Most Reformed folk are accustomed to expository preaching, where the minister works through a book passage-by-passage week-by-week. But unless you are in a Dutch Reformed church, where there has been a long, four century plus tradition of preaching based on the Heidelberg catechism, you may not be accustomed to catechetical style preaching.
Recently, I have been working with some students encouraging them in this regard. I have told them I do not think we should let our Dutch friends have all the fun. After all, being a York married to a Hoeksema, I know the special joys that a British isles descendant can gain from the traditions of those coming from the Netherlands (think olie bollen for one!). So how might those ministers and congregations proceed who fall more under the Westminster tradition and are not accustomed to catechetical preaching? Here are five encouragements for congregations to consider regarding doctrinal preaching based on using a catechism.
Catechetical preaching was part of the design of the Heidelberg Catechism; yet other catechisms can be employed similarly. Those familiar with the Heidelberg Catechism know it is arranged topically around the 52 Lord's Days typical in a year. So the Heidelberg Catechism was intentionally designed so that its subjects would be preached through over the course of a year in the evening services. Though other catechisms such as the Westminster Shorter Catechism* do not have this same built-in format, a minister can simply lay out the WSC's 107 questions on a preaching schedule, using corresponding texts that would systematically cover the material.
Catechetical preaching is to be understood as not preaching from the catechism, but preaching from Biblical text(s) that reflect the truth of the catechism. One of the dangers of catechetical preaching is for the minister to fall into dryly teaching the content of the phrases of the answers, merely referring to the Bible for support of the material rather than preaching from the Scriptures. Clearly the Westminster Assembly expected ministers to preach from the Scriptures, not from the catechism. As the Directory for Public Worship states, "Ordinarily, the subject of his sermon is to be some text of scripture, holding forth some principle or head of religion, or suitable to some special occasion emergent; or he may go on in some chapter, psalm, or book of the holy scripture, as he shall see fit."
I believe finding an appropriate text that teaches or illustrates the subject, then forming a sermon that develops the text while emphasizing the topic, is to be preferred over simply taking the phrases of a catechism answer and using proof texts to establish each phrase. The latter approach is a topical sermon that can easily become more like a lecture that fails to address the heart; the former leads more to a focus on an important facet of the doctrine that can address heart and life issues. The preacher should not worry about covering every aspect of the catechism answer, knowing the next go-around he can stress another part of the doctrine.
Catechetical preaching reinforces the catechizing of the youth and impresses foundational truths upon a congregation. If a congregation has some method for catechizing their young people, then preaching these vital subjects will deepen even further the knowledge and application of these truths. Preaching, properly done, has a way of enlivening truth and showing its uses in the lives of God's people. Clarification regarding distinctions develops in the church, such as understanding the relationship between justification and sanctification or the place of the law in the life of a Christian. Thus, a congregation becomes equipped in the main tenets of systematic theology.
Catechetical preaching encourages a healthy balance between biblical and systematic theology. If you think about it, expositional preaching tends towards more of a biblical theology approach to preaching. For the minister takes texts as they come to him in a book and, from that Scriptural portion, deduces and preaches truths from it. In contrast, catechetical preaching is based on the systematic theology of the church, following a more inductive approach to studying God's Word. These approaches can complement one another beautifully, teaching God's people the importance of both the direct study of Scripture and the categorization of its truth.
Catechetical preaching brings wonderful focus to the evening service. The evening service has historically been where catechetical preaching occurs. So if your congregation does not have an evening service, perhaps first and foremost you should consider "Why I Love an Evening Service" by Tim Challies or "Being with Jesus at the Evening Service" that I wrote. One can see the wisdom of the tradition of having expository preaching in the morning service and catechetical preaching in the evening. This approach offers depth and variety to the preaching offered to the congregation.
As I have grown older, and seen the mushy, confused thinking of our generation, the more important I believe it is that the church return to the healthy practice of offering catechetical preaching as part of the church's diet.
*Though the historian Philip Schaff indicated the Westminster Larger Catechism was designed for preaching, this article by Chad VanDixhoorn refutes that unsupported claim. I encourage my students to use the corresponding questions in the WLC to the WSC for commentary and further Scriptural proofs of its teaching.