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A catechism is a summary of Christian religious doctrine. Some are in the form of a manual; others are in the form of questions to be asked, followed by answers to be memorized.

The catechetical style of teaching is rote memorization under the guidance of an instructor. The usual question-and-answer style arises from the tradition of placing disciples under a guide, who would ask the questions and prompt the student toward understanding the answers given to be memorized.

Table of contents
1 Early Christian history
2 Question and answer format
3 Protestant catechisms
4 Non-Christian catechisms

Early Christian history

Catechesis is simply "oral handing down" from teacher to student: instruction by dialogue. As with many things in Christian custom, the practice of catechizing was adapted from a similar style of instruction in the Jewish synagogues and rabbinical schools. The rabbis had the dialogue method, and the Greeks had the Socratic method, both of which informed Christian catechesis. Unlike both of these precursor influences, the Christian emphasis from the beginning was to pass on articles of faith, or definitions of belief. It is beginning with faith that Christians expected obedience to follow.

Christian tradition holds that Catechetical schools were established almost immediately by the apostles themselves. One of the most important of these schools is held by tradition to have been established by Mark the Evangelist, in Alexandria, Egypt. In his Ecclesiastic History, Eusebius recounts the legend that Mark came to Egypt during the first or third year of the Roman Emperor Claudius, and he returned to preach and evangelize in Alexandria, between 61 and 68 A.D. This is the school of theology where Clement of Alexandria and Origen were teachers.

Through schools such as this, summaries of doctrine were produced with a view to carefully and methodically hand down the teaching of the Church. The Nicene creed was taught in the Greek churches, and the Apostles' Creed was dominant in the Latin Church as a summary of what must be believed, the Lord's Prayer was taught as the model of how to pray, and the Ten Commandments were the summary of how to live. At various times and places, special chapters were added to the manuals, for instruction on the sacraments, the Athanasian Creed, the Te Deum, and other elements of the Liturgy. Lists of sins and virtues also became a common part of catechesis, in the monastaries and the churches. In the case of adult converts, this instruction preceded baptism; in the case of baptized infants, it followed baptism, and in the West culminated in their confirmation and the first communion. Baptized infants in the East were also chrismated (confirmed) almost immediately after baptism, and shortly after began receiving communion; catechism came later, often during the teenage years.

Cyril of Jerusalem left sixteen books of instructional sermons, explaining the Creed to families seeking baptism, which became standard in the Greek speaking churches. We also have from the same Cyril, five books of instruction concerning the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation in the Christian Faith, and Eucharist, for the benefit of those who have recently received one of these sacraments. In the Latin churches, St Augustine's treatise on catechizing (De catechizandis rudibus), written for teachers, came to dominate, together with his work on the basics of doctrine and prayer (Enchiridion). A good idea of what the tradition of instruction had been, can be derived from comparing these relatively early works.

After the Edict of Milan, catechesis became an increasingly greater challenge which sometimes fell into neglect, especially in the frontiers of the Empire. In 829, a council in Paris records the bishops' alarm over the neglect of catechetical instruction. Very simple instructional manuals survive, from the St Gall monks Kero (720) and Notker (912), and Otfrid of Weissenburg (870). Gerson's tract, De Parvulis ad Christum trahendis, gives another picture of what late medieval instruction was like. In 1281, the English Council of Lambeth made it a canonical rule of Church practice, for parish priests to instruct their people four times a year in the principal parts of Christian doctrine.

The best known modern catechisms of the Orthodox and Catholic traditions are not meant to be memorized. Rather, they are massive compendia of detailed explanations of doctrine. The Jerusalem Catechism of Orthodoxy is a work primarily designed for refutation of error - in the tradition of Irenaeus's Against Heresies. There are many Orthodox catechisms without obvious official authority, some of which appear to be designed for the instruction of converts especially from Protestantism. The Orthodox Faith is a four volume series that sets forth the basics of Orthodoxy. It is written by Father Thomas Hopko, dean of St. Vladimir's Seminary (Orthodox Church in America); the full text is also available online. The Roman Catholic Catechism is a work of remarkable organization and breadth, containing articles of elegant reasoning and historical insight, arranged on the classical topics, but it is not a work adapted to the capacity of the untaught, and it is not in a question and answer format.

See Catechism of the Catholic Church

Question and answer format

The common question and answer format calls upon two parties to participate, a master and a scholar, a father and a child. The Roman Catholic Baltimore Catechism uses this style, for example. The massive Tridentine Roman Catechism, which underlies the present, more massive Catechism of the Catholic Church, was created in 1566 to counteract the Protestant reformation. American bishops published the concise and memorable Baltimore Catechism in 1891, for the same reason.

1. Q. Who made the world?
A. God made the world. 

2. Q. Who is God? A. God is the Creator of

  heaven and earth, and of all things. 

3. Q. What is man? A. Man is a creature composed of
  body and soul, and made to the 
  image and likeness of God. 

The question and answer style, with a view toward the instruction of children, was a form adopted by Protestantism almost from the beginning of the Reformation.

