Christ in the Heidelberg Catechism
Christ in the Heidelberg Catechism
By Robert Godfrey
The Heidelberg Catechism is arguably the
finest catechism produced in the 16th century. Its warm piety and clear,
biblical theology have made it a favorite summary of reformed Christianity for
many through the centuries.
The catechism was completed in 1563 in Heidelberg, the capital city of the Palatinate in Germany. It was intended to aid the movement of the Palatinate from Lutheranism to Calvinism. Its doctrine is expressed largely in positive terms, but does become sharper on the Lord's Supper, where its position is contrasted explicitly with Rome's and implicitly with that of the strict Lutherans.
From the beginning the catechism was intended for preaching as well as teaching. The Reformers of Heidelberg were convinced that not only children needed catechizing, but all God's people needed careful, regular instruction in the basics of the faith. The catechism was divided into 52 Lord's Days with the purpose of facilitating weekly preaching from the catechism. Especially in the Dutch Reformed tradition that intention has been preserved to our day. The sermon in one service each Sunday (usually the afternoon or evening service) is based on the catechism for that Sunday.
The personal and Christ-centered character of the catechism is clear right from the beginning. The first question asks, "What is your only comfort in life and death?" The answer is as fine a summary of the gospel as can be found anywhere: "That I am not my own, but belong-body and soul, in life and in death-to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven: in fact, all things must work together for my salvation. Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him."
This first answer is long and stands in marked contrast with the rather short questions that begin other catechisms. The Westminster Shorter Catechism asks, "What is the chief end of man?" and answers, "To glorify God and enjoy him forever." The Anglican Catechism is even briefer (and easier). Its first question is "What is your name?" But Heidelberg takes the catechumen to the heart of the gospel right at the beginning. Christ stands at the head of the catechism and the whole catechism is an explication of what it means to belong to him.
The second question of the catechism presents the basics structure of the whole work. It asks, "What must you know to live and die in the comfort?" It answers, "Three things: first, how great my sin and misery are; second, how I an set free from all my sins and misery; and third, how I am to thank God for such deliverance." The catechism from this point is divided into three sections. Questions 3-11 deal with man's sin and misery. Questions 12-85 cover man's deliverance from sin. Questions 86-129 discuss the life of gratitude to be lived for such a deliverance. These three sections have been called sin, salvation, and service, or guilt, grace, and gratitude.
This three-fold division is often said to parallel the structure of the book of Romans, where Paul moves from his reflections on the sinful human condition to redemption in Christ, and then on to the Christian life. This division stands in contrast to the two-fold division of the Westminster catechisms into belief and duty.
The first section of the Heidelberg Catechism is quite brief, only nine questions. This brevity may surprise some who might expect Calvinists to dwell on the problem of sin at greater length. But these few questions impress the gravity of the human problem clearly. The law of God--summarized by Jesus in two commandments about loving God and the neighbor--reveals sin and shows that "I have a natural tendency to hate God and my neighbor" (Question 5). This nature is inherited from Adam and Eve (Question 7), and unless we are born again (Question 8) will surely lead to judgment: "God is merciful, but he is also just. His justice demands that sin, committed against his supreme majesty, be punished with the supreme penalty--eternal punishment of body and soul" (Question 11).
The theme of judgment is question 11 is the transition to the second section, the one on deliverance. Questions 12-17, very much in the spirit of Anselm's Cur Deus Homo?, speak of how justice must be satisfied and redemption accomplished by one who is a perfectly righteous man and yet is also infinite God. Only Jesus meets these qualifications and is the savior of his people (Question 18). But the saving work of Jesus does not redeem everyone: "Only those are saved who by true faith are grafted into Christ and accept all his blessings" (Question 20).
Question 21 is another of the remarkable points in the catechism. If man is saved only by faith in Christ, then we must ask what faith is, and that is just what question 21 does. Its definition of faith is superb. "What is true faith? True faith is not only a knowledge and conviction that everything God reveals in his Word is true; it is also a deep-rooted assurance, created in me by the Holy Spirit through the gospel, that out of sheer grace earned for us by Christ, not only others, but I too, have had my sins forgiven, and have been made forever right with God, and have been granted salvation." Faith is not only knowledge that accepts the teaching of the Bible, but it is trust and confidence that Christ is my savior. A confident assurance that Christ has saved me must be at the heart of my faith. The catechism develops the content of faith in a long section that explains the Apostles' Creed. Medieval catechisms had been basically structured around expositions of the Apostles' Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord's Prayer. The Heidelberg Catechism follows this tradition of catechismal instruction and discusses the Apostles' Creed in questions 22-58. This use of reiteration is an important dimension of good teaching.
