Creeds and Confessions 101

Helpful Tools

Brief statements of key doctrines have been with us since the beginning of biblical history. They often focus on God and the way of salvation. Creeds and confessions are useful only to the extent that they reproduce faithfully the teaching of Scripture itself—serving as a helpful teaching tool for churches, perhaps offering paragraphs that can be incorporated into worship in order to help God’s people state what they believe, confess their sin, and profess faith in Christ, all by the power of his Spirit. Read a brief summary of 13 historic creeds and confessions below.

ESV Bible with Creeds and Confessions

The ESV Bible with Creeds and Confessions includes 13 creeds and confessions from church history along with introductions for each, helping modern Christians see how these historic documents were designed to faithfully teach the truths of Scripture—truths aimed at shaping and motivating the lives of all who follow Christ.

Apostles Creed

The Apostles’ Creed is both the best known and the least known of all postbiblical creeds. Its doctrine is apostolic, as it proclaims the high points of New Testament teaching. Elements of the Apostles’ Creed are found in summaries of the faith by early Christian writers, with some lines matching word for word. Christians employ this creed in worship more than any other creed. Nonetheless, its origins are shrouded in mystery. We do not know who wrote this first-person statement of faith, even if we are sure that it was not written by any of the apostles themselves.

In this summary of the faith we find a basic call to believe in a God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—the three headings organizing the creed. Here we confess a God who is both Father and Creator; a Savior who is God’s Son and Mary’s son; and a redeeming work that begins with humiliation and ends with exaltation. Here too we see a compressed account of the Holy Spirit’s work in gathering the church—bringing Christians into communion with God and each other.

Perhaps the most useful feature of the creed is its balanced picture of Christ. This creed reminds us that the Lord who came first to rescue us will come a second time to judge us. This is what the church confesses in the Apostles’ Creed: that we are saved by Jesus, from Jesus. It is on this basis alone that believers are now forgiven, will one day be raised, and will forever live with Christ.

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Nicene Creed

The text customarily called the Nicene Creed has a three-part history in the Western church. The creed was issued as a brief statement at the Council of Nicaea (AD 325), while the First Council of Constantinople (381) later provided a substantial addition concerning the Holy Spirit. Thus historians term this creed the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed. Even later, a line in the creed was changed (in the Western church only) to capture the significant teaching that the Holy Spirit proceeds not only from the Father but from the Son as well.

The Nicene Creed contains many of the lines found in the Apostles’ Creed, but it was written chiefly in response to minimizations and even denials of the divinity of Christ. Thus the creed asserts that Jesus is of the same (not similar) essence or substance as the Father. It states that he is begotten and not “made,” unlike every other thing visible or invisible. Even the rhythmic phrases often translated “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God” are connectional, equalizing phrases. They underline three times that the Son is “of” (in the sense of “from”) the Father. These lines, taken with those about the Holy Spirit, are best read as reflections on the equality and closeness of the Three who are One. Together these lines form the most closely held and widely confessed statement about our triune God in the Christian church.

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Athanasian Creed

This account of the catholic or universal faith of the church further clarifies the doctrine of the Trinity. It also offers what is recognized as a classic statement on Christology. Dire warnings are attached for anyone who fails to hold unswervingly to the whole of the creed. As jarring as these notes sound to modern ears, they remind us that rightly knowing God has always been a matter of utmost importance to the church.

The main emphasis of the first part of the Athanasian Creed is the unity, distinctness, and equality of the divine persons. These traits are set out in nearly a dozen triads of assertions about the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, sometimes in abstractions (they share the same “qualities”) and sometimes in particulars (each is almighty, each is Lord). The painstaking care shown in the setting out of these points makes for clarity of presentation with minimal technical language.

The second part of the creed proclaims Jesus Christ as God and man equally, insisting on both the unity and also the distinctness of Christ’s divinity and humanity. Without naming any particular heresy, the creed addresses those errors that supercharge Christ’s humanity and those that allege that at the incarnation Christ became some new hybrid creation that was neither properly human nor fully divine.

Also called “The Exposition of the Catholic Faith” or “Quicumque Vult” (from its opening Latin words), the Athanasian Creed was thought in the Middle Ages to have been penned by Athanasius of Alexandria. The text first appeared about a century after his death, and, since attempts to identify its true author(s) have not yet been successful, many Christian communities have chosen to retain the name of Athanasius in connection to this creed.

