Preaching from the Heidelberg Catechism (Article 68, D.K.O.)

One of the oldest customs in Reformed Churches is the practice of preaching once a Sunday from the Heidelberg Catechism. It is said that the practice began as early as 1566. Twelve years later the Synod of Dordt decided that after the Lord’s Supper had been served on Sunday afternoons the minister should proceed to preach on the Catechism as usual but it was not until 1586 that a synodical decision governing this matter was incorporated into the Church Order. At that time the Synod of ‘s Gravenhage adopted the following:

“The ministers shall everywhere on Sunday, ordinarily in the afternoon sermon, explain briefly the summary of Christian doctrine contained in the Catechism, which at this time has been accepted in the Netherland Churches, in such a way that this explanation may be finished annually following the division of the Catechism itself as made for this purpose.”

If we bear in mind that the Catechism was not written and adopted by the synod until 1563 and, according to the intention of Frederick III who had requested its composition, it was originally designed to be used for the instruction of the youth in the churches and schools, it is rather remarkable that this practice of preaching from the Catechism sprang up so soon.

At first, however, this practice was not generally accepted. In his “Church Right” the Rev. Ophoff tells us: “But in many places the congregations did not like it, so that, when the preaching was from the Catechism, the attendance was small. In some places no one went to church when there was Catechism preaching. The result was that many ministers stopped preaching Catechism sermons. That the Netherland Reformed Churches of that time included a large carnal element is evident from the complaints of the churches of Vriesland and Overijsel on the International Synod of Dordrecht, 1618-19. They complained about the failure of the ministers to preach Catechism sermons, among whom were also those, they said, who held but one service on the Sabbath and that in the morning. They complained about the failure of many ministers to admonish the people to attend divine services, and of the difficulty of keeping the people on the farms from their play and work on the Sabbath; and about the dislike of the Remonstrants to Catechism preaching. They complained too about the lethargy of the government in maintaining the rest of the Sabbath and its allowing work on the farms.”

It appears from this entire quotation that the real cause for opposition to Catechism preaching was not the dislike of that kind of preaching as such but is rather to be found in the general spiritual condition of the church at that time. The “volkskerk” was very weak. Many had joined the Reformation movement who did not belong with it. There was a lack of real spiritual hunger for the Word of God. They simply did not care to go to church more than once on Sunday. In our day this spirit of spiritual laxity and indifference is also very much present. Churches are crowded for the morning service and the Sunday School but the evening services are but sparsely attended. No wonder that some Reformed Churches have all but eliminated Catechism preaching in preference to the popular topical preaching. Others are about to do so—a mark of still further decline.

In an attempt to correct this situation the synod of Dordt passed several resolutions. We find these in Jansen’s “Korte Verklaring.”

“1. Synod reiterated the decision of the Synod of 1586 regarding Catechism preaching. Ministers who should fail to do their duty in this respect would be censured. Catechism sermons should be brief and understandable to the common people.

“2. No minister should neglect to maintain this service because the attendance is small. Though only the minister’s own family should be in attendance, he should proceed. This would be a good example.

“3. The government was to be asked to forbid all unnecessary Sunday labor, and especially sports, drinking parties, etc., so that people might learn to hallow the Sabbath day and come to church regularly.

“4. Every church should have its own minister as much as possible and unnecessary combinations of two or more churches should be severed, or else the catechism sermons should be maintained at least every other Sunday afternoon.

“5. Church Visitors were charged to take close note of this matter regarding every church. Negligent, unwilling ministers had to be reported to Classis for censure. Confessing members who refused to attend the catechism sermons seemingly had to be censured also.”

From all of this it is evident that the Reformed fathers regarded Catechism preaching as an important and necessary thing. By incorporating the above quoted article in the Church Order they made it a mandatory practice. With only slight modification this article has been preserved in our Church Order unto the present day.

In 1905 the synod of the Christian Reformed Church in our country added to that part of the article which speaks of explaining the catechism annually, the phrase, “as much as possible.” Then in 1914 the phrase “which at this time has been accepted in the Netherlands Churches” was dropped since this was not necessary for the churches here. At the same time the synod omitted the provision that the preaching of the Catechism take place during the afternoon service and it inserted the word “Heidelberg” before “Catechism.” Thus our present redaction reads as follows:

“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” (Art. 68, D.K.O.). Our readers undoubtedly know that in late years the Christian Reformed Church has been considering a rather broad revision of the Church Order. In this proposed revision we find this article:

“Art. 57. In the services of the Word, Holy Scriptures shall be explained and applied. At one of the services each Sunday the minister shall briefly explain the doctrine of Holy Scripture as summarized in the Heidelberg Catechism, in consecutive order, without omissions, according to the division of the Catechism into its Lord’s Day sections” (The Banner, Dec. 1956).

