Calvin’s Geneva Catechism (1536-45)
Navigation Note: We've separated this document into 3 pages. The outline is duplicated on each page. This is Page 2.
[Go to Page 1]
Geneva Catechism Outline
Master - What is the rule of life which he has given us?
Student - His law.
Master - What does it contain?
Student - It consists of two parts; the former of which contains four commandments, the latter six. Thus the whole law consists of ten commandments in all
Master - Who is the author of this division?
Student - God himself; who delivered it to Moses written on two tables, and afterwards declared that it was reduced into ten sentences. (Ex. 24:12; 33:15; 34:1; Deut. 4:13; 10:4.)
Master - What is the subject of the first table?
Student - The offices of piety towards God.
Master - Of the second?
Student - How we are to act towards men, and what we owe them.
Master - Repeat the first commandment or head.
Student - Hear, 0 Israel, I am Jehovah thy God, who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage: thou shalt have no other gods before me.
Master - Now explain the meaning of the words.
Student - At first he makes a kind of preface to the whole law. For when he calls himself Jehovah, he claims right and authority to command. Then in order to procure favor for his law, he adds, that he is our God. These words have the same force as if he had called himself our Preserver. Now as he bestows this favor upon us, it is meet that we should in our turn show ourselves to be an obedient people.
Master - But does not what he immediately subjoins, as to deliverance and breaking the yoke of Egyptian bondage, apply specially to the people of Israel, and to them alone?
Student - I admit this as to the act itself; but there is another kind of deliverance which applies equally to all men. For he has delivered us all from the spiritual bondage of sin, and the tyranny of the devil.
Master - Why does he mention that matter in a preface to his law?
Student - To remind us that we will be guilty of the greatest ingratitude if we do not devote ourselves entirely to obedience to him.
Master - And what does he require under this first head?
Student - That we maintain his honor entire and for himself alone, not transferring any part of it elsewhere.
Master - What is the honor peculiar to him which it is unlawful to transfer elsewhere?
Student - To adore him, to put our confidence in him, to call upon him, in short to pay him all the deference suitable to his majesty.
Master - Why is the clause added, "Before my face ?"
Student - As nothing is so hidden as to escape him, and he is the discerner and judge of secret thoughts, it means that he requires not the honor of outward affection merely, but true heartfelt piety.
[Outline] [Top of Page]
Master - Let us pass to the second head.
Student - Thou shalt not sculpture to thyself the image, or form any of those things which are either in heaven above or on the earth beneath, or in the waters under the earth. Thou shalt not adore nor serve them.
Master - Does it entirely prohibit us from sculpturing or painting any resemblance?
Student - No; it only forbids us to make any resemblance’s for the sake of representing or worshipping God.
Master - Why is it unlawful to represent God by a visible shape?
Student - Because there is no resemblance between him who is an eternal Spirit and incomprehensible, and a corporeal, corruptible, and lifeless figure. (Deut. 4:15; Acts 17:29; Rom. 1:23.)
Master - You think then that an insult is offered to his majesty when he is represented in this way?
Student - Such is my belief.
Master - What kind of worship is here condemned?
Student - When we turn to a statue or image intending to pray, we prostrate ourselves before it: when we pay honor to it by the bending of our knees, or other signs, as if God were there representing himself to us.
Master - We are not to understand then that simply any kind of picture or sculpture is condemned by these words. We are only prohibited from making images for the purpose of seeking or worshipping God in them, or which is the same thing, for the purpose of worshipping them in honor of God, or abusing them in any way to superstition and idolatry.
Student - True.
Master - Now to what end shall we refer this head?
Student - As under the former head he declared that he alone should be worshipped and served, so he now shows what is the correct form of worship, that he may call us off from all superstition, and other vicious and carnal fictions.
Master - Let us proceed.
Student - He adds the sanction that he is Jehovah our God, a strong and jealous God, who avenges the iniquity of the fathers upon the children of them who hate him, even to the third and fourth generation.
Master - Why does he make mention of his strength?
Student - He thereby intimates that he has power enough to vindicate his glory.
Master - What does he intimate by the term jealousy?
Student - That he cannot bear an equal or associate. For as he has given himself to us out of his infinite goodness, so he would have us to be wholly his. And the chastity of our souls consists in being dedicated to him, and wholly cleaving to him, as on the other hand they are said to be polluted with idolatry, when they turn aside from him to superstition.
