Ask almost any Christian Reformed person what he or she knows about the Canons of Dort or the Belgic Confession, and you’ll probably get the proverbial thousand-yard stare. But ask about the Heidelberg Catechism, and his or her eyes are more likely to light up. Yet, to be honest, once we get beyond the familiar and much-loved Q&A 1, lots of church members don’t know much about the catechism.
With apologies to those who do know the catechism as an old friend, here are a few basics for the rest of us.
The first edition was published in 1563 in Heidelberg, Germany, for the purpose of instructing ordinary people in the truths of Scripture. This new catechism soon spread throughout Germany and into the Netherlands, then traveled to North America in the early 1600s. Today it has been translated into more than 30 languages and is one of the most popular Christian confessions.
Open the catechism and you’ll find 129 questions and answers, arranged in three basic sections: misery (sin), deliverance (salvation), and gratitude (service).
The large deliverance section zeros in on the Apostles’ Creed and the sacraments. The gratitude section offers crisp explanations of the Ten Commandments and beautiful restatements of the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer—as ways of living out and praying out our gratitude for our salvation. Each answer is footnoted with Scripture passages on which its content is based.
Early on, the catechism’s questions and answers were grouped into 52 “Lord’s Days,” so that a section could be preached each Sunday of the year, though today such catechism preaching is largely a thing of the past.
Why It Still Matters
I find it stunning that the catechism begins by asking about my “comfort,” of all things.
Yes, I know that “comfort” here means strength and assurance, not what I experience when I relax in my favorite recliner. But the emphasis is so personal: “What is your only comfort . . .? That I am not my own but belong to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ. . . .” In fact, most of the catechism’s remaining 128 questions are addressed to “you,” with answers written in “I/me/mine” language.
Not only that, but the very structure of the catechism—sin, salvation, service—reflects our daily experience as we stumble into sin, experience the joy of God’s forgiveness, and attempt to show our gratitude in the way we live.
In a time when doctrine is often looked down on as cold and impersonal, the church needs this confession to call it to a faith that is not only informed but also warm and intensely personal. I think the catechism makes wonderful devotional reading both for brand-new members and old-timers like me.
But if the church needs a personal, living confession of faith, it also needs clarity and certainty about its basic beliefs. This is especially true in today’s climate of vast tolerance of any belief so long as it is sincere. Over against that mushiness, consider the crispness of Q&A 2: “What must you know to live and die in the joy of this comfort? Three things. . . .” The catechism goes on to summarize the central teachings of Scripture as expressed in the Apostles’ Creed, the sacraments, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer. These are the basic building blocks of faith and ought to be included in the curriculum taught by the church (see FaithAliveResources.org for catechism courses recommended for the high school level).
Because the catechism says so many things so incomparably well—for example, Q&A 1 on our only comfort, Q&A 26-27 on providence, Q&A 32 on why we’re called Christians, Q&A 54 on the church—it can still be effectively cited in sermons and recited on occasion by congregations today.
While it’s far from flawless, the Heidelberg Catechism remains a true confession meant to strengthen our faith and guide our living. To ignore it is to miss what Andrew Kuyvenhoven calls “the best confessional summary of the will of God for the life of the church” (from Comfort and Joy: A Study of the Heidelberg Catechism).
- Rozema observes that the “sin, salvation, service” structure of the Heidelberg Catechism reflects our daily experience. Is that true for you? Why or why not?
- Do you find the “I/me/mine” language of the catechism appropriate in our day and age? Why or why not?
- Review the “building blocks of faith” that Rozema lists. Are these the ones you would choose? Which should be added? Which could be left out?
- Should we still have preaching based on the Heidelberg Catechism? Why or why not?
- Do you agree with Kuyvenhoven that “the catechism is the best confessional summary of the will of God for the life of the church?” Either way, how could we improve it?