The church of the sixteenth century was in shambles. The people were distraught and fearful of a God they barely knew, and had little or no comfort that they were saved. The Roman Catholic heresy of salvation by works was creeping back into the church, and the people had no confidence in going to heaven or assurance of salvation. The people were left with no comfort.
It was during this time that Frederick III of Heidelberg, Germany was convinced that the people needed a confession that would serve as a basis of unity to the people of the Palatinate (Hanko, 1999). God guided him to Zacharias Ursinus and Caspar Olevianus, two men who spent their lives in the service of the church.
God raised up Zacharias Ursinus to be a fighter and defender of the faith even through his quiet nature. God shaped Zacharias, as a potter shapes clay, to be a vessel unto honor, to fight for and defend the truth, and to call together and comfort God’s people during these apostate times. Zacharias had been a stout Lutheran his whole childhood, but studying under Philip Melanchthon caused him to alter his views. Ursinus’ Calvinistic views were not accepted in his hometown of Breslau because most people there were Lutherans. On account of these views, he resigned his position as teacher and left his beloved city. Affliction and persecution often lead God’s people to a stronger conviction of their faith, and this was true for Zacharias as well. He continued to seek the truth in all that he did as he continued his life’s journey.
When Zacharias heard that his friend and advisor, Melanchthon, was dead, he was distraught, and sought the peace and quiet of study in Zurich with other theologians. Zacharias and Melanchthon had shared a deep love and respect because of their shared Calvinistic beliefs. In the past, when Zacharias had been weighed down by the burden of his calling, he would go to Melanchthon for advice. Now that his friend had been called home, Zacharias felt that he must leave his fatherland, “since it does not permit the confession of the truth, which I cannot with good conscience give up. If my teacher Melanchthon still lived, I would go nowhere else but to him. But as he is dead, I will go to Zurich where there are pious, great and learned men” (Hanko, 1999, p. 204). God was molding him to carry the burden of the gospel as the longsuffering, patient servant that he would use to write the catechism. And so he pressed on.
When Frederick III, the elector of the Palatinate, requested that Zacharias Ursinus help to write a confession for the people, Zacharias knew that it had to be done. This was perhaps the most crucial moment in which God used Zacharias to become the unique vessel he needed to bring the Heidelberg Catechism into existence. Zacharias saw the Roman Catholic and Lutheran heresies leaking back into the church. He also saw how small the remnant of the true church had become, and God used him at this precise time in history to write the Heidelberg Catechism. Had not God directed Frederick III to instruct Zacharias Ursinus and Caspar Olevianus to write the catechism at this time, the church would have continued to dwindle and apostatize under the false heresies then flowing into the church.
Caspar Olevianus completed his studies in Trier at a very young age. From Trier, he planned to go to France to study law. This was a time of consideration for Caspar. From earliest youth, he was surrounded by one religion—Roman Catholicism. However, in France he came into contact with other religions such as Lutheranism and that of the Huguenots, and he began to consider their views. He attended the secret Huguenot meetings even though his life was in danger. In this way, God began to train a man who would be zealous for the work of his church.
One event in Caspar Olevianus’ life was especially influential in leading him to the ministry. Caspar and his friend were invited to go boating on the river with some drunken men. Caspar refused, but his friend accepted. In the middle of the river, the young men began to rock the boat, and it capsized. Caspar jumped in to save his friend, but the current prevented him from doing so and also endangered his life. At this moment of trouble, Caspar made a solemn vow that if he lived, he would become a minister and preach his new-found truth in his hometown of Trier. Caspar was rescued, and the promise was not forgotten (Hanko, 1999, p.210).
After completing his studies of law in France, he sought a place where he would prepare himself for the task that he was about to undertake, namely, the preaching of the gospel according to the views of Calvin. God brought Caspar Olevianus to Switzerland to prepare him for his coming ministry. He studied under Calvin and met other reformers such as Theodore Beza and Peter Martyr. I can imagine the discussions and debates were many! These were perhaps the most important years in Caspar’s life for the preparation of the Heidelberg Catechism. God was raising from a Roman Catholic family a man who could preach the Reformed doctrines in a way the people not only understood, but also loved.
After two years of studying in Switzerland, Caspar went to Trier to proclaim the word. For awhile he was permitted to preach, and he brought many people to the truth. The leaders of the Roman Catholic Church, however, despised Caspar and testified against him. Caspar was thrown into prison for ten weeks. This was a trying time for him, but God used it for good to bring him to Heidelberg. Frederick III paid an enormous ransom to bring Caspar to Heidelberg to help with the writing of the Heidelberg Catechism.
Frederick III requested Caspar Olevianus to write a catechism with Zacharias Ursinus, to which they willingly and readily agreed. They wrote this creed to bring the church back to the truth of salvation by grace alone. They also wrote the catechism to assure believers of God’s promise of salvation during this troublous time.
God had shaped both men differently through the events of their lives. Each event was governed by God’s sovereign will, and when God put these men together, they produced a catechism that we still use today. The Heidelberg Catechism was shaped in God’s providence by the precision of a theologian and the passion of a preacher to be a confession for the people. Not only is it an easily understood summary of the doctrines of scripture, but it is also a beautifully crafted confession to bring the wonder of salvation, by Christ’s work alone, to the hearts of the people. God used the events in the lives of Zacharias and Caspar to prepare them for the writing of the Heidelberg Catechism in order that the Church might be unified and comforted. “My life in all its perfect plan was ordered ere my days began” (The Psalter, #383).
Hanko, H. (1999), Portraits of faithful saints. (Grandville: Reformed Free Publishing Association).
The Psalter, #383. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing).