The Anniversary of the Heidelberg Catechism

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Not only does Scripture command us to maintain purity of doctrine and practice, it also commands us to reconcile with our brother, to seek to end division, and recognize common ground where there is common ground.

On this day in the history of the Reformation, we remember the publication of one of the most prolific confessional documents of the Reformed tradition: the Heidelberg Catechism. Published on January 19, 1563, the Heidelberg Catechism was a collaborative literary effort on the part of Zacharias Ursinus and several other top Reformed preachers and teachers. Amid fierce animosity between the Reformed and Lutherans, these men were directed to produce the catechism by Elector Frederick III, who, though he was a Lutheran, had deep sympathies for Reformed doctrine and practice, especially on topics like the Lord’s Supper. The Heidelberg Catechism was written at a time when the Reformed were not recognized by the state as an official and legal church body. Under the Peace of Augsburg 1555, only Lutheranism and Roman Catholicism were recognized as legal religions under the principle cuius regio, eius religio (“whose realm, his religion”) so that the local ruler would determine whether his or her province would be either Lutheran or Roman Catholic. It wouldn’t be until 1648 with the Peace of Westphalia that the Reformed would receive the designation “church” from the governing authorities. In calling for the production of a Reformed catechism the Elector was seeking to give the Reformed equal footing with Lutheranism in his territory and breaking the law in so doing! He would eventually be charged formally with breaking the Peace of Augsburg, but in his defense, the Elector consistently argued that the Heidelberg Catechism was a catholic confession of Scripture, and not a parochial statement of the Reformed over and against the Lutherans.

After its publication, the Heidelberg Catechism was praised so highly among the Reformed groups that it was adopted as one of the “Three Forms of Unity'' alongside the Belgic Confession (1561) and the Canons of the Synod of Dort (1618-19) which, as the name suggests, were intended to serve as unifying doctrinal statements confessing the core beliefs of the Reformed. Together, these three documents also formed a united front against the theology of Jacobus Arminius who sought to make the sovereignty of God compatible with free choice. This was in opposition to the traditional Calvinist doctrine of God’s two-fold sovereign election of some to salvation and some to damnation. Today the Heidelberg Catechism is still confessed and used by various Reformed groups like the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA), the Reformed Church of America (RCA), and the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA).

The catechism itself consists of 129 questions and answers divided into three major parts: the misery of man (Q3-11), the deliverance of man (Q12-85), and the gratitude owed from man (Q86-129). This tripartite structure is drawn from Romans 7:24-25 where Paul exclaims, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (emphasis added). In later editions of the catechism, it was further divided into 52 teachable segments, one for each Sunday or “Lord’s Day”, so that the catechism could be taught over the course of a year. With regard to the content of the catechism, contrary to the Elector’s noble defense of the catechism, a Lutheran is compelled to say that it is indeed a thoroughly Reformed document which confesses all five chief points of doctrine taught by its confessional sisters, the Belgic Confession and the Canons of Dort. The language and theology of total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and the perseverance of the saints implicitly and explicitly undergirds the questions and answers of the catechism. As such, confessional Lutherans like Hermann Sasse in his little book Here We Stand, have dedicated great time and effort to analyze and criticize the catechism as emblematic of the key doctrinal issues between the Lutherans and Reformed such as the denial of the bodily presence in the Lord’s Supper, the emphasis on the fruits of faith as a mark of the Church and believers, the Enthusiast doctrine of the Office of the Holy Ministry, and chiefly the thorough confusion of Law and Gospel which is the foundation for the chief article: justification by grace alone through faith alone.

But if Lutherans ought to have a decidedly negative assessment of the Heidelberg Catechism on account of our confession of faith, why bother with it? My response would be this: in the same way confessionalism is not optional, neither is ecumenism optional. Not only does Scripture command us to maintain purity of doctrine and practice, it also commands us to reconcile with our brother, to seek to end division, and recognize common ground where there is common ground. As such Lutherans ought to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions, and they ought to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest other confessions to understand them and actively work toward genuine unity and peace. Serious confessionalism necessarily leads to serious ecumenism. In this way, these two, faith and love, ought not walk alone or one without the other, but always married in the life of the Christian, always walking together.