to readily learn what it took many, many lifespans to figure out.  No one would do that in the academic world (or even just in real world living, we draw from our parents who drew from theirs, etc).  Why ignore it, or even underappreciate it, when it comes to what our brothers and sisters have said through the ages as to the message of scripture?

Thanks again, Doug, for sharing your perspective.  I do understand your concerns for catechism training.  I can even applaud your concern for our young people.  I also realize that your experience of Catechism training goes back some time.  Believe me, Doug, it’s not the same anymore.  And I think part of your remorse or regret is that the church (or the CRC) is changing and is changing rapidly.  I’ve spent a good share of my adult years in a variety of CRC churches.  It’s not just the young people who are not interested in learning the catechism or Belgic Confession (or even the Contemporary Testimony).  Our adults have little interest either.  My guess is that it is now the majority of our churches that have only one Sunday worship service.  That pretty much means that in those single service churches the catechism is no longer preached.  Even in churches that have two services, the catechism isn’t the regular source for the second sermon.  Catechism preaching used to be a requirement for at least one service each Sunday.  And most members are thankful that such a rule is overlooked.  Many of our church members would likely say that it is catechism preaching that is the cause of poorly attended evening services, or the reason so many of our churches have no second service.  The point I’m making is that our doctrinal foundations mean very little to our adult membership anymore.  Our members tend to look over the fence at other churches and like what they see, churches without a well defined doctrine.  We, as churches, may say we want good preaching, but that doesn’t mean doctrinal or catechism preaching.  If you do want that, Doug, you’re one of the few.

So if our adults seem to care little about our doctrinal standards, why would we impose such an indoctrination on our young people, who also do not care about such teaching.  We may give lip service to being a confessional church (denomination) but for most members that’s all it is, lip service.  Other churches and denominations don’t teach doctrine and many are surviving better than the CRC, especially the more evangelical mega churches.  And their members have a vibrancy in their faith.

Point two, you seemed to discount the Canons of Dort because they are not very teachable.  Yes and no.  You realize that the Canons of Dort uncover and represent the most distinguishing feature of the Reformed Faith.  The Canons teach boldly what it is that makes us Calvinistic.  Without the teachings or doctrine formulated in the Canons we would not be that different from most evangelical churches.  And we wouldn’t be Calvinistic.  Although, not a very good tool for teaching, the Canons are indispensable to our identity as a denomination.  And so most doctrinal (catechism) classes of the past would at least present the five points of Calvinism as formulated in TULIP, which would cover the essential bases of the Canons of Dort.  So although not very teachable, I would think you, as well as Len Vander Zee, would want what distinguishes us from other church groups and what makes us different from the mainstream of churches to be taught to our young people.  But, maybe not.  But then, what would be the point of teaching Reformed doctrine?  

Back to point one.  I grew up in Wheaton, IL, a town with many churches.  I remember, as a kid, the the Billy Graham crusade coming to our town.  Thousands of people would attend.  All the churches of town were invited to participate in staffing the crusade, including the pre-crusade preparations to the post crusade followup.  It was a huge Christian event.  Most churches participated.  But not the CRC in town.  You might wonder why?  Well, the tenor of the whole crusade was built on a theology of Arminianism and free will, especially the invitation system that was included at the end of each night’s event.  The invitation at the end of such meetings is the hallmark of the Freewill Baptists, the very people that our Canons of Dort call heretics.  How could our churches participate in a crusade that denied our core theology by its actions.  Of course, we’ve changed, haven’t we.  We now use that same invitation system at our young people’s conventions, as well as in some of our churches.  There was a time when our denomination took a stand on our theology.  But when put into application today, it doesn’t much matter, does it?  There was a time when we separated ourselves from other churches, even or especially evangelical churches.  Not any more.  So when you want to get back to our doctrinal roots and catechism teaching, are you really serious? 