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Chalcedonian Definition

The Council of Ephesus in AD 431 forbade the making of any new creed. The Council of Chalcedon, which met in 451 to confront new errors, chose to issue a decree to affirm earlier versions of the Nicene Creed (both the 325 and the 381 versions) and also to offer a concise clarification regarding the church’s teaching about the person of Christ. The council then promptly banned anyone else from making a new creed, no matter how good his or her intentions.

This clarification, formula, or definition was the clearest statement to date on the person of the Lord Jesus Christ. It confesses who Christ is now: God and man, one person in two natures (hence its language of both natures coming together in one person). Unlike earlier creeds, it does not emphasize the actual event of the incarnation, the person of the Son taking to himself humanity. Famously, it also offers a series of denials about Christ when it teaches that the natures of Christ “undergo no confusion, no change, no division, no separation.” This “negative,” or apophatic, theology reflects a belief among many Greek-speaking Christians that much of what we say about God—perhaps the best of what we say about God—involves saying what he is not.

The level of detail offered in the creed, including the use of the term “natures,” eventually alienated those who preferred earlier statements of faith. Thus, while this creed is held by Western Christians and the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Oriental Orthodox, including various Coptic churches, do not subscribe to the Chalcedonian Definition.

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Ausburg Confession

The Augsburg Confession is the most significant confession of the early Reformation period. As early as 1527, theologians associated with the University of Wittenberg, including Martin Luther and his colleague Philip Melanchthon, had written statements of faith for educational and apologetical purposes. Three further sets of articles of the faith with overlapping content were written for German leaders with Lutheran sympathies in the year prior to the writing of the Augsburg Confession (1530). This confession drew on the full range of these prior positive efforts while at the same time responding to the hundreds of criticisms of Lutheranism that had been published and then submitted to the reigning Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V.

The imperial council at Augsburg, at which the Lutheran princes and their supporters presented their confession, offered a second chance for the Protestant movement to gain imperial approval. Assembled chiefly by Melanchthon, with editorial input from princes and scholars, the document contains three parts: a prefatory address to Charles V, articles of faith covering key doctrines, and a further cluster of articles refuting errors of the Roman church.

The preface and confession are designed in part to show that the developing Reformation was not a threat to civil authorities. Multiple opportunities are taken to affirm the importance of magistrates, and it is no accident that at strategic points the confession mentions loyalty to Germany and opposition to Islam—matters of heightened interest in the northern reaches of the empire.

The articles themselves begin as concise paragraphs but turn into short sermons when the topics of free will and good works are discussed. Wherever possible, continuity with the past is emphasized. Some matters of disagreement—for example, purgatory and the pope as antichrist—are silently passed over (contrary to Luther’s wishes). Throughout the first twenty-one articles the general order of the Apostles’ Creed is followed, and key statements, such as that on the doctrine of God, contain no surprises. Throughout, Luther’s main emphases are maintained. Typical of the Reformation period, not only are errors described but groups of opponents are named and denounced as well.

The final section, Articles 22–28, deals chiefly with the practices and disciplines of the Lutheran churches in Germany. Cataloguing a history of abuses related to priestly marriage, monks, the mass, and rules about meats and other foods, the Augsburg Confession also details the problems with Roman Catholic church government and rules related to the confession of sin. Here the confession cleverly exploits disagreements within the Roman tradition itself, citing comments by reform-minded popes, contrasts with the teachings of church fathers, and corrective teachings of Scripture.

The Augsburg Confession remains one of the doctrinal standards for confessional Lutherans. An early edition of the work was officially adopted in the Book of Concord (1580), the main repository of eight authoritative Lutheran confessions and catechisms.

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Belgic Confession

Although first written in French, the Belgic Confession is best known in Dutch and German translation and stands as one of three confessional documents typically used in Reformed denominations originating in northern Europe.

The Belgic Confession was produced in 1561 during an intense time of confession writing—almost fifty Reformed confessions and catechisms in twenty years. The confession stands out for its doctrinal warmth and its author’s courage. It was written by Guido de Bres, a pastor who served in what is today called Belgium and was a one-time student of John Calvin. In this confession, de Bres sought to persuade the Spanish king, Philip II—whose forces occupied the Low Countries— that Protestants should not be persecuted for their faith, given that what they believe is thoroughly biblical. Within a few years de Bres paid for his faith with his life.

