Catechism, Pilgrimage, and Going to Our Salvation

The following article is a commendation of catechetical nurture as a biblical idea. It forms part of the Introduction to a forthcoming Scripture and catechism memory notebook I am editing with invaluable assistance from the Wince+Sing team and members of the session and congregation of Immanuel Presbyterian, where I serve. The memory notebook is crafted to nurture a confessional Reformed catholicity rather than push a parochial or distinctive platform within that general identity, and is designed for individual and family use in Reformed and Presbyterian congregations. Nota bene: It will be made available for free at Wince+Sing as a PDF (with donations warmly welcomed to help cover the expenses of production). An attractive and durable spiral-bound hard copy will also be available.

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Catechism, Pilgrimage, and Going to Our Salvation*

Catechism and Christian Formation

It has been said that in some churches and homes the catechism is like “the grandfather’s clock that stands on the stairway landing, ‘grim and unyielding,’ defying removal, a valued heirloom, but isn’t running anymore.”[1] Most in our day would not describe catechetical material as beautiful, and so can identify with a “grim” portrait, but quite apart from literary aesthetics, we might ask: is the catechism even “running anymore”? As we explore the multitude of educational options for families and congregations, do we appreciate the usefulness of the catechism for the formation of disciples?

Traditionally, we Christians have long loved our catechisms, and well we should. How many believers have been encouraged by the reminder that our God is not only “almighty, knowing all things” (which on its own is not necessarily comforting) but also “most wise, most holy, most just, most merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth” (Westminster Larger Catechism 7)?  What a wonderful catechetical refrain, and yes, how beautiful! Similarly, the language of Westminster Shorter Catechism 3 (“What do the Scriptures principally teach?”) is justly famous for the way it expresses a principal Christian concern: what the Scriptures are for.  What can the reader of God’s Word expect to find there?  We learn here that those whose end it is to glorify and enjoy God (WSC 1) will find in the Scriptures “what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man,” a neat way of restating a key theme in Deuteronomy. And it is unlikely that any portion of the vast inheritance of catechetical literature has found as much a home in the Christian’s heart as the first words of the Heidelberg Catechism:   Q. What is your only comfort in life and death?

A. That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with His precious blood, and has set me free from all the power of the devil. He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, all things must work together for my salvation. Therefore, by His Holy Spirit He also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for Him.

For these and a multitude of similar reasons we place a high premium on learning the truths of the Bible. Holy Scripture is the Word which teaches us of our Creator and of the way of obedience which pleases him, and the catechism is a traditional tool to do just that. And it is a biblical one too. Even the Greek word for catechism suggests the idea of disciplined teaching of the Christian story and Christian truth. Luke wrote his Gospel so that Theophilus might “have certainty concerning the things [he has] been catechized” (so the Greek).  Perhaps this was Timothy’s story, too, as he learned the faith from the godly instruction and examples of his grandmother, Lois, and his mother, Eunice, as the Apostle Paul points out in 2 Timothy 1:5.

What is more, in our quest for faithfulness to the command to hand down the Faith from generation to generation, I expect that in many or even most of our churches we recognize the immense value of the catechism not only for instruction but for forming disciples. We teach the Faith to our children, sometimes needing first to teach it to ourselves, and we do so praying that God will be pleased to use his Word and Spirit to form them into faithful members of the Body of Christ. Far from a dusty and dry exercise, then, we recognize that a firm hold on the grammar of the Faith is important not only for the sake of theological orthodoxy but for establishing and deepening the connectedness among members of the community of faith. The cadence and rhythm of learning the Bible together brings us closer together in our families and congregations. We are happy when our children recite the answers perfectly, of course, but we also know this is only a big part of a bigger picture of community formation, of the cultivation of the life of discipleship in the communion of saints.

Of course, for all our love of catechisms, as Reformed Christians we refuse to use the catechism to the neglect of the Word itself. No, we train disciples in the catechism because we know such training helps the Church to benefit more from the study and preaching of the Bible, and thus to be shaped by that Word.  This refusal to allow catechism to eclipse Scripture is an eminently Reformed concern. In his discussion of the practice of Reformed piety, historian Philip Benedict points to a seventeenth-century example of the importance of the Bible together with the catechism: “Whereas the school ordinances of Lutheran Germany rarely ordered classroom Bible reading, preferring instead the memorization of doctrinally safe catechisms,” he notes, “the authorities of the Reformed parts of Hesse mandated the use of the Bible.  Full editions of the Bible aimed specifically at young people were also distinctive to Reformed regions of Germany.”[2]  As prominent as the role of the catechism is in Reformed churches, the catechism cannot displace the centrality of the Word of the living God.  But not only are the Scriptures and catechism not in tension; there is evidence that they have always belonged together. As we embark on a Scripture and catechism memory project, it would be good to understand how this is so.