Personally, I have come to put very little stock in the Canons of Dort, as well as some of our other doctrinal teachings.  Which means for me, that I would rather see our young people having a simple but firmly fixed idea of what it means for them to be a Christian and to live out their faith with great commitment.  I don’t think having doctrinal knowledge contributes that much to having great commitment.   Most often, after finishing their catechism training and then making profession of faith, our young people nearly drop out of church.  I don’t blame just the doctrinal teaching, but do see it as a contributing factor for the disinterest they have in church once making profession of faith.  I’d rather see our young people discover for themselves what it means for them to love God and neighbor and then to take ownership of what they’ve discovered for themselves.

So much to say.  But I always talk too long.  Sorry.  Good talking with you Doug and others who might be looking in.  Blessings.

RE: Smith’s “moral therapeutic deism.”

17th/18th-century Deists found the stories of the Bible scandalous and offensive to their moral and scientific sensibilities. So they sought to create a moral religion that had no need of the Bible. Deism in the 18th century, especially, was often hostile to the Bible.

Smith’s 21st-century “moral therapeutic deists” don't reject the Bible as offensive; they find it irrelevant and therefore learn, through lived habit, to ignore it. As the “therapeutic” part of the label suggests, they pursue a personal morality that make them feel good about themselves.

It may sound nice that "The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about yourself.” But that is intensely self-centered (narcissistic, if you prefer). And it stands in dramatic opposition to the consistent message of the Bible that the central goal of life is to live a life pleasing to God in response to God’s grace (Rom. 12:1-2, among many others).

Smith’s follow-up book, Lost in Transition, suggests that moral therapeutic deism is destructive. It shows—with verbatim transcripts from interviews—that the generation from Soul Searching (now “emerging adults") is shockingly immoral and apathetic. They can't seem to turn their "feel good" approach to life into anything resembling morality.

Of course not all teens and young adults fall into this trap. Smith’s point is to show the consequences for those who adopt what he terms moral therapeutic deism. If he’s right, the church has much work to do.

RE: the discussion questions above:

1. I think the church has struggled in part because "the basics of the faith” are at the same time fairly simple (in terms of what one must know to be saved) and very complicated (in terms of how to live a God-shaped life in a complicated and fast-changing world). I have heard fellow church members say that they want sermons to offer specific moral advice. But sermons should also model the process of how to arrive at those moral conclusions, because we all need to learn how to make those complex decisions. I often wonder if it’s a sign of modern impatience or intellectual arrogance that we want an easy application.

2/3. I’m struck regularly with the realization that the average person sitting in the pew is likely to miss the richness of the Bible because we simply don’t have the biblical knowledge that the first audiences had. Messages and allusions that would have been clear to those audiences are completely lost on us without expert guidance. Historic confessions of faith can provide some of that guidance, helping us to understand important messages of the Bible.

For instance, if the problem with moral therapeutic deism is that it is narcissistic—it focuses us on pursuing feeling good about ourselves—then the 3-fold structure of the Heidelberg Catechism (Q&A 2) reminds us that our purpose in life is to live a life of gratitude to God for his mercy to us. Q&A 1 of the Westminster catechisms remind us that our “chief and highest end” is not to please ourselves but "to glorify God.” John Calvin (Institutes, book I, chapter 1) similarly observes that one cannot truly know oneself unless one truly knows God (and vice versa); that is, without a proper understanding of God, we are likely to have confused notions about ourselves. 

It’s striking that each of these historic expressions of faith, based on careful and thorough Biblical scholarship (check the footnotes), start in places that speak to the very heart of contemporary challenges! Unfortunately, many can’t see the relevance, perhaps because they don’t truly understand the confessions. As with the Bible itself, we live at a considerable historic distance from the original writers and audiences of the confessions—and our biblical, linguistic, and theological knowledge is so much poorer than theirs—so we tend to need some expert guidance to understand the confessions as well.

Rather than giving up the confessions as outdated, it would be wise to explore them more in sermons and catechism classes, guided by new catechism teaching materials from our denomination’s own experts. But in our great wisdom, we demolished our entire publishing arm! I guess we can now add that to the list of reasons for our answer to question #1 above.

