The Synod of Dort and Catechism
The following is a talk I did for the Dort Conference held in Caruaru, Brazil on March 23, 2019. The Portuguese version can be found here.
The scene happens almost every week in Reformed churches in Canada and Australia. It is usually a Tuesday or a Wednesday evening. The parents bring all the children between the ages of 12 and 18 to be taught catechism by their pastor. Most of the time it is the pastor who teaches; if a church is vacant, then an elder or even someone else might do it. In a large church, the pastor might not be able to teach all the classes. Because there are so many students, there will have to be others teaching beside the pastor.
In some parts of Australia, these catechism classes are taught by the pastor at the Christian school during the day. In my congregation, like in Canada, we do the classes in the evening.
Let me describe in more detail what it looks like where I am a pastor. In Launceston, we have three classes, all on Wednesday evening. The first class is from 7:00 to 7:45. This class is for the children between the ages of 12 and 15. We call it the junior class. In this class, the children learn the doctrine of the Bible with the help of the Heidelberg Catechism. They are expected to memorize a part of the Catechism every week. I teach them what it means with the Bible.
The next class is from 8:00 to 8:45. This class is for the children between the ages of 15 and 18. This is the senior class. This class is divided up into three years. In the first year, they study the biblical teachings of the Belgic Confession. They do some memorizing, but they memorize Bible passages and not the Belgic Confession. In the second year, the focus is on the Canons of Dort. Then, in the third year, they again study the Heidelberg Catechism.
The last class begins at 9:00. This is the class for those who hope to make public profession of faith. This class mostly reviews the biblical teachings of the Reformed confessions, but in my church I also teach our young people several weeks of apologetics – that’s all about how to defend the Christian faith.
As I mentioned, this is standard practice in our Reformed churches in Canada and Australia. I don’t know about how it goes here in Brazil. But if something like this is done in Brazil too in your churches, I wonder if the same thing is missing that is often missing in Canada and Australia. Reformed churches usually do well at teaching their young people. The thing that is often missing is the parents. The parents are often not teaching their children. In the minds of many Christian parents, the church has to teach their children. But they don’t have to teach. And so they often don’t. This is sad. Our churches could be stronger and more faithful if all the parents were to teach their children Christian doctrine.
This is where we would do well to pay attention to the Synod of Dort. The Synod discussed a great many more things besides how to deal with the Arminians. One of the topics discussed early in the Synod was the question of how best to teach the youth of the church. On November 30, 1618 the Synod of Dort issued its decree on the best manner of catechesis. In this talk, we will look at what Dort decided on this, why, and what can we learn from it for today.
Why the Synod Discussed Catechism Teaching
We need to begin with some background. The Reformation placed a strong emphasis on the importance of catechisms for teaching Christian doctrine. There were many Protestant catechisms written and published in the 1500s. But without a doubt one of the most popular was the Heidelberg Catechism, written in 1563. This Catechism was first translated into Dutch in the same year it appeared in German, 1563. Before long, the Heidelberg Catechism became the catechism of Reformed churches in the Netherlands.
The Synod of Dort started in 1618. As I mentioned, the Synod had to deal with the Arminian problem. But part of the Arminian problem had to do with the Heidelberg Catechism. The Arminians did not like it. They had theological issues with it, but they also said it was too difficult for young people. They said that it didn’t have enough of the Bible in it. So, as we come to the Synod of Dort, the Heidelberg Catechism was under pressure.
But there were other issues related to the question of catechism teaching more generally. Before the Synod of Dort, the Dutch Reformed churches did not have catechism classes as many Reformed churches have them today. Often they would have a brief class in Christian doctrine for those who were about to profess their faith. But to have a regular weekly class for the youth of the church taught by the minister – that was unheard of.
What they did have in some places was catechism preaching. At the Synod of the Hague in 1586, the Dutch Reformed churches agreed that each Sunday afternoon the pastors should “briefly explain the summary of doctrine contained in the Catechism.” This became part of the Reformed Church Order. Now the problem was that, even after 1586, in some places this was poorly done. In other places it was not done at all. This was especially the case in many small country or village churches. So there was a lack of consistency in the Dutch Reformed churches leading up to the Synod of Dort. Whole congregations were missing out on regular doctrinal instruction, and that obviously included the youth of those congregations. And obviously the future of the church is not very bright if the youth are not being discipled in the Christian faith. As we come to the Synod of Dort in 1618, the question is there of how to improve the teaching of Christian doctrine in the Dutch Reformed churches.