Protestant catechisms

Among the first projects of the Protestant reformation, was the production of catechisms self-consciously modelled after the older traditions of Cyril and Augustine. These catechisms showed special admiration for Chrysostom's view of the family as a "little church", and placed grave responsibility on every father to teach his children, in order to prevent them from coming to Baptism or the Lord's Table ignorant of the doctrine under which they are expected to live as Christians.


Luther's Large Catechism (1530) typifies the emphasis which the Protestants placed on the importance of knowledge and understanding of definitions, or articles of faith. Primarily intended as instruction to teachers, especially to parents, the Catechism consists of a series of exhortations on the importance of each topic of the Catechism. It is meant for those who have the capacity to understand, and is not meant to be memorized but to be repeatedly reviewed so that the Small Catechism could be taught with understanding. For example, the author stipulates in the preface:

Therefore it is the duty of every father of a family to question and examine his children and servants at least once a week and to ascertain what they know of it, or are learning and, if they do not know it, to keep them faithfully at it.
A catechism, Luther wrote, should consist of instruction in the rule of conduct (Ten Commandments), the rule of faith (Apostles' Creed), the rule of prayer (Lord's Prayer), and the sacraments (Baptism and Communion). Luther adds:
However, it is not enough for them to comprehend and recite these parts according to the words only, but the young people should also be made to attend the preaching, especially during the time which is devoted to the Catechism, that they may hear it explained and may learn to understand what every part contains, so as to be able to recite it as they have heard it, and, when asked, may give a correct answer, so that the preaching may not be without profit and fruit.

Luther's Small Catechism, in contrast, is written to accommodate the understanding of a small child or an uneducated person. It begins:

A. The First Commandment

  You must not have other gods.

Q. What does this mean?

A. We must fear, love, and trust God more than anything


Calvin's 1545 preface to the Genevan catechism begins with an acknowledgement that the several traditions and cultures which were joined in the Reformed movement, would produce their own form of instruction in each place. While no effort should be expended on preventing this, Calvin argues, he adds:

We are all directed to one Christ, in whose truth being united together, we may grow up into one body and one spirit, and with the same mouth also proclaim whatever belongs to the sum of faith. Catechists not intent on this end, besides fatally injuring the Church, by sowing the materials of dissension in religion, also introduce an impious profanation of baptism. For where can any longer be the utility of baptism unless this remain as its foundation — that we all agree in one faith?

Wherefore, those who publish Catechisms ought to be the more carefully on their guard, by producing anything rashly, they may not for the present only, but in regard to posterity also, do grievous harm to piety, and inflict a deadly wound on the Church.

The scandal of diverse instruction, is that it produces diverse baptisms and diverse communions, and diverse faith. However, forms may vary without introducing substantial differences, according to the Reformed view of doctrine.

Genevan Catechism

John Calvin produced a catechism while at Geneva (1541), which underwent two major revisions (1545 and 1560). Calvin's aim in writing the Catechism of 1545, was to set a basic pattern of doctrine, meant to be imitated by other catechists, which would not affirm local distinctions or dwell on controversial issues, but would serve as a pattern for what was expected to be taught by Christian fathers and other teachers of children in the Church. The catechism is organized on the topics of Faith, Law, Prayer and Sacraments.

1. Master.  What is the chief end of human life?

  Scholar.  To know God by whom men were created.

2. M. What reason have you for saying so?

  S. Because he created us
  and placed us in this world
  to be glorified in us. And
  it is indeed right that our life,
  of which himself is the beginning,
  should be devoted to his glory.

3. M. What is the highest good of man?

  S. The very same thing.

Heidelberg Catechism

After Protestantism entered into the Palatinate, in 1546 the controversy between Lutherans and Calvinists broke out, and especially while the region was under the elector Otto Heinrich (1556-59), this conflict in Saxony, particularly in Heidelberg, became increasingly bitter and turned violent.

When Frederick III, came into power in 1559, he put his authority behind the Calvinistic view on the Lord's Supper, which denied the local presence of the body of Jesus Christ in the elements of the sacrament. He turned Sapienz College into a school of divinity, and in 1562 he placed over it a pupil and friend of Luther's colleague, Philipp Melanchthon, named Zacharias Ursinus. In an attempt to resolve the religious disputes in his domain, Frederick called upon Ursinus and his colleague Caspar Olevianus (preacher to Frederick's court) to produce a Catechism. The two collaborators referred to existing catechetical literature, and especially relied on the catechisms of Calvin and of John Lasco. To prepare the Catechism, they adopted the method of sketching drafts independently, and then bringing together the work to combine their efforts. "The final preparation was the work of both theologians, with the constant co-operation of Frederick III. Ursinus has always been regarded as the principal author, as he was afterwards the chief defender and interpreter of the Catechism; still, it would appear that the nervous German style, the division into three parts (as distinguished from the five parts in the Catechism of Calvin and the previous draft of Ursinus), and the genial warmth and unction of the whole work, are chiefly due to Olevianus." (Schaff, in. Am. Presb. Rev. July 1863, p. 379). The structure of the Heidelberg Catechism is spelled out in the second question, and the three-part structure seen there is based on the belief that the single work of salvation brings forward the three persons of the Trinity in turn, to make God fully and intimately known by his work of salvation, referring back to the Apostles' Creed as an epitome of Christian faith. Assurance of salvation is the unifying theme throughout this catechism: assurance obtained by the work of Christ, applied through the sacraments, and resulting in grateful obedience to the commandments and persistence in prayer.

