Rev. Cammenga is pastor of Southwest Protestant Reformed Church in Grandville, Michigan.
The ministers 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.
Church Order, Article 68
Heidelberg Catechism preaching—a time-honored tradition in Reformed churches.
Over the years sermons on the Heidelberg Catechism have been a regular part of the spiritual diet of Reformed Christians around the world. Generations of men and women have lived out their 70 or 80 years listening to forty or more Catechism sermons each year. Nearly half of all the preaching done by Reformed preachers—preachers still faithful to the Church Order, that is—is Catechism preaching.
But if Catechism preaching is going to survive into the future, it must be more than merely a “tradition” among us, more than merely compliance with Article 68. Pulpit and pew alike must understand the basis for Heidelberg Catechism preaching.
Only then will there continue to be appreciation for sermons that expound the Catechism.
Only then will there continue to be regard for the outstanding benefits derived from this method of preaching.
History of the Homiletical Use of the Catechism
Nearly from the time of its first publication in 1563, the Heidelberg Catechism was preached. Besides serving as a confession and an instructional tool for the youth, it also became early on the text of sermons.
The first documented use of the Catechism for preaching was by Peter Gabriel, minister in Amsterdam, in 1566. It is apparent that he was not alone in this practice, but one of several Dutch Reformed ministers who preached to their congregations regularly from the Heidelberg Catechism.
It was also in 1566 that the Catechism was published for the first time with the questions and answers numbered and divided into fifty-two “Lord’s Days.” It was precisely the purpose of this organization to facilitate the Catechism’s use in preaching.
The practice of preaching from a catechism did not originate with the Heidelberg Catechism. Already before the publication of the Heidelberg Catechism, other existing catechisms were used in preaching. Among Lutheran ministers sermons were often made on the basis of Luther’s Catechism. And after the Heidelberg Catechism made its first appearance, some ministers still preferred to use other catechisms in their preaching, as, for example, the Catechism of Geneva. Gradually, however, the Heidelberg Catechism won out over these other catechisms, largely because of its superior suitability for preaching.
Several synods of the Reformed churches in the Netherlands encouraged the Catechism’s use in preaching before the synod of the Hague, in 1586, made preaching of the Heidelberg Catechism mandatory. Already a question was put to the synod of Dordrecht, 1574, regarding the advisability of Catechism preaching. The synod decided:
The answer to the question of Walcheren whether it would be good that good homilies based on the Catechism be made is as follows: This shall be left as it is [that is, optional, RC], but it would be good if the ministers in an orderly manner take turns in the classical meeting to explain in summary form a question or two from the Catechism and in this way teach and sensitize each other and also learn to explain the Catechism thoroughly to the congregation in an orderly and edifying manner.
The synod of Dordrecht, 1578, encouraged the preaching of a sermon based on the Heidelberg Catechism in the afternoon service after the administration of the Lord’s Supper.
The synod of Middelburg, 1581, was asked to produce an exposition of the Heidelberg Catechism that might aid the ministers in preparing Catechism sermons.
Question: Whether it would be good to make some explanations of the Catechism in the form of homilies or something similar for beginners?
Answer: Jeremias Bastingius and the Classis of Walloon are considering this and, working on the Catechism of our churches, shall bring together and shall produce not homilies but exegesis which, having been examined by the Classis of Brabant and Walloon, shall be distributed.
It was the synod of The Hague, 1586, that was the first Dutch Reformed synod to make Heidelberg Catechism preaching mandatory.
Ministers shall on each Lord’s Day, generally, in the afternoon sermons, briefly explain the sum of Christian doctrine contained in the Catechism, which at present is accepted in the Netherlands churches, in such a way that it may be finished annually, following the division of the Catechism itself, made for that purpose.
The Synod of Dordrecht, 1618-’19, after carefully examining the Heidelberg Catechism, opposed any changes in the Catechism, changes for which the Remonstrants had been agitating. In its 148th Session, May 1, 1619, the Great Synod passed a resolution affirming that the Heidelberg Catechism
… formed altogether a most accurate compend of the orthodox Christian faith; being, with singular skill, not only adapted to the understanding of the young, but suited also for the advantageous instruction of older persons; so that it could continue to be taught with great edification in the Belgic churches, and ought by all means to be retained.
Out of this conviction, the Synod of Dordrecht reaffirmed the decision of the synod of The Hague requiring weekly Heidelberg Catechism sermons.
From the beginning of their existence the Protestant Reformed Churches have been committed to regular Heidelberg Catechism preaching. It is the requirement of our Church Order. It is the practice in our churches. It is the unquestioned duty of our ministers.
The churches are serious about safeguarding the practice. At every annual church visitation the question is put to the consistory: “Is the Heidelberg Catechism regularly explained in the services for divine worship, so that no doctrine is left untreated?”
A difficulty sometimes arises when a congregation is vacant. It is not always possible to have regular Catechism preaching when a congregation is led in worship by different ministers each Lord’s Day. But even when a congregation is vacant, it is advisable that the elders make arrangements to have Catechism preaching as regularly as possible.
A question sometimes arises about the advisability of Heidelberg Catechism preaching on the mission field. It must be granted that Article 68 applies to the preaching in established congregations. Nevertheless, the Heidelberg Catechism is eminently suited for use on the mission field. It was designed as an instructional tool for the young and for recent converts. The fifty-two Lord’s Days cover all the fundamental doctrines of Holy Scripture. Our missionaries ought to be encouraged to preach the Catechism on the mission field.
Heidelberg Catechism Preaching as the Preaching of the Word of God
Over the years numerous objections have been raised against Heidelberg Catechism preaching. We are not going to take the time to answer all of these objections. There is, however, one objection that we ought to face. That is the accusation that Heidelberg Catechism preaching is not preaching of the Word of God.
This is the most serious of all the objections. If it is true, the Reformed churches have been guilty of the most heinous sin a church can be guilty of—not preaching the Word of God. And they have been guilty of this sin for over 400 years!
The charge that Heidelberg Catechism preaching is not the preaching of the Word of God is fallacious. The accusation can quickly be put to rest.
Heidelberg Catechism preaching is the preaching of the Word of God inasmuch as its contents stand in full agreement with the Word of God—as every Reformed minister avows who signs the “Formula of Subscription.” The Catechism is itself a faithful explanation of the Word of God. This makes preaching on the Catechism preaching the Word of God.
The fact is that much of the Catechism is taken directly from the Bible: the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer are examples. There are over 650 Scripture references throughout the 120 questions and answers of the Catechism. Copious Scripture references line the outside margins of every page. All of Scripture has been consulted, and its teaching on every fundamental truth has been incorporated into the Lord’s Days. There really can be no doubt that faithful Heidelberg Catechism preaching is preaching of the Word of God.
This is the testimony, too, of Reformed believers who live under Heidelberg Catechism preaching. They hear this preaching as the Word of God. Christ’s voice, the voice of the Good Shepherd, is heard in the Catechism sermons. They experience the good use of this preaching by the power of the Holy Spirit in their lives and in the lives of their children.
How the Catechism Is to be Preached
An important question is, “How is the Catechism to be preached? What method ought to be followed in preaching the Catechism?”
The Church Order answers this question: “The ministers shall on Sunday explain briefly … the Heidelberg Catechism….” The Catechism is to be preached. The Catechism is to be explained. The language of the Catechism is to be exegeted. Very really, the particular Lord’s Day or part of a Lord’s Day is the “text” of the sermon. In his sermon the minister must deal with the words, phrases, sentences, and thoughts expressed in the Catechism.
The method that is to be rejected is that of preaching on a text of Scripture and only referring to the Catechism. Or, what is worse, using the Catechism as a jumping-off point for the sermon, to which point the preacher never really returns in the course of his sermon. This is to pay mere lip-service to the requirement of Article 68 of the Church Order.
Although the Catechism itself must be preached, this does not prohibit the judicious use of a text or passage of Scripture in connection with the exposition of the Catechism. This certainly may and ought to be done. Concerning this, the late Prof. H.C. Hoeksema writes:
The minister must not forget to leave the impression with the congregation that even in Catechism preaching he administers the Word of God … we make the point that this ought to be explicit in the preaching. It is a good custom, therefore, that at the beginning of the sermon the minister quotes a few pertinent texts and points the congregation to them as the basis of the instruction contained in the particular Lord’s Day on which he is preaching. And while it is not always equally possible to be explicit on this in (the) course of one’s sermon, the minister should certainly let his sermon as much as possible be controlled by the Scriptures. We may remark, too, that frequently it is appropriate as well as enriching to make room in the sermon for a brief explanation of this or that related passage of Scripture (p. 43).
