Three hundred years ago our Reformed fathers, in synodical session at Dordrecht, ordained that once each Sunday the sermon material should be based on a Lord’s Day of our Heidelberg Catechism instead of on the Word of God directly. Did they err in so decreeing? Was it wisdom on their part, to lead the church of many ages in this direction? Does the preaching of the Catechism provide the church of Christ with what she needs to have light on her way and to grow in the grace and knowledge of her Lord and Savior? Or does it deprive her of her spiritual food and is the word of man being substituted for the living Word of God? Have our Reformed churches, for three hundred long years, been receiving stones for bread; human conclusions for divine wisdom?

It is obvious why this question should be considered debatable at all. The Catechism as such is not Scripture, divinely inspired and infallible. It is the work of man. Man ordered it to be written; man composed it; man exalted it to the rank of confession; and man decreed that it should be preached each Lord’s Day. It might be reasoned, that in this the Reformed churches erred and thus the manifestation of the body of Christ on earth is being robbed of what she needs for her salvation: the ministry of the Word of God. The negative has the burden of proving that this is indeed the case. The affirmative will attempt to show that this reasoning is fallacious and that the preaching of the Heidelberg Catechism is very really ministry of the Word.

What is ministry of the Word?

Ministry of the Word is the official proclamation of the full counsel of God as revealed to us in the Holy Scriptures. It is that task whereby the ambassador of Christ testifies of God and His counsel to the living church, called out of the world to the saving knowledge of God in Jesus Christ—

The Word is the revelation of the entire will of God concerning our salvation in Christ. In the wider sense it is the expression to His Church of God’s eternal thoughts concerning Himself. That Word Jehovah spoke from the beginning in human language; in signs and words which man could understand. That Word the Lord has preserved for us in Holy Writ. God inspired His servants, not only to speak that Word, but also to write it. Thus we have the Word of God in the Scriptures, only in the Scriptures, which in that sense are very really God’s Word, from cover to cover.

Ministry of the Word is the preaching, the interpretation, the proclamation of that Word of God, contained in the Scriptures, by her who is divinely authorized to do so, the church. It was the will of the Lord that this Word should be expounded, preached to His people. To that end He entrusted it, not to any individual or group of individuals, but to His church, in order that she might preserve, study, propagate, copy, translate, interpret and proclaim it. Therefore He instituted the offices in the church, especially that of the ministry, that the church through these offices might preach that Word, at home and abroad. Wherefore ministry of the Word is the official exposition and administration of the Scriptures. Therein the preacher brings the Word to the church as an ambassador of Christ with the authority, not merely of Scripture itself, but of Him who sends the preacher, namely, Christ. It is the proclamation of the Word only, for Christ will speak to the hearts of His own only through the Scriptures, never through the word of mere man. It is the exposition of the entire Bible. Ministry of the Word is not the preaching of certain isolated passages, of a few truths which may appeal to man, but of the whole counsel of God as revealed to us in the Scriptures. Only thus can the preaching minister to all the spiritual needs of the church, open and shut the kingdom of heaven for all who hear, feed the elect kernel in Christ, instruct, admonish, confirm in the faith quicken in the hope, build up in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ and enrich God’s church in all that pertains to the way of salvation.

What is Heidelberg Catechism preaching? It is the official proclamation of the Word of God as expressed, exposited in this Reformed creed by the church herself.

The Catechism is the church’s answer of faith to the divine injunction to study, preserve, expound, propagate and interpret the truth of His Word. It is one of bur Reformed symbols. A symbol is a declaration by a church or group of churches, wherein she declares what she believes to be the truth of the Word of God or the true doctrine of salvation. Such symbols are the spiritual children of the faith of the living and divinely guided church in the Word of God. In them the church as a whole expresses her faith. By means of them the church preserves the truth, systematically arranged and elicited from Scripture through years of diligent and difficult labor, for future generations. They are authoritative statements by that church, which has the promise of the Spirit that He will guide her into all the truth. All this applies to the Catechism also. Hence, the Catechism itself is a preaching by the church, the fruit of the church through her divinely ordained offices, and therefore ministry of the Word. In that Catechism the Reformed churches express what they believe to be the truth of the Word of God. And note especially, it is an official statement concerning, not the mere doctrine of Scripture, not some controversy issues, but the entire way of salvation as revealed in the written Word of God. Therefore the catechism is so very much in place on the pulpit. It is practical, subjective, thoroughly spiritual in character and viewpoint. It is direct and personal. Following the line of misery, redemption and gratitude, it expounds the way of salvation as revealed to us in the Scriptures, substantiating all it says with many references to Scripture itself, in order that it may be entirely clear to the church, that all it contains is directly and unmistakably from the Word of God,

