Chad B. Van Dixhoorn
The Westminster Shorter Catechism is one of the most loved and well-used of all the Catechisms of the Reformation, and the most famous document of the assembly that met in Westminster Abbey from 1643-1649. The Westminster Confession of Faith, in its original and altered forms, became “by far the most influential doctrinal symbol in American Protestant history.”2 The Westminster Larger Catechism, by contrast, is neither loved, often used, or influential.
The Larger Catechism has long been neglected by Presbyterians and by evangelicals at large. One measure of indifference to the Larger Catechism can be found in a comparison of commentaries. Two dozen or more commentaries or study guides have been written on the Shorter Catechism over the past 350 years, and without any trouble I have collected seven commentaries written on the Confession of Faith. Yet only one person, Thomas Ridgley, has penned a commentary on the Larger Catechism — and that was in the early 1730s.3 Many of the commentaries on the Shorter Catechism and the Confession are still in print; Ridgley’s work has not been reprinted since 1855. Perhaps this indicates that everyone finds the Larger Catechism easy to understand; more likely, it indicates that the Catechism is rarely used.
Closer to home, another index of the relative unpopularity of the Larger Catechism among conservative Presbyterians may be its absence from their hymnals. The Larger Catechism, so far as I can see, has never been printed in a major Presbyterian Hymnal, while both the Confession and Shorter Catechism are regularly included. And G. I Williamson, a minister of my own Presbyterian communion, wrote helpful studies on the Shorter Catechism and the Confession but has not (yet) graced the Larger Catechism with a study guide. Things are little different in evangelical living rooms: many families have memorized part of the Shorter Catechism, and some have taken forays into the Confession, but only rare individuals memorize or even read the Larger Catechism.
The main purpose of this article is to trace the history and outline the theology of the Larger Catechism. In addition, because the Larger Catechism deserves further use in homes and churches, this article also aims to function as a belated public relations effort for the Westminster Assembly and tries to raise the profile of the Larger Catechism by showing its importance and usefulness for the church today. To these ends, then, we will approach the Catechism from three angles. First we will ask why the Larger Catechism was written in the first place. The Westminster Assembly obviously thought there was a purpose to the Larger Catechism; understanding this historical purpose may let us see one reason why the Larger Catechism might be worth studying today. Second, we will look at the Larger Catechism and compare it with previous catechisms. This may let us see what the Assembly thought was lacking in other catechisms and aid us in spotting the unique contribution of the Larger Catechism compared to those catechisms. Third and last, we will ask if the Larger Catechism teaches us anything which the Westminster Assembly’s Shorter Catechism and Confession do not.
THE HISTORICAL PURPOSE OF THE WESTMINSTER CATECHISMS
In 1642 the world, or at least Britain, was turned upside-down. English noblemen, barons, knights, gentlemen, citizens, burgesses, commoners of all sorts, and ministers of the gospel took up arms against their king, Charles I. Some of their complaints were similar to those raised by Americans a hundred and thirty years later, but many of their grievances were specifically religious. Some of their number were reckless libertarians; many were Puritans, wanting a change in worship and theology that Protestant King Charles and his Roman Catholic wife strenuously opposed.
By 1643 the English Parliamentarians were losing too many battles to the royalist forces and appealed to the North, asking the equally unhappy Protestant Scots to help them against the king. The majority of Scotland, though traditional enemies of the southern kingdom, agreed to help so long as the English would subscribe to a six-point document titled, “The Solemn League and Covenant.” The first point of the Covenant stated that the churches in both countries were to be Reformed in “doctrine, worship, discipline, and government.” To achieve this unity, the English Parliament’s Assembly, appointed earlier in 1643, was to produce a “confession of faith, form of church-government, directory for worship” and, they added, a directory for “catechising.” The Assembly, now no longer English, but British, began the work almost at once.4
THE FIRST STEPS TOWARD THE CATECHISM
Thus the first purpose of the proposed catechism for the Westminster Assembly was, like every one of its documents, religious unity. Other catechisms existed and the Scots had their own catechisms, but both sides recognized the value in using identical confessional and catechetical documents. Of course, many ministers and members of both churches would have worded things differently if they were drafting a personal expression of their own faith, but they realized that they needed a document for creedal, ecumenical purposes.