Master - In what sense is it said that he avenges the iniquity of fathers on children?
Student - To strike the more terror into us, he not only threatens to inflict punishment on those who offend him, but that their offspring also will be cursed.
Master - But is it consistent with the justice of God to punish any one for another’s fault?
Student - If we consider what the condition of mankind is, the question is answered. For by nature we are all liable to the curse, and we have nothing to complain of in God when he leaves us in this condition. Then as he demonstrates his love for the righteous, by blessing their posterity, so he executes his vengeance against the wicked, by depriving their children of this blessing.
Master - Go on.
Student - To allure us by attractive mildness, he promises that he will take pity on all who love him and observe his commands, to a thousand generations.
[Outline] [Top of Page]
Master - Does he mean that the innocence of a pious man will be the salvation of all his posterity, however wicked?
Student - Not at all, but that he will exercise his benignity to believers to such a degree, that for their sakes he will show himself benign also to their children, by not only giving them prosperity in regard to the present life, but also sanctifying their souls, so as to give them a place among his flock.
Master - But this does not always appear.
Student - I admit it. For as he reserves to himself liberty to show mercy when he pleases to the children of the ungodly, so he has not confined his favor to the children of believers as not to repudiate at pleasure those of them whom he will. (Rom. 9.) This, however, he so tempers as to show that his promise is not vain or fallacious.
Master - But why does he here say a thousand generations, whereas, in the case of punishment, he mentions only three or four?
Student - To intimate that he is more inclined to kindness and beneficence than to severity. This he also declares, when he says that he is ready to pardon, but slow to wrath. (Ex. 34:6; Ps. 103:8; 145:8.)
Master - Now for the third commandment.
Student - Thou shalt not take the name of Jehovah thy God in vain.
Master - What is the meaning?
Student - He forbids us to abuse the name of God, not only by perjury, but by swearing without necessity.
Master - Can the name of God be lawfully used in making oath?
Student - It may indeed, when used on a fit cause: first, in asserting the truth; and secondly, when the business is of such importance as to make it meet to swear, in maintaining mutual love and concord among men..
Master - But does it not go farther than to restrain oaths, by which the name of God is profaned, or his honor impaired?
Student - The mention of one species admonishes us in general, never to utter the name of God unless with fear and reverence, and for the purpose of honoring it. For while it is thrice holy, we ought to guard, by all means, against seeming to hold it in contempt, or giving others occasion to contemn.
Master - How is this to be done?
Student - By never speaking or thinking of God and his works without honor.
Master - What follows?
Student - A sanction, by which he declares that he shall not be guiltless who takes his name in vain.
Master - As he, in another place, declares that he will punish the transgressors of his law, what more is contained here?
Student - He hereby meant to intimate how much he values the glory of his name, and to make us more careful of it, when we see that vengeance is ready for any who may profane it.
Master - Let us come to the fourth commandment.
Student - Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labor, and do all thy work: But the seventh is the Sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maid-servant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day, and hallowed it.
[Outline] [Top of Page]
Master - Does he order us to labor on six days, that we may rest on the seventh ?
Student - Not absolutely; but allowing man six days for labor, he excepts the seventh, that it may be devoted to rest.
Master - Does he interdict us from all kind of labor?
Student - This commandment has a separate and peculiar reason. As the observance of rest is part of the old ceremonies, it was abolished by the advent of Christ.
Master - Do you mean that this commandment properly refers to the Jews, and was therefore merely temporary?
Student - I do, in as far as it is ceremonial.
Master - What then? Is there any thing under it beyond ceremony?
Student - It was given for three reasons.
Master - State them to me.
Student - To figure spiritual rest; for the preservation of ecclesiastical polity; and for the relief of slaves.
Master - What do you mean by spiritual rest?
Student - When we keep holiday from our own works, that God may perform his own works in us.
Master - What, moreover, is the method of thus keeping holiday?
Student - By crucifying our flesh,-that is, renouncing our own inclination, that we may be governed by the Spirit of God.
Master - Is it sufficient to do so on the seventh day?
Student - Nay, continually. After we have once begun, we must continue during the whole course of life.
Master - Why, then, is a certain day appointed to figure it?
Student - There is no necessity that the reality should agree with the figure in every respect, provided it be suitable in so far as is required for the purpose of figuring.
