The Christian's ABC: Catechisms and Catechizing in England C.1530-1740

By Ian Green | Go to book overview

1
'What is Catechizing?'

IF one looks up the terms 'catechism' or 'catechesis' in an encyclopaedia of religious history, one finds an account of elementary instruction from the first centuries of the Christian church to the present day.1 In the early modern period, however, most Protestants, including the English, did not use these terms in the same way as their medieval predecessors. Indeed, many Protestant clergy denied that the medieval church had catechized at all. 'Among us', claimed Luther, 'the catechism has come back into use, as it were by right of recovery.' What we set before you, wrote Calvin in the preface of his catechism, is what was used among Christians in ancient times before the devil ruined the church.2 Catechizing, it was said in an English translation of a work by a French Protestant (in 1580), had in 'the last ages come again' after being abandoned by the papists in the Middle Ages.3 A few years later Richard Greenham put the point even more forcefully: catechizing had been 'put down' between the time of the Fathers and that of Luther.4 Some Protestants, including Luther and Calvin, did not deny that there had been attempts at religious instruction before the Reformation, but they tended to view it as both misleading and ineffective: the 'remnants' of instruction in the medieval period could only 'beget superstition, without any edification', said Calvin.5

If we are to get to the heart of English catechetics in the early modern period, we must first try to see how and why the usages of that era differed from those of the previous thousand years. The leaders of neither the established church nor the major alternatives to it in England ever issued a clear definition or rationale of the practice, such as Luther provided in the preface to his catechisms, but from the few indications that English church leaders did provide, together with the views of the scores of catechetical authors who served in that church and have left us evidence, it is possible to reconstruct what was probably a majority view. 'Q[uestion]. What is catechizing?

____________________
1
Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church2, ed. F. L. Cross ( Oxford, 1974), 248-50; New Catholic Encyclopedia ( New York, 1967), iii. 208-40; The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church, ed. J. D. Douglas ( Exeter, 1974), 199-201; there is also a wide definition in J. H. Westerhof III and O. C. Edwards Jr. (eds.), A Faithful Church: Issues in the History of Catechesis ( Wilton, Conn., 1981), 2-6.
2
Strauss, Luther's House of Learning, 155; Torrance, School of Faith, 5."
3
W. Charke, 'Of the use of catechising', sig. D2v, in R. Cawdrey, A short and fruitefull treatise ( 1580).
4
R. Greenham, Second part of the workes ( 1600), 75.
5
Janz, Three Reformation Catechisms, 181-3; Torrance, loc. cit.; and see below, pp. 21-5.

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