Over the last couple of articles I’ve been talking about the importance of teaching the heart of a child. But what about the mind? What can we expect from children in terms of their understanding? I suspect far more than we might initially think. It might not all fall into place at once, but by God’s grace, what we teach them now, the Holy Spirit will enable them to understand more fully as they grow older. We should be working intentionally, putting in place today the structures that will allow them to understand much deeper truth tomorrow. Think of the way children learn to write. First, they hear sounds; then they learn to connect those sounds with patterns - letters; then to put letters together to make increasingly complex sounds and words. Then we teach them writing structure which develops in complexity as experience and understanding grows. Each step builds on what has gone before and prepares a child for what will come next. God’s word can be taught this way. We will be seeking to develop a way of teaching in our Sunday Groups that does this as effectively as possible throughout the age groups. As it develops you’ll notice a number of component parts. Obviously we will be teaching them the stories of the Bible, but we’ll be doing a lot more than that!
Have you ever watched a child grouping similar things together? Kids have cleared a developmental hurdle when they learn that certain things belong together – in contrast to certain other things. In this simple and entirely natural act of a child, they demonstrate they have the skills they need to do systematic theology!!? What’s that? Theologian John Frame says it is “any study that answers the question: ‘What does the whole Bible teach about any given topic?”. It is something we all do instinctively as we read the Bible. It is the process of collecting and understanding all the relevant passages in the Bible on various topics, and then summarising their teaching clearly so that we know what to believe. Just like sorting different coloured blocks into piles, we accumulate passages from the Bible that teach on a common theme, and so distil the Wisdom of God that is scattered through the pages of His Word. The better our knowledge of Scripture, the more effective can be our sorting of passages.
So, for example, ‘what does the Bible teach about prayer?’ We’d want to take some examples of people praying in books like Genesis, or Kings. We’d probably have a look at some passages from the Prophetic books, such as Isaiah. I guess we’d plunder the book of Psalms. Obviously we’d carefully consider Jesus’ teaching; and we know that Paul models prayer in his letters, so we’d engage with that… As we bring it all together we are engaging in systematic theology. Like I said, it’s something we all do. The only difference is that some people do it well and so reflect accurately what the Bible does teach … others not so much!
The fact is that we need a good systematic theology in place if we are to handle the Bible well. This was John Calvin’s thinking when he wrote his monumental ‘Institutes of the Christian Religion’. Although we may feel intimidated by a book like the Institutes, he actually wrote it in part to give new Christians a framework (a systematic theology) that would allow them to make sense of the Bible. A good systematic theology helps us (whatever age we are) to read the Bible in a way that safeguards against wrong interpretations and leads us into Truth.
Again, an example might help. Think about the story in Genesis 3. Adam and Eve break God’s rule, and take something they shouldn’t. OK – that’s something kids can identify with. Breaking rules and taking something they’ve been told they are not allowed. But look at God’s response! They broke one rule and God throws them out of the garden, and imposes on them consequences that last not just for their entire lives, but also that affect the lives of everyone who comes after them! That could be pretty confusing for a child. It could easily look like God is massively over-reacting. What guards us against interpreting the story this way? We have a whole systematic theology in place that engages with the narrative through a lens coloured by our understanding of doctrines like ‘(original) sin’; ‘holiness’; ‘fall’; ‘covenant’; ‘grace’; Gospel’ etc. We have learned this from other parts of the Bible, and we use it to make (proper) sense out of what we read in Genesis 3. Our children and young people need systematic theology, otherwise we risk them going away thinking that God is a pedantic and over-reacting bully, who just wants everything exactly his own way. It is our systematic theology that allows us to understand the significance of events in a narrative.
So what does this have to do with children and young people in the life of our families and Church? It’s interesting to me that so many of the big pastors and theologians in history have written children’s catechisms. Luther, Calvin, and British pastors (e.g. Bunyan, Spurgeon), wrote children’s catechisms, and gave time to the catechising of children. One of the greatest theological conferences in the world took place in Westminster between 1643 and 1652. The greatest and godliest minds in the British Church assembled, and were joined by luminaries from throughout Europe. They produced a number of theological documents which were so brilliant that they are used as the basis for theological study to this day. One of those documents was the Westminster Shorter Catechism – a series of questions and answers designed to help children build a good systematic theology. It might feel incredible to us that the most brilliant pastors and theologians of the day would think of writing a children’s introduction to the Bible’s teaching, but to them it was all but self-evident that this was their responsibility and privilege.
Simply asking questions and teaching (& explaining) answers can help children to grasp the essence of the Bible’s teaching in language that is pitched at their stage in development. Here’s a great example from a modern children’s catechism:
1. Who made you? God (Gen.1:27)
2. Why did God make you? To glorify Him, and enjoy Him (I Cor.10:31)
3. What else did God make? God made all things (Gen.1:31)
4. Why did God make all things? For His own glory (Rev.4:11)
5. Where does God teach us how to praise Him and enjoy Him?
In His word the Bible (John 5:39)
6. Who wrote the Bible? Holy men taught by the Holy Spirit (II Tim.3:16).
You may want to tweak some of the answers, and perhaps you can think of a better verse, which children can memorise as they grow older. But you get the idea. In teaching them at Church in a way that resonates and reinforces what they are learning at home we are giving our children the tools to read the Bible for themselves. We are giving them the beginnings of deep truth they can grow into, rather than trite platitudes they will grow out of.
 Thanks to Children Desiring God for this analogy!
 My first book of Questions and Answers, by Carine MacKenzie – part of a series.