Of all the 16th-century confessions and catechisms, the Heidelberg Catechism is still the most widely used and the most beloved.
Mention the ‘Heidelberger’ to any old ‘Dutch Reformed’ believer and usually the reaction you get is a smile and a warmed heart. Even those from different strands of the Reformed faith often wallow in the literary and theological genius of Question and Answer 1 of the Catechism:
Q: What is your only comfort in life and in death?
A: That I, with body and soul, both in life and in death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ, who with his precious blood has fully satisfied for all my sins, and redeemed me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, that all things must work together for my salvation. Wherefore, by his Holy Spirit, he also assures me of eternal life, and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live unto him.
What is so memorable about this catechism as we celebrate the 450th anniversary of its publication this year?
In the middle of the 16th century, the Reformation reached the Palatinate, a large province in the South of Germany. Soon strife broke out among the different Protestant streams — those who considered themselves the only true successors of Martin Luther (the ‘Gnesio-Lutherans’), those who were followers of the more moderate Philip Melanchthon (the ‘Philippists’) and those who were influenced by Calvin‘s Geneva and it‘s theology and practices (the ‘Calvinists’).
In 1559, Frederick III became elector (ruler) of the Palatinate and was therefore one of seven responsible for calling the Holy Roman Emperor. Initially not very pious, he was won over to the Reformation faith by his wife, a devout Lutheran. When he commenced his reign, he sought both the political and spiritual welfare of his subjects. And he did so by seeking to unite the Protestant parties by way of a powerful common confession of faith — the Catechism, which he commissioned in 1562.
In the Preface to the catechism (later known as the ‘Heidelberg Catechism’), he writes that he is ‘bound by the admonition of the divine word, and also by natural duty and relation’ and therefore has ‘determined to order and administer our office, calling, and government, not only for the promotion and maintenance of quiet and peaceable living, and for the support of an upright and virtuous walk and behaviour among our subjects, but also and above all, constantly to admonish and lead them to devout knowledge and fear of the Almighty and his holy word of salvation’.
By the time he commissioned the catechism, Frederick III was a deeply godly man. This gained him the name Frederick ‘the Pious’. He was concerned for the spiritual condition of his subjects. During the many theological debates in Heidelberg and elsewhere during the 1550s and 60s, Frederick was eventually — to the disapproval of his still Lutheran wife — convinced of a Reformed view of the Lord‘s Supper and other core doctrines. Thus he started his reform movement by drafting Reformed theologians to serve as professors at the influential university in Heidelberg. Two of the most gifted pastors and theologians were Zacharius Ursinus (1534Ð1583) and Caspar Olevianus (1536Ð1587). Especially Ursinus had already written catechetical works, such as a larger catechism for theology students and a shorter catechism for the laity. In 1562, then, Frederick gathered a team of theologians and pastors to produce a new catechism that would serve as ‘a summary course of instruction or catechism of our Christian religion, according to the word of God, in the German and Latin languages; in order not only that the youth in churches and schools may be piously instructed in such Christian doctrine, and be thoroughly trained therein, but also that the pastors and schoolmasters themselves may be provided with a fixed form and model by which to regulate the instruction of youth, and not, at their option, adopt daily changes, or introduce erroneous doctrine’ (Preface of 1563).
The message of the Heidelberg Catechism is foremost a message of comfort. In a time of political and spiritual unrest and of death being ubiquitous, comfort is what people needed. However, the Heidelberg Catechism is by no means man-centred. Rather, anyone who studies it will readily see what is meant by that comfort — nothing but the gospel.
Already, Q. 1 talks about the misery of sin, the redemption that is in Christ and the resulting walk of holiness and obedience. Q. 2 makes this even more explicit:
Q: How many things are necessary for you to know, that in this comfort you may live and die happily?
A: Three things: First, the greatness of my sin and misery. Second, how I am redeemed from all my sins and misery. Third, how I am to be thankful to God for such redemption.
It is this starting point — the misery of our sinfulness and lost estate (part 1 of the Catechism) — that makes us long for a true, biblical comfort, the comfort of the gospel (part 2). The faith the Heidelberg Catechism expounds is not an esoteric faith. Not once are the words ‘Reformed’ or ‘Calvinistic’ mentioned. It is, rather, ‘our catholic, undoubted Christian faith’ (Q. 22). True faith is defined as ‘not only a sure knowledge whereby I hold for truth all that God has revealed to us in his Word, but also a hearty trust, which the Holy Spirit works in me by the Gospel, that not only to others, but to me also, forgiveness of sins, everlasting righteousness, and salvation are freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits’ (Q. 21).
The content of that faith, i.e. the gospel, is then expounded in the shape of the Apostle‘s Creed (Questions 23-58). The gist of this exposition is that if I believe all this, I am justified before God (Q. 59). The following Question 60 must be counted as a gem of Christian doctrine among the confessions of the Christian church:
Q: How are you righteous before God?
A: Only by true faith in Jesus Christ: that is, although my conscience accuses me, that I have grievously sinned against all the commandments of God, and have never kept any of them, and am still prone always to all evil; yet God, without any merit of mine, of mere grace, grants and imputes to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ, as if I had never committed nor had any sins, and had myself accomplished all the obedience which Christ has fulfilled for me; if only I accept such benefit with a believing heart.
Its total view of the Christian life
I have already pointed out the intuitive and biblical structure of the Catechism, sometimes summarised according to its three parts: guilt, grace, and gratitude. What is intriguing about the structure of the catechism at this point is that it reflects a certain view of the total Christian life. The three-part structure of the Catechism is less a ‘pattern of conversion’ — realising your sin once, coming to Christ initially and decisively, and following Christ — than it is a pattern of the entire Christian life.
The Christian knows all parts of the Catechism and experiences all of them continuously. The mirror of the law that drives him to Christ, the gospel in all its glory and grace, and the obedient life that flows from it.
It is worth noting that the Heidelberg Catechism places the discussion of the law under the heading of part 3 — gratitude! Thus, it is clear from the outset that obeying God‘s law is not and can never be a way to Christ, but rather is the fruit of belonging to Christ by faith alone.
Personal pronouns are employed throughout the Catechism. They serve to build up the personal faith and assurance of God’s people. Christ not only delivers sinners (through faith) in general, he has delivered me from my sin with his precious blood.
Sometimes people wonder if the Heidelberg Catechism is still answering the questions that people are asking. I, for one, am convinced that it does — and if it does not, then people may just be asking the wrong questions. I know no better manual of the Christian faith and the Christian life.
Sebastian Heck is minister of SelbstŠndige evangelisch-reformierte Kirche Heidelberg (Free Reformed Church Heidelberg) in Germany and co-editor of the recently published A Faith worth teaching: The Heidelberg Catechism’s enduring heritage (Reformation Heritage Books, 2013).