In my view, the Westminster Standards are the best summary of the Christian faith in
the English language. Quite possibly, they are one of the best statements and symbols
of the church’s faith in the whole history of the church. So, why are they
comparatively neglected today in terms of a working knowledge of them, within
family worship, public catechising and in their use by elders?
These Standards comprise three main documents: The Confession of Faith, the Larger
Catechism (196 questions) and the Shorter Catechism (107 questions). Two common
questions which are often raised, relate to their usability and relevance. The language
of the Standards is still published mainly in seventeenth-century Elizabethan English.
I will seek to answer these two questions in this article, while also introducing an
exciting project which aims to provide these dynamic Standards in modern English,
for the English speaking church.
In Sheffield Presbyterian Church (EPCEW) where I minister, we have a weekly
Lord’s Day catechism class at 10.00am to teach the truths found in the Westminster
Standards. It is ironic, that though the Westminster Assembly met in London,
England, that today confessional and evangelical Presbyterianism is so little-known
in England. We pray and work for this to change. The Westminster Larger Catechism
was specifically designed for public teaching by ministers and its doctrine envelops
the doctrine of the church. We do well to remember the famed comment by Samuel
Rutherford as to the necessity for two catechisms instead of one; he contended at the
Westminster Assembly for two, because he believed that it had been very difficult “to
dress up milk and meat both in one dish”. In other words the church needs to know,
use and teach both catechisms for its spiritual vitality. The question remains though:
do we use both for the church?
A side-note is my own personal affection for the Westminster Larger Catechism.
Having taught through it several times to church members, my admiration for this
peerless document and the eternal truths it expresses so well, only grows. As to its
relevance for today’s church, Psalm 100:5 exhorts us that “For the Lord is good; his
steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations”. In short,
biblical truth and their doctrines are timeless and the Larger Catechism has an
enduring quality about it for that reason. None-the-less its accessibility, along with
the Confession and Shorter Catechism will be significantly enhanced if they are made
available in modern English. Over the last 2-3 years we have been working in
Sheffield with a team of members here, under my oversight and leadership, to put
them into modern English, in the original British edition (instead of the American
Revised edition with changes on the Civil Magistrate). It includes no revisions at all,
but where difficult words are found we have included square brackets occasionally
with the modern English equivalent.
Here is short quiz for lovers of words. Can you guess what these ancient words mean
which are found in the Westminster Standards: Vouchsafes, supererogate; contemn,
oblation; keeping of stews. They mean: promises; go beyond duty; disdain; offering;
and keeping of brothels. This updating of language should “iron-out some wrinkles”
and enhance their usability. Evangelical Press have agreed to their publication and
ongoing work is continuing to this end. The first edition will include seven essays at
the back of the book and these are for the purpose of encouraging all branches of the
church as to their usefulness.
The planned essay titles are: Ligon Duncan “The Westminster Assembly: A
Successful Failure?”; Kevin Bidwell “The Westminster Standards in the Making: A
Spiritual Portrait of one of the Westminster Divines, Stanley Gower”; David Gilbert
“The Westminster Standards and Public Worship”; Iain D. Campbell “The
Westminster Standards and Preaching”; Andrew Young “The Westminster Standards
and the Sacraments”; Chad Bailey “The Westminster Standards and Family
Worship”; Guy Prentiss Waters “The Westminster Standards and Church
In answer to the their relevance and usability. This new production will hopefully
dispel all questions. A local proverb in Yorkshire is “once tasted, never forgotten”. We
pray and look to the Lord for the wider use of the Westminster Standards in the years
ahead. If this project and production can stimulate a recovery of biblical doctrines for
preaching, the right administration of the sacraments, prayer, church government,
public and family worship, then much progress will ensue for the gospel and the
glory of God.
Kevin J. Bidwell is the minister of Sheffield Presbyterian Church (EPCEW). He is
married to a Dutch wife Maria and they have two daughters.
Our church website is www.sheffieldpres.org.uk