The 450th Anniversary of the Publication of the Heidelberg Catechism | Irena Backus

This year protestant Christians are celebrating the 450th anniversary of the publication of the Heidelberg Catechism. What is it? Why and by whom was it written? What is the history behind it? What makes it relevant to some Christian communities today? Why, with some exceptions, recent studies of it are theological while its equally important and interesting for historians, who however take the back seat?

The word catechism, as we know, comes from the Greek katechein, meaning to instruct orally. In early Christianity the term was used in two different ways. It could designate the pedagogical process itself or the content of the instruction. By the time that printing was invented (15th century) the term could also designate the small books used for such instruction.

Instructing the faithful in the fundamental truths of Christian religion was a priority to all church leaders from Antiquity onwards. In the first three centuries of Christianity baptism was administered primarily to Christian converts who were normally adults; catechetical instruction counted as pre-baptismal preparation for these candidates who were known as “catechumens”.

As infant baptism took the upper hand from the fourth century onwards, catechetical instruction became post-baptismal and was primarily intended for children and adolescents. Its content became progressively standardized notably by Augustine of Hippo who wrote his On instructing the beginners in faith (De catechisandis rudibus) in 403 as a favor to Deogratias, the deacon of Carthage. Augustine recommended there that the Ten Commandments should be taught to all faithful, a recommendation that was not followed until the 13th century when it became a standard part of all Christian Catechisms. Augustine’s catechetical Handbook for Laurentius (Enchiridion ad Laurentium) of 423 also normalised the teaching of the Lord’s Prayer and of the Apostles’ Creed.

The 16th century Protestant Reformation is known for a large number of Christian instruction manuals for lay children and adults that it produced although the trend for this multiplication went back to the 15th century. During the 15th century, catechisms of particular profile emerged. Some were expressly intended as instruction to young people, which some theologians considered as the basis of church reform. Such catechisms almost invariably included brief expositions of the Apostles’ Creed, the Decalogue and examples of sins to be confessed. Others were intended as an aid to self-inspection and an examination of conscience intended to act as preparation for the sacrament of penance. Here too the Decalogue along with lists and classification of sins and various prayers including particularly the Lord’s Prayer.

The Reformation of the 16th century expressly rejected penance as a sacrament as well as individual confession, which was replaced by a summary collective confession of sins during the religious service, at least in some congregations. At the same time, all the reformers, Luther, Melanchthon, Zwingli, Bullinger, Calvin and their disciples did share the view that religious education provided the basis of church reform. They also felt, Calvinist reformers, in particular, that man, left to his own devices without God’s help, was a fundamentally sinful being suffering from the hereditary corruption of humanity by the original sin. This explains the importance and the profile of the Reformed or Calvinist Catechisms which were nearly all to be superseded from 1563 onwards by the Heidelberg Catechism.

As regards Calvinist instruction manuals, their history starts with John Calvin’s Instruction and Confession of faith used in the Church of Geneva in 1537. The structure of the whole is not very clear although the content of each of the thirty-three chapters it comprises is very well outlined. The opening section is devoted to exposing the purpose of human life, human nature and free will-all of which are corrupt and unable to do anything but evil without God’s help and divine providence, Calvin goes on to a brief exposition of faith and by now traditional Apostles’ Creed. A final section talks about prayer, the Lord’s Prayer in particular, and the two sacraments recognised by the Reformation, baptism and the Eucharist.

Calvin clearly intended the work to be taught to children by pastors and religious teachers, he did not intend it to be read by children unaided. In fact the surviving records of the “Collège de Genève” or the Geneva school set up by Calvin in 1542, show that children ended each day by a recitation of the Lord’s prayer, the Confession of faith and the Ten Commandments and that they spent much of Saturday on working on the questions that would be the object of Sunday’s catechism classes. Indeed, after his return to Geneva in 1541 (he was expelled from the city and exiled in Strasbourg between 1538 and 1541), Calvin wrote his second Catechism entitled The Catechism of the Geneva Church, that is the form for instructing children in the Christian faith (Le catéchisme de l’Eglise de Genève, c’est à dire Le formulaire d’instruire les enfans en la Chrestienté), the French version of it appearing in 1542 and the Latin in 1545.

