What is a catechism?

The word itself

If the word catechism sounds unfamiliar to you, don't be too surprised.  It's not used as commonly today as it was in the past.  However, it's not a complicated word.  If you trace back its origin it comes from a Greek word (katecheo) which simply means to teach, especially when the instructor is speaking face-to-face with the students.

It's also a word that is found in the Bible, although you would not notice this in English translations since they do not use the noun, catechism, or the verb, to catechize.  However, the original Greek word is found, for example, in Luke 1:4, where the gospel writer explains that he has written "an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught."  Presumably, then, Theophilus had learned about salvation in Jesus Christ by listening to preaching or some kind of oral instruction.  Now Luke, inspired by the Holy Spirit, gives a written account about who Jesus is and what he did.  Other Bible verses which use the verb, to catechize, include Acts 18:24-25 and Gal 6:6.  Each time the word is translated as to teach or to instruct.

The basic structure

A catechism, then, is a teaching tool which is especially suited for oral instruction.  This also explains why the Heidelberg Catechism, and other catechisms as well, are set up in a question and answer format.  When you read it, it's like you're right there in the classroom, with the teacher asking the questions and the students giving the answers.  In addition, the answers in the Catechism are generally quite short and carefully structured.  Some even have a poetic rhythm or ring to them.  All of this helps to make the Catechism a memorable and useful tool for instructing people in the basic truths of salvation in Jesus Christ.  There are 129 Q&As in the Catechism, divided over 52 sections called Lord's Days.  The common abbreviation for a Lord's Day is LD.

After the first, introductory Lord's Day on the main theme of comfort, the Heidelberg Catechism is divided into three main parts:

  • Our sin & misery (LD 2-4)
  • Our deliverance from sin (LD 5-31)
  • Our thankfulness to God for such deliverance (LD 32-52)

In LD 8-22, the second part of the Catechism contains an extensive explanation of the Apostles' Creed, one of the most widely used ecumenical creeds.  The third part provides detailed instruction about the Ten Commandments (LD 34-44) and the Lord's Prayer (LD 46-52).

The Bible and the Catechism

At the same time, the Catechism is not a replacement for Scripture.  It is meant to lead you deeper into the Word of God, not draw you away from it.  That's why under each Lord's Day you'll see lists of Bible references, often called prooftexts.  Even though each list is selective, it gives you an idea which Bible passages the Catechism is summarizing in each answer.  From the quick overview that the Catechism gives you, you can go off and explore the treasure of Scripture's teaching on many different topics--from faith (LD 7) to the resurrection from the dead (LD 22) and many others.  This website makes working with prooftexts easy because each one pops up in small window as soon as you hover over the Bible reference.