I have now taught the Westminster Standards twice. I have expounded every section of every paragraph of the Westminster Confession of Faith, and every question and answer of both the Shorter, and even the Larger, Catechisms. Twice. The first time was over a 15-ish week semester. The second time was 5 days straight. Exhausting, yes. But I loved it.
I don’t want to waste the experience, and since evaluated experience is the best teacher, I want to reflect a bit. I want to think about teaching the Standards from various angles:
- The Westminster Standards as subject matter for exposition.
- The experience of teaching the Westminster Standards.
- Teaching them over a semester, in an academic setting, to a certain class of students.
- Teaching them in one week, in a non-academic setting, to a voluntary audience.
- Finally, comparing those two rounds of teaching.
*Henceforth, I will refer to the Westminster Standards as simply “the Standards.”
Let us begin.
The Standards as the Subject Matter for Exposition
Not everything under the sun is included in the Standards. However, there is so much. It will nail, meaning confront, so many issues. And those will be the important issues.
The Standards cover a lot of ground. And they should. A ten point, one page “statement of faith” won’t thoroughly prepare you for that church you plan on visiting. It doesn’t even give the people already there a scope of what that church believes. But the Standards will tell you exactly what to expect from the teaching, worship, structure, and discipline of any church that subscribes to them.
You’ll know the summary of Scripture if you know the Standards. Yet, the Confession is brief, containing the essentials. The Shorter Catechism is short and to the point. It’s impressive what a small book the Standards do make, considering everything they contain and imply (even including the Larger Catechism).
Though the Standards are Reformed creeds, they obviously contain more than the so-called “5 points of Calvinism,” also known as “the doctrines of grace.” They are present, though they aren’t stated that way. And they aren’t necessarily front and center as you might expect. Rather, the Standards contain complete Calvinism. Indeed, this might be a newsflash, but “Calvinism” includes more than a mere five points concerning salvation. Those few points alone don’t make anyone “Reformed” or “Calvinist.” They are necessary doctrines, but by no means sufficient. Calvinism, or Reformed theology, is a complete system. And so the Standards contain not only doctrines beyond salvation, but also ethics, worship, and even church government. A full-orbed doctrine of the church is expounded in the Larger Catechism. Yes, Calvinism includes ecclesiology. Oh, and corporate worship!
Two of my absolute favorite parts of the Standards are: the Law and Prayer. What’s funny is that the Confession of Faith is greatly overshadowed by the Catechisms, on these points.
First, the Law of God. About 30% of the Larger Catechism, and 42% of the Shorter, is devoted to the Law (and they say Reformed people aren’t “practical”). Reading every word of the Larger Catechism’s exposition of the Ten Commandments was excellent. You wouldn’t get that if you only learned the Confession (the Shorter Catechism having a more simple exposition of the decalogue).
Likewise, prayer is given a thorough examination. The Shorter Catechism devotes 10 questions and answers to prayer. The Larger has 18. So, reading every word of the Larger Catechism’s general view of prayer, but especially its exposition of the “Lord’s Prayer” as the special rule, was excellent. Again, you wouldn’t get that if you only studied the Confession (like most seminaries, I guess).
Not so focused on the “abstract” after all, are we?
At the same time, there is an admirable degree of broadness in the Standards. And the broadness is the kind that I think is appropriate. It’s a proper broadness. It’s the right way to be inclusive. For example, the Standards will not restrict you to a specific view of eschatology. The Standards are covenantal, so any dispensational viewpoint on Christ’s return is not an option. But within covenant theology, you aren’t limited. Premillennialism is inconsistent at worst. What this means is that a Reformed/Presbyterian denomination cannot restrict it’s people to one perspective on the “last things.” Allowance is there for difference of conviction. Another example is the mode of baptism. The Standards are not going to tell you that your baptism wasn’t real because you used less water! I appreciate this broadness, coming from a “fundamentalist” background that allowed only one eschatological view (guess which one?) and only one mode of baptism (guess which one?). They had elevated such things to a high level of importance, such that it determined who was in the fellowship. You could not be ordained unless you signed on that dotted line. In contrast, the Standards are broad, where it is appropriate.
All of this makes the Standards a joy to expound. Their wording is near-perfect. Many times they simply quote the Bible. They are systematic, making crucial distinctions. They faithfully reflect Scripture. They are beautifully written. The Standards have become my favorite thing to teach.
The Experience of Teaching the Standards
Committing to expound the 33 chapters of the Westminster Confession of Faith is a great undertaking. There’s a lot there. Many sections make up the chapters themselves. It’s a huge time commitment, as well. More popular, because it is more direct by design, is teaching the 107 questions and answers of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. That was my introduction to the Standards. We studied it in community group at our PCA church. The Shorter Catechism is also a favorite for Sunday school. Even though it’s shorter and to the point, it will still take a while. But exceptionally rare, and practically unheard of, is the dedication to study the 197 questions and (often paragraph-size) answers of the Westminster Larger Catechism. The Larger Catechism surpasses even the Confession in some of it’s formulations. Most churches never intend to take that baby on. No sir. It’s simply too massive, and would take far too long.
