Debate: Negative (RESOLVED:—That Heidelberg Catechism Preaching is Ministry of the Word)


It will be understood that in undertaking the negative arguments in this debate it is only with great reluctance that I contribute my side. The work that we shall discuss has so endeared itself to the hearts of thousands upon thousands of God’s people; the throb of life resounding in it is so correspondent to the life that throbs in the life of the Christian; the true church of God, in what we hold to be its purest historical manifestation has, so consistently used it and so strongly defended it against the inpugnments of the enemies; and we as Protestant Reformed Christians find this treasure of the age of our fathers so valuable that one hesitates to give even the impression that we as Christians are not united in its use and on its value.

Yet I believe the resolution, as stated above must in some measure, be consciously considered by us all in order to maintain the only safeguard against dead orthodoxy and blind adulation and worship of confessions.

And these considerations which I shall bring forward may well be taken as ground to question whether preaching of the Heidelberg Catechism is truly Ministry of the Word.

For what is ministry of the Word of God? We may define it as the proclamation of the Gospel of our salvation, as the Bible sets it forth in all its various phases and in its one mighty emphasis, for the deliverance of God’s people progressively from the dominion of Satan and this present evil world and its resultant physical desolation, and the hardening and condemnation of the wicked, unto the glory of the Triune covenant God. And this implies the proclamation in such a way that this full revelation, this “whole counsel of God” is brought to bear upon our personal lives and times.

Secondly, what is preaching of the Heidelberg Catechism? To be honest we will have to define this as the exposition of the words of a given Lord’s Day without anticipation or retrospection, and that as words of unqualified and infallible authority.

It will be evident that so taken these two cannot be taken as equivalent, that Heidelberg Catechism cannot be preaching of the Word of God. Let me first of all state some very strong presumptions against such an equivalence.

In the first place the Heidelberg Catechism is principally the work of one man. Let us not lose sight of this. A careful reading of the history leaves no doubt that regardless of the persons, the faculty, the district superintendents, and councilors that are mentioned as advisors the work grew from the heart and mind of one man—Ursinus. Even the possible retort that it was approved by the annual Synod of 1863, in the face of much criticism bears no weight when we reflect that much of the criticism was politically motivated, other was directed against the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper and against some of the marginal proof texts. The criticism did not result in any revision or recasting of note. It remains the work of—Ursinus.

Even the very acclaim with which it was received on the great Synod of Dordt strongly detracts from the probability of a careful study of the work as a whole on that occasion, and the few points that were specifically named for consideration were rather suppressed than discussed. How this would come about may easily be understood by comparing it with the method so often observed and complained of today in the larger church bodies. A committee is appointed to give advice regarding doctrine or conduct. One member of the committee takes the initiative and composes a document, the other members listen to the reading of the document and “see no reason for dissent”; thereupon the broader ecclesiastical body hears it read, and for want of time, enthusiasm or courage easily gives a half-hearted approval, perhaps with mental reservations, perhaps with few feebly stated objections. And even when the approval is loud it is with a vengeance, not having in mind the work as a whole but a certain favorite portion or even a favored person or small group. The loud acclaim (Lautesten Beifall) there accorded our Catechism stands strongly in that light.

I consider that hereby the one-man authorship of the work remains sustained. And on this characteristic rests that first damaging presumption that what one man with his personal bias, his own peculiar spiritual experiences and his own peculiar bent of mind, has produced cannot be a balanced and full reproduction of the Gospel.

A second strong presumption against accepting it as an authoritative text for the proclamation of the Gospel is that it was written at a time when the doctrine of the Reformation was only in the beginning of thorough consideration and formulation. How can we maintain the Catechism as a perfect reflection of the mind of the church when we see the few short years in which it rooted, namely, 1517 (a terminus by Which we give the affirmative an gratuitously overflowing measure, of course) to 1563, as compared with the 375 years of doctrinal development, since its composition.

But there is a third damaging presumption, somewhat related to the immediately preceding. I mean the fact that also from the viewpoint of its practical application it was written with a view to 16th century life conditions and problems. And do not retort that this is true as well of the Scriptures. For though the Scriptures bear the characteristics of their times, yet they rise farabove them all by the principles they set forth so effectively precisely in, against and through those divinely chosen backgrounds. That which in Scripture is framed by the selective operation eternal, divine wisdom for its most effective presentation is in the Catechism framed by one man’s mind which was necessarily limited in its perceptions finite perspectives and temporal horizons.

So much for these very annoying presumptions against the unqualified trustworthiness of the Catechism.

And I hasten to adduce a class of arguments that are still more damaging to such a trustworthiness. I mean the demonstrable weaknesses and errors as such in the work, weaknesses that always necessitate a passing apology, circumvention or rectification.

We may begin immediately with the weakness of Lord’s Day I. It is well known that the viewpoint of this section is Anthropocentric (Man-centered) instead of Theocentric. This cannot be neutralized by gleaning and adducing expressions from other parts of the work or from the author’s Commentary. For Lord’s Day I is meant to stand as an epitome or summary of the Christian’s only comfort, and is to characterize the spirit of the whole. It is very weighty by position, it is normative by design, and when honestly used, will necessarily have to give a tone and viewpoint in harmony with the purported theocentricity of the material proper.

A similar defect is found in Qu. 41: Why was He also buried? A. Thereby to prove that He was really dead. In the light of the Scriptures we know that the actuality of the death was established by quite other proofs and that the idea of burial carried quite another thought and symbolism. Even the most charitable commentators consider this a very poor and somewhat naive instruction.

I must also point to the faultiness of Q. 44: He descended into hell. The descent into Hades, the abode of the dead, as Scripture teaches it was by the Apostolicum conceived as a descent into the abode of the lost (ad inferna, ad inferos) and the Catechism continues and adds to the confusion by retaining the order of the Apostolicum, by saying, Why is there added (Waarom volgt er?) He descended, etc., and then develops that which should have been treated previously under “he suffered” and “Why. . . .crucified” in Q. 37, 39.

Of a somewhat different nature is the defect that we may call a lack of due proportion. To demonstrate this we may signalize on the one hand the extensive, cumbersome, repetitious discussion of the sacraments, and compare it with the lack of any systematic treatment of the doctrine of election, which has been well called the Heart of the Church. This means that the gospel on these two specific points will simply receive a distorted presentation as to their relation and relative values. It is not evident that the man who wrote our Catechism was not able to lift his gaze above his own time and that what he conceived to be of almost superlative importance is in the light of further Scripture study and a more objective and dispassionate study clarified and reduced to its proper proportion. And on the other hand it is equally evident that the “Heart of the Church” was practically neglected whether through personal lack of evaluation, or through political and ecclesiastical considerations.

The final result is an untrue picture of the whole, a gospel that is not above the weakness and limitations of the creature but that is limited by the mind and the perspectives and horizons of limited man.

These many arguments will, I trust, elicit from all those competent to judge, the verdict that notwithstanding the unsurpassed beauty, the almost prophetic spirit, power and discernment that mark our Catechism, yet Heidelberg Catechism preaching is not preaching of the Word of God.