Dr. Ray E. Heiple, Jr.
The Importance of the Westminster Larger Catechism
But solid food belongs to those who are of full age, that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil. Hebrews 5:14NKJV
In the 1640s England’s parliament convened an assembly of divines (ministers of the gospel) for the purpose of bringing into closer agreement, in doctrine and practice, the churches of England, Scotland, and Ireland and towards greater conformity with the Reformed churches of continental Europe. The Solemn League and Covenant signed by England and Scotland in 1643 stated in article one its desire for “uniformity in religion, confession of faith, form of church-government, directory for worship, and catechising that we, and our posterity after us, may, as brethren, live in faith and love, and that Lord may delight to dwell in the midst of us.”
As seen from this opening statement of the Covenant, catechetical instruction of believers was very important to the government. Accordingly, when the Westminster Assembly began to convene they made the significant step of appointing a special committee to focus on developing the catechism. This committee discussed various approaches, had drafts drawn up, and considered whether or not their catechism would include the Apostle’s Creed, since many previous catechisms had. Because the Creed was not inspired, the committee eventually decided to break with tradition and not include an exposition of the Creed. Progress at first was slow. One difficulty that was bogging things down a bit was how to include both “milk” for new Christians and “meat” for those more advanced in the faith. Ultimately it was decided that they would create two catechisms, one more comprehensive the other more succinct. The “Shorter” Catechism would be for new believers and inquirers, the “Larger” Catechism would be “more exact and comprehensive” and “for those of understanding.”
Unfortunately the original design of the Westminster Assembly was not embraced by posterity. Almost immediately the Shorter Catechism eclipsed the Larger in attention and exposition. So much so in fact that for more than two hundred years only one major work explaining the Larger Catechism was published. B. B. Warfield has been called “a master of understatement” when he lamented in 1908, “In the later history of the Westminster formularies, the Larger Catechism has taken a somewhat secondary place.” Today even Reformed seminaries focus almost exclusively on the Confession and Shorter Catechism. Yet as a summary of Reformed doctrine – which it was never meant to be – the Shorter Catechism is woefully deficient and incomplete. To justify this statement consider that the doctrine of the church, which was so important to Calvin that it takes up more than a third of his Institutes, receives almost no treatment in the Shorter Catechism. In fact the word “church” is found only in a single question and answer (95) in this entire document.
The late John Murray is only one of many Reformed theologians who argue for the superiority of the Larger Catechism, at least at certain points, even over the Confession itself. Consider: of the three doctrinal manuscripts produced by the Assembly: the Confession, the Larger, and the Shorter Catechism, the Larger Catechism in the longest and therefore most detailed and comprehensive. Its 196 questions almost doubles the Shorter Catechism. Its treatment of the Ten Commandments sets forth a fully orbed Puritan view of morals and ethics. If there was ever a time for the Larger Catechism to be taken up again, it is in our day, in the midst of this great revival of Reformed Theology. Many have a basic understanding of Calvinism. The crying need is for a maturing of the faith, a soundness and consistency in understanding. That is what the Larger Catechism was designed to do.
This past week I finished number 365 of daily devotions on the Larger Catechism. While not a scholarly exposition, I believe many Reformed Christians would benefit from this study. Starting next week, I will begin to republish these articles in our weekly bulletin and I am inviting you to begin this study with me: the Westminster Assembly’s Larger Catechism. It was written for people like you and me to grow in our faith for the glory of God and the beautification of His church. Commit to studying through this great document with me and may almighty God bless us with wisdom and grace that we would know, believe, and love His unchanging truth.