Four hundred fifty years ago, God’s church desperately needed to be taught the doctrines of scripture. Today the church has the same urgent need. The Heidelberg Catechism was written as a tool to instruct the people in the teachings of the Bible. It has beautifully accomplished its aim with clear and logical questions and answers that have been used throughout the ages to teach youth and adults alike.
To appreciate fully the necessity for the Heidelberg Catechism, we must first understand the history behind it. At the time of its writing, the Protestant Reformation was taking strong roots in Europe. Many of the great reformers were working at this time, including Peter Martyr, Philip Melanchthon, and John Calvin. But even among the Protestants there was disunity, especially concerning the Lord’s supper. This was especially true in the city of Heidelberg, Germany, the capital of the Palatinate. The church and government were divided two ways. On the one hand, there were the Lutherans, holding to the idea of consubstantiation—that Christ is bodily present in and around the bread and wine, and therefore that the partakers of the Lord’s supper literally eat and drink Christ’s body and blood. This led to an idolatrous worshipping of the Lord’s supper. They were led by Dr. Tilemann Hesshus, an arrogant and violent preacher in the Holy Ghost Church. On the other hand, there were the Calvinists and Zwinglians, who maintained that those who partake of the Lord’s supper eat and drink of Christ spiritually, through the operation of the Holy Spirit, and that the bread and wine are simply signs pointing to a spiritual reality. This group, who called themselves Reformed, were led by Deacon William Klebitz. There was often extreme hatred and strife between these two parties. In this disunity there was the question, What should the people be taught?
Amidst this conflict, God in his providence raised up Frederick the Pious to be elector over the Palatinate. He dismissed both Dr. Hesshus and Deacon Klebitz after the two fought in front of the church while serving the Lord’s supper. After carefully studying the scriptures, Frederick became convinced that the Reformed doctrine was correct. Concerned with both the Palatinate’s temporal and eternal welfare, he realized that the church sorely needed to be unified and taught the right doctrine. To accomplish this, the church needed a strong confession that clearly stated the true doctrine of salvation. Thus he called upon two men to write a catechism: Zacharias Ursinus, a brilliant yet reserved and peace-loving professor and theologian from Breslau, and Caspar Olevianus, an eloquent preacher from Trier. Although these two men were very young, God had equipped them with the great wisdom and insight that was necessary for this task.
These two men wrote a catechism intended to give statement of the Reformed faith so that all the people could be taught in this way and thus be unified. Therefore it was written as a teaching tool. This was necessary because the people had to be taught what the Bible said about all the essential doctrines concerning such things as sin, redemption, God’s law, prayer, and especially at this time, the Lord’s supper. It provided a logical, fixed format for instruction in doctrine that could be used to teach the youths in catechism and all of the church in the preaching.
This purpose for the catechism is manifest in its question and answer format. The questions in the Heidelberg Catechism take the voice of a teacher instructing his student, and the answers ring out confidently like a student well-versed in and convicted of the many doctrines in the catechism, who is professing his faith before his teacher. The questions and answers of the catechism are organized into 52 Lord’s Days, so the whole catechism can be preached over the course of one year. This is beneficial because it can be repeated and reviewed many years over.
The logical order of the Heidelberg Catechism also helps it serve this purpose as a teaching tool. It starts at the beginning of the path to salvation for a Christian: man’s fall and the wicked nature, helplessness, and hopeless state that ensued. Quickly the catechism moves on to man’s deliverance from sin by the suffering of Christ, the only possible mediator, and the glory that is the believer’s, shown over against the terror and punishment that is deserved. Then the Catechism outlines man’s duties—good works and prayer—as acts of thankfulness to God. This order leads the catechumen to see his need for salvation and Christ as the worker of it, thus preventing him from viewing his own works as any kind of merit for salvation.
The clarity and simplicity of the Heidelberg Catechism aids greatly in its use to teach doctrine. The catechism is very easy to understand. All the cardinal doctrines are stated simply and explained thoroughly, so one need not be already trained in doctrine to comprehend the catechism’s message. The clear wording makes the catechism easy to apply to practical situations.
The Heidelberg Catechism still today answers the need for a means to teach doctrine in the church. It is used in catechism classes to teach doctrine to the youth. It is used in the preaching, with a sermon on the catechism every Lord’s Day. These uses have manifold benefits for the church.
First, its use in teaching the children is important. Giving the children a good, strong background in Reformed doctrine is effective in warding off the spiritual dangers that threaten the church. The Catechism guards the church against apostasy, because its well-instructed members will not be easily fooled by false teachers who arise. It also keeps the youth from the irresponsibility, rebellion, and disregard for God that society desires so much to teach them. With instruction in the Heidelberg catechism, the youth are well prepared to give a good confession of their faith when they mature.
Second, the Heidelberg Catechism’s use in the preaching is of great value to the church. The people of the church are re-taught and reminded of these great doctrines and are prepared to defend them if necessary. Such powerful quotations as, “Why cannot our good works be the whole or part of our righteousness before God?” (Heidelberg Catechism, Q 62), “the mass, at bottom, is nothing else than a denial of the one sacrifice and sufferings of Jesus Christ, and an accursed idolatry” (A 80), and “I am prone by nature to hate God and my neighbor” (A 5), can be used to strengthen God’s children against some of the greatest errors that can arise in nominal Christianity. The entirety of the Heidelberg Catechism is based on scripture, and every part of every answer has Biblical proof to support it, so no one can say it is not right and true. At this time, as the world is being won over by humanism, immorality, and rebellion against authority, we need more than ever to have a strongly antithetical catechism to display God’s truth over against worldliness.
The church was torn between two ideas. The youth were careless with respect to doctrine. The people did not know what to believe. In His love and care for his church, God worked through men to provide a catechism for their edification. The Heidelberg Catechism has served the church well throughout the ages, and continues to teach God’s children now, 450 years later. “And all thy children shall be taught of the Lord; and great shall be the peace of thy children” (Isaiah 54:13).
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Ursinus, Z., & Olevianus, C. (1563). The Heidelberg Catechism. Heidelberg, Palatinate, Germany.
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