Introduction to the Heidelberg Catechism

Introduction to the Heidelberg Catechism

Our Heidelberg Catechism is one of the finest fruits of the Reformation, tried and proven in the furnace of affliction.

Holding forth the gospel of redemption in Jesus Christ as our only comfort in life and in death, it presents, very personally and eloquently, what is necessary to know that we may live and die happily in that only comfort, that of belonging to the Triune God through Jesus Christ by faith.

Its three main divisions, following the Epistle to the Romans, teach first, how great our sin and misery is: second, how we are redeemed from all our sins and misery; third, how we are to be thankful to God for such redemption.

Composition and Translations

Elector Prince Frederick III of the Palatinate had called men of Reformed principles to the professorship at the University of Heidelberg, entrusting them with the preparation of a clear, concise, and popular statement of the doctrines of salvation in catechetical form, a booklet that could be used by young and old alike in the home, in the church, and in the school. The responsible authorship was placed primarily upon two young professors, Caspar Olevianus and Zacharius Ursinus.

Numerous catechisms were already in use, in fact, too many; their very number caused endless confusion, and none received any general and whole-hearted approval. It became apparent therefore, that a catechism was needed that would meet every requirement, a catechism so comprehensive, in which all the cardinal doctrines would be clearly stated, and yet so simple that the common folk and even children could grasp the truths of salvation.

Frederick III, a man of culture and an ardent student of the Bible, was determined to have such a catechism. Being a man of grace and faith and prayer, strong in the Lord, as were also his co-laborers, the work progressed unto full fruitage. The finished manuscript, presented toward the close of the year 1562, received the hearty approval of the entire faculty and also of the pastors and teachers. Submitted to the Synod, which met at Heidelberg at this time, it was received with applause, and a resolution was passed January 19, 1563, to have it published immediately by government authority. The first edition (German) came off the press early in 1563. A Latin edition followed the same year and also a second German edition, besides an edition as part of the Church Order (Kirchenordnung).

The spread and influence of this little book within the bounds of the Palatinate and beyond, in fact in all the world exceeded all expectations. It was welcomed by the Reformed everywhere. It was made mandatory in all the schools and churches of the Palatinate to teach the Heidelberg catechism, and to read it from the pulpit every Sunday according to its divisions of fifty-two Lord’s Days. Catechetical preaching and exposition was made a fixed institution for the Sunday afternoon service.

The Church Order for the Reformed Church of the Palatinate, issued in November 1563, contained the Heidelberg Catechism as the authoritative expression of the doctrine that is to be taught and preached. All education, whether in the home, in the schools, or at the university was based upon it, and the theological training of students for the ministry centered on it. Ursinus, at the “College of Wisdom,” immediately started his lectures on its contents. These lectures were published by David Pareus, of which an English edition appeared as early as 1587.

Besides the original Latin version, a translation into the Dutch language by Petrus Dathenus and another into Saxon-German appeared within a year. The English Turner edition, used in the Anglican Church, appeared in 1567. This was followed by translations into Hungarian in 1567, French in 1570, Scottish in 1571, Hebrew in 1580, and Greek in 1597. During the early years of the following century the catechism was translated into Polish, Lithuanian, Italian, Bohemian, and Romanian. The Dutch East India and West India Companies were zealous missionaries for the Heidelberg Catechism. Circling the globe with it, they prepared translations in Malay in 1623, Javanese in 1623, Spanish in 1628, Portuguese in 1665, Singhalese in 1726, and Tamil in 1754. In the nineteenth century, the Dutch Reformed Church in America prepared translations in Amharic, Sangiri, Arabic, Persian (Farsi), Chinese, and Japanese.

The Heidelberg Catechism was accepted by the Anglican Church, England, in 1567, as a standard expression of her faith. It was adopted by the Dutch Synod of Wesel in 1568, by the Synod of Dort in 1571, by the Scottish Church in 1571, and by the great ecumenical Synod of Dort in 1618-19. The British delegates at the Synod of Dort agreed that neither in their own nor in the French Church was there a catechism so suitable and excellent. They reported: “Our Reformed brethren on the continent have a little book whose single leaves are not to be bought with tons of gold.”

In 1859 the General Synod of the Reformed Church in the U.S. appointed a committee for “the preparation of a critical standard edition of the Heidelberg Catechism in the original German, and Latin, together with a revised English translation, and an historical introduction, to be published in superior style as a centennial edition in 1863.” This very fine, comprehensive edition appeared in 1863, giving an excellent historical and theological review of the catechism and the text in parallel columns in the original German, the Latin, modern German and an English translation conforming closely to the original German. This is known as the Tercentenary Edition.

