Sunday School: The Westminster Larger Catechism

Dear Church Family,

This coming Sunday, September 18th (9:15-10:15 am), we will begin a new study of the Westminster Larger Catechism (WLC). If you have your own copy, you’re welcome to bring it; however, copies of the WLC will be distributed in the class. In our first class this Sunday, we’ll talk about the historical context in which the Westminster Standards were written (the 1640’s in England). We’ll also talk about come of the distinctives of the Westminster Larger Catechism that make it valuable for study and growth in the faith.

Why two catechisms?

In addition to their work on a Directory for Public Worship and the Confession of Faith, the Westminster Assembly appointed a committee to undertake the task of writing a catechism that would complement the Confession of Faith. However, after much debate about what to include and how to go about their work, the committee decided to create two catechisms. The Shorter Catechism would be for those who were new to the Christian faith and for the children in the church. [By the way, did you know that the New England Primer, which was the foundational textbook for most schooling in the United States before 1790, included the Westminster Shorter Catechism?]

The Larger Catechism would be for those who were more mature in their faith, providing a more exact and comprehensive teaching of Christian doctrines. One might say that the Shorter Catechism is the milk, while the Larger Catechism is more meaty.

Why has the Larger Catechism been neglected?

Of the three documents that make up the Westminster Standards (Confession, Larger Catechism, Shorter Catechism), the Larger Catechism is the one with which most people are least familiar. I confess that while I have read through the Westminster Larger Catechism several times and referred to it on occasion, I have not studied it as much or as in depth as I have the other two documents.

Several reasons come to mind as to why this is the case, why the Larger Catechism is often neglected. For one thing, because of its length (196 questions compared to the WSC’s 107), it can be a bit daunting. Add to that the lengthiness of the answers with many clauses piled up on one another, it can take a little work to parse and understand. It’s certainly much easier to memorize the Shorter Catechism than the Larger.

Another reason for which the Larger Catechism might be neglected is the detail of its exposition of the moral law. The Larger Catechism devotes about fifty questions to explain what is required and what is forbidden in each of the Ten Commandments. Seven questions deal with the fourth commandment, while eleven questions deal with the fifth commandment! There are theological, practical, and historical reasons for these emphases, but it has made some people consider the Larger Catechism to be overly detailed and perhaps moralistic. To the contrary, the purpose of these explanations of the Ten Commandments is, as the Larger Catechism explicitly states in Q 97, of special use for believers in two ways: (1) to grow their assurance of salvation (“to show them how much they are bound to Christ for his fulfilling it [the moral law]” and (2) to grow in their sanctification and holiness (“to conform themselves thereunto as the rule of their obedience”).

There are probably more reasons for which the Larger Catechism has been neglected, but as W. Robert Godfrey points out, this neglect is not new, nor is it uncommon:

“In 1908 B.B. Warfield showed himself a master of understatement when he observed: ‘In the later history of the Westminster formularies, the Larger Catechism has taken a somewhat secondary place.’ Compared to the prominence and influence of the Shorter Catechism in Presbyterian circles, the Larger Catechism is a very distant second indeed. At least in the United States the Larger Catechism is seldom mentioned, much less studied, as a living part of the Presbyterian heritage. This situation is not new. From the seventeenth century on, the Shorter Catechism received much more attention than did the Larger…Is such neglect of the Larger Catechism justified? Is there value almost 350 years after the writing of the catechism in renewing our appreciation of it? The answer is certainly yes. The Larger Catechism is a mine of fine gold theologically, historically, and spiritually.” (“An Introduction to the Westminster Larger Catechism” by W. Robert Godfrey in Johannes G. Vos, The Westminster Larger Catechism: A Commentary (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2002), ix)


In our introduction this coming Sunday, we’ll discuss some of those benefits of studying the Westminster Larger Catechism and get a taste of what it has to offer us in hopes that it will whet our appetites to study and learn what we are to believe concerning God and what duty He requires of us (WLC 5).

I’m excited to dive into this study of one part of our Standards that is too often neglected – that I, personally, have too often neglected. I hope you will join me on this trek! See you on Sunday morning!

The Lord be with you!
– Pastor Peter M. Dietsch