Master - But why is the seventh day prescribed rather than any other day?
Student - In Scripture the number seven implies perfection. It is, therefore, apt for denoting perpetuity. It, at the same time, indicates that this spiritual rest is only begun in this life, and will not be perfect until we depart from this world.
Master - But what is meant when the Lord exhorts us to rest by his own example?
Student - Having finished the creation of the world in six days, he dedicated the seventh to the contemplation of his works. The more strongly to stimulate us to this, he set before us his own example. For nothing is more desirable than to be formed after his image.
Master - But ought meditation on the works of God to be continual, or is it sufficient that one day out of seven be devoted to it?
Student - It becomes us to be daily exercised in it, but because of our weakness, one day is specially appointed. And this is the polity which I mentioned.
Master - What order, then, is to be observed on that day?
Student - That the people meet to hear the doctrine of Christ, to engage in public prayer, and make profession of their faith.
[Outline] [Top of Page]
Master - Now explain what you meant by saying that the Lord intended by this commandment to provide also for the relief of slaves.
Student - That some relaxation might be given to those under the power of others. Nay, this, too, tends to maintain a common polity. For when one day is devoted to rest, every one accustoms himself to labor during the other days.
Master - Let us now see how far this command has reference to us.
Student - In regard to the ceremony, I hold that it was abolished, as the reality existed in Christ. (Col. 2:17.)
Master - How?
Student - Because, by virtue of his death, our old man is crucified, and we are raised up to newness of life. (Rom. 6:6.)
Master - What of the commandment then remains for us?
Student - Not to neglect the holy ordinances which contribute to the spiritual polity of the Church; especially to frequent sacred assemblies, to hear the word of God, to celebrate the sacraments, and engage in the regular prayers, as enjoined.
Master - But does the figure give us nothing more?
Student - Yes, indeed. We must give heed to the thing meant by it; namely, that being engrafted into the body of Christ, and made his members, we cease from our own works, and so resign ourselves to the government of God.
Master - Let us pass to the second table.
Student - It begins, "Honor thy father and thy mother."
Master - What meaning do you give to the word "honor?"
Student - That children be, with modesty and humility, respectful and obedient to parents, serving them reverentially, helping them in necessity, and exerting their labor for them. For in these three branches is included the honor which is due to parents.
Master - Proceed.
Student - To the commandment the promise is added, "That thy days may be prolonged on the land which the Lord thy God will give thee."
Master - What is the meaning?
Student - That, by the blessing of God, long life will be given to those who pay due honor to parents.
Master - Seeing this life is so full of troubles, why does God promise the long continuance of it as a blessing?
Student - How great the miseries to which it is liable, yet there is a blessing from God upon believers, when he nourishes and preserves them here, were it only for this one reason, that it is a proof of his paternal favor.
Master - Does it follow conversely, that he who is snatched away from the world quickly, and before mature age, is cursed of God?
Student - By no means. Nay, rather it sometimes happens that the more a man is loved by God the more quickly is he removed out of this life.
Master - But in so acting, how does he fulfill his promise?
Student - Whatever earthly good God promises we must receive under this condition, viz., in so far as is expedient for the good and salvation of our soul. For the arrangement would be very absurd if the care of the soul did not always take precedence.
[Outline] [Top of Page]
Master - What of those who are contumacious to parents?
Student - They shall not only be punished at the last judgment, but here also God will take vengeance on their bodies, either by taking them hence in the middle of their days, or bringing them to an ignominious end, or in other manners.
Master - But does not the promise speak expressly of the land of Canaan?
Student - It does so in as far as regards the Israelites, but the term ought to have a wider and more extensive meaning to us. For seeing that the whole earth is the Lord’s, whatever be the region we inhabit he assigns it to us for a possession. (Ps, 24:1; 85:5; 115:16.)
Master - Is there nothing more of the commandment remaining?
Student - Though father and mother only are expressed, we must understand all who are over us, as the reason is the same.
Master - What is the reason?
Student - That the Lord has raised them to a high degree of honor; for there is no authority whether of parents, or princes, or rulers of any description, no power, no honor, but by the decree of God, because it so pleases him to order the world.
Master - Repeat the sixth commandment.
Student - Thou shalt not kill.
Master - Does it forbid nothing but the perpetration of murder?