The Synod Discussion
When it came to the Heidelberg Catechism and catechism training, the Synod of Dort discussed and decided upon several matters. They made a decision about catechism preaching. They reaffirmed what the Synod of the Hague decided in 1586. The Synod dealt with all the objections of the Arminians to the Catechism. The Catechism was examined and approved by all the delegates, including the foreign ones, as being in full agreement with the Bible. But our focus is going to be on the discussion and decision about the best manner of teaching Christian doctrine.
The Synod divided that topic into two parts. They looked at the best way of teaching the youth of the church and then the best way of teaching the adults. We are only going to look at what the Synod said about the best way to teach the youth.
The discussion began in the morning session of November 28. As you may know, we have Acts of the Synod, but the Acts do not always give much detail about the discussions. However, in this situation we have an eyewitness account from an Englishman named John Hales. He observed the synod on behalf of the British ambassador to the Netherlands and reported back to him with letters. These letters were later published.
John Hales reported about what he observed on the morning of November 28, 1618. Johannes Bogerman, the chairman of the Synod, first gave a speech about the necessity and usefulness of catechizing. Bogerman said that catechism was the basis and ground of religion. It was the only way for the principles of Christianity to be passed down. Bogerman spoke of how catechism was an ancient practice going back to the early church. When catechism is neglected, he said, ignorance results among the members of the church. Confusion also results when catechism is not practiced – people drift into Roman Catholicism, Anabaptism, and other errors. Bogerman argued that the practice of Reformed catechism was needed now more than ever because of the growing aggressiveness of the Jesuits. The Jesuits are diligent in teaching doctrine – to combat them, the Reformed churches must be even more diligent.
After the chairman’s speech, the delegates were asked to present their advice on the topic. The Acts include copies of the advice given by the seven foreign delegations present. I am not going to go through all the details of these documents. I just want to note one important element found in several of them. That has to do with the role of parents. For example, the delegates from Hesse wrote, “We reckon and judge that this work of teaching catechism to the youth belongs to the Ministers of the Word of God, the teachers in the school, and finally the parents.” Parents who were careless about that work were to be admonished by the consistory to diligently and faithfully teach the catechism to their children and families. Likewise, the delegates from Bremen advised the Synod that they recognized three kinds of catechism instruction: scholastic (in the schools), ecclesiastical (in the church), and domestic (in the families). Parents, especially fathers, bore responsibility for domestic catechesis. The same was stressed by the two delegates from Geneva, Johannes Deodatus and Theodorus Trochinus.
All of those advices were presented and discussed on November 28, 1618. The following day a sermon was preached by one of the British delegates (Joseph Hall). Then in the morning session of November 30 the Synod came back to the question of how to teach catechism in the best way. The chairman had been meeting with the executive officers of the synod and, taking all the advice into account, they worked together to produce a proposed decision. The chairman presented this proposal and it was adopted.
The Synod Decision
The decision regarding the best way of teaching the youth had three parts. There was to be a three-fold manner of catechizing the youth of the Dutch Reformed churches.
It began with the home. Parents had the responsibility to instruct their children in the basics of the Christian faith at an age-appropriate level. They were to urge them to godliness. Parents were to train their children in prayer. The Synod declared that parents have the responsibility to take their children to church and then afterwards to review what they heard, especially in the catechism sermons. Parents must read the Bible with their children and explain it to them. Finally, the Synod decided that parents should also give their children Bible passages to memorize. Now what if there were parents who failed to do these things? The Synod decided that negligent parents were to be admonished by the ministers. If they did not listen to the ministers, then the elders were to reprimand them, and if necessary, place them under church discipline. Failing to teach your children was considered to be a sin for which you could be placed under church disciple. That is how serious this was considered to be.
In the second place, catechism was the responsibility of the schools. According to the Synod of Dort, the state was responsible for the establishment and maintenance of education in general. The teachers in these schools had to be Reformed. They had to subscribe to the Reformed confessions and be trained in teaching catechism. Dort decided that the teachers should teach catechism to the students twice every week and require them to memorize it. Additionally, the teachers were also required to take their students to the Sunday catechism preaching – presumably this requirement was for the students whose families were not members of the church. There were to be three types of catechism tools for this work in the schools: a basic simple catechism for the youngest students, a simplified version of the Heidelberg Catechism (known as the Compendium), and then the Heidelberg Catechism for the older students. The ministers had the responsibility to make sure this was all taking place. If there was any negligence the ministers would report this to the government. The government must then replace any negligent school teachers.