Yet, it is virtually unrealistic that anyone would commit to engaging in an exposition of all 3 of those documents, and at the same time. Not one after the other, but in harmony. Trudging through the Confession of Faith, Shorter Catechism, and Larger Catechism, simultaneously. If teaching the Confession and Catechisms require dedication on their own, then tackling all 3 of the documents that make up the Westminster Standards is truly a massive undertaking.
To make that task even more difficult is the lack of books to help. To my knowledge, there’s only one book currently available that expounds the Standards in harmony: The Presbyterian Standards: An Exposition of the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms by Francis R. Beattie. It’s an excellent book, and one reason is because it is the only one. I have to say, it is my opinion that the fact this book has gone out of print and isn’t being published today is evidence that Presbyterians are unwilling (for myriad reasons, no doubt) to do the very thing Beattie does. That’s a shame.
One major disappointing discovery I made was with the seminary classes. I thank God for the abundance of recorded seminary classes available for free, so I went looking for some to help me prepare. I found a few. Guess what they only expound? The Confession of Faith. And that’s it. I was looking for one that expounded all 3 of the Standards. Nope. I even, out of curiosity, checked what syllabi I could find for classes that were not available. No, again. To their credit though, even if lecture time wasn’t given to all the Standards, a few courses required reading a commentary on the Catechisms.
Speaking of commentaries. There’s many available on the Confession, even for free online. There’s a saturation of studies on the Shorter Catechism, which always gets the most attention. Many are free online, also. Guess how many commentaries there are for the Larger Catechism? One. Honestly though, it’s one of the best works I’ve ever read, on anything (the quality of the kindle edition leaves much to be desired, however). So there’s plenty of help in studying the Confession, too much help on the Shorter Catechism, but only one help on the Larger. I think this disproportion also reflects on Presbyterianism. [I have since managed to find Thomas Ridgley’s 4 volume exposition of the Larger Catechism]
Since Beattie’s exposition follows (mostly) the order of topics in the Shorter Catechism, and in keeping with the seminary course being “catechism” originally, I decided to go with that order. Having followed Beattie’s outline of things twice, I now want to rearrange the order of study, for different reasons. There’s nothing wrong with his order, I just think I could achieve greater harmony on some of the subjects and be less redundant. The greatest example would be transferring the exposition of the Ten Commandments from the “Means of Grace: the Word” to right after the exposition of “the Law of God” in general. It’s simple preference. My goal is to reduce repetition and gain more coherence.
Teaching the Standards Round 1: Seminary
The seminary is purely for fulfilling denominational requirements. As far as the students, some of them are already pastoring, despite not having studied to be qualified. The rest have “ministries” within their churches. Consequently, this education is remedial in every case, but also to qualify them for ordination which will supposedly happen in the future. Yes, the students have a measure of choice in the matter. They want to be there, perhaps because they know they need to learn. Or, because if they drop out, that will mean losing whatever ministry they have. But, they have also been told to be there. Because they are in ministry, they are required to finish their studies. It’s essentially playing catch-up.
I was offered the opportunity, and great privilege, to teach a course called “catechism.” Supposedly, the course is based on the Shorter Catechism. I was invited to teach the course because I was already teaching the Westminster Shorter Catechism to high school students and for Sunday school. So, I was offered the seminary also. I thought, “excellent, but not enough.” Instead of merely teaching the Shorter Catechism (which was the intention for that course, apparently), I decided to teach the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Larger Catechism, as well. My reasons were multiple. First, and primarily, the Shorter Catechism is not our only creed (as Presbyterians). So it’s simply not good enough to teach that alone to those who will be officers in the church. Also, merely learning the content of the Shorter Catechism is insufficient. The Confession and Larger Catechism contain much that the Shorter does not (like ecclesiology). Third, children learn the Shorter Catechism. My high school students are learning the Shorter Catechism. But, this here is “seminary.” They can, and should, do more. The standard should be higher than high school. That’s another blog post.
These students are here to become trained and qualified as ministers in a Presbyterian denomination. Hence, they need to master all the doctrinal standards, and all they contain. They’ll take ordination vows to uphold that system of doctrine as given in the Standards. They can’t do that with integrity if they haven’t so much as read them. Until now, they hadn’t, despite having been given ministry responsibility in Presbyterian congregations already (including pulpit ministry). So, that was my audience for round one of teaching the Standards.
