By Sinclair B. Ferguson
For Christians, spiritual growth depends on a healthy diet that includes both the milk and meat of God’s Word. But before we can savor large portions of sound doctrine, we need to be able to digest the basics of biblical truth. Whether you are a pastor, Sunday school teacher, or parent, helping others enjoy the “solid food” of Scripture is one of the most important components of discipleship (1 Cor. 1:2; Heb. 5:11–14), at least that was the conviction of a hundred or so venerable theologians who met in London a little over 350 years ago.
On July 1, 1643, at the behest of the English Parliament, a group of 121 pastors and theologians known affectionately as “divines,” thirty political officials from both Houses of Parliament, not to mention a handful of non-voting but highly influential Scottish commissioners, were tasked to reform the doctrine, worship, and government of the Church of England. Originally designed to revise the Thirty Nine Articles, the Westminster Assembly met during a time of political and religious upheaval. England, Scotland, and Ireland were torn asunder by civil war. In an attempt to establish greater solidarity between the three kingdoms, Parliament directed the assembly to write a new confession instead. In the words of one of the most celebrated divines at the time, Edmund Calamy, the way forward was to “reform the reformation itself.” The final result was the production of a series of confessional documents that represent the crowning achievement of the Protestant Reformation.
Over the course of roughly a decade, the divines met at Westminster Abbey more than 1,300 times, with members even relocating their families to London. The work was intense. They debated matters of biblical interpretation, examined candidates for ministry, wrote doctrinal treatises, developed a directory for public and private worship, created a handbook for church government, and much more. But the most well-known documents written by the assembly are a statement of faith and two catechisms. Taken together, the Confession of Faith, Larger Catechism, and Shorter Catechism form what is referred to in Reformed parlance as the Westminster Standards. The goal of these documents was to bring consensus in the church according to the supreme standard of the Word of God.
The divines believed that a well-crafted catechism was imperative to stem the tide of doctrinal and moral decline that had overtaken the three kingdoms. The assembly began in earnest to produce a single catechism that could be used by families and churches for biblical instruction. But producing a one-size-fits-all catechism proved more difficult than the divines originally thought. A wiser and more pedagogically sound approach was to develop two catechisms: one for those who were more spiritually mature and the other for babes in the faith. As the Scottish Presbyterian Samuel Rutherford commented, the assembly was not content “to dress up milk and meat both in one dish.” By 1648 the Larger and Shorter Catechisms, both adorned with Scripture proofs, were completed, approved, and ready for use.
While both catechisms have been widely acclaimed for their tightly packed summaries of biblical doctrine, the Shorter Catechism has taken pride of place not only among the documents of the assembly but also among other confessional statements produced during the Reformation. Richard Baxter believed it to be “the best catechism that I ever yet saw.” The genius of the Shorter Catechism is found in its capacity to stretch the mind and captivate the heart with simply stated biblical truth. One of the divines, Lazarus Seaman, observed that the Shorter Catechism is written not at the level of knowledge that a child has but according to the knowledge “the child ought to have.”
The Shorter Catechism presents a feast of biblical theology in bite-size form. In just 107 questions and answers, it covers the basic ingredients of the Christian faith. Questions 2–38 focus on what we must believe concerning God, essential doctrines such as Scripture, the Trinity, creation, providence, sin, Christ, and the gospel. Questions 39–107 in turn focus on what duties God requires of us and fundamentals of Christian living such as obedience to the law, faith and repentance, the ordinary means of grace, and the priority of prayer. But the key to the entire catechism, and to life itself, is found in the first answer: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” Here is 5solid food to grow the young and sustain the old, both now and into eternity.
Courtesy and Copyright © 2016, Ligonier Ministries.
The Shorter Catechism : Why Bother? by Sinclair B. Ferguson