First Peter as Catechetical Material

In what follows I am going to take a somewhat unusual approach to commending the use of good catechisms.  Instead of, say, examining the history or some portion of the catechetical parts of the Westminster Standards (the Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechisms), I want to go “behind” these documents, so to speak, to offer some reflections on the catechism in general – the very “idea” of catechism. More specifically, I suggest we may infer the usefulness of the catechism (or catechetical material) for the formation of God’s people from the genre and content of the First Epistle of Peter.[3]

Many scholars have observed that most of the content of 1 Peter is elementary Christian teaching. For this reason two major theories have emerged regarding its genre. What kind of letter is 1 Peter? How should we identify this body of basic instruction? One theory suggests that 1 Peter is a catechetical document in letter (epistolary) form.  A second theory agrees with the first but goes a step further, identifying the letter as a particular kind of catechetical document, namely a baptismal homily or liturgy.  In both cases, however, we note that these two views see 1 Peter as predominantly catechetical, whether in general or of a specific sort.[4] Scholars have not reached a consensus on this question, and I will not enter into the debate here. But seeing 1 Peter as a catechetical letter, or perhaps better, a letter containing at least a large percentage of catechetical material, seems to me to be sound and beyond serious dispute.

One way of seeing this is by comparing sections of Peter’s letter with similar sections in other letters of the New Testament and noticing where different writers appear to be working with a commonly-held, recognized (and thus “traditional”) body of teaching. For instance, when we compare 1 Peter 2:13-3:7 – material concerned with submission in various contexts, such as citizen-emperor, servant-master, wife-husband, as well as the conduct of husbands toward their wives – with parallel passages in Ephesians and Colossians we observe that there had already emerged a common tradition of elementary teaching, a body of material and language commonly received and understood to encapsulate faithfully certain fundamental features of the Christian faith and ethic.[5] The evidence suggests that the earliest oral teaching from the apostles and among church and family leaders in Christian communities included certain set and conventional ways of summarizing the basics of Christian faith and life. The examples of creed-like material in the New Testament is a closely related phenomenon (e.g., 1 Cor. 8:6; 1 Cor. 15:3-7; 1 Tim. 3:16; 1 John 4:2). Immediately before this material in 1 Peter, too, the opening chapters of the Epistle also reflect a concern for similarly basic instruction, but in this case the material is more didactic and theological rather than ethical.

Because some Christians perceive catechetical teaching as a post-biblical, and in some cases, unbiblical tradition (perhaps an unfortunate relic of medieval Roman Catholicism), these observations on the Bible’s own creedal and catechetical materials, and the quantity of catechetical material in 1 Peter, as well as its genre, should be instructive.  Beyond genre considerations, however, the actual content of 1 Peter is most intriguing, for it suggests the kinds of theological and ethical themes that belonged to the basic truths of the Faith held in common by the churches.  And here is our real interest.  What themes do we encounter here? There are many, but since our purpose is not a full study of 1 Peter’s teaching, we can highlight the two that seem quite key to its overall message: pilgrimage and the hope of final salvation.

Peter, Pilgrims, and Progress toward Glory

Taking the text of 1 Peter in hand, we notice these themes early on in our reading. From the outset of 1 Peter we learn the Church is a community on pilgrimage to a heavenly, incorruptible inheritance (1:3-9). The Church has this inheritance because she has been given new birth through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Moreover, this birth is into a living hope, one which lifts the eyes of pilgrims to the salvation “about to be revealed at the last day” (v. 5).

With these few words, we have already stumbled onto a truly rich and potentially life-changing – yet often forgotten – kernel of the Christian confession. As J. Ramsey Michaels notes, “This salvation is not so much something that will come to them as something to which they must go. It is the future ‘goal’ or ‘outcome’ (telos) of their faith” (v. 9, emphasis mine).[6] This Christian orientation to the future sets up the dominant note Peter sounds on the subject of faith: the faith which characterizes the pilgrim community of the faithful is one that perseveres and endures through the “various ordeals” of the present (vv. 5-6, 9).  “Tested and proven faithfulness will be exchanged for ‘praise, glory, and honor at the time when Jesus Christ is revealed’ (v 7).”[7] Thus, in 1 Peter the salvation-hope commended to believers is one wholly consistent with our identity as pilgrims on our way: it is a salvation that, though a present certainty in view of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, remains in an equally important respect a salvation which still lies ahead. It is a salvation that awaits the faithful in Christ, and it stands at the end of the journey of discipleship. As we advance step by step in the path to eternal life, as we press on by faith with a view to our inheritance and salvation (1:4-5), we do so as those who are called to “marvelous light” or “eternal glory” (1:9). The end of this journey or pilgrimage will mean the fullness of salvation of all who belong to the Father. And so, as the Apostle Peter says, Christian believers are certainly a “chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation,” but we are also “a people destined for salvation (2:9).”[8]

