The following essays are excepted from S. W. Carruthers book Three Centuries of the Westminster Shorter Catechism (Fredericton, NB: Beaverbrook Foundations/University of New Brunswick, 1957). The name Carruthers is familiar to all those who have devoted significant study to the work of the Westminster Assembly. His father had invested years of research into Westminsteralia and had published a bibliography of the Shorter Catechism in 1897. S. W. Carruthers extensive knowledge of the Assembly is reflected in his book "The Everyday Work of the Westminster Assembly" (reprinted by Reformed Academic Press in 1994) and we are also indebted to him for his exhaustive text critical labors in establishing the original text of the Confession (The Westminster Confession: The Preparation and Printing of its Seven Leading Editions and A Critical Edition. Introduced by J. Ligon Duncan III. Greenville: Reformed Academic Press, 1995.).
Having produced these two monumental researches, S. W. Carruthers set himself to the task of improving his fathers bibliographical labors on the Shorter Catechism. And so, sixty years after his father Williams facsimile edition of the Catechism appeared in print, S. W. Carruthers book Three Centuries of the Westminster Shorter Catechism came off the press. This volume is nowadays not readily available, except to those who have access to excellent theological libraries. Hence, as a service to the larger Christian community it seemed good to make available Carruthers introductory material to that otherwise primarily bibliographical work.
Carruthers attached four essays to his expansive bibliography in Three Centuries of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. The first discusses the manuscript of the Catechism, ordered by the Assembly (on November 17, 1647) to be delivered to the House of Commons on Thursday of the next week. Carruthers argues that this original manuscript was transcribed by John Wallis, and points out a number of idiosyncracies in the text.
The second essay is Carruthers revised version of his fathers historical account of the Assemblys work on the Catechism. After discussing the Assemblys original commission and composition, Carruthers provides a fascinating review of the Assemblys lively debate about the best method of catechizing and the most useful form of the Catechism itself. In rehearsing the discussions of the surprisingly small committee of men responsible for the production of the Catechism, Carruthers takes issue with Alex Mitchells speculation about John Wallis input. Carruthers also makes clear the genetic connection between the Catechisms and the Confession: the former grew out of the latter. Carruthers concludes the essay in noting that the Catechism "is a statement of personal religion," an important and accurate assessment that simultaneously (1) reminds us that, despite critics claims to the contrary, the Catechism is warm and evangelical in tone, and (2) also belies the frequent contrast between it and the Heidelberg Catechism (as if the Shorter Catechism were didactic and formal, whilst the Heidelberg were experiential).
The next essay discusses the Assemblys (and the Scottish General Assemblys) view of how the Catechism ought to be used for the edification of the Church. He includes a helpful section on the value and effects of catechizing, largely drawn from the words of the divines themselves, as well as a number of testimonies to the peculiar benefits of the Shorter Catechism itself. He reviews the various types of expositions of the Catechism under three heads: glossaries and paraphrases, supplementary questions, and commentaries. Interestingly, there have even been metrical versions of the Catechism produced, with a view to singing!
Finally, Carruthers includes a discussion of the Scripture proofs of the Catechism, and the various supplements that have been proposed over time. All in all, each of these essays should prove useful and informative to students of the Catechism. For the Christian layman, perhaps the historical account of the making of the Catechism will be of most interest.
May all who read these essays be edified and helped, and may the Lord be pleased to raise up a new generation devoted to the theology of the Catechism "the ripest fruit of the Assemblys thought and experience."
J. Ligon Duncan III, PhD
It was on 17th November 1647, that the Westminster Assembly ordered that the Shorter Catechism should be transcribed; it was ready to be delivered to the House of Commons on Thursday, 25th. The Manuscript is in the Nalson Collection (xxii. 56) in the Bodleian Library, Oxford.
By whom was it written? Almost certainly by John Wallis, the amanuensis to the Scribes, who became Savilian Professor of Geometry in the University of Oxford in 1649. Known specimens of his handwriting have been compared for me by Mr. W. D. Hassall the Acting Keeper of Western Manuscripts in that library, and I gratefully acknowledge his expert help. He writes: "In his later years, Wallis developed a very distinctive hand, but at this period there is such a large variation in his hand that I find it impossible to prove or disprove on palaeographical grounds his identity with the writer of the Shorter Catechism".
The point must therefore be decided upon circumstantial evidence, and this is fortunately strong. A volume in possession of the Presbyterian Historical Society of England, containing the manuscript of the Confession of Faith and of a number of other Assembly documents, proves that it is not in the handwriting of Burgess (who wrote that of the Confession) nor of either of the Scribes. Nor is it in the clerkly hand in which some of the other documents are written, which is evidently that of a professional writer, while this manuscript is in a distinctly personal hand. Who, then, is the likely writer? John Wallis had been appointed as amanuensis to the Scribes of the Assembly, and was present at the meetings to serve in that capacity. An important fact is that, while the wording of the Larger Catechism is often recorded in the minutes, which are in Adoniram Byfield's writing, that is not so in the case of the Shorter Catechism. This suggests that the task of recording the results of the discussions day by day was left to Wallis; and he would then naturally be the person to transcribe it. No doubt, during these eight days, he would be attending to his ordinary duties at the meetings of Assembly, and one wonders whether he did any of the transcription at these times, and whether that may account for some of its rather puzzling features.