VanDellen and Monsma state:
It may be said in this connection that Catechism sermons should be so constructed that the Congregation sees very clearly that the truths embodied in the Catechism are indeed but reproductions of God’s own Word (The Church Order Commentary, p. 277).
Always the Catechism must be preached in the light of Scripture. Each time the Catechism is preached, it must be shown that its contents are based upon and derived from Scripture. Ultimately the faith of God’s people must be made to rest in Jesus Christ as He is revealed in Scripture.
This may be done, as has been suggested, by reference at the beginning of the sermon to various Scripture passages on which the teaching of a particular Lord’s Day rests. Often ministers conclude the reading of these references with the formula, “On these and similar passages of Holy Writ is based the teaching of Lord’s Day….”
Another approach is to make use of the passage or part of the passage used for the Scripture reading in the course of the sermon. The passage, then, underlies the main truth set forth in the Lord’s Day or an important aspect of that truth.
Some freedom must be granted here, each minister doing what he is most comfortable with and what, in his judgment, is most edifying for the congregation.
Preaching Through the Catechism in One Year
Article 68 of the Church Order stipulates that the preaching of the Catechism shall “… as much as possible … be annually completed, according to the division of the Catechism itself, for that purpose.”
The fact of the matter is that it is impossible to complete the Catechism in a year’s time.
One reason for this is that there are often “special” services at which the Catechism is not preached: baptism services, Lord’s Supper, and various Christian holidays, like Easter and Pentecost. Often a minister is forced to be absent from his pulpit due to classical appointments, vacation, attendance at synod, and so forth.
Besides, it simply is not often possible to cover all of the material in a given Lord’s Day in one sermon. A hasty treatment of the Catechism does not do justice to the Catechism. Many of the Lord’s Days contain an abundance of material. Although a minister need not attempt to exhaust each Lord’s Day every time through the Catechism, often more than one sermon is necessary before he is ready to move on to the next Lord’s Day.
We ought to understand the rationale for the requirement of Article 68 that as much as possible the preaching through the Catechism be completed annually. The intent was not so much to assure that within one year all the fifty-two Lord’s Days of the Catechism would be preached, as to insure that there would be regular, uninterrupted preaching on the Catechism. If the ministers were required to preach through the Catechism in a year’s time, they would be forced to “stick with it” and not preach on the Catechism only sporadically.
It is good, therefore, that there is a certain amount of flexibility in Article 68: “… as much as possible….” The minister ought to take proper advantage of that flexibility.
But this flexibility must never become an excuse for a minister to become irregular and negligent in preaching Catechism sermons. The minister may not weary of Catechism preaching and so begin to ignore his duty. Usually this begins gradually The minister does not preach a Catechism sermon every Sunday he could or should. This laxity has crept into several denominations today where once Catechism preaching was a recognized institution. Already in 1902 the synod of the Christian Reformed Church was cognizant of this laxity and issued the following exhortation to the churches:
With a view to dangers from without that threaten sound doctrine, and in consideration of the great need of, and the very meager interest in the regular development of dogmatical truths, Synod emphasizes the time-honored custom of Catechism preaching, and the Classes are urged to give proper attention to this matter, that the regular consideration of the Catechism may be observed.
Here elders and church visitors have a responsibility. Elders must see to it that their minister is faithful in carrying out the duty of Catechism preaching. They must see to it that he preaches the Catechism and that he preaches the Catechism regularly. Church visitors must not fail to inquire into this at the annual church visitation, admonishing those who may be negligent, and reporting such negligence to the classis.
May Catechism preaching not only survive, but thrive in our churches. May God give to our preachers the ability to make good Catechism sermons. And may He use Catechism preaching for the instruction, growth, and comfort of His people, young and old alike.
Thus the church will be saved—preaching’s great goal.
And thus God’s name will be glorified—preaching’s still greater goal.