The Importance of The Heidelberg Catechism
Christian B. White
University of Arkansas
The Heidelberg Catechism was created in Holy Roman Empire to bring about Christian peace and unity. This sentiment remains amongst many Protestant churches, but does not include Catholic churches. This paper is written with headings that are questions in a similar manner as the catechism to help the reader understand the usefulness of the method.
Keywords: Heidelberg, catechism, Holy Roman Empire
The Importance of The Heidelberg Catechism
This paper is written in a question and answer format (whilst conforming to the APA standards for headings and body paragraphs) to demonstrate the effectiveness of the method. It is akin to using multiple learning styles to teach the concept of multiple learning styles.
Introduction to the structure of The Heidelberg Catechism
The catechism is a theological exposition written in a series of questions and answers. This structure stems from the liturgical roots of Judaism. During the Jewish Passover celebration, a child asks questions of the father who explains the story of Passover. This practice was not stated in the Jewish sacred texts, but instead grew out of Jewish Tradition. The Catholic church has retained these practices in Mass (Pitre). The question and answer methodology teaches children the meaning of the actions in a manner that is easy to comprehend. Teaching in verbal question and answer format is memorable and doesn’t require literacy of young children.
In the Heidelberg, there are 129 questions and answers. They are divided into 52 sections or “Lord’s Days”. This is intentional as it allows the church to use the Heidelberg for doctrinal sermons once a week during a worship service for one year (Bierma).
Karl Barth explained that the three larger sections of the catechism are “human misery, human redemption, and human gratitude”. This three-part structure is echoed by most other scholars. Barth claimed that this three-part structure was “in its simplicity an ingenious restatement of the essence of the whole Reformation” (Vosloo). The idea that the entire Reformation could be summed up in three aspects of humanity seems oversimplified, but the text’s divisions are well thought out. There are many texts, including other catechisms, that echo this structure. The consensus about the distinctiveness of the Heidelberg is in the overarching theme of comfort as is demonstrated in its opening question, “What is your only comfort in life and death?”. Bierma claims this is in response to the Catholic sacramental system that required work for the remission of sins that caused many to have anxiety whereas the Heidelberg stresses faith alone, Christ alone.
Others see a progression through the three parts that further echoes liturgical churches. The subsections that cross over the actual sections are the “Call, Faith, Rebirth, Justification, Sanctification, Sealing, and Glorification” (Lampe). Yet others see a progression through more ancient catechismal documents such as the Lord’s Prayer which is logical because the church liturgy was formed from those catechismal texts as a didactical way to indoctrinate the information.
How did catechisms develop?
According to the prominent scholar James Tanis and my readings from the Catholic church’s website, the concept of “scala paradisis” (commonly known as Jacob’s Ladder in Protestant rhetoric) sparked the use of prayers that were meant to be said on special staircases. The use of scala was important to the Church before the Reformation as it fit with the tangible teaching methodology, but did not persist after the Reformation because it was related to indulgences. Though one may still climb the steps of the Basilica of St. John of Lateran and recite the prayers that the Catholic Church has provided to accompany each step. The scholar Tanis notes important works written in procession prior to the use of catechisms with various numbers of steps. They are aptly named: Excercitia, Scala sacre communionis, Steps of Humility, etc.
Christian catechesis became more complex from verbal recitation of Prayers to more in-depth understandings often in the question and answer format with the advent of the printing press. During the Reformation, catechesis underwent a revival and printed catechisms could be found all over Europe (Wandel). There was a fundamental shift from using from “a multitude of objects, performances, enactments, gestures, textures, as well as wine and bread” to using words that allowed for more intellectual thought and a “spatial codex” (Wandel). In other words, people began to use words to define their experience as much as they had previously used objects.
Who wrote the Heidelberg Catechism and why?
The Heidelberg Catechism is thought to be primarily written byZacharius Ursinus and published on January 19, 1563. Ursinus was an unknown theology professor less than 30 years old who had the help of various other authors assisting him in a lesser role as he borrowed language from previous catechisms according to the preface put forth by the commissioner (Bierma). Only Bierma has papers that continue to assert that Olvianus is a co-author.