The course was composed of lecture, reading assignments, quizzes and exams, and a term paper. Again, it was about 15 weeks, and class was once a week for three hours. The textbooks I assigned were The Presbyterian Standards by Francis Beattie and Truth’s Victory Over Error by David Dickson (the first commentary ever written on the Confession of Faith). I mapped out ahead of time the sections of the Standards that we would cover each week, and the corresponding chapters of the textbooks, so they knew exactly what to read each week in preparation for class. I also provided a copy of the Westminster Standards which they were required to read within the first few weeks of class. So, they were to read each week, then those subjects would be covered in lecture during class. In addition, there was a quiz at the beginning of class, based on the previous lesson.
As far as lecturing, it was almost all syllabus. Occasionally I would read from the Standards themselves (but Beattie nearly quotes them, actually). It was never my intention to read the Standards in class. The students were to do that on their own time. A portion of class time was already devoted to quizzes and exams, so I wasn’t going to surrender even more lecture time to reading the Standards when they had plenty of time to do that and read their textbooks.
The pace was slower than I would have liked, but it wasn’t unexpected. There were various reasons for that. Honestly, language was an obstacle, and I know that. However, I’m persuaded that it was not the chief obstacle. Sure, a barrier was the newness of the content. Another definite barrier to their learning was the surprising level of un-Reformed theology they came to class with. That naturally affected their interpretation of the Standards and their acceptance of them. However, simple laziness to do the work required (i.e. read) was the chief obstacle. When students come to class unprepared, naturally their ability to follow a lecture is severely handicapped, even if they had the full notes in front of them. Answering cell phones, walking out of class frequently, and chronic lateness to class certainly didn’t help either. Yet, while irritating, I actually can understand all that. If you’ve already been given the job of pastoring without this study, then why do you need it? Why commit? It clearly wasn’t important enough, before. So, a lack of incentive makes perfect sense to me.
Because of all that, I remember at least one occasion where we practically had to skip a small section. We just didn’t have the time left (the combination of slow pace, too much time spent on quizzes, and lateness putting the class behind). So all those factors were negatives the first time of teaching the Standards. And of course, that means less comprehension than was desired.
I was regularly taking the opportunity to revise my syllabus throughout the semester. I would notice things that could be improved. I was also continuing to study the Standards myself. I was listening to William Still’s exposition of the Confession, reading The Reformed Faith: An Exposition of the Westminster Confession of Faith by Robert Shaw, and reading Thomas Watson’s sermons following the Shorter Catechism (A Body of Divinity and The Ten Commandments). So, occasionally I would run across something that would need to be added. I was already thinking about the future, too. I had a hope of teaching the Standards again during the summer to one or two who had already graduated, and therefore had never studied the Standards. So instead of letting revisions pile up, I did them as the semester moved along.
To summarize round 1, the course was to qualify students for ministry, they had to be there, and they were responsible to actually read the Standards and accompanying textbooks. The pace was slow and the comprehension poor. It was an academic setting, so work and effort was actually required of the participants.
Teaching the Standards Round 2: Conference
First, why I wanted to do this. I had been informed that those who had already finished their studies at the seminary had not learned the Standards. They had passed through the “catechism” class, but left without a solid grasp of even the Shorter Catechism. So I thought that a remedial course would be helpful for a few guys who hadn’t learned the Standards (yet are already pastoring Presbyterian churches). Naturally, this would be totally voluntary. I looked forward to teaching people who actually wanted to learn. They in turn invited others to join. Two of them took charge of logistics, while I buckled down and finalized my syllabus.
The course ended up taking place about one month after the semester ended.
The format was a conference, seminar, modular course, whatever you want to call it. It was 5 days, morning to late afternoon or evening. We would break for lunch and dinner together, plus 10 minute breaks after every hour of lecture. The whole week totaled roughly 37 hours of lecture time. Being concentrated, it would be more intense simply because it wasn’t spread out over a long period of time. Less time to process, sure. But, that also meant no gaps in between subjects, so the flow was better and the connection within the theology was very clear. A huge positive was there would be no time wasted on quizzes, exams, or any of that nonsense.
A negative was there was no advance reading. Maybe one or two read some of the Standards ahead of time. Everyone was pretty much cold-starting. However, that didn’t really seem to get in the way. Even though the content was new, they could still process it.
There was more content, this round. I had revised and made some helpful additions to the syllabus from the semester. Perhaps the largest, most time consuming revision was adding citations within the notes. After teaching the first round, I realized that throughout the notes, we needed to know exactly where in the Standards whatever topic is, step by step. Beattie would refer to the Confession or a Catechism, but not cite the chapter and section, or which Catechism Q/A. That won’t do. So I went through the entire syllabus and added those citations. It turned out to be really helpful, so they knew exactly where this thing is that I’m saying. I didn’t have that the first time. It took me forever to add those throughout the syllabus. But worth every minute, without a doubt.
Since there was no time before the lecture for them to read the Standards that would be expounded, we actually read the Standards in class. Not every word, but most. I knew we would need to do this, so for this round of teaching the Standards, I had my copy of Reformed Confessions Harmonized open. It was extremely helpful to have the Confession and Catechisms synced together on the same topic. Flipping back and forth from each document would have consumed too much time. However, the Reformed Confessions Harmonized doesn’t follow the order we were taking through the Standards, or even any of the Standards. It follows the Helvetic Confession. So every time we would progress to the next subject, I’d have to look back to the contents, find where we would be, and turn there. Several times, the harmony on a subject would not include all the parts of the Confession and Catechisms, for some reason. In which case, I dropped that book and had to find my place manually. Inconvenient. So, for next time, I would like a harmony of just the Standards that follows the order of one of them (probably the Confession). More likely, I’ll have to put together my own.
Another helpful component was a cellphone app containing the Standards so they could read along, in addition to hardcopies of the Standards.
The study moved at a much faster pace, thanks entirely to my audience. Class size was the same as before, ironically. We expected more, but the majority of my target audience didn’t attend. I am thankful for who did attend. They followed quickly and the study moved along faster than I had projected. For round two, we covered all the ground we planned on. No skipping, or even breezing over things, this time.
My audience was able to follow superbly. I was shocked. It might sound terrible, but I guess I had gotten so used to teaching a particular kind of audience that I was really impressed just by the fact that these people could keep up with my normal talking speed. I asked after the first day, because it was a huge concern of mine, if they could handle the pace. Too fast, could they keep up? Every single one said it was a great pace, and they in fact liked the speed we were going at. They wouldn’t like anything slower.
They also mentioned that having the complete syllabus enabled them to follow the quick pace we were taking. And I’m thinking to myself, “I did the same thing last time, and it didn’t work out!” Frequent walking out of class, sometimes for extended periods of time, was still an issue this round, however. More than once, a participant would miss an entire subject. That seriously doesn’t make sense to me at all.
Surprisingly, we had time for quite a bit of application to their specific context. I think half of that was brought up by them! It was encouraging to hear them make the connections. Something the Standards said conflicted with what they’ve been taught, or with current practices or traditions. And they recognized it. Furthermore, they were motivated to make changes, to do something about it.
Audience interaction was really good. I’m surprised we had so much, considering how much content we needed to cover in such a short time. They were able to interact with the material. They asked intelligent questions. They saw connections within the Standards. They saw conflicts with their personal beliefs or practices. The youngest one there, grade 10 high school, asked the best questions out of anyone. I was genuinely impressed this round. The age range was 16-24, and everyone could keep up, process, interact, and apply what we were studying. Credit to them. I was encouraged that this endeavor actually was possible, and was not asking too much of people.
Who I was teaching were like night and day.
I recognize that I can’t say this with certainty, but I do have an idea. I think that the 2nd audience will actually do something with what they learned. Their discipleship was advanced. From the 1st round, perhaps 1 or 2 of them will be changed long term. We’ll see how that goes, considering they’re within a system that’s indifferent to the Standards in theology, worship, discipline, etc.
There was more reinforcement in round 1 than round 2. Round 1 was reading the Standards, reading commentary, then lecture on top of that, then review the following week. Round 2 was single exposure, only. I can’t imagine how well the round 2 audience would have learned and retained the content if they had the reinforcement of round 1.
By far, in so many ways, round 2 was a better teaching experience than the first. It was almost entirely the audience. Despite being the same age or younger than round 1, they were simply more capable (or more motivated). Probably both. And that simply isn’t a good sign of those who want to be teachers and preachers. If they can’t follow an exposition of their doctrinal standards, how can they presume to be teachers of others? I’ve spent a whole school year teaching these people already, so this isn’t a snap judgment. They are “training” for ministry, yet are behind those that are not in training for ministry nor will ever be in ministry.
There was more correction of unbiblical beliefs and practices in the second round. I’m certain that it’s not because there was more to be corrected the second time. Rather, I’m sure it’s because there was greater comprehension the second time. Or maybe it just didn’t come out in discussion the first time. In any case, the first time, I was surprised by what beliefs and practices, that were contrary to the Presbyterian Standards, were still being held by the time they got to my class. They’ve been in the Presbyterian church for years, now. And they had been studying for 1-2 years already. The second round was even more surprising. One participant had already completed his studies, and still had those same beliefs intact! Every day, almost every lecture, something was nailed. A discussion would follow, objections raised, back and forth. Anger or dissatisfaction with previous (incorrect) teaching and practice, and for not being corrected until now, usually followed these moments. And now, having experienced that, they don’t want that to happen to anyone else, and are thus motivated to teach sound doctrine. It was great. That’s how it should be.
I can only conclude that that’s the theological state of the rest of those who are in ministry. This only validates the plan to teach the Westminster Standards. It’s painfully obvious that it is desperately needed.