Presbyterians and the Heidelberg Catechism

Alan D. Strange

New Horizons: October 2013

Heidelberg Catechism

Also in this issue

The Heidelberg Catechism in the OPC

Observations after Eleven Years

Why should Presbyterians—more particularly, Orthodox Presbyterians—care about the Heidelberg Catechism? We have two catechisms of our own that seem quite sufficient—if not to say, in the case of the Westminster Larger Catechism, challenging, even daunting at times. Why should we give a moment’s thought to the Heidelberg Catechism, particularly when we consider theologian B. B. Warfield’s assessment that, when compared to the Westminster Shorter Catechism, the Heidelberg Catechism is “too subjective”?

The Heidelberg Catechism certainly does have a personal element that strikes a different tone from that of the Westminster Catechisms. The first question reflects that different approach: “What is your only comfort in life and death?” It addresses the catechumen directly, seeking to elicit a statement of trust from the one being questioned. The answer affirms the application of the gospel to the catechumen: “That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from all the power of the devil. He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, all things must work together for my salvation. Therefore, by his Holy Spirit he also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for him.”

The History of Creeds and Confessions

That first question and answer, as beautiful as it is, should whet the appetite of Orthodox Presbyterians for this seminal sixteenth-century catechism. Many are aware that it is one of the “Three Forms of Unity” for Reformed churches, which are the Calvinistic churches that emerged from continental Europe. They are represented today by two churches with which we have fraternal relations: the Reformed Church in the United States and the United Reformed Churches in North America. The Three Forms of Unity are the Belgic Confession of Faith (1561), the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), and the Canons of Dort (1618). Note that this year is the 450th Anniversary of the Heidelberg Catechism.

The Reformation spawned confession making. Before the Reformation, creedal matters had been decided largely by ecumenical councils. The first two councils—Nicaea (325) and Constantinople (381)—created the great Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. This, together with the Apostles’ Creed and the Athanasian Creed, formed the foundation of the church’s confession. The Reformation affirmed these great creeds, regarding them as necessary, but no longer sufficient, to secure orthodoxy. The Reformers understood that more was needed for a clear understanding of the gospel than was contained in the great creeds. The key Reformational insight—that the righteousness that God requires is given by him freely as a gift, received by faith alone—along with other insights, demanded confessional expression. These matters, now deemed essential, came to expression not only in the great confessions of the Reformation, but also in the Heidelberg Catechism, which is a teaching device, particularly for youth preparing to come to the Lord’s Table. The Heidelberg Catechism fits right into this great tradition, the background of which warrants exploration.

First, just a word about the first of the Three Forms of Unity: the Belgic Confession is comparatively mild in its critique of Roman Catholicism and supportive of civil authority, all in an effort to distinguish the Reformed from the Anabaptists. The thirty-seven articles set forth a vigorous Calvinism, having much in common with the French Confession of 1559 (especially noteworthy are Articles 22–24, emphasizing the twofold grace of God in justification and sanctification, and Article 35, a Calvinistic articulation of the Lord’s Supper).[1]

The Making of the Heidelberg Catechism

Two years later, the Heidelberg Catechism was drafted. It was adopted for subscription in the Dutch church by the Synod of Wessel (1568). “Frederick III, elector of the Palatinate, had commissioned it, seeking to have the beliefs of the Reformed Church of the Palatinate defined in a way that reflected the core of Evangelical faith over against the kind of quibbling that he witnessed and detested among the Gnesio-Lutherans and the Philippists.” Frederick respected Melanchthon and never rejected the Augsburg Confession (1530), yet he was more Reformed than Lutheran. He wanted to bring together the best of both traditions and “asked the theological faculty and local ministers of Heidelberg to compose a catechism for teaching the youth of the region.”[2]

Zacharias Ursinus, a student of both Calvin and Melanchthon and a professor of theology at the University of Heidelberg, is generally credited with drawing up the first drafts of the catechism. A committee of Frederick’s theologians, however, prepared the official text, drawing upon (at least) Luther’s Small Catechism, Melanchthon’s Examen Ordinandorum, and Leo Juda’s catechisms. It was approved by the Palatinate synod in January 1563. Caspar Olevianus, a student of Calvin and Beza and pastor of the main church in Heidelberg, certainly participated in this work, but probably played a less prominent role than was earlier surmised.[3]

