Every Sunday afternoon, we go to church to listen to the Catechism preaching. During the week, the ministers are teaching the catechism classes. This is an old tradition, established by the Synod of Dort, 1618/1619. It has a biblical foundation. In Deuteronomy 6 the parents are told that they should take every opportunity to teach their children the commandments. Not only on the Sabbath Day but all the days of the week. Whenever an opportunity arises. The LORD even created opportunities for His people[i], so that fathers would tell their children about the great deeds of the LORD.
The churches in the Netherlands in the beginning of the seventeenth century complained that the knowledge of church members was very limited. The Synod of ‘s-Gravenhage 1586 had decided that in the afternoon service the catechism should be preached. The Synod of Dort urged the ministers to take this teaching seriously and exhort the congregations to attend.
However, especially for the youth more was needed. Churches asked the synod to come up with a way in which the youth and the older members with limited knowledge could be better instructed in the Reformed doctrine. The synod requested advice on this matter from the foreign delegates. Based on this advice the synod made a decision in the seventeenth session, the 30th November 1618.
The parents first
Advice was received from the delegates from Great Britain, the Palatinate, Hesse, Switzerland, and Bremen. They explained how they did it in their churches and why it was important. Although the submissions had much in common, the decision of the synod mostly follows the advice of the Hessian delegates.[ii] The synod emphasised that every opportunity to teach the youth should be used. It starts with the parents. They must teach their children at home:
The task of the parents is to diligently instruct the children at home, and also the entire household entrusted to them, in the principles of the Christian religion, each of them according to their ability, to exhort them seriously and with diligence to the fear of God and the true godliness, make them familiar with the holy prayers at home, take them along to the hearing of the Divine Word, recount with them diligently the preaching they heard especially the catechism preaching, read to them or have them read some chapters of Holy Scripture, have them memorise the most excellent parts of the Scripture and instill it in them, and to explain these to them in an understandable and for their tender youth fitting way, and also prepare them for the catechism instruction in the schools, and when they are attending [the catechism instruction in the schools] to confirm, encourage and, as much as they can, promote it[iii].
Parents should still take these words to heart! The synod told the ministers and elders to exhort the parents and if parents were negligent, they should be seriously admonished and if necessary, even put under discipline. The synod understood very well that it all had to start with the parents.
A large part of the day children were in school, and therefore also there, children should be taught the Christian doctrine. There also the parents played an important role and the parents should actively support the teaching of Christian doctrine in the schools. However, the synod acknowledged that the schools were mostly the responsibility of the state and therefore, first of all the cooperation of the magistrates was required for this.
Schools, church and state
To understand the decisions of the synod it is good to have some knowledge about the situation in those days. It cannot be compared to what it is now[iv].
Emperor Charlemagne (who ruled over much of Western Europe in the 9th century) was a great supporter of education for all children. He very much encouraged the establishment of schools and worked together with churches and monasteries. Since the 9th century that was more or less the situation in Europe: the schools were either a shared responsibility of church and state, or, especially in the cities, the responsibility of the state. In the Netherlands in the sixteenth century, the schools were regulated by the governments. Several levels of government were involved, each responsible for the schools in their own area. It was not allowed to establish schools without a permit from the government. Often a permit was easily given, but the principle remained that the state had the responsibility for the schools. In those days there was no separation of church and state and churches often had influence in what was being taught in the schools and who was appointed.
This situation continued in most countries in Europe and North America, until the eighteenth century. In that time the secularisation started in earnest, which had its impact on what was taught in the schools. In many countries this led to a struggle between Christian parents and the state. Parents more and more claimed the right to have their children instructed in accordance with the Bible. This also happened in the Netherlands. In the 19th century a long struggle between liberals and Christians took place, which ended with the state granting parents the right to start their own schools. Later the state even decided that these schools should be supported by the government as well. This all was enshrined in the constitution in 1917. However, also for the private schools the principle was maintained that education was the responsibility of the state, and that the state enabled the parents to have their children instructed in the way they saw fit. That is the situation as it is now in the Netherlands (and in fact also in Australia): the government determines the curriculum, and the parents determine who are teaching their children. With that we have a quite different and unique situation. God has blessed the churches richly with this opportunity in a time in which governments don’t want to be bothered with God’s commandments anymore. Let us be diligent to defend and protect our Christian schools.
Returning to the situation in the seventeenth century, we notice that the synod of Dort made its decisions about catechism teaching in the schools in the knowledge that they depended on the local governments. Knowing that for every area in the Netherlands, the situation could be different, the synod encouraged the churches to get into contact with the local governments and urge those magistrates to appoint godly teachers, who were members of the Reformed churches and were capable of teaching the youth the Christian doctrine. Except from impressing upon the magistrates the blessings of good education in general and encouraging them to establish schools also in the villages, the synod did not busy itself much with how the schools should be arranged. That was the responsibility of the state.
The children should first be taught by the parents and in addition to that in the schools. The third way of instruction was the catechism classes taught by the church. The ministers should get groups together of more mature youth and older members who were on their way to make profession of faith and instruct them in the Christian doctrine.
The catechism teaching in school should be supervised by the ministers. They should visit the schools regularly and sit in on the teaching of the Christian doctrine. From time to time the ministers should be teaching to show the teachers how it must be done. The teaching and supervision over it was one of the main tasks of the ministers and they spent much of their time on this, as well as visiting and instructing the parents regarding their task to teach their children.[v]
The synod determined that there should be three levels in the catechism teaching.
The younger children (the lower grades in primary school) should be taught the Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, the Sacraments and discipline, and some important texts from the Bible.
The second level was a short summary of the Heidelberg Catechism.
The third level is for the more mature youth who have increased in knowledge. They shall be taught the entire Heidelberg Catechism.
In the schools, only the Heidelberg Catechism should be used for the teaching of Christian doctrine, and all other books should be banned.
The situation in the field of education in the seventeenth century in the Netherlands was so totally different from the present situation, that it will be counterproductive to use decisions of the synod of Dort to determine how we have to arrange our schools. However, with regard to the catechism teaching, the synod made important decisions and showed the biblical way for the churches to go. We must be thankful as churches that we can have Christian schools, and the ministers and consistories have the important task to encourage the teachers in the schools to be diligent and faithful in their teaching. I encourage the schools to develop their Bible curriculum in cooperation with the ministers. This is in line with the decisions of the Synod of Dort regarding the catechism teaching and would be an implementation of the three levels of catechism teaching which the Synod of Dort recommended.
[i] See Exodus 12:24-27; Joshua 4:4-8.
[iv] See Drs. D. Langedijk, De Schoolstrijd, ‘s-Gravenhage 1935, page 5-8.
[v] The Acts mention several times the ‘visitors of the sick’ as an official position. Their task was, as their name says, to visit and encourage those who were sick. As a result, the ministers could focus more on the supervision of and involvement in the Bible teaching in the schools.