The English versions in use up to this time; the Anglican 1567, Parry 1591, and Laidlie 1765 (1770), were translations from the Latin and the Dutch, and their sentence construction often deviated from the original German.

The committee, preparing the Tercentenary Edition, was governed by three leading principles:

First, to translate only from the German edition of 1563, as being the ultimate standard of judgment, and refer to translations and all subsequent German editions, not as possessing coordinate authority, but as subordinate aids to the correct understanding of the original. We have accordingly, as in the Modern German text, eliminated every word that has crept into later editions, but is not supported by the text of the ultimate standard. Secondly, to make a faithful translation. It has been the aim of the Committee to express the true sense of the German correctly in the idioms of the English language, without weakening or strengthening a single phase of thought. Thirdly, to employ Anglo-Saxon words; avoiding, as far as practicable, the use of Latin and Greek derivatives.

Contents of the Catechism

The keynote, the grand solemn chord from which is built up and proceeds the great salvation oratorio, is the first question and answer, “What is your only comfort in life and in death? That I, with body and soul, both in life and in death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.”

The tone throughout is not merely didactic, as in many other catechisms, but confessional. The Heidelberg is animated by the grace of God in Christ Jesus, for the Father “hath delivered us from the power of darkness, and hath translated us into the kingdom of his dear Son, in whom we have redemption through his blood, even the forgiveness of sins” (Col. 1:13-14). The teaching is that the just shall live by faith, for in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith (Rom. 1:17). It speaks of the whole scope of God’s sovereign grace in saving sinners, “For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified.” (Rom. 8:29-30).

The Heidelberg is designed to be a Catechism, or as its original title states, “Christian Instruction.” Imbued with the spirit of Christian worship and devotion, it is both simple and pro-found, a fit manual of instruction for the young, and yet a wonderful statement of sound doctrine for the older. The language and style are beautiful, at times eloquent since it speaks the language of faith derived from the Word of God. Since it is a distillation of biblical Truth, its statements resonate with those who love God’s inspired, infallible, and inerrant Word.

The body of the catechism centers on the exposition of the Creed, the Law, and the Lord’s Prayer, wherefore its tone throughout is confessional, and its central doctrine is justification by faith through the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. Salvation from beginning to end is rooted in God’s covenant of grace, of which baptism is the holy pledge, sign and seal. Those who have been baptized are called to use this manual of instruction to prepare for confessing their faith and becoming communicant members of the church of Jesus Christ. For this purpose it continues to hold a treasured place in the bosom of Reformed Churches throughout the world.

Historical Background

Our catechism received its name “Heidelberg” from the ancient capital city Heidelberg of the lower Palatinate (Unterpfalz) and its noted university. The founding of this seat of learning dates back to the year 1385.

The Reformation of the sixteenth century did not immediately find favor in the Palatinate, although Luther had been heard in Heidelberg as early as 1518. His message, however, left a powerful impression on the minds of young theologians, whose names became conspicuous afterwards in the Protestant movement. The university was bound to the Church of Rome and therefore it was impossible for any belonging to it to take any other position than that of hostility to the Reformation. The government also remained apathetic, fearing turmoil and changes.

Nevertheless, the impact of church reformation found its mark. The people themselves took the matter into their own hands at a fitting occasion, when mass was about to be celebrated at the principal church of Heidelberg, by singing “Es ist das Heil uns kommen her” (To us Salvation Now is Come). This occurred on Sunday, December 20, 1545. But the struggle for church reformation lasted another ten years, when finally the Peace of Augsburg (1555) established religious freedom, and “Sapienz College,” or the “College of Wisdom,” an institution for the education of ministers, was opened in the Augustinian convent at Heidelberg.

The following decade, however, proved most critical for the reform movement. The followers of Luther were already divided among themselves: the ultra-Lutherans maintained the bodily presence of the Lord in the sacrament, while the Melanchthonians held to a spiritual presence, as taught also by Calvin. The Augustana Variata, prepared by Melanchthon and in which the idea of the material and bodily presence of the Lord in the sacrament was modified, now was furiously attacked by those who strove to retain the Augustana Invariata (unchanged).

The Palatinate, and especially Heidelberg, became the very battleground for these and other factions. Lutheranism finally became fixed in the Formula of Concord, while the several Calvinistic confessions, which appeared in the midst of this controversy, were embodied in the Heidelberg Catechism as the expression of the Reformed faith.

Frederick the Third

In 1559 the electoral power of the Palatinate passed into the hands of Frederick III, who subsequently merited the reputation of being the Father of the Heidelberg Catechism. He determined to carry out the Reformation among his people in a way suited to his own convictions of truth and right without any further regard for impractical schemes of compromise and union. This meant that in the Palatinate, religion should be ordered and established, both in regard to doctrine and worship, after the Reformed standard, and not after the Lutheran views. The church should not be identified as Lutheran, proclaiming the name of Luther; she is to proclaim Christ and hold forth the Word of Truth and Life.

It was made mandatory that only the words of the institution of the Lord’s Supper were to be used in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. All crosses, candles, altars, and pictures were removed from the churches, and the singing of the Psalms in the German language was introduced. Dissatisfied and contentious teachers and ministers were disqualified and dismissed. Teachers and ministers with Calvinistic, Zwinglian, and Melanchthonian principles were called to fill the pulpit and the lectern. It was by this reform that the able young men, Caspar Olevianus and Zacharias Ursinus, the renowned authors of our catechism, came to Heidelberg.

Caspar Olevianus

Caspar Olevianus, born on August 10, 1532, in the city of Treves on the French border, applied himself diligently to the study of the general knowledge and sciences of his day. After attending various noteworthy schools, he studied jurisprudence at the University of Bourges. One of his schoolmates was a son of Count Frederick of Simern (later Frederick III of the Palatinate). This promising young man, together with two other students, drowned when their boat turned over while they attempted to cross a river. Olevianus witnessed this tragedy and tried to rescue his friend, almost losing his own life in the attempt. Then and there he vowed to dedicate his life to the gospel of God.

He finished his studies in jurisprudence and returned to his home with the degree of doctor of civil law. His great desire now was to prepare himself by proper studies for the ministry of the Gospel, and so he went to Geneva, Switzerland, and attended the lectures of the renowned theologian and teacher, John Calvin. At Zurich he made the acquaintance of Peter Martyr Vermigli, and at Lausanne, Theodore Beza. At Geneva the zealous Reformer William Farel prevailed upon him to return to his home to preach.

In 1559, at the age of twenty-seven, he returned to Treves, where he took charge of a school and also began preaching with fearless fervor. Treves was thrown into commotion. Olevianus and other reform leaders were cast into prison, and after ten months of negotiations, were set free under condition of heavy fines and banishment from the city. The temper of the man of God is forged in the furnace of tribulation, and the Lord always has a greater task ready for those who are thus tempered.

Frederick III, recalling that this same Olevianus, as a young student, had risked his life to save his son, and realizing that he was now being persecuted and banished for the sake of the gospel, called him into the service of the gospel at Heidelberg.

In 1560 he became lecturer at the university, and the following year professor of dogmatics. Within a year, however, he exchanged his position for the pastorate of a city church. Although there were many very able and older men at Heidelberg, Olevianus, still very young but tried in the furnace of affliction, was eminently a preacher of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Clad in the full armor of God, he affirmed:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, For thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter. Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to sepa-rate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus, Our Lord (Rom. 8:35-39).

Zacharias Ursinus

Zacharias Ursinus, born at Breslau, Silisia, on July 18, 1534, entered the University of Wittenberg, Germany, at the age of sixteen. He remained there for seven years and it was during this time that he became strongly attached to his eminent teacher, Philip Melanchthon, with whom he attended the conference at Worms in the year 1557. After this he made personal contacts with the leaders of the reformation at Heidelberg and Strassburg in Germany, at Basel, Lausanne and Geneva in Switzerland, and at Orlean and Paris in France.

In 1558 he became the rector of the Elizabethan Gymnasium at Breslau, his native city. The views of the sacraments, whether the Lord was materially or spiritually present in the elements, were being discussed in church circles. It was apparent from the beginning that Ursinus held to the views of Melanchthon, and for this reason the fury of the ultra-Lutherans rose against him and he was branded as an anti-Lutheran Calvinist. He ably defended and vindicated his teaching on the sacraments and on the person of Christ in a tract which he published at that time. This, however, did not bridge the differences as Ursinus had hoped; instead, it increased the antagonism, and early in 1560 he resigned his position. “I will go,” he said, “to the Zürichers, whose reputation indeed is not great here, but who have so famous a name among other churches that it cannot be obscured by our preachers. They are God-fearing, thoroughly learned men with whom I have re-solved to spend my life. God will provide for the rest.”

He went to Zürich and there he again greeted his old friends Heinrich Bullinger and Peter Martyr Vermigli. It so happened that Frederick III at this time had requested the help of Vermigli to continue the Reformation in the Palatinate. Vermigli considered himself too old for such a difficult task and recommended his capable young friend Zacharias Ursinus, who, in the year 1561, was called to the professorship of theology at the University of Heidelberg and also to the rectorship of Sapienz College.

