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The Catechetical Value of Tradition

First, let us disabuse ourselves of the notion that “tradition” is a bad word. Tradition is merely a way of saying that we have found a helpful way of doing something meaningful. We all have traditions. The point is that tradition has a meaningful origin. But when that origin, and the purpose behind it, is forgotten, the tradition become nothing more than rote. That is the problem, not the tradition itself.


The Evangelical aversion to tradition most likely comes from a particular take on Jesus' statement about “vain repetition” in prayer. The phrase “vain repetition” is wrongly understood as if repetition itself were vain. This is not what Jesus is saying in this passage. And oddly enough, many churches refuse to recite the Lord's Prayer because of their stance against “vain repetitions” without noticing that (A) Jesus gives this prayer as an alternative to vain repetitions, (B) that it contains the phrase “our daily bread,” which, in itself, implies that the prayer would be daily prayed by Jesus' disciples, (C.) that their position implies that Jesus taught a vain repetition. I have often noticed the comical fact that churches refuse to recite the Lord's Prayer regularly because of an aversion to “vain repetition,” yet the songs they sing are loaded with an astounding amount of repetition.


Even things which most Evangelicals would consider superstitious


In short, traditions begin because something important is needed and an effective way is found to achieve this important need. However, if the rationale behind the tradition is not explained, along with the value of what the tradition is intended to achieve, both the tradition and the thing it is intended to produce, will fall by the wayside.


This is what has happened with regard to the importance of teaching our children the doctrines of the Christian faith.


I have been a Christian since 1976, and I have watched a couple generations grow up in the church and walk away, and the church's philosophy has continued to be one that replaces the lost children with new adult converts whose children are just as likely to walk away from the faith. It is heartbreaking.

Historically, this wasn't the case. Up until the late 19th century, ministers routinely preached and taught and wrote about family worship – and met with parents to ensure that it was being done. Now, our lives are filled with so many activities outside of the home, that the notion of family worship seems unrealistic at best. Because the covenant-standing of the children of believers was the subject of my doctoral dissertation, it is a subject I have read widely on. And I choose the topic because of my sense of duty to God to bring my children up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. I have had too many church friends from my childhood who have turned away from the faith of their parents because their spiritual life was neglected in the home. There was no “church in the home,” (Romans 16:5) and God has justly shown His anger to these “families who do not call upon His name.” (Jeremiah 10:25)

I am a staunch proponent of the practice of infant baptism. Not all my readers will see eye to eye with me on the practice of infant baptism, but I have to assume that everyone will agree that our topic runs far, far deeper than that. God has entrusted our children to us for the purpose of “raising up Godly seed.” (Malachi 2:5) We are told to instruct them when we are “sitting in our house, and when we are walking by the way, and when we lie down, and when we rise.” (Deut. 6:7; 11:19) Abraham was specifically commended by God because “I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the LORD.” (Gen. 18:19) We may disagree about the method in which they are brought into God's covenant. But surely, we agree that it is a grave sin to treat their belonging to our families as a crap-shoot – as if that were just random - and that God didn't intend that they be raised in the faith.


It is a false dichotomy that pits outreach to the unsaved against conscientious care in the upbringing of those already in our care as children. It is important to have tools at our disposal, such as small groups, to promote the discipleship process of our adult members. But it seems to me to be a grave sin to focus on that to the neglect the same process in the lives of our children. I served as a missionary for 16 years and I have seen many church kids' salvation sacrificed on the altar of “outreach.” The family is a peculiar creation of God, with the religious training of children as its primary design. And robust religious training of children makes for a strong church.

It was not uncommon in days past to have 5th and 6th generation members in our churches. This is not something we hear much of anymore. We have neglected to explain the importance of the religious training of our children, we have neglected to keep the doctrines of the Scripture before our eyes, and as a result, whole denominations have rejected every core doctrine of the Christian faith in favor of worldly entertainment, worldly values, or a worldly commitment to the feelings prompted by shallow religious practices. If you don't believe the latter, try suggesting to your local church “worship team” (a church-office found nowhere in Scripture) that they jettison the silly “Jesus is my boyfriend” songs in favor of the Psalter.


A survey of Presbyterian literature up to the time of the Civil War will show how prominent were the concepts of Family Worship and the catechizing of our children as the covenant duties of fathers as the head of the covenant home. One thinks of the 1840 work of Erastus Hopkins (1810-1872) entitled, The Family a Religious Institution: or Heaven the Model of the Christian Family. From 1850 til his death, Cortland Van Rensselaer (1808-1860) edited a monthly journal called The Home, The School, and the Church, or The Presbyterian Education Repository. The focus of this magazine was to promote the education of the children of the church in her doctrines.


It was seen as an integral part of the Church's call to discipleship, that she disciple the little ones whom God had entrusted to her care. And this discipleship was done by teaching the children (who would grow up to be the next generation of adults in the church) the the doctrines of the Christian faith.


A whole host of books on the Westminster Shorter Catechism were written both for children, and for those who taught children. Ashbel Green (1762-1848), who served as the 3rd Chaplain to the US House of Representatives, and the 8th President of Princeton University, published a two-volume set of lectures he delivered to youth on the Westminster Shorter Catechism. Throughout the lectures, Green routinely addresses his auditory as “my dear little friends,” “dear children,” “young friends,” etc., clearly demonstrating that his audience was not high schoolers or college students. In one lecture, he tells his audience that they have no excuse to have not read the Bible through completely by the age of 15. (“If there be any young person now hearing me, who has reached fifteen years of age, without having read the Bible carefully through, I would say that such an individual, male or female, has neglected an important duty — an important duty which he or she ought immediately to begin to perform.” Volume 1, Lecture 5) In another lecture (Volume 2, Lecture 44), he says this about the catechizing of children: “It is this family instruction, which must, in most cases, be principally communicated and acquired on the Lord's day, and which more than any thing — I had almost said, more than everything beside—contributes to raise up a generation of well informed and steadfast Christians. It was this which long distinguished the best reformed churches, and for it, I am persuaded, no adequate substitute ever has been, or will be found.”


The true church membership of covenant children was constantly defended in this era, along with, as was noted earlier, the covenant duty of training these children – both at home and in the church. It was common practice for ministers in this era to oversee the catechizing of the children personally, and to reinforce its importance by regularly visiting the homes of the church members to inquire about the parents' faithfulness is carrying out this duty along with regular Family Worship.


The point of all the foregoing history is merely this: Tradition that goes unexplained, soon becomes neglected and finally repudiated. There is a precipitous decline in literature of the above sort immediately following the Civil War. I don't have a simple explanation, but it is a most noticeable and remarkable fact. It is also noticeable that a sharp decline in commitment to orthodoxy among Presbyterians took place on the heels of this decline. Until the 1860's little to no influence of German Liberal Theology was felt in American Presbyterianism. After this, it pours in like a flood, and a generation who appear to not have been as aggressively taught by their forebears begins to crumble before the forces of unbelief.


I realize that the foregoing paragraph contains some generalizations, but the facts remain that the central importance of Family Worship and catechizing fell from public view in the writings of the church's most prominent and vocal defenders, and a generation arose which neglected it altogether. One cannot look at the PC(USA) today and believe that it was once the denomination of stalwart Calvinistic theologians like John Witherspoon, Samuel Miller, and Ashbel Green. Oh, how the mighty have fallen!


Nearly the same process occurred in the Reformed churches whose doctrinal standards are the Three Forms of Unity. It was once regular practice (indeed a practice mandated by published books of Church Order), for these churches to preach through the Heidelberg Catechism on a yearly basis. Moreover, the synods had officers who visited all the congregations in a given classis to interview the church officers regarding their faithfulness in maintaining this practice. This practice of oversight exists almost nowhere these days, and regular Catechism preaching is nowhere near as prevalent as it once was.


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