The motif of the Christian life as a journey or pilgrimage is a major one in 1 Peter,[9] and so it is with good reason that at least one writer has explored the commonalities between this New Testament letter and John Bunyan’s great allegory Pilgrim’s Progress. However, the pilgrimage theme also highlights an area where 1 Peter and Pilgrim’s Progress agree together in opposing one common feature in evangelical thinking. J. R. Michaels takes up the common evangelical idea of “going to heaven when we die” and states the problem “is not with the notion of ‘going to heaven,’ but with the qualifying clause ‘when we die.’  For in the New Testament the journey to heaven begins not at death but at the moment a person is called to discipleship.”[10] This is particularly the case in 1 Peter.

Related to the problematic idea of “going to heaven when we die” is our common mistake of equating “salvation” with justification, or, in terms of Pilgrim’s Progress, the moment Pilgrim/Christian loses his burden at the foot of the cross and watches it roll into the tomb. In my copy, this takes place only 41 pages into the story, with 144 pages yet to go![11] And that is very much the point. Rather than the end or even the center of the story, Bunyan sees the wonderful moment of the lost burden as only the beginning of Christian’s journey to the Celestial City, so that the drama that follows his encounter with the cross – the fierce and trying struggles, temptations, and the ultimate perseverance of Christian – is far from dispensable or marginal to his journey to Zion. While he is forgiven at the cross he is still not “fully” saved, one might say. For example, there is even a sense in which Christian, as he encounters Vanity Fair in the town of Vanity, never quite leaves the City of Destruction entirely until he is fully and finally received into the Celestial City. One of the more sobering statements in the allegory comes at this final stage of his journey, in Bunyan’s penultimate sentence, when we learn that Christian saw “that there was a way to hell even from the gates of heaven, as well as from the City of Destruction.”[12]

We discover these Pilgrim’s Progress themes in 1 Peter as the Apostle focuses the hope of pilgrims on that which lies ahead, and sees the Christian’s story of salvation as incomplete until grace has given way to final and full glory. But beyond its nature, Peter also goes on to say something about the character of this pilgrimage. Remarkably, in 1 Peter the journey of faith is shaped by the story of Jesus Christ himself; that is, the Church’s path to final eternal life bears the unmistakable impression of the path of the Lord to whom she is united. Much like the Synoptic Gospels, and reflecting a major theme in the Apostle Paul’s letters, discipleship in 1 Peter involves suffering with and like because in Christ.  Peter writes that as “Christ also suffered for [us]” so he left us “an example, that [we] might follow in his footsteps” (2:21). It appears that in 1 Peter suffering is not something we are called to do, so much as something that we are to expect given that we live as pilgrims in Jesus Christ who himself went from suffering and the cross to glory and life. And so, in Peter’s letter, rather than calling us to suffering per se, we are called to obedience, to do good (3:13, 17). The substantial sections in the Epistle on suffering with and like Christ (2:19-25; 3:8-22) are in fact the centerpiece of Peter’s teaching on discipleship, and this adds an important feature to his pilgrimage theme. Taken together with the hope of glory, Peter’s characterization of the Church as a pilgrim community on a journey to heaven that is marked by suffering with Christ belongs to the heart of his catechetical instruction.

What should we conclude from all of this? Because our intention has not been to provide a full analysis of 1 Peter, we should keep our conclusions modest and focused on our chief point of interest: catechism and Christian formation.  A major point to keep in view is this: in his letter, Peter evidently believes there are certain ideas (no doubt others as well) which belong to the elementary, foundational features of the faith once delivered to the saints. These include (1) the future aspect of the Church’s salvation, (2) her pilgrim identity and heavenly inheritance that together shape her self-understanding in the present, and (3) the struggles and ordeals that mark her days of discipleship. In short, when Peter focused his attention on elementary or catechetical instruction of Christians, he pointed to her heavenlyidentity and hope.  With this in mind we can capture the aim of Peter’s catechetical or didactic (teaching) material by saying that the Apostle is interested in cultivating and nurturing faith, hope, and love in the mode of communion with Jesus Christ. We can say that when commending the essential threads of the fabric of the Christian faith, Peter does not have the visible, the immediate, and the pragmatic in view, but the hidden, the long-term, and the eschatological. In this Epistle, catechism, as basic, formative instruction in key points of Christian teaching, aims to shape the community of the faithful in hope of eternal life.

