Arthur Middleton on the translation of devotion and doctrine into practical divinity

George Herbert in The Country Parson gives a whole chapter to the catechism ‘to which all divinity may easily be reduced… the Country Parson values catechizing highly… He exacts of all the Doctrine of the Catechism; of the younger sort, the very words; of the older, the substance… He requires all to be present at Catechizing.’ For him catechesis is a doctrine-devotion synthesis: ‘there being three points of his duty; the one, to infuse a competent knowledge of salvation in every one of his flock; the other, to multiply and build up this knowledge to a spiritual temple; the third, to influence this knowledge, to press and drive it to practice, turning it to reformation of life, by pithy and lively exhortations; Catechizing is the first point, and but by Catechizing, the other cannot be attained’ (Unum Necessarium, ch. II, sect. 4).

‘Sums of divinity’

So catechesis is to translate devotion and doctrine into Christian living, into practical divinity, and is the aim of the authors of the seventeenth-century catechetical books who called them ‘sums of divinity’. The content of the Catechism could hardly be otherwise and here doctrine and devotion are not separable. They form a synthesis, a combination of both elements in a complex whole. In The Catechising of Families (vol. XIX, p.54) we read ‘Now what is the Christian Religion?’ The answer is ‘The Christian religion, as doctrinal is, the revelation of God’s will concerning his kingdom, as our Redeemer; or the redeeming and saving sinful, miserable man by Jesus Christ. And the Christian religion as it is in us, is the true conformity of our understanding, will, and practice, to this doctrine.’ When outwardly everything for the Church of England seemed lost due to Cromwell’s attempt to presbyterianize the Church, the Catechism had a cumulative effect in building up Anglicans in their faith.

Nicholson’s Catechism

Prayer and Christian behaviour are at work in the pastoral and parochial setting but always the end is kept in view. As in Nicholson’s Catechism grace is for ‘those who are born again, sanctified by the Spirit of God, cleansed by Christ’s blood, engrafted and made partakers of the Divine Nature’. He writes that grace does not raise a person to ‘an unsinning obedience, but it makes him a new creature, creates in him a sincere obedience to the whole Gospel’.

William Nicholson, Richard Sherlock and William Beveridge are adversely critical of the predominance of preaching over catechizing.

Nicholson was ‘a right learned Divine, well read in the Fathers and Schoolmen’. He divides his Exposition of the Catechism by the headings of the Catechism itself into an exegesis of creed, Decalogue, prayer and sacraments. The Decalogue explains the nature of the perfection which God’s law requires of us: ‘There is one perfection of this life, another of the life to come. Now the law of God expects from us in this life, not absolute perfection, but such perfection as is to be had in this life, which the School calls perfectio Viatorum, the perfection of wayfaring men. A definition of this is ‘when the will of man habitually entertains nothing that is contrary to the love of God.’ To attain to this, nature is too weak, and there is required what the Catechism calls ‘the special grace of God’ which we receive through prayer and sacrament. This grace appertains ‘to those who are born again, sanctified by the spirit of God, cleansed by Christ’s blood, engrafted and made partakers of the Divine Nature.’ In this life, it never raises man to ‘an unsinning obedience, but it makes him ‘a new creature’, creates in him a sincere obedience to the whole Gospel’.

Important role in teaching

Bishop Beveridge asked his clergy not to confine themselves to hearing the children repeat the catechism but instruct them ‘in all the duties which they owe to Almighty God, to their sovereign, to their parents, and to all their other relations, as well as to themselves and to one another.’ In addition to grounding them ‘in all the fundamental articles of the Christian faith, let every parson do this each Sunday and the constant inculcation of these truths and duties will produce a generation ‘steadfast in the Faith and sincere in their obedience to Him’. ND