He sometimes overlooked the proviso that the answer was to be a complete sentence (QQ. 3 and 15). On the other hand, he once (Q. 87) began to transcribe the question, thought that he was transcribing the answer, and had to insert the question at the end of the previous answer. Q. 65 had to be inserted in the margin, no doubt for a similar reason. In Q. 102 he inadvertently repeated the first petition of the Lord's Prayer. Such slips were not so likely to occur in uninterrupted transcription, and favour the conjecture that some at least of the work was done in the Jerusalem Chamber.
His memory sometimes misled him. In A. 87 he was apparently going to write "and misery" from a recollection of other answers. In A. 42 he wrote "might" and changed it to "mind". In the Lord's Prayer, his recollection of the Prayer Book version, to which he was accustomed, led him to write "trespasses."
Such changes are easily explained; the differences between the manuscript and the printed edition form a different problem. The task of seeing it through the press was assigned to Byfield. There are two possibilities. Byfield might have done this himself, and have had some notes of his own from which he amended the text of the manuscript. Or he may have left it to Wallis, who reverted to his rough notes, made during the sittings, and discovered that he had sometimes inadvertently reproduced a form of words which he had taken down during the discussion, but which was not the actual final result. While it is impossible to prove it, this seems decidedly the more likely explanation.
Q. 12 is entirely recast; A. 15 is modified to conform more closely to the original pattern; in A. 48 the concluding words, "beside himself" do not occur. In A. 96 the change to "corporal and carnal" (in place of "or") seems logically to be a change for the worse. But only two of the changes have any theological significance, the insertion of "once" in A. 25, and the change from "it" to "him" in A. 97.
In his proof correcting he missed one printer's error, the omission of the "of" in A. 33.
The Westminster Assembly of Divines met on the 1st of July 1643, being summoned by the two Houses of Parliament to advise as to a further and more perfect reformation in the Liturgy, Discipline, and Government of the Church of England. They proceeded at once to the revision of the Thirty-nine Articles. When the commissioners sent by the Church of Scotland took their seats (Henderson and Gillespie on the 14th of September, and Rutherford and Baillie on the 20th of November), a wider field of labour was placed before them. They were required to prepare creeds and directories, not for the Church of England only, but for the Churches of Christ in the three kingdoms, so as to bring them into the nearest conjunction and uniformity in religion, church government, and public worship, and catechising. The work was still to be carried on by way of advice to the English Parliament; no addition was made to the membership of the Assembly on behalf of the Churches of Scotland and Ireland, the commissioners from Scotland having only the right to sit in the Assembly and deliberate, but not to vote. The documents which are to-day the authoritative standards of the English-speaking Presbyterian Churches of the world were prepared by an Assembly of English Divines, men who were almost all episcopally ordained clergymen of the Church of England. That Church was as yet undivided. The members of the Assembly represented the different views of doctrine and order that were entertained within it. Many of the prelatic party who were nominated by Parliament declined to attend the Assembly, but others of them took the required oath, and assisted in the deliberations of the Assembly, at least for a time.
Ministers holding Independent views were represented by the seven Dissenting Brethren in the Assembly. The great majority of the members held Presbyterian views on church polity, and were the successors of the Puritans, who had formed a considerable body in the Church of England from the time of the Reformation. They had all along been working for a more primitive organisation of the Church, and a freedom from the practices and priestly robes borrowed from the corrupt Roman Church. In the days of Elizabeth they had instituted a voluntary Presbyterian organisation within the Church, and they had often suffered during her days, and during the reigns of James and Charles, for refusing to carry out the practices or wear the robes enjoined by the prelates. To the Assembly were added three ministers of the Reformed Church of France, two of whom ministered in London, and the third at Canterbury. The four learned divines of the Church of Scotland rendered great service in the deliberations. Ten members of the House of Lords and twenty of the Commons were added to the Divines, and some of them shared in the discussions.
The first work of the Assembly was the revision of the Thirty-nine Articles: Parliament remitted the first ten to them on the 5th of July 1643, and the next nine on the 22nd of August. Their consideration of them was fitful, and never got beyond the first fifteen, which were printed along with the first edition of the Confession of Faith with proofs in April 1647. As early as April 1645 the Commons instructed the Divines to produce a new Confession of Faith; a committee was instructed to meet on the 23rd of that month, and they submitted their first report on the 7th of July, and continued their labours till the 4th of December 1646, when the document was completed. It was sent to Parliament on the 7th of the same month as "The Humble Advice of the Assembly...concerning a Confession of Faith". Six hundred copies were ordered to be printed for the use of Parliament and Assembly. The discussions during the preparation of this document determined the doctrine, the order in which it was to be stated, and the terms to be employed in expressing it.
