Dr. Klautke is professor in the Academy for Reformed Theology in Marburg, Germany, and a leader of the Confessing Evangelical-Reformed Congregation in Giessen.
1. History of the Heidelberg Catechism
1.1 The Origins of the Heidelberg Catechism
As the name of the Catechism suggests, it was originally written and printed in Heidelberg. This happened 450 years ago. In those days Heidelberg was the capital of the Palatinate, one of the territories within the German Empire or the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation.
The Catechism was written by a man named Zacharias Ursinus. He was born in the city of Breslan, which is located in Silesia. Breslan is now the Polish city of Wroclaw. He studied at the University of Wittenberg, where he met Philipp Melanchthon, the closest co-worker of Martin Luther. During his studies Ursinus was even allowed to stay in Melanchthon’s home. In 1560, after having finished his studies, the 26-year-old Ursinus came to Heidelberg.
At that time, Frederick III was the prince or Elector who ruled in Heidelberg over the Palatinate. His contemporaries gave him the nickname “the Pious” since he was not only very interested in theology, but he was also eager to live his life in accordance with the commandments of God. This was not uncommon among princes.
In 1562 Frederick instructed a council of theologians to write a catechism for all the churches in the Palatinate. Zacharias Ursinus became the head of this council.
But why would a government care what the churches teach? Would we not say that such an intervention is not appropriate for a ruler? Just imagine what would happen if the governor of Michigan one day decided that all the people in Michigan must hold the same confession. The governor would determine the content of that confession and would order that this document was to be the binding foundation for all the churches and schools in the entire state. This sounds very strange to our ears. But this was the situation 450 years ago. It did not even bother the people back in those days, since they were used to it.
A few years before the Catechism was written, the Diet of Augsburg had been held, which declared that every prince was to have the right to determine the confessional basis for his respective territory (1555). This so-called Peace of Augsburg meant that a Protestant person living in a territory ruled by a Roman Catholic prince either had to leave that territory or become Roman Catholic. The same was true for the Roman Catholics in Protestant territories. This is the origin of the state churches in Germany (“Landeskirchen”) that have survived until today.
The authors of the American Constitution were influenced by individualism, which focused on the freedom of conscience. This was the presupposition for their concept of religious freedom. As we all know, this idea of freedom of conscience was prefigured in the Reformation. Take for instance Luther’s famous statement before the Diet of Worms: “Here I stand, I can do no other.” In his commentary on Romans, Luther made it clear that, according to Holy Scripture, the government was not to rule over one’s conscience or over one’s innermost thoughts. Instead, the rulers control only the visible realm, that is, the actions of the individual. But individualism as the basis for religious freedom was not known back then. The breakthrough for the idea of grounding religious freedom in individualism came up a century later under such men as Oliver Cromwell and John Locke in England.
In the sixteenth century people could not imagine a situation in which citizens of a province could hold different religious convictions and live peacefully at the same time. So the Peace of Augsburg meant religious freedom, not for the individual, but for each particular territory. When Frederick III came to power in the Palatinate in 1559, the territory was already Protestant, but the Reformation had been introduced in a moderate Lutheran version. From the very beginning of his reign, Frederick was confronted with theological discussion that mainly concerned the Lord’s Supper. While listening to those debates, he became increasingly Reformed.
As a result of this, Frederick appointed Reformed men to key positions in Heidelberg. He also removed the pictures of the saints and crosses from the churches. Frederick was deeply convinced that he was obliged by the Peace of Augsburg to reform his territory. He also thought of himself as a successor of Old Testament kings such as Hezekiah or Josiah, who had initiated religious reformation in their lands.
This led him to the conviction in 1562 that a Reformed Church Order for the Palatinate was very much needed. The Heidelberg Catechism was part of this new Church Order.
After the Catechism was written in 1563 and the majority of the church leaders signed it, the first edition was printed. It included only 128 questions. The 80th question concerning the papal mass was included in the second edition, which was released shortly thereafter. Not much later than that, the third edition was published, this time dividing the Catechism into 52 Lord’s Days. After its first printing, the Heidelberg Catechism was introduced to the congregations of the Palatinate by a sermon series, and by November 1563 it gained legal status in the Palatinate.
1.2 Reactions to the Heidelberg Catechism
From the very beginning there was a variety of reactions to the Heidelberg Catechism. It was received with great enthusiasm and gratitude by many. When the Reformer of Zurich, Heinrich Bullinger, read the Catechism for the first time, he called it the best catechism ever published.
Others, however, reacted against it. The attacks on the Catechism came up immediately after its first printing. Some pastors in the Palatinate were critical of the Heidelberg Catechism simply because they did not want to be bound by one catechism. They preferred the doctrinal leeway that they had enjoyed up to that point.
The strongest opposition came from the Roman Catholic side, but also the Lutherans wrote many polemics against the Heidelberg Catechism. Some of the Lutheran princes from other German territories even sent messengers who were supposed to convince Frederick III to abolish the Heidelberg Catechism all together.
