The Heidelberg Catechism: Its History, Character, and Value

Rev. Kleyn is pastor of Trinity Protestant Reformed Church in Hudsonville, Michigan.

In this column I plan to comment, Lord’s Day by Lord’s Day, on the Heidelberg Catechism. As an introduction, in this article, I will write on the history, character, and value of the Catechism, but in reverse order.

To see the value of the Catechism, we must first understand the value of having “creeds” in a confessing Reformed church. The Heidelberg Catechism is one of the three creeds that constitute our Three Forms of Unity, the other two being the Belgic Confession (sometimes called the Netherlands Confession), and the Canons of Dordt. A creed is an adopted statement of a church or denomination that summarizes the beliefs of that church. The teachings of the creed form the doctrinal foundation and confession of that church and its members.

In our creeds we have a summary of what we believe the Bible teaches. A creed is not a statement above or besides the Scriptures, but a summary of what we believe the Scriptures teach. We have creeds because we want to be faithful to biblical doctrine. Whereas Scripture has an inherent authority (it is the Word of God Himself), the creeds have what we can call a “derived” or “dependent” authority. Their authority is dependent on their faithfulness to the Word of God. Insofar as those creeds are faithful to the Word of God, they are authoritative in their teaching.

Because a church has adopted a certain creed as its own summary statement of the doctrines of Scripture, that creed has binding authority in that church or denomination. It is not that the creed cannot be challenged or changed, but the only proper way for that challenge or change to come is by a member or officebearer addressing his concerns and questions to the governing bodies of the church—to his consistory, and through them to classis and synod. In such a case, the Scriptures themselves become the final court of appeal. A member and officebearer may not publicly contradict what is in the adopted creeds of his church. To do so would not only be an act of rebellion against Christ-ordained government in the church, but also an act of schism in the church.

One important reason for having creeds is that we want to recognize the work of the Holy Spirit in guiding the church in its history into all truth (John 16:13). The church in its history has gone through countless struggles against false doctrine, and out of those struggles the Spirit has led the church to understand what the teaching of Scripture is in certain areas of doctrine. The creeds are the positive fruit of the struggles of the church in the past. Because we recognize these struggles of the church in the past, because we want to stand in the doctrine of the apostles and prophets (Eph. 2:20), and because we want the church to be founded on its only Cornerstone, Jesus Christ, we have and we value these confessions that have been written and adopted by the church in the past. A creed identifies the church today with the church in the past. Any given church or congregation is not an island, standing all alone, but the church has a unity in Christ that extends from the beginning to the end of the world. In having creeds, we stand united with the church of the past, confessing our unity in Christ.

The value of the creeds has to do, not only with the past, but also the present and the future. A creed is a confession that binds churches to each other, and so they are an expression of our unity in the present with other believers and churches. A change in the confessions is something that a church should make with great care, hesitation, and reluctance, and in consultation with other churches that hold that creed. When churches change the confessional statements of their church, they are moving away, not only from the church of the past, but also from other churches that hold to the same creeds. The creeds are not only the foundation of a particular church’s confession, but the creeds are also the ground and starting point for churches that work together in interchurch relationships toward ecclesiastical unity.

Another aspect of the present value of the creeds is that they are an excellent teaching tool in the church, not only for new converts, but also for the covenant youth of the church and the general membership. This is something we acknowledge every week in our use of the Heidelberg Catechism as the foundation for one sermon each Lord’s Day.

Every believer will have questions about the meaning of Scripture in different areas, and the creeds help and guide us in answering these questions. They do this because they take the whole of the Scripture’s teaching on one particular doctrine and bring it together in a summary statement. For example, someone may ask, “What does the Bible teach about the Trinity?” and we can direct them to Articles 8 and 9 of the Belgic Confession and to Lord’s Day 8 of the Heidelberg Catechism. From here a person can look at all the different passages of Scripture that are given as proof or support of the creeds’ teaching and can see what the Scriptures teach on the Trinity.

This is particularly important with regard to the youth in the church, because it gives them the same doctrinal foundation as their parents. This bodes well also for the church in the future. If a church does not build on the doctrinal foundation of the past, then a church will go backwards. A church develops and grows doctrinally and is led into all truth by the Spirit, by using the creeds written down in the past as the foundation for subsequent expression and development of doctrine.

The creeds also serve the purpose of guarding the church against error. I think of Psalm 125: “As the mountains are round about Jerusalem, so the Lord is round about his people from henceforth even for ever.” The creeds are one important means that God uses to protect and maintain, not only truth, but His church and its members.

The church has and has always had enemies. These enemies try to destroy the church and people of God especially by undermining the doctrinal foundation of the church. Sometimes this is overt, when a heretic teaches something that is explicitly unbiblical. At other times this is more subtle, when an important biblical doctrine is minimized or rarely if ever preached and taught. In both cases, the creeds help to protect the church against such attacks. The creeds are the church’s answer to heresy and heretics. They guard against the rise of false teachers, because whenever a person begins to teach something that is in error, he is immediately opposed, not only by people, but by the standard that the church has adopted in her confessions. Creeds give very little wiggle room for a heretic in the church.

This highlights the importance of knowing our confessions and having their content regularly taught, studied, and explained. When the teaching of the creeds is minimized or ignored, the church soon loses its commitment to truth. A regular explanation of the creeds, such as is practiced in Heidelberg Catechism preaching, forces the church to deal with all the major doctrines or teachings of Scripture, and in this way keeps us from ignoring important doctrines.

Of our Three Forms of Unity, the Heidelberg Catechism is the most well-known and loved. This is in part due to its regular use in preaching, but also because of its warm and personal approach to doctrine. The motif of the Heidelberg Catechism is comfort, and the approach is personal. Each Lord’s Day seeks to show how truth has application in the life of the believer by putting its questions and answers in the first person (I, my, we, our). This makes our confession in the Heidelberg Catechism real and personal. A creed could simply, and rather abstractly, state that the Bible says such and such on a particular doctrine. It could state all the doctrines with accuracy and explain them quite completely, and yet not have this personal flavor. But then it would not be a “confession,” but only a “summary” of doctrines. A “confession” is a personal agreement with doctrine, and therefore a creed should be personal.

When a young person makes confession of faith, he is sometimes asked, “Why are you making confession of faith, and why in this church?” Sometimes an answer will be, “Because this church teaches the doctrines of Scripture faithfully.” That is a good answer, but it is not a complete answer, because there is nothing personal in it. A personal confession says, “I know my sin, and I know that Jesus is the only way to the Father and that I need Him, and I believe in Him with all my heart and trust in Him for all my salvation.”

And here the Heidelberg Catechism shines above every other Reformed confession with which I am familiar. It is personal. It is a statement of what the individual believes and confesses about himself. When it treats the subject of man’s depravity, it is personal. Not, “Is man able to keep God’s law?” but “Canst thou keep all these things perfectly?” And the answer, “In no wise, for I am prone by nature to hate God and my neighbor” (Q&A 5). Not, “Is man so corrupt that he is wholly incapable of doing any good, and inclined to all wickedness?” but, “Are we then so corrupt that we are wholly incapable of doing any good and inclined to all wickedness?” (Q&A 8). And so the Catechism goes on in every area of doctrine.

This approach is rewarding because it brings comfort to the child of God, it brings him hope, it increases his faith, it brings assurance and peace. Any explanation of the Catechism, whether in preaching or in writing, must do justice to the personal character of the Catechism. Every teenager who learns the Catechism must hear the words coming out of his mouth, must recognize the personal, first-person nature of those words, and must learn to express all his faith in this personal way.

We are not very good at this. We are good at understanding and articulating doctrine, we are good at defending truth from Scripture, the history of the church, and the creeds, but we are not very good at confessing our faith in a personal way. This is dangerous because it creates a disconnect of mind and heart, a division of faith and life. And when that happens, then a person, or a church, though its stated confession may be pure, really has no love for God and sees no value in maintaining a doctrinal position or in living in a godly way. If our faith is personal, then we will also have a close personal life and walk with the Lord from day to day, like Enoch, who walked with God.

Historically, the Catechism was written as a manual for the catechetical instruction of the youth. Frederick III, of the German Electorate of the Palatinate, commissioned two young preachers (in their twenties), Zacharius Ursinus and Caspar Olevianus, to write it with that purpose. As I close this article, I want to encourage you to have the young people in your home or congregation read these articles. How often isn’t it the case that they are “bored” or “looking for something to do” or involved in things detrimental to their spiritual growth? I hope to write these articles in a clear, practical, understandable style, so that they may also benefit the young. And I hope that you will put them in front of the young.