The preparation of a Catechism was put by the Assembly in December 1643 into the hands of Herbert Palmer, then Master of Queens' College, Cambridge, and famous as the best catechist in England. At the end of October 1644, Baillie expected the Catechism to be completed "ere long", and on the 21st of November he wrote: "The Catechism is drawn up, and, I think, shall not take up much time". Yet nothing had been submitted to the Assembly by Mr. Palmer, so, on the 2nd of December, the following members were joined to him for hastening the Catechism: Stephen Marshall, B.D., the illustrious preacher; Anthony Tuckney, B.D., afterwards Master of St. John's College, Cambridge, and Professor of Divinity; Matthew Newcomen, M.A., of Dedham, Essex; and Thomas Hill, D.D., afterwards Master of Emmanuel, and then of Trinity, Cambridge, and for some time Vice-Chancellor of the University. Baillie was again hopeful; work on "the Directory and government" will be ended in a few days, he writes on the 26th of December, and then they will get to work on the Catechism and Confession. "We have near also agreed in private on a draft of Catechism, whereupon, when it comes in public, we expect little debate.''
Two more months having expired, and no report being presented, the Assembly on the 7th of February 1645 added to the committee Edward Reynolds, D.D., afterwards Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, and Vice-Chancellor of that University (and, having conformed, Bishop of Norwich), and Philip Delmé, of the Reformed Church of France, Canterbury. On the 4th of May Baillie wrote: "Our next work will be the Confession and Catechism, upon both of which we have already made some entrance". But even though strengthened by such a band of co-workers, Mr. Palmer still submitted nothing to the Assembly; so on the 12th of May it was ordered that the committee do meet "this afternoon." This had the desired effect; on the next day Mr. Palmer submitted a report, the substance of which is not given; but from the debate, reported at some length in the minutes, it appears, as Dr. Mitchell suggests, to have been somewhat like the Direction prefixed to his own Catechism (which Dr. Mitchell has happily re-issued in his "Catechisms of the Second Reformation,"and so made accessible to all). Palmer's method was to have a double set of questions and answers the answers of the first set were each to contain a complete statement of the truth, independent of the question, as is the case in the Shorter Catechism; the second set of questions and answers were to break up the statements in the first set by a series of questions answered by a "Yes"or "No." This method was followed by Dr. John Wallis in his "Explanation of the Shorter Catechism"(1648).
The first to open the debate was Samuel Rutherford, who approved of Palmer's method. He suggested that the second set of questions should be printed in smaller type, and that the feeding of the lambs should be in the plainest and easiest way; there was "as much art in catechising as in anything in the world", but he doubted whether every minister understood the most dexterous way to catechise.
Stephen Marshall did not approve of introducing the second set into the Catechism; "people will come to learn things by rote, and can answer it as a parrot, but not understand the thing". He would have the method explained in a preface, and if the questions were printed there, it should be as a directory only "those, or to that effect".
William Bridge said there were two ends of catechising, increase of knowledge and test of knowledge, and for the latter end the answers should not be by "Yes"and "No".
George Gillespie liked the method proposed, and said that on with favour in Scotland. If ministers did not need help, heads of families did, and it was well to give them an example of catechising.
Dr. William Gouge thought that only things in question needed enlargement, and not every point in religion. In catechising, ministers must, like doctors, observe the patient.
Charles Herle would have "Yes"or "No" to be the first word of the answer, but not as distinct questions.
Lazarus Seaman distinguished between a Catechism and catechising. It was too much to prescribe a form to the minister in catechising. The answer should be formed, not to the knowledge that a child had, but to the knowledge the child ought to have.
Dr. Edward Reynolds could not see that this was the best method. If it were just a directory, the "Yes"and "No" would be of no use. He advised to explain the method, with examples, in the preface.
Philip Delmé submitted that a Catechism was to present doctrine in the most familiar way, while catechising was to ascertain the knowledge of the party catechised. The experience of other Reformed Churches would be a help.
Herbert Palmer had refrained from speaking because of his peculiar interest in the discussion. He was not satisfied with the result. Others had to he dealt with besides children.
It is evident that Mr. Palmer had not a little difficulty with his committee; the only support he obtained from them was from the Scottish commissioners, who had a place on all committees; Marshall, Delmé, and Reynolds were opposed. And the Assembly apparently was of opinion that the Catechism should have no model of catechising incorporated in it.
