Is the Larger Catechism Worthwhile?
Chad Van Dixhoorn
A recent article in New Horizons asked the question, "Is the Shorter Catechism Worthwhile?"and answered with a resounding yes! This article asks the same question about the Larger Catechism.
Unlike the Shorter Catechism, the Larger Catechism has suffered much neglect in Presbyterian and Reformed churches. At least a dozen commentaries have been written on the Shorter Catechism, and I can think of at least seven commentaries on the Confession of Faith. Yet only Thomas Ridgeley has penned a commentary on the Larger Catechism, and that was in the early 1730s. Many of the commentaries on the Shorter Catechism and the Confession are still in print; Ridgeley's work was never reprinted and is now very scarce.
Closer to home, another indication of the popularity of the Larger Catechism among conservative Presbyterians may be Trinity Hymnal: the Larger Catechism has never been printed at the back of our hymnal, unlike the Confession of Faith and the Shorter Catechism. Many families learn and study the Shorter Catechism, but few people tackle the Larger Catechism. So is the Larger Catechism worthwhile?
This question will be approached from three angles. First, we will ask why the Larger Catechism was written. The Westminster Assembly obviously thought there was a good purpose for it; it may still be worthwhile for the same reason. Second, we will compare the Larger Catechism with previous catechisms. This may show us what the Assembly thought was lacking in other catechisms, and help us see the unique contribution of the Larger Catechism. Third, we will ask if the Larger Catechism teaches us anything that the Shorter Catechism and the Confession of Faith do not.
The Making of the Westminster Catechisms
The year was 1642, and many Englishmen had taken up arms against King Charles I. Some of their complaints were similar to those that would be raised by Americans one hundred and thirty years later, but many of their grievances were specifically religious. Some of their number were reckless libertarians; many were Puritans, who wanted changes in worship and theology that King Charles and his Roman Catholic wife had opposed with all their might.
By 1643, the English Parliamentarians had lost too many battles to the royalist forces, and so they appealed to the north, asking the equally unhappy Scots to help them against the king. They agreed to help, so long as the English subscribed to the Solemn League and Covenant. The first point of that covenant stated that both countries were to be Reformed in "doctrine, worship, discipline, and government." To achieve this unity, the English Parliament called an ecclesiastical Assembly in 1643 to produce a "confession of faith, form of church-government, directory for worship," and a directory for "catechising."
The First Steps toward the Catechism
Thus, the first purpose of the Westminster Assembly's proposed catechism, like every one of its documents, was to achieve religious unity. Other catechisms existed, but in their view, a fresh one was necessary if the worship of the English and Scottish churches was to be uniform. At least five of the English ministers (often called "divines" in those days) at the Assembly were famous catechists, and so the Assembly asked one of them, Herbert Palmer, to write the first draft of a catechism.
For some reason, Robert Baillie and the other Scottish delegates to the Assembly found Palmer's work disappointing. 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 back frequently to the Assembly for public discussion. Other debates sidetracked the Assembly, and other committees made faster progress: the divines completed the Confession of Faith first, and handed it over to Parliament in December of 1646.
The Forming of Two Catechisms
Finally, in January of 1647, the Assembly gave up on the idea of writing one catechism that would be suitable for all purposes. Richard Vines, an English divine at the Assembly, spotted the problem and made a motion "that the Committee for the Catechism 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."
Mr. Vines's motion, which was accepted by the Assembly, has been understood in different ways. Most popular has been the interpretation of Robert Baillie, who inferred that no doctrine would be in the Larger or Shorter Catechism that was not already in the Confession. In his mind, the catechisms would only be reductions of the Confession.
The Scottish commissioners, in a report to their church back home, supplied a further reason for writing two catechisms rather than one: it is too hard to serve milk and meat 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." In terms of efficiency, this was a good decision; by October 15 of that year, the Assembly completed the Larger Catechism, and a month before Christmas the divines presented the Shorter Catechism to Parliament.
We see, then, that the catechisms were designed to promote religious and political unity between England and Scotland and, more obviously, to instruct God's people in matters of faith and duty, with the Larger Catechism providing 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 divine's works, have both stated that the Larger Catechism was to be used for preaching. Schaff says that the Assembly wrote it "for the public exposition in the pulpit, according to the custom of the Reformed churches on the continent." In a recent essay, W. Robert Godfrey has observed that the evidence for this claim is completely lacking. He also points out that the Assembly's Directory for Worship (still used by Scottish Presbyterians) explicitly states that the preacher is to preach from a biblical text. If the minister was to preach from a text, it is not likely that he was to use the propositions in the Larger Catechism as his launching point.
The unpublished minutes of the Assembly confirm Dr. 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." In twentieth-century parlance, this means, "We debated 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 statement could allow a minister to preach without expounding a text."
This statement reveals that the final declaration found in the Directory was a deliberate one: the ministers at the Westminster Assembly did not think that a 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 Continental Reformed practice of preaching from the Heidelberg Catechism.
Most likely, the Scottish commissioners were correct in thinking that the Larger Catechism was simply intended to be used by those who were more seasoned in the faith. Its chief beneficiaries would be the adult Christians who already understood the doctrines and duties of the Shorter Catechism and needed the meat of the Word.