For many years Ursinus lectured at these institutions of learning. He was very exacting in his studies and lectures, always clear and concise. For this reason he was eminently fitted for the teaching profession and also for the great task of preparing a catechism so comprehensive as to include all the principal doctrines and yet so simple, clear, and practical, that young and old, students and theologians would cherish and love the “only comfort in life and in death.”

Under the supervision of Frederick III the preliminary work was done by the faculty of the university, but the final form of the Catechism and its editing was entrusted to Olevianus and Ursinus. The finished manuscript was ready by the end of 1562 and was unanimously approved. The first edition came off the press early in 1563.

Defense of the Catechism

The appearance of this catechism immediately aroused not only the Roman Catholic Church but also the Lutherans and even Emperor Maximilian II. It particularly met with the disapproval and unwarranted fury of the Lutherans. Lifting up the Calvinistic standard in the land of Luther was considered treason and injury to his name and memory.

At the Diet of Augsburg in 1566, Frederick III, Elector of the Palatinate, was charged with innovations and the use of a catechism not agreeing with the Augsburg Confession. By decree it was demanded of him that he change or disown the catechism, and if he refused to do so he would be excluded from the peace of the Empire, and that he would have to suffer the consequences both in respect to himself and his province. The Elector then withdrew from the Diet for a moment.

He soon returned with his son Casimir, who carried a Bible, and began modestly but firmly to make his defense, appealing to the Emperor’s sense of justice and right when he said,

“Your Imperial Majesty, I continue in the conviction which I made known to you before I came here in person, that in matters of faith and conscience I acknowledge only one Lord who is Lord of all lords, and King of all kings. That is why I say that this is not a matter of the flesh, but of man’s soul and its salvation which I have received from my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. His truth I am duty bound to guard. As regards Calvinism, I can say with God and my Christian conscience as witnesses that I have not read the books of Calvin, so that I can little say what is meant by Calvinism. But what my catechism teaches this I profess. This catechism has on its pages such abundant proof from Holy Scripture that it will remain unrefuted by men and will also remain my irrefutable belief. As regards the Augsburg Confession, your majesty knows that I signed it in good faith at Naumberg, and I continue to be true to that signature. For the rest, I comfort myself in this, that my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, has promised me and all His believers that whatever we lose for His name’s sake here on earth shall be restored to us a hundredfold in the life to come. And with this I submit myself to the gracious consideration of your Imperial Majesty.”

This manly address in the defense of the faith gained for him a signal victory over the Diet. Disagreeing with the judgment of the Emperor, the Diet voted that the Elector of the Palatinate was to be regarded and treated as belonging to the Alliance of Augsburg and within the jurisdiction of the Peace of the Empire.

The Heidelberg Catechism thus gained general recognition, and while Prince Frederick III was governor of the Palatinate, the catechism was the medium for instructing his people in the Only Comfort. The Elector was called to his reward on October 26, 1576, at the age of sixty-one years. On his death-bed he confessed to those present:

“I have lived here long enough for you and for the Church; I am called now to a better life. I have done for the Church what I could, but my power has been small. He who is almighty and who has cared, for his Church before I was born, lives and reigns in heaven. He will not forsake us, neither will He allow the prayers and tears, which I so often shed upon my knees in this chamber for my successors and the Church, to go unanswered and without effect.”

God endowed this princely man with wisdom and courage as well as unpretentious humility, and when it came to defend the cause of the gospel of God, his province, and his very life before the Diet of Augsburg, 1566, he stood ready to declare the whole counsel of God concerning our salvation set forth in his catechism of the Christian Faith.

The Heidelberg Catechism is a precious heritage of faith passed to us from our Reformed fathers. For that reason we are to treasure it, as Rev. Paul Trieck states,

Countless people through the years have carried on the Heidelberg tradition. That is well, but will we and our children continue to carry on the Heidelberg’s truths? Will we continue to commit it to our heads and our hearts? Will we faithfully teach our covenant children to walk in the doctrines it so clearly expounds? Would we be willing, as many before us, to put our life on the line to cling to the Christian faith as set forth in the Heidelberg? The use of the Heidelberg is very much a part of our past, but will we take that heritage with us into the future? To recount the rich heritage of our forefathers is an exercise in futility and no more than “name-dropping” unless we still walk in those shoes and are committed to instill these truths in the hearts and minds of the generations to come. Just to preserve and honor a heritage as a thing of the past is to make an idolatrous icon of it. To persevere in the faith expressed in our Heidelberg heritage will be a blessing to us and to our covenant children. (You Shall Be My People, 1996, p. 209-10)


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