The cornmittee proceeded to draft a Catechism. The Assembly spent five days on it in August 1645, at which time Baillie recorded that "many hindrances when least we expect them come in our way". On the 20th of August, Palmer, with two other members, was instructed "to draw up the whole draft of the Catechism with all convenient speed". At the end of January 1646 Baillie remarks, "The Confession of Faith must be ended before the Catechism be resumed". On the 14th of July he vividly describes the situation: "We made long ago a pretty progress in the Catechism; but, falling on rubs and long debates, it was laid aside till the Confession was ended, with resolution to have no matter in it but what was expressed in the Confession, which should not be debated over again in the Catechism".
On the 22nd of July 1646, Rous and Tate brought a message from the Commons (which Baillie takes credit for having suggested to them) "to hasten the perfecting of the Confession of Faith and of the Catechism, because of the great use there may be of them in the kingdom, both for the suppressing of errors and heresies, and for the informing of the ignorance of the people". The Assembly now added John Ward of Ipswich to the small committee. It reported on the 12th of September; on the 14th the third answer (dealing with the rule of faith and obedience) was decided upon. No record of the first two questions is found in the minutes. The discussion of the draft was continued, and on the 11th of October Baillie reported, "We have passed near a quarter of the Catechism; but we will not in earnest win to it till the Confession be off our hand". The discussion was resumed at the end of November, and proceeded until the 4th of January 1647. Ten days thereafter a motion by Mr. Vines, which was accepted by the Assembly, arrested the work of the committee. It was ordered that the committee on the Catechism do prepare a draft of two Catechisms one more large and another more brief in which they are to have an eye to the Confession of Faith, and to the matter of the Catechism already begun. (The unfinished Catechism was printed in W. Carruthers's facsimile edition of the Shorter Catechism.)
The plan of two Catechisms had been suggested six months earlier in a pamphlet called "The Moderate Presbyter". Let the Catechism be taught in every church. Let there be two sorts, one more large, applied to the delivering the sum of religion, by a suite and order of certain places of the Scriptures, according to which some part of the holy doctine may be expounded every week. Another of the same Sort, but shorter, fit for the examination of the rude and ignorant before they be admitted to the Lord's Supper".
Rutherford and Gillespie reported the position vividly to the Scottish General Assembly on 19th January. "The Assembly of Divines, after they had made some progress in the Catechism which was brought in to them from their Committee, and having found it very difficult to satisfy themselves or the world with one form of a Catechism, or to dress up milk and meat both in one dish, have after second thoughts recommitted the work, that two forms of Catechism may be prepared, one more exact and comprehensive, another more easy and short for beginners". In June they were less complimentary; they described the Shorter Catechism as "intended for the more rude and ignorant".
Baillie had recorded the position at the time of his leaving the Assembly on the 25th December 1646 as follows: "The fourth part of our desired and covenanted uniformity is the Catechism. A committee has drawn and reported the whole the Assembly ere I came away had voted more than the half; a short time will end the rest, for they study brevity, and have voted to have no other head of divinity into it than is set down in the Confession. This ended, we have no more a-do in the Assembly." The reference is still, of course, to the preliminary Catechism, never completed. Baillie had no part in the preparation of the Shorter Catechism, but George Gillespie remained till the 16th of July 1647, and Rutherford till the 9th of November.
It was not till the 14th of April 1647 that the committee made its first report on the Larger Catechism, and this document engaged the attention of the Assembly until the 22nd of October following, when it was agreed that the Prolocutor, attended by the whole Assembly, should take the completed work up to both Houses of Parliament.
When they were approaching the completion of the Larger Catechism the Assembly resolved (5th August 1647) to proceed at once with the Shorter, and appointed a committee to prepare a draft. This was composed of Charles Herle, then prolocutor of the Assembly; Thomas Temple, D.D.; Herbert Palmer; John Lightfoot, D.D., the eminent Hebraist; John Greene; and Philip Delmé; Palmer being chairman. He presented only one report from it, four days after its appointment. Edmund Calamy, B.D., and Stanley Gower were then added to the committee. On the following day the report was presented by Dr. Temple. On the 16th September the Assembly resolved to "proceed in the little Catechism". On the 13th October it was resolved that the papers which concerned the Assembly that were in Mr. Palmer's hands be sought for and brought to the Assembly. Palmer, after a short illness, had died at the early age of forty-six.
