A Brief Introduction

The History of the Heidelberg

Historical Introduction to the Heidelberg Catechism

The Heidelberg Catechism is one of the finest fruits of the Reformation. It epitomizes its essential teaching and has been proven in the fire of affliction. Holding forth Jesus Christ as our only comfort in life and in death, it presents very personally and eloquently what is necessary to know that we may live and die in that comfort. Today, those who are yearning for a beautiful statement of biblical truth will find this work a treasure. It remains as fresh as when it was first published 450 years ago and continues to hold a treasured place in the bosom of Reformed churches throughout the world.

Its value and appeal can be attributed to at least four factors. First and foremost is its intrinsic merit as a summary of biblical truth embodying the simplicity and profundity of Scriptural teaching. It crystalized the Christian faith as understood by the Reformed reformers of the sixteenth century, especially John Calvin. It also demonstrated continuity with the early church in its threefold structure of the creed, the law, and prayer.

Second, the catechism was beautifully designed to implement a Reformed course of training for both youth and adults. Though sometimes seen as a fault, the length of the catechism allowed it to provide a summary treatment of the full range of doctrine. Its language and rhythm of questions and answers endeared itself to those who sought an articulation of consistently biblical theology, and its division into Lord’s Days provided an orderly method of instruction.

Third, this common tool of instruction enabled the Reformed movement to spread a unified theology. The endorsement of the catechism by consistories and synods in Germany, the Netherlands, Hungary, and Switzerland established it as one of the defining documents of the Reformed Reformation. The approval of the Synod of Dordrecht (1618–19) made it a standard of faith for Reformed Christians.

Fourth, because of these factors, congregations have diligently implemented the teaching of the catechism as an essential part of Christian training. It is unlikely that the Catechism would have had lasting significance unless innumerable pastors and teachers down through the centuries had implemented its use in the regular ministry of the church.

Contents and Structure

The purpose of the Heidelberg is seen in its original title: “Catechism or Instruction in Christian Doctrine, as it is conducted by the Churches and Schools of the Electoral Palatinate” (Catechismus Oder Christlicher Underricht, wie der in Kirchen und Schulen der Churfűrstlichen Pfaltz getrieben wirdt). It follows a question–and–answer format to help the student come to a clear understanding of basic biblical doctrines. The Reformed church has historically emphasized the necessity of training and encouraging its youth to embrace the Christian faith. For this reason, those who have been baptized are called to use this catechism to prepare to confess their faith and become communicant members of the church of Jesus Christ.

The grand theme is stated in the answer to the first question, “What is your only comfort in life and in death?”

That I, with body and soul, both in life and in death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful Savior 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.

This Trinitarian confession reflects Ephesians 1 and the church’s early creeds. Its order follows the church’s traditional use of the Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer. But it integrates these three by using the pattern Paul provides in his Epistle to the Romans—condemnation, justification, and sanctification. Question 2 describes the resulting threefold structure of the catechism:

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

The well-known alliterations—Sin, Salvation, and Service; or, Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude—make this structure easy to remember.

The Heidelberg is infused with an understanding of the invincible grace of the Triune God. It fully affirms the key Reformation teaching of justification by faith alone through the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. But it speaks of this in the context of the whole scope of God’s sovereign grace.

Historical Background

The catechism received its name “Heidelberg” from the old capital city of the German lower Palatinate and its noted university. The founding of this seat of learning dates back to the year 1385.

The Reformation of the sixteenth century did not immediately find favor in the Palatinate, although Martin Luther (1483–1546) had been heard in Heidelberg as early as 1518. The university was connected to the Church of Rome, and it was difficult for anyone to take another position than that of hostility to the Reformation. The government also remained apathetic, fearing turmoil and change.

Nevertheless, the impact of reformation found its mark. On Sunday, December 20, 1545, when the mass was about to be celebrated at the principal church of Heidelberg, the people began singing the Reformation hymn, “To Us Salvation Now is Come” (Es ist das Heil uns kommen her). But the struggle for church reformation lasted another ten years, when finally the Peace of Augsburg (1555) established religious freedom. Sapience College (College of Wisdom), dedicated to the education of ministers, was soon opened in the Augustinian convent at Heidelberg.

