There is another Frederick in the story of the HC. His name among us ought to be as infamous as Frederick III’s is famous. This other Frederick is the Italian Isaac Frederici (pron: Freh-deh-REE-chee). Among those who love the HC, the name Isaac Frederici ought to be as black as the name Jakob Harmen, aka Jacobus Arminius.
Among readers of the SB the name Arminius likely is a dirty word. I was reminded of that—and both encouraged and slightly amused—by what happened recently on a high school class trip to Chicago. One of the young students spotted an Armenian restaurant and said, somewhat alarmed, “I didn’t know they had their own restaurants!” “They” obviously meaning Arminians with an “i”. Of course, the theologically sensitive young lady was not aware that the ethnic group called Armenians (with an “e”) has nothing to do with the heretical teaching of Arminius (with an “i”). Arminius is infamous among the Reformed.
The name Frederici should have similar opprobrium poured upon it. Isaac Frederici attended the Synod of Dordt as one of the representatives of the Remonstrants—the Arminians. Hailing from Utrecht in the Netherlands, Frederici’s unique distinction was his assignment to offer before the Synod official objections to preaching the HC. As we all know from history, the Great Synod was unmoved by his objections and quickly reinforced the mandate to preach weekly from the beautiful confession of Reformed churches.
Frederici is representative of a long line of objectors to the preaching of the HC. Many since have repeated his objections. Thankfully, I have not heard from very many such objectors in recent decades. And I thank God that his objections did not win the day at Dordt.
For the HC must be preached! And preach it we will, for the defense and preservation of the churches in the truth.
The preacher’s mandate
It is worth noting that the Church Orders of almost all Reformed Churches (not of our Presbyterian brothers, but that’s another story) mandate the preaching of the HC. The Church Order of the PRC, although slightly different from some others, is representative. “The ministers shall on Sunday explain briefly the sum of Christian doctrine comprehended in the HC, so that as much as possible the explanation shall be annually completed, according to the division of the catechism itself for that purpose.”
In one form or another this is still the official mandate of the Canadian Reformed, Christian Reformed, Free Reformed, German Reformed (RCUS), Heritage Reformed, Netherlands Reformed, Reformed Church in America, and United Reformed denominations; to say nothing of a number of Reformed churches of Dutch background in countries outside the North American continent. Even though some of the regulations weaken the mandate to make it almost impotent, and among some the mandate is perhaps not enforced, it is nevertheless notable that all these churches charge their ministers to preach the HC.
In many denominations, this mandate of the Church Order is reinforced (or enforced) by the annual visitation of the churches by representatives of their classis. In the PRC, each consistory is asked: “Is the HC regularly explained in the services for divine worship, so that no doctrine is left unexplained?” Strikingly, second only to the fundamental question, “Is the word administered at least twice on the Lord’s Day?” comes this question about Catechism preaching.
This concern of the classes (regional gatherings of the churches) has an interesting history. One of the original questions for Church Visitation was more pointed: “Does his [the minister’s] work give evidence of diligent study, particularly his preaching of the HC?” In 1902, when the CRC noticed laxity already then in HC preaching, they responded with a significant decision pressing classes to “give proper attention to the matter.” But the tradition of the churches’ mutual oversight of HC preaching roots back in the first decades of HC preaching in the Netherlands. In 1667 the Friesian Classis of Woodster lamented, “Our Frisian people will perish like the Jewish people for lack of knowledge.” Three years later, at the 1670 Synod of Friesland, Classis Dokkum proposed that at every classis and synod meeting, each church would be asked, one by one, “Do you preach the HC?”
A long and honorable history (not just from the Reformation!)
The reason for this mandate is a long history of catechism preaching in the Christian church. If we only knew this history better, we would be able better to explain to our Christian neighbors the good and beneficial practice of preaching the Catechism. Why, they ask, would your church preach from a man-made document? Why, each week, from this 450-year-old catechism? Why preach from anything besides the Scriptures? Our answer will certainly include this: “Catechism preaching is the history of Reformed churches from their beginning!” If we are speaking to a Reformed Christian, we may add: “This was the practice of your denomination until recently.” But to all Christians we can say with confidence: “This was the history of the Christian church far before the publication of the catechism from Heidelberg. As far back as our knowledge of history reaches into the post-apostolic age, we find the church preaching catechisms.”
I find this a very powerful part of our defense of this beautiful practice. Most Reformed churches mandate preaching the Heidelberg, a mandate in existence since the time of the Reformation almost 500 years ago. But the Reformation fathers mandated Catechism preaching because they were restoring what had been the practice of the Christian church from the time of the apostles! This is not well known among us.
The history of Heidelberg Catechism preaching from the date of the Catechism’s publication is relatively well known among Reformed readers. In the upcoming PR Theological Journal, I will relate that history more extensively, as well as expand on other points I only mention here. Now, it suffices simply to state that sound Reformed churches, especially our forefathers in the Netherlands, preached the HC from the time of its publication.
