The Heidelberg Catechism has been a major source of comfort in the past five hundred years for believers all over the world. On the occasion of the 450th birthday of the writing of the Heidelberg Catechism, it is fitting that we explore the history behind the catechism, and the beauty, simplicity, and order of the catechism, for these three things make it well-loved and practical for all believers of every age.
A brief history of the Heidelberg Catechism is first necessary. Before 1563, in Palatinate Germany there was an internal struggle between the Protestant Calvinists and Protestant Lutherans. When Frederick III came into power in 1559, he sided with the Calvinists and their view of the Lord’s supper, and established a seminary. He hired Zacharius Ursinus to be the head professor at his seminary and Caspar Olevianus as his court preacher. Frederick III was aware that a cohesive confession of the Reformed faith was needed at this time. Although there were many confessions written before the Heidelberg Catechism, they were not all-encompassing, and the church needed a well-thought out layout of the Reformed doctrine. On top of that, the struggle between the Calvinists and Lutherans was tearing Frederick III’s Palatinate apart.
Shortly after the hiring of Ursinus and Olevianus, Frederick III decided to follow up on his conclusion that the church needed a catechism. He put the task of writing a fully Reformed catechism on Ursinus and Olevianus, who were both brilliant and youthful men still in their twenties. These two young men used previously written catechisms, such as those written by Calvin and Bucer, as backgrounds for their catechism. However, Ursinus and Olevianus did not use only catechisms written by other men; they also had great theological minds that had been formed by great Reformed men—Olevianus by Calvin, and Ursinus by Melancthon and Bullinger. These two men eagerly set to writing the Heidelberg Catechism that we know today. They struggled in their writing, but finally published the complete Heidelberg Catechism.
When the Heidelberg Catechism was first published in 1563, it was extremely popular because of its practicality, simplicity, and the comfort it provided. The Reformed saints of the day understood the importance of a confession that covered the basics of Reformed doctrine, though the doctrine was still being developed. The Heidelberg Catechism spurred the development of Reformed doctrine and brought attention to the issues of the day. Reformed churches recognized this and decided to take it as their own. Many synods acknowledged it as a good summary of Reformed doctrine and declared it agreeable to scripture, including the Synod of Dordrecht in 1618-1619.
Since the Synod of Dordt adopted the Heidelberg Catechism as an official creed of the church, many people have torn it apart or rewritten it to fit their own means. But we as Christians of the Reformation can and should see the beauty of the catechism.
The catechism is beautiful in two ways. First, it is beautiful in that it is practical. It applies to every aspect of our salvation. It describes how we were depraved sinners, fallen in Adam, unable to do any good whatsoever. The catechism then joyously proclaims our salvation in Christ, how he came to earth in the incarnation, became fully man, yet still remained fully God, like us in every way except sin. It depicts how he went to the cross because he loved us first, not because we deserved anything at all. It goes on to say that God decreed before the foundation of the world the election of certain people, but not because we were any better than the reprobate.
The catechism also applies to our every area of life. The third section of the catechism, our thankfulness, describes how we show our thankfulness for salvation in Christ. In Lord’s Day 32 the Catechism lays out beautifully how we are to behave in our godly walk: “Because Christ, having redeemed and delivered us by his blood, also renews us by his Holy Spirit after his own image; that so we may testify by the whole of our conduct our gratitude to God for his blessings, and that he may be praised by us; also, that every one may be assured in himself of his faith by the fruits thereof; and that by our godly conversation, others may be gained to Christ” (Q&A 86).
This question leads us to consider if what we do is proper behavior for a child of God and a good witness to those who do not believe in God, rather than wondering what people will think of us if we do this thing or that thing. The beauty of Q&A 86 is that God in his infinite grace does not forsake us as we would forsake him every day and every hour, but forgives us, as Matthew 18:22 says, “seventy times seven.” We each personally know that we cannot keep the law of God perfectly or witness to our neighbors perfectly. God reassures us of his infinite grace and comforts us in this in the catechism.
Second, and most importantly, the catechism is beautiful because it is deeply personal. It is not just cold, hard doctrine. It speaks with the personal “I” as if we ourselves formulated the words of the catechism. It does not merely speak to the church as a whole. The catechism also has a warm personal aspect. Instead of condemning us at every turn, it reminds us that we were sinful and totally depraved, but now we are saved in Christ’s shed blood, and must therefore walk in a “new and Godly life.”(Form for the Profession of Faith) If we are feeling depressed or doubting our salvation, all we have to do is read and ponder Lord’s Day 1: “That I in body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ” (Q&A 1). We belong to Christ! Is that not wonderful and beautiful?
Not only is the catechism beautiful in form, it is also well-known because of its simplicity. First, it is simple in that it is easy to understand. If I would go out and hand a copy of the Heidelberg Catechism to people on the street, they would be able to comprehend it. Many choose not to comprehend it, pretend they do not understand it, or ridicule God’s people for it, but God knows these people’s innermost hearts. In the final judgment, those wicked people who ignore all the ways God reveals himself in the world, including the Catechism, will be condemned to hell without an excuse.
The Catechism is also simple in form. The writers did not use flowery terms, large, incomprehensible words, or interminable sentences, but concise, simple, and precise language. God worked through the circumstances around the writers so they would write a catechism that was simple and easy to comprehend, spanning the centuries of the modern church. Also, it does not mince words in condemning false doctrine, but simply refutes it. We can see this in the condemning of the Romish mass, where the catechism calls the mass a “denial of the one sacrifice and sufferings of Christ,” and “an accursed idolatry” (Q&A 80).
Second, the catechism manifests its simplicity because it reflects the basics of the Reformed faith. All that we need to know and apply to our salvation can be found in the Heidelberg Catechism. Even today, we use the Catechism as a guideline for a godly life.
There is also simplicity in the order of the Heidelberg Catechism. The catechism follows the logical progression of our salvation: from the knowledge of our misery in a fallen world, to the knowledge of our salvation in the death and sacrifice of Christ on the cross, and finally to the knowledge of the debt of gratitude we owe to God for his mercy and grace towards us. Paul designed Romans to flow in the same logical progression. Perhaps the writers of the catechism identified this and devised the catechism the in the same way. The ministers and elders at the Synod of Dordrecht wanted to recognize the truth of the catechism, and the writers of the Church Order followed close behind. Also, Frederick III asked Ursinus and Olevianus to design the catechism so that it could be preached once a Sunday, fifty-two times a year.
The Church Order, Article 68, lays that out: “The ministers shall on Sunday explain briefly the sum of Christian doctrine comprehended in the Heidelberg Catechism, so that as much as possible the explanation shall be annually completed, according to the division of the catechism itself for that purpose.” Even today our ministers follow this as much as possible. It is not always easy to do, and does not always happen, but this displays the church as the church of all ages. The fact that men of the Reformation could write a church order and a Catechism still confessed today shows God’s covenant faithfulness throughout all of history.
In conclusion, the question, What makes the Heidelberg Catechism a well-loved and practical confession? must be answered. The catechism is well-loved because of the comfort it presents to God’s people. It reassures us in our salvation, strengthens us in our godly walk, and helps us to grow in the faith. The Catechism is practical in its lay out. It is not hodge-podge, bits of doctrine here and there, with some comfort thrown in, but a cohesive document, full of edification for the church of all ages.
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