At least a dozen of the English ministers (or “divines”) at the Assembly were already famous catechists prior to the beginning of the Assembly, and so the Westminster divines requested that one of these catechists, Herbert Palmer, write a first draft of the catechism. We know very little about Palmer’s views on catechizing, but one comment that he makes in the unpublished minutes of the Assembly suggests that he thought a good catechism (and confession) would be a short one.5 His reason? A brief catechism would necessarily be a broad one that more people could subscribe to.6
For some reason, Robert Baillie and the other Scottish delegates to the Assembly found Palmer’s work disappointing. Although he called Palmer “the best catechist in England,” Baillie spoke for himself and his fellow Scots when he stated bluntly: “we no ways like it.”7 The Assembly promptly handed the catechism over to the Scots, who were left to correct its shortcomings. Beginning in December of 1643, the catechism committee of the Assembly worked on this catechism, reporting frequently back to the Assembly for public discussion. Other debates side-tracked the Assembly, and other committees made better speed: the divines completed the Confession of Faith first, and handed it over to Parliament for their perusal in December of 1646. The catechism, though, continued to be delayed.
THE FORMING OF TWO CATECHISMS
Finally, in January of 1647 the Assembly gave up on the idea of making one catechism suitable for all purposes. As Professor W. Robert Godfrey pointed out in a recent essay, Richard Vines, an English divine at the Assembly, spotted the problem and made a motion for “the Committee for the Catechism to prepare a draught of two Catechisms in which they have an eye to the Confession of Faith, and to the matter of the Catechism already begun.”8
Mr. Vines’ motion, accepted by the Assembly, has been understood in different ways. Most popular has been the interpretation of Robert Baillie, who focused on the phrase, having “an eye to the Confession of Faith.” Baillie stated that “the Assemblie . . . voted to have no other head of divinitie into [the catechisms] than is sett doune in the Confession.”9 The important thing, Baillie inferred, was that no doctrine would be in the Larger or Shorter Catechisms which was not already in the Confession. The catechisms, therefore, would only be a distillation of the Confession.
The Scottish commissioners, in a report that they gave to their church back home, supplied a further reason for writing two catechisms rather than one: it was too hard to “dress up milk and meat both in one dish.” In their view, this difficulty prompted the Assembly to make one catechism “more exact and comprehensive,” and the other “more easie and short for beginners.”10 In terms of efficiency, it certainly does seem that this was a good decision: by October fifteenth of that year the Assembly completed the Larger Catechism and a month before Christmas the divines presented the Shorter Catechism to Parliament.
Both catechisms, then, were (1) to be used on an ecumenical, or creedal, level to promote religious and political unity between England and Scotland and, (2) on a theological level, to instruct God’s people in matters of faith and duty, with the Larger Catechism giving the more exact and comprehensive instruction.
A CATECHISM FOR PREACHING?
Philip Schaff, the well known nineteenth-century historian, and J. R. Pitman, the editor of one of the divines’ works, have both stated that the Larger Catechism was also to be used for preaching. Schaff wrote that the Assembly produced “a larger [catechism] . . . for the public exposition in the pulpit, according to the custom of the Reformed churches on the continent.”11 Godfrey has observed that the evidence for this claim is lacking. He also points out that the Assembly’s Directory for Worship (still used by some Presbyterians) explicitly points out that the preacher is to preach from a text.12 This is an important point: if the minister was to preach from a biblical text, it is not likely that he was to use the man-made propositions in the Larger Catechism as the launching point for a sermon.
A reading of the unpublished minutes of the Assembly confirms Godfrey’s point. In the middle of the Assembly’s debates on preaching there is a somewhat cryptic statement: “Debate upon that text or argument because it gives liberty to preach without a text.”13 In twentieth-century parlance, this means, “we debated about whether a preacher should preach from a text of Scripture, or from a doctrinal proposition (such as a catechism answer); we were concerned that a sermon based on a doctrinal argument could allow a minister to preach without expounding a text.”
This statement of the Assembly reveals that the final declaration found in the directory was a deliberate one: the ministers at the Westminster Assembly did not think that the preacher should preach from a proposition, or argument, but only from the Scriptures themselves. As important as the catechisms were, the Westminster divines did not want to follow the practice of the Reformed churches on the continent who preached from the Heidelberg Catechism. Rather, keeping the original intentions of the authors of the Larger Catechism in mind, there seem to be two main reasons why it was written: (1) creedal unity and, (2) more fulsome instruction in the Christian faith; as the Scottish commissioners envisioned it, the chief beneficiaries of the Larger Catechism would be the adult Christians in both kingdoms who understood the doctrines and duties of the Shorter Catechism already, and needed “the meat of the Word.”
THE LARGER CATECHISM IN DISTINCTION
Having outlined the historical purpose of the Larger Catechism, it still seems appropriate to ask why the Catechism had to be written. After all, respected teachers in Britain had composed good catechisms; Calvin’s catechism was in the bookstores and so was the Heidelberg Catechism. Why could the Assemblymen not agree to use one of these catechisms for purposes of unity and instruction?
