I know virtually nothing about the Westminster Shorter Catechism. I also know nothing about the Larger one. But as I was combing through my e-library, I stumbled across a copy of the Shorter and decided to give it a read.
Never before have I looked at this document. I did not grow up in a denomination that required a catechism before partaking in The Eucharist, or The Lord’s Supper. Nor did I have to answer the questions of faith before I was baptized in water.
After reading through the 107 questions and answers, I couldn’t help but notice a few things. Some of them were good things. Others were observations that made me ask how the Westminster Shorter Catechism is used. Then, finally, I was disappointed when I didn’t find something I believe is critical to Christian belief in these writings. But you’ll have to read all the way through to understand what I’m talking about.
Here are my 5 Thoughts About the Westminster Shorter Catechism.
1. The Westminster Shorter Catechism is a well researched document.
The Westminster Shorter Catechism is a revised version of the Westminster Larger Catechism. While 107 questions and answers may seem large on its own, the Larger consists of 196. When I realized that, I was astonished. This was a large Christian document, covering a plethora of theological issues.
While you may be blown away by the number of questions asked and answers needing to be memorized, consider this: for each of these 107 answers in the Shorter Catechism, there are numerous references to Scripture recorded in the footnotes. This is not normal by any stretch. Most theological documents have footnotes to show readers why and where their beliefs are coming from. But the Westminster Catechism, both Shorter and Larger, have an overwhelming number of footnotes. Over 1300 footnotes, with numerous Scriptures recorded in each. As I looked through them all I was amazed.
When I thought about some of the denominations that I have been a part of, looking at their statements of faith or their religious documents, they do not have nearly as many references to the Bible. The most I have seen may have been 100 references to verses. To say that the Westminster Catechism is a well thought out, well documented, and well versed piece of Christian literature is to understate the obvious.
The writers of these Catechisms did not take their job lightly when constructing the necessary beliefs for the following generations of Christians. I wish that the denominations that I have been a part of were so thorough and so grounded in Scripture as to do something comparable to this.
Understand that I am not saying that I agree with everything that the Westminster Catechisms say, or that I believe what it teaches, only that I greatly admire some dedication to the written Word of God and the tenacious attitude to be grounded in it. May we all be so like minded.
2. The Westminster Shorter Catechism answers some of life’s biggest questions.
Everyone goes through that stage in life when the big life questions must be asked. Who am I? Why am I here? What am I supposed to do with my life? These are not bad questions. In fact, there are deeply spiritual undertones to those questions, something that the Westminster Shorter Catechism seems to have picked up on. The question of identity, the Who am I? question is answered.
“Question 10: How did God create man? Answer: God created man, male and female, after his own image, in knowledge, righteousness, and holiness, with dominion over the creatures.”
Who am I? A bearing of the Divine image, made to live in righteousness and holiness. That is a powerful thing to have memorized, committed to the tablet of your heart from a young age. Westminster Shorter Catechism doesn’t just leave it there. They do address the fallen nature of man, how that came about and the effect it has on mankind (Questions 13-19).
The question of purpose is mentioned as well in probably one of the most quoted pieces of the Catechism:
“Question 1: What is the chief end of man? (What is life all about? What are we supposed to do?) Answer: Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him for ever.
While it doesn’t tell you whether to go to college or get a job, it does answer the big question of what we are all supposed to do with our lives. We were created to honour and glorify God, in whatever we do, and to enjoy relationship with Him for all time.
Having never looked at this document before I was surprised that this issue of purpose was addressed right at the start. But it makes sense. If you are going to be educating the next generation of Christians, you need to have the key issues and key doctrines included in their studies. And that takes us to number 3.
3. The Westminster Shorter Catechism is a good place to start biblical education.
One cannot get over how thorough the Westminster Shorter Catechism is. I remember growing up and learning the Ten Commandments. I memorized them in order, knew them out of order. But that is not enough for those that partake in this Catechism. As I read through Questions 45-81, I was astonished at how it wasn’t just what the commandments were that children needed to know but also the implications of each. Take the Sixth Commandment for example:
“Question 67: What is the Sixth Commandment? Answer: The Sixth Commandment is “thou shalt not kill.”
“Question 68: What is required in the Sixth Commandment? Answer: The Sixth Commandment requireth all lawful endeavours to preserve our own life, and the life of others.”
“Question 69: What is forbidden in the Sixth Commandment? Answer: The Sixth Commandment forbids the taking away of our own life, or the life of our neighbour unjustly, or whatsoever tenders thereunto.”
This goes far and above what I was taught in Sunday School. This is quality education for the Christian mind and soul. And they cover all 10 Commandments in this Shorter Catechism. Then they discuss the Sacraments, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, at detail. The entire Shorter Catechism ends with a long examination of the Lord’s Prayer.