The sharp condemnation of the Roman Catholic Mass in Question and Answer 80 was added as a reaction to the anti-Protestant Council of Trent (which did not adjourn until after the Heidelberg Catechism was adopted). The (Reformed) Council of Dort in 1618–1619 organized the 129 Q’s and A’s into fifty-two Lord’s Days for preaching purposes.[4] The idea was that in the second service (the afternoon service), the whole congregation would be catechized, being taught the Reformed faith by the minister. Some have speculated, though there seems to be no clear evidence to support the point, that the Westminster Larger Catechism was similarly intended to be used by the minister in the instruction of the congregation. I must say that I would commend it for use in this way, either by the minister on Sunday or perhaps at midweek meetings, as the Larger Catechism is a remarkable compendium of Reformed theology.

Preaching from the Catechism?

The idea of using a catechism for preaching purposes may sound curious to Presbyterians, since we are told that a sermon is to involve, at least, a “painstaking exegesis” of a text. How could a human document, even a catechism meant to teach, be used for preaching purposes? To be sure, there are different theories among those who hold to the church order of Dort about how, precisely, this should be done. But there is agreement that since the Heidelberg Catechism faithfully expresses what the Scriptures teach, the Scriptures are taught in a proper catechetical sermon, in which the catechism is shown to set forth the doctrine taught in Scripture. My preferred way to do this is to read a Scripture text and the relevant portion of the catechism, and then to weave the two together in the sermon. If ministers in the OPC were to use the Shorter Catechism and the Heidelberg Catechism as guides in the evening service, this would be a marvelous tool to train our people in the rich theology and piety of our faith. Good catechetical preaching covers all doctrine and in this way helps to set forth the whole counsel of God to the congregation. This, in addition to our mainstay—powerful redemptive-historical, heart-applicatory, expository preaching—could yield fruit for years to come.

But, given that we have the Shorter and Larger Catechisms to use as preaching guides in our second services, if we choose to do that, why would we even bother to use the Heidelberg Catechism? For one thing, it is practical to do so, since it has already been divided into fifty-two Lord’s Days, as noted above. Additionally, it provides variety (so that one is not preaching the same Shorter and Larger Catechism sermons year in and year out) and does not contradict our Standards (the Heidelberg Catechism says less than Westminster). If there is thought to be a difference somewhere, and I concede that such is arguable at points, the minister might highlight what our Standards say that is thought to be clearer, or correct, as the case may be.

But I would also argue that the very subjectivity of the Heidelberg Catechism, which Warfield held against it, is something in its favor, particularly in attempting to reach out in a postmodern culture that values the personal over the propositional. The Heidelberg Catechism does a good job embodying both, seeking to express what is ours in Christ by the power and application of the Holy Spirit, who brings Christ to us and us to Christ. The Heidelberg Catechism is, one might say, the firstfruits of the Reformation, expressed in catechetical form, whereas the Shorter Catechism and particularly the Larger Catechism are the fruit that has matured. There is an important place for the expression of both in the teaching ministry of the church, and it would be good for any Presbyterian church to make some sort of study of the Three Forms of Unity and to consider using the Heidelberg Catechism in some way on the Lord’s Day.

The Structure of the Heidelberg Catechism

The Heidelberg Catechism is organized in three main parts: man’s sin and fall, the redemption that is ours in Jesus Christ, and the consequent thankfulness that we are to render in a life of service to our God and our neighbor. This threefold schema is often reduced to helpful alliterative points like Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude, or Sin, Salvation, and Service. These three parts address the sin that is ours, what God has done in Christ to remedy that, and how we are called to live as the redeemed, engaging in kingdom life in a fallen world.

