Defending the Catechism
Elector Prince Frederick III
The Heidelberg Catechism was prepared in 1562 and first approved and issued on Tuesday, the 19th of January, 1563. For 450 years it has served as a blessing and creed to the Reformed churches throughout the world who are able to grasp its simplicity and its depth at the same time.
We are often more acquainted with the chief authors of the Heidelberg Catechism, Zacharias Ursinus and Casper Olevianus, than with the one who commissioned them to write it—Elector Prince Frederick III of the Palatinate in Germany. He put his life on the line to defend the Heidelberg Catechism. Recognition of the catechism in the face of strong opposition from two fronts rested primarily on Frederick’s shoulders. He spoke of it as “my catechism.” If the catechism had been found to be out of accord with ecclesiastical agreements of the day (Augsburg Confession of 1555) it may have caused the ouster of Frederick and possibly cost him his life as well. To a very real extent the future of the Reformed Church was linked to the defense of the Heidelberg Catechism in 1566, three years after its appearance.
We should remember that, unlike Ursinus, Olevianus, and other theologians, Frederick was a political ruler who would have to stand face to face with opposing theologians to defend what he had commissioned in the Heidelberg Catechism. His defense would save the Catechism and his life. So well did this faithful ruler understand the Scriptures that he could stand before theologians and magistrates to defend not just his Catechism, but his faith which was expressed in it. Are we willing to do the same today?
The historical account below is taken from a book Creed and Customs, a handbook by George B. Russell, treating the chief doctrines and practices of the Reformed Church in the United States and published by the Reformed Church Publication Board, Philadelphia, 1869, pp. 107–119 [Editor].
Hostility to the Catechism
“As there never was such general favor extended by the learned, and official powers of the church to any confessional book, as to the Heidelberg Catechism; so, no other, received such warm praise, awakened such hearty enthusiasm, met with general acceptance by the common people, and begat in them such pious devotion. None had either a more widespread influence, at home or abroad. This was all the more remarkable, because of the mildness of its reigning spirit, its moderation of tone, and the almost entire absence of the extreme polemical spirit so common to that age.
Peaceable and even meek, to a most wonderful degree, yet this very calmness itself, and positive firmness in the truth, could not however prevent it from being offensive to many harsh and extreme partisan opponents of its teachings. It thus became the innocent cause of fierce and warlike contests. The hostility to the Catechism was of two kinds: political and theological. And it was also from two opposite parties: Lutherans and Romanists. Herod and Pilate were well nigh made friends here in the common cause of trying to secure the condemnation of our innocent and harmless Catechism.
On the Lutheran side, in open war against it were arrayed among the theologians such men as Brentz, Andrea, Facius, and, fiercest and coarsest of all, Tillemann Hesshuss. Among the political opponents were Prince Wolfgang of Newberg, Margrave Charles of Baden, and Duke Christopher of Wirtemberg.
On the Papal part of active hostilities were the Bishops and Convent Chapters along the Rhine, some of the Roman Catholic princes, and especially the Nuncio (papal ambassador) of the Pope. They considered it a public pest, assailed it with ridicule and wit, whipped with rods, and burned it at the stake.
Defense had of course to be made. Frederick called on his theological faculty to aid in sustaining the Catechism against its enemies. So we find Ursinus, Olevianus, Boequin, Bullinger, and other Reformers defending the orthodoxy of the Catechism from charges involving, as we are told, “all sorts of dangerous error, a hellish, more than devilish leaven,” fanaticism, and hypocrisy. Apologies (defenses) were written; able defenses were made; public conferences were held, and whole days devoted to the discussion points in dispute. But nothing final and satisfactory to its enemies was attained.
More than all other trials and dangers, the Pious Frederick and his Catechism were called to stand trial for liberty and life before the Imperial Diet held at Augsburg in May 1566. This was a most threatening crisis for the whole Reformed interest. The Emperor and many of the princes were intensely opposed to the Reformed Elector. The intention was to set aside and suppress the Catechism and depose Frederick, or even punish him with the most extreme sentence—the death penalty. In that case, of course, the direst results might have been expected to follow and the sorest evils befall the Reformed Church.
It was claimed that the Palatinate Elector had excluded himself, and the whole Reformed Church of Germany, from the religious peace of AD 1555, and so could not claim the protection of the Empire, but was already in fact, by his own course, cut off from all the rights and privileges secured to those Protestant princes who held to the Augsburg Confession. And therefore his opponents thought it needed only the formal decree of the Diet to execute sentence against him.
Frederick had received friendly warning not to go to the Diet, as, even in the minds of his friends, there was great room to fear the worst. But to these he answered that he trusted in the God of his fathers, who “still lives, and is mighty also to keep me, a poor and sinful man, and will certainly keep me by His Holy Spirit, even though matters should proceed as far as blood; which if it should please my Father in heaven to bring me to such honor, I could never sufficiently praise Him for it, either here in time, or yonder in eternity.” This martyr faith and zeal sustained him.
Self-devotion and childlike faith fitted the pious Prince to confess Christ before men and defend the truth. He accordingly, relying on the divine promises, boldly and with calm dignity appeared before the Diet where he was to make answer for himself and his Catechism. The Emperor, the Papal Nuncio, and the Lutheran and Roman Catholic princes were apparently all united against him. And, without any hearing or trial, one day, during the sittings of the Diet, his case as thus prejudged by them, was to be disposed of. A charge was read and an imperial decree ordered to be issued, charging Frederick with having fallen away from the Augsburg Confession and having published a heretical Catechism; and commanding him to dismiss all his Calvinistic preachers and teachers and to abolish and suppress his Catechism—or, be excluded from the Peace of the Empire, at the risk of losing all his dignities, and even life itself.
Withdrawing for a quarter of an hour, to collect his soul for the occasion, “the Elector returned to the Diet with his son Prince John Casimer, bearing the Bible and the confession with him to make his defense.”
He calmly yet fearlessly reminded the Emperor and the Diet that a process should not be commenced by executing the sentence, but that his defense to the charge should first be heard and weighed. In matters of conscience, his only master was the Lord of lords and King of kings. The gift of salvation is from Jesus Christ alone, and so, none could stand in the place of his God and Savior. As to Calvinism, he truly did not know what men meant by that; and as he had never read Calvin’s books, he could not tell what they taught. But he had not fallen from the faith, to which he had subscribed, along with others, because it was that of the Holy Scriptures; nor did he think anyone could show his departure from that.
“But that my Catechism, word for word, is drawn, not from human but from divine sources, the references that stand in the margin will show. For this reason, certain theologians have in vain wearied themselves in attacking it, since it has been shown to them, by the open Scripture, how baseless is their opposition. What I have elsewhere publicly declared to your Imperial Majesty, in a full assembly of the Princes, namely, that, if anyone, of whatever age, station, or class he may be, even the humblest, can teach me something better from the Holy Scriptures, I will thank him from the bottom of my heart, and readily be obedient to the divine truth that I repeat now, in the presence of this assembly of the whole empire. If there be anyone here, among my lords and friends, who will undertake it, I am prepared to hear him, and here are the Holy Scriptures at hand. Should it please your Imperial Majesty to undertake this task, I would regard it as the greatest favor and acknowledge it with suitable gratitude. With this, my explanation, I hope your Imperial Majesty will be satisfied, even as also your Imperial Majesty’s father, the Emperor Ferdinand, of blessed memory, was not willing to do violence to my conscience, however pleasant it would have been to him, had I consented to attend the Popish mass at the imperial coronation, at Frankfurt. Should, contrary to my expectations, my defense and the Christian and reasonable conditions which I have proposed not be regarded of any account, I shall comfort myself in this, that my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ has promised to me, and to all who believe, that whatsoever we lose on earth for His name’s sake, we shall receive an hundredfold in the life to come.”
These words of the Elector made a very favorable impression. All gazed with wonder at the great-hearted Prince. Only one of the bishops murmured something to himself about the mass, which was so sharply rejected in the 80th question of the Catechism. Prince Augustus of Saxony said that there had been too much hasty action in this matter, and, approaching Frederick, he tapped him softly upon the shoulder, and said, “Fritz, thou art more pious than all of us together!” The Margrave of Baden, at the close of the assembly, expressed himself in the same manner, saying: “Why do you attack this Prince? He is more pious than us all.”
Frederick was now left unmolested. Five days later the princes handed unto the Emperor this declaration: “That the Elector has, it is true, a different view of the Holy Supper from the Augsburg Confession, but in regard to justification, and in most other points, he agrees with it; and, further, that they are not willing to exclude Frederick or anyone else, in or outside of Germany, from the religious peace.” The Elector, after the Emperor had graciously taken leave of him, returned in peace and safety to his beloved Heidelberg on the Friday before Whitsuntide. “On the evening before the sacred festival, being present at the preparation for the communion, in the Church of the Holy Ghost, he grasped Olevianus by the hand in the presence of the whole congregation, and exhorted him to continue steadfast in the faith. It was an affecting and impressive spectacle! The next day, he partook of the Sacrament, in company with his son Casimir and the whole court.”
Thus by wisdom and firmness did the excellent Prince avert the threatening disaster. By a spirit as mild and pacific, and yet as positive, as that of the Catechism itself, “he stopped the mouth of the lions, quenched the violence of fire, and turned to flight the armies of the aliens,” and saved from proscription that precious symbol of faith, from which millions have since learned what is their only comfort in life and in death. It was then, as it has been since and is now, only loved more for the dangers it had passed.
Its Reception Abroad
Baptized in such fiery trials, the Catechism, it might be expected, would bear the life and fruits of grace. With wonderful unanimity it was raised to honor and authority in the Reformed churches abroad. In Germany itself, it was not confined to the church of the Palatinate. In the free cities where the Reformed faith prevailed it was introduced, as well as in the Reformed states of Germany, Brandenberg, especially Anhalt, and in what is modernly included in the kingdom of Prussia.
Swiss Reformed churches, as Bern, St. Gall, Schaffhausen, received it in full honor. It was reported by their delegates at Dort, to the acknowledged authority, as a symbolical book, for all the churches of Helvetia. The French Reformed Churches never formally adopted it, but it was held in high esteem by them. And the church of Hungary adopted it in full and required its schoolmasters as well as preachers to swear hearty fealty to its doctrines. Its use was also extensively in the Reformed part of Poland. It was not without favor and regard in the Reformed churches of England and Scotland.
But in the Dutch Reformed Church of Holland it especially came into honor and authority. Here it displaced the Emden Catechism of John De Laskay and rivaled that of Calvin. And nowhere has it been held more uniformly and faithfully in honor than in the Dutch Reformed churches both of Holland and America.
The Synod of Dort, equal well-nigh to an ecumenical Reformed Council, made up of delegates from the Swiss, German, French, English, and Belgic Reformed Churches, after the most thorough consideration declared:
“That, in the united judgment of all the theologians present, both foreign and Belgic, the doctrine contained in the Palatine Catechism, was in harmony with the Word of God at all points; that there was nothing in it in this view that seemed to require change or correction: and that it formed altogether a most accurate compend of orthodox Christian faith; being with singular skill, not only adapted to the understanding of the young, but suited also for the advantageous instruction of older persons.”
When we consider also the fact that it has been honored with translations into so many modern and ancient classic languages, we have another evidence of its great popular worth. Besides the original German, it was also turned into Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Modern Greek, Dutch, French, English, Spanish, Italian, Bohemian, Polish, Hungarian, Arabic, Bengalese, Malay, “and other strange dialects besides.” These all could hear it “speak in their own tongues, the wonderful works of God.”
A prophet is not without honor save in his own country and in his own house. So, the Heidelberg Catechism received even more honor abroad than it was able to maintain, except for a few glorious years, at home. Like the holy Apostles, who were not allowed by reason of cruel persecutions to remain at Jerusalem, but were dispersed abroad with the grace, mercy, and peace of the gospel, so the home of the Catechism was not so much in its own land as in the uttermost parts of the earth.
By political changes, wars, and rationalism it had a troubled life in the land of its birth, sometimes abolished, then restored, and again pushed aside until it now (1869) lives there only in a reproduced form. In other places also where it once ruled the Reformed life, it is scarcely known now to have any power.
For much of this it has made up in the Reformed Church of America. Both the Dutch and German branches have been most faithful to their spiritual inheritance. Dutch colonies carried it to the islands of the seas, to the Cape of Good Hope in Africa, and to Japan and India. Emigrants and missionaries have brought it to this Western world, where perhaps more than anywhere else, it is held in honor and authority—and where it may yet have its greatest work to do. Here it is, more than anywhere else, made to hold a relation to all parts of life, in something like the old sense attached to it, in its blooming period of the past. “There was no instruction imparted wherein it was not explained, no church in which sermons on it were not preached, no school in which it was not used for teaching, no family in which it was not learned by heart, so really was it an element in the religious life of the people.”
George B. Russell, 1869