Even though the Heidelberg is arguably the most beloved Protestant Catechism, the book was actually written for a specific people in a specific time: the Electoral Palatinate, one of some three hundred small states that made up the Holy Roman (German) Empire governed by the capital city of Heidelberg (Bierma and Strong). The Palatinate was officially Protestant which in this case meant Lutheran according to the Augsburg Confession which allowed each territory to choose a religion; thus, making Lutheranism the only lawful Protestant religion in the area. (Historically, it is common knowledge that as Luther’s thesis was only 45 years old at this point the Calvinists and Lutherans did not get along and, thus, often occupied different areas.) The Palatinate and all of the Holy Roman Empire was run by a “devout king”, Frederick III. He governed a diverse people that followed a variety of teachings including those of “Melanchthon, Bullinger, and Calvin” (Bierma). The king desired political stability (which also requires religious stability) in his land, so he commisioned a work that broadened the “Christian” appeal to include the other teachings that he felt were also Protestant and focused the use of his commissioned work towards children (Bierma).
Why did Frederick choose the University of Heidelberg and its synod to commission his work for religious stability?
The city of Heidelberg was important politically because its emperor was one of seven with the power to elect a new emperor for the entire Holy Roman Empire. That elector could serve as interim emperor until the new emperor was chosen (Van Vliet).
The Reformation came slowly to the area so there were many voices following various teachers that prevented any one voice from speaking too strongly. In fact, the author of the Heidelberg Catechism wrote a paper about his work stating the parts he agreed with and the parts that he did not. Though the area had a strong Protestant background and was home to Wenzel Strauss who was called the “evangelical trumpet” in the 1520’s (Van Vliet). However, the 1520’s movement quickly cooled down when the emperor of that time, Charles V, enacted The Augsburg Interim that required all territories remain under the teachings of Roman Catholicism. This did not bode well for the empire and a peace, The Augsberg Confession, was issued in 1555 allowing electors to choose a religion for their territories. Calvin and Lutheran doctrines did not reside in the same place. Heidelberg was Lutheran as mentioned earlier, but the university allowed for a more liberal view of theology.
When Frederick III came of power he sent out messengers to check out the state of his empire and determined that an appearance of religious unity would keep the different sects from killing each other. He used children to reach the masses by disguising it as education because this is a smart move and would be imitated by leaders after him. German schools (rather than Latin) sprung up all over the empire. He implemented The Catechism as one of the main texts (Van Vliet).
How is the Heidelberg used by many groups that don’t agree on all the points of Christianity?
The Heidelberg doesn’t have an exact theological profile. The original German name was “Catechism, or Christian Instruction, according to the Usages of the Churches and Schools of the Electoral Palatinate” (Strong). The vague term “Christian” was used to describe most of the sects that were popular in the day, though the document firmly excludes Catholics. Its current name comes from the approval of the Synod of Heidelberg where the document was written (Bierma).
How does the Heidelberg exclude the Catholic Church?
A common misconception is that when the Catechism refers to the “holy catholic church” it is referring to the Catholic Church. It instead means universal. However, the document is a Protestant document and any Catholic using it would be defying many tenets held by the Catholic Church (Pelikan). The Heidelberg’s 8th question was changed in the second edition in response to the decree of the Council of Trent concerning “touching the sacrifice of the Mass,” in Sept. 17, 1562. It directly distinguishes the Protestant “Lord’s Supper” from the “Popish Mass” and calls Catholic parishioners idolaters (Strong). The polemics are characteristic of this era and the Heidelberg had fewer than other documents due to its focus on comfort. It is difficult to be comforted whilst maliciously name-calling others. It should be noted that this 8th question polemic was added later and not part of Frederick III’s plan to unify his empire.
Just after Frederick was placed in office, he inherited a problem of two professors at the University at Heidelberg who were arguing over the issue of The Lord’s Supper or Communion, he sent both of them out of his area. He began to create his veneer peace by choosing Ursinus (and Olvianus, the man that Bierma believes assisted in the creation of the Heidelberg) to take their places. The eventual inclusion of the anti-catholic sentiment was included because having an “other” to dislike is also helpful in unity and the decision from the Council of Trent made it impossible to withhold action or pretend that there was no conflict.
A side effect of creating a codex of essential Christian knowledge is that it begins to create an essential Christian identity (Wandel). There are many catechisms to accommodate the many identities that these beliefs create.
