Happy Birthday Heidelberg!

In the 1980’s, members of Calgary, Alberta’s, First Christian Reformed Church led monthly worship services at the city’s correctional facility. It was a time of liturgical change, with new songs emerging weekly, and the language of historic confessions updated into contemporary vocabulary. Inmates at the prison appreciated the great music brought by the church team, and asked if they might keep several of the church’s self-published collections in order to practice these new songs.

Returning a month later, the church volunteers were rushed by excited inmates. But it wasn’t the songs that they gushed about. Instead, these prisoners were wildly intrigued by that strange document at the back of the songbooks, something with an unpronounceable name. It was the recently retranslated Heidelberg Catechism. To those who found themselves the outcasts of society, it was the best expression of Christian faith they had ever read.

Robbing Paul

There is good reason for that, of course. Zachary Ursinus and Caspar Oleveanus, the Catechism’s authors, stole their method from the Apostle Paul. In his letter to the Roman Christians, Paul outlined Christianity in terms of three key ideas: (1) that humanity is irreconcilably estranged from its Creator (Romans 1-3); (2) that God’s love is wonderfully expressed in the transforming salvation brought to us through Jesus (Romans 4-8); and (3) that our lives are best lived in service to God and others (Romans 12-15). These themes became the familiar structure of the Heidelberg Catechism, summarized often as Sin/Salvation/Service or Guilt/Grace/Gratitude or “I Can’t!”/”God Can!”/”Thanks!”

While many other catechisms have appeared in history, few became as popular and enduring as this one. The word “catechism” originated as a Greek term meaning “to hand down.” The term jumped from language to language as the Christian Church expanded from culture to culture. Its idea is as old as God’s work among us. When the Israelites were released from Egypt during the night of the Tenth Plague, they rose from the Passover table with the command to use this symbolic meal as a yearly opportunity to teach their children the meaning of life (Exodus 12:25-26). When forty years later the nation passed through the miraculously damned Jordan River to new hopes in the Promised Land, stones were taken from the river bottom and shaped into the first recorded children’s playground, so that parents could get their offspring to ask the big questions (Joshua 4). These are visible catechisms, symbolic representations that help people ask the right questions in order to get the right answers.

Common Ground

In every age the church has produced catechisms, training tools for the young and the newly converted. The best of these usually included explanations about the Apostles Creed, the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer, the foundational statements of Christian identity and expression. Some went on to expand almost without limits, seeking to explore every facet of theology or church life. Others were temporally fixated in their current issues, and recited only for a time until replaced by more useful teaching tools.

Why did the Heidelberg Catechism retain its power and punch throughout these four-and-a-half centuries? For one thing, it has a captivating perspective. It actually speaks with our individual voices echoing our deepest concerns. Although it addresses the head (Q&A2—“What must you know …”), it begins with the heart: “What is your only comfort…” In a world of distress, in every age of crisis, in the psychological disquiet of our inner selves, the Heidelberg Catechism begins where we are. We are all troubled. We are all seeking comfort. And we are all religious, knowing that forces larger than ourselves are at play in our destinies.

I regularly teach the “Standards” course at Western Theological Seminary, a Senior Class review of the Reformed Confessions. Invariably it becomes a time of rediscovery of the Heidelberg Catechism for some, and for others a joyfully unexpected courtship with a new lifelong love. Particularly interesting for me are those who emerge from Presbyterian backgrounds where the Westminster Catechism was a religion staple. Patterned in part after the Heidelberg Catechism, and birthed a century later, the Westminster Catechism is similar in length and covers many of the same themes. But its users are often overwhelmed by their perceptions of a much more personal and cohesive testimony resident in the older Heidelberg Catechism. One student told me last October that he was “blown away” by the Heidelberg Catechism, and that it has immediately replaced his cherished Westminster Catechism as his personal devotional favorite. While there is great nobleness in the Westminster’s beginning Q&A (“What is the chief end of man? To know God and enjoy him forever”), the warmth and personableness of the Heidelberg easily trumps such abstractions.

Resident Aliens

Second, the authors of the Heidelberg Catechism did a most marvelous thing in the first main division. When probing issues of “Sin and Misery,” they kept it short and to the point, refusing to get mired in a litany of bad things we do. In fact, the genius of the Heidelberg Catechism is mirrored in the title they gave to this section. In German it is Das Elend, which has the connotations of alienation, or living in a land that is not one’s own. While much of our talk about sins and sinfulness is often couched in terms of specific nasty deeds, the Catechism instead takes us on a journey of alienation. We are miserable because we are at a distance from God. It is not just that we do wrong acts but that we live in a world of dissonance where nothing reflects its original right relationships.

This helps us understand even more powerfully the need for “comfort”. It is precisely because we are “miserable” that we long for home and help and healing and “comfort”. And because we are unable to find the way home by ourselves, our misery is only deepened. There is an urgency in the Catechism’s message that makes us desperate to receive God’s good grace. Even though we cannot gain it on our own or earn it, we are not ourselves without it. We are barely alive in an alien environment with no way out. Misery. Desperation.