Spiritual and exegetical education at such a young age is almost unheard of in the circles that I grew up in. I wonder what kind of Christian or what kind of maturity I would have been blessed with should I have had a more rigorous reading.
That being said, I did notice something that worried me, which leads me to point number 4.
4. The Westminster Shorter Catechism seems to be knowledge heavy.
As I said at the beginning of this article, I have never had a catechism class. I do not know what goes on behind those doors. I am totally ignorant about the fine details of this Christian tradition.
That being said, this is a lot of information to know here. Yes, memorizing the Ten Commandments is easy, and the Lord’s Prayer can be said by most Christians without thinking about it. But to know the question and then the answer, word for word, that is a lot of knowledge that could easily be potentially forgotten.
While I have no experience with Catechism, I did have friends in school that did. One night a week they would go to church, learn a bunch of stuff, and come back to school and complain how they couldn’t remember any of it. That is probably because they treated the question and answers as most kids do with school information. They memorize the info, but do not process it. They never internalized the powerful spiritual truths they were being asked to learn. As a result, in most cases of my school friends, they forgot their Catechism and lived a life separate from its teaching.
There are other things I noticed that bothered me, relating to the knowledge heaviness. The language of the Westminster Shorter Catechism is very old. “Wherein” and “doth” are not words that we use in the modern age. While I may slip one or two in this article, I very rarely say things like “shalt” or “hath” on purpose. This can contribute to an image of the Westminster Shorter Catechism being old and crusty, or worse, irrelevant and boring. If kids do not understand what they are being taught, if they can’t put these teachings into their own words by internalizing them, there is a risk everything will be a quick regurgitation of information, rather than a life changing spiritual experience.
Like I said before, I do not know that this is the case. I hope that I am wrong, but upon reading the Catechism, I can see that being a risk for those involved.
5. The Westminster Shorter Catechism appears to be lacking the Love Ethic of Jesus.
If I could be allowed one criticism of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, it would be this: The Love Ethic teaching of Jesus seems to be absent.
“Question 39: What is the duty which God requireth of man? Answer: The duty which God requireth Of man is obedience to His revealed will.
“Question 40: What did God at first reveal to man for the rule of his obedience? Answer: The rule which God at first revealed to man for his obedience was the Moral Law.
“Question 41: Where is the Moral Law summarily comprehended? Answer: The Moral Law is summarily comprehended in the Ten Commandments.
“Question 42: What is the sum of the Ten Commandments? Answer: The sum of the Ten Commandments is, “to love the Lord our God” with all our heart, all our soul, with all our strength, and with all our mind; and our neighbour as ourselves.”
This is not bad teaching. The Law was given to Moses, including the Ten Commandments. And Jesus would agree the Law, including the Ten Commandments could be summed up in love of God and love of our neighbour. Jesus says as much in Matthew 22.37-40.
In fact, this is so important that Matthew 22.37-40 is the Great Commandment, the sum total of the Moral Law and the Prophets, if I can borrow the language of the Catechism. The single most important thing, straight from the lips of the Son of the Almighty God is to love Him and to love your neighbour.
The Apostle John would write a letter, after his gospel declaring how “God so loved the world”, saying “God is love (1 John 4.8).” That the core characteristic of God is love, that every action He makes has love at the centre.
Sadly, The Westminster Shorter Catechism doesn’t delve into this crucial biblical truth. Question 43 is not about the implications or restrictions of loving God or loving your neighbour. They move right into the Ten Commandments, which is not bad in itself. But I was baffled as to how they skipped over the Great Commandment. For something so critical to the Christian Faith, I thought that there would be numerous questions about it, but that isn’t the case.
I am in no position to ask for a revision of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, or that there needs to be a complete rewrite of some kind. I’m only commenting on the fact that I feel that something as pivotal as the Great Commandment should be taught to all Christians, including those in any form of Catechism.
Please do not misunderstand me and think that I am trying to attack the Westminster Church, The Shorter or Larger Catechism, the Presbyterian Church or anyone that may use this document in their spiritual development. There is nothing inherently wrong with this kind of creed or list of doctrinal beliefs. I am simply commenting, from a very ignorant stand point, about what I noticed upon a few readings of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. If you, dear reader, have information to correct, inform or otherwise educate me about the Catechism and the beliefs wherein described, please let me know. Tweet me @XianThought or send us an email, firstname.lastname@example.org
For the rest of you, time to chime in.
What do you think of the Westminster Shorter Catechism? What thoughts or questions do you have for our brothers and sisters that have gone through this church rite?
If you are interested in reading through the Westminster Shorter Catechism, follow this link. If you are a real keener, you can see the Larger Catechism, from which the Shorter is pulled. For the Larger, follow this link here.
All Scripture references provided by BibleGateway.com