Thanks James for your thoughtful input as to the importance of Christian doctrine.  You obviously have given some thought to your comments.  I’d like to respond to your first comment in regard to “deism,” before responding to your second comment.  I’ll be away for a while so don’t know if I’ll get to the second any time soon, but would like to.

Your take on deism is fairly accurate, but you do seem to put all deists in the same basket, which may be a little unfair.  It’s like putting all Christians in the same basket which would be totally unfair.  You make some generalities about deists and apply that to our churched young people in your second paragraph.  I doubt if our churched (CRC) young people see the Bible as irrelevant and therefore ignore it.  They may not give it the same credibility as you do, but don’t ignore it or see it as irrelevant.

As to our young people pursuing a personal morality, they may be following the example of Jesus,
whose teachings of morality almost exclusively focused on a personal morality and ethic of doing good.   As to our young people pursuing a personal morality that makes them feel good, consider the first question of the Heidelberg Catechism, “What is your only comfort in life and death?”  Putting that question in terms of your own personal “comfort” is not much different than asking what makes you happy, or what brings joy to your life.  Two of Smith’s deistic religious beliefs of church teens focuses on doing good.  So, as Jesus taught, doing good to others is not only a matter of pleasing others but is pleasing to God, as well. (As you have done it unto the least of these...)  And as Jesus clearly taught, those who do good will be considered as good sheep and will be welcomed into heaven.  So to say that the Bible is ignored or irrelevant seems to be putting words into the mouths of our young people that they would not agree with.  It’s a bit unfair.

Going back to your initial definition of 17th and 18th century deists, I don’t know if that includes all deists in your mind or not.  My dictionary defines deism as, “belief in the existence of a God on the evidence of reason and nature only, with rejection of supernatural revelation (distinguished from theism).”  So how does this deism work when narrowed down to a specific topic, say the origins of the world, creationism vss evolution.  Bible believing Christians have believed the creation account of Genesis gives the literal and objective explanation of how our world and life came into being (at least, until recently for most).  Deists have dismissed the Bible’s explanation (as well as the explanations of other religions) because religious explanations rely mainly on the supernatural, which ignores the objective studies of science and the scientific method of studying nature.  Scientists, not only, ignore the miraculous explanations of the Bible, but of all religions, because all religions offer differing explanations that defy logic and reason (in other words, defy the scientific method).  So deism when applied to the subject of origins will ignore any supernatural explanations in favor objective evidence and reason.  That’s not to say that God isn’t necessarily involved (as theistic evolutionists and intelligent design scientists will affirm), just that the Bible, Koran, Hindu writings or other religious dogma does not contribute to an accurate objective explanation of origins.

When applied more broadly, our young people, may apply such a principle to their faith understanding of God.  Young people (as well as Western adults) want a rational and reasonable explanation for a philosophy to live by.  That was the perspective of Thomas Jefferson, the third U.S. president.  He referred himself as a Christian deist.  He rejected the supernatural element of the Bible, but greatly appreciated the moral teachings of Jesus.  He formulated his own Bible by removing everything from the Bible except the moral teachings of Jesus, which Jefferson considered to be the highest and best explanation of good that humans can live by.  In a sense Thomas Jefferson created the red-letter Bible which places all of Jesus’ words in red, as if to give special weight and significance to his moral teachings.  Jefferson claimed that his form of Christianity (or deism) was one that was logical and the same time called him to the greatest standard of living.

One other comment in regard to Smith’s brand of deism held by teenagers in the church.  As you point out, James, Smith characterizes this deism as destructive.  Smith is obviously characterizing such a philosophy as anything but moral, which demonstrates his own bias.  The same characterization could be made of Reformed Christianity.  Our prejudice against gays is just one small example of the harm and destruction that Christians have tried to inflict on the gay community, and many would say such Christian action is immoral.

