The Heidelberg Catechism is well loved by members of the Reformed church for its personal approach, for its practical use, and for the comfort it brings. It has been preserved over the years as a precious document that sets forth the pure doctrines of the word of God. It is used not in place of the holy scriptures, but as a summary of what they teach. I will mention a few of the objectives for the writing of the Heidelberg Catechism, focusing on its purpose of instructing the young people of the church.
To understand the purposes for the writing of the Heidelberg Catechism, it is important to consider the circumstances surrounding its inception. The Reformation was started in Germany in 1517 when Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses on the door of the church in Wittenberg, and it spread quickly. This Reformation divided Germany, as some sided with Luther and others held fast to their Roman Catholic beliefs. There was much religious disputing and strife in Germany. The Roman Catholics attacked the Lutherans with the sword. Meanwhile, the Lutherans, who hated the Calvinists just as strongly as they loathed the Catholics, fought vigorously to defend their beliefs.
The Lutherans were split after Martin Luther’s death in 1546, some radically maintaining Luther’s teachings and others following Melanchthon, who leaned toward Calvinist stances. A contentious issue at this time was disagreement concerning the Lord’s supper, particularly Christ’s presence in the sacrament. The ultra-Lutherans, radical followers of Luther, believed that Christ was bodily present in the sacrament, while the followers of Melanchthon held to Calvin’s teaching of Christ’s spiritual presence.
Due to the religious struggle, the Peace of Augsburg was signed in 1555, giving each of the German princes the right to decide the religion of his own province. In 1559, Frederick III, often referred to as Frederick the Pious, became elector of the Palatinate, a region of Germany. As the son of Count John II, previous elector of the Palatinate, Frederick III had been brought up in the Roman Catholic faith and later adopted Lutheranism. However, after diligently studying the scriptures to find an answer concerning the Lord’s supper controversy, Frederick III was convinced that Calvinism was the position that was in keeping with the word of God. He then committed himself to defending this Reformed position. He did this by having Roman Catholic shrines removed from the churches, introducing Psalm singing in the German language, and replacing heretical teachers and ministers with those whom he deemed to be qualified. Frederick III declared the Palatinate to be Calvinist, becoming the first elector to do so. His declaration caused controversy, as Calvinists and Anabaptists had been excluded from the freedom granted by the Peace of Augsburg.
Frederick III recognized that a document was necessary to unite the people of his realm spiritually. There were many catechisms in use at the time, which caused confusion among the people. Thus he commissioned Zacharias Ursinus and Caspar Olevianus to write a catechism that would clearly and completely expound the truth of the scriptures. This catechism was also intended to be used for instruction of the young people and as a guide in the preaching.
Following its publication in 1563, the Heidelberg Catechism spread rapidly and became widely popular, despite fierce opposition from the Lutheran and Catholic princes. As recognition of the Catechism continued to grow, other churches in Europe adopted it, and it was translated into many different languages. The Heidelberg Catechism was effective in fulfilling the purposes for which it was written. As intended, it was a valuable tool for teaching and became a personal confession for many believers. It was useful for instruction in the home, school, and church, and also became the basis for theological training.
Elector Frederick III saw the importance of properly training the young people in the truth of God’s word. Thus the Heidelberg Catechism was written in such a way that children could understand it. The question and answer format of the Catechism effectively instills the truths of the Bible into the minds of the young people. This knowledge is an important tool for their spiritual growth and understanding, that in due time they may confess these doctrines to be “the true and complete doctrines of salvation.” (Form for Public Confession of Faith)
The Heidelberg Catechism addresses issues that were being disputed at the time that it was written, such as the Lord’s supper controversy. The scriptural truth concerning this matter is clearly set forth in the Catechism. Lord’s Day 28 and 29 are about the proper view of this sacrament, and Q&A 78 specifically addresses the presence of Christ in the sacrament, stating the Biblical truth that Christ is not bodily present, but that his body is signified by the bread. The Catechism also points out similar errors such as the idolatry of the Roman Catholic mass.
We are thankful that we have the Heidelberg Catechism as one of the means of instruction in the word of God. It is a consistent tool for teaching in the home, in Christian schools, in catechism classes, and in the preaching. The Heidelberg Catechism is important as a confession of our churches because “it gives them (children) the same doctrinal foundation as their parents” (Kleyn). The Catechism is valuable in helping parents bring up their children in the word of God, so when the young people grow up, they too will endeavor to uphold the truth. III John 1:4 says, “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children walk in truth.” As the next generations, and thus the future church, it is crucial that children are taught to view matters through the eyes of scripture. Learning the Heidelberg Catechism at a young age helps children, as they grow, to know and understand the Bible, so that they may readily confess and defend the truth scripture teaches.
Parents also desire that their covenant children will personally experience the comfort that the Catechism brings. The heresies in the sixteenth century, as well as those today, have no comfort; many teach that salvation depends on man’s works. The Catechism tells us of our total depravity and helplessness apart from God, and it assures us of our full and free salvation earned for us by Christ’s sacrifice. Only when we know our misery and sincerely repent of our sins can we truly be thankful to God for forgiveness and strive to live in obedience to His law. The Heidelberg Catechism is also comforting because of its personal nature. When we study the Catechism, we are assured that in all the circumstances of our lives, God’s promises are true for each of us individually. It is also personal because those who hold to it as their confession are thereby agreeing with the doctrines it teaches and defends. This confession is full of comfort, and as they develop spiritually, young people of the Church grow to treasure it.
Though the writing of the Heidelberg Catechism was prompted by heresies in the church at the time of the Reformation in the sixteenth century, it still defines the truth concerning false doctrines that we struggle against in our lives, and it continues to help protect the church against error. As many around us are falling away from the truth, we must treasure the Heidelberg Catechism more and more. It is still valuable for us today for so many reasons. It is still used as a teaching tool and a guide in the blessed truths of the gospel; it is a very important part of the preaching in our churches every Sunday. It continues to unite us as the members of the church because we share a common confession of our faith in our Savior Jesus Christ.
We see God’s hand in history and how he works all things for the good of his people from generation to generation. He led Elector Frederick III to realize the necessity of having a document expressing the pure teachings of scripture, so that the truth was preserved even in the times of heresy and controversy. He calls us to hold fast to this truth and to teach it to our children. We are thankful for the precious Catechism that helps us better understand and uphold God’s word. “For the Lord is good; his mercy is everlasting; and his truth endureth to all generations” (Psalm 100:5).
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Kleyn, Rev. Rodney. “The Heidelberg Catechism: Its History, Character, and Value.” The Standard Bearer 15 November 2008. Web.
Lambert, Tim. “A Brief History of Germany.” 2012. A WORLD HISTORY ENCYCLOPEDIA. Web. June 2013.
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