“It is worth while to be a Shorter Catechism boy. They grow up to be men. And better than that, they grow up to be men of God.” These were the word of famed Princeton theologian B.B. Warfield. We might also say that truer words have never been spoken.
For over 350 years the Westminster Shorter Catechism has been used to train children (and parents!) in the truths of the Scripture. This teaching tool has helped to ensconce many souls in the historic doctrines of the faith.
For this reason I want to introduce you to the Shorter Catechism (SC) and, Lord willing, give you some reasons why you might consider adding it to your child’s daily curriculum.
Since some of you might not be familiar with it, let’s begin by giving you a quick summation of what it is.
I. A quick synopsis of its make-up
If you want a quick breakdown, I might put it like this: the SC an easy way to study and commit to memory the main doctrines of the faith. It contains a simple question and answer format that facilitates memorization.
For instance, the famous first question of the SC goes like this:
Q. 1. What is the chief end of man?
A. The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.
So you see, it’s simple, it’s short, and it really packs a wallop! If you ask any average Joe on the street what his purpose in life was, most likely you’d get a blank stare. The same may be true for a lot of Christians! At best, the untrained Christian would say something like, “Praise God.” But, as the SC points out, that’s only half the answer. Life isn’t fulfilled until we actually enjoy God.
Let me give you a few more examples. I particularly like question and answer number four because it packs so much into a brief statement. It deals with the greatest question of all time, and answers it in a simple, yet profound, manner.
Q. 4. What is God?
A. God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth.
It’s not just hard core theology though. The SC deals with some of the most practical aspects of the Christian faith. For instance, in the second section it details in systematic fashion the meaning of each of the 10 commandments. So if you ever wondered what is encapsulated in the third commandment, you got a good start in the catechism:
Q. 54. What is required in the third commandment?
A. The third commandment requires the holy and reverent use of God’s names, titles, attributes, ordinances, Word and works.
Q. 55. What is forbidden in the third commandment?
A. The third commandment forbids all profaning or abusing of anything whereby God makes himself known.
The third and final section of the catechism deals with prayer. It summarizes the meaning of each line in the Lord’s Prayer, and provides you with a wonderful way to make the most of your prayer life.
Q. 101. What do we pray for in the second petition?
A. In the second petition, which is, “Thy kingdom come,” we pray that Satan’s kingdom may be destroyed; and that the kingdom of grace may be advanced, ourselves and others brought into it, and kept in it; and that the kingdom of glory may be hastened.
Perhaps the greatest attribute of the SC though is that it is flush with Scripture. Each Q. and A. typically has several proof texts that accompany it. So when one studies the catechism, what they are really doing is studying the Bible and asking, “What does the Bible say about this subject?”
In sum, the SC is a tool that help us (and most especially our children) understand the main doctrines of Christianity. Or, to put it another way, the SC provides you with those essential tenets necessary for a robust and distinctly Christian worldview.
Now that I’ve introduced you to the essence of the catechism, let me give you a brief synopsis of its history.
II. A quick look at its history
Life in Europe during the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries was a little crazy, to say the least. The Catholic church had over time developed a number of problems, both doctrinally and ethically. In the 1500’s some men who wished to reform the church started to rise up. This didn’t sit well with the Catholics, and a long battle ensued between the two. But in 1643 the Parliament in England called for an assembly of divines (or pastors) to help promote the reformation of the Church of England. These men created a number of documents, including the SC.
Westminster Assembly created this document because they desired a tool parents could use as they trained their children. The land had been ravaged with doctrinal errors, and they knew that the best way to preserve the faith was to commit it to the children.
As a matter of fact, the assembly stated in another doc how important it was to teach children at home. The church said that parents who failed to teach their children at home ought to be excommunicated! It probably sounds rather stringent to us today. Rarely do we see any teaching going on at home in our contemporary context. But you can understand the assembly’s mindset: If parents were not training their own kids, they were guilty of nothing less than paganizing their children (even if they were faithful in bringing them to church each week!).
Persecution in England drove many Christians to America. When they came, they brought their shorter catechism and it became a stable of American life. It was so widely acclaimed that it was part of the first text book printed in America, The New England Primmer (1690).
The founding fathers of America were raised on the Primmer. As such, it became one of the primary documents that shaped their minds for freedom. It is something to note that in 1900 The New England Primmer started to be laid aside. The Dick and Jane books came along and took its place as the primary reader. It has often been noted that this was a crucial turning point for America as Dick and Jane is a book that is purged, not only of real intelligence, but of Scriptural substance!