The thirty-seven articles of the Belgic Confession begin with the doctrine of God and man’s knowledge of God, giving considerable attention to the authority and sufficiency of the Scriptures and to the biblical canon. Only with those foundations established do Articles 8–11 offer a lengthy statement and defense of the doctrine of the Trinity and the deity of Christ and the Holy Spirit. Articles on creation and providence are followed by a discussion of man’s creation, the fall, and sin.

A robust article on election sets the stage for five articles on the redemption purchased by Christ, leading into articles on justification by faith and the necessity of sanctification. One heading addressing the abolishment of the ceremonial law is paired with another announcing Christ’s all-sufficiency as our intercessor. Here readers encounter a standout chapter—and one of the confession’s longest—in which believers are led into a dialogue in which each doubt about Christ’s willingness and qualification to save us is powerfully answered by the words of Scripture.

The importance of the church, its order, and its sacraments occupy nine further articles. The discussions of both the government of the church and the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper are distinctly Reformed in flavor. Instruction about church government advocates rule by minister and elders, with deacons assisting. Treatment of the Supper emphasizes that Christ is present by his Holy Spirit and that this benefit is derived from the Supper only by those who receive it in faith.

Articles on the civil magistrate (along with comments elsewhere) deliberately distinguish the Reformed from Anabaptists. Indeed, while the confession complains about a variety of problems, Anabaptists are cited for the widest range of errors. The fact that the article on the civil magistrate draws attention to the Anabaptists is an ominous reminder that concepts of Christian liberty remained in their infancy during the long Reformation.

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Articles of Religion

The Articles of the Church of England are a series of relatively long sentences, with a few notably long paragraphs as exceptions to the rule. Although there is no formal division among the Thirty-nine Articles, the first eighteen deal with the doctrine of God and the way of salvation, the second eighteen discuss the church and the sacraments, and a final trio of articles treats the civil magistrate, personal property, and oaths.

The Articles of the Church of England are a version of the final text approved both by the English church and by Parliament. They began life as the Forty-two Articles, written by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer in 1552. With subtractions and additions under the guiding hand of Archbishop Matthew Parker and others, these became the Thirty-nine Articles in 1562. Further changes to the wording of the Thirty-nine Articles were effected by Queen Elizabeth in 1563, but then the Articles were revised again by Bishop John Jewel, the two houses of the English clergy, and the two houses of Parliament in 1571.

Finalized after the conclusion of the Council of Trent (the main attempt at Roman Catholic reform against the developments of the Protestant Reformation), the Articles of Religion offer a careful balance of continuity with, and criticism of, the old faith. Statements concerning the doctrine of God and the person and work of Christ offer traditional content. Furthermore, Article 8 requires Anglicans to affirm the Nicene Creed, the Athanasian Creed, “and that which is commonly called the Apostles’ Creed.” In fact, the order of the articles follows the general drift of the Apostles’ Creed, even to the point of an explicit affirmation of that creed’s clause stating that Christ had descended into hell (Article 3).

Other articles begin to move away from pre-Reformation theology in emphasis or tone. The articles include significant discussion of Scripture, with high praise for its authority and sufficiency. The testimony of the church to the Scriptures is not dismissed, but the stress is on the testimony of the Holy Spirit to the believer and the self-attesting power of Scripture itself (Article 5). The books of the Apocrypha are declared to have some use—“for example of life and instruction of manners”—but they cannot be used “to establish any doctrine” (Article 6).

Still other articles clearly display their Protestant credentials. While it is clear from the Thirty-nine Articles that the English church would remain hierarchical and episcopal, and that many of its ceremonies would maintain continuity with the medieval church, clear statements about sin and justification signal the English church’s move from Roman Catholic to Reformed sympathies. Further chapters implicitly criticize mainline Catholic concepts of the human will and good works before explicitly stating that both Eastern and Western churches have erred, including the Church of Rome. Errors identified include positions on purgatory, ministering in Latin, too long a list of sacraments, and Catholic conceptions of a sacrifice of the Mass. The articles end where the official break with Rome began: with an assertion of the power of the English monarch in matters not only of state but also of faith.

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Canons of Dort

Of all the confessions written during the Reformation period, the authorship of the Canons of Dort enjoyed the widest national diversity. Although under the control of the Dutch state, the organizers of the Synod of Dort (or Dordrecht; 1618–1619), as it came to be known, invited delegates from other national Reformed churches. Representatives came from eight countries or city-states of the Reformation. In remembrance of the French Reformed churches, which were not permitted by their Roman Catholic government to send representatives, empty chairs were reserved for their missing delegates.

The Canons of Dort were the third and final contribution to what would become known as the Three Forms of Unity—the doctrinal standards of Dutch and German churches in the Reformed tradition. The Canons are not an ordered discussion of doctrinal topics but an argument against a group of protestors called the Remonstrants, most of whom were followers or friends of Jacobus Arminius. The Canons make five points under four headings, each designed (as the conclusion explains) to refute “five articles in dispute in the Netherlands, as well as the rejection of the errors by which the Dutch churches have for some time been disturbed.” The famous “five points of Calvinism” are a simplification of these Canons.

The first main point of doctrine asserts a biblical position with regard to election and reprobation: the cause of a sinner’s judgment is found in his or her own sin and unbelief; in contrast, the cause of election is found in God’s good pleasure alone, not in anything pleasing in the sinner’s life or in something in the sinner’s future, including a foreseen faith. Furthermore, assurance of this election is a blessing, one that can extend to a believer’s child who dies in infancy.

The second main point of doctrine treats the Savior’s death as well as human redemption through him alone. The infinite value of Christ’s death, as in the Heidelberg Catechism, is attributed to the fact the Jesus Christ is not only man but also God. As with every head of doctrine, the canon begins by providing positive teaching in the form of numbered articles. These are followed in each case by a series of rejected errors, with biblical reasons supplied for the rejection of these errors.

The third and fourth main points of doctrine address two related issues in one canon: human corruption and saving conversion. A proper doctrine of regeneration can never be developed without a proper doctrine of humanity. One first needs to understand the effects of the fall, including the spread of corruption and our total inability, as well as the inadequacy of keeping the law or learning from the light of nature. Only then can we see our need for the work of a powerful and Holy Spirit to raise the spiritually dead and draw us to our living Redeemer.

The final main point of doctrine presents the Bible’s teaching on the perseverance of the saints, since Christian disciples are not preserved in a dormant state, without the fruits of faith. Rather, we are preserved by God in a life of faith and repentance, seeking continually to turn from sin to our Savior. The benefit of an assurance of salvation is laid out for the believer in this final point, and the canon argues that assurance of salvation is the best encouragement to godly living.

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Westminster Confession

The Westminster Confession of Faith was written in 1646 by a gathering of pastor-theologians. They met in Westminster Abbey during England’s bloodiest civil war, and it is from the name of the abbey (or from the English Parliament, meeting in the city of Westminster) that the confession derives its name. From the perspective of most Reformed Christians, England’s Reformation had been left incomplete by Queen Elizabeth. Given that war had broken out in part for religious reasons, the English Parliament chose to call an assembly of theologians to advise it concerning the reform of the English church, especially in its worship and government. The so-called Westminster Assembly, meeting from 1643 to 1653, ended up changing the church’s theological texts, too. Helped by Scottish theologians from the autumn of 1643, the texts written by the assembly ended up being endorsed more heartily and used more faithfully by that northern church and its missionaries than they ever were in England.

The Westminster Confession of Faith became the dominant confession of Reformed Christianity. Terms and phrases found in the Confession almost immediately became the preferred parlance of English-speaking Reformed churches, and when Congregationalists, Baptists, and Methodists wished to create confessional or catechetical texts of their own, they often resorted to revising and reissuing works produced by the Westminster Assembly.

In thirty-three chapters, the Westminster Confession of Faith builds on the foundations of the Christian faith (the self-revelation of God, God’s character, and God’s decree) to the outworking of his decrees in creation and providence. Of special interest in the realm of providence is the history of humanity’s fall in Adam and rescue in Christ, our new representative. Redemption accomplished by Christ is outlined in one chapter before redemption applied by the Holy Spirit is detailed in many more.

The chapters of the Westminster Confession of Faith are clustered in a manner generically similar to that of the Thirty-nine Articles, the second Helvetic Confession (a Swiss confession of the 1560s), the Irish Articles of 1615, and Protestant systems of doctrine generally, with the structure of the Apostles’ Creed always in the background. Thus chapters on the church, the sacraments, and eschatology conclude the confession, with chapters on the civil magistrate mixed in as well.

Presbyterians in the New World embraced the confession but found two ideas expressed in the original document particularly problematic. The first was that the civil magistrate had a duty to defend and promote gospel truth. The second was that civil magistrates should exercise godly control by calling synods or councils, even to the point of guiding the work of synods to ensure that they decide matters “according to the mind of God.” After decades of permitting ministers to take exception to these statements in the Confession, American Presbyterians, meeting in Philadelphia in 1788, concluded that the civil government should not “in the least, interfere in matters of faith.”

