Tag Archives: infant baptism

Review: The New City Catechism Devotional

The New City Catechism Devotional, edited by Collin Hansen.  Wheaton: Crossway, 2017.  Hardcover, 238 pages.

I’m always on the lookout for new family worship resources.  When I spotted this volume at my local Christian bookstore, I thought I’d check it out and give it a test run at home.  So, for a couple of months recently, this devotional served as the catechetical instruction in our daily family worship.  We read each question and answer, read the Scripture text, and then the contemporary commentary.  There is also a brief commentary by a figure from history, but we skipped over that in the interests of time.

For those unaware, the New City Catechism is a teaching tool written by Timothy Keller and Sam Shammas.  It appeared under 2014 under the auspices of The Gospel Coalition and Redeemer Presbyterian Church.  It seeks to condense and modernize Reformation catechisms — there are clear echoes throughout of both the Heidelberg and Westminster Shorter Catechisms.

I have several observations about this devotional and it seems best to divide them into two parts.  First, I’ll comment briefly on the commentary and then a little more at length on the New City Catechism itself.

Contemporary Commentary

Each question and answer of the NCC has commentary, both historic and contemporary.  Historic commentators include John Calvin and Augustine, but also less orthodox figures like John Wesley.  The contemporary commentators are men such as Tim Keller, John Piper, Kevin DeYoung, Mark Dever, and Ligon Duncan.

Because there is such a variety of authors, the commentaries or devotional components are uneven.  That happens with any compilation.  Here too: some are short, some are long.  Some read easier than others.  Some have better illustrations or clearer teaching.  Some were really good, others okay, and some mediocre.

I’m going to make some remarks further down about the New City Catechism and its teaching on baptism.  But already here I want to note that from a confessionally Reformed (i.e. Three Forms of Unity) perspective, the teaching in the commentary on baptism is at best inadequate.  If you are intending to use this devotional to teach your covenant children about the meaning of their baptism, then this book is not going to cut the mustard.  There is certainly nothing here about baptism as a sign and seal of God’s covenant.  Baptists will appreciate it more than anyone.

The New City Catechism

There are some things to like about the NCC.  It generally tracks with Reformation theology.  The NCC speaks biblically about the unpopular doctrine of hell in QA 28.  It draws attention to the cosmic significance of Christ’s redemption in QA 26.  In QA 34, obedience to God’s commandments is motivated not only by thankfulness (as in the Heidelberg Catechism), but also by love for God.

However, there are also some significant weaknesses.  There is one question and answer dealing with the Lord’s Prayer.  There is one question and answer dealing with the Apostles’ Creed.  There is a little more with the Ten Commandments — all ten are covered in four questions and answers.  In trying to keep the NCC to fifty-two questions and answers, all these important elements of Christian catechesis have been given short-shrift.  I’ll gladly take my Heidelberger back, thank you very much.

Were I to write a contemporary catechism (not that I plan to), I would be sure to address contemporary concerns.  The Heidelberg Catechism did that — look at Lord’s Day 18 and its four questions and answers on the ascension.  That was all because of polemics with Lutheran theology at the time.  One of today’s major battles has to do with creation and evolution.  While the NCC has two questions and answers dealing with creation, there is nothing to address the threat of evolution.  It’s not in the commentary either.  Should we be surprised?  Since Timothy Keller is a well-known ally of BioLogos, an organization promoting theistic evolution, I suppose not.

As mentioned above, one of the greatest concerns I have about the NCC is its teaching on baptism.  It’s not only what it doesn’t say — i.e. that the children of believers ought to be baptized.  It’s also what it does say, namely that baptism not only “signifies and seals our adoption into Christ [and] our cleansing from sin” but also, “our commitment to belong to the Lord and to his church.”  Does baptism signify and seal “our commitment”?  Doesn’t the one being baptized already belong to the Lord and, if a covenant child, also to his church?  Again, our Baptist friends might be willing to sign on the dotted line for everything in the NCC, but count me out.