One answer has to do with the structure or format of earlier catechisms that the majority of Westminster divines did not like. In the eighth edition of A Brief and Easie Explanation of the Shorter Catechism, a young divine named John Wallis, explains the Assembly’s unique method in setting up the catechism: “The Assembly was careful that all the Answers might be entire sentences by themselves, without depending for their sense upon the foregoing Question, being indeed so many distinct Aphorisms, containing briefly the grounds of Christian Religion.” One benefit of this structure, in Wallis’s view,
Thus the Westminster Assembly’s catechisms were intended to have a unique structure.
Certainly Wallis was not exaggerating when he mentions that “many” of the catechisms contained answers that only made sense with a question, or even a series of questions. All of the main catechisms of the day required the user to memorize both question and answer in order to grasp the biblical doctrines of the catechism. Frequently one had to memorize a whole series of questions and answers, in order to grasp the doctrine under discussion. Take, for example, a series of questions early in Calvin’s Catechism:
The content of the catechism is excellent, but the questions and answers, indeed, this entire section, requires knowledge of a long series of questions — a system hardly useful for memorization.
Quite possibly, the unique structure of Westminster’s catechisms was an English invention. The six catechisms popular in Scotland all used the more cumbersome style of question-dependent answers.16 In any case, the final form of the Shorter and Larger Catechisms is unique.17
Aside from pedagogical issues, the Westminster divines had theological concerns with earlier catechisms that they tried to remedy. For instance, on the morning of September 14, 1643, Thomas Bayly mentioned the need “to correct the catechismes that doe pervert the people[,] as Mr. [William] Perkins” did on assurance.18 But although the Westminster divines found defects in the earlier catechisms, they were nonetheless not departing from their fathers in any large way. In fact, studies trying to find out what older catechism or catechist may have influenced the Larger and Shorter Catechisms have shown that the bulk of the phrases in the Westminster Catechisms (and Confession) can be found word-for-word in earlier theological works.19 Thus the framers of the catechisms took what they thought was best expressed elsewhere, and brought them together.
THE APOSTLES’ CREED
The main difference between Westminster’s catechisms and earlier catechisms has to do with the Apostles’ Creed. The standard practice of catechisms before the Assembly had been to expound the Apostles’ Creed, phrase by phrase, just as they did the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer. Breaking away from previous catechisms, the majority of the Westminster Assembly decided to exclude the Apostles’ Creed from the confession because the creed, though scriptural, was not Scripture.
Avoiding the Apostles’ Creed has given both of the Westminster Catechisms two strengths. First, the catechisms are based explicitly on Scripture, which is consistent with the position found in the first chapter of the Confession: All our doctrine comes from Scripture alone. Second, every catechism that uses the Apostles’ Creed reflects one of the weaknesses of the Creed — there is no mention of the importance of Christ’s life.
THE LIFE OF CHRIST
This is very important. The Apostles’ Creed speaks of “Jesus Christ” who “was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary” — and what is the next thing that is said? He “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried.” The Heidelberg Catechisms, following the Creed, also moves right from Christ’s birth to his death. A similar sequence characterizes Craig’s Catechism or the New Catechism, the latter written during the time of the Westminster Assembly.20
Calvin actually notes this jump in the Creed between the birth and death of Christ and asks in question fifty-five of his catechism: “Why do you go immediately from His birth to His death, passing over the whole history of His life?” While this observation on his part is helpful, his answer is unusually disappointing: “Because nothing is said here about what belongs properly to the substance of our redemption.”21 This is rather shocking, particularly from Calvin. Christ’s life has a great deal to do with our salvation: he spent his life fulfilling all righteousness; he kept the law which the first Adam broke. It is because of Jesus’ active, life-long obedience that God the Father sees us as righteous in Christ. While Calvin clarified this at a later point in his life, his catechism, at least in this regard, remained inadequate.22
The Larger Catechism recognizes the importance of Christ’s life because it takes a different approach altogether. Using another framework it speaks about the importance of Christ’s birth in question forty-seven, his life in question forty-eight, and his death in question forty-nine, thus presenting a more balanced and biblical picture.23 The Shorter Catechism does something similar, summarizing these three questions in one short answer.24 The Larger Catechism may also recognize the importance of Christ’s life, at least implicitly, in its statements on justification,25 for though the imputation of Christ’s active obedience was a matter of prolonged debate at the Assembly, the minutes record that when “The Question was put” to include the imputation of Christ’s active obedience in their definition of justification, “three or four only [were] dissenting.”26
Comparing the Larger and Shorter Catechisms with previous catechisms is, then, a useful exercise. At the very least it reveals that these catechisms (1) explicitly base their teaching on Scripture alone, (2) emphasize Christ’s life (and active obedience) as well as his death and resurrection, and (3) provide a distinct, if not improved, pedagogical structure by ensuring that each answer can stand alone as a biblical truth. For these reasons also, then, the Larger Catechism is very worthwhile.