On the 19th October 1646 the Assembly appointed a new committee to prepare the Shorter Catechism, of only three members, Anthony Tuckney, B.D., Minister of St. Michael's Quern, London, and Master of Emmanuel College, Cambridge; Stephen Marshall, B.D., of Finchingfield, Essex; and John Ward of Ipswich; with the help of the only remaining commissioner from Scotland, Samuel Rutherford, Professor of Divinity in St. Andrews. Adoniram Byfield, one of the scribes, was instructed to write in the name of the Assembly to Cambridge to get Mr. Tuckney excused on account of the special employment imposed upon him by the Assembly. It is to these four men, and especially to the convener, Mr. Tuckney, that we owe the production of the Shorter Catechism. I wish I could accept the suggestion of Dr. Mitchell that the Catechism has "unmistakeable evidence of its having passed through the alembic of Dr. Wallis, the great mathematician"; but, unhappily, he was not instructed to attend the committee till the work was practically done, on the 9th November, an instruction which would not have be en given were he already in attendance. Mr. Tuckney brought in reports from the committee on 21st, 25th, 28th, 29th October, 1st, 2nd, and 8th November, and on these days it was debated in the Assembly. On the 9th November, Cornelius Burgess, D.D., and Daniel Cawdrey, M.A., were added to the committee for reviewing the Catechism, no doubt in relation to the discussions that had taken place; and Wallis was ordered to attend the committee, probably as amanuensis for transcribing. The revision was considered on the two following days, and on the 15th of November was read as far as the fourth commandment and, being approved, was ordered to be transcribed. The committee was ordered to prepare a preface to the Catechism. Next day Mr. Tuckney reported on the remainder of the Catechism, and, after reading, it was ordered to be transcribed. On the 17th the addition of the Commandments, the Lord's Prayer, and the Apostles' Creed was considered. Philip Nye dissented from the resolution to include the Creed, and he was joined in his dissent by William Rayner, William Greenhill, Thomas Wilson, and Thomas Valentine. The difference of judgment about the Creed caused the Assembly (instead of a further debate in full house) to add some members to the committee for arriving at an agreement. These were Richard Byfield, William Rayner, Phillip Nye, Thomas Case, Richard Vines, and Stanley Gower. A small committee, consisting of Wilson, Temple, and Calamy, was requested to submit the preface on the following morning. (This is evidently not the directions for catechetical methods previously discussed in March 1644 in connection with the Directory.) The difference as to the Creed was settled by inserting the explanation of the words "he descended into hell" in the margin and the preface, or rather postscript, was adopted. In the earlier editions of the Catechism, and in those printed with the Confession of Faith, this postscript is to be found, but not in the American editions.
A message was prepared by a committee, to be addressed to the Houses of Parliament when the Catechism was carried up. On Thursday 25th of November 1647 the House of Commons was informed that divers of the divines were at the door: they were called in, and the Prolocutor delivered the Catechism and addressed the House. On the next day the Catechism was carried to the Lords. Each House thanked the Assembly for its care and pains in this matter. It was ordered that 600 copies be printed under the care of Mr. Byfield, for the use of members of Parliament and of Assembly, and that Scripture should be affixed in the margin of the Catechism.
While still reviewing the Scripture proofs of the Larger Catechism, the Assembly began to debate those of the Shorter (2nd March 1647-8), the same committee that had prepared the proofs for the one bringing up those for the other. The debate on the proofs continued on the 3rd, 6th, 8th, 9th, and 13th March; the proofs were read "in a full Assembly" on the 16th, 20th, 21st, 22nd, and 30th: on the latter day it was ordered that those read up to date should be transcribed. Owing chiefly to a troublesome personal case, nothing more was done till the 12th of April, when the remaining proofs were read, and it was resolved that the proofs be accepted, transcribed, and sent to Parliament. This was done on the 14th April 1648, when the Speaker of the Commons thanked the Divines, and 600 were ordered to be printed with the proofs in the margin for the use of Parliament and Assembly. While Parliament took exception to some expressions in the Larger Catechism, and modified the Confession of Faith, they adopted the Shorter Catechism without any modification.
They resolved that the title should run: "The Grounds and Principles of Religion contained in a Shorter Catechism", etc., and on the 25th of September they ordered it to be printed and published under the care of the Clerks of Assembly.
The key to the method followed by the committee in the preparation of the Catechisms is to be found in the motion of Mr. Vines adopted by the Assembly on the 14th of January 1646-7, that the committee, in preparing drafts of two Catechisms, should have an eye to the Confession of Faith, and to the matter of the Catechism already begun. A comparison with the Confession will show that in their drafting the committee kept a very constant eye on it. They excluded certain of its subjects from the Catechisms. Chapter xvi, "Of Good Works", is omitted, though references to its doctrines are to be found in the Catechisms. The following chapters are omitted: xx, "Of Christian Liberty and Liberty of Conscience"; xxii, "Of Lawful Oaths and Vows"; xxiii, "Of the Civil Magistrate; xxiv, "Of Marriage and Divorce"; xxvi, "Of the Communion of Saints"; xxx, "Of Church Censures"; and xxxi, "Of Synods and Councils".
