“Westminster Catechisms”

by John M. Frame

This article is taken from Walter Elwell, ed., Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984), 1168. Used by permission of Baker Academic, a division of Baker Publishing Group, copyright 2006. All rights to this material are reserved. Materials are not to be distributed to other web locations for retrieval, published in other media, or mirrored at other sites without written permission from Baker Publishing Group. http://www.bakerbooks.com; http://www.BakerPublishingGroup.com.


Westminster Catechisms. After the Westminster Assembly completed its work on the confession, it focused its attention on preparation of a catechism. Its early attempts were frustrated, and a consensus developed that two catechisms would be needed, “one more exact and comprehensive, another more easie and short for new beginners.” The Larger was intended for pulpit exposition, while the Shorter was intended for the instruction of children. These were completed, the Shorter in 1647 and the Larger in 1648. Both function as official standards of doctrine in many denominations today within the Reformed tradition. The Larger has, to a considerable extent, fallen into disuse, while the Shorter has been greatly used and loved, though many have found it too difficult to be an effective teaching aid for children.

The theology of the catechisms is the same as that of the confession. The catechisms (especially the Shorter) also share the confession’s conciseness, precision, balance, and thoroughness. Neither breathes the warm, personal spirit of the Heidelberg Catechism, but it may be argued that some of the answers are equally memorable and edifying. Both are structured in two parts: (1) what we are to believe concerning God, and (2) what duty God requires of us. The first part recapitulates the basic teaching of the confession on God’s nature, his creative and redemptive work. The second part contains (a) exposition of the Decalogue, (b) the doctrine of faith and repentance, and (c) the means of grace (word, sacrament, prayer, concluding with an exposition of the Lord’s Prayer).

The Larger is sometimes thought to be over-detailed, even legalistic, in its exposition of the law. One emerges with an enormous list of duties that are difficult to relate to the simple commands of the Decalogue. There is truth in such criticisms, but those who urge them often fail to realize the importance of applying scriptural principles authoritatively to current ethical questions. Whatever we may think of their conclusions, the Westminster divines provide us with a good example of zealousness at that task.


Bibliography. G. I. Williamson, The Shorter Catechism.


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