This catechism is more clearly pedagogical than the previous one and adopts the question and answer form so that it becomes more of a dialogue between a minister and child as opposed to straightforward interrogation. It is even more clearly structured than the first Catechism and is divided into four parts. The opening states that man’s sole purpose is to honour God. The first part then deals with the necessity of trusting God and exposes faith and the Apostles’ Creed. The second part deals with the Law, first and foremost the Decalogue, and the necessity of doing God’s will by obeying the Ten Commandments. The third part deals with prayer and the necessity of invoking and worshipping God directly by the Lord’s Prayer. The final section deals with the sacraments, another way of worshipping and honouring God. Calvin’s second Catechism displaced all other Reformed Catechisms until 1563 and the appearance of the Heidelberg Catechism.

That being said, when we talk about the predecessors to the Heidelberg Catechism we should not forget Jan Laski’s Emden Catechism of the Strangers’ Church in London of 1551. Originally written for the Emden Calvinist community in 1546, it was carried to England by its author Jan Laski (d. 1560) when he took refuge there in 1550. Jan Utenhove translated it from the Latin into Dutch to facilitate the instruction of Dutch children in the London refugee congregation. An abridgement in 94 questions of this longer version (250 questions) was authorised by the elders of the Emden Congregation in 1554. The pattern of both the versions is the by now standard pattern of the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer and the sacraments.

It devotes a considerable amount of space to the exposition of the three persons of God. The second part on grace emphasises faith as condition of obtaining God’s grace through Christ. The third part stresses the necessity of invoking God at all times through the Lord’s Prayer and the fourth part focuses on the sacraments. The fourth part states that Christ is spiritually present in the Eucharist and “in the supper we receive spiritual food and drink, in themselves comprising the communion of the true body and blood of Christ.” This is a reaffirmation of Calvin’s position on Christ’s spiritual presence in the elements as opposed to Zwingli’s doctrine of the purely symbolic presence of Christ and the merely commemorative value of the elements. The Emden Catechism enjoyed a more modest degree of fame than Calvin’s second Catechism but both were to serve as model for authors of the Heidelberg Catechism.

History of the Heidelberg Catechism

Protestantism was introduced into the Palatinate in 1545 under the elector Frederick II who swung between Catholicism and a Lutheran position before finally celebrating the Lord’s supper in both kinds in 1554. After the Interim he was succeeded in 1556 by the non-doctrinaire Lutheran Otto Heinrich who staffed the newly reformed University of Heidelberg with Lutheran and Zwinglian theologians alike. On his death in 1559, the new elector Frederick III gradually swung from the Lutheran to a more Calvinist position as was evident from the new appointments at the University of Heidelberg.

The Heidelberg Catechism was supposed to mark a significant step in this direction especially in view of the renewal of the Calvinist-Lutheran controversy over the question of Christ’s bodily presence in the Eucharist and the doctrine of the ubiquity of Christ’s body, which the Lutherans affirmed and the Calvinists denied.

Frederick III opted for resolution of the conflict in favour of the Calvinist/Reformed side, feeling that moderate Lutheranism such as practised by his predecessors produced too many conflicts. He reorganized the College of Wisdom (Collegium Sapientiae, founded by his predecessor) as a theological school, and put at its head (1562) Zacharias Ursinus, a former pupil and friend of Melanchthon, turned Calvinist since his student days. In order to put an end to religious disputes in his dominions, he determined to put forth a Catechism which would also act as a confession of faith, and entrusted the preparation of it to Ursinus (just named) and perhaps to Caspar Olevianus, for a time professor in the University of Heidelberg, then court preacher to Frederick III.

