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The Heidelberg Catechism

April 2010 | Review by William McKeown

Synopsis

In the early 1560s Frederick III (1516-76), Elector Palatine desired that his subjects be led to a 'devout knowledge and fear of the Almighty and his holy Word of salvation'. He commissioned a group of theologians and ministers to compose a catechetical summary of biblical truth that could be committed to memory and be an encouragement to personal faith and growth in Christ. The final version was approved by the Synod in Heidelberg (1563), the city lending its name to the catechism.

  • Publisher: Banner of Truth
  • ISBN: 978-1848712942
  • Pages: 99
  • Price: £9.20
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Book Review

People often wonder if there is a simple guide to basic Christian teaching and living. Yes, there is; one of less than 100 pages. It may be read and re-read, enabling the reader to learn more about the Christian faith. It is the Heidelberg Catechism.

Many Christians have never heard of this catechism, but it is popular in Reformed churches in Europe, especially Holland. It’s also a favourite with churches of Dutch extraction in the USA. It was written at the time of the Reformation and first published in 1563.

Don’t let the date put you off; truth does not change with time! It’s available in both older and modern translations. Although the Heidelberg is a catechism, it does not have to be learned by rote. It is profitable, for example, to meditate on one question and answer each day.

In common with most catechisms, the Heidelberg Catechism expounds the Apostles’ Creed, sacraments, Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer. Frequently, Heidelberg editions are divided into 52 Lord’s Days, as it was the practice in Dutch churches each Lord’s day to expound a section in the afternoon sermon.

Guilt, grace and gratitude

The division of its 129 questions into three sections is popular and accessible — Guilt (Qs. 3-11); Grace (Qs. 12-85); and Gratitude (Q. 86-129).

The Heidelberg is a little longer than the Westminster Shorter Catechism, but has greater warmth partly because of its use of the personal pronoun. An example is in its superb first question:

‘Question 1: What is your only comfort in life and in death?

‘Answer 1: That I, with body and soul, both in life and in death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ, who with his precious blood has fully satisfied for all my sins, and redeemed me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, that all things must work together for my salvation. Wherefore, by his Holy Spirit, he also assures me of eternal life, and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live unto him’.

The second question expands on this:

‘Q2: How many things are necessary for you to know, that in this comfort you may live and die happily?

‘A2: Three things: First, the greatness of my sin and misery. Second, how I am redeemed from all my sins and misery. Third, how I am to be thankful to God for such redemption’.

Then, the answer to the catechism’s question on providence speaks to our suffering world:

‘Q27: What do you understand by the providence of God?

‘A27: The almighty, everywhere-present power of God, whereby, as it were by his hand, he still upholds heaven and earth with all creatures, and so governs them that herbs and grass, rain and drought, fruitful and barren years, meat and drink, health and sickness, riches and poverty, indeed, all things come not by chance, but by his fatherly hand’.

Only Saviour

Today’s debate as to whether Jesus Christ is the only way of salvation is answered by the catechism with great clarity. This extract is from a modern version:

‘Q29: Why is the Son of God called “Jesus”, meaning “Saviour”?

‘A29: Because he saves us from our sins. Salvation cannot be found in anyone else; it is futile to look for any salvation elsewhere’.

The Heidelberg Catechism is available, along with the Belgic Confession and Canons of Dort, in a title called The Three Forms of Unity. A modern translation is available, but this seems to lack some of the warmth of the older version. There is an online version on www.tulip.org/refcon

Buy one for yourself; it will do your soul good! It may be a good idea to give a copy to a friend and then discuss the various answers together. Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another (Proverbs 27:17).

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