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Westminster Shorter Catechism Project

A Commentary
on the
Shorter Catechism

Alexander Whyte

Q. 3. What do the scriptures principally teach?
A. The scriptures principally teach what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man.What rule hath God given to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him?

The two first Questions in the Catechism are introductory to the body of the work, as has already been pointed out. And the whole superstructure is exhibited in outline in the present Answer: "what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man." The Questions from 4 to 38 inclusive, then deal, broadly speaking, with matters of faith (theology), and the Questions from 39 to the end of the work treat principally of duty (morals). These two great divisions contain their own respective subdivisions, which will be indicated as we meet with them.

principally—There is a great variety of matters treated of in the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments; but, as this qualifying word points out, their principal intention is to teach "what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man." Man's chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him for ever, and the Scriptures principally teach him how he is to do so. There are incidental, occasional, and subordinate ends that both man and Scripture serve, but their chief and principal end is set forth clearly and correctly in the Catechism. "Although the Scripture of God, therefore, be stored with infinite variety of matter in all kinds, although it abound with all sorts of laws, yet the principal intent of Scripture is to deliver the laws of duties supernatural. . . The several books of Scripture having each had some several occasion and particular purpose which caused them to be written, the contents thereof are according to the exigence of that special end whereunto they are intended. Hereupon it groweth that every book of Holy Scripture doth take out of all kinds of truth—natural (Ephesians 5:29), historical (2 Timothy 3:8), foreign (Titus 1:12), supernatural (2 Peter 2:4)—so much as the matter handled requireth" (Hooker). "It is here intimated that the sacred writings teach some things beside what we are to believe concerning God, and what we are to consider as our duty to Him. The Bible contains a good deal of biography and history, and many genealogies; and all that it contains is unmixed verity, and none of it is without its use. But the word we consider intimates, and the fact is unquestionably so, that some parts of the Scripture are much more important than others. The most important, that is, the principal parts, are those which teach us faith and practice" (Dr. Ashbel Green's Lectures). "Although all Scripture is the word of God, and consequently all equally true, and no part of it undeserving our notice, yet all things in it are not equally important, nor equally connected with eternal salvation. Those things which man is bound to believe and do, as necessary to salvation, are the things which the Scriptures principally teach" (Paterson). to believe concerning God—Belief is the assent of the mind to what is told us on competent and credible authority. We are said to believe when we are convinced of a fact without our having had immediate and personal knowledge of it. Belief and faith are precisely the same state of mind ; the thing is the same, though the names are different. Divines distinguish human faith and divine faith, meaning thereby faith resting on the testimony of man, and faith reposing on the word of God. The latter is the faith or belief of the text. For the broadest and most general description and illustration of divine faith, see Hebrews 11; Pearson, Art. I.; and Grammar of Assent, chap. v.; and for a theological definition of that particular exercise of faith which justifies the sinner in the sight of God, see Questions 33 and 86.

"Canst thou by reason more of Godhead know Than Plutarch, Seneca, and Cicero?"
duty—That which we ought to do; that which we are under an obligation to do. We are so constituted in our creation, that when we see anything to be right, we cannot but feel it is our duty to do it. "An orthodox faith and an obedient life is the whole duty of man."

1. "The general design of Scripture, considered as historical, may be said to be, to give an account of the world, in this single view as God's world; by which it appears essentially distinguished from all other books, so far as I have found, except such as are copied from it" (Butler).

2. "Search the Scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me" (John 5:39).

3. 2 Timothy 3:14-17.


1. The three first Answers in the Catechism are introductory. Characterize their contents, and distribute the body of the work according to the division supplied in Answer 3.

2. "Among them all, none excel this little Catechism of the Assembly for orthodoxy, fulness, and method" (Flavel). Exhibit its excellent method.

3. Study Cruden's analysis of Belief.

4. Explain Hooker's words: natural, historical, foreign, supernatural, quoted above, and connect them with his texts.

5. Explain this saying, also of the same writer: The Scripture is fraught with laws of nature.

6. Expand and illustrate Wordsworth's line:

The primal duties shine aloft like stars.

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