What is The Heidelberg Catechism?
Last week’s article gave a brief definition of a catechism and an introduction to a catechism’s use in the church. We learned that catechisms are “structure statements of faith written in the form of questions and answers.” This week we will look at the background and history of a reformation catechism respected by several different denominations, The Heidelberg Catechism.
The Heidelberg Catechism was composed in Heidelberg, Germany, in the late 1500’s. Elector Frederick III, who ruled the German province, which contained the city of Heidelberg, had the catechism written in order to bring unity between the various religious groups under his rule.
Many believe Zacharius Ursinus and Caspar Olevianus were coauthors of the new catechism, but the Elector wrote that the catechism was written “with the advice and cooperation of our entire theological faculty in this place, and of all superintendents and distinguished servants of the church." It was most certainly a group effort.
The church in Heidelberg approved and adopted the catechism at a meeting in January of 1563. The churches soon divided the catechism into fifty-two sections, called “Lord’s Days.” This was so one Lord's Day could be explained in preaching and teaching each Sunday of the year.
Why should we take the time to study something written so long ago? Mark Noll, in his excellent work, Confessions and Catechisms of the Reformation, puts it like this: “…prospects for thoughtful Christian faith …are seriously damaged if in the confusions of our own day we refuse to listen to these voices from the past.” We suffer greatly when we ignore great thinkers from the past.
The Heidelberg Catechism is divided into three sections: guilt, grace and gratitude. These three sections outline the Christian faith.
All men and women are guilty of sinning against a Holy God and stand condemned by Him. This does not refer to feelings of guilt, but to real guilt. We feel guilty because we are guilty.
God’s grace can save us through the Person and work of our Lord Jesus Christ if we have faith in Him. Christ’s perfect life and death for our sins on the cross purchase a place in heaven for those who trust Him.
Those who have true faith then live holy lives out of gratitude for what Christ has done for them. We do good works because we have eternal life, not to earn eternal life.
The catechism explains The Apostle’s Creed, the Ten Commandments, and The Lord’s Prayer, in that order. Following God’s commands and praying as our Lord taught us come in the section on gratitude. Placing the commandments and the prayer in the last section emphasizes the fact that God’s laws apply to the Christian. Christians are still obligated to follow them.
Protestants wrote this great catechism. It is a product of the Protestant Reformation in all its glory. It tells of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, because of Christ alone, as described in Scripture alone, and to the glory of God alone. The many Scripture references contained in The Heidelberg Catechism point to the Bible as our authority.
Next week we will turn our attention to the first question and answer of The Heidelberg Catechism. Join us on our journey through this great work.
Two books that will be helpful in our journey include The Good News We Almost Forgot by Kevin DeYoung and The Heidelberg Catechism: A Study Guide by G. I. Williamson. The catechism itself can be found at either this link or this one.