The Heidelberg Catechism
by Lyle Bierma
Q. What is your only comfort in life and in death?
A. That I am not my own but belong — body and soul, in life and in death — to my faithful Savior
These are the opening lines of the most famous question and answer of probably the most famous catechism of the sixteenth century: the Heidelberg Catechism of 1563. Within a few months of its appearance, Heinrich Bullinger, leader of the Reformed church in Zurich, was hailing it as “the best catechism ever published.” It was soon translated from German into Latin, Dutch, English, French, Greek, and Hungarian, and today it can be found in every European language and dozens of African and Asian languages as well. Many scholars regard it as the most irenic and catholic expression of the Christian faith to come out of the Protestant Reformation. It is certainly among the most beloved.
Such worldwide acclaim for this document, however, makes it easy to forget that it was originally written to a particular audience in a particular place for a particular reason. Its full title, “Catechism or Christian Instruction as This Is Conducted in Churches and Schools of the Electoral Palatinate,” provides some clues to this background. First, although the catechism was written and published in the city of Heidelberg, Germany, it was intended for use in the entire territory of which Heidelberg was the capital. This territory was known as the Electoral Palatinate, one of some three hundred small states that made up the Holy Roman (German) Empire in the sixteenth century.
Second, the catechism was to provide instruction in both the “churches and schools” of the territory. The Palatinate had become officially Protestant (Lutheran) in 1546, relatively late when one recalls that Luther had triggered the Reformation in another part of Germany almost thirty years before. When the political leader of the Palatinate, Elector Frederick III, came to power in 1559, he conducted a visitation of the churches in his realm to assess their spiritual progress. What he found was disheartening. The young people were growing up “without the fear of God and the knowledge of His Word.” Where doctrinal instruction was being offered, teachers and preachers were using a variety of catechisms, and some instructors were even confusing their students with irrelevant questions and unsound teachings. If we are really to bring about a reformation in our territory, Frederick III concluded, the place to begin is with the training of our children — youth ministry! And for that we need a single, clear guide to biblical truth and instructors who teach and live by that guide.
Finally, the full title of the catechism refers to “Christian” instruction in the churches and schools. This may indicate a deliberate attempt on Frederick’s part to avoid such labels as “Lutheran,” “Calvinist,” or “Zwinglian.” The only lawful form of Protestantism in the German Empire at that time was Lutheranism, as defined by the Augsburg Confession (1530). Frederick’s predecessor, however, had opened the Palatinate to followers not only of Luther but also of Melanchthon, Bullinger, and Calvin, and Frederick III continued this policy as he became increasingly attracted to certain Reformed ideas. To help achieve religious and political stability in his realm, therefore, Frederick commissioned a catechism that would offer instruction in the fundamentals of the “Christian” faith, a summary of biblical doctrine that minimized differences and emphasized consensus among the Protestant factions in the territory.
The production of such a catechism was assigned in 1562 to a team of Heidelberg ministers and university theologians under the watchful eye of Frederick himself. Two young members of the team, Zacharias Ursinus (1534–83) and Caspar Olevianus (1536–87), are often identified as the co-authors, but the consensus among scholars today is that Ursinus was the primary writer and Olevianus had a lesser role. Ursinus was particularly well suited to the task not only because of his moderate, irenic disposition, but also because he had studied under leading theologians from the different Protestant traditions in Wittenberg, Zurich, and Geneva. The team perused and even borrowed language from a number of earlier catechisms, both Lutheran and Reformed, and within less than a year brought the final draft of their work to a synod in Heidelberg for approval. The finished product had Scripture references under each question and answer and was divided into 52 sections, or Lord’s Days, so that a minister could cover the entire catechism once a year in doctrinal sermons at the afternoon worship service.
When the Heidelberg Catechism (HC) first appeared in 1563, therefore, no one could have imagined that it was destined for greatness. Its main author was an unknown theology professor not yet twenty-nine years old. It was composed for the schools and churches of one small state in a corner of the German Empire. And in many respects it was similar to scores of other Protestant catechisms circulating at the time. Why, then, would this document eventually stand out from the rest?
Part of the answer lies in what distinguished the HC from its relatives. Like the others, it provides an explanation of the basic elements of the Christian faith: the Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and the sacraments. What is distinctive about the HC, however, is that it connects these explanations to a single over-arching theme, the theme of comfort introduced in the famous first question and answer quoted above.
In order to live and die in the joy of such comfort, Q & A 2 goes on to say, I must know three things: how great my sin and misery are, how I am delivered from such sin and misery, and how I can live in gratitude to God for such deliverance. These sub-themes of “Misery,” “Deliverance,” and “Gratitude” form the three major divisions of the HC, and the expositions of the basic elements of Christianity are woven through them. I come to know my misery through the (summary of the) Ten Commandments (Q & A 3–5). I come to know my deliverance through the Gospel as summarized in the Apostles’ Creed (Q & A 19–58), and I am assured of that deliverance through the sacraments (Q & A 65–85). Finally, it is through the (individual) Ten Commandments (Q & A 92–115) and the Lord’s Prayer (Q & A 116–129) that I come to know ways of expressing my gratitude for this deliverance. In short, the HC directs all the fundamentals of the Christian faith toward the comfort of the believer.
In choosing comfort as the central motif of the HC, the authors were addressing the spiritual anxieties of the day. Against the background of a Catholic sacramental system that required works of penance to help pay for one’s sins, the HC proclaims the comfort of belonging to a Christ “who has fully paid for all my sins” (Q & A 1). In an age of constant war, famine, disaster, and plague, the HC proclaims the comfort of belonging to a Christ who “watches over me in such a way that…all things must work together for my salvation” (Q & A 1). Over against a late medieval piety that encouraged people to do their best and then hope for the best, the HC proclaims the comfort of belonging to a Christ who “by his Holy Spirit assures me of eternal life” (Q & A 1). Some have criticized this approach as too human-centered, but it is here that the HC shows itself as first of all a pastoral document, sensitive to the spiritual discomfort of its audience and responding with the comforting truths of the Gospel.
This personal, practical approach to doctrine carries over into the rest of the catechism as well. For example, the HC treats each of the articles of the Apostles’ Creed not just as facts to be explained but also as promises of God made real in the lives of believers. It doesn’t just ask, “What does this article of the creed mean?” but also, “How does this teaching benefit you?” (for example, Q & A 36, 45, 49), or “How does this comfort you?” (for example, Q & A 52, 57–58). In the section on the sacraments, it emphasizes the assurance of salvation that comes from the washing of water and partaking of the Supper. In the exposition of the Decalogue, it not only relates the commandments to the realities of life but examines the positive lifestyle implied in the prohibitions of the moral law. And it doesn’t just interpret the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer; it places them in extended paraphrase on the lips of the praying community.
Surprisingly, the HC is silent or at least muted on certain teachings that are often associated with the Reformed theological tradition: election, reprobation, covenant, limited atonement, perseverance of the saints, and strict Sabbatarianism. Why, then, has this document had such extraordinary staying power and popularity in Reformed and Presbyterian circles and beyond? It is because this is a catechism that today still connects with believers at the core of their being, beautifully blending biblical doctrine and piety.