Other than the Catholic division, are there any others that do not agree with the tenets in the Heidelberg?
The church quickly divided over the catechism’s proper use. Ursinus, an Aristotelian scholar, and Ramist were the leaders. Aristotelians believed that the catechism was for memorization and exegetical (preaching) purposes. Ramists believed that its concepts should be mastered, but not memorized. It was difficult to regulate an understanding that is focused on comprehension over rote memorization, so a Ramist variation of the catechism called “Vester Grund” was created for this purpose (Tanis).
If the Heidelberg doesn’t have an exact theological profile how does it specifically alienate different Protestant groups from each other?
It should be noted that the main theme of the document even among disagreements is unity. The Heidelberg unified the Pietest and anti-Pietists of the Dutch church (Tanis). A great example is in the use of questions 83-85 about the doctrines for how admonition should be received by a communing member. If the member did not act accordingly, they would have a consequence of losing privileges to partake in sacraments and if they did act accordingly, then they would be reaffirmed into the Church and correlatingly, the Kingdom of God. The interpretation was perceived differently by Pietists and anti-Pietists. Pietests focused on the admonition and anti-Pietists focused on the reaffirmation. Both continued to use the Heidelberg Catechism. This simple example is indicative of a larger trend in the split between the groups that were simultaneously brought together in their use of the catechism and torn apart by its interpretation.
The doctrines of reprobation (rejection by God), covenant (union with God), limited atonement (Calvinism), perseverance of the saints (known in the Baptist tradition as “once saved always saved”), and strict Sabbatarianism (indicating that it is a sin to do work on the Holy day of the week regardless of which day one thinks is the Holy Day) do not appear in The Heidelberg Catechism. These are all divisive issues in the Protestant church, both in the 16th century and today. The doctrine of predestination is not mentioned even though that was a unifying factor in the regions of the Palatinate. There are three allusions to an assurance of salvation. This deviation from the previous works by the author, Ursinus, allowed the Heidelberg to serve a wider audience than previous catechisms and reinforced his focus on comfort. One scholar proposed that this was intentional as it helped convert “Nicodemites” or Catholic parishioners with Reformed ideology in their minds (Beeke).
The shift from previous catechisms is seen in the focus on man’s spiritual experience rather than “theological abstractions” according to the scholar James Tanis. For example, the focus on the person is found in the Heidelberg’s questioning words such as “Your only comfort… How are you reminded… What benefit do you recieve…” (emphasis mine).
What are the purposes of The Heidelberg Catechism?
It was originally designed to teach children the tenants of their faith, but now is recognized as being too heady (Tanis). There are simplified versions available for children now, so a form of the Catechism remains in many children’s lives.
The Heidelberg Catechism is creedal which means that it is an identifying statement about the necessities one needs to identify as part of the group. It comes from the latin word “credo” which translates as “I believe”. It serves as a confession as well. A confession is not borne out of church tradition, but stems from Biblical sources. A good example is the Shema from the Old Testament and shared amongst Abrahamic religions (Scott). People of a Jewish faith are most likely to recite it. “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” (The Shema is called the Shema because “shema” is the word for “Hear” in Hebrew.) There are many other confessions and creeds in the Bible. Scott indicated that the creedal nature of the Heidelberg is one of its best features because creeds are unavoidable in the Christian faith. Even the idea, “No creed but Christ” is still a short creed. “Thus, the question is not whether we will have a confession but whether it will be biblical, ecumenical, and sound” (Scott).
Is the Heidelberg used in places that are not church services?
Yes, it has been used as a way to indoctrinate a new group of people. As of its 450th anniversary in 2013, it had been translated into more than 40 languages ranging from Afrikaans to Vietnamese (Vosloo). Strong argues that because the book assumes familiarity with a large amount of jargon and Christianity in general, it is not suited for missionary work. However, not all of the individuals in history agreed with Strong, especially for groups that understood spoken language, but could not read the Bible because as stated earlier the Heidelberg is much easier to remember and understand than Biblical text.
Vosloo described the impact of the catechism on South Africa with the arrival of the Dutch. The Heidelberg was used to inculcate the native people who took it on as part of their own heritage in a sense.
Does using the Heidelberg in these non-church settings cause any problems?