To my mind, teens, especially churched teens, simply want a faith, a religion, that makes logical sense and that creates the greatest good and contentment for all.  Most Christians assume Historic Christianity is logical, but when thought through, is based on a multitude of illogical (miraculous) presuppositions that have to be accepted by faith (not reason).  I think, increasingly, that a logical faith is the direction that our Western civilization, including our young people, is moving toward.

Great article, thanks Len!

It is not only our teens, though, that embrace a position of moral therepeutic deism. In fact in my pastorates I've found that more heavily in our retired folks. And, I've found teens very open, excited even, about being challenged to get to know God in a deeper and more orthodox way. We're all in this cultural battle together!

Thanks James “K” for answering some of the questions posed by Len’s original article.  For question one, you seem to be saying, the actual message of salvation is simple, but the application of that salvation is complicated, the how of living a God pleasing life.  I don’t think the two are really separated, at least in terms of Jesus’ teachings.  And I don’t really see the complicated part that you speak of.  Judaism, especially the Judaism of Jesus’ day, was very complicated.  In the eyes of the Jews (esp. the Pharisees) salvation was a matter of living according to the multitude of Jewish prohibitions and legalisms.  Keep the laws and prohibitions and salvation was yours, oh, and if you were a Jew or proselyte, as well.  Jesus didn’t buy such a system.  Jesus promoted a salvation by doing good from a principle of compassion.

The Jewish system, a legal system, was more concerned with justice than with expressing love or compassion.  Do not steal, do not lie, do not murder, do not commit adultery, were all enforceable laws, as well as the multitude of additional prohibitions that were added to the basic commandments.  They had (and have) nothing to do with love. Such laws simply call for fairness and not violating the rights of others.  Jesus, in contrast, called upon his followers to live by a different principle altogether, a principle of compassion.  When asked or commanded to go one mile, instead go two; when asked for your coat, give also your shirt; when seeing a wounded person along the road offer help even though the law allowed you to pass by such a person; when catching a person who had committed adultery, instead of dispensing justice, offer forgiveness.  Jesus always called upon his followers to go well beyond the law.  In reality the commands to love God and neighbor are not the summary of the law but a summons to do good from a completely different principle of love and compassion.  The Pharisees were law keepers, but their ethic or morale didn’t carry them beyond the point of justice.  Jesus called his followers to live their lives from a principle of love and compassion.  When the rich young man responded to Jesus that he had kept all the commandments, Jesus said he lacked one thing, compassion (“Go sell your possessions and give to the poor”).  And through his many parables Jesus applied this principle to a variety of life situations.  You could keep all ten commandments and give a tithe to the church and yet in Jesus book, that didn’t cut it.  That was the description of the Pharisees, they were law keepers, but without compassion.  Compassion doesn’t stop at justice.  Jesus was advocating for those who do good from a compassionate heart.  Laws and prohibitions can be legislated and judicated, but compassion can not.  As Jesus saw it, the mark of the kingdom was not law keeping or justice, but rather compassion.  And those who demonstrated compassion, were those who did it as unto Christ and would be welcomed into the eternal kingdom.

So, according to the teaching of Jesus salvation was a matter of living compassionately.  He applied this compassionate living to a variety of situations.  Followers of Jesus are encouraged to do the same.  So James, how is such living complicated?  I don’t think it is.  Not necessarily easy, but not complicated.  Jesus didn’t teach either law or dogma, but compassion.

As to your answer to the second and third questions posed by Len’s article, you suggest the need for expert guidance, offered both by experts of the past, as well as present day experts.  John Calvin suggested that the Christian should see life through the lens of Scripture.  I think, though, what he might have been really saying is that the Christian should see life through his interpretation of Scripture.  Scripture can be interpreted in a hundred different ways.  Even in Calvin’s day there were many interpreters of Scripture who came out all over the road map on the issues of his day.  Should you come out on the Arminian interpretation or Calvinistic interpretation on salvation? The majority of Christians today seem to have come out on the side of Arminius.  Today the so called experts agree on very little.  You have the Reformed experts, Baptist, Lutheran, Pentecostal, Methodist, Mormon experts, and on and on.  So do you really think these experts are really that helpful except to promote their own ideas or their own denomination’s ideas?  Even our pastors are indoctrinated into the Reformed perspective from the very beginning of their seminary training (just as are the students attending other seminaries).  They are not really free to explore or venture away from their own denominational thinking. So you may call our pastors experts but they don’t and can’t venture very far from their home base thinking.  Does that make them experts?  I don’t think so.  So when you express that the pew member of our churches needs expert interpreters of Scripture and the confessions, I wonder where those experts come from.

