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

By Ian Green | Go to book overview
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Catechetical Structures

WHEN designing a form, a catechist was soon faced by two important decisions: what material should go in, and in what sequence should it be presented? A quick glance at the contents of the beginners' catechisms written by Luther, Calvin, the leaders of the Edwardian church, the Heidelberg theologians, and the Westminster divines shows a good deal of overlap but also a number of differences;1 and in the next few chapters we shall be looking at the decisions on content taken by the authors of the best-selling forms in early modern England. But before we do that, it might be helpful to look at the kinds of structures into which that material was placed. In many cases there was a close correlation between the framework within which an author handled his material and the theological standpoint he wished to convey. Thus in the Brandenburg-Nuremberg order of baptism of 1533, godparents were told to teach a child 'first the Ten Commandments, in order that thereby it may learn to know God's will, and its sins; then the Creed, whereby we receive grace ... lastly, also the Lord's Prayer, in order that it may call upon God, and pray to him for aid'.2 On the other hand, a particular structure was not indissolubly wedded to a specific theology. The Prayer Book catechism of 1549 had the same sequence as Calvin's catechism of 1541, but no one has seriously suggested that its content is distinctively Calvinist; Nowell's catechism, on the other hand, followed that of Luther's short catechism, but the sequence of ideas and theological emphasis clearly owed more to Calvin than anyone else; and English authors who adopted a Heidelberg-type sequence of 'guilt, grace, and gratitude' were still able within that framework to promote certain insular preoccupations.3 As we shall also see shortly, the agile minds of contemporary catechists were capable of inserting almost any doctrine into almost any point of the four staple items of contemporary catechizing, so that very similar structures could be used to communicate the different emphases that co-existed within early modern Protestantism.

The easiest place in which to compare Luther short catechism, the English Prayer Book catechism, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Westminster Shorter Catechism is Schaff, Creeds; modern editions of Calvin's catechism are available in Torrance, School of Faith, and in a facsimile edition of the 1556 Geneva edition in English ( Amsterdam/ New York, 1968).
Cited in Aston, England's Iconoclasts, 346-7.
See following paragraphs, and L. D. Durbin, Education by Catechism: The Development of the Sixteenth-Century English Catechism, Ph.D. thesis ( Northwestern, 1987), 132-3.


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