Thomas Watson’s book, A Body of Divinity, systematically follows the majority of the Westminster Shorter Catechism as a wonderful tool for understanding and taking to heart the fundamental truths of the Christian faith. His method is to take a certain doctrine, e.g. original sin and its corresponding question (16) from the Catechism, define it, show its presence in our lives as Christians, answer difficult questions about the doctrine, and then finally discuss the uses of the doctrine in our lives. As I read this book, I was greatly convicted, enlightened, exhorted, and encouraged by Watson. While the book is primarily known as a systematic and practical theology on the Westminster Shorter Catechism, Watson introduces the work by giving a discourse on the use of catechizing. Watson’s view on the subject is thus: “Catechizing is the best expedient for the grounding and settling of people” (Watson 5). This essay will delve into the exact reasons why Watson wants to catechize his flock as well as whether or not it is needed in this day and age.
His design for the introduction is to show “how needful it is for Christians to be well instructed in the grounds of religion” (Watson 1). He bases his argument chiefly from Colossians 1:23 which states: “if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast (Watson’s translation read ‘grounded and settled’), not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister” (ESV). Thomas Watson makes two points of application from this verse. First he states, “[i]t is the duty of Christians to be well settled in doctrine of faith” (Watson 1). Secondly, “[t]he best way for Christians to be settled is to be well grounded” (Watson 1).
His first point is to encourage and exhort believers that they are to be rooted in their faith. By using 1 Peter 5:10, he argues that Peter was urging the brothers and sisters in the faith to “not be meteors in the air, but fixed stars” (Watson 1). A fixed star never wavers from its course and never becomes a falling star. By use of this metaphor, Watson shows that those who are “not settled in religion, will, at one time or another, prove wandering stars; they will lose their former steadfastness, and wander from one opinion to another” (Watson 1). He argues that the “great end of the word preached” is to “bring us to a settlement in religion” (Watson 2). He states that the “grand design of preaching [is] not only for the enlightening, but for the establishing of souls” (Watson 2). This is based from Ephesians 4:11, 12, and 14. He goes on to say that being established in the faith is the excellence and honor of a Christian, those who are not settled will never be persecuted, and more importantly that if you are not settled in the faith then you will never grow in the faith (Watson 2). Watson’s second point in this short treatise is to show that “the way for Christians to be settled is to be well grounded” (Watson 3).
To be grounded is to have a foundation that is well laid. Watson understands this and uses this example in his discourse. He urges that we must be grounded in what he calls “the fundamentals” i.e. theology (Watson 4). This idea is very sensible; if you wish to learn anything, whether mathematics or even a sport, you must learn the basic steps or rules in order to go forward or to excel in it. Watson uses this same reason in his book. He gives four reasons why learning the fundamentals is necessary. First, “we cannot serve God aright” or worship him properly until we understand how to serve God with a “reasonable service” (Romans 12:1). Furthermore, the “[k]nowledge of the grounds of religion much enriches the mind” (Watson 4). I whole heartily agree with Watson after having read his book. Reading about the attributes of God and his plan for redemption does greatly enrich and encourage the mind and soul. Such foundational principles also “furnishes us with armor of proof” just as Paul speaks of the armor of God in Ephesians. Finally, these fundamentals form within us “the seed of faith” which drives us to learn and study God more. He concludes his second point by using the analogy of a tree: if a tree is well rooted, it will be well settled or established (Watson 4). From Psalm 1 we read that those who are planted by streams of water have leaves that do not wither and “in all that he does, he prospers” (Ps 1:3). They are planted in the river of living water which comes from Jesus (John 4:13-14, Revelation 22:1-2).