At the Diet of Augsburg (1566), many princes accused the Palatinate of not holding to the Augsburg Confession. The Emperor ordered that the new Church Order, together with the Heidelberg Catechism, was to be abolished immediately. Otherwise the Palatinate would stand outside of the Augsburg Settlement and the Elector would be subject to an Imperial ban. Frederick argued successfully against this, and the Catechism was finally granted toleration. But this debate and the many debates that followed weakened Frederick’s physical vitality. He died in 1576.
His son Louis VI (1576-1583), who succeeded him on the throne, did everything to reestablish Lutheranism in the Palatinate. He wanted to overcome the isolation that the Palatinate had experienced within the German Empire due to their insistence on the Heidelberg Catechism. He did this by instituting a Lutheran church order and Lutheran confessions. Thus the Heidelberg Catechism was abolished in the Palatinate. Many Reformed theologians, among them Ursinus, were forced to leave the Palatinate.
When Louis VI died in 1583 after having reigned for only seven years, he was succeeded by his brother, John Casimir. Under his rule the Reformed Church Order was reestablished, along with the Heidelberg Catechism. This situation lasted for the next centuries.
1.3 Acceptance and Spreading of the Heidelberg Catechism
In spite of all the struggles that surrounded the establishing of the Heidelberg Catechism within the Palatinate, it spread widely outside of the Palatinate. In the decades that followed, it was adopted by more and more German territories. In Hungary it was adopted in 1567, and also large parts of Switzerland accepted the Catechism as their confessional basis.
In the early years the Palatinate was the only Reformed territory within the German Empire. Thus it became a place of refuge for many Reformed believers who were persecuted elsewhere, such as the Huguenots from France, and also people from the Netherlands. During those years the Netherlands was involved in a war against Spain. Many people who had fled to the Palatinate learned to know the Heidelberg Catechism there. Probably the most prominent of the Dutch refugees was Peter Dathenus (1531-1588). He was the Minister of the Dutch immigrant church in the city of Frankenthal, which is near Heidelberg. The Heidelberg Catechism was translated there into Dutch and smuggled into the Netherlands. At the National Synod of
Dordt (1618/19) it was adopted as one of the creeds of the Reformed Church in the Netherlands.
The first English version was published in 1572. It is very likely that it was taken to North America by immigrants in the late sixteenth century. In 1628 the first Reformed pastor came to New Amsterdam, later New York. The governor at that time (1650s), Peter Stuyvesant (1612-1672), who was himself the son of a Reformed minister, gave the order that the Word of God was to be preached in accordance with the established Reformed tradition in agreement with the Synod of Dordt. By this order, which was very early in United States history, the Catechism had officially arrived in North America.
2. The Purpose of the Heidelberg Catechism
Frederick III gave the answer to the question of the purpose of the Heidelberg Catechism in his preface by naming two purposes. The Catechism was supposed to serve the temporal as well as the eternal well-being of his people.
2.1 For Temporal Well-being
When we read the term “temporal well-being,” we have to bear in mind that everything that came from the Palatinate in those years was looked on with suspicion by Lutheran and Catholic princes. This was the reason why Frederick III considered it of high importance to declare to others what the Reformed actually believe. The Heidelberg Catechism was supposed to be that confession.
However, the Catechism also had an internal function for the Palatinate itself. Frederick III was convinced that ambiguity in the doctrinal beliefs of his people would lead to chaos and the downfall of his territory. The Church Order, to which the Heidelberg Catechism belongs, includes the following passage: “The primary purpose is to prevent that church and society will decay by sinful human nature.” Since the Heidelberg Catechism functioned as the basis for faith and teaching in the Palatinate, it was supposed to be the unifying tie that stabilized the Reformation in the Palatinate.
2.2 For Eternal Salvation
As important as the temporal purpose of the Heidelberg Catechism was, its purpose was not only that the Christians in the Palatinate should live a quiet life for the stability of the territory. The main purpose was and is the eternal salvation of man. It was about the communication of truth—the truth that is indispensable for the eternal salvation of the person that is to be instructed (the catechumen). The idea was that the student himself would answer. These answers were to be verbal. The student was called to give a testimony and to live according to it.
The Catechism was meant to serve as a bridge for the believer between his baptism and his partaking of the Lord’s Supper. This comes to expression within the Church Order of the Palatinate itself. The Catechism was placed between the section on the regulation of baptism and the section on the regulation of the Lord’s Supper. It all had to do with instruction about God’s covenant. Frederick III wrote in the church order of the Palatinate: “As the children of Israel were circumcised and, when they were old enough to understand, were taught the covenant of God and the signs of that covenant, so our children should be taught in the true Christian faith and repentance, after they have received baptism.”
For this purpose the primary task was to teach Christian doctrine to the people—especially to the young people. Thus the Heidelberg Catechism has an educational (teaching) function. Frederick III saw the terrible lack of knowledge of God’s Word and the absence of upright Christian living.