The Larger Catechism follows the order of the Confession, with two exceptions. (1) The doctrine of the Church and its privileges appears earlier, being connected with the work of the Redeemer; (2) the relation of believers to Christ at and after death is placed in the first section, where the benefits of believers are specified, instead of at the end. The order in which the subjects are taken up in the Shorter Catechism is the same as that of the Larger, except that Faith and Repentance have their more logical position in the second division of the Shorter Catechism, which deals with the duty required of man, instead of being placed beside Justification, Adoption, and Sanctification as in the first division of the Larger Catechism, which deals with what man is to believe concerning God.
But the connection between the three documents is still more close. The Larger Catechism is a longer document than the Confession; this is due to the requirements of an advanced Catechism, many of the subjects being more subdivided, and some secondary and more practical aspects of the doctrines being introduced, which were not in the Confession. Where identical matters are treated of in the three documents it is in almost identical language. This can be seen, for instance, by comparing answers 4 and 5 with the Larger Catechism, 7 and 8, and the Confession II, I. Every one who has looked with care at the fourth answer has been surprised at the compactness and comprehensiveness of the wonderful statement. Several touching stories are told of its authorship, and the conditions under which it was prepared, but, we fear, they are all apocryphal. To Tuckney, Marshall, Ward, and Rutherford we are indebted for this, as for other answers in the Catechism.
One might also compare answers 21 and 22 with the Larger Catechism 36 and 37 and Confession VIII, 2; and answer 87 with the Larger Catechism 76 and Confession XV, I and 2. If we try to trace the sources of the Shorter Catechism, we cannot go outside the two earlier documents. The lines of Mr. Vines' motion were strictly adhered to; the Confession of Faith is the stem out of which grew two branches, the Larger and Shorter Catechisms. And of these, the Shorter bears "the ripest fruit of the Assembly's thought and experience", as Dr. Mitchell so happily says. No doubt there are agreements in order, and similarities in wording, between the Shorter Catechism and the numerous catechisms of the first half of the seventeenth century; but these are simply incidental to dealing with the same doctrines, from the same point of view, and in systematic order.
One characteristic of the Shorter Catechism has not been sufficiently recognised in the past. It is a statement of personal religion; it appeals to the individual sinner, and helps the individual believer. This is true also to a large extent of the Larger Catechism, but in it the Church sometimes takes the place of the individual. (Compare L.C. 86 with S.C. 37.) The Church is not mentioned in the Shorter Catechism, except incidentally in the answer about baptism.
Nowhere else can be found so plain and simple, yet
so complete, a statement of Scripture doctrine as it was understood by Augustine and
Calvin, by Knox and Ussher, and by Chalmers and Hodge, as in this Shorter Catechism. This
has been recognised on every hand. The Baptists early adopted it, modifying the statement
as to Paedobaptism to suit their creed; Charles Spurgeon prepared such an edition. Even
John Wesley, altering its statements as to the decrees of God, sin, and election, printed
it for the use of his followers. In earlier days it was much used by the
Congregationalists, and at the end of last century had not fallen into entire disuse among
them. By the permission of the Archbishop of Canterbury, a member of the Church of England
who highly valued this compendium of Bible truth presented to every bishop present at the
Lambeth Council of 1887 a copy of the Shorter Catechism.
THE SCRIPTURE PROOFS OF THE SHORTER CATECHISM
The Scripture Proofs of the Catechism present some interesting features. Their history goes back to the original instructions given by Parliament to the Divines about their work in July 1643. The fifth of these was, "What any man undertakes to prove as necessary, he shall make good out of Scripture". That this was carried out is evident in the surviving accounts of their debates; but it said nothing about presenting to Parliament the Scripture warrant for their documents. Rather to their surprise, when they presented the first instalment of the Confession of Faith, Parliament enjoined them "to put in the margin the proofs out of Scripture". They immediately appointed a committee to consider the request, and upon its report they informed Parliament that it would then be impossible to proceed (as Parliament had ordered) with the printing of the Confession. The Assembly completed the Confession, and presented the whole of it, without proofs, to Parliament, which ordered it to he printed "without annexing the texts of Scripture for the present; yet, notwithstanding the House doth expect that the Divines should send in the texts of Scripture with all convenient speed".
This instruction reached the Assembly on 19th December 1646; Baillie took leave on going to Scotland on Christmas Day, before the Divines began the work; but he shared the view of the Presbyterian section that the demand was not prompted by a genuine desire for Scripture. He wrote, "The retarding party has put the Assembly to add Scriptures to it, which they (i.e. the Divines) omitted only to eschew the offence of the House, whose practice hitherto has been to enact nothing of religion on divine right or scriptural grounds, but upon their own authority alone. This innovation of our opposites may well cost the Assembly some time, who cannot do the most easy things with any expedition; but it will be for the advantage and strength of the work" (Letters, III, 2). No action was taken in Assembly till 6th January 1646-7, when a committee was appointed, which reported promptly the next day. The work went steadily on, hut was not finished till 5th April 1647. On that day Lazarus Seaman made a proposal which, had it been adopted, might have saved much subsequent criticism of the proofs; he wanted "something annexed by way of caution to shew how the proofs are to be applied". But the Assembly would not have it, probably realising that it might only lead to more delay, and they were busy with the Catechism.
The Shorter Catechism was presented to Parliament, and printed, without proofs, in November 1647. The proofs were not presented, however, till the following April. During this time the proofs for both Catechisms were dealt with, those for the Larger Catechism between 7th December and 1st March, those for the Shorter Catechism from 2nd March till 12th April. There were three committees to prepare those for the Larger, and only one committee on those for the Shorter Catechism, yet the latter took much shorter time. This was doubtless due to the fact that the proof texts for the Larger Catechism were there, and merely needed modification because of the lack of complete parallelism between the two, and the omission of some statements from the Shorter one.
The character of the changes can be judged by the study of the proofs for a few questions which agree in the two catechisms. In Q. 1 they omitted John xvii. 21-3, a passage which only indirectly and inferentially proves that man is to enjoy God for ever. Q. 7 of the Larger corresponds to Q. 4 of the Shorter Catechism. The proofs as to God's glory, blessedness, perfection, all-sufficiency, incomprehensibility, and some other points became irrelevant, since these points were omitted from the answer in the Shorter Catechism. Strange to say, Exod. xxxiv. 7 is needlessly (though not irrelevantly) added to the previous verse as a proof of God's goodness and truth. Q. 5 of the Shorter Catechism omits I Cor. viii. 4, 6, seeing in the other two passages adequate proof of the answer. In Q. 6 they trust to the dubious I John v.7 and to Matt. xxviii. 19 for proof of the Trinity, omitting other texts at least equally good (Matt. iii. 16, 17 and 2 Cor. xiii. 14), as well as the insufficient John x. 30. On the decrees of God (Q. 7) they retain two passages as sufficient (Eph. i. 4, 11, and Rom. ix. 22,23), omitting the less manifestly relevant Rom. xi. 33, Rom. ix. 14, 15, 18, and the superfluous Psalm xxxiii. 11. In Q. 9 the statement of the Larger Catechism (Q. 15) that God made all things for Himself is omitted, and with it the need for the proof from Prov. xvi. 4.
It is evident from the nature of the proofs, and from the extent of some of them, that the Divines did not contemplate their being committed to memory by the catechumens; they quoted enough of the passage to indicate the complete argument, and in some cases the reference was to a whole Psalm or other chapter. It is also evident that some attempt must have been made to use them by memorising, and their unsuitability been discovered at an early period, for the first modification was made in 1656, and was so well done that it has survived, along with the Assembly's set, till now; the Assembly's set being printed in the editions issued along with the other documents, the new set in the editions of the Catechism alone.
These modified proofs seem to have originated with the Lancashire ministers, though the first edition in which they appear, in 1656, was printed in London. (See the quotation from Martindale in the Bibliography.) The change was most ably carried out, as a study of the first twenty questions will demonstrate. These questions originally contained 59 separate proof passages, of which 9 are omitted, and 18 modified. Two new ones are added, and in two other cases an additional verse is given.
The omissions are: Q. 1, Rom. xi. 36; Q. 3, 2 Tim. iii. 16; Q. 7, Rom. ix. 22, 23; Q. 11, Psa. civ. 24; Q. 13, Gen. iii. 6-8; Q. 16, I Cor. XV. 21, 22; Q. 18, Jas. i. 14, 15; Q. 19, Lam. iii. 39; and Q. 20, Gal. iii. 21, 22. All of these are of doubtful value, if not actually superfluous. For instance, Gal. iii. 21, 22 is practically a repetition in other words of Rom. iii. 20, 21, 22 (though probably Gal. iii. 22 would have been the most suitable of the five verses as a proof). The omissions in QQ. 3 and 13 are accounted for by the use, most fittingly, of these texts in QQ. 2 and 15.
The modifications consist in the omission of irrelevant or superfluous verses, or in the curtailment of a verse so as to retain only the important point. These changes, of course, made the learning of the proofs an easier task.
As an example of the first class, take Q. 11. Here Matt. x. 29 (Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing, and one of them shall not fall to the ground without your Father) is adequate, and verses 30 and 31 add no essential truth. Other omitted verses are: Q. 1, Psa. lxxiii. 27, 28; Q. 2, I John i.4; Q.4, Job xi. 8, 9; Q. 7, Eph. i. 4; Q. 10, Gen. 26; Q. 18, Rom. v. 10-18, 20, Eph. ii. 2, 3; Q. 19, Gen. iii. 10, Matt. xxv. 46.