And what is Catechism preaching? It is the interpretation, exposition of the Word of God as expressed by the church, officially, in her confession. It too, is preaching-by the church herself, through the divinely ordained offices, and hence in the name of and with authority of Christ Himself. It is the proclamation of Christ Himself as He is the center of all revelation. Because of its varied and deeply spiritual, practical, subjective contents, it certainly ministers to the needs of the church, opens and shuts the kingdom of heaven, feeds the elect kernel with Christ, instructs and builds up in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ. Acknowledging that no symbol as such is comparable to Scripture it always makes the Scriptures themselves its criterion, basis, source. Catechism preaching is a preaching that lets Scripture speak, that does not exegete a Lord’s Day as one would a text from the Bible, but always aims to point out the relation between the two. Therefore texts are sought and quoted by the preacher that incontrovertibly substantiate the contents of a given Lord’s Day, and these texts in particular and all of Scripture in general are made to dominate the entire preaching.

Thus preaching of the Heidelberg Catechism, is undeniably ministry of the Word. Scripture alone remains the basis and contents of the preaching. But, you say, whatever is of man may be in error and a corruption, distortion of the Word of God. Man is never infallible. True enough. However, it is far less likely that the church of Christ should err in her exposition of Scripture than that a single preacher should do so in his exegesis and interpretation of the Word of God, and every sermon, too, is after all the product of mere man. Besides, we are speaking about the Heidelberg Catechism and all who are Reformed are firmly convinced, that it expresses the truth of the Scriptures throughout. To be sure, the negative, to prove his point, that Heidelberg Catechism preaching is not ministry of the Word, has the unhappy task of showing that the contents of this symbol are not based squarely and entirely on the Word of God. Unless he can prove the latter he cannot possibly disprove the former—

Catechism preaching is ministry of the entire Word. It is this in the sense that every truth discussed is based, not on a single passage, but on the current teaching of the whole Bible. It tells us, not what a certain phrase, but what all Scripture reveals about a specific truth. Besides, so many different doctrines are treated in the Catechism, so many phases of the truth as it pertains to our salvation in Christ. For this reason regular Catechism preaching is so exceedingly edifying to the church of God. It compels the preacher to discuss every phase of the truth regularly. It brings to the attention of the church doctrines which ordinarily would never or seldom be expounded. Without Catechism preaching the true doctrine would gradually disappear out of the consciousness of the church. It is a marvelous guarantee that the church will continue to be fed with the pure and unadulterated doctrine of salvation, as long as any good at all is left in the preaching. How invaluable Catechism preaching is can be ascertained from mere observation. What becomes of churches that discard it? Examine churches that have departed from the pure truth, note the preaching in such churches, and do you not find that in as far as it is based on the Catechism the preaching is still comparatively sound, much more so than the exposition of free texts? Not only is Catechism preaching ministry of the Word, but it preserves the latter for the church. It can be abused, certainly, when it is exegeted like Scripture and exalted to a place on a par with the Word of God. However, this cannot serve as an argument against its use. Commentaries can be abused. Every good thing can be abused. What suffers more abuse than Scripture itself? Cold dogmatics and confessions, the word of man, can also dominate the exegesis when a passage directly from Scripture is preached. The Heidelberg Catechism is in a unique sense the preaching of the church of many ages and that means more to me than what a single preacher may have to say about a single text. Our Catechism is a confession that has stood the test and withstood the onslaughts of more than three long centuries.

If the preaching of the Catechism is not ministry of the Word, neither is the sermon of any minister. When a sermon is preached, is the church receiving the Word of God directly? Of course not! What she is getting is the exegesis, the exposition, the interpretation of the preacher himself, whether these be his own, or those of one commentator or another. From this point of view a sermon, too, is the work of man. Yet, in as far as that work and word is indeed according to the Scriptures, it is the ministry of the Word of God, and Christ, through His church, through the preacher, preaches and blesses His Word to the heart. This applies with equal force to the preaching of the Catechism.

If the preaching of the Catechism is not ministry of the Word, neither is Catechetical instruction. We believe that the latter is ministry of the Word to the seed of the covenant. However, it isn’t if the standpoint of the negative is to be maintained, for catechetical work is carried on by means of catechism books, which, too, are the work of mere man. Yet we know that it is ministry of the Word and that Christ will bless it to our covenant children. Likewise will He bless the faithful preaching of our Heidelberg Catechism, that blessed ministry of the divine Word for which our Reformed churches should be so deeply grateful.

R. V.