Student - Yes, indeed. For seeing it is God who speaks, he here gives law not only to outward works, but also to the affections of the mind, and indeed to them chiefly.
Master - You seem to insinuate that there is some kind of secret murder from which God here recalls us.
Student - I do. For anger, and hatred, and any desire to hurt, is murder in the sight of God.
Master - Is it enough if we do not hate any one?
Student - By no means. Since the Lord, by condemning hatred and restraining us from any harm by which our neighbor may be injured, shows at the same time that he requires us to love all men from the heart, and study faithfully to defend and preserve them.
Master - Now for the seventh commandment.
Student - Thou shalt not commit adultery.
Master - Explain what the substance of it is.
Student - That all kinds of fornication are cursed in the sight of God, and therefore as we would not provoke the anger of God against us we must carefully abstain from it.
Master - Does it require nothing besides?
Student - Respect must always be had to the nature of the Law-giver, who, we have said, not only regards the outward act, but looks more to the affections of the mind.
Master - What more then does it comprehend?
Student - Inasmuch as both our bodies and our souls are temples of the Holy Spirit, (1 Cor. 3:16; 6:19,) we must observe a chaste purity with both, and accordingly be chaste not only by abstaining from outward flagitiousness, but also in heart, speech, bodily gesture, and action, (2 Cor. 6:16;) in short, our body must be free from all lasciviousness, our mind from all lust, and no part of us be polluted or defiled with unchastity.
[Outline] [Top of Page]
Master - Let us come to the eighth commandment.
Student - Thou shalt not steal.
Master - Does it only prohibit the thefts which are punished by human laws, or does it go farther?
Student - Under the name of theft, it comprehends all kinds of wicked acts of defrauding and circumventing by which we hunt after other men’s goods. Here, therefore, we are forbidden either to seize upon our neighbor’s goods by violence, or lay hands upon them by trick and cunning, or get possession of them by any other indirect means whatever.
Master - Is it enough to withhold your hand from the evil act, or is covetousness also here condemned?
Student - We must ever return to this-that the law given, being spiritual, intends to check not only outward thefts, but all counsels and wishes which incommode others in any way; and especially covetousness itself; that we may not long to enrich ourselves at the expense of our brethren.
Master - What then must be done to obey this commandment?
Student - We must endeavor to let every man have his own in safety.
Master - What is the ninth commandment?
Student - Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.
Master - Does it prohibit perjury in court only, or any kind of lying against our neighbors?
Student - Under one species the general doctrine is comprehended, that we are not to charge our neighbor falsely, nor by our evil speaking and detraction hurt his good name, or harm him in his goods.
Master - But why does it expressly mention public perjury?
Student - That it may inspire us with a greater abhorrence of this vice. For it insinuates that if a man accustom himself to evil speaking and calumny, the descent to perjury is rapid if an opportunity is given to defame his neighbor.
Master - Does it mean to keep us from evil speaking only, or also from false suspicion and unjust and uncharitable judgment?
Student - It here condemns both, according to the view already stated. For whatever it is wrong to do before men, it is wrong to wish before God.
Master - Explain then what it means in substance.
Student - It enjoins us not to think ill of our neighbors, or be prone to defame them, but in the spirit of kindness and impartiality to think well of them as far as the truth will permit, and study to preserve their reputation entire.
Master - Repeat the last commandment.
Student - Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his man-servant, nor his maid-servant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbor’s.
Master - Seeing that the whole law is spiritual, as you have so often said before, and the above commandments are set down not only to curb outward acts, but also correct the affections of the mind, what more is added here?
Student - The Lord meant to regulate and govern the will and affections by the other commandments, but here he imposes a law even on thoughts which carry some degree of covetousness along with them, and yet come not the length of a fixed purpose.
[Outline] [Top of Page]
Master - Do you say that the least degrees of covetousness which creep in upon believers and enter their minds are sins, even though they resist rather than assent?
Student - It is certainly clear that all evil thoughts, even though consent is not added, proceed from the depravity of our nature. But I only say this-that this commandment condemns vicious desires which tickle and solicit the heart of man, without however drawing him on to a firm and deliberate act of will.
Master - You understand then that the evil affections in which men acquiesce, and by which they allow themselves to be overcome, were prohibited before, but that the thing now required of us is such strict integrity that our hearts are not to admit any perverse desire by which they may be stimulated to sin?
