Welcome to Wednesdays @ Westminster as we exposit and apply the teaching confessed in the Westminster Larger Catechism. First up is a brief introduction.
A Meaty Catechism
When our spiritual forefathers gathered at Westminster Abbey in the mid-1640s to express the Christian faith, they labored to produce a suitable catechism to teach the people. After many dissatisfying efforts, the Assembly ended up agreeing to write two catechisms. George Gillespie reported to the Scottish General Assembly that they wrote a shorter catechism, “to condiscende to the capaities of the common & unlearned” as well as a larger catechism, “for those of understanding.” of which George Gillespie said it was “for those of understanding” [Bower, 11]. This pastoral reality of the people led Samuel Rutherford to say the reason for two catechisms was that it was “very difficult...to dress up milk and meat both in one dish” [Mitchell, 418]. We still need this pastoral sensitivity to the people in our congregations. We need to be as “wise as serpents” (Matt. 10:16) when it comes to instructing inquirers, new converts, covenant children, young people, those who enter our churches from non-Reformed backgrounds, and those who have been members in our churches for years. The Larger Catechism is meaty, but that meat can also be served in bite-sized portions, as I hope to show in this series.
A Neglected Catechism
Despite the esteem of the Larger Catechism by those who wrote it and approved it, when we as Reformed believers today think of the faith of our Reformed and Puritan forefathers, we most likely think of the Heidelberg Catechism, the Westminster Confession of Faith, and the Westminster Shorter Catechism. We have neglected the Larger Catechism. But it has been this way for quite some time. B. B. Warfield once said it “has taken a somewhat secondary place” [Warfield, 64]. In fact, there is no major commentary on it from the seventeenth century and only one from the eighteenth century—written by Thomas Ridgeley and entitled, A Body of Divinity (1731–1733).
Its neglect is one of the reasons I spent two years in my congregation’s evening service to preach through the doctrines contained in it (see here). If you are a pastor or teacher and have never taught through the Larger Catechism, it is a wonderful experience. The usefulness of it in our time and place cannot be underestimated. As Dr. W. Robert Godfrey once wrote,
Today the churches face a greater educational task than they have for several centuries. Doctrinal ignorance is widespread. Pastors and teachers are often looking for useful, effective study materials. In response to his need the church must reclaim its great educational resources from the past. The Larger Catechism is a neglected tool the church needs today to help believers develop vital and balanced Christian faith and life. [Godfrey, “An Introduction,” xviii]
An Outline of the Catechism
So what does the Larger Catechism teach? It teaches the height and depth, the breadth and length of the Christian faith as revealed in the Word of God. Having read it many times, but only just recently invested serious energy to study it and to present it to my congregation, I have come to see why it has been described as “a mine of fine gold theologically, historically, and spiritually” [Godfrey, “The Westminster Larger Catechism,” 129]. The basic outline of the Catechism is as follows:
Introduction (Q. 1–5)
Doctrine (Q. 6–90)
Duty (Q. 91–196)
As one used to the Heidelberg Catechism and its famous division into guilt, grace, and gratitude, I have found the Larger Catechism’s outline helpful as well. One with a keen historical sense notices right away the typical “Puritan” emphasis in this outline upon doctrine and duty, exposition and application. Our forefathers’ outline reminds us that our preaching and teaching must instruct the head, stir the heart, and move the hands in order for it be truly biblical as well as effective in the lives of our people. I look forward to exploring the details within this meaty, neglected, and helpfully outlined catechism with you in the series to follow.
John R. Bower, The Larger Catechism: A Critical Text and Introduction, Principal Documents of the Westminster Assembly (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2010).
W. Robert Godfrey, “An Introduction to the Westminster Larger Catechism,” in Johannes G. Vos, The Westminster Larger Catechism: A Commentary (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2002).
W. Robert Godfrey, “The Westminster Larger Catechism,” in To Glorify and Enjoy God, ed. John L. Carson and David W. Hall (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1994).
Alexander F. Mitchell, The Westminster Assembly: Its History and Standards (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publications, 1884).
Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield, “The Westminster Assembly and Its Work,” in Works, 10 vols. (1932; repr., Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000).