Whose Catechism?

In the Church Herald (magazine of the Reformed Church in America) of January 1, 1988 there appears an article from the pen of Dr. Howard Hageman entitled “The Eternal Youth Of the Heidelberg” (p. 31). The purpose of the article is to call attention to the fact that January 1988 marks the 425th anniversary of the Heidelberg Catechism. He write as follows:

“Since everyone is celebrating anniversaries of every conceivable kind these days, why shouldn’t we celebrate one of our own? It might help us with our identity crisis!

“I have thus far not seen so much as a syllable of reference to it, but January 1988 marks the 425th anniversary of the Heidelberg Catechism—and I think that’s an event worthy of celebration. The first edition of the Heidelberg Catechism gives the date of January 19, 1563, as the time of its official proclamation. To be sure, those responsible for its composition had been at work throughout 1562 and are supposed to have finished their task in December of that year and received princely approval from Frederick III at that time. But it was in January 1563 that it was given to the press for publication.”

The writer then goes on to praise what one Dutch theologian has called “the eternal youth of the Heidelberg,” and to account for this so-called eternal youth.

Now I certainly have no objection to remembering our Heidelberg Catechism and to praising it for its “eternal youth.” Nor do I object to celebrating an anniversary, though I suggest that if we begin to celebrate quarter century anniversaries in connection with every significant event in Reformed church history or the publication of every significant bit of Reformed church literature, we might end with some kind of celebration almost every year. And then celebrations begin to lose their significance. Nor do I see how a celebration of; this kind might help the RCA ‘with its alleged “identity crisis”—whatever that may mean. Perhaps the RCA’s identity might be better helped by faithful preaching and teaching of the Heidelberg Catechism.

However, I must confess to being somewhat offended, as well as shocked, by a statement at the end of Dr. Hageman’s article. The concluding paragraph reads as follows:

“I have no idea of the form the celebration should take, but I hope there is one. Perhaps it is something we could share with our Christian Reformed friends, since we are the only American churches which share the catechism, although it is tucked into the confessional collection of the Presbyterians. Here is a good way to begin to find out who we are. Happy birthday, dear Heidelberg!”

I refer, of course, to the words “since we are the only American churches which share the catechism.”

When I read this, I rubbed my eyes in disbelief. For without difficulty I immediately thought of several other American denominations which share the Heidelberg Catechism. First to come to mind, of course, was our own Protestant Reformed Churches. Then I thought of the Reformed Church in the United States (German Reformed) who can trace their history in this country back to the colonial days when the RCA became established here. Then there are the Free Reformed Churches, the Netherlands Reformed, and the Canadian Reformed. In fact, I dare say that in at least some of these the Catechism is not only shared, but more faithfully taught and preached than in either the RCA or the CRC.

I will not judge the reason for this error on Dr. Hageman’s part—whether it is ignorance, or a momentary lapse of memory, or the notion that the rest of us do not count as churches, or that somehow we are not American. But correct he is not.

—HCH