I don't have anything to contribute to the back and forth of the other comments, but I do think Mr. Van Zee would be proud of my church for taking its young people through the catechism, as I experienced ten years ago in high school. But in my experience, the doctrinal synopsis we were given was not only roadmap, but a shortcut. The catechism summarized the Bible, so why read it on my own? Even more, I finished 13 years of Christian education, Sunday school, and catechism classes, then entered college unable to read the Bible on my own in a meaningful way. I was told what the Bible said, but never shown how to see for myself. The focus on teaching good doctrine reinforced an unhealthy dependence on second-hand interactions with God's word, and therefore in a sense, second-hand interactions with God. Ideally our churches are filled with people able to correctly handle the word of truth, but we rely so heavily on preachers, books, and pre-written devotionals. Instead of learning to eat the food of God's word like Jeremiah writes in 15:16, and finding it a delight, we end up relying on a bunch of mother birds to do the serious digesting and regurgitate it to us in a form easier to swallow. I don't think the confessions are harmful as introduction or clarification on what the church believes, but if God's word is living and active, why aren't we getting that into kids' hands more? Let them discover and interpret. Let them make mistakes. Be there to gently correct them. I think this is where the first problem reveals another. I can only speak from my experience, but I don't think young people are leaving church because they haven't been taught doctrine. They have gone absent because they've been taught a doctrine in classrooms without someone walking the doctrine with them in real life. They understand Christianity as simply correct belief in the right facts, instead of a transformed life loving God and people. And to get there they and we need someone to follow, to lovingly guide us from spiritual infancy on to maturity. I was told to have devotions since middle school, and yet for all the coaxing and encouraging, no one ever showed me what that meant until a friend in college invited me to join him, to be with him and experience how he interacted with the word. Only then did I see significant growth in my relationship with God. We cannot teach this in a class. I've heard the phrase Christ-like example a thousand times, but what did Christ actually do with his disciples? No classrooms. He walked and talked with them, asked them questions, answered their questions. Young people don't always want new technology and summarized answers. I'm assuming that like the rest of us, they want someone to listen to them, to care, to be authentic about struggles and successes, and to know Jesus, not just know about him. This is long and hard work best suited for people with more patience than most of us possess, but it is worth it and I think most of us are more equipped for it than we're willing to admit. Keep the catechism in our toolbelts of teaching, yes. But replace the classroom with a mentor. I am convinced that the CRC can thrive without ever opening the Heidelberg catechism again if men and women step into younger lives and point them to Jesus and the Bible that tells his story. 

Responding to Jon Bierma ...

I quite agree that teaching kids doctrinal material without also having them read/study scripture is a bit of a failure.  Interestingly, having myself grown up through the CRC/SCI Schools system. I very much benefited from a lot of both.  Indeed, I vividly recall in elementary school going through different sections of the Bible in each year, according to a master plan that eventually covered the whole of the Bible if completed.  Catechism classes were in a certain night of the week, after school and before milking the cows.  Sometimes, the milking got done a bit late.

Beyond that, Sunday School generally covered Bible stories and texts, not the HC or other doctrinal materials.

I very much doubt Len would advocate instruction in doctrinal materials to the exclusion of the scripture the doctrine speaks of.  I don't think anyone would.

Nor do I think Len would advocate that children not be taught how to "walk" the scripture in life.  I can't say that part of instruction was missed in my childhood either.

Although I have my own life context and I don't know of the life context of everyone else, I would agree that doctrinal materials are today undertaught in the CRC community generally.  No, it doesn't mean straight scriptural teaching/reading should be lessened.  