Anywhere a creedal document goes, identities are named and conflict arises. During the “Modernization Controversy” of the 1860’s, the catechism was used to determine proper reformation in the church there (Vosloo). This involved a social/political dynamic that included skin color, ethnic traditions, regional loyalties, etc. For many white Dutch congregations it was felt to be contradictory to depend on the Heidelberg Catechism and Book of Confessions because part of the Heidelberg states that man is “still inclined toward all evil”, so the book having been written by men without the inspiration of God and that implied authority of the Bible could not be used to determine the correct interpretations of the Bible. Furthermore, some South African ministers felt that some of the words of the Heidelberg were not Reformed, nor Biblical including the aforementioned “inclination toward evil” because re-born people should be considered saints and are aided by the Holy Spirit to escape temptation.
After this semantic divide the Heidelberg lost favor for some congregations that were not involved in the original argument, but began to take sides. However, in the 1940’s, Vosloo explains that the neo-Calvinists attempted to use the Heidelberg to refute multiple “-isms ranging from modernism, to liberalism, to communism, ecumenism, even to what is described as other-ism”. This led to the use of the catechism to critique apartheid in the 1980’s because it was aligned with the liberation as a “theology” that backed the movement. The interjection into South African politics in this way is not isolated to South Africa. It regained favor as churched sought to separate themselves from apartheid.
How did it affect politics in other ways?
The shift from a religion that focused on the way one lived to a religion that focused on comfort changed the way people did religion. According to Hugen, the shift from a monostratal center of religion to a public center where people could think their own thoughts ultimately changed the political sphere because it set the idea that the masses could think.
The idea of piety shifted with the Reformation. Rather than the highest form of worship coinciding with asceticism, there was an interaction with the world. (This is using the broader sense of the time period of the Reformation leaving the Middle Ages and entering a different mindset as a European people. “This new piety of the obedient life engaged Christians in the world, in all of it: from commerce to government, from marriage and family life to labor relations, from the marketplace to the care of the poor. This piety brought about a reformation of culture…” (Hugen) Arguably these things happened before the Heidelberg existed as well as happening after, but the mannerisms are different. Hugen attributes the shift to cultural change that is rooted in the confessions of the Reformation. People began to question each other and refine each other through argumentation with unity.
Speaking about the cycle of positive and negative reactions that the catechism had taken through the South African Church Vosloo “challenges us not to see the Heidelberg Catechism as a chain that binds us (in the sense that we view it as a document that requires mere repetition), but as a gift that we can receive without regret as we seek to confess our faith with the Heidelberg Catechism, in Christian freedom, and with joy.” The final thought that every source that used the Heidelberg Catechism ended as such a sentiment. Churches use this document to represent a freedom across various denominations while affirming their own beliefs. It is a tool to determine what is primary for a Protestant Christian faith as it pertains to how each church should interpret Biblical principles.
A Devout Way of Ascending the Scala Santa. Original , 1857, archive.org/details/ADevoutWay/page/n3. Accessed 3 Oct. 2018. This is a book dedicated to the prayers of the Scala Santa which outlines the steps. The idea of many steps split into sections is part of what inspires the use of catechisms. The concrete examples were very effective in teaching doxology/doctrine.
Beeke, Joel R., and Derk Visser. “Zacharias Ursinus: The Reluctant Reformer-His Life and Times.” Sixteenth Century Journal, vol. 25, no. 1, 1994, pp. 217–219. Jstor, doi:10.2307/2542587. Ursinus is the author of the Heidelberg. I didn’t realize how underqualified he was for his job.
Bierma, Lyle. The Heidelberg Catechism . www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/heidelberg-catechism/. Accessed 3 Oct. 2018. Dr. Bierma seems to be an author of every introductory book on The Heidelberg. In this article, he explains the Palatinate and the significance of the place and people for which the catechism was originally written.
Bierma, Lyle D. “Olevianus and the Authorship of the Heidelberg Catechism: Another Look.” Sixteenth Century Journal, vol. 13, no. 4, 1982, p. 17., doi:10.2307/2540007. This is the Bierma rebuttal to the review about the authorship. His argument changes ever so slightly to address the complaints of the article. It was interesting to see debate done so slowly.
