[The following appears in the new 2013 edition of the Heidelberg Catechism, based on previous editions and updated by Rev. Eric Bristley.]
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).
This catechism was first published at Heidelberg, Germany, with a preface by Frederick III, dated January 19, 1563. The second and third editions, each with small additions, along with a Latin translation, were published later in 1563. Beginning in the third edition, the division into fifty-two Lord’s Days was provided so that the entire catechism might be explained once a year. The fourth edition, published on November 15, 1563, as part of the Palatinate Church Order (Kirchenordnung), is regarded as the standard text.
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 around 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 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 deathbed 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 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.”
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.
English translations of the catechism appeared as early as 1572. In America Rev. Archibald Laidlie (1727–1779), serving in the Dutch Reformed Church in New York City, provided an American version based on earlier English translations in 1765. He did so at the request of his consistory. It became the standard version which is the basis of most older American editions. It was also used by the Reformed Church in the U.S.
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. It was made by a committee composed of E. V. Gerhart, John W. Nevin, Henry Harbaugh, John S. Kessler, Daniel Zacharias, Heyser, Kelker, and Steiner. It was prepared under the direction of the German Reformed Church and entitled, The Heidelberg Catechism, in German, Latin and English: with an Historical Introduction. New York: Scribner, 1863. 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.
In evaluating this translation, Dr. James I. Good observed, “The translation into English is carefully done from a literary standpoint, but it is somewhat marred by divergence from the original text, so as to favor the peculiar views of the Mercersburg Theology. … This edition, however, was never officially adopted by the synod or the Church, and has come into only partial use in the Church, the older English translation of Laidlie being the one in common use.” (History of the Reformed Church in the U.S., New York, 1911, p. 405).
Modern English Version
In the middle of the twentieth century the continuing Reformed Church in the U.S. (Eureka Classis) prepared a revision of the Tercentenary, published in 1950. In this work the committee assigned to this task consulted two new critical German editions: August Lang, Der Heidelberger Katechismus und Vier Verwandte Katechismen (Leipzig: A. Deichert, 1907), and Bekenntnisschriften und Kirchenordnungen der nach Gottes Wort reformierten Kirche, herausgegeben von Wilhelm Niesel (Zürich: Evangelischer Verlag, 1938).
Rev. Robert Grossmann remarked,
“This edition sought to return to the earliest text of the Catechism in German and to provide a most careful and direct translation of the same into English” (You Shall Be My People, 1996, p. 107). This edition first appeared with the German and English texts printed on opposite pages and was printed by Reliance Publishing Company. Later printings appeared only in English. In the preface we read, “Careful comparative studies of the original and the modern German versions, as also the Latin, the Dutch, and the English translations, were made, and, realizing that words and sentence construction become hallowed by use, alterations were made only with great caution after much deliberation to improve diction where permissible, or to state the intent of the original more accurately. The Tercentenary version of 1863 is followed closely.”
In 1978 the existing version was updated in the language used in the questions and answers, while retaining the King James Version of the Bible in the Scripture references. This edition was ordered to be printed by the 1986 Synod of the Reformed Church in the U.S. In 2012 this revision is complemented by the Scripture references in the New King James Version, to complete the transition to what can be called a Modern English Version.
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 Treick 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)
Faithful to the Word of God, its language echoes the Spirit of Truth, testifying that true believers are the children of God through the Lord Jesus Christ.