Reflections: Catechism, Hope, and the Formation of a Pilgrim Community

As parents or as church officers, we ought always to ask how we might be more faithful in helping to form disciples of Jesus in the context of his Church. At the very least, as an instructive example of the early Church’s perspective on the core content of the Christian confession and life, the catechetical material of 1 Peter presses us to examine our assumptions about basic instruction in our homes and churches. In particular, it appears to me that the plainly "eschatological" orientation with which Peter operates in his discussions of the believer’s identity and hope, as well as the gospel by which she lives, needs to find its way into our catechetical and church-educational endeavors. By "eschatological" in this context, I mean that the promised future of the people of God has been brought forward in time, provisionally yet really, in the resurrection of Christ and our union with him by the Spirit. If, with Peter (and the rest of the Old and New Testaments), we believe eschatology, thus understood, is the context within which we must locate the identity and hope of the Church, we might ask how this could find expression practically in our churches, particularly in the important project of catechetical nurture.

In all this, let us remember it is Christ himself who forms the people of God. He carries out his loving, faithful work through his Word, bearing fruit in the ministry of the Spirit of glory. Let the discipline of catechetical training point clearly to his work, and not only ours in him, and to his Word, not our own. After all, it is God himself who, as Peter tells us, having “called [us] to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish” his people (5:10).  A community of saints called to glory and “established” in this pilgrimage by God himself – there can be no higher goal in the rhythms of catechetical life than to serve this glorious end.

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* This introduction reproduces material, in revised form, from the article, “Pilgrimage in the Mode of Hope: Thoughts on the Usefulness of the Catechism,” which originally appeared electronically in Ordained Servant in February 2007 and is included here with permission.

[1] Wade C. Smith, “Bringing the Skeleton Out of the Closet,” The Southern Presbyterian Journal 12, no. 11 (July 15, 1953): 2; cited by David B. Calhoun, “Loving the Westminster Confession and Catechisms,” Presbyterion 33/2 (Fall 2006): 66.

[2] Philip Benedict, Christ’s Churches Purely Reformed: A Social History of Calvinism (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2002), 510.

[3] Tracing the self-conscious concern in the biblical texts for theological education in connection with community formation has become a major area of investigation in biblical studies.  For a representative OT example, note Walter Brueggemann, The Creative Word: Canon as a Model for Biblical Education (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982).

[4] For literature, see Philip Carrington’s influential proposal for 1 Peter as a catechetical document, The Primitive Christian Catechism (New York: Macmillan, 1940), and M. É. Boismard, Quatres hymnes baptismales dans la première épître de Pierre (Paris: Editions du Cerf, 1961) for the baptismal liturgy argument.  Consult the introductions in commentaries for discussion of the issues and for references to further studies.

[5] The inclusion of ethical or moral content makes 1 Peter similar to the earliest catechetical material in the first centuries of the Church.  On this and related matters see the fine work of Hughes Oliphant Old, The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church, vol. 1: The Biblical Period (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998).  On the early catechumenate, see Michel Dujarier, A History of the Catechumenate: The First Six Centuries (trans. by Edward J. Hassl; New York: Sadlier, 1979) and J. A. Jungmann, Handing on the Faith: A Manual of Catechetics (New York: Herder and Herder, 1959).

[6] J. Ramsey Michaels, “Going to Heaven with Jesus: From 1 Peter to Pilgrim’s Progress,” in Richard N. Longenecker, ed., Patterns of Discipleship in the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 250.

[7] Michaels, “Going to Heaven with Jesus,” 251.

[8] Michaels (“Going to Heaven with Jesus,” 251) translates lao.j eivj peripoi,hsin (v. 9) as “a people destined for vindication;” cf. idem, 1 Peter (Word Biblical Commentary; Waco: Word, 1988), 109-110.  His objections to the NRSV (“God’s own people”) and NIV (“a people belonging to God”,) partly on the grounds that the preposition eivj has here a distinctly future orientation, is understandable but in my view a more comprehensive reality than vindication is in view.  For this reason I prefer, “destined for possession” or perhaps even “salvation,” so long as our understanding of “salvation” keeps in view the comprehensively, exhaustively transformative feature of the new creation in its consummation, and is not reduced, as it often is, only to its (nevertheless real and indispensable) forensic or acquittal feature.

[9] Peter’s “appeal” in 2:11 is directed to “aliens and strangers,” an identification which, in contrast with some current scholarship, is not sociological but metaphorical.  Hence the message is extended beyond the immediate audience in their situation to the Church at large.

[10] Michaels, “Going to Heaven with Jesus,” 249.

[11] John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress, The Nelson Classics (Illust. by R. H. Brock; London: Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd, n.d.).

[12] Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress, 172. The point is made in Stanley Fish, “Progress in The Pilgrim’s Progress,” in Self-Consuming Artifacts: The Experience of Seventeenth-Century Literature (Berkeley: University of California, 1972), 224-64.