But the history of preaching catechisms before the Reformation must be remembered. Too often, the historical defense of preaching the HC has stopped after it has reached back to the Reformation. Important as the Reformation tradition is, the practice of preaching a catechism is the Christian tradition. Let me explain.
If you read the history of the Reformation, you will notice that when synods mandated the ministers to preach the HC, no one questioned the practice. Of course, Arminians like Frederici at the Synod of Dordt had objections to preaching the Heidelberg; but behind those objections was not so much an objection to preaching a catechism, but their aversion to the doctrines of sovereign grace that the Heidelberg Catechism propounded. At the time of the Reformation, ministers preaching catechisms was expected.
Prior to the Heidelberg’s writing, Calvin wrote and preached catechisms. So did Luther in Germany. After he made a round of Church Visitation and found appalling ignorance, especially in the rural areas, Luther revised a series of sermons he had preached on the 10 commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the sacraments. He published them under the title “Larger Catechism” in 1529, offering them as preaching models for the young ministers. Catechism preaching was Luther’s answer to the faltering of the reformation movement on account of ignorance.
The reformers were not innovators. They were restorers, re-formers. They restored the old and good traditions. They recognized that preaching a system of catechetical instruction was tradition. So they re-established a preaching norm in which, at one of the meetings of the gathered believers on the Lord’s Day, the fundamental Christian doctrines were systematically explained. First, the Apostles’
Creed article by article; then the sacraments; finally the 10 commandments as the rule of gratitude and the Lord’s Prayer as the model for a life of communion with God. That’s the stuff of catechisms from the beginning of the Christian church. And we all recognize that as the essence of the Heidelberg Catechism—with the Reformed, or biblical explanation of these fundamentals. For almost 2,000 years, the Christian church preached these basic doctrines to the people of God; the church preached catechisms.
There is one sin the churches are not guilty of when they preach the Catechism, and that is the sin of novelty.
What a blessing is the preaching of the HC!
Those who in their recent generations have lost Catechism preaching rue the day that it was lost among them. And those who have been able to maintain HC preaching attribute their preservation as Reformed churches in large part to the faithful preaching of the truth as it is found in this creed. So, rather than take the time to defend this practice against critics, let me explain what motivated our fathers to restore this practice, and what motivates us to continue it.
First, good HC preaching grounds the people of God in the doctrines of Scripture. To put it differently, HC preaching assures theological literacy in the churches. The people of God love God with all their minds first of all.
Second, good HC preaching anchors the church in history and tradition. If there is one thing every new generation needs, it is a sense of history—a deep and abiding sense that their faith and practices are the good old tradition, that blazing new trails is not what the true church should be known for. The good practice of HC preaching instills in the people of God that sense: we stand on the broad shoulders of the fathers before us; we have not come to the knowledge of this truth on our own. This is what it means to be Reformed.
Third, good HC preaching gives the people of God theological and biblical balance. The practice forces the minister to preach the whole counsel of God. You must not be exposed to the personal interests (may I say “whims”) of each new preacher that comes your way, or of the same preacher who decade after decade mounted the same two or three hobby horses. It would not be unlike mom preparing lasagna for dinner every night. She may say it’s a different recipe each time, but it’s still lasagna, and a family needs variety and balance. In the HC, all the fundamental truths of the Bible are there for annual explanation so that nothing is left out.
Fourth, good HC preaching promotes unity, continuity, and stability in the churches. HC preaching promotes generational unity—this up and coming generation embraces the same thing as the previous generation! How important for parents and grandparents in the churches! It promotes denominational unity—this congregation hears the same truths preached as that congregation. It was unity that Frederick III was interested in when he commissioned the writing of his catechism.
Fifth, good HC preaching assures that the people of God hear the gospel. Comfort! Hope! Grace! Friendship with God! Jesus Christ! The center and theme of the HC is the gospel. My heart is gladdened with the good news of Jesus Christ as I know my sin and misery, as I see how I am delivered from this condition of sin, and as I learn to express my gratitude for such gracious deliverance.
Finally, good HC preaching maintains a proper subjective element in the preaching. The HC’s approach is personal. It is also experiential, addressing the genuine, biblical experiences of the people of God. Its aim is to comfort. It addresses personal and private temptations. It deals with what we ought to love and what we must hate. It tells me how to mortify my old man. It instructs me to use all my gifts for the advantage and salvation of my neighbor. These are the true biblical experiences.
There is a right way, and wrong way
This subjective and experiential aspect of the HC leads me finally to emphasize that the Catechism must be preached. Let me be positive: If a minister preaches the very language, tone, and context of the Catechism (rather than a related text, or merely the topic suggested), he does justice not only to the churches’ mandate, but also to the calling pastors have to preach to the heart of Jerusalem. But he does so with Jerusalem’s own official explanation of “experiential.”
The blessing of Catechism preaching! Begone Frederici!