Updated: Mar 18, 2021
Rather than writing as the Interpreter, Freeman breaks character in his ‘Preface’ to explain the reasons for the book. I wish this had been placed at the end as an Epilogue so that the letters could have been made their case self-evidently. In any case, here’s hoping readers sensibly skip to the ‘Catechism’ and ‘Introduction’. Not only do I think this would have been cleaner for the reader’s immersion into the cathechism /letter format, but also the Preface is just a bit stodgier than Freeman’s lighter prose throughout the rest of the book. For example, ‘Yet their antiquated theological formulations and archaic linguistic expressions rendered them ineffective tools for passing on the faith today’ – which might just be a deliberately ironical sentence! Still it is good to read that ‘This book is grounded in the conviction that for the church to be the church today, it must be committed to the practice of making Christians’ (x). This involves continually updated communication and instruction in the basics.
The best place to start reading is the Catechism proper, specified in term of ‘The Six Principles’. If you’ve seen a catechism before you know that it is structured in question and answer format, each Principle having one simple question and a clear short paragraph answer. The answers are given a few bible references as support that invites delving back into authoritative Scripture. We’ll see each of these in turn with each chapter devoted to the given Principle.
Before we get to the Principles explored chapter by chapter though Freeman provides an Introduction. This is written as a letter from Interpreter to a younger reader.
(Not that age differentiation should define the relationship, but it fits a perspective that seems more oriented to forming youth within a church community toward baptism than a tool of evangelistic instruction in missionary encounter with all ages outside of the church community. It is worth noting that catechism supposes some participation in the life of a local gathered church community, picking up its distinctive language and practices, and even book reading habits, for this book to make sense. Certainly, this is a good need to be addressed. Might someone come across this book outside of such a setting and be helpfully instructed into the truths of the gospel? Possibly so, but at the end of the day, to be baptized you’re going to need to find a body of believers into whose company, and in whose body of water, you receive your baptism.)
The Interpreter writes with a gentle familiarity to ‘you’ the reader, starting, ‘For some time now, you have been thinking about being baptized.’(1). I like ‘being baptized’ rather than ‘getting baptized’ – the phrasing speaks to the transformation in the person pointed to rather than the instrumentality of an external action. The Interpreter explains what catechism is and gives a brief history of its practice. At one point, and helpfully, the letter commends Sunday School teachers as those, perhaps unwitting, catechists, ‘because they were not so much concerned about providing age-appropriate religious education as they were committed to helping you understand what is means to be a Christian.’ (5) The last page or so of the letter introduces The Pilgrim's Progress as Bunyan presenting ‘the basic teaching of Christ in a story form that captures the imagination so that we see ourselves in it.’ (7) The closing greeting, ‘Yours in the journey’, is a reminder that instruction is not so much a hierarchical initiative but an invitation to companionship on the Way.