Source: New Horizons, 1987. 3 pages.

Catechism: A Map of the Bible

The Westminster Shorter Catechism is one of the finest creedal statements ever written. Yet, today, it is sadly neglected. Why is this?

I believe it is due to the popular – but mistaken – idea that we do better to ignore this man-made catechism in order to study the Bible. This viewpoint can be made to appear very pious. Yet in actual fact it contradicts the Bible itself, as we can see from the beginning of Luke's gospel:

Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.Luke 1:1-4

In the Early Churchβ€’πŸ”—

In the text quoted above the final phrase, β€œyou have been taught,” is a translation of a single word from which we get our English word catechize. It shows us that Theophilus did not begin with his own study of the Bible. No, he began (as we all do) by receiving instruction from others. He was first catechized, in other words, and then later on he tested and confirmed his catechism lessons by studying the inspired Scripture that Luke sent to him for that purpose.

This indeed shows us that Luke did not regard catechism teaching by itself as sufficient. No, Luke wanted Theophilus to know the certainty of the things [he had] been taught. For this he needed God's infallible word. That is why Luke wrote his inspired gospel account. He wrote it so that Theophilus could test the things he had learned by the catechetical method. However, the fact remains that it was catechism first, and then – after that – the Bible. And we need to understand the reason for this.

Perhaps an illustration will help. The catechism is to the Bible what a map is to the surface of the earth. But why do we bother with maps? Why do we not, rather, just go out and study the surface of the earth for ourselves?

The answer, of course, is that one is wise to begin with a study of maps. After all, life is brief and the world is very big. No one person could possibly make more than a small beginning of mapping out the surface of the whole world.

That is why maps are so valuable. They exist because many people, over many eras, have made a study of the earth's surface. And although these maps are not perfect, they are more complete and accurate than would be the case if each of us tried to make one of our own.

So the best way to get a basic understanding of the geography of the world is not by starting with the world itself. No, it is much better to start with an atlas. Then – after a person gets hold of the basics – it is possible to go on and learn much more by actually visiting some of the places first learned about through the atlas.

It is like that with our understanding of the Scriptures. The Bible contains a vast wealth of information. It is no easy thing to master it all – in fact, no one ever has mastered it completely. So it would be very foolish to try to do it all on our own, starting from scratch.

It would be foolish, because the results that we have from the study made by many great men of God down through many centuries are summarized for us in the catechism. The catechism (and, of course this is also true of other great creeds of the church) is a kind of spiritual map of the Bible – worked out and proved by others who have gone before us.

And, after all, is this not exactly what the promise of Jesus implied? When he was about to finish his work on earth, he said to his disciples,

When he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth.John 16:13

Jesus kept this promise. When the day of Pentecost came, he sent his Spirit to dwell in his church, as his own body. The Holy Spirit was poured out – not on individuals, each by himself – but on the whole body of Christian believers (Acts 2). And from that time to this he has been leading his church into an ever deepening understanding of the Scripture. We should not be surprised, then, that from the days of Luke and Theophilus the church has used the catechetical method.

During the Reformationβ†β€’πŸ”—

It is a fact worthy of note that the Reformation saw a great revival in the production, and use, of catechisms. Luther regarded his Small Catechism as his finest work. Ranking with Luther's catechism (1529) are two others of like fame, the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) and the Shorter Catechism of the Westminster Assembly (1647).

One could only wish that the merits of these two Reformed catechisms could be combined, because each excels in certain features. But until that day comes, we ought to make diligent use of what we have. And what we have in the Shorter Catechism is unequalled brevity, combined with comprehensiveness and accuracy.

The Catechism was written by the Westminster Assembly. This Assembly was called into existence by one of the most important parliaments in the history of England. This parliament – which is known as β€œthe long Parliament” – continued from November of 1640 until it was dissolved by Oliver Cromwell in 1652. In the autumn and winter of 1641 the House of Commons decided to summon β€œa general Synod of the most grave, pious, learned and judicious divines [theologians] of this island, assisted by some from foreign parts professing the same religion with us, to consider all things necessary for the peace and good government of the Church.”

The Westminster Assembly was the result. It was convened on July 1, 1643 and continued until February 22, 1649. In this period of nearly six years the Assembly produced five documents of lasting value to the church of Jesus Christ of subsequent ages: the Confession of Faith, the Larger Catechism, the Shorter Catechism, the Directory for Public Worship and the Form of Presbyterial Church Government.

The Shorter Catechism was the final product of the Assembly and – in my judgment at least – its crowning achievement. The Christian church in nearly two thousand years has produced nothing better than this Catechism, and it has few, if any, equals.

In the words of Professor John Murray of Westminster Seminary:

The work produced by the Westminster Assembly has lived and will permanently live. The reason is obvious. The work was wrought with superb care, patience, precision, and above all with earnest and intelligent devotion to the Word of God and zeal for His glory… While it would be dishonoring to the Holy Spirit to accord to these documents a place in any way equal to the Word of God either in principle or in practice, yet it would also be dishonoring to the Holy Spirit, who has promised to be with His church to the end, to undervalue or neglect what is the product of his illumination and direction in the hearts and minds of His faithful servants.1

Nothing produced by the Assembly merits this high praise more than the Shorter Catechism.

And Todayβ†β€’πŸ”—

It has been my privilege to instruct the Lord's covenant children in the riches of this catechism for many years. Not so long ago one who received this instruction graduated from Westminster Theological Seminary. His testimony was this: β€œEven in Seminary studies, what was learned long before, in catechism studies, gave a distinct advantage as compared with students who lacked this training.” To put it in a word, there will be long-term benefit for those who have a solid catechetical foundation.

Is it not true that the condition of the church today is a long way from what it should be, and could be? In my view the long-standing neglect of catechetical teaching accounts, in large part, for this depressed situation. The Reformers faced a depressed situation too, yet they did not despair. Neither should we – not when the remedy is near at hand.

This need for a revival in the use of the Shorter Catechism was already recognized in the 1950s when the Bible Doctrine series was first published by the OPC's Committee on Christian Education. Excellent though it was, the original studies needed a revision. Great Commission Publications is to be warmly congratulated for giving renewed attention to this vital need (see insert on pages 9-12).

May the Lord mightily use it to bring a renewed interest in this most excellent road map of the Christian faith, the Westminster Shorter Catechism.


  1. ^ "The Work of the Westminster Assembly" by John Murray, Presbyterian Guardian, February 10, 1942, p. 38.

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