Wednesday, December 03, 2008

The Exile of the Westminster Larger Catechism

I've mentioned before that I'm auditing a course on Presbyterian Creeds. A few weeks ago, we discussed the Westminster Standards (that is to say, the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Westminster Shorter Catechism, and the Westminster Larger Catechism). These were written by the Westminster Assembly in England around the period of 1641 (depending on how one counts the beginning of the effort) through 1647 in an attempt to reform the Church of England. That attempt actually failed, but the Standards nonetheless have had a profound impact on Presbyterianism. In fact, for quite some time, the Westminster Standards were the creeds of the Presbyterian church.

Non-Presbyterians may not be aware that the current PC(USA) is the result of a long history of both divisions and reunifications of Presbyterian churches over a long time frame (and, of course, there are other Presbyterian denominations even today). In 1958, two Presbyterian denominations became what was then called the UPCUSA. A short time after this unification occurred, the leaders of the UPCUSA authorized a new approach to what eventually became our current "Book of Confessions," adding the ecumenical creeds (The Apostles' Creed and The Nicene Creed) and several others. However, the Westminster Larger Catechism, which had been one of the defining creeds of Presbyterianism for over 300 years by that time, was consciously excluded at the time on several grounds.

One of these grounds was that of excessive "proof-texting." I hope to come back to this issue in another post, but for now it is worthwhile to note that, when the Westminster Standards were created, the Westminster Assembly included no Scripture references whatsoever! They had purposely avoided adding such references, perhaps out of fear of precisely such an accusation. It was an act of Parliament that said, in essence, "we don't see enough Scripture here! Go back and add Scripture references!" So the Westminster Assembly went back and added Scripture references to provide context for what was already being claimed as Christian doctrine in the Standards, including the Larger Catechism. They did this reluctantly, and it therefore seems a bit unfair to use the complaint of "proof-texting" here.

A perhaps more serious concern was that the Larger Catechism seemed "legalistic." On the surface of things, this perhaps makes sense. Take, for example, this passage regarding the commandment "Thou Shalt Not Steal":
Q. 141. What are the duties required in the Eighth Commandment?
A. The duties required in the Eighth Commandment are: truth, faithfulness, and justice in contracts and commerce between man and man; rendering to everyone his due; restitution of goods unlawfully detained from the right owners thereof; giving and lending freely, according to our abilities, and the necessities of others; moderation of our judgments, wills, and affections, concerning worldly goods; a provident care and study to get, keep, use, and dispose of those things which are necessary and convenient for the sustentation of our nature, and suitable to our condition; a lawful calling, and a diligence in it; frugality; avoiding unnecessary lawsuits, and suretyship, or other like engagements; and an endeavor by all just and lawful means to procure, preserve, and further the wealth and outward estate of others, as well as our own.

Q. 142. What are the sins forbidden in the Eighth Commandment?
A. The sins forbidden in the Eighth Commandment besides the neglect of duties required, are: theft, robbery, man-stealing, and receiving anything that is stolen; fraudulent dealing, false weights and measures, removing landmarks, injustice and unfaithfulness in contracts between man and man, or in matters of trust; oppression, extortion, usury, bribery, vexatious lawsuits, unjust enclosures and depopulations; engrossing commodities to enhance the price, unlawful callings, and all other unjust or sinful ways of taking or withholding from our neighbor what belongs to him, or of enriching ourselves; covetousness, inordinate prizing and affecting worldly goods; distrustful and distracting cares and studies in getting, keeping, and using them; envying at the prosperity of others; as likewise idleness, prodigality, wasteful gaming, and all other ways whereby we do unduly prejudice our own outward estate; and defrauding ourselves of the due use and comfort of that estate which God hath given us.
That's quite a lot of text for such a short commandment! As to the charge of "legalism," I've often been told that one of the problems with the Pharisees of Jesus' time was how much the expanded upon the law, adding layers and layers of interpretation on top of it. On the surface of things, it would certainly seem that something similar has been done here.

But there's at least one major difference. If you'll look closely at the items listed here, you won't find much that actually deals with personal piety. There's nothing here to make a person feel unduly proud of one's self, as if to say "look at me. I don't only follow the commandment, but all the extra layers of it proscribed by the leaders of the church!" This seems to be the problem with the Pharisaic additions. The quotes from the Larger Catechism instead deal with protecting the rights and property of one's neighbor. Christians are to look out for the well-being of the other. Contrast this with Jesus' criticism of the Pharisees in Matthew 23:23:
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.
Or perhaps this bit from Mark 7:9-13:
You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! For Moses said, 'Honor your father and mother,' and, 'Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.' But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is Corban (that is, devoted to God)—then you no longer let them do anything for their father or mother. Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.
The Pharisees were good about adding layers to the law, but failed when it came to looking out for the well-being of the other.

Back to the Catechism, and whether or not it's "legalistic," one also notes elements like Question 172, whereby doubters may still be admitted to the Lord's Table (this from a tradition that takes the Biblical injunction to examine one's self before partaking of the sacrament quite seriously), and other places in the Catechism that seem quite grace-filled. If the Catechism is indeed a bit wordy, it's definitely in the spirit of helping Christians learn to live with each other. While I would certainly agree that to elevate the letter of the law over grace would be to misuse the law, and would therefore be "legalism," I'm just not seeing such a focus on "the letter, but not the spirit" of the law in the Larger Catechism.

So, honestly, I think that the move to "exile" the Larger Catechism from the canon of Presbyterian Confessions was a mistake. Thankfully, this "exile" did not last very long. When the UPCUSA and the PCUS (which retained the Catechism all along) united to form the current PC(USA) in 1983, the Catechism was reinstated, and most Presbyterians don't even know that it was ever missing.

Of course, most Presbyterians probably have no idea what's in the Book of Confessions to begin with, but that's a discussion for another time.

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