The section on the Apostles' Creed contains many notable statements. Only a taste of it can be presented here. Question 28 is striking: "How does the knowledge of God's creation and providence help us? We can be patient when things go against us, thankful when things go well, and for the future we can have good confidence in our faithful God and Father that nothing will separate us from his love. All creatures are so completely in his hand that without his will they can neither move nor be moved." Another illuminating question is number 31: "Why is he called 'Christ,' meaning 'anointed'? Because he has been ordained by God the Father and has been anointed with the Holy Spirit to be our chief prophet and teacher who perfectly reveals to us the secret counsel and will of God for our deliverance; our only high priest who has set us free by the one sacrifice of his body, and who continually pleads our cause with the Father; and our eternal king who governs us by his Word and Spirit, and who guards us and keeps us in the freedom he has won for us." In these two questions there is much to chew on.
No Reformation catechism would be complete without a section on justification. Heidelberg has six questions on justification, of which number 60 is the center: "How are you right with God? Only by true faith in Jesus Christ. Even though my conscience accuses me of having grievously sinned against all God's commandments and of never having kept any of them, nevertheless, without my deserving it at all, out of sheer grace, God grants and credits to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ, as if I had never sinned nor been a sinner, as if I had been as perfectly obedient as Christ was obedient for me."
The catechism also speaks of the source of faith. Interestingly, the source of faith is not discussed in terms of the electing purpose of God as a Calvinist might suppose (although election is taught in question 54). Rather, in a teaching that is perhaps even more controversial today than predestination, question 65 says of true faith, "The Holy Spirit produces it in our hearts by the preaching of the holy gospel, and confirms it through our use of the holy sacraments." Do we esteem preaching as highly as the catechism does? Perhaps the church would be stronger if solid preaching of the gospel was sought and even demanded by God's people.
A large section of the catechism is devoted to the sacraments (Questions 66-82). Such length is in part attributable to the controversial nature of the sacraments in the 16th century. No question was more heatedly debated than the meaning of the Lord's Supper. But such length is a help to us today because the sacraments are so important and so neglected. The catechism follows Calvin in seeing the sacraments as support that God has given us in our weakness as Christians. The theme of strengthening our assurance pervades this section. Listen to question 73: "Why then does the Holy Spirit call baptism the washing of regeneration and the washing away of sins? God has good reasons for these words. He wants to teach us that the blood and Spirit of Christ wash away our sins just as water washes away dirt from our bodies. But more important, he wants to assure us, by this divine pledge and sign, that the washing away of our sins spiritually is as real as physical washing with water."
The catechism's second major division concludes with a discussion of preaching and church discipline as the keys of the kingdom. Church discipline is necessary so that some who deny Christ in doctrine or life do not delude themselves or others by claiming to be Christians (Question 85). Discipline contributes to deliverance by calling sinners to repentance and purifying the church.
The third major part of the catechism (Questions 86-129) is on the life of gratitude that Christians will lead for the redemption that Christ has brought to them. Christian living is not a voluntary, optional addition to faith, but an inevitable and necessary consequence of true faith: "...we do good because Christ by his Spirit is also renewing us to be like himself, so that in all our living we may show that we are thankful to God for all he has done for us, and so that he may be praised through us. And we do good so that we may be assured that by our godly living our neighbors may be won over to Christ" (Question 86).
The topic of Christian living is divided into two parts in the catechism--repentance and prayer. In the language of reformed theologians of the 16th century repentance is really a synonym for sanctification. Repentance is the putting to death of the old man and the bringing to life of the new man (Question 88). We are guided in that lifelong process by the Ten Commandments, which are discussed in questions 94-113. The fine and helpful reflection on the Commandments is concluded with this observation: "In this life even the holiest have only a small beginning of this obedience. Nevertheless, with all seriousness of purpose, they do begin to live according to all, not only some, of God's commands" (Question 114).
Prayer, especially the significance of the Lord's Prayer, is the subject of the last questions of the catechism (Questions 116-129). The Christ-centered character of the catechism continues in this section and teaches us the essence of true prayer: "Why did Christ command us to call God 'Our Father'? At the very beginning of our prayer Christ wants to kindle in us what is basic to our prayer: the childlike awe and trust that God (through Christ) has become our Father. Our fathers do not refuse us the things of this life; God our Father will even less refuse to give us what we ask in faith."
The Heidelberg Catechism is an anchor. It anchors us in sound knowledge as it summarizes the basic teachings of Christ's word, the Bible. It anchors us in Christ's work as it presents to us clearly and attractively God's redemption. It anchors us in Christ's church as it explains the content of faith and the support of faith given in Christ's community and Christ's sacraments. It anchors us in living for Christ by Christ's Spirit. It is no wonder that Reformed Christians have treasured, studied, memorized, and preached this catechism for centuries. We will surely be built up in Christ and in faith if we do the same today.
Dr. W. Robert Godfrey is president and professor of church history at Westminster Theological Seminary in California.
© 1993, Modern Reformation Magazine (November / December Issue, Vol. 2.2).
Re-posted with permission of www.modernreformation.org .