As an example of the second class take Q. 4, where the description of the four beasts in Rev. iv. 8 is omitted and only the words "Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, which was, and is, and is to come are retained. Other curtailments are: Q. 4, Exod. xxxiv. 6, 7; Q. 5, Jer. x. 10; Q. 9, Gen. i. throughout; Q. 11, Heb. i. 3, Psa. ciii; 19; Q. 19, Rom. vi. 23. In dealing with the creation story in Q. 9, only verses 1 and 31 are retained, and these are rightly allotted to the first and last clauses of the answer.
The additional proofs are: to Q. 18; Rom. iii. 10, to prove the want of original righteousness, and Psa. li. 5, to prove original sin; in this question also Matt. xv. 20 (These are the things that defile a man) is added to the list of sins in verse 19; and in Q. 7, the important words from verse 12 (That we should be to the praise of His glory) are added to Eph. i. 11.
The texts were often distributed under additional reference letters so as to make clear the point which each was intended to prove, a practice of which good use was made by later commentators. Examples are in Q. 8 where creation and providence each get a reference letter, and in Q. 18 (which had originally only one reference letter) where four distinct references are given, for Adam's sin, for the want of righteousness, for original sin, and for actual transgressions.
In these 20 questions there is but one example of a change of doubtful value. In Q. 11 the wisdom of God's providence was originally proved by two passages, Psa. civ. 24 and Isa. xxviii. 29 The former was dropped, though it seems somewhat the better one.
The wise judgment of these ministers is also well seen in the answers about the commandments where they rejected some proofs and added others freely. These proofs are the ones generally used by commentators and expositors.
Two years later, in 1658, the first of the well-known Rothwell impressions appeared, "with the Scriptures at length". The cumbrousness of the original proofs had evidently been realised, for an attempt was made to shew "the emphasis of the Scriptures in a different character", namely, in italics. This providing of the proof texts printed in full was so popular that no less than five impressions were issued within a year; in the earlier ones the italics were given only in part of the Confession of Faith, but they were ultimately extended to all three documents.
The idea was good, and, broadly viewed, was well done; but the details were handled in slovenly fashion. In many cases the italicised words by themselves do not make sense, and are sometimes not a sentence at all. Thus, in Q. 4 the words "variableness, neither shadow of turning" are italicised, but the essential word "no" is in roman type. Unnecessary words are italicised, such as "and everlasting King" in Q. 5; and in Q. 60 parts of Neh. xiii. 22, a verse which (along with 18-21) is superfluous, are so treated. On the other hand, italics should be used for such phrases as "and honour not his father and mother" (Q. 65). The proofs to Q. 62 have no italics whatever.
In 1855 Johnstone and Hunter issued a well-printed edition, with a note calling attention to some of its special features, "more particularly the restoration of the italics used in the fine editions of 1658 and 1688". Unfortunately they were restored with uncritical fidelity.
Some later modifications are worth mentioning. In 1672 Lye seems to have used both sets of proofs; he also made a few judicious omissions and additions.
In 1699 there was a London edition with the title "The Grounds and Principles of the Christian Religion", whose title-page states, "The Proofs carefully corrected and amended". It was based on the original set, and contains numerous modifications. These changes are very uneven in value, and taken as a whole are hardly to be considered an improvement. The work is badly marred by poor proof reading, there being between thirty and forty misprints in the references.
John Clifford in "Sound Words" (1699) endeavoured with considerable success to shorten the proofs, leaving only the essential words. For example, (Q. 1) "Do all to the glory of God"; "God is the strength of my heart and my portion for ever"; and (Q. 4) "God is a spirit"; "His understanding is infinite"; "Thou only art holy".
The largest number of additional proofs occurs in James Gall's "Key", where there are 519, as against 290 in the 1656 set. This is due to the desire to give each separate clause of the answer its individual proof, and it is very well done. This set of proofs occurs also in "The New Proof Catechism".
In "The Shorter Catechism Popularly Explained", James Inglis provides a largely new set, including a few of the original; the work is on the whole good, though some of them are rather far-fetched.
A drastic revision was undertaken in America for the Presbyterian Church of the U.S.A. It is a very careful and extensive revision, based on the original set of the Divines, and with a considerable number of additions. There is a small amount of redundancy, which would tax a child's memory unduly. The added texts are generally most suitable, though occasionally only indirect or inferential proofs. Those omitted are often unsatisfactory, but some are quite suitable (e.g. Q. 4, Job. xi. 7 and Psa. cxlvii. 5). In Q. 19, Mark ix. 47, 48 has been substituted for the more strictly relevant Matt. xxv. 41, 46.
The Berlin translation (1858) has many additional proofs, which I have not been able to trace to any English source.
Missionary translators have sometimes made selections of their own, based on the customary sets of proofs (e.g. Gujarati, Xhosa).
The commentators, such as Brown and Fletcher, naturally provided numerous additional proofs to illustrate their expositions.