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The Heidelberg Reformers – Too Young?

The work of God in history is always an amazing and awe-inspiring thing. But there are certain times in the history of the church that truly make the believer’s jaw hit the floor in astonishment at the wonderwork of God.

“God did what?”

“He did this when?”

“He used that man? Of all people, that man?”

One of the outstanding examples of this is the Heidelberg Catechism. Would you believe it, young people, if I told you that our beloved Heidelberger, the creed you learn in the catechism room and hear preached from the pulpit every Sunday, was written by two young men not much older than you are now? “Impossible!” you say. Yet, in his infinite wisdom, God chose two men, one twenty-eight years old and the other twenty-six, to write one of the most beautiful statements of faith that has ever been written, a statement of faith which is still in use almost 450 years later.

The first man was Zacharias Ursinus. Ursinus was born on July 18, 1534, in the city of Breslau to poor parents. When he was about fifteen years old, he left Breslau to study in the great Reformation city of Wittenberg. There his enormous God-given talents caught the eye of one of the professors, Philip Melanchthon, who was a great friend and co-laborer of Martin Luther. The two became fast friends. Under Melanchthon, Zacharias learned a great deal about the faith of the Reformation, the faith which he later encapsulated into the Heidelberg Catechism.

After his studies in Wittenberg were complete, Ursinus traveled throughout Europe sitting under the feet of many great teachers, including Calvin himself. Calvin even gave the young traveler a signed copy of his written works. Ursinus eventually came home to teach in his native Breslau. But soon there was trouble there. The Lutherans in the city were upset that their son was leaning in the direction of the Reformed view of the Lord’s Supper. The backbiting reached such a pitch that Ursinus eventually left his hometown and went to the city of Zurich. From Zurich he was called by Frederick III, ruler of a region called the Palatinate, to come and teach in his school in the capital city of Heidelberg.

The decision to move to Heidelberg was not an easy one. By nature, Zacharias, although extremely gifted, was shy and reserved. His desire was to find a quiet corner in which he could study in peace. He did not want the scrutiny and attention which he was sure to get in Heidelberg. In this way he was very much like another young man we have looked at—John Calvin. But Ursinus went anyway. God had a great work for him to perform there.

The second man was Caspar Olevianus. Olevianus was born in the Roman Catholic city of Treves on August 10, 1536. Unlike his future colleague Ursinus, Olevianus’ parents were more well-to-do. They could afford to send their son to the best schools in Europe. So off he went to Paris at the age of fourteen to pursue a career in law. While in France, young Caspar came into contact with the Huguenots, those faithful French Protestants who were persecuted so severely for their faith. Caspar even attended some of their secret meetings. Their staunch stand for the faith no doubt made a mighty impression on the young man.

There was one experience in France that affected Olevianus like no other. A fellow student, who just so happened to be the son of Frederick III, fell out of a boat commandeered by a bunch of drunken boys. Caspar dove into the water to try to save Frederick’s son, but he was unable to reach him. In fact, Olevianus himself almost drowned. At that moment, Caspar promised that he would preach the Reformed faith in his hometown of Treves if God would spare his life. Olevianus survived, and he never forgot that promise. And Frederick never forgot the boy who had tried to save his son’s life.

Once his studies were completed in France, Olevianus traveled throughout Europe just as Ursinus had done. He met such great reformers as Calvin, Peter Martyr Vermigli, Theodore Beza, and William Farel. It was Farel, that fiery servant of God who had detained Calvin in Geneva, who ordered Caspar to return to Treves to preach the gospel there. Caspar obeyed and was eventually tossed into prison by the Catholic authorities. It was only after much pleading by Frederick III (and the transfer of much gold) that the bold young preacher was released and taken to Heidelberg.

So, Frederick III now had the bold preacher Olevianus and the brilliant teacher Ursinus both in Heidelberg. But why? The simple answer is that the city of Heidelberg was divided. It had officially declared itself for the Reformation in 1546, but there was so much infighting, especially between the Lutheran camp and the Calvinist camp over the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper. The animosity had even escalated to the point where a Lutheran minister and a Calvinist deacon grappled over the communion cup in full view of the entire congregation! Things had reached a head, and Frederick III knew it. He himself had studied the matter and was convinced that the Calvinistic view was in accordance with the teaching of Scripture. But what to do about all the fighting?

Frederick had a solution. He wanted his land to be united in a common confession of the truth, including the truth of the Lord’s Supper. Therefore, he commissioned his young scholars Ursinus and Olevianus to draw up a confession which all preachers and teachers would have to hold to. The two young men began their work in 1562, and by the start of 1563 the beautiful Heidelberg Catechism was complete. One historian writes,

The peculiar gifts of both, the didactic clearness and precision of the one [Ursinus], and the pathetic warmth and unction of the other [Olevianus], were blended in beautiful harmony, and produced a joint work which is far superior to all the separate productions of either. In the Catechism they surpassed themselves. They were in a measure inspired for it.[12]

The Heidelberg Catechism was not only intended as a means of uniting the citizens of Frederick’s kingdom under a common confession. Rev. Hoeksema writes, “From the outset…the Heidelberg Catechism served the double purpose of catechetical textbook and symbol of the Church.”[13]The Catechism was intended as a means to instruct the youth of the church. It was meant to be used in the catechism room, just as it is still today in our Protestant Reformed Churches. This is evident from what Frederick III wrote in his introduction to the Catechism:

…we also have ascertained that by no means the least defect of our system is found in the fact, that our blooming youth is disposed to be careless in respect to Christian doctrine…

…it is essential that our youth be trained in early life, and above all, in the pure and consistent doctrine of the holy Gospel, and be well exercised in the proper and true knowledge of God.[14]

The Catechism, therefore, was written by two young men for the children and young people of the church.

As was mentioned at the beginning, it is a wonder of God’s grace that two men in their twenties wrote the Heidelberg Catechism. First of all, it is a wonder because of the doctrinal clarity and depth. All of the doctrines of Scripture are clearly laid out in the 129 Questions and Answers. This level of understanding is uncommon in twenty-something year olds. Secondly, the writing of the Heidelberger is a wonder because of the way in which it is laid out. It is not laid out logically like the Belgic Confession, but rather it proceeds from the idea of comfort and traces the experience of the believer from sin, to deliverance, to thankfulness. It all begins with that soul-stirring first Question and Answer:

  1. What is thy only comfort in life and death?
  2. That I with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Savior Jesus Christ; who, with His precious blood, hath fully satisfied for all my sins, and delivered me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my heavenly Father, not a hair can fall from my head; yea, that all things must be subservient to my salvation, and therefore, by His Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me sincerely willing and ready, henceforth, to live unto Him.

The wisdom and comfort in this approach is also uncommon in young people. But, it attests to the fact that God is pleased at times to work amazing things through young people such as Caspar and Zacharias, and you and me.

To his Name be all the glory!