What is the Heidelberg Catechism?

What is the Heidelberg Catechism?
A catechism is a method of teaching and learning that uses a question-and-answer format. The teacher asks a question and the student responds with a prescribed answer. The Heidelberg Catechism was compiled by Caspar Olevianus and Zacharias Ursinus. The Synod of Dort approved the Heidelberg Catechism in 1619. The complete text of The Heidelberg Catechism is below. Other excellent catechisms include: The Westminster Larger Catechism and The Westminster Shorter Catechism.

James Strong and John McClintock give a brief history of The Heidelberg Catechism;

I. History. - Soon after the introduction of Protestantism into the Palatinate in 1546, the controversy between Lutherans and Calvinists broke out, and for years, especially under the elector Otto Heinrich (1556-59), it raged with great violence in Heidelberg. Frederick III, who came into power in 1559, adopted the Calvinistic view on the Lord's Supper, and favored that side with all his princely power. He reorganized the Sapienz College (founded by his predecessor) as a theological school, and put at its head (1562) Zacharias Ursinus, a pupil and friend of Melancthon, who had adopted the Reformed opinions. In order to put an end to religious disputes in his dominions, he determined to put forth a Catechism, or Confession of Faith, and laid the duty of preparing it upon Zacharias Ursinus (just named) and Caspar Olevianus, for a time professor in the University of Heidelberg, then court preacher to Frederick III. They made use, of course, of the existing catechetical literature, especially of the catechisms of Calvin and of John Lasco. Each prepared sketches or drafts, and "the final preparation was a the work of both theologians, with the constant co-operation of Frederick III. Ursinus has always been regarded as the principal author, as he was afterwards the chief defender and interpreter of the Catechism; still, it would appear that the nervous German style, the division into three parts (as distinguished from the five parts in the Catechism of Calvin and the previous draft of Ursinus), and the genial warmth and unction of the whole work, are chiefly due to Olevianus." (Schaff, in. Am. Presb. Rev. July 1863, p. 379).

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, whose full title is given above, appeared in 1563. The preface is dated January 19 of that year, and runs in the name of the elector Frederick, who probably wrote it. 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 an 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 himself has once accomplished on the cross; 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 daily offered for them by the priest; and that Christ is bodily 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, and the anathemas pronounced at Trent against the Protestant doctrine of the sacraments, had not time to produce their effect before the issue of the first edition of the Catechism. But the elector soon saw the necessity for a strong and clear declaration on the Protestant side, and such a declaration is furnished in this eightieth question, which was added to the Catechism in 1563. 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 ursprizglichen Gestalt, Bonn, 1864, sm. 8vo), which cleared up all doubt as to the various editions of 1563. In 1866 professor Schaff published a very valuable edition, revised after the first edition of 1563, with an excellent history of the Catechism (Der Heidelb. Kat. nach d. ersten Ausgabe von 1563 revidirt, Philad. 18mo). - 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; no book, perhaps, has gone through more editions, except the Bible, Bunyan's Pilgrim, and Kempis. It has been translated into nearly every spoken language. It was, of course, at once used throughout the Palatinate by command of the elector. But it soon spread abroad wherever the Reformed Church had found footing, especially in North Germany and parts of Switzerland. It was early received in the Netherlands, and formally adopted at the Synod of Dort, 1618. Long and bitter controversies with Roman Catholics and Lutherans on the Catechism only endeared it the more to the Reformed. It is to this day an authoritative confession for the Reformed churches (German and Dutch). The (Dutch) Reformed Church directs all her ministers to explain the Catechism regularly before the congregations on the Sabbath day.

II. Contents. - The Catechism, in its present form, consists of 129 questions and answers. It is divided into three parts:

1. Of the misery of man.
2. Of the redemption of man.
3. Of the gratitude due from man (duties, etc.).

The arrangement of the matter is admirable, looking not simply to logical order, but also to practical edification. The book is not simply dogmatic, but devotional. It assumes that all who use it are Christians, and is thus not adapted for missionary work. As to the theology taught by the book, it is, in the main, that of pure evangelical Protestantism. On the doctrine of predestination it is so reticent that it was opposed, on the one hand, by the Synod of Dort, the most extreme Calvinistic body perhaps ever assembled, and, on the other (though not without qualification), by James Arminius, the greatest of all the opponents of Calvinism. On the nature of the sacraments the Catechism is Calvinistic, as opposed to the Lutheran doctrine. Dr. Heppe (deutscher Protestantismus, 1, 443 sq.) goes too far in asserting that the Catechism is thoroughly Melancthonian, and in no sense Calvinistic. Sudhoff answers this in his article in Herzog's Real- Encyklopadie, 5, 658 sq.; but he himself goes too far, on the other side, in finding that the Calvinistic theory of predestination, though not expressly stated, is implied and involved in the view of Sin and grace set forth in the Catechism (see Gerhart's article in the Tercentenary Monument, p. 387 sq., and also his statement in this Cyclopaedia, 3, 827). Olevianus, it will be remembered, was educated under the influence of Calvin; Ursinus under that of Melancthon. Dr. Schaff remarks judiciously that "the Catechism is a true expression of the convictions of its authors; but it communicates only so much of these as is in harmony with the public faith of the Church, and observes a certain reticence or reservation and moderation on such doctrines (as the twofold predestination), which belong rather to scientific theology and private conviction than to a public Church confession and the instruction of youth" (American Presb. Review, July, 1863, p. 371).