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London Baptist Confession

The classic Baptist summary of faith is the London Baptist Confession. The text of the confession, written in 1677 and formally adopted in 1689, was adapted from the 1658 Savoy Declaration of Faith and Order (a now little-used text), which was in turn a revision of the 1646 Westminster Confession of Faith. The London Baptist Confession remains a lodestone to many Baptists, its appeal being found chiefly in its usefulness as a teaching tool or even as a basis for association. It is sometimes called the Second London Baptist Confession to differentiate it from an earlier Baptist confession written in 1644.

The Savoy Declaration had been a meticulous modification of the Westminster Confession. Words and phrases were occasionally altered in the hope of doctrinal improvements; whole paragraphs were changed in places; a new chapter was added (“Of the Gospel, and of the Extent of Grace Thereof”); and two chapters on church government were removed, with congregationalist content inserted in the chapter on the church.

The London Baptist Confession was in turn another modest revision, designed to show Reformed Christians how much they held in common. The confession generally follows the Congregationalist Savoy revision rather than the more Presbyterian Westminster original. Further changes to the Savoy, where they can be found, offer a further clarification of concepts. For example, the second chapter boasts the attractive assertion that each of the persons of the Trinity has “the whole Divine Essence, yet the Essence undivided.” The fourteenth chapter, on saving faith, is adjusted in a manner that makes it more Christ-centered.

Still other changes quite reasonably reflect differences in Baptist readings of the Bible from the paedobaptist convictions of the Presbyterians and Congregationalists. The first chapter deletes a reference to the Christian’s accountability not only to the explicit statements of Scripture but also to truths logically deduced from Scripture (of which infant baptism is seen to be one). Chapters touching on covenant theology are revised. The most creative work is found in chapters on the church and the sacraments. These statements are remarkably compact, well organized, and to the point.

Perhaps the most lightly revised chapters are the final two: “Of the State of Man after Death and of the Resurrection of the Dead” and “Of the Last Judgment.” Here a series of minor adjustments are made from the earlier confessions, but the ending remains powerful. In its closing paragraphs readers are called to offer praise: “God hath appointed a Day wherein he will judge the world in Righteousness, by Jesus Christ; to whom all power and judgment is given of the Father” (32.1); called to give thanks: “The Righteous go into Everlasting Life, and receive that fullness of Joy, and Glory, with everlasting reward, in the presence of the Lord” (32.2); and, above all, called to pay attention: “As Christ would have us to be certainly persuaded that there shall be a Day of judgment, both to deter all men from sin, and for the greater consolation of the godly, in their adversity; so will he have that day unknown to Men, that they may shake off all carnal security, and be always watchful, because they know not at what hour, the Lord will come; and may ever be prepared to say, Come Lord Jesus, Come quickly, Amen” (32.3).

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Heidelberg Catechism

The chief influence in the development of the Heidelberg Catechism was Zacharias Ursinus. A new recruit at the University of Heidelberg (in modern-day Germany), the twenty-nine-year-old professor of theology was a leading figure in the university’s golden age as a center for training ministers for the Protestant church. Ursinus’s catechism, completed in 1563, was his most famous work. It was quickly translated into various languages and became a favorite among the Reformed. When the Synod of Dort approved the catechism in 1619, it was assured a special place among churches in the continental Reformed tradition.

The preface to the catechism (Questions 1 and 2) frames the discussion of the faith in terms of gospel comfort in the face of sin and suffering. In words that have thrilled generations of believers, the catechism offers a vocabulary to express confidence in Christ: “I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.” A conversation follows, all of it in question-and-answer form, organized under the headings of guilt, grace, and gratitude.

Questions 3–11 speak of our sin and the misery that accompanies a failure to keep God’s law—a law summarized in the two great commandments of Matthew 22:34–40. The catechism concludes that the gravity of our sin and the pure severity of God’s justice have left us in a desperate place.

Questions 12–85 then offer welcome relief. The catechism employs the Apostles’ Creed to introduce our triune God and then trace the plan of salvation. Particularly useful is an explanation of the reason for the incarnation. With this catechism in hand, every believer is helped to answer the question, why did God become man? As expected in an exposition of the creed, this section also discusses the doctrine of the church (briefly) and the sacraments (at length).