Finally, said the Synod, catechism was also the responsibility of the church. The youth of the church were to be taught by the pastors, but not in catechism classes as we know them today. Instead, the ministers were to teach the youth, along with the rest of the congregation, through the regular catechism preaching. For this reason, the Synod decided that ministers should preach their catechism sermons at the level of the youth. This teaching should also be followed up with review.
There are two things I want to mention about this decision.
First, there is the role of the school. In that old Dutch context, the school was an instrument of both the church and the state. Moreover, church and state were connected in ways that are foreign to us today. As history moved on that connection was broken. Eventually, the catechism class taught at the school became the catechism class taught by the church. So, the second and third ways of teaching catechism to the youth were eventually brought together.
Second, I want you to note that the Synod followed the advice of the delegates of Hesse and Bremen in dividing it into this three-fold manner. But there is an important difference. The difference is in the order. The Synod of Dort put the role of parents first. Moreover, the Synod said a lot more about the responsibility of parents than did any of the advices received.
Relevance for Today
The Synod of Dort was correct in emphasizing the role of parents in catechism. This is a biblical emphasis. We could think of Ephesians 6:4, “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” Parents, especially fathers, are called to keep their children in order and also to teach them God’s Word. Sometimes you hear about other churches that have “youth pastors.” Reformed churches also have youth pastors – they are called parents. The parents are supposed to be the youth pastors in the church of Christ.
Moreover, parents in a Reformed church promise to do this. When their children are baptized, Reformed parents promise that they will instruct their children in Christian doctrine. They promise that they will do it. They have the primary responsibility, not the minister. The church supports the teaching of the parents, but the church does not replace the teaching of the parents.
Christian parents should teach their children Christian doctrine. But how? Let me give some practical suggestions.
First of all, to teach your children you must have a good basic understanding of Christian doctrine yourself. You have to make use of the resources that are available to you. If you are in a Reformed church where there is catechism preaching, make it your habit to be there every time so you can be strengthened in your understanding of biblical doctrine. Then you also need to be reading the Bible for yourself every day. You cannot teach others if you are not being taught yourself. That happens through studying the Word of God for yourself. I also want to recommend reading good Christian books that will teach you doctrine. If you need a suggestion for a book like that, ask your pastor. Many parents don’t teach because they don’t have the confidence or feel like they have the knowledge. But if you are a Christian parent, you have the calling and responsibility to do that, so you must find ways to build your confidence and knowledge.
Next, Every Christian home should have a set time for family worship every day. In many Reformed homes in Canada and Australia, this happens after the evening meal. But it does not have to be after a meal. There just needs to be a time every day when the family will be gathered for worshipping God together. During this time, there should be prayer and singing. There should be Bible reading. But there should also be a short time of learning Christian doctrine with the help of a Catechism.
In my family, we usually use the Westminster Shorter Catechism. This is a catechism from the Presbyterian churches, but it teaches Reformed doctrine just like the Heidelberg Catechism does. We have a book based on the Westminster Shorter Catechism. Each question and answer has six days of teaching to go with it. We have also used the Heidelberg Catechism with a similar book. Sometimes we go through the Belgic Confession and Canons of Dort as well. But each day, we spend maybe five minutes of our family worship time learning Christian doctrine. By doing this, when our children go to the church’s catechism classes, they have already learned many of the basics.
However you might choose to do it, the important thing is that you do it. Parents, please listen to me: if you love your children, teach them the Lord’s ways. Nothing is more important for their well-being!
In conclusion, let me also say that this is very important for the future of the church and the progress of the gospel. We will not have a strong church without strong families. Strong families are the backbone of strong churches. We will have spiritually strong families when parents, and especially fathers, take their responsibility seriously to provide spiritual leadership and teaching for their children. When we have that, our churches will stand stronger. Our gospel witness will shine brighter. And God will be praised with greater fervour.
 An eighth foreign delegation (from Nassau-Wetteravia) would not arrive until December 17.