December 26, 2009

Thoughts on Scripture and the Style of Catechisms

I was reading through one of Horatius Bonar's books this morning in Google Books. It is his republication of ancient Scottish catechisms. He said something in the preface that caught my eye, simply as food for thought about catechisms in general.

Bonar wrote:

If the Bible has proved itself unsuitable to any age or nation, it must have proved itself destitute of that which is one of the special characteristics of a revelation, universal adaptation. Flexible yet not mutable ; capable of expansion yet not of compromise ; possessing every variety of note, yet never uttering an uncertain sound ; speaking to the Apostolic age, speaking also to the age of the Reformation; teaching the first century, yet teaching the nineteenth with equal explicitness ; such is the Bible.

Nor is this adaptation secured at the expense of accuracy, or by means of allegory. On the contrary, the more that its minute accuracy and literality are assumed, the more complete is its adaptation found to be. It is the EVERLASTING word ; not the word of this age or that age, of this nation or that nation ; but of all; not the word that suits one national character but not another, that does with barbarism but not with refinement, that falls in with one temperament but not with another ; that speaks to the Jew but not to the Greek, to the Athenian but not to the Roman, to the Persian but not to the Scot, to the Genevese but not to the Parisian, to the Teuton but not to the Celt; but truly the word which finds passage for itself into every ear, which wakes up a response in every soul; suiting all men, all ages, all minds, all nations ; the only book which can bear translation into every language, and which, the more literally it is taken, is found the more suitable to all.

And as is the Bible, so are those works which most largely embody it; which are most thoroughly penetrated by its truths ; which come nearest it in spirit and in diction. Such we believe our Reformation standards to be ; not the Scottish only, but the English, the Helvetian, the Belgian, the Bohemian, the Gallican, and others of that era. Being human compositions, arranged after human manner, clothed in human phraseology, and compiled to meet the exigencies and errors of a particular age, they do not partake of the largeness and manifold fitness or expressiveness which belong to the divine volume ; yet they have less of the provisional and ephemeral than uninspired compilations usually have. We meet with expressions once and again, which we should be disposed to part with, especially when we get upon sacramentarian ground ; for the dregs of the baptismal and eucharistic opus operatum of Popery are visible in many a Reformed document; but, discounting some small expressions, we accept these old creeds as still true and still suitable ; more universal in their teaching than some modern progressionists like to allow. We can still safely say to our children as our fathers did to theirs,

" Go, reid the buik, repeit the storyis auld."

Our Scottish catechisms, though grey with the antiquity of three centuries, are not yet out of date. They still read well, both as to style and substance ; it would be hard to amend them, or to substitute something better in their place. Like some of our old church bells, they have retained for centuries their sweetness and amplitude of tone unimpaired. It may be questioned whether the church gained anything by the exchange of the Reformation standards for those of the seventeenth century. The scholastic mould in which the latter are cast has somewhat trenched upon the ease and breadth which mark the former ; and the skilful metaphysics employed at Westminster in giving lawyer-like precision to each statement, have imparted a local and temporary aspect to the new which did .not belong to the more ancient standards. Or, enlarging the remark, we may say that there is something about the theology of the Reformation which renders it less likely to become obsolete than the theology of the covenant. The simpler formulae of the older age are quite as explicit as those of the later ; while by the adoption of the biblical in preference to the scholastic mode of expression, they have secured for themselves a buoyancy which will bear them up when the others go down. The old age of that generation is likely to be greener than that of their posterity.

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