After Luther’s death in 1546, the Reformation came to Heidelberg. Shortly thereafter a controversy broke out under Otto Heinrich between the Lutherans, the Calvinists, and the Zwinglians concerning the presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. The controversy was fueled when a staunch Lutheran advocated exclusive Lutheranism for the city, even excommunicating a Zwinglian deacon after fighting with him at the altar about the significance of the communion cup. Wishing to put an end to the theological disputes, Frederick III decided to have a Confession of Faith crafted by Zacharias Ursinus—head of the local theological college and a student of Philip Melanchthon—and Caspar Olevianus, a pastor-theologian in Heidelberg. Each theologian produced a draft of a new confession, relying upon past sources such as the catechism written by John Calvin.
Church historian Philip Schaff notes how this dual-authorship by two extremely gifted theologians led to a masterful confession: “The peculiar gifts of both, the didactic clearness and precision of the one [Ursinus], and the pathetic warmth and unction of the other [Olevianus], were blended in beautiful harmony, and produced a joint work which is far superior to all the separate productions of either.”
This Heidelberg Catechism is an impressive piece of pastoral theology that was written for specific pastoral reasons in a robustly theological manner.
The purpose of the Heidelberg Catechism was twofold: to provide a guide for the religious instruction of the city’s youth and to provide a confession of faith for the Church. The Heidelberg Catechism aimed at squelching conflict as opposed to drawing lines in the sand, and is the most “ecumenical” of all the Reformed confessions. As such “The Calvinistic system is herein set forth with wise moderation, and without its sharp, angular points.” While nothing is said of the doctrines of reprobation or limited atonement, the doctrine of election to salvation in Christ is described as a source of humility, gratitude, and comfort (see Questions 1, 31, 53, and 54).
The Heidelberg Catechism is a document that ought to be read, memorized, meditated on, taught, and celebrated by every Christian.
The Catechism consists of 129 questions and answers. It is divided into three parts, following the outline of Romans. The first section deals with the misery of humanity apart from Christ (Questions 3-11 & Rom. 1:18-3:20). The second focuses on the redemption accomplished by and found in Christ alone (Questions 12-85 & Rom. 3:21-11:36). The third section is about thankfulness for the redeemed life and godly living (Questions 86-129 & Rom. 7-16).
Schaff notes that the order of the Catechism corresponds to the division of the Christian life under the headings of repentance, faith, and love. The second part of the Catechism is the largest and contains an exposition of the entire Apostles’ Creed under the Trinitarian division of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.
Two areas of contemporary dispute in particular are directly addressed by the Catechism: the content of the gospel and the comfort of divine providence.
1. The first question of the Heidelberg Catechism provides a powerful summary of the whole and glorious gospel:
- “Question 1. What is thy only comfort in life and death? Answer: That I with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Savior Jesus Christ; who, with his precious blood, has fully satisfied for all my sins, and delivered me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my heavenly Father, not a hair can fall from my head; yea, that all things must be subservient to my salvation, and therefore, by his Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me sincerely willing and ready, henceforth, to live unto him.”
2. While many Christians today view God’s guiding hand of providence as a threat, the Heidelberg Catechism sees the doctrine an essential element of the Christian’s confident trust in God:
- “Question 28: What advantage is it to us to know that God has created, and by his providence does still uphold all things? Answer: That we may be patient in adversity; thankful in prosperity; and that in all things, which may hereafter befall us, we place our firm trust in our faithful God and Father, that nothing shall separate us from his love; since all creatures are so in his hand, that without his will they cannot so much as move.”
Schaff calls the Catechism “by far the richest and deepest in Church history next to the age of Christ and his inspired apostles,” and this is hardly an exaggeration. “It is the product of the heart as well as the head, full of faith and unction from above. It is fresh, lively, glowing, yet clear, sober, self-sustained. The ideas are Biblical and orthodox, and well fortified by apt Scripture proofs.”
Even at its inception, the Heidelberg Catechism was viewed as a marvelous work of the Reformed church. Heinrich Bullinger, Zwingli’s successor and author of the Second Helvetic Confession (1566) wrote of the document: “The order of the book is clear; the matter true, good, and beautiful; the whole is luminous, fruitful, and godly; it comprehends many and great truths in a small compass. I believe that no better catechism has ever been issued.”
For these reasons, the Heidelberg Catechism is a document that ought to be read, memorized, meditated on, taught, and celebrated by every Christian.