In view of the original purpose for the Larger Catechism, there seem to be at least two reasons why the Larger Catechism is still worthwhile. First, it unites us with other Presbyterians who use and love it. Second, it teaches the deeper aspects of the Christian faith.
A Comparison with Previous Catechisms
Having outlined the historical purpose of the Larger Catechism, it still seems appropriate to ask why it had to be written at all. 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 those catechisms for the purposes of unity and instruction? The simple answer is that they thought that the earlier catechisms could be improved upon.
This needs immediate qualification. Although the Westminster divines may have spotted deficiencies in the earlier catechisms, they were not departing from their fathers in any large way. In fact, studies have shown that the bulk of the phrases in the Westminster catechisms can be found word-for-word in earlier theological works. Thus, the framers of the catechisms took what they thought was best expressed elsewhere, and brought it 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 written earlier had been to expound the Apostles' Creed, phrase by phrase, just as they did the Ten Commandments and the Lord's Prayer. But the Westminster Assembly decided to exclude the Apostles' Creed because it, though scriptural, was not Scripture.
Avoiding the Apostles' Creed gave both of the Westminster catechisms two strengths. First, the catechisms are based explicitly on Scripture, which is consistent with the position expressed 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
The Apostles' Creed says that Jesus Christ "was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary." And what does it say next? He "suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried." Similarly, the Heidelberg Catechism moves right from Christ's birth to his death. The same thing is true of Craig's Catechism, a popular Scottish catechism written in 1581, and the New Catechism, written in 1644.
Calvin notes this jump in the Creed and asks in question 55 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 is helpful, Calvin's answer is disappointing: "Because nothing is said here about what belongs properly to the substance of our redemption." A similar approach is taken in his Institutes, II.xvi.5-7.
This is rather shocking, particularly from Calvin. Christ's life has everything to do with our salvation: he spent his life fulfilling all righteousness; he kept the law that Adam broke. It is because of Jesus' active, lifelong obedience that God the Father sees us as righteous in Christ. The Larger Catechism, using a framework different from that of the Apostles' Creed, recognizes the importance of Christ's life. It speaks about his birth in question 47, his life in question 48, and his death in question 49, thus presenting a more balanced and biblical picture. The Shorter Catechism does something similar, summarizing these three statements in question 27. The Larger Catechism also recognizes the importance of Christ's life, at least implicitly, in its statements on justification (questions 70 and 71).
Comparing the Larger and Shorter Catechism with previous catechisms is a useful exercise. It reveals that the Westminster catechisms (1) explicitly base their teaching on Scripture alone, and (2) emphasize Christ's life (and active obedience) as well as his death and resurrection. For these reasons also, then, the Larger Catechism is very worthwhile.
A Comparison with the Other Westminster Standards
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 of Faith on the other? The answer is yes, and the reason for this answer is simple: the Larger Catechism is neither a mere summary of the Confession nor a verbose expansion of the Shorter Catechism.
At times, the Larger Catechism asks different questions than the Shorter Catechism. Sometimes these extra questions may not strike us as all that important, such as when question 16 asks about the creation of angels, or when question 19 asks about God's providence toward angels.
At other times, the contributions are more obviously significant. The Larger Catechism, for example, gives us 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. These and other contributions show that the Larger Catechism was written to take us into the heavier matters of the Word of God. But perhaps the largest remaining contribution of the Larger Catechism is one noted by Dr. Godfrey.
Dr. Godfrey has pointed out that the Larger Catechism frequently speaks of the church, whereas the Shorter Catechism is concerned with the individual. The Larger Catechism frequently mentions ministers of the gospel and carries on extensive discussions of the outward and ordinary means of grace, whereas the Shorter Catechism says almost nothing on these matters. The Larger Catechism broadens its view to include the corporate, public, gathered people of God. Dr. Godfrey appropriately warns that where the church has neglected the Larger Catechism, there could be a lack of teaching about the church.
Dr. Godfrey has hit the proverbial nail on the head. His observation may explain why so many non-Presbyterians 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 Presbyterian and churchly. In places the Larger Catechism appears more concerned with the church and the ordinary means of grace 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 of the Confession. Prof. John Murray has suggested, for example, that the Larger Catechism's teaching on the covenant of grace surpasses that of the Confession (7.3), and that question 22 has a better discussion of the imputation of Adam's sin than the Confession of Faith (6.3).
There are many reasons why the Larger Catechism is worth our study. It unifies Presbyterians who use it as one of their church standards. It gives us the meat of the Word of God. It places a greater emphasis on, and gives fuller explanations of, doctrines that maturing Christians need to hear. It emphasizes aspects of the gospel and draws directly from Scripture in a way that other catechisms do not. And the Larger Catechism emphasizes the church, the ministry, preaching, and the sacraments at a time when Presbyteriansand in fact all Christiansneed to hear of them. For these reasons, the Larger Catechism is worth our while.
The author is a licentiate of the Presbytery of Philadelphia. Reprinted from New Horizons, October 2000.