The final questions, 86–129, ask how we might express our thankfulness for the grace of God in delivering us from our misery. The catechism colors in the details of the Christian life using the outlines provided by the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer, considering one precept or petition at a time. Here as elsewhere, the catechism groups questions into “Lord’s Days,” coherent units that Reformed Christians were expected to consider on a weekly basis, often in an afternoon worship service. With fifty-two Lord’s Days, church leaders could offer a summary of the whole of theology in one year, thus grounding believers in their understanding not only
of the Bible itself but of the Bible’s central themes as well.

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Westminster Larger Catechism

The Westminster Catechisms (both written in 1647) offer questions and answers covering a full range of doctrinal topics, but with special focus on the doctrine of salvation and the Christian life. The voice of the catechisms is, for the most part, in the third person, declaring what God’s Word says, instead of the first person, sharing what Christians believe. Nonetheless, passages often carry a tone of praise, awe, or exhortation.

The catechisms are designed to be companion texts to the Westminster Confession of Faith. Together they form a relative rarity in the Reformation: a confessional-catechetical package designed to fit together. In fact, parallel presentations of the 1646 Confession and the 1647 Catechisms show extensive verbal dependence of the later texts on the earlier: the Shorter Catechism leans on the Larger; the Larger Catechism is derived largely from the Confession.

Of these three texts, the Larger Catechism is the least known and most forgotten in the church today. The Larger Catechism is actually the lengthiest text among the Westminster Standards. What is more, its statements benefit from an additional year of the Westminster Assembly’s debates. The Larger Catechism offers the ripest fruit of the assembly’s deliberations but lives in the shadows of the Confession of Faith. Admittedly, its formulations mostly mirror that of the confession, yet there are places in which it further develops its ideas in the confession, not least in the ethical realm. In fact, unique to the Larger Catechism is a thoughtful interpretive guide to the Ten Commandments, putting into words the principles of interpretation commonly used among Reformed theologians.

The structure of the catechisms is at once more straightforward yet also subtler than that of the confession. On the face of both catechisms is a programmatic statement: “What do the Scriptures principally teach? The Scriptures principally teach, what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man” (WLC 5; WSC 3). The remainder of each catechism discusses who God is and what he has done. The catechisms then explain what Christians must do in response.

Nonetheless, if this is their overt structure, it is also true that both catechisms follow a traditional pattern of expounding the Apostles’ Creed (although the creed is not mentioned explicitly), the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer. This structure is significant, as the focus on the law and on Christian piety gives these texts moral and spiritual emphases not found in the Westminster Confession. As well, the Larger Catechism offers an ecclesial perspective distinct from the more individualist emphasis of the Shorter Catechism, resulting in an accent on the practical importance of church life for the Christian community.

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Westminster Shorter Catechism

The Shorter Catechism is almost entirely a byproduct of the Larger but with a more personal focus, often considering the individual where the Larger Catechism considers the church. Christians using the Westminster Standards are best served when they use each of the documents as it was intended. The Westminster Confession serves as a quick-reference guide for careful statements of Christian doctrine. The Larger Catechism is intended as a teaching tool for churches and families, covering matters of faith and life. The Shorter Catechism is a tight summary of classic Christian doctrines, capable of being memorized even by a child.

One of the reasons the Westminster Catechisms have been so well received has to do with their suitability for memorization. Three features stand out. First, each question follows logically after the one preceding it. Second, and to an extent not previously seen in major catechisms, each question can be understood on its own terms without reference to a prior sequence of questions and answers. Finally, each answer offers an aphorism that can be understood independently from the question asked. For example, “There are three persons in the Godhead; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost; and these three are one God, the same in substance, equal in power and glory” (WSC 6); “Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardoneth all our sins, and accepteth us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone (WSC 33).

The Shorter Catechism is well known for its crisp statements of key Christian doctrines. But its claim to fame is found in the questions and answers that bookend the whole and encapsulate a vision for the Christian life. First, “What is the chief end of man? Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever” (WSC 1). And, at the end, “What doth the conclusion of the Lord’s prayer teach us? The conclusion of the Lord’s Prayer, which is, For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen, teacheth us to take our encouragement in prayer from God only, and in our prayers to praise him, ascribing kingdom, power, and glory to him; and, in testimony of our desire, and assurance to be heard, we say, Amen.” (WSC 107).

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This article is adapted from the ESV Bible with Creeds and Confessions.


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