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A Catechism that Makes Disciples: The Genevan Catechism

The latest issue of Credo Magazine focuses on Confessions every Christian should read. The following is one of the issue’s featured articles by Jean Francesco A.L. Gomes, a minister of the Presbyterian Church of Brazil and a Ph.D. student at Calvin Theological Seminary majoring in Systematic and Moral Theology.

The Christian church is a dynamic community that is always receiving new members – either by birth or evangelism – and one of its long-lasting challenges is to teach new ones the essential grammar of the Christian faith. The methods by which churches have provided this instruction, however, are far from being undisputed. No doubt, each congregation has the burden of understanding its own context and teaching its community accordingly. But the question is: do we need to start from scratch, or can the rich Christian tradition help us in the process?

In this brief article, I am pleased to introduce the Genevan Catechism (1542/1545), the culmination of John Calvin’s concern to reach the unlearned audience of Geneva, and propose that the catechetical practice still stands as a useful strategy for training youth in the faith and incorporating them into the liturgical life of the church.

Developing the Genevan Catechism

Calvin spent part of his life (1536-45) implementing an educational method for the unlearned. On three occasions, he tried to develop an effective summary of doctrine for children in his early ministry in Geneva. On November 10, 1536, he and Guillaume Farel presented the Confession to the city magistrates, a text intended for catechesis of children (after Calvin had taken up permanent residence in the city). In 1537, Calvin produced Instruction in Faith, originally written in French, and translated by him into Latin in 1538 as the Catechism or Institution of the Christian Religion of the Church of Geneva. Following the pattern of the Augsburg Confession (1530), Calvin clearly thought that “the best way to instruct children was to set forth in a clear, simple way the central topics of doctrine, according to the order of law, creed, prayer, and sacraments.”Christian education stood at the center of Calvin’s reforming work in Geneva. He believed that God’s truth could prosper only when doctrine was passed on by adequate instruction. Click To Tweet

Calvin changed his mind, however, during his exile in Strasbourg (1538-41). Deeply influenced by Martin Bucer, he learned and had the opportunity to develop his own version of his former catechism. Calvin adopted the dialogical form of question and answer in the Catechism of the Church of Geneva, written in French in 1542, following his return from exile. To spread the Genevan teaching and strengthen the ecumenical bonds with other Reformed churches, Calvin also translated his catechism into Latin in 1545.

In a nutshell, Christian education stood at the center of Calvin’s reforming work in Geneva. He believed that God’s truth could prosper only when doctrine was passed on by adequate instruction. Apart from a strategic program for instructing the unlearned, especially children, Calvin contended that there would be no success in reforming the church.

Therefore, he insisted to the city leaders that religious education, strategically condensed in his catechism, had to be implemented in a threefold manner: at catechism services on Sundays, in at-home instruction led by parents throughout the week, and in an adapted form in the new Reformed schools of Geneva. Calvin believed that these three groups of leaders in their respective realms: parents at home, pastors at church, and teachers at the new Reformed schools would raise the next generation of believers in Geneva. Despite the initial resistance by the city, Calvin achieved his objective of being supported by local authorities.

The Liturgical Framework of the Genevan Catechism

Calvin’s catechism is divided into fifty-five sections and contains in its four main parts a total of 373 questions and answers. The close relation between doctrine and worship is a striking feature of Calvin’s theology. The theme of worship is clearly the guiding thread of the Genevan Catechism, and question 8 works as a summary of its design:

T.: What is the proper way to honor Him?

S.: By putting all our trust in Him; that we serve Him by obeying His will; that we go to Him in all our needs, seeking health and all good things from Him; and that we acknowledge, in our hearts as well as with our mouths, that all good comes from Him alone.

This answer highlights Calvin’s aim to teach children the four main topics of the Christian faith: the Apostle’s Creed, the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and the sacraments. God is to be trusted, obeyed, invoked, and acknowledged as the source of every good thing. Accordingly, true worship consists of four things. First, it requires faith, as seen in questions 1-130, which encourages students to place their whole confidence in God. It begins with the question: “What is the chief end of human life?” Any child in Geneva should be trained to answer: “To know God.” What follows is an explanation of the Apostle’s Creed in four parts: the first three concentrate on each person of the Trinity and the fourth on the church, showing that the aim of any doctrine of Christianity is to cultivate the right adoration of the Trinity.Apart from a strategic program for instructing the unlearned, especially children, Calvin contended that there would be no success in reforming the church. Click To Tweet

Second, true worship means to obey God’s will in his law, as seen in questions 131-232, with an interpretation of the Decalogue as well as themes of brotherly love and use of the law. Compared to his first catechism (1538), Calvin’s new catechism (1542/45) reveals a theological development during his exile in Strasbourg. In contrast to his early Lutheran inclination, Calvin changed the order of the first two sections of his catechism, placing faith before the Law. He realized that God’s commandments are only profitable if understood by regenerated Christians on the basis of the gospel. For instance, Calvin applies the deliverance from Egypt to all Christians, for they are all freed from the bondage of sin.

Third, to worship God is to call upon Him in all our necessities through prayer, as described in questions 233-295, in which Calvin explains the content of the Lord’s Prayer. Three sections deal with the glory of God, while three others deal with the person who prays. Young Genevans were trained in this section to approach God with their minds and hearts:

S.: Since God is a Spirit, he requires men to give him the heart in all cases, and more especially in prayer, by which they hold communion with him. Wherefore he promises to be near to those only who call upon him in truth: on the other hand, he abominates and curses all who pray to him deceitfully, and not sincerely.

Further, the catechist asks: “What kind of feeling does God require in prayer?” The children should be able to answer:

S.: First, that we feel our want and misery, and that this feeling begets sorrow and anxiety in our minds. Secondly, that we be inflamed with an earnest and vehement desire to obtain grace from God. These things will also kindle in us an ardent longing to pray.

Fourth, the true worship of God consists of embracing Scripture with entire heartfelt conviction, detailed in questions 296-308, and by properly partaking in the Sacraments, as covered in questions 309-373. God communicates with us through his Word in Scripture and through the sacraments. There are only two sacraments: baptism and communion. These are external proofs of the grace of God, representing spiritual realities visibly in order to imprint God’s promises more strongly in our hearts. Thus, after concluding these four sections throughout the year, the student was ready for his first communion, though it was still necessary to be examined by the church.

Read the full article here.

Jean Francesco A. L. Gomes

Jean Francesco A.L. Gomes is a minister of the Presbyterian Church of Brazil since 2013. Currently, he is a Ph.D. student at Calvin Theological Seminary majoring in Systematic and Moral Theology. He worked as assistant professor in Homiletics and Practice of Preaching at South Presbyterian Seminary (2013-2015) and taught the same subject at Christ’s Servant Theological Seminary (2015-2017). In 2016, he published his first book, “Namoro: Um ensaio para o casamento,” republished in 2018 with the title “O Significado do Namoro“.

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