Evangelicals and Catechisms: The Heidelberg Catechism

Greg Strand – January 19, 2017 2 Comments

On January 19, 1563, the Heidelberg Catechism was first published by Reformed scholars in Germany. This Catechism was written by Peter Ursinus and Caspar Olevianus, and espouses a Reformed view of theology. Shortly after its publication, it was accepted by most of the Reformed churches in Europe. It was originally written “to prepare a catechism for instructing the youth and for guiding pastors and teachers.”

As a catechism, its structure is that of a question followed by an answer. It also includes Scripture references supporting the responses. It consists of 129 questions and answers, and soon after it was published, it was structured to be read in a year, and thus divided into 52 sections to reflect the 52 weeks of the year. In the sixteenth century, the National Synods of the Reformed Church adopted the Three Forms of Unity, which consisted of the Belgic Confession (1561), the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), and the Canons of Dort (1618-1619).

Here is a brief introduction to the Catechism:

The Heidelberg Catechism was written in Heidelberg at the request of Elector Frederick III, ruler of the most influential German province, the Palatinate, from 1559 to 1576. This pious Christian prince commissioned Zacharius Ursinus, twenty-eight years of age and professor of theology at the Heidelberg University, and Caspar Olevianus, twenty-six years old and Frederick’s court preacher, to prepare a catechism for instructing the youth and for guiding pastors and teachers. Frederick obtained the advice and cooperation of the entire theological faculty in the preparation of the Catechism. The Heidelberg Catechism was adopted by a Synod in Heidelberg and published in German with a preface by Frederick III, dated January 19, 1563. A second and third German edition, each with some small additions, as well as a Latin translation were published in Heidelberg in the same year.

The Catechism was soon divided into fifty-two sections, so that a section of the Catechism could be explained to the churches each Sunday of the year. In The Netherlands this Heidelberg Catechism became generally and favorably known almost as soon as it came from the press, mainly through the efforts of Petrus Dathenus, who translated it into the Dutch language and added this translation to his Dutch rendering of the Genevan Psalter, which was published in 1566. In the same year, Peter Gabriel set the example of explaining this catechism to his congregation at Amsterdam in his Sunday afternoon sermons.

The National Synods of the sixteenth century adopted it as one of the Three Forms of Unity, requiring office-bearers to subscribe to it and ministers to explain it to the churches. These requirements were strongly emphasized by the great Synod of Dort in 1618-19. The Heidelberg Catechism has been translated into many languages and is the most influential and the most generally accepted of the several catechisms of Reformation times.  

The first two questions frame the whole Heidelberg Catechism, and are foundational for the whole of the Christian life. These two questions and answers are worthwhile to memorize.

1.Q. What is your only comfort in life and death?

A. That I am not my own,[1] but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death,[2] to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ.[3] He has fully paid for all my sins with His precious blood, and has set me free from all the power of the devil.[5] He also preserves me in such a way[6] that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head;[7] indeed, all things must work together for my salvation.[8] Therefore, by His Holy Spirit He also assures me of eternal life[9] and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for Him.[10]

[1] I Cor. 6:19, 20 [2] Rom. 14:7-9. [3] I Cor. 3:23; Tit. 2:14. [4] I Pet. 1:18, 19; I John 1:7; 2:2. [5] John 8:34-36; Heb. 2:14, 15; I John 3:8. [6] John 6:39, 40; 10:27-30; II Thess. 3:3; I Pet. 1:5. [7] Matt. 10:29-31; Luke 21:16-18. [8] Rom. 8:28. [9] Rom. 8:15, 16; II Cor. 1:21, 22; 5:5; Eph. 1:13, 14. [10] Rom. 8:14. 

2.Q. What do you need to know in order to live and die in the joy of this comfort?

A. First, how great my sins and misery are;[1] second, how I am delivered from all my sins and misery;[2] third, how I am to be thankful to God for such deliverance.[3]

[1] Rom. 3:9, 10; I John 1:10. [2] John 17:3; Acts 4:12; 10:43. [3] Matt. 5:16; Rom. 6:13; Eph. 5:8-10; I Pet. 2:9, 10.

I have used the Heidelberg Catechism as a supplement to my Bible reading. I have also used it with my family as part of our family worship/devotions. I commend it to you as well.

In our Free Church history, creeds have been formative, but also considered a concern. This relationship is summarized by one as follows:

Creeds can become formal, complex, and abstract. They can be almost illimitably expanded. They can be superimposed on Scripture. Properly handled, however, they facilitate public confession, form a succinct basis of teaching, safeguard pure doctrine, and constitute an appropriate focus for the church’s fellowship in faith.

The same could be said for the relationship with the Free Church and confessions. Although they are foundational, the concerns of their abuses have often resulted in their lack of use. At their best, they have been foundational and formative to Christians and the propagation of the Christian faith for centuries. If one does not use a catechism for spiritual formation, what is being used? It is not that young people and adults are not being formed and shaped. The concern is that what they are being formed and shaped by and to is not substantive biblical and theological truth.

At our upcoming Theology Conference, “Reformation, 500: Theology and Legacy,” one of our lectures will address The Reformation, Creeds, Confessions and Catechisms You can read more about the Conference, the speakers and the schedule here, and you can register here.

Greg Strand

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Affectionately called “Walking Bible” by his youngest daughter, Greg Strand has a ministry history that goes back to 1982. Since that time, he has served in local church ministry in a variety of ministry capacities: youth pastor, associate pastor of adult ministries and senior pastor. He is currently the EFCA's Executive Director of Theology and Credentialing. Greg reads voraciously and never stops learning — a passion reflected in the overflowing bookshelves that spill from his library to multiple offices. And he could tell you about each of those books! His hunger for learning pales in contrast to his great love for God and for teaching the Word of God.

2 responses to Evangelicals and Catechisms: The Heidelberg Catechism

  1. Thanks, Greg. These postings on catechism are timely. We do a catechism each Sunday morning, during the service. We bring the children forward but do it with the entire congregation participating. It’s designed to catechize both children and adults. We brought it into the service after asking ourselves whether those folks who might be thought of as “pew warmers” by some, those who come a few minutes late to the service and leave immediately afterward and are uninvolved in Sunday School or very many other church activities, are as familiar with the foundations of our faith and the theological basis of our beliefs. We preach sound doctrine each Sunday morning and have a number of equipping classes available. But, there are always a good number of folks that simply ant to come to a church service on Sunday morning and go home. Feeling the responsibility to equip and nourish those folks, we instituted a three-minute catechism. It’s easy for everyone to digest because they see the kids go forward to sit round the pulpit. It works because we put the question of the morning up on the overheads, have the congregation read it aloud, then do the same with the answer. I’ve circulated your two postings on catechisms and our folks are reading them.

    • It is great to hear from you, John. I am encouraged to hear what you are doing. I appreciate your processing of this, being willing to ask some hard questions about imparting the faith, asking how you are doing, and then being willing to take steps to address it. You assessed the why and addressed the how. You have probably seen we are addressing this matter, and this larger theme, in one of the lectures at our upcoming Theology Conference. Lord willing, we will see you there.

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