The following decade, however, proved critical for the reform movement. The followers of Luther were divided among themselves: the ultra-Lutherans maintained the bodily presence of the Lord in the sacrament, while the followers of his associate, Philip Melanchthon (1497–1560), held to Christ’s spiritual presence, as was taught by Calvin. The Palatinate, and especially Heidelberg, became the very battleground for these and other factions. Lutheran doctrine eventually became fixed in the Formula of Concord, while the Calvinistic influence became embodied in the Heidelberg Catechism. Three figures played an important role in this transformation.

Frederick III

In 1559, the electoral power of the Palatinate passed into the hands of Frederick III, who may truly be called the father of the Heidelberg Catechism. He determined to carry out the Reformation among his people without compromise. This meant that in the Palatinate, Christianity would be ordered and established both in regard to doctrine and worship, following the more thoroughly biblical views of the Reformed faith. For this reason, it was made mandatory that only the scriptural words of the institution of the Lord’s Supper were to be used in the celebration of the Supper. All crosses, candles, altars, and pictures were removed from the churches, and the singing of the The Heidelberg Catechism Psalms in the German language was introduced. Contentious teachers and ministers were dis missed, and those of Reformed persuasion were called to fill the pulpit and the lectern. It was in this context that two able young men, Caspar Olevianus and Zacharias Ursinus, came to Heidelberg.

Caspar Olevianus

Caspar Olevianus, born on August 10, 1532, in the city of Treves, applied himself diligently to his studies. After attending various schools, he studied jurisprudence at the University of Bourges. One of his schoolmates was a son of Frederick III. Tragically, this promising young man and two other students drowned when their boat overturned while they attempted to cross a river. Olevianus tried to rescue his friend, almost losing his own life in the attempt. Then and there he vowed to dedicate his life to the ministry of the gospel.

Upon finishing his studies he traveled to Geneva, Switzerland, and attended the lectures of the renowned theologian John Calvin. At Zurich he made the acquaintance of Heinrich Bullinger and Peter Martyr Vermigli, and at Lausanne, Theodore Beza.

It was the zealous reformer William Farel, along with Calvin and Viret, who prevailed upon Olevianus to return to his homeland to preach. In 1559, at the age of twenty-seven, he returned to Treves where he took charge of a school and also began preaching with fearless zeal. Treves was thrown into commotion, and Olevianus and other reform leaders were cast into prison. After ten months of negotiations, they were set free under condition of heavy fines and banishment from the city. Caspar’s character had been tempered in the furnace of persecution as the Lord prepared him for a much greater task.

Frederick III, recalling that Olevianus had risked his life to save his son, and realizing that he was now being persecuted and banished for the sake of the gospel, called him to Heidelberg. In 1560, he became lecturer at the university and professor of dogmatics. Within a year, however, he exchanged his position for the pastorate of a city church. Olevianus was eminently qualified and called by Christ to play a key role in the dissemination of Reformed doctrine by means of a new catechism.

Zacharias Ursinus

Zacharias Ursinus, born at Breslau, Silesia, on July 18, 1534, entered the University of Wittenberg, Germany, at the age of sixteen. He remained there for seven years, during which he became strongly 450th Anniversary Edition attached to his eminent teacher, Philip Melanchthon. After this he made personal contact with leaders of the Reformation at Heidelberg and Strassburg in Germany; and at Basel, Lausanne, and Geneva in Switzerland.

In 1558, he became the rector (headmaster) of the Elizabethan “gymnasium,” or high-school, at Breslau and found himself in the midst of an intense debate about whether Christ was materially or spiritually present in the elements of the Lord’s Supper. From the beginning, Ursinus reflected the views of his teacher, Melanchthon, and for this reason the ire of the ultra-Lutherans rose against him, and he was branded a Calvinist. He ably defended his teaching on the sacraments and the person of Christ in a published tract, which did not bridge the differences as he had hoped, but only increased the antagonism. Early in 1560 he resigned his position, resolving,

I will go to the Zurichers, whose reputation indeed is not great here, but who have so famous a name among other churches that it cannot be obscured by our preachers. They are God-fearing, thoroughly learned men with whom I have re solved to spend my life. God will provide for the rest.

Arriving at Zurich, he renewed his friendship with Bullinger and Vermigli. In God’s providence Frederick III had just requested Vermigli to assist in the Reformation in the Palatinate. Considering himself too old for such a difficult task, he recommended instead his capable young friend, Ursinus. Thus the young theologian was called to Heidelberg in 1561 and became professor of theology at the university and also rector (chancellor) of Sapience College.

For many years Ursinus labored at these Christian institutions of learning, a very exacting scholar in his studies and lectures, yet always clear and concise in his presentation. For this reason he was eminently prepared for a leading role in preparing a new catechism.

Publication and Reception

In the German Palatinate, numerous catechisms were already in use, in fact, too many—their very number caused endless confusion, and none received any general and whole-hearted approval. It became apparent, therefore, that a catechism was needed that would be comprehensive, in which all the key doctrines would be clearly stated, and yet be so simple that even children could grasp the truths of salvation.

Frederick III entrusted his theologians and pastors with the preparation of a clear, concise, and popular statement of Christian doctrine. The Heidelberg Catechism in catechetical form which could be used in the home, church, and school. The preliminary work was done by the faculty of the university, but the final form and its editing was entrusted to Olevianus and Ursinus.

The finished manuscript, presented toward the close of the year 1562, received the hearty approval of the entire faculty and also of the pastors and teachers. It was submitted to the Synod, meeting at Heidelberg, and a resolution was passed to publish it immediately by government authority. The first edition of the new catechism came off the press with a preface by Frederick III dated January 19, 1563. The second and third editions, with minor additions along with a Latin translation, were published later in 1563. Beginning in the third edition, it was divided into fifty-two Lord’s Days so that it might be explained each year. The fourth edition, published on November 15, 1563, as part of the Palatinate Church Order (Kirchenordnung), is regarded as the standard text.

The spread and influence of this small book within the bounds of the Palatinate and in other areas of Europe exceeded all expectations, being welcomed by the Reformed everywhere. It was made mandatory in all the schools and churches of the Palatinate to teach it and to read it from the pulpit every Sunday according to its Lord’s Days. Catechetical preaching and exposition were instituted for the Sunday afternoon service. All education, whether in the home, in the schools, or at the university was based upon it, and the theological training of students for the ministry centered around it. At Sapience College, Ursinus immediately began lectures on its contents which were later published.

The Catechism was soon adopted by the Dutch Synod of Wesel in 1568, by the Synod of Dort in 1571, and by the great ecumenical Synod of Dort in 1618–19. The British delegates at the Synod of Dort agreed that neither in their own nor in the French Church was there a catechism so suitable and excellent. They remarked, “Our Reformed brethren on the continent have a little book whose single leaves are not to be bought with tons of gold.”

Besides the original Latin version, translations into Dutch by Petrus Dathenus and into Saxon-German appeared within a year of its original publication. These were followed by translations into English and Hungarian in 1567, French in 1570, Hebrew in 1580, and Greek in 1597. During the early years of the following century, the catechism was translated into Polish, Lithuanian, Italian, Bohemian, and Romanian. The Dutch East India and West India Companies were zealous promoters of the Heidelberg Catechism. Circling the globe with it, they sponsored translations into Malay (1623), Javanese (1623), Spanish (1628), Portuguese (1665), Singhalese (1726), and Tamil (1754). Eventually it was translated into such languages as Amharic, Sangiri, Arabic, Persian (Farsi), Chinese, and Japanese. Today it continues be disseminated around the globe in many other languages.

Criticism and Defense

The appearance of this catechism aroused immediate opposition from the Roman Catholic Church and from Emperor Maximilian II. It particularly met with strong disapproval from the Lutherans, for lifting up a Reformed banner in the land of Luther was considered a betrayal of his name and memory.

Three years later at the Diet of Augsburg in 1566, Frederick III was charged with “innovations” and the use of a catechism not agreeing with the (Lutheran) Augsburg Confession. It was demanded of him that he change or disown the catechism, and if he refused to do so he would be excluded from the Peace of the Empire and suffer the consequences. Hearing this, Frederick withdrew from the room for a moment.

He soon returned with his son Casimir, who carried a Bible, and began humbly but firmly to make his defense, testifying:

Your Imperial Majesty, I continue in the conviction which I made known to you before I came here in person, that in matters of faith and conscience I acknowledge only one Lord who is Lord of all lords, and King of all kings. That is why I say that this is not a matter of the flesh, but of man’s soul and its salvation which I have received from my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. His truth I am duty bound to guard. As regards Calvinism, I can say with God and my Christian conscience as witnesses that I have not read the books of Calvin, so that I can little say what is meant by Calvinism. But what my catechism teaches this I profess. This catechism has on its pages such abundant proof from Holy Scripture that it will remain unrefuted by men and will also remain my irrefutable belief. As regards the Augsburg Confession, your majesty knows that I signed it in good faith at Naumberg, and I continue to be true to that signature. For the rest, I comfort myself in this, that my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, has promised me and all His believers that whatever we lose for His name’s sake here on earth shall be restored to us a hundredfold in the life to come. And with this I submit myself to the gracious consideration of your Imperial Majesty.

The Lord honored Frederick’s bold defense of the faith and gave him the victory. Disagreeing with the judgment of the Emperor, the Diet voted that the Elector of the Palatinate was to be treated as belonging to the Alliance of Augsburg and within the jurisdiction of the Peace of the Empire.

English Versions

The Heidelberg Catechism was received by the English Church in the sixteenth century as an expression of her faith. Early translations were made by Turner (1567) and Parry (1591), but these were based on the Latin and the Dutch editions, and their sentence construction often deviated from the original German.

In America, Rev. Archibald Laidlie (1727–1779), serving in the Dutch Reformed Church in New York City, provided a new English version in 1765 at the request of his consistory. It became the standard version which is the basis of most older American editions. It was also used by the Reformed Church in the U.S. for many years.

In 1859 the General Synod of the Reformed Church in the U.S. appointed a committee to prepare a critical standard edition of the Catechism. This was issued in 1863, giving a historical and theological review of the catechism and the text in parallel columns in the original German, the Latin, modern German, and an English translation conforming closely to the original German. It became known as the Tercentenary Edition.

In evaluating this translation, Dr. James I. Good observed,

The translation into English is carefully done from a literary standpoint, but it is somewhat marred by divergence from the original text, so as to favor the peculiar views of the Mercersburg Theology. ... This edition, however, was never officially adopted by the synod or the Church, and has come into only partial use in the Church, the older English translation of Laidlie being the one in common use. (History of the Reformed Church in the U.S. [New York, 1911], 405).

Since this time a number of modern translations have been made. Most of these have been sponsored by various Reformed and Presbyterian denominations.

Modern English Version

In the middle of the twentieth century, the continuing Reformed Church in the U.S. (Eureka Classis) prepared a revision of the Tercentenary, published in 1950. The Committee assigned to this task consulted two new critical German editions by August Lang and Wilhelm Niesel. Rev. Robert Grossmann writes that “this edition sought to return to the earliest text of the Catechism in German and to provide a most careful and direct translation of the same into English” (You Shall Be My People [1996], 107). It was first published with the German and English texts on opposite pages and was printed by Reliance Publishing Company. Later printings appeared only in English.

In the preface we read,

Careful comparative studies of the original and the modern German versions, as also the Latin, the Dutch, and the English translations, were made, and, realizing that words and sentence construction become hallowed by use, alterations were made only with great caution after much deliberation to improve diction where permissible, or to state the intent of the original more accurately. The Tercentenary version of 1863 is followed closely.