Watson finally gives two reasons why pastors should catechize. Firstly, many people who drift off after every novel opinion or embrace manifold religions do so because they are ungrounded (Watson 5). Watson uses 2 Peter 3:16b to make his point: “There are some things in them [Paul’s letters] that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures”. Those who are described as “ignorant and unstable” are ignorant or unlearned in the fundamentals of the faith and are therefore “unstable”. Watson uses a biological example: “As the body cannot be strong as that has the sinews shrunk; so neither can that Christian be strong in religion who wants the grounds of knowledge, which [are] the sinews to strengthen and stable him” (Watson 5). Secondly, there is a great necessity to “laying down the main grounds of religion in a way of catechizing, that the weakest judgment may be instructed in the knowledge of the truth, and strengthened in the love of it. Catechizing is the best expedient for the grounding and settling of people” (Watson 5). He fears that preaching may not be enough to instruct and enlighten believers since “the chief heads and articles of religion have not been explained in a catechistical way” (Watson 5). Until that point, the primary doctrines of the Protestant faith (at least in English) had not been written down. Furthermore, he states that “to preach and not to catechize is to build without a foundation” (Watson 5). Preaching builds on the foundation laid by catechizing. Throughout church history, Christians have been “clearly instructed and wondrously built up in the Christian faith” through the use of a catechism (Watson 5).
One might pose the question: “should catechizing be used today?” The answer is most definitely yes! Once again I’ll echo the Watson’s opinion of using the catechism, “Catechizing is the best expedient for the grounding and settling of people” (Watson 5). But more importantly, it is something that is taught in Scripture. Not perhaps the direct form that we have from the 17th century, but there are some examples of Scripture where God exhorts his people to teach each other, especially the children, the law and the prophets. Consider Deuteronomy 5:31 wherein God tells Moses, “But you, stand here by me, and I will tell you the whole commandment and the statutes and the rules that you shall teach them, that they may do them in the land that I am giving them to possess.” His command is for a leader of the people, Moses, to hear the commandments of God so that Moses can teach them to the people that they may walk in holiness. In the next chapter, the command is given to the people of Israel to: “teach them [the commandments and statutes of God] diligently to your children, and … talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (Deuteronomy 6:7-9). Teaching the people from the youngest child to the eldest of the people is of great importance because right doctrine produces doxology and holy living. Moreover, Paul encourages teaching the doctrines of the faith to the churches: “Teach and urge these things” (1 Timothy 6: 2b). He warns about those who teach wrong doctrine in the following verse: “If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness, he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing” (1 Timothy 6:3-4a).
There are three reasons why catechizing is needed today. Firstly, the need for catechizing is just the same as it was in Watson’s day: there are so many things out in the world that would seek to pull us and shape our minds to their Godless contour. If our minds are not grounded in something solid like good theology, we will wander to and fro with many strange ideas. The second reason catechizing should be practiced in churches is that it is an easy way to memorize theology. You are able to pull from your own memory what you believe in a simple form and then should be able to explain it. Once I heard a professor of English wrongly define providence. Out came the catechism: “Q. 11. What are God’s works of providence? A. God’s works of providence are, his most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing all his creatures, and all their actions.” At that point I should have explained the doctrine in better detail but I had not the time. The catechism is fairly simple and is easy to remember. However, rote memorization will not produce a strong foundation. Teaching the doctrines behind the catechism, as found in Scripture, should be done throughout churches and households. The Westminster Shorter Catechism makes a great guideline for learning systematic theology. Thirdly, catechizing is a method that can be used in the church no matter what age group you have. While some children may not be able to tackle the Shorter Catechism, there are catechisms based on it that teach children the doctrines of the faith. They will be able to remember it for years and then apply it to their lives. Catechizing must go hand in hand with teaching of the doctrine. The catechism is merely a way of pulling out the doctrine in a simple manner but it needs to be taught for it to be applied as a strong foundation of our faith.
To conclude, Watson’s brief discourse on the need for catechizing was to show the church how great the need is for being well grounded in our faith. Just as Samuel J. Stone wrote of how “the church’s one foundation/is Jesus Christ her Lord,” so our lives need a solid foundation in order to “do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with [our] God” (Micah 6:8). That foundation is the sound doctrines found in Holy Scripture, the Word of God. Our forefathers, the Westminster Divines, wrote a systematic theology and catechism, per the recommendation of Parliament, for the consolidation of a confession of faith between the Episcopalian, Presbyterian, and Congregational churches throughout the British Isles. Watson’s book, A Body of Divinity, takes most of the Shorter Catechism and makes it into a very concise systematic theology that is very pastoral. He argues for the practice of catechizing in churches. His exhortation is just as needed today. Lest we be tossed about by every wind of doctrine, let us seek to “attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13-14). One of the best ways to grow in our knowledge of God is to catechize.