Bottom line is that I see teaching both is two indivisible parts of a whole (and teaching how to walk the talk is a third part).  After all, whenever a pastor delivers a sermon, he/she is, unless he/she merely reads the words of scripture (and perhaps then in the original languages), essentially teaching a bit of doctrine.

Thanks Jon, for your response.  I can empathize with your comments in regard to catechism training and studying Scripture.  I think your experience is the more typical of our CRC young people today.  Studying the catechism is a short cut to understanding the Bible.  But the question in my mind, is it the correct understanding of Scripture?  Do our doctrinal confessions tint or shade how we read and understand the Bible?  Seminary students, preparing for the ministry, go to the seminary that best aligns with the doctrinal positions that they want to learn in preparing for ministry.  Someone preparing for the Baptist church ministry will want his understanding of Scripture to have a Baptist tint to it.  The seminarian preparing for ministry in the Reformed denomination will attend seminary where the tint of his training will be Reformed.  He’ll study Scripture but the glasses through which he studies will be Reformed, most specifically influenced by his study of Reformed theology or doctrine.

That’s what the catechism, as well as our other confessions do.  The catechism helps us to look at Scripture with a bias, a Reformed bias.  The catechism is loaded down with Scriptural proof texts or foot notes.  But proof texting is one of least beneficial ways to read Scripture.  You can easily build a Baptist, Lutheran, or Reformed theology by proof texting the Bible, because by proof texting you can make the Bible say almost anything you want.  Proof texting is not really the study of Scripture.  That (prooftexting) Joe, was probably a major part of your Scripture study while in catechism class.  The authors of the catechism found Scripture verses that supported their theology.  As you suggested, Catechism training equips our young people to understand what the church believes, not always what the Bible teaches.  Often, unwittingly, you may have thought that you were studying the Bible along with the catechism, but it wasn’t the kind of study that you have later come to appreciate.  Also typical of CRC churches, is that they do not teach both Sunday School and Catechism classes to our young people.  It’s one or the other, usually catechism class.  So if our young people don’t go to the Christian school, essentially they don’t study the Bible.

And often catechism training becomes a method to get the church’s teachings pounded into the heads of our young people, but not necessarily into their hearts.  Most denominations and churches today do very little with catechism or the doctrinal training of young people.  In contrast, in the CRC, we have often considered doctrinally astute and knowledgeable young people as growing toward maturity and even prepared for making profession of faith.  In the case of some that may be true, but I wouldn’t call it a proven principle by any means.  I appreciate the concerns that you express in your responce.  Thanks.

Roger. You say CRC churches usually teach catecism to the exclusion of the Bible, and that it is "one or the other."  Wow.  Given the CRCs I've had experience with, the use of doctrine has lessened and the "Bible instruction without use of Catechism" has decreased, but still both are taught. More importantly, this shouldn't be, and can't be grankly, "one or the other."

You can say that using the catechism for teaching creates a "bias" but that is just a nasty sounding way to say it acknowledges the fact that the church is the church over time and if many believers throughout time.  Moreover, we all, without exception, form a "bias" about what Scripture said, Reformed, Lutheran, etc., but also Jehovah's Witnesses, Unitarians, and Norman's, even Muslims.

Does not scripture suggest that parents should teach their children?  If so (although you might not think so), they will inevitably catechize their children.  The only other option is to give your kids a bible and say, figure it out.  But wait, better give them the Bible in the original languages too because translation are also a bit of catechism.  But wait, even giving a set of papers to your children, even Greek and Hebrew versions, is doctrinal because it is a declaration about what the Bible is.  Indeed, in the CRC , that declaration (what writings are the canon) is contained in the Belgic Confession.

Alas, it would seem we really can't avoid teaching doctrine (catechism) to our children unless we are willing to not push our doctrinal biases on them, are we?  That being the case, perhaps we should both teach our children "what we believe" (doctrine/catechism) while at the same time teach them from the documents (biblical books) as well, and allow them to explore both/all on their own as well.

