450th Anniversary of The Heidelberg Catechism: A Reformed Classic by Dr. Don Sweeting

by Dr. Don Sweeting
President RTS Orlando and James Woodrow Hassell Professor Church History

This month, (January 19th) is the 450th anniversary of the Heidelberg Catechism.  Are you familiar with this devotional and theological treasure? It originated in one of the few pockets of Calvinistic faith in the Catholic and Lutheran territories of Germany, after the city of Heidelberg came over to Protestantism under its prince, Frederick, II, in 1545. Like other catechisms (question and answer teaching tools), it was written for three purposes. 

First, it was to be a guide for the religious instruction of young people. The 129 question and answers are set forth to give a basic overview of the Christian faith. Like other catechisms, it followed an outline of the Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer, explicitly unfolding their meaning from a Biblical and Protestant perspective. But unlike Lutheran catechisms, which put the Ten Commandments before the creed (to emphasize how the law drives sinners to Christ), the Heidelberg Catechism put it after the creed, to stress the law as part of a Christian’s joyful service to Christ. Second, it was to provide a usable confession for Sundays. Shortly after it was published, the Heidelberg catechism was divided into 52 sections so that it could be explained in church every Sunday of the year. In this way, a congregation received a simple yet systematic exposure to theology as well as Scripture. Third, and perhaps least appreciated, the Heidelberg Catechism was written to ease tensions in the region between Lutherans and Reformed Christians over the meaning of communion.

In 1560, a Lutheran pastor and Calvinist deacon exchanged heated polemics in front of the city assembly. Many were drawing lines in the sand. Elector Frederick III, ruler of the most influential German province called the Palatinate, and a pious Christian prince, was concerned about the conflict. Wishing to put an end to the dispute, he called on two young men to prepare a fresh confession of faith that would provide a basis for focus and peace between both sides. He commissioned Zacharius Ursinus (age 28), professor of theology at Heidelberg University, and Casper Olevianus (age 26), Frederick’s court preacher, to prepare a new catechism. He wanted to draw up a statement of faith that would both instruct ordinary people in the fundamentals of the faith, and that would combine the best of Lutheran and Reformed wisdom.

The completed work was adopted by a synod of Heidelberg and published in German on January 19. 1563. In the preface, Frederick III wrote that he secured the preparation for the catechism “with the advice and cooperation of our entire theological faculty in this place, and of all superintendents and distinguished servants of the church.” Not long after, a second and third German edition was published with small additions.  Sometime later it was approved as a doctrinal standard for Dutch Protestants in the Netherlands.

What is unique about the Heidelberg Catechism is its warm and personal tone. Church historian Philip Schaff said it was “a product of the heart as well as the head.” It presents pastoral guidance that is robustly theological. Unlike some other confessions of the period, it is nearly devoid of polemics.  Its tone is irenic. Consider how it begins.  The Westminster Shorter Catechism begins with a memorable- first question and answer—“what is the chief end of man?” (“The Chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”)   

With a little more length, the Heidelberg Catechism also begins with the memorable first question and answer: What is your only comfort in life and in death?  

Answer: That I am not my own, but belong— body and soul, in life and in death to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation. Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.

Then there is the realism, comfort and hope of Question 2:  What must you know to live and die in the joy of this comfort?

Answer: Three things: first, how great my sin and misery are; second, how I am set free from all my sins and misery; third, how I am to thank God for such deliverance.

The Heidelberg Catechism, with its talk of “sin and misery,” has a stark honesty about our human condition. It speaks forthrightly of our “natural tendency to hate God and my neighbor” because the fall has “poisoned our nature” (Question 7). It also speaks boldly about God’s justice and judgment, and yet gratefully and with relief about his grace. Question 56: What do you believe concerning the forgiveness of sins?

Answer: I believe that God, because of Christ’s satisfaction, will no longer remember any of my sins or my sinful nature which I need to struggle against all my life. Rather, by grace God grants me the righteousness of Christ to free me forever from judgment.

There is a constant note of joy in this catechism.  It speaks of our new life as one of “wholehearted joy in God through Christ.”   The Lord’s Supper is a meal that “so surely nourishes and refreshes my soul.” Even the Sabbath is referred to as a “festive day of rest.” Question 58: How does the article concerning life everlasting comfort you?

Answer: Even as I already now experience in my heart the beginning of eternal joy, so after this life I will have perfect blessedness such as no eye has seen, no ear has heard, no human heart has ever imagined: a blessedness in which to praise God forever.

It speaks of providence, not as a ponderous or threatening mystery, but as a doctrine that is an essential part of the Christian’s confident trust in the Lord. Question 28: What advantage is it to us to know that God has created, and by his providence does still uphold all things?

Answer: That we may be patient in adversity; thankful in prosperity; and that in all things, which may hereafter befall us, we place our firm trust in our faithful God and Father, that nothing shall separate us from his love; since all creatures are so in his hand, that without his will they cannot so much as move.

For a good book on other confessions and catechisms of the Reformation, see Mark. A. Noll’s Confessions and Catechisms, (Baker, 1991).  And for a good recent exposition of the Heidelberg Catechism, see Kevin DeYoung’s, The Good News We Almost Forgot: Rediscovering the Gospel in a 16th Century Catechism (Moody, 2010).

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