Olevianus’ part in the composition of the Catechism can be neither proved nor categorically disproved according to the latest studies. Ursinus/Olevianus made use, of course, of the existing catechetical literature, such as the catechisms of Calvin, Melanchthon and Jan Laski. He or they prepared sketches or drafts, and the final preparation was completed with the co-operation of Frederick III.

When the Catechism was completed, Frederick laid it before a synod of the superintendents of the Palatinate (December, 1562). After careful examination it was approved. The first edition appeared in 1563. The preface, signed by the elector Frederick, is dated from the 19th January of that year. A Latin version appeared in the same year, translated by Johannes Lagus and Lambertus Pithopeus. The German version is the authentic standard. Two other editions of the German version appeared in 1563.

What is now the eightieth question (What difference is there between the Lord’s Supper and the Roman Mass?) is not to be found in the first edition; part of it appears in the second edition; and in the third, of 1563 — it is given in full as follows: „What difference is there between the Lord’s Supper and the Popish Mass? The Lord’s Supper testifies to us that we have full forgiveness of all our sins by the one sacrifice of Jesus Christ, which he has accomplished on the cross once and for all; and that by the Holy Ghost we are engrafted into Christ, who with his true body is now in heaven at the right hand of the Father, and is to be there worshipped. But the Mass teaches that the living and the dead have not forgiveness of sins through the sufferings of Christ, unless Christ is still offered for them daily by the priest; and that Christ is bodily present under the form of bread and wine, and is therefore to be worshipped in them. (And thus the Mass at bottom is nothing else than a denial of the one sacrifice and passion of Christ, and an accursed idolatry.)”

The occasion for the introduction of this eightieth question appears to have been the decree of the Council of Trent „touching the sacrifice of the Mass,” Sept. 17, 1562. This declaration, caused the elector to feel that a strong and clear declaration on the Protestant side was necessary. The first edition of 1563 was for a long time lost; that given by Niemeyer (Collectio Confessionum, p. 390) is the third of that year. But in 1864 pastor Wolters found a copy and reprinted it, with a history of the text (Der Heidelb. Katechismus in seiner ursprünglichen Gestalt, Bonn, 1864), which cleared up all doubt as to the various editions of 1563.

Other editions appeared in 1571 and 1573, and in this last the questions are divided, as now, into lessons for fifty-two Sundays, and the questions are numbered. An abstract of the Catechism appeared in 1585.

The larger Catechism has since been republished by millions and has been translated into most vernacular languages over and over again. After publication, it soon spread abroad wherever the Reformed Church had found footing, especially in North Germany and parts of Switzerland. Besides the original Latin version, a translation into the Dutch language by Petrus Dathenus and another into Saxon-German appeared within a year.

The English Turner edition, used in the Anglican Church, appeared in 1567. This was followed by translations into Hungarian in 1567, French in 1570, Scottish in 1571, Hebrew in 1580, and Greek in 1597. The Polish translation by Andrzej Prasmovius (d. 1592), minister of the Czech Brethren and co-signatory of the Consensus of Sandomierz, followed some years later. The Dutch East India and West India Companies were zealous missionaries for the Heidelberg Catechism. Circling the globe with it, they prepared translations into Malay in 1623, Javanese in 1623, Spanish in 1628, Portuguese in 1665, Singhalese in 1726, and Tamil in 1754. In the nineteenth century, the Dutch Reformed Church in America prepared translations into Amharic, Sangiri, Arabic, Persian, Chinese, and Japanese.

The Heidelberg Catechism was adopted by the Scottish Church in 1571 and by the great ecumenical Synod of Dort in 1618-19. It is to this day an authoritative confession for the German and Dutch Reformed churches. Moreover, the Dutch Reformed Church directs all her ministers to explain the Catechism regularly before the congregations during the Sunday service.