Sorry Doug, I guess I didn’t make myself clear.  What I meant to say is that in most CRC churches, a grade nine student will not likely have a Sunday School class, as well as catechism training.  It will be one or the other, and is usually the Catechism class.  That pattern in most of our churches is repeated throughout a student’s high school years, and may even include middle school years, as well.  So it is likely that a CRC young person in grades six or seven through their high school years will only have catechism training.   Seeing as the Bible study aspect of Catechism classes is generally proof texting the catechism, it doesn’t really constitute a study of the Bible, especially in the sense that Jon has come to appreciate (as per his comment).  So if a CRC young person hasn’t been enrolled in a Christian school, his study of the Bible (from grade 7-12) has been nil.  His Christian training is not strictly from an objective reading of the Bible, but instead is a biased reading of selected Scriptures, chosen to prove the Reformed doctrinal perspective of Christianity.

Such training is really no different than a cult getting hold of a young person and indoctrinating him/her in the beliefs of that cult.  I’ve heard numerous stories of “how can we rescue our children from such deception?  They are being held captive by their lies.”  We call it “faith nurturing” in our churches but the reality is that we want to train and indoctrinate our children to think like Reformed Christians, rather than Baptists, Pentecostals, Catholics, Jehovah Witnesses, Muslim, Hindus, or agnostics.  We don’t want our children to objectively look at the world and at life and choose a world and life view for themselves.  We want to channel their thinking and religious commitment.

Does such indoctrination (or faith nurture) present any problems?  What are parents to do?  Is there a way to train our children without compelling or forcing them to believe the way we do?  Or is that what we want?  I doubt that relying on our five hundred year old confessions gives us the best doctrinal teaching relevant for today.  The New Testament teaches that the Holy Spirit will lead his church in all truth.  Does that mean the Holy Spirit will lead the Mormon church, or the Pentecostal, or the Muslim church, or the Reformed Church?  Is the variety of denominations and religions part of the Holy Spirit’s leading?  I too, am left with some doubts and questions.

Roger, if you look at the most recent middle school (6th-8th grade) catechism materials produced by our denomination, you will see that they focus on building knowledge of the Bible and applying that knowledge to contemporary life. The catechism questions and answers appear only in very simplified form, though the structure of the catechism provides structure for the organization of the curriculum. Perhaps it would be good to be familiar with it before criticizing it and comparing it to "indoctrinating" kids into a "cult."

Roger. Given the statements in your most recent post, I can only imagine that you reject any biblical admonition to "train up a child in the way he should go," lest that child be indoctrinated into the Christian, let alone Calvinist or Reformed, cult?

I don't know how else to interpret what you have said.  Indeed, I can't imagine from your comments why you would want parents or their church to even suggest to children that the Bible is other than just another compiled piece of historic literature.  After all, as you say, doing that "channels" them and certainly interferes with their "choosing a world and life view for themselves."  Who do parents think they are anyway?

Thanks James K for your comment.  You are correct in suggesting that I hadn’t looked at the most recent material for 6th  and 7th graders.   I just looked at it now.  Have you looked at it?  Is this the kind of catechism training that Len Vander Zee is looking for when his opening statement (in this article) is, “Why We Need to Revive Catechism for Our Teens.”  Looks pretty light on the catechism to me.  But that suits me fine.  I’m not advocating for greater indoctrination of our teens.  In contrast to this new material, historically and up until recent years, catechism training was very heavy on the doctrine, and Bible study was basically prooftexting the doctrine.  And I do believe the high school material is still much heavier on the doctrine, although it’s been more than five years since I’ve looked at our catechism materials.  I think the fear by many CRC Christians, including Len, is that we are increasingly abandoning our confessional roots, and catechism training is the best way to alleviate those fears. 