In referring to Exodus 12:13 and Deuteronomy 4:6 and 11, he reminds us that God has given the clear order to teach the children. He expresses his distress over the fact that many churches ignored that commandment. To improve the situation, there was a reading from the Heidelberg Catechism during the morning service, and in the afternoon service it was the basis for the preaching. The latter was something entirely unique at the time. The fact that the Heidelberg Catechism was used for preaching was the reason for dividing it into 52 sections (“Lord’s Days”).
Contributing to the Catechism’s richness is the completeness of the Scripture quotes. This demonstrated that the Catechism is rooted in Scripture and that it is best understood as a means to understand God’s Word and to live according to it, as Q/A 98 states that God will have His people taught by the lively preaching of His Word. This instruction should be given not only in churches but also in schools, that the youth would be “piously educated.” The exact title of the Heidelberg Catechism is: Catechism or Christian Instruction according to the usages of the churches and schools [!] of the Electoral Palatinate.
Of course, primarily it is the parents’ duty to teach their children the content of the gospel, for which the Catechism can serve as a tremendous help.
The Heidelberg Catechism was written to teach healthy doctrine that also heals its hearers. The apostle Paul writes “ye have obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine which was delivered you” (Rom. 6:17). The Heidelberg Catechism can serve as this “form of doctrine.” The Christian does not live by separate Bible verses, but by a whole biblical system that has been “delivered” to him.
This means that the educational intention of the Heidelberg Catechism is not about a mere transfer of information; it is about being gripped personally by the gospel and its mighty truths. This is why the Heidelberg Catechism uses personal pronouns such as “your,” “mine” and “I.” “What is your only comfort in life and death? That I belong to my savior with body and soul.” Another example is the answer to question 26: “I believe that the eternal Father is my God and my Father.” The church’s purpose in teaching the confessions is that their content will become a personal confession. It must become my confession.
It is also important to note that, as much as the Heidelberg Catechism keeps the simple, uneducated reader in mind, it is not solely a children’s book. One never grows out of it. The Heidelberg Catechism is intended, like the Bible, for lifelong and active use.
Closely connected to the didactic purpose is the apologetic purpose. The Heidelberg Catechism is not only about teaching what is right, but also about teaching what is not right. It shows that the Christian must test the spirits and that he must say ‘no’ to false teaching. Right from the start of church history the purpose of dogmas, confessions, and catechisms was to reject false teachings.
Due to the historical context, we find that the Catechism primarily draws its political lines against Catholicism. From 1545 (with interruptions) the Roman Catholic Church held a council in Trent, which aimed to attack Reformation doctrine. As a part of its Counter-Reformation efforts, the Roman Catholic Church sent its pamphlets all over Europe.
When Catholic pamphlets made their way to the Palatinate, it became a pastoral necessity to speak a clarifying word into the situation. In late 1562 the Council of Trent decided the doctrine of the papal mass. The leadership in the Palatinate reacted by inserting the famous Q/A 80 into the second edition of the Heidelberg Catechism, which states that the papal mass is an accursed idolatry.
Q/A 80 is probably the best known anti-Catholic statement, but it is not the only one. The Catechism speaks out against the veneration of saints (Q/A 30), against justification by works (Q/A 62-64), against Baptismal Regeneration (Q/A 72), against prayers to the saints (Q/A 94), and against worship through images (Q/A 97-98).
Even though attacking Roman Catholic doctrines is one of the most prominent aims of the Catechism, it also shows the differences between the Reformed faith and the beliefs of the Anabaptists. A well-known issue that the Catechism addresses in this context is the question of infant baptism (Q/A 74). Another difference between the Catechism and Anabaptist theology is the permission to take an oath in certain situations (Q/A 101) and the emphasis on submitting to the government, which the Heidelberg Catechism derives from the 5th commandment (Q/A 104). In its explanation of the 6th commandment, the Catechism points to the right of the government to use the sword against evildoers (“…to prevent murder…”—Q/A 105). All of this would not have been necessary if there were no Anabaptists in the Palatinate.
Finally, the Catechism opposes (Gnesio-)Lutheranism. This controversy has mainly to do with the Reformed rejection of the Lutheran doctrine of the ubiquity of the human nature of Christ. This doctrine in turn formed the basis for the Lutheran understanding of the Lord’s Supper. That is why four questions deal with the ascension of Christ (Q/A 46-49), whereas only one question deals with His resurrection (Q/A 45). In dealing with the matter of Christ’s ascension, the Heidelberg Catechism rejects the Lutheran doctrine of the ubiquity of Christ’s human nature (Q/A 47).
Although it is necessary for the church to attack false doctrine, it is not her primary task to argue. The church’s main calling is true worship of the triune God. Therefore, the confessions—from their very beginning—also have a doxological function.
This purpose, to praise God in the right manner, is reflected in the Heidelberg Catechism. Next to the educational and apologetic purposes, the Heidelberg Catechism aims at giving to the church the proper language to use when she worships the triune God. I want to remind us of the last Q/A of the Heidelberg Catechism: “…my prayer is more assuredly heard of God, than I feel in my heart that I desire these things of Him.” If we can say this, we truly praise God, who has become our Father through Jesus Christ.