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Jonathan Master (PhD, University of Aberdeen) is professor of theology and dean of the School of Divinity at Cairn University. He is also director of Cairn’s Center for University Studies. Dr. Master serves as executive editor of Place for Truth and is co-chair of the Princeton Regional Conference on Reformed Theology.

Article by Dustyn Eudaly

Catechizing: Belief and Duty

November 10, 2015 •

Sometimes Question 3 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism— “What do the Scriptures principally teach? The Scriptures principally teach what man is to believe concerning God and what duty God requireth of man”— is accused of cutting against the “Christ-centered” read of the Scriptures which the Reformed tradition holds dear, and which the Westminster Standards as a whole obviously promote. As but one “in-house” for instance, often the first question of the Heidelberg Catechism (a masterpiece I leave readers to probe for themselves) is declared a better starting point because of its explicit Christ-centeredness. Such claimants would not deny that the Bible teaches a sound doctrine of God (e.g., WSC Qs. 1, 3-11), without which a “Christ-centered” reading of the Scriptures is rendered meaningless because it is severed from the divine anchor-point which alone gives the Scriptures authority and meaning. And surely they would not dispute that the Bible requires “duty” of mankind toward God. E.g., Genesis 2- the biblical “duty” par excellence, “the covenant of works” (cf. WSC Qs. 12-15).

But granting those basic agreements, the question remains: Could the divines have offered a “warmer” introduction-summary regarding the Bible’s contents? Let us remember at the outset that just as with Scripture, so too with the WSC, every text has a context. After establishing the doctrine of God, creation, the covenant of works, the Fall, the Person and Work of Christ and a summary ordo salutis in Qs. 1-38, the divines then provided a lengthy section on the law of God. That word “duty” of Q. 3 reappears in question Q. 39: “What is the duty which God requireth of man? The duty which God requireth of man is obedience to his revealed will,” a “revealed will” which was first given to man in the form of “the moral law” (Q. 40), a “moral law” which is “summarily comprehended in the ten commandments” (Q.41). For the divines, “duty required” = “obedience to [God’s] revealed will” which is  basically equivalent to “moral law” which is basically equivalent to “the ten commandments.” After establishing these connections (which, incidentally, seem to argue for the moral law as a constant in God’s world just because of who God is as Creator; cf. 12, 14; WCF 19:5), the divines offered a probing exposition of the ten commandments (Qs. 41-81). Then the perceptive Q. 82: “Is any man able perfectly to keep the commandments [think ‘moral law’; ‘duty’] of God? No mere man since the fall is able in this life perfectly to keep the commandments of God, but doth daily break them in thought, word and deed” (N.B. “perfectly” cf. Q. 12 wherein “perfect obedience” is said to have been required of man in the “covenant of life”). Further, “every sin”, said the divines (sin defined as “want of conformity to or transgression of the law of God”, Q. 14), “deserveth God's wrath and curse, both in this life, and that which is to come” (Q. 84), God’s wrath and curse which call to mind Q. 4, a summary of the character of God which man was commanded to believe in Q. 3.

Returning to our point of departure, I trust something is becoming clear. The divines, far from suggesting that mankind flourishes before God simply by believing true things about God (credenda) and then behaving “dutifully” before him (agenda), actually encapsulated the problem that post-Fall man faces before God in their summary word, thereby paving the way for their explicitly redemptive, Christ-centered understanding of the Scriptures. True, Q. 82, “No mere man since the fall is able in this life perfectly to keep the commandments of God…” but equally true, or we might say superaboundingly true, is Q. 21, that “the only redeemer of God's elect,” “the Lord Jesus Christ,” “being the eternal Son of God, became man…” and thereby accomplished salvation for his people in his obedience (Q. 27- “made under the law”) culminating in his divine wrath-quenching death and subsequent resurrection for their sins (see Qs. 27-28; cf. 23-26). Just as all man “sinned in [Adam], and fell with him in his first transgression” (Q. 16), “[t]o escape the wrath and curse of God due to us for sin, God requireth of us faith [belief!] in Jesus Christ…” (Q. 85). We might add that the divines did accent ongoing, obligatory “obedience” (duty!) to God on the part of believers, but they saw even such obedience as Christ-centered to the core (ala Q. 87).

In sum, we do not accurately portray the Westminster divines if we suggest they promoted an “abstract,” “doctrinaire” religion any more than we do Zacharius Ursinus (the primary author of the Heidelberg) in suggesting incipient Christo-monism regarding his view of the Christian life. Some may prefer the Heidelberg to the WSC, and vice versa; well and good. But I trust we can recognize that in such preferences we are, in the best sense, choosing between close “Christ-centered” friends (friends with one another and hopefully with us as well). In fact, we can say that, just as with human relationships, a compliment of one comrade need not come at the expense of another, equally valuable in his own right.

Dustyn Eudaly is a minister in the PCA and served as Associate Pastor of Holy Trinity Presbyterian Church in Tampa, FL from 2002-2014.  After receiving his MDiv from Westminster Theological Seminary in 2002, he returned in 2014 as PhD student in Old Testament.  Dustyn resides in Glenside, PA with his family.

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