The text. The shorter version of the Catechism, in its present form most likely written by Ursinus sometime in 1562, independently of the longer version, consists of 108 very brief questions and answers while the longer version contains 315 identically structured chapters, better described as short paragraphs. In fact the shorter version was much more apt than the long full version for use as a confession of faith. Both the versions are divided into three parts:

Of the misery of man.
Of the redemption of man.
Of the gratitude due to God by man (duties, etc.).

Interestingly enough, the Decalogue is treated not under the first but under the third heading in the longer version. The focus of both the versions on the condition of the human, as opposed to the centrality and sovereignty of God, makes it more user-friendly and more likely to console and give hope than Calvin’s Catechism. It does not mention technical, theological issues such as predestination and the only controversial points are the question 80 cited above and the implicit but still very clearly formulated denial of the Lutheran doctrine of Christ’s bodily presence in the Eucharist questions 300-309 of the longer version of the Catechism, of which we cite an example:

“308. What then is the meaning of Christ’s words when he says the bread is his body and the wine is his blood?

That both the bread we eat and the wine we drink are a sign and testimony to believers that the body and blood of Christ were given and shed and are communicated to us through faith, just as surely as we partake of the bread and the wine with the bodily mouth.”

This relatively small place given to controversy guarantees the unifying powers of the document within the Reformed context and possibly beyond. However, it was not until 1972 that Lutherans and Calvinists finally managed to reach an agreement on the issue of Christ’s bodily presence in the eucharist. The Catechism, however, did become the standard document for all Reformed Christians, and it is as such that it survives in some Reformed communities to this day.

What does it have to say to other Christian believers and non-believers alike? I should like to suggest that the extreme brevity of the chapters and the upbeat style of the document as well as its focus on the human condition, as opposed to Calvin’s insistence on man’s total dependence on and subjection to the fundamentally unknown and all-powerful God, make the Heidelberg Catechism a religious document likely to instill hope into all humans who are willing to believe that there is a personal divine power looking after their basically wretched condition. It is not for nothing that it was diffused world-wide although it was not originally intended as a missionary document. Its message of hope, expressed in a formulaic manner goes far beyond any confessional context as the opening words of the long version of the Catechism show:

“1.What firm comfort do you have in life and death?

That I was created by God in his image for eternal life, and after I willingly lost this in Adam, out of his infinite and gracious mercy God received me into his covenant of grace, so that because of the obedience and death of his Son sent in the flesh, he might give me as a believer righteousness and eternal life. He also sealed this covenant in my heart by his Spirit, who renews me in the image of God and cries out in me ‘Abba, Father’ by his Word and by the visible signs of this covenant.”

The authors. Olevianus (perhaps co-author) and Ursinus (author).

Caspar Olevianus one of the founders of the Reformed Church of Germany, was born on August 10, 1536, near Trier and he died on 15 March 1587 in Herborn. Caspar’s early education was obtained in his native town. In his fifteenth year he was sent to Paris to study law. At the schools of that city and of Orleans and Bourges he spent seven years. In 1557 he obtained the degree of doctor of laws at Bourges. During his studies in France he became acquainted with the Reformed theology, and imbibed both its principles and spirit. In 1558 he went to Geneva to study theology, and while in Switzerland entered into intimate association with the Reformers Calvin, Beza, Farel, Bullinger, and Vermigli. He returned to Trier and commenced his ministry there early in the year 1559. After the suppression of the Reformation in Trier, he went to Heidelberg as court preacher and professor of philosophy.

Indeed, Olevianus laboured with zeal for the complete organization of the Church in the Palatinate, entertaining well-grounded hopes that it might become a nursery for “pure doctrine” for the whole of Germany. He turned his attention especially to the calling of competent preachers and teachers, of whom there was yet a pressing need; and scarcely was he a quarter of a year in Heidelberg when he wrote to Calvin, requesting him to send over the Order and Discipline of the Church at Geneva, that he might lay them before the consistory for examination and adoption, which, in regard to Church government, favoured his views. Calvin sent him the outlines of the Genevan Church polity, together with suggestions for enforcing it. In 1570, the demands of Olevianus to entrust the church as opposed to civil authorities with enforcing ecclesiastical discipline found the elector’s hearing.