Lord's Day 1.

1. Q. What is thy only comfort in life and death?

A. That I with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ; who, with his precious blood, has fully satisfied for all my sins, and delivered me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my heavenly Father, not a hair can fall from my head; yea, that all things must be subservient to my salvation, and therefore, by his Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me sincerely willing and ready, henceforth, to live unto him.

2. Q. How many things are necessary for thee to know, that thou, enjoying this comfort, mayest live and die happily?

A. Three; the first, how great my sins and miseries are; the second, how I may be delivered from all my sins and miseries; the third, how I shall express my gratitude to God for such deliverance.

The Heidelberg Catechism is the most widely used of the Catechisms of the Reformed churches.

Westminster Catechisms

Together with the Westminster Confession of Faith (1647), the Westminster Assembly also produced two catechisms, a Larger and a Shorter, which were intended for use in Christian families and in churches. These documents have served as the doctrinal standards, subordinate to the Bible, for Presbyterians and other Reformed churches around the world. The Shorter Catechism shows the Assembly's reliance upon the previous work of Calvin, Lasco, and the theologians of Heidelberg. It is organized in two main sections summarizing what the Scriptures principally teach: the doctrine of God, and the duty required of men. Questions and answers cover the usual elements: Faith, the Ten Commandments, the Sacraments, and Prayer.

Q. 1. What is the chief end of man?

A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.

Q. 2. What rule hath God given to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him?

A. The Word of God, which is contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, is the only rule to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him.

Q. 3. What do the scriptures principally teach?

      A. The scriptures principally teach, what
      man is to believe concerning God, and
      what duty God requires of man.

Other Reformed catechisms

Oecolampadius composed the Basel Catechism in 1526, Leo Juda (1534) followed by Bullinger (1555) published catechisms in Zurich. The French Reformed used Calvin's Genevan Catechism, as well as works published by Louis Capell (1619), and Charles Drelincourt (1642).

Anglican Catechism

The Anglican Book of Common Prayer includes a brief catechism for the instruction of all persons preparing to be brought before the bishop for Confirmation. The baptized first professes his baptism, and then rehearses the principal elements of the faith into which he has been baptized: Apostles' Creed, Ten Commandments, the Lord's Prayer, and the Sacraments

Catechist:  What is your Name?

   Answer: N. or M.

C. Who gave you this Name?

   Answer: My Godfathers and Godmothers
   in my Baptism;
   wherein I was made a member of Christ,
   the child of God,
   and an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven.

Socinian and other sectarian catechisms

Besides the manuals of instruction that were published by the Protestants for use in their families and churches, there were other works produced by sectarian groups intended as a compact refutation of "orthodoxy".

For example, Socinians in Poland published the Rakow Catechism in 1605, using the question and answer format of a catechism for the orderly presentation of their arguments against the Trinity and the doctrine of Hell, as these were understood by the Reformed churches from which they were forced to separate. This work spread rapidly, despite efforts to censor it, and has inspired many imitators even to the present time.

Q. You said a little before that 
  the Lord Jesus is a man by nature, 
  hath he not also a divine Nature?

A. At no hand; for that is repugnant
  not only to sound Reason, but also 
  to the holy Scriptures.

Q. Shew me how it is repugnant to sound

A. First, because two substances indued
  with opposite properties, cannot combine 
  into one Person, and such properties are 
  mortality and immortality; 
  to have beginning, and 
  to be without beginning; 
  to be mutable, and immutable. 
  Again, two Natures, each whereof 
  is apt to constitute a severall 
  person cannot be huddled into one Person. 
  For instead of one, there must of necessity 
  arise two persons, and consequently become 
  two Christs, 
  whom all men without controversie 
  acknowledge to be one, 
  and his Person one.

Non-Christian catechisms

Catechisms represent an obvious, practical method of passing on instruction, and as such examples can be found in many traditions. For example, Asiatic schools of esoteric learning also used a catechetical style of instruction, as this Zodiac catechism shows:

Q. "Where is the animal, O Lanoo?
and where the Man?

A. Fused into one, O Master of my Life. The two are one. But both have disappeared and naught remains but the deep fire of my desire.

Judaism does not have a formal catechism as such, but there are a set of Jewish principles of faith that religious Jews believe that all Jews should hold.