“Catechism of the Catholic Church.” United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, The Catholic Church, www.usccb.org/beliefs-and-teachings/what-we-believe/catechism/catechism-of-the-catholic-church/. This helped me see where the concept of catechisms is from in addition to the book about the prayers.
Clark, Scott. “The Role of Creeds and Confessions in Doing Theology.” The Heidelblog, 9 May 2018, heidelblog.net/2018/02/the-role-of-creeds-and-confessions-in-doing-theology/. Reverand Scott Clark explains how the creedal nature of the Heidelberg affects its credibility for the differing groups who use it. His blog is a condensed form of his many books and much more readable.
Gunnoe, Charles D., et al. “A Firm Foundation: An Aid to Interpreting the Heidelberg Catechism.” Sixteenth Century Journal, vol. 27, no. 4, 1996, p. 1089., doi:10.2307/2543917. This is a peer review that argues against Bierma’s assertion that there was more than one primary author of the Heidelberg. Since a lot of his work is the backbone of my paper, I was interested in the academic voice against him. I would say that the others are more correct and Bierma simply wants there to be more Olvianus influence.
Hugen, Melvin Dale. “The Shaping Influence of the Heidelberg Catechism on the Pastoral Care of the Church.” Reformed Review, vol. 55, no. 2, 2001, pp. 133–138. ATLA Religion Database, repository.westernsem.edu/pkp/index.php/rr/issue/view/163. This journal touches on the political impact of the Heidelberg due to its influence on pastoral action from a Calvinist point of view.
Lampe, Rev. Prof. F.A. “Milk of Truth.” 1718. Lampe explained the structure of the Heidelberg, so that its use in pedagogical/exegetical would be more uniform across different applications. Also, this scaffolding helped me understand the sections because they seemed more random to me.
Pelikan, Jaroslav Jan. Christian Doctrine and Modern Culture (since 1700): the Christian Tradition. Vol. 4, University of Chicago Press, 1989. The section, “One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic?” was helpful in understanding the unity provided without implying that Protestants are members of the Catholic Church.
Pitre, Brant. The Jewish Roots of the Mass. 18 Sept. 2011, www.usccb.org/beliefs-and-teachings/how-we-teach/catechesis/catechetical-sunday/eucharist/upload/catsun-2011-doc-pitre-roots.pdf. Accessed 3 Oct. 2018. Dr. Pitre explains the relationship between the Jewish liturgical story of Passover and Catholic tradition. The questions are part of the tradition and are not outlined in the Bible.
Strong, James, and John McLintock. “Brief History of the Heidelberg Catechism.” Cyclopedia Of Biblical, Theological And Ecclesiastical Literature , 1869, reformed.org/documents/index.html?mainframe=https://reformed.org/documents/heidelberg_intro.html. Accessed 3 Oct. 2018. The history is presented almost confrontationally towards the Catholic Church and I suspect that this bias stems from Strong’s work with the King James Version of the Bible and his beliefs about it. However, I needed to see points of view that do not mirror my own tradition or of the others I had read.
Tanis, James. “The Heidelberg Catechism in the Hands of The Calvinistic Pietists.” Curriculum Echoes, vol. 24, no. 3, 1971, repository.westernsem.edu/pkp/index.php/rr/issue/view/67. Accessed 3 Oct. 2018. Tanis overviews the Heidelberg’s purposes and details how those purposes fit into a wider cultural context both during its writing and as it progressed through history to its 400th anniversary.
Van Vliet, Jason. “Reform in the Palatinate.” Heidelberg-Catechism.com, Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary, www.heidelberg-catechism.com/en/history/. Von Vliet discusses how Heidelberg was well suited to create the catechism.
Vosloo, R. “Remembering the Heidelberg Catechism in South Africa Today? Some Remarks on the Commemoration of a 16ThCentury Reformed Confession.” Acta Theologica, vol. 20, no. 1, 2016, p. 1., doi:10.4314/actat.v20i1.1s. Vosloo provides a more full understanding of the usages of the text throughout African history with a non-eurocentric point of view.
Wandel, Lee Palmer. “Reading Catechisms, Teaching Religion.” Renaissance and Reformation / Renaissance Et Réforme, vol. 39, no. 3, 2016, pp. 219–221. Jstor, doi:10.1163/9789004305205. Wandel discusses the shift from recited prayers and object bound religion to the use of intellectual arguments.