III. Literature. - The 300th anniversary of the formation and adoption of the Heidelberg Catechism was celebrated in 1863 both in Europe and America. One of the permanent fruits of this celebration was the publication of The Heidelberg Catechism, Tercentenary Edition (New York, 1863, sm. 4to). This noble volume gives a comprehensive Introduction (by Dr. Nevin), and a critical edition of the Catechism in four texts Old German, Latin, Modern German, and English-printed in parallel columns. The Introduction gives an admirable account of the literature and history of the Catechism. The text used is that given by Niemeyer, and not that of the first edition of 1563, which, as has been stated above, was reprinted in 1864. See also Dr. Schaff as edition cited above, and an article by him in the American Presbyterian Review for 1863. The Latin text (with the German of the 3rd ed. of 1563) is given in Niemeyer, Collectio Confessionum, p. 390 sq.; also in an edition by Dr. Steiner, Catechesis Religionis Christianae seu Catechismus Heidelbergensis (Baltimore, 1862). Another valuable fruit of the anniversary is The Tercentenary Monument (Chambersburg, 1863, 8vo), containing twenty essays by eminent Reformed theologians of Germany, Holland, and America, on the Catechism, its origin, history, its special relations to the German Reformed Church, and cognate subjects. For the older literary history, see Alting, Historia Ecclesiae Palatinae (Frankf. 1701); Struve, Pfilzische Kirchenhistorie (Frankfort, 1721); Mundt, Grundriss der pfalzischen Kirchengeschichte bis 1742 (Heidelb. 1798); Kocher, Katechetische Geschichte der Reformirten Kirche (Jena, 1756); Planck, Geschichte d. prot. Theologie, 2, 2,. 475-491; Van Alpen, Geschichte u. Litteratur d. Heidelb. Katechismus (Frankf. 1800); Augusti, Einleitung in die beiden Haupt-Katechismen d. Evang. Kirche (Elberf. 1824); Ersch und Gruber's A11. Encykl. 2, 4. 386 sq.; Nevin, Hist. and Genius of the Heidelberg Catechism (Chambersburg, 1847); Sudhoff, Theologisches Handbuch zur Auslegung d. Heidelb. Kat. (Frankf. 1862). An elaborate article on the literature of the Catechism, by Dr. Harbaugh, is given in the Mercersburg Review, October, 1860. A copious list of writers on the Catechism (covering twelve pages) is given at the end of Bethune, Expository Lectures on the Heidelberg Catechism (N. York, Sheldon and Co., 2 vols. 12mo), an admirable practical commentary, with a valuable historical introduction. Among the older commentators are Ursinus, Explicationes Catechesis Palatinae (Opera, 1612, vol. 1); Ursinus, Apologia Catechismi Palatinae (Opera, vol. 2). Translations-- Ursinus, The Summe of Christian Religion, lectures on the Catechism, transl. by H. Parrie (Lond. 1617 4to). The best transl. of Ursinus's Commentary is that of the Rev. G.W. Williard (Columbus, 1852, 8vo, 2nd ed.), with Introduction by Dr. J. W. Nevin. See also Cocceius, Heid. Cat. explicata et illustrata (Lugd. Bat. 1671, Amst. 1673); Driesseln. Ad Cct. Heid. Malnuductio (Gron. 1724, 4to), Kemp. Fifty-three Sermons on the Heidelberg Catechism, trans. by Van Harlingen (New Brunswick, N. J., 1810, 8vo). For the views of the early Dutch Arminians on the Catechism, see Considerationes Remonstrantinum in Cat. Heidelb. (in Act. et Script. Synod. Harderwlyk, 1620). See also Wolters, Zur Urgeschichte d. Heidelb. Kat., in Stud. u. Krit. 1867, Heft 1; Trechsel, in Stud. u. Krit. 1867, Heft 3; Plitt, Stud. u. Krit. 1863, Heft 1: Mercersburg Review, October, 1860.


James Strong & John McClintock, Cyclopedia Of Biblical, Theological And Ecclesiastical Literature.

Realated Topics:

The Heidelberg Catechism
The Westminster Larger Catechism
The Westminster Shorter Catechism

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (IIIM).