The use of the Heidelberg Catechism in foreign missions

That the Heidelberg Catechism was intended from the outset to be preached and taught in established churches is evident from the Preface written by its royal sponsor, Elector Frederick III of the Palatinate:

We do herewith affectionately admonish and enjoin upon every one of you, that you do, for the honour of God and our subjects, and also for the sake of your own soul’s profit and welfare, thankfully accept this proffered Catechism or course of instruction, and that you do diligently and faithfully represent and explain the same according to its true import, to the youth in our schools and churches, and also from the pulpit to the common people….

Very soon after its publication, the Heidelberg Catechism was embraced by the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands for preaching in their Sunday worship services. This became an established tradition in the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands when the Synod of Dordt (1618-1619) mandated it in Article 68 of our Church Order. While the good tradition of the preaching and teaching of the Heidelberg Catechism in an established congregation is clear, can the same be said for the use of the Heidelberg Catechism in foreign mission work?

The main objection to the use of the Heidelberg Catechism in foreign mission work is that it is inappropriate in foreign context (for example, Asian countries) because that confession was forged in ecclesiastical controversy in Germany. It is argued that any confession used in foreign missions or adopted by an indigenous church ought to be developed by them with the missionary, “from scratch,” and within their own culture. To require an indigenous mission church to adopt a creedal formulation from a foreign mother church would be presumptuous and make the confession of the indigenous church unauthentic.

On a practical level, some have argued that the confession is only suitable for established and educated churches and that it is much too heavy and deep for those whose spiritual appetite and educational ability can only handle the “milk” of the Word.

Much has been written to support these types of objections, yet we must dismiss them, first of all, from the perspective of the history and fruitfulness of Reformed foreign missions. The history of Reformed missions shows that it was the conviction of Reformed churches early on that the Heidelberg Catechism ought to be preached and taught in both domestic mission (to those within the sphere of the church world) and also foreign missions (to those who had never had the gospel preached to them or to their previous generations).

This conviction was nurtured in part by the confession itself. It is evident that the Heidelberg Catechism itself is mission-minded and born out of the need to witness and promote the true faith of Holy Scripture. There are many references in the Heidelberg Catechism that can be cited regarding the work of missions, but that subject will need to wait for another article. That conviction about the good use of the Heidelberg Catechism in missions soon became evident after it was published in 1563. It was translated immediately from the original German into Latin by February 1563, which made it readily available to all the Latin-speaking people and scholars at the time. Within twenty-five years after its first publication, it had been translated into Dutch, Saxon-German, Hungarian, English, French, Polish, Lithuanian, Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian. In fact, for the purpose of missions among the Jews in Europe, it was also published in Hebrew. Interestingly, one of the converts from Judaism by means of the Hebrew translation was a professor of the University of Heidelberg named Tremelius. With a similar purpose in mind, the Catechism was translated into the Greek, with the objective that it might convert the Patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox church and extend the Reformation into Eastern Orthodoxy as well.

Although the Synod of Dordt (1618-1619) ran out of time to treat material regarding foreign mission work to the East Indies (Indonesia), subsequent national synods did treat this. When the Dutch Reformed missionaries were sent out to the Far East in the seventeenth century, they used the Heidelberg Catechism in the preaching and teaching. To assist in their work, the Catechism was translated into Malay, Javanese, Singalese, Tamil, Chinese, and Japanese.

The Reformed Churches in America (RCA) used the Heidelberg Catechism in its foreign mission work abroad. For example, in an 1855 report of the work of the RCA in India, it was noted that the Catechism was being used consistently in the mission work in Vellore in the RCA’s Arcot Mission. Although reproached for doing so, they persevered in the use of the Catechism in their preaching and catechetical instruction. In their mission work in China RCA missionaries also used the Catechism in their preaching and instruction from the outset, not only with men for the ministry of the Word but also in the local congregations and mission outposts. The goal, of course, was that the indigenous churches become confessionally Reformed, not just in name, but also in the living faith in Christ Jesus.

In accord with Reformed foreign mission history, the call letter for foreign missionaries to our PRCA foreign fields includes the mandate that the missionary preach the Heidelberg Catechism. The call letter from the sending church states: “…The labors we expect of you, should it please God to send you to us as our missionary to [name of field of labor] are: to provide preaching of the Holy Gospel twice on the Lord’s Day, including Catechism preaching….” And, so it is today, that by the grace of God we observe, for example, that the Protestant Reformed Churches in the Philippines, our PRCA missionaries, and other Reformed churches and contacts in the archipelago, administer the Word of God in their preaching and teaching by means of the Catechism for the edification and gathering of God’s church.

As regards the practical objections mentioned above, indeed, it is not hard to imagine that a foreign missionary may face serious challenges with the use of the Heidelberg Catechism. Some of the challenges among mission contacts may be related to a lack of basic knowledge of Scripture or a lack of education for reading. There may be significant barriers of language and communication between the missionary and his contacts. Nevertheless, even recent and current Reformed mission work, such as in isolated outposts in Irian Jaya, Papua New Guinea, or outlying islands in the Philippines, indicates that the challenges of communication and levels of education are not insurmountable with the wise use of some legitimate tools. While some of these significant challenges might possibly delay the immediate and full use of the Catechism in some very specific situations, yet the goal must remain that it be used as soon as linguistically and educationally feasible. While linguistic, educational, and economic barriers in foreign missions may appear impossible for us to cross, they have been crossed by the wonder-work of the Holy Spirit through the weak means of faithful missions for the gathering of His eternally chosen, catholic church.

The good use of the Catechism in foreign mission preaching and teaching is based upon good, biblical foundation. A reason that the Catechism ought to be used for preaching and instruction in foreign missions is found in the Catechism itself in Lord’s Day 7. Question 22 asks: “What is then necessary for a Christian to believe?” Answer 22 states: “All things promised us in the gospel, which the articles of our catholic undoubted Christian faith briefly teach us.”

We confess from the truth of the Word of God that the faith which a Christian must believe is a “catholic undoubted Christian faith.” The faith of the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed is catholic. The blessed faith of our Lord Jesus Christ that we must know and of which we must be assured is not restricted to one nation, tribe, and tongue, but is catholic—truly universal—for those ingrafted into Jesus Christ, according to election, from every nation, tribe, and tongue. The German Heidelberg Catechism, as well as the French Belgic Confession and the Dutch Canons of Dordt, belong to the catholic faith of the infallibly inspired Word of God for God’s people in every nation, tribe, and tongue.

That the Catechism is a confession of the catholic faith became evident in the early years after its publication. Though originally published as a confession of a German Protestant Church, yet it was recognized, adopted, and cherished by the people of God who were Dutch, French, Italian, Spanish, Hungarian, Polish, Lithuanian, and other European nationalities and languages. That warm embrace did not stop at the borders and shores of Europe. The confession continued to be embraced by the true catholic church of Jesus Christ, through mission work and by the wonder work of the Holy Spirit in many other nations, languages, and tribes in Asia, Africa, the Americas, and islands of the seas.

“What is necessary for me to believe?” Indeed, that is the burning question of the foreign-mission contact.

May foreign missionaries, burdened by that burning question, faithfully and enthusiastically answer with “all things promised to us in the holy gospel, which our catholic, undoubted, Christian, and Reformed faith—including our Heidelberg Catechism—sets forth briefly, distinctly, personally, and warmly.”

May the Lord continue to bless the good use of Catechism preaching and teaching in faithful Reformed missions abroad.