The expression “Catechism preaching” is in a certain way a rather unfortunate one. It might leave one who is not acquainted with the customs of Reformed Churches with a wrong impression. Critics have seized upon it and accused those who support the idea of failing to preach the Scriptures. They contend that preaching must be preaching of the Word and not of any man-made confession. Now we will certainly agree with this contention but we deny the inference that catechism-preaching is not the preaching of the Word. The Heidelberg Catechism is not a book that is next to or apart from the Bible but it contains in systematic order an arrangement of the truths of the Word of God and that from the viewpoint of the conscious experience of the child of God. It does not aim to be dogmatical although it necessarily contains all the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith. These doctrines it arranges around the general theme of the Christian’s all comprehensive comfort. It depicts the awful reality of sin and sets forth the truth with regard to the believer’s experiences in that misery of sin wherein he finds himself “incapable of doing any good and inclined to all evil.” It describes elaborately the redemption of the believer in Christ, the only Mediator between God and man. It explains the various soteriological truths in their proper relation to each other. Finally, this beautiful confession points to true Christian living when it expounds the law of God as the norm for a life of gratitude and explains the meaning and necessity of prayer for the child of God. All these truths (doctrines) are based upon the Word of God and when, therefore, they are preached in their proper succession, it is indeed the Word of God that is preached. Perhaps it would be better to speak of the preaching of the catechism as based upon God’s Holy Word.

In this connection we cannot entirely agree with the contention of Monsma and Van Dellen as found on page 279 of “The Church Order Commentary.” Here they write:

“Should a text from the Bible be chosen and quoted together with the Lord’s Day division of the Catechism as text for the sermon? No. This practice may lead some people to think that a catechism sermon is really not a sermon on the Word of God. This erroneous conception should not be encouraged in the least. Furthermore, no Lord’s Day division of the Catechism is based on a single Bible passage. If a minister desires to quote the Biblical foundation for any given Lord’s Day division, then he shall have to quote a good many passages. And in some instances the doctrine deduced is not found in so many words in any Bible passage, but is rather the legitimate conclusion based on certain facts clearly revealed.

“We deem that it is better, far better, for the minister to quote and interpret Scripture in the body of the sermon so that the congregation feels instinctively that the minister is really bringing them God’s own Word. “At the beginning of the catechism sermon, as he announces his sermon, let the minister use some statement as follows: ‘The Word of God, congregation, as I expound and apply it for you at this time, is summarized for us in Lord’s Day division . . . of our Catechism.’ Then let him read the Lord’s Day division.”

We said that we cannot entirely agree with this. Our point is that we believe that the authors are mistaken when they hold that a single Bible text cannot be chosen and quoted together with a given Lord’s Day. We hold that this is very proper. Then the text is preached and the congregation feels instinctively that they are receiving the Word of God. Then the truths expressed in the particular Lord’s Day are brought out in connection with the exposition of the Word of God and the congregation is given to understand that the Confession certainly expresses the truth of the Word of God. Now it may be granted that in so preaching from the catechism, one cannot cover all of the material of every given Lord’s Day. This, however, is not necessary and it is even impossible unless this is done in a very superficial manner. But the catechism is preached again and again, year after year, so why not approach this beautiful confession from different viewpoints and in doing so one can easily extract from the Lord’s Day the particular phase of the truth he desires to emphasize in a given exposition, and then using a singular text from the Word of God he brings his point across. Neither is it necessary then to quote a good many passages of Scripture. A single text will generally suffice if only that text is rightly divided and expounded for the instruction, correction, comfort and admonition of the church. In the course of the sermon other passages of God’s Word may certainly be brought in to substantiate and enrich the truth being explained but the basis of the sermon remains the text chosen. And the truths of the Confession will become richer to the church as she more and more understands that these truths have their inerrant basis in the gospel that is preached unto her.

—G.V.d.B.