Doug, you may be on to something.  I am a bit of a religious skeptic.  Of course, the opposite is being gullible, simply accepting what you are told on blind faith.  Just because you are gullible, is it good to pass your gullibility on to your children?  You suggest that given my statements, I must reject any and all Biblical instruction to train up our children in the way they should go.  That Doug, is far from true.  I think the real intent of those Biblical authors is that parents are to train their children in a moral and compassionate life.  I doubt that teaching doctrine has much to do with such training.  The Pharisees were very theological in their understanding of God, but a mile off in how to live a compassionate life.  And in such a life, they missed the whole point of their religion.  That is the big concern for me today.

Roger. I can understand a concern about being theologically astute but yet not understand, let alone live, the essences (note my plural form of the word) of Christianity.  In my own experience -- in my life and seeing that of others -- faith "comes alive" when we realizethat the Christian faith is a foundational viewpoint for all we do, that Kuyperian "not once square inch ..." thing that is more quoted perhaps than understood.

But guess what?  That was for me, and is, doctrinal teaching, worldview teaching.  It was not, in my life, that the Bible was not involved, but that it's full message, it's all-of-life message, became more than just a "part of life" but a foundation for all of it, whether I was in church, in the office, talking with my neighbors, coaching Little League, mowing the neighborhood park, or arguing first amendment issues in the Court of Appeals.  

Just maybe, you and I have the same goal -- that the church (but also parents, school, friends, neighbors, and those who came before us via their writings) teach our children as they grow a faith and faith response that is full and unlimited in what it asks of them.  To me, this is the "gratitude" part of that short synoptic phrase often used to summarize CRC doctrine, "Guilt, Grace and Gratitude."  And I think it makes life full.  :-)

Thanks Doug for this last response.  I enjoy your comments because you obviously give a lot of thought to your faith experience before commenting.  And your comments have a good measure of consistency through out.  I appreciate that your faith experience brings a depth of meaning into your life.  I also realize my comments are a frustration to many because I tend to introduce doubt into our Reformed and even Christian world and life view. 

You mention Kuyper’s now famous quote, that not one square inch...  But of course, most committed Christians feel very comfortable with such a statement regardless of the denomination to which they belong, especially when speaking of their faith (religious) content.  Whether God is all in all in the Christian’s life or not, they know that God’s claim on life and living is all encompassing.

Did you ever think, that the Pharisee’s probably were Kuyperian in their faith and practice?  They believed that God’s rule extended over all of life and living.  That’s why they were not satisfied with a minimal ten commandment law, but extended that law into all of life and living, so as to say that God’s rule does not overlook any part of our livelihood.  And no doubt, living out the law was an expression of their gratitude to God for the deliverance that they experienced from God too.  And yet Jesus said that unless our righteousness surpasses the righteousness of the Pharisees it means nothing.

The point I’m making is that so much of Christianity’s expressions of faith have that same certainty, whether they are Reformed, Baptist, Jehovah Witness, Pentecostal or whatever.  Your certainty of faith is no more certain than that of your Pentecostal brother or sister, and yet the foundations can seem very different.  Like you, they have wonderful stories to tell.  And that is because our faith experience is so subjective.  Each has his/her own story to tell.  Each claims that the foundation of their experience is the sure word of God.  But how sure is it, if it has to be accepted by faith.  Very few of the stories and elements of the Bible are verifiable, therefore have to be accepted by faith alone.  And that makes them subject to interpretation.  Your story, Doug, sounds like a great story, as do the stories of so many others.  But that doesn’t make yours or my story normative for anyone else.  Even the foundations of different Christians vary from person to person and perhaps even those who claim a different religion having a different foundation altogether, and yet all want to say God is all in all, not one square inch of life lies outside of God’s involvement and control. 
I’d like to see our young people develop a Christian perspective, but not so narrowly as to take away their imagination as to what it means to be a follower of Christ.  I’d like to hear their stories and what it is that makes them unique, just as your story makes you unique.

Suggest that you read the book: 'Already Gone', regarding young people leaving the church.

The issue is regarding the "Authority of God's Word", i.e. watch?v=BDlCIIRG6mY on youtube.


The full link for the Authority of God's Word video: