Memorizing the Catechism: False Dichotomy between Words and Meaning or, How to Forget the Faith

When I was a child, we already had the Small Catechism memorized before we entered confirmation instruction. We recited portions in Sunday School from about the third or fourth grade onward. We recited all portions in Vacation Bible School year after year. By the time we entered confirmation instruction, we had recited it at church well over a dozen times.

Then, when we entered confirmation instruction, we continued to recite it, but the new memorization was of an explanation of the Catechism, not the catechism itself. We already had the Catechism itself memorized, and now we were memorizing an explanation of it.

This was not popular. The phrase “rote memorization” was a slam, and what the pastor was requiring was slammed by many with that and other phrases. The popular view was that recitation lacked understanding or meaning, and what we really needed was meaning.

At the same time, in the public schools, oftentimes when called upon in class, students would say something like, “I know what I mean, but I just can’t say it,” or “I know the answer, but I don’t have words.” Believe it or not, many teachers counted that as an instance of a student’s successful classroom participation. The mere claim to possess a subjective meaning was rewarded with a passing grade. Education had served its purpose: subjective meaning.

It went so far that having the words actually was seen as being contrary to having understanding. Words were viewed as an obstacle to meaning.

That is what makes the introduction to a book by Robert L. Wilken interesting and important. Consider this excerpt from Robert L. Wilken, Remembering the Christian Past (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1995), pp. vii-viii.


A Generation Ago it was customary in Lutheran circles for pastors to devote two years to teaching young people Luther’s Small Catechism. I once heard of a pastor in St. Louis, Missouri, whose practice it was to divide the two years of instruction as follows: “The first year,” he said, “I have the students memorize the Catechism. The second year I tell them what it means.”

I first learned of this pastor when I was a young man, and like others my age I guffawed. How ridiculous! The whole point of catechism instruction is to help young people understand the meaning of the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, the Creed. What is the value of having youngsters memorize the words of the Catechism without telling them what they mean? Now years later I realize that this pastor was much wiser than I. He knew that Christian faith was a matter of words, and that what counted most in the Catechism were the words. To be sure, the words signified things and carried meanings, but religious meaning is not univocal. As we mature it grows and deepens, bending and turning as our lives bend and turn.

Meaning is ephemeral, and the meanings one learns at twelve years of age are not the fullness of the words one memorizes. If a young person is fitted out only with the meanings of youth, what does one return to when the words are faded and forgotten? Words, however, endure, and if one has the words the meaning is never wholly lost. Words also have power to stir the heart, as Augustine knew well. “In my needy life, Lord, my heart is much exercised under the impact made by the words of your Holy Scripture” (Conf. 12.1.1).

I thought of this pastor as I sat down to write an introduction to the essays collected in this volume. I belong to a generation of Christian thinkers for whom meaning has been sovereign. The chief task of the Christian intellectual, it was thought, was to translate the words of the Bible and the theological tradition into the “meaningful” language and concepts of our day. Translation is, of course, an essential intellectual task, whether it be rendering a text from one language to another or translating words and ideas from one cultural idiom to another. But what if one can no longer recite the Ten Commandments or the Creed or has forgotten what one is translating?

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