Wednesday, October 26

The Heidelberg Catechism

The Heidelberg Catechism, first published in 1563, has been used by Christians around the world ever since and with the Belgic Confession and Canons of Dort, remains one of the essential Three Forms of Unity. The Catechism summarizes the major teachings of the Scriptures in 129 memorable questions and answers. Very simple and yet quite profound, amazingly concise and yet fully sufficient, the Catechism has been appreciated by young and old alike as one of the most clear, helpful and comforting guides into all the spiritual treasures of the Gospel.

The word catechism comes from the Greek word katecheo, which means to teach. It is a word frequently used in the Bible. In his Gospel, for example, Luke explained that he had written, “an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught” (Lk 1:4). Wherever the word is used, it is translated as to teach or to instruct. So, a catechism is essentially a teaching tool, designed for oral instruction—thus, its question and answer format.

The 129 questions and answers are divided over 52 sections for each of the Lord’s Days in a year. Topically, the Catechism covers the themes of our sin (1-4), our deliverance (5-31), and our thankfulness for such a great salvation (32-52). At the same time, it surveys the truths of the Apostle’s Creed (8-22), the Ten Commandments (33-44), and the Lord’s Prayer (46-52). Under each Lord’s Day there are lists of Bible references to enable readers to identify which Bible passages the Catechism is summarizing in each answer.

The university town of Heidelberg had been, with Wittenberg and Strasburg, among the leading cities of the early Reformation. In April of 1518 Martin Luther travelled to Heidelberg for a debate at the annual meeting of the region’s Augustinian monks. There he presented 40 Heidelberg Theses, calling for a clear and sustained emphasis on the cross of Christ as the only means of salvation. Soon after, Wenzel Strauss, the pastor of the city church, Heiliggeistkirche, came to be known as “the evangelical trumpet.” Heinrich Stoll and Martin Bucer, likewise became champions of the doctrines of grace. The Gospel took root.

At the request of Elector Frederick III, the ruler of the Palatinate, the Catechism was composed by Zacharius Ursinus, 28 years old and professor of theology at the university, and Caspar Olevianus, who was just 26 and Frederick's court preacher. Their work was immediately influential. In The Netherlands the Catechism was popularized by Petrus Dathenus, who translated it into Dutch and Peter Gabriel who taught through all 52 sections for his congregation at Amsterdam each Lord’s Day afternoon. It quickly became a standard work of the ongoing Reformation—and remains so to this day.

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