Yet the Primmer was the life shaping document for freedom minded people in the colonies. Political revisionists will tell us that the formative books of America were books by John Locke, Blackstone, and various pagan authors. They will repeatedly fail to mention the Primmer (and the SC within it) as a key component of equal, if not greater, weight.
Perhaps by now you are starting to note that the catechism has some real merit. But let me highlight for you something of its value.
III. A quick look at is value
I do want to encourage you to use the catechism, at least to some degree, in your children’s education. For it helps us to do three things. It helps us define, defend and declare the belief we as Christians hold.
The catechism is invaluable merely for the fact that it helps us define our faith. From the very beginning it was designed to help young people understand what a Christians is to believe. You might even say that it sets out in 107 questions and answers the whole counsel of God.
This is what we need too. After all, Jesus told us that we are to “make disciples, teaching them all that I have commanded you.” The easiest way to communicate the “all I have commanded” is by catechizing because the whole bible is summarized for you in just a handful of Q & A’s.
What’s more is that today’s youth are submerged in a secular and humanistic culture. Studies show that most kids who go off to college don’t stay with the church. The few who do likely do not know the slightest about major aspects of the faith, such as the Trinity, Creation, or any of the 10 commandments.
If our kids are steeped in the SC though, they will have a sound foundation for knowing the particulars of our faith.
On a side, let me give you a personal testimony here. I became a Christian when I was about 13. But it wasn’t until college that I actually started learning actual doctrine. When I entered seminary, I was still fairly ignorant. When my daughter came along, we were very dutiful to start her in the catechism. I now say that she knows more about the Bible at 7 than I did at 27.
All that is to say that the catechism will help you immensely when it comes to knowing the truth of Scripture..
But not only does it help us define our faith, it helps us defend our faith.
The church has always been subject to heresies. It’s no less true today. Satan and his minions are seeking to storm the fortress of Christ on a daily basis. And it is important that we be able to stand our ground.
This is especially true for our kids. Our job is to prepare them for life on their own. Education is nothing more than training our kids for life. But will our kids be able to defend themselves when they come out from under our wings? If they have been grounded in the SC, they will.
Certainly I’m not saying that if your kids memorize the SC they will automatically become Christians. I am saying that it can’t hurt them. And if they learn it, they will be able to spot imposters and errors a whole lot easier.
A couple of years ago the book, The Shack, hit the shelves and was an overnight success. People hailed it as one of the best Christian books of all time. The only problem was that it contained massive theological errors. I’m not just talking about baptism or mid-tribulation rapture type errors. Big ones, such as the doctrine of atonement and the exclusivity of Christ for salvation. Sadly, many were led astray.
We don’t want that to happen with our children. Moreover, even in the more particular aspects of the faith we want them to be able to discern right from wrong. If they are firmly planted in the SC, they’ll be less apt to be deceived.
Last of all, let me just say that the catechism helps us deepen our faith. As you become more aquainted with the truths of the SC, you will find yourself becoming more enthralled with God. As your children grapple with the truths contained in the SC, you will find them becoming more and more devoted to the God to whom the SC points.
I started out with the quote from B.B. Warfield: “It is worth while to be a Shorter Catechism boy. They grow up to be men. And better than that, they grow up to be men of God.” That’s so true. The SC digs deep into theology, but it ends up deepening your faith.
I don’t want to sugar coat it. It’s not altogether easy. After this I don’t want you to have some romantic notion that studying the catechism with your children will be all joy and without difficulty. It most certainly will have some rough going. But the time you spend grappling with the doctrines and talking about them with your children will pay off immensely. You will be building spiritual muscles…muscles that (you’ll notice) others in your church won’t have.
Let me conclude with this to show just how much impact the shorter can have. A general officer of the United States Army was in a great western city at a time of intense excitement and violent rioting. The streets were over-run daily by a dangerous crowd. One day he observed approaching him a man of singularly combined calmness and firmness of appearance, whose very demeanor inspired confidence. So impressed was he with his bearing amid the surrounding uproar that when he had passed he turned to look back at him, only to find that the stranger had done the same. On observing his turning the stranger at once came back to him, and touching his chest with his forefinger, demanded without preface: “What is the chief end of man?” On receiving the countersign, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever” — “Ah!” said he, “I knew you were a Shorter Catechism boy by your looks!” “Why, that was just what I was thinking of you,” was the rejoinder.
Such is the “indelible mark” of the Shorter catechism. It makes one’s faith in God that strong.
 B. B. Warfield, "Is the Shorter Catechism Worth While?" in Selected Shorter Writings of Benjamin B. Warfield, Vol. 1, ed., John E. Meeter (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1980), pp. 383-84.
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