Following the first question and answer, which summarizes the Christian life, and the second question and answer, which summarizes the three parts of the catechism, the Heidelberg Catechism proceeds to the first main section: “Of the Misery of Man.” This first section consists of Questions and Answers 3–11 and sets forth our original innocence that gave way to sin and misery, making it clear that we are sinners who need salvation. The second section is “Of Man’s Deliverance.” This is the largest section of the Heidelberg Catechism. Questions and Answers 12–25 address deliverance more directly. Since God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is the author of man’s deliverance, the Heidelberg Catechism treats the persons of the Godhead in Questions and Answers 26–28 (Father), 29–52 (Son), and 53–64 (Holy Spirit). These questions and answers particularly show the love of God in the divine rescue mission: the Father appoints the salvation of his own, the Son accomplishes it, and the Spirit applies it. Here we see Reformed soteriology set forth for the first time in catechetical form.

Many questions and answers from this section could be singled out for their doctrinal precision and warm piety, but Question 60 merits particular attention: “How are you righteous before God?” The answer captures the genius of the Reformation: “Only by true faith in Jesus Christ. Even though my conscience accuses me of having grievously sinned against all God’s commandments, of never having kept any of them, and of still being inclined toward all evil, nevertheless, without any merit of my own, out of sheer grace, God grants and credits to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ, as if I had never sinned nor been a sinner, and as if I had been as perfectly obedient as Christ was obedient for me. All I need to do is accept this gift with a believing heart.”

The second section of the Heidelberg Catechism continues with ecclesiology, including the sacraments (65–68), baptism (69–74), and the Lord’s Supper (75–82). Here we have the first catechetical expression of a rich Reformed ecclesiology. It affirms the real presence of Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, in the sacraments, while avoiding all the errors of Roman Catholicism, which views the sacraments not as means of grace but, idolatrously, as ends. The Roman Church commits such an error because, historically, it neglected the doctrine of the work of the Holy Spirit. Calvin is, as Warfield said, the “theologian of the Holy Spirit,” but Aquinas and the other medievalists were not, jumping over the Spirit in their theologies and proceeding directly from Christology to ecclesiology. When ecclesiology is not based on a proper doctrine of the Holy Spirit, it yields sacerdotalism—a theory of priestly intermediation in which, practically, the church replaces the Holy Spirit. The Heidelberg Catechism, on the other hand, has an ecclesiology that flows from its doctrine of the Holy Spirit.

The third and concluding section of the Heidelberg Catechism is “Of Thankfulness,” in which the Ten Commandments (92–115) and the Lord’s Prayer (116–129) receive treatment. Recall what we’ve established thus far: though made upright, we are now fallen, miserable sinners (section 1), from whom God has elected a people and sent his Son to accomplish salvation, applied by the Holy Spirit in the context of the church (section 2). Section 3 addresses the way in which we as Christians are to live: we are to walk in love. That means we are to keep his commandments, not so as to be made acceptable in his sight, but because we are acceptable in his sight through the merits and mediation of Christ. We seek to keep the law out of gratitude for so great a salvation, and the law, in what is called the third use of the law, is the way of life for those who have been delivered from its curse by the person and work of Christ. How we ought to live and to commune with our God in prayer round out this last section of the Heidelberg Catechism.

I hope that there is enough here either to reignite our interest in this wonderful sixteenth-century catechism or perhaps to prompt us to get to know it for the first time and to be instructed and heartened by its personal, devotional expression of the Reformed faith.


[1] Jaroslav Pelikan and Valerie Hotchkiss, eds., Creeds and Confessions of Faith in the Christian Tradition, vol. 2, part 4: Creeds and Confessions of the Reformation Era (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 405–6.

[2] Ibid., 427. See also James T. Dennison, Jr., ed., Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries in English Translation, vol. 2: 1552–1566 (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2008), 769–70.

[3] Pelikan and Hotchkiss, Creeds and Confessions, 427.

[4] Ibid., 427–28.

The author is associate pastor of New Covenant Community Church (OPC) in New Lenox, Ill., and an associate professor at Mid-America Reformed Seminary.

New Horizons: October 2013

Heidelberg Catechism

Also in this issue

The Heidelberg Catechism in the OPC

Observations after Eleven Years

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