Summary

Our family went once through the NCC Devotional, but that’ll be the last time.  Sadly, it’s not a catechism resource I can recommend to Reformed parents.  Perhaps a married couple with children out of the home might use it discerningly with benefit, but it just isn’t solid enough for families.  My top alternative remains Starr Meade’s resource on the Westminster Shorter Catechism, Training Hearts, Teaching Minds.

Readers can check out the NCC and devotional resources online here.


Book Review: Visual Theology

Visual Theology: Seeing and Understanding the Truth about God, Tim Challies and Josh Byers, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016.  Paperback, 155 pages.

I’ve read and reviewed several systematic theologies.  These books were geared towards pastors, theologians, or theological students.  They follow the same basic structure and, because they’re Reformed, they tend to say the same things in mostly the same way.   Visual Theology has “theology” in the title, and it generally steers in the Reformed direction, but that’s where the similarities end.

Visual Theology is decidedly not directed at the ivory tower – though scholars will certainly reap spiritual benefits if they read it.  Instead, it’s for regular people in the pew.  It also recognizes that some of those regular people are more visual in their learning style.  So, Tim Challies delivers clear prose and Josh Byers illumines with effective infographics.  All up, it’s not only a beautiful book, but also pedagogically powerful.

Conventional systematic theologies cover such topics as God, creation, salvation, and the last things.  Visual Theology is different; it has four parts:  grow close to Christ, understand the work of Christ, become like Christ, live for Christ.  It’s Christ-centered and relationally oriented.  It’s theology that, as Challies says, “is about growing in godliness” (p.12).  You can only grow in godliness in a healthy relationship with Christ.  Visual Theology shows why and how.  I found valuable insights new to me (especially in the third section on hating and fighting sin), but also many familiar truths expressed or illustrated freshly.

As I mentioned, generally this book leans Reformed.  For example, the use of creeds is affirmed (p.85); the Westminster Shorter Catechism’s definition of sin is quoted (p.94); the real spiritual presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper is affirmed (p.27); and justification is properly defined as a declaration of righteousness (p.33).  Commendably, Visual Theology teaches a monergistic view of salvation which includes unconditional election.

By the authors’ own admission, the book “is not a thorough introduction to Christian doctrine” (p.79).  Some readers will detect gaps.  Allowing for the intent of the authors, but also for full disclosure to readers of this review, let me mention two.  Visual Theology is almost completely positive in its presentation of biblical teachings.  That means there’s not much, if anything, in the way of exposure or addressing of errors.  Next, its relational framework is a plus, but it is surprising that the biblical framework for a healthy relationship between God and humanity is missing.  There’s no explicit mention of the covenant of grace.

I have one noteworthy concern:  the authors are Baptists and this becomes evident in the description of baptism:  “The water of baptism represents the washing away of sin, while going into the water and coming back out represents death and new life” (p.27).  The first part of that sentence is true, and the second part can be true, but more needs to be said.  The authors assume immersion of the believer as the norm for baptism.  As one would expect from Baptists, the sprinkling of babies is not even in the picture, nor is the relationship between baptism and the covenant of grace.  However, this is one short paragraph in an otherwise great book and it is far from being a polemic for the Baptist position.  Discerning readers should be able to chew the rest of the meat while spitting out this bone.

This book could be useful as edifying reading for a Sunday afternoon.  Perhaps it could also be used as a textbook for an adult education class.  For those who might use it in an educational setting, there’s also a website with the infographics available as PowerPoint slides and moreVisual Theology is innovative in its approach, almost entirely reliable in its content, and attractive in its presentation.  You’ll find it both enjoyable and edifying!


Book Review: Comforting Hearts, Teaching Minds

9781596384651-Meade-Comforting-hearts-teaching-minds

Comforting Hearts, Teaching Minds:  Family Devotions Based on the Heidelberg Catechism, Starr Meade, Phillipsburg: P & R Publishing, 2013.  Paperback, $16.09, 255 pages.

