One of our readers writes:
“My question concerns article 68 of the Church Order which reads: ‘The Minister 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.’
“Are the words ‘as much as possible’ to mean a positive or negative connotation? This also raises a number of questions, such as, What does Rev. H. Hoeksema mean in his preface to the Triple Knowledge when he says, ‘For more than twenty-seven years I have faithfully preached once a Sunday (except on special occasions) on the Heidelberg Catechism’?
“Is it possible to have Catechism preaching at the afternoon or evening service if impossible in the morning service because of Easter, a fill-in minister, Christmas, baptism, pulpit exchange, vacations, etc., etc.?”
The question centers in the words “as much as possible” in article 68 of the Church Order. Did our fathers mean to say that the Heidelberg Catechism should be preached every Sunday, barring only a few exceptions, or did they intend to convey the idea that the Catechism should be preached every Sunday, but allowing the minister to use his own discretion in regard to exceptions to this rule?
Considering this question from the viewpoint of the time in which the article was adopted, one can only conclude that our fathers did mean to ’emphasize that the Catechism must be preached whenever this is possible, that is, every Sunday, with only rare exceptions. The fact is that, shortly after the Reformation, Catechism sermons were usually preached in the afternoon service and were poorly attended. People who had recently broken with the Romish Church had still not broken with the bad habit of visiting the tavern or enjoying some other entertainment on Sunday afternoon. Besides, there were many who did not enjoy doctrinal preaching. So the afternoon services were poorly attended, and ministers often gave up preaching on the Heidelberg Catechism. Therefore the Synod decided that the Heidelberg Catechism had to be preached every Sunday, allowing for as few exceptions as possible. In fact, the statement was made that the minister should preach a Catechism sermon even if his family were the only members present.
In our churches Catechism sermons have become quite customary and our people seem to enjoy them. Especially our elderly people thrive on Catechism preaching, even though they have been through the Catechism with the minister many times. Therefore many people would certainly not object if the minister were to preach a Catechism sermon even on special occasions, as long as he had one sermon that fitted the occasion. This would also be fully in harmony with the Church Order.
But there are practical considerations. On preparatory Sundays the entire congregation cannot attend both services. Therefore the minister is often asked by his consistory to preach two preparatory sermons, especially with a view to those who cannot attend both services. On communion Sunday an appropriate sermon is required in connection with the administration of the Holy Supper and also for the applicatory service. Most Lord’s Days would not fit very well with the requirements of these special services. There are also Sundays when the minister is filling a classical appointment elsewhere or is away on vacation. The consistory could request the fill-in minister to preach the Catechism on those Sundays, but the visiting minister might find this extremely difficult, especially since the minister likely is treating the Catechism from a specific aspect. Moreover, on special occasions it is fitting that two sermons are devoted to the occasion, such as Resurrection Sunday, Pentecost, and other church holidays that occur on Sunday. Both the minister and the congregation may be convinced that this is necessary to satisfy the spiritual needs of the congregation.
It is with this in mind that the late Rev. Herman Hoeksema in his long and richly profitable ministry did not preach from the Heidelberg Catechism with the intent of finishing the material in one year. Besides realizing the importance of stressing the significance of the resurrection of Christ and of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit when the occasion offered, he was also convinced that no minister can do full justice to the material of some of the Lord’s Days in a single sermon. This is true, for example, of Lord’s Day 3, which covers so much material that a minister can readily preach three sermons on this one Lord’s Day.
Since there is no definite principle involved here, the churches have understood this “as much as possible” to mean that the Heidelberg Catechism should be faithfully preached from Sunday to Sunday, with no doctrine left untreated. But this does not mean that a minister must feel himself bound to finish the discussion of the entire Catechism within the 52 weeks of the year, since this is simply impossible. Personally, I have taken the liberty to preach more than once on a single Lord’s Day, to devote two sermons to preparatory services as well as to communion and applicator-y services. I have almost without exception devoted the entire Sunday to whatever church holiday fell on that day. The result was that it often took two years, rather than one, to cover all the material in the Catechism and to do justice both to the Catechism and to special occasions.