Frederick III instituted presbyters in every congregation, entrusting to them expressly and independently the administration of the Church government and exercise of discipline. However, the individual members of the presbytery, who, from their principal vocation, were called censors, were in no case to be elected by single congregations, but were appointed for life by the higher judicatories. After the elector’s death, the Palatinate became Lutheran again and Olevianus was suspended from his office of pastor and professor. He therefore moved to Berleburg, and in 1584 to Herborn where he died in 1585.

Zacharias Ursinus (18 July 1534 – 6 May 1583) was a Reformed theologian, born Zacharias Baer in Wroclaw. He became the leading theologian of the Reformed Protestant movement of the Palatinate, serving both at the University of Heidelberg and the College of Wisdom (Collegium Sapientiae).

At age fifteen he enrolled at the University of Wittenberg, boarding for the next seven years with Philipp Melanchthon, the erudite successor of Martin Luther. Like many young scholars of that era he gave himself a Latin name, one that was based on his German name, Baer, stemming from Latin ursus, meaning bear. Melanchthon admired young Ursinus for his intellectual gifts and his spiritual maturity, commending him to mentors throughout Europe. He was a lifelong protégé of the prominent imperial physician Johannes Crato von Krafftheim, who likewise hailed from Wroclaw.

Subsequently Ursinus studied under Reformation scholars at Strasbourg, Basel, Lausanne, and Geneva. Sojourns in Lyon and Orléans gave him expertise in Hebrew. Returning to Breslau he published a pamphlet on the sacraments, which aroused the ire of Lutherans who charged him with being more Reformed than Lutheran. The Wroclaw opponents’ vitriolic reaction succeeded in driving him out of the city to Zürich, where he became friends with Zwingli’s successor Heinrich Bullinger and the Italian Reformer Peter Martyr Vermigli. In 1561, upon Vermigli’s recommendation, Frederick III, Elector Palatine, appointed him professor in the Collegium Sapientiae at Heidelberg, where in 1562/63, having been commissioned by the Prince elector, he supplied the preliminary drafts for the Heidelberg Catechism and participated in the final revision of the document alongside other theologians and church leaders.

The death of the Elector Frederick and the accession of the Lutheran Ludwig IV in 1576, led to the removal of Ursinus, who occupied a professorial chair at the Casimirianum a Reformed academy at Neustadt an der Weinstraße from 1578 until his death. He died, aged 48, in Neustadt an der Weinstraße. His Works were published in 1587-1589, and a more complete edition by his son and two of his pupils, David Pareus and Quirinius Reuter, in 1612. Ursinus’s collected catechical lectures (Het Schatboeck der verclaringhen over de Catechismus) was one of the most prominent theological handbooks among seventeenth century Reformed Christians and was especially popular in the Netherlands.

Some further reading:

Lyle D. Bierma, ed., An Introduction to the Heidelberg Catechism. Sources, History and Theology, Grand Rapids, 2005 (contains a comprehensive bibliography of sources and secondary literature – ib).

Lyle D. Bierma, The Doctrine of the Sacraments in the Heidelberg Catechism: Melanchthonian, Calvinist or Zwinglian?, Princeton, 1999.

Heinrich Graffmann, Der Unterricht nach dem Heidelberger Katechismus im Zeitalter der
Orthodoxie und des Pietismus, Cologne, 1960.

Irena Backus – doctor honoris causa of the University of Edinburgh, Professor of Reformation History and Ecclesiastical Latin at the University of Geneva (Institut d’histoire de la Réformation)

Numer 2(2) 2013, 18.06.2013