For many Reformed parents, the catechizing of their children begins and ends with catechism classes taught by the church.  This is despite the fact that the third baptismal question is very clear.  Parents first of all promise that they will instruct their children in the “complete doctrine of salvation” as soon as those children are able to understand.  The catechism teaching done by the church is not meant to replace this parental catechism teaching, but to complement or supplement it.  But how do we implement parental catechism instruction in the home?  That’s where a book like this promises to be very helpful.

The same author wrote a similar book based on the Westminster Shorter Catechism, Training Hearts, Teaching Minds.   Our family used this book profitably for several years and by the time we were done with it, it was falling apart.  Our experiences with the previous volume led me to have high hopes for this one as a replacement.  After a few months of using it in our family worship, I can report that, overall, it is a worthwhile tool.  However, discernment is needed on some important points.

A week of devotions (Monday-Saturday) is spent on each Lord’s Day of the Catechism.  Occasionally a Lord’s Day will be spread over two weeks.  Each day features a short devotional that can be read in less than five minutes.  The devotionals also include one or more readings from the Bible to show the connection between the Catechism and Scripture.  The devotionals are well-written and often include vivid illustrations.  Most of the teaching given in these devotionals is faithful to the Reformed faith.  While even preschool children can benefit from these devotionals, those benefitting the most will be school age.

Unfortunately, I do have to share two significant criticisms.  I share them in the hope that parents who want to use this book will use it with discernment.  First, parents should be aware that Meade uses the edition of the Heidelberg Catechism adopted by the Christian Reformed Church.  This has a couple of regrettable drawbacks.  First, we want our children to learn the Catechism as adopted by our churches.  This means that parents should keep the Book of Praise at hand and read the Catechism in the Canadian Reformed edition, rather than the text as printed in this book.  The second drawback is more significant.  The CRC edition of the Catechism dropped QA 80 about the Roman Catholic mass.  Meade follows the CRC lead and even states in a footnote, “There has been concern among those who use this catechism that the position of the Roman Catholic Church may not be stated accurately.  Therefore, I have chosen to omit Question 80 altogether” (160).  If Meade had only done some research, she would have discovered that this “concern” was only among some and actually said far more about the CRC than about the Catechism and its portrayal of Rome.  This puts Canadian Reformed parents who use this book in the position of having to teach QA 80 on their own – and they should.

My second criticism has to do with Lord’s Day 27 and infant baptism.  According to the author’s website, she and her husband teach a Sunday School class at a Reformed Baptist church in Arizona.  I would assume that they are also members at this church.  This puts the author in an awkward position when it comes to Lord’s Day 27.  This was not an issue in the previous book on the Westminster Shorter Catechism (which also teaches infant baptism).  It seems to me that the author may have changed her views on this between the two books.  When it comes to Comforting Hearts, Teaching Minds, the author is very brief on infant baptism and does not teach it or defend it.  All she does is note that there are differences amongst Christians on this question and encourages families to discuss where they and their church stand on it.  This is not faithful to the intent of the Catechism.  The Catechism was written to teach the Reformed faith and that faith includes the truth that the children of believers belong to God’s covenant and therefore should receive holy baptism.  This is the whole point of QA 74!  Unfortunately, Meade’s Baptist bias comes out elsewhere in her treatment of the sacraments as well.  For instance, in the Friday devotion on Lord’s Day 25, she writes, “Baptism is a sign used once, when we first come to Christ.”  While baptism certainly is a sign to be used only once, there’s no recognition that it’s to be used when Christ first comes to us – and that could be (and often is) as a little covenant baby.  Reformed parents who use this book will have to be cautious about this and intentional about filling out the gaps in Meade’s approach.

We need more books like this, tools to help us catechize our children as we promised to do.  We need books like this written by men and women who share a wholehearted commitment to the Reformed faith – with no reservations about any points of doctrine.  While I believe this book could be used with profit (and we certainly are profiting in our home), it should only be seen as a stop-gap measure until something better comes along.