January 5: The Sum of Saving Knowledge

In most of the older editions of the Westminster Standards, particularly those printed in Scotland, there are several additional documents bound in the volume with the Standards. It might be safe to say that chief among these is the brief treatise titled “The Sum of Saving Knowledge. If you are not familiar with it, let me urge you to locate a copy in print or on the Internet. It will make for good and profitable reading.

The week-day catechising that at one period formed so important a part of pastoral work in the Church of Scotland, were not restricted to children.[1] What the object of these catechisings was may be inferred from the tenor of an act of Assembly passed in 1639, which ordained that every minister, besides his pains on the Lord’s day, should have weekly catechising of some part of the parish,[2] and not altogether put off the examination of the people till a little before the communion. Ten years later this act was specially renewed, and a clause was added to it directing “every minister so to order his catechetic questions as thereby the people who do not convene all at one time but by turns unto that exercise, may at every diet [i.e., meeting] have the chief heads of saving knowledge in a short view presented unto them.[3] The carrying out of the Act of 1639 was in some places thought at first rather grievous. At a Presbyterial visitation of the old town kirk of Aberdeen in 1642, it was ordained in terms of the Act of Assembly, says

[1] In 1570 the General Assembly ordained that “ministers and elders of kirks shall universally within this realm take trial and examine all young children within their Parochines that are come to nine years, and that for the first time, thereafter when they are come to twelve years for the second time, the third time to be examined when they are of fourteen years, wherethrough it may be known what they have profited in the school of Christ from time to time.”

[2] The Kirk Session of Galston lost no time in putting that Act into execution. In 1639 they “concludit that there be examination throw the Paroche ane day in ye weik quhilk is to be keipit on Fryday.”

[3] “The chief heads of saving knowledge.” Along with the Confession of Faith, Catechisms, &c., there is generally bound up a small treatise called “the sum of saving knowledge.” How that treatise should have found its way into what may be termed a collection of the Church’s standards in doctrine, worship, and government, is a mystery. The extraordinary estimation in which it was long held is probably the only explanation. It was the joint production of Mr. David Dickson and Mr. James Durham, and, says Wodrow, it was by them “dictated to a reverend minister [who informed me] about the year 1650. It was the deed of these two great men, and though never judicially approved by this Church, deserves to be much more read and considered than I fear it is.”
Preface to Truth’s Victory Over Error, signed by R.W., in Eastwood, January 5, 1726.

[excerpted from Old Church Life in Scotland : Lectures on Kirk-Session and Presbytery Records , by Andrew Edgar (1885), page 93.]



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