Personal Testimony

Third, there is a wonderful simplicity about the Heidelberg Catechism. It takes the familiar standards of our Christian faith (Jesus’ Law Summary of Matthew 22, the Apostles Creed, the sacraments, the Keys of the Kingdom, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer), and weaves marvelous reflections on each into a seamless garment which is so integrated and psychologically fluid that we are drawn along into affirmations jumping out of our hearts long before they are charted in our heads. The Heidelberg Catechism never feels clunky or chunky, even as it moves from topic to topic, and document to document. It has the same flow as a fine multi-course meal which is fully savored at every course and yet unfolds as an unbroken feast from salad to dessert.

Fourth, the Heidelberg Catechism remains delightfully autobiographical and personal throughout. It keeps speaking in the first person, so that all of its theology and faith reflection is given voice by my own heart and my wrestling spirit. Not only that, but at many points, where profound doctrines are explored deeply and thoughtfully, the Catechism next asks the question, “And what does it mean to you…” Theology and testimony are constantly wed in the Heidelberg; doctrine and doing are inseparable partners. Christianity is never a theological construct for the Catechism; it is a confession and a lifestyle.

This is expressed particularly well in the opening conversations about the Apostles Creed. What does it mean that God is creator? Few reflections could be more gripping than the answers of Lord’s Days 9-10, speaking to the hearts of all who have gone through disease, disaster, discouragement and doom. “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 in creation will separate us from his love” (Q&A 28).

Making Peace

Fifth, there is the irenic tone of the Catechism. There are few clues in it of the turbulent times which birthed it. The Reformation had ripped Germany apart, the second generation Reformers were battling each other, the poor masses were physically attacking the landed classes, and theologians were picking at each other with increasing venom. And Heidelberg was at the heart of everything, with primary connections to the Holy Roman Empire (Elector Frederick chaired the emperor selection committee of seven), outspoken Lutherans creating the Augsburg Confession, Reformed refugees shouting the Belgic Confession in honor of its author martyred only a year before, arguments in the city about the “ubiquity” question (whether Jesus’ physical nature was everywhere present along with his spiritual nature, thus allowing for it to be present in the elements of Communion), and riots from the displaced poor who had had enough of wealthy power plays. The Heidelberg Catechism chooses few sides (only briefly aligning with the Calvinists over against the Lutherans on the “ubiquity” issue in Q&A 76, and only arguing with the Roman Catholics about the Mass in a later-added Q&A 80), while consistently speaking for all Christians in a voice of humble confidence and faithful service.

Sixth, in one of its most beautiful expressions, the Heidelberg Catechism displays the powerful genius of Calvin’s “third use of the Law.” Martin Luther, because of his major psychological issues with the burden of “law” and the grace release of grace that he experienced in his faith journey, clearly articulated that there were two reasons for God’s Law. First came the regulation of creation (e.g., natural law). Second, the Law taught us our sinfulness, as Paul so eloquently wrote in Romans 6-7. Through Christ (as Paul exulted in Romans 8, echoing the opening verses of Romans 5), the condemnation of the Law was excised, and we experience spiritual freedom.

John Calvin, writing a half-generation later, did not disagree with Luther, but he thought that Luther’s excitement about freedom in Christ missed one important dimension of the Law as noted by Paul in Galatians 5-6. Once we have learned about our sinfulness, the Law does not simply vanish. Rather it begins to help us understand the mind of Christ and the desires that lie in the heart of God. Using Jesus’ revisioning of the Law in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), Calvin proclaimed that the Law was a guide to Christian gratitude.

Prayerful Gratitude

This is how the Ten Commandments find their way into the third section of the Catechism, exploring “Gratitude”. While our world sees “commands” as restrictive and repressive (with the Ten Commandments often used as examples of the most outmoded religious bullies of all), the Heidelberg Catechism explains them as guardians against dehumanizing evils, opportunities to live joyfully, and expressions of the best in us who were made in the image of God. In this the Heidelberg Catechism is more “Reformed” than many “Reformed” liturgies which consistently deploy the Ten Commandments in the second rather than the third use of the Law (which is, by the way, the manner in which they are expressed in their original declarations, both in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5).

Finally, the Heidelberg Catechism reaches for heaven while remaining firmly grounded on earth, in its concluding beautiful exploration of the Lord’s Prayer. Every answer is a powerful prayer. Every thought is a testimony to God. Every statement is a confession of faith.

These are not words to read merely for right theology; they are living witnesses of thoughtful faith and joyful Christian pilgrimage. Four hundred fifty years from now, whether or not Jesus has returned, those who come after us will still be celebrating with these beautiful testimonies.


Wayne Brouwer teaches at Hope College and Western Theological Seminary, both in Holland, Michigan

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