THE LARGER CATECHISM COMPARED TO THE
But does the church really need the Larger Catechism when it has the brilliant summaries of the Shorter Catechism on the one hand, and the depth and breadth of the Confession on the other? The answer is yes, and the reasoning for this answer is simple: the Larger Catechism is not a mere summary of the Confession, nor a verbose expansion of the Shorter Catechism, but an independent summary of the Christian faith.
At times the Larger Catechism asks unique questions. Sometimes these extra questions may not strike us as especially important, such as question sixteen, which asks about the creation of angels, or question nineteen, which inquires about God’s providence toward angels. But other times the contributions are more obviously significant. The Larger Catechism, for example, presents rules to interpret and apply the law of God, and spells out the differences between justification and sanctification. The Larger Catechism also goes into more detail about our triune God than does the Shorter Catechism, and has more to say about Jesus Christ. The Larger Catechism has multiple questions on the mediatorial role of Christ, and Christ’s humiliation and exaltation. Indeed, the Larger Catechism makes numerous contributions not covered by the Shorter Catechism, all supporting the idea that the Larger Catechism was written to give us the profound and important matters of the Word of God.
But perhaps the largest remaining contribution of the Larger Catechism is one noted by Robert Godfrey. Godfrey points out that the Larger Catechism frequently speaks of the church, where the Shorter Catechism is concerned with the individual.27 This is extremely important. The Larger Catechism makes frequent mention of ministers of the gospel and carries on extensive discussions about the outward and ordinary means of grace, where the Shorter Catechism says almost nothing on the same matters. The Larger Catechism broadens its lens in order to focus on the corporate, public, gathered people of God. Professor Godfrey suggests that “the decision to eliminate a doctrine of the church from the Shorter Catechism may have made sense in a context where it was assumed that catechumens would have moved on to the fuller instruction of the Larger Catechism” but he warns that “where the Larger Catechism no longer functions in that way . . . a very serious omission exists;” there could be a lack of teaching about the church, in the church.28
Godfrey has hit the proverbial nail on the head. His observation may explain why so many people appreciate the Shorter Catechism and not the Larger Catechism: The Shorter Catechism, like much of North American evangelicalism, focuses on the individual; the Larger Catechism, on the other hand, is explicitly corporate and churchly. I think it is fair to add that in places the Larger Catechism appears more concerned with the church and the ordinary means of grace (such as preaching, the sacraments, and church discipline) than even the Confession.
Of course, if Robert Baillie’s earlier statement is correct, this should not be the case. Baillie thought that the Catechisms would not say anything that the Confession did not. But it appears that the committee working on the Catechism did not always feel bound to follow the wording or content of the Confession. Professor John Murray suggested, for example, that the Larger Catechism’s teaching on the Covenant of Grace surpasses that of chapter seven, section three of the Confession, and that question twenty-two has a better discussion of the imputation of Adam’s sin than the Confession of Faith, chapter six, section three.29
Whether Murray is right or not, it seems that there are many reasons why the Larger Catechism is worth our study. It unifies churches which use the same Confession and Catechisms. Initially the Larger Catechism was written to help unify the English and Scottish churches; now the Catechism joins the other two Westminster standards in bringing together all churches and Christians who will call these creeds their own. The Larger Catechism also gives us the meat of the Word of God. It effectively emphasizes and more fully explains neglected doctrines that maturing Christians need to hear. The Larger Catechism emphasizes aspects of the gospel and draws directly from Scripture in a way that other catechisms do not. And finally, the Larger Catechism emphasizes the church, the ministry, preaching, and the sacraments at a time when Presbyterians — and in fact all Christians — need to hear of them. For these reasons, at least, the Larger Catechism is worth our full attention.
Chad Van Dixhoorn lives in Glenside, Pennsylvania, and recently received his Th. M. from Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia. He was previously granted the M. Div. by Westminster Theological Seminary (1999). He has contributed to several journals, including Westminster Theological Journal and The Journal of Presbyterian History. He is presently the associate editor (with Professor David F. Wright) of The Minutes of the Westminster Assembly, Volumes 1 and 2.
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