Student - Exactly so.
Master - Can we now frame a short compendium of the whole law?
Student - Very easily, since we can reduce it to two heads. The former is to love God with all our heart, and soul; and strength-the latter, to love our neighbors as ourselves.
Master - What is comprehended under the love of God?
Student - To love him as God should be loved, that is, recognizing him as at once our Lord, and Father, and Preserver. Accordingly, to the love of God is joined reverence for him, a willingness to obey him, trust to be placed in him.
Master - What do you understand by the whole heart, the whole soul, and the whole strength?
Student - Such vehemence of zeal, that there be no place at all in us for any thoughts, desires, or pursuits, adverse to this love.
Master - What is the meaning of the second head?
Student - As we are by nature so prone to love ourselves, that this feeling overcomes all others, so love to our neighbor ought to be so dominant in us as to govern us in every respect, and be the rule of all our purposes and actions.
Master - What do you understand by the term neighbor?
Student - Not only kindred and friends, or those connected with us by any necessary tie, but also those who are unknown to us, and even enemies.
Master - But what connection have they with us?
Student - They are connected by that tie by which God bound the whole human race together. This tie is sacred and inviolable, and no man’s depravity can abolish it.
Master - You say, then, that if any man hate us, the blame is his own, and yet he is nevertheless our neighbour, and as such is to be regarded by us, because the divine arrangement by which this connection between us was ratified stands inviolable?
Student - It is so.
Master - Seeing that the law of God points out the form of duly worshipping him, must we not live according to its direction?
Student - We must indeed. But we all labor under infirmity, owing to which no man fulfils, in every respect, what he ought.
Master - Why then does God require a perfection which is beyond our ability?
Student - He requires nothing which we are not bound to perform. But provided we strive after that form of living which is here prescribed, although we be wide of the mark, that is, of perfection, the Lord forgives us what is wanting.
[Outline] [Top of Page]
Master - Do you speak of all men in general, or of believers only?
Student - He who is not yet regenerated by the Spirit of God, is not fit to begin the least iota of the law. Besides, even were we to grant that any one is found to obey the law in any respect, we do not think that he has performed his part before God. For the law pronounces all cursed who have not fulfilled all the things contained in it. (Deut. 27:26; Gal. 3:10.)
Master - Hence we must conclude, that as there are two classes of men, so the office of the law is twofold?
Student - Exactly. For among unbelievers it does nothing more than shut them out from all excuse before God. And this is what Paul means when he calls it the ministry of death and condemnation. In regard to believers it has a very different use. (Rom. 1:32; 2 Cor. 3:6.)
Master - What?
Student - First, while they learn from it that they cannot obtain righteousness by works, they are trained to humility, which is the true preparation for seeking salvation in Christ. Secondly, inasmuch as it requires of them much more than they are able to perform, it urges them to seek strength from the Lord, and at the same time reminds them of their perpetual guilt, that they may not presume to be proud. Lastly, it is a kind of curb, by which they are kept in the fear of the Lord. (Rom. 3:20; Gal. 2:16; 3:11; 4:5.)
Master - Therefore, although in this earthly pilgrimage we never satisfy the law, we cannot judge that it is superfluous to require this strict perfection from us. For it shows the mark at which we ought to aim, the goal towards which we ought to press, that each of us, according to the measure of grace bestowed upon him, may endeavor to frame his life according to the highest rectitude, and, by constant study, continually advance more and more.
Student - That is my view.
Master - Have we not a perfect rule of righteousness in the law?
Student - So much so, that God wishes nothing else from us than to follow it; and, on the other hand, repudiates and holds void whatever we undertake beyond its prescription. For the only sacrifice which he accepts is obedience. (1 Sam. 15:22.)
Master - To what end, then, the many admonitions, precepts, exhortations, which both Prophets and Apostles are continually employing? (Jer. 7:12.)
Student - They are nothing but mere expositions of the law, which lead us by the hand to the obedience of the law, rather than lead us away from it.
Master - But he gives no command concerning the private case of each individual?
Student - When he orders us to render to every one his due, it is obvious to infer what the private part of each is in his own order and condition of life, and expositions of particular precepts, as has been said, he scattered throughout Scripture. For what the Lord has summarily comprised here in a few words, is given with more fullness and detail elsewhere.
[Outline] [Top of Page] [Go to Page 3]