Wesley’s Revision of The Shorter Catechism, Part 1: “The chief end of man”

November 8, 2016

jwc_the_shorter_catechism_front_cvr_smWhile I was in Chicago last month at the inaugural Wesleyan Covenant Association meeting, I browsed a vendor’s table set up by Seedbed, the publishing arm of Asbury Seminary, Methodism’s premier orthodox, evangelical seminary. An attractive series of paperbacks caught my eye: “The John Wesley Collection.” They include essential writings of John Wesley, alongside Wesley’s revisions of other writings that he believed would edify fellow Methodists.

One of these books, which I purchased, was Wesley’s Revision of The Shorter Catechism, literally a revision of the Westminster Shorter Catechism of 1648. As far as I knew from my unorthodox, un-evangelical mainline Protestant seminary education, the Westminster Catechism wasn’t for us Wesleyan Arminians; it was for the Reformed—Presbyterians and the like.

I never knew, prior to purchasing this book, that Wesley had any use for it.

In fact, after revising or omitting articles dealing with the “decrees of God,” sanctification, and the Calvinist understanding of predestination, Wesley recommended its use for Methodist catechumens. (Please note: in spite of his revisions, he left the vast majority of its articles unchanged.)

The book contains not only the catechism with Wesley’s revisions and scripture proof-texts, but also James A. Macdonald’s century-old commentary on it. Without this commentary, of course, the revision would hardly be book-length!

All that to say, starting today, I’m going to begin a new series of blog posts on this book. So let me begin at the beginning:

Question 1. What is the chief end of man?

Answer. Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.

Wesley’s proof-texts in the margin are 1 Corinthians 10:31, Romans 11:36, and Psalm 73:25-28.

Out of the gate, these words challenge and convict me. Not only are we to glorify God, this is the main thing that we human beings are supposed to do. God has created us to give him glory.

We can glorify God whether we think about doing so or not, which is good because—in my experience as a Methodist—most of us spend little time thinking about it. Why?

I wonder if it’s not because of a “stumbling block” to the doctrine that C.S. Lewis discusses in his book Reflections on the Psalms:

We all despise the man who demands continued assurance of his own virtue, intelligence or delightfulness; we despise still more the crowd of people round every dictator, every millionaire, every celebrity, who gratify that demand. Thus a picture, at once ludicrous and horrible, both of God and of His worshippers, threatened to appear in my mind. The Psalms were especially troublesome in this way—”Praise the Lord,” “O praise the Lord with me,” “Praise Him.” (And why, incidentally, did praising God so often consist in telling other people to praise Him?…)[1]

You get the idea: If God were as “virtuous” as we are, he wouldn’t need us to glorify him. And thus—as we too often do with doctrines related to God’s wrath, blood atonement, and hell—we allow ourselves to feel, however faintly, morally superior to the biblical authors.

Of course, unlike any tin-pot dictator, God is the one object that perfectly deserves all of our praise all the time. He doesn’t need it, but we need to do it—for the same reason, Lewis says, that we need to praise a great work of art, only infinitely more so:

The sense in which the picture “deserves” or “demands” admiration is rather like this; that admiration is the correct, adequate or appropriate, response to it, that if paid, admiration will not be “thrown away,” and that if we do not admire we shall be stupid, insensible, and great losers, we shall have missed something… He is that Object to admire which (or, if you like, to appreciate which) is simply to be awake, to have entered the real world; not to appreciate which is to have lost the greatest experience, and in the end to have lost all…

The world rings with praise—lovers praising their mistresses, readers their favorite poet, walkers praising the countryside, players praising their favourite game—praise of weather, wines, dishes, actors, motors, horses, colleges, countries, historical personages, children, flowers, mountains, rare stamps, rare beetles, even sometimes politicians or scholars.[2]

Nothing brings us greater delight than to praise what we enjoy. To praise is to “complete” the enjoyment; it is, Lewis writes, “its appointed consummation.”

If this is true of everything that is less than God, how much more true is it of God? Lewis even refers to the catechism:

The Scotch catechism says that man’s chief end is “to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” But we shall then know that these are the same thing. Fully to enjoy is to glorify. In commanding us to glorify Him, God is inviting us to enjoy Him.[3]

Not being an expert on or “fanboy” of John Piper (although I admire him, Calvinist or not, as one of his generation’s most gifted preachers), I suspect this idea is at the heart of his famous maxim, “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.”

If the first article of the Shorter Catechism is true, so is Piper’s maxim. Here’s one Methodist pastor who isn’t ashamed to say so.

James Macdonald’s commentary also relates our Wesleyan understanding of sanctification and perfection to this article. I’ll say more about that in a future post.

In the meantime, ask yourself these questions: “Do I enjoy God? If so, when? Is the enjoyment of God a priority in my life? Why or why not?”

1. C.S. Lewis, “Reflections on the Psalms” in The Inspirational Writings of C.S. Lewis (New York: Inspirational Press, 1986), 177.

2. Ibid., 178-9.

3. Ibid., 180.

2 Responses to “Wesley’s Revision of The Shorter Catechism, Part 1: “The chief end of man””

  1. betsypc Says:

    Good for you for expanding your horizons about Wesley! As American Methodists, we have such an incomplete understanding of who he was and what he really did! You really ought to give the Heidelberg Catechism a try also. Just like the Westminister Shorter Catechism, way more of it falls in line with Wesleyan thought than does not. There are also three very modern books about it; my favorite being “Body & Soul” by M. Craig Barnes. Barnes is a current Presbyterian (USA) pastor out of a non-denominational background and also a closet Wesleyan. A close second is “The Good News We Almost Forgot” because Kevin DeYoung talks about Christianity in such a passionate, yet refreshingly modern way without losing one bit of the WOW Factor!


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