In 1978 the text of the questions and answers was updated and later published by the 1986 Synod of the Reformed Church in the U.S. It retained the King James Version of the Scripture text. A minor revision of this version was made in 2011 under the direction of the 264th Synod, bringing the text of the Catechism into conformity with New King James Version usage. The present edition (2013) is now accompanied by the full Scripture reference text from the NKJV, to complete the updating of the Modern English Version. The • symbol identifies additional Scripture references besides those found in the original text of the Catechism.

450th Anniversary Edition

Unique features in this special 450th Anniversary edition of the Catechism reflect the first edition published in 1563. A translation of Frederick III’s original preface precedes the Catechism text. Afterwards, a series of Scripture quotations and the Apostles’ Creed are provided in the order in which they appeared in the original edition. Two additional resources are given—an outline of the Catechism, and a harmony which cross-references similar topics in the Belgic Confession (1561) and Canons of Dort (1618–19).

The Heidelberg Catechism is a precious heritage of faith passed on to us from our Reformed fathers, as Rev. Paul Trieck writes,

Countless people through the years have carried on the Heidelberg tradition. That is well, but will we and our children continue to carry on the Heidelberg’s truths? Will we continue to commit it to our heads and our hearts? Will we faithfully teach our covenant children to walk in the doctrines it so clearly expounds? Would we be willing, as many before us, to put our life on the line to cling to the Christian faith as set forth in the Heidelberg? The use of the Heidelberg is very much a part of our past, but will we take that heritage with us into the future? To recount the rich heritage of our forefathers is an exercise in futility and no more than ‘name-dropping’ unless we still walk in those shoes and are committed to instill these truths in the hearts and minds of the generations to come. Just to preserve and honor a heritage as a thing of the past is to make an idolatrous icon of it. To persevere in the faith expressed in our Heidelberg heritage will be a blessing to us and to our covenant children. (You Shall Be My People, 1996, p. 209–10)

Faithful to the Word of God, the Catechism continues to supply believers with a trustworthy and eloquent statement of their faith. Now in its 450th year, the Heidelberg Catechism is being rediscovered as a fresh and contemporary means of articulating and transmitting the Reformed understanding of the Christian faith. May God continue to bless its use in His Church.

Introduction to the Heidelberg Catechism

This catechism, or instruction in the Christian faith, received its name from the place of its origin, Heidelberg, Germany, the capital of the Electorate of the Palatinate. That the Reformed faith might be taught and maintained in his domain, the godly elector Frederick III commissioned Zacharias Ursinus, professor at the Heidelberg University, and Caspar Olevianus, court preacher, to prepare a manual for instructing the youth and guiding pastors and teachers in the basic doctrines of the Christian faith. Prepared with the advice and cooperation of the entire theological faculty, heartily approved by the Elector himself, and sanctioned by the Synodical gathering of prominent Reformed preachers and theologians, it was first published in Heidelberg with a preface dated January 19, 1563.

The Great Synod of Dort (1618–1619) declared that the Heidelberg Catechism was in all respects in harmony with the Word of God and it required office-bearers to subscribe to it. It was called “an admirably composed compendium of the orthodox Christian doctrine, wisely adapted to the comprehension of tender youths, and also to the more elaborate instruction of adults.” The Synod issued directives for it to be used by parents in teaching their children, by instructors in the schools, and by pastors on each Lord’s Day.

It has been, deservedly, the most widely used and influential catechism of the Reformation period. The Reformed Churches of Germany, the Netherlands, Hungary, Transylvania, and Poland adopted it. Among the thirty languages into which the catechism has been translated are Dutch, English, French, Polish, Hungarian, Greek, Lithuanian, Hebrew, Italian, Bohemian, Javanese, Arabic, Singalese, and Malay. In North America it was adopted as a standard of the Reformed Church in the United States from the very beginning of its history.

In 1820 the first English version of the Catechism appeared in the United States. In 1863 a new English translation was made, called the Tercentenary (300 Year) Version. The Reformed Church in the U.S. further revised this edition in 1950, and 1986. Bible references (marked with an asterisk *) were later added and various refinements until it reached its present form in 2011. More recently Scripture references were updated to the New King James Version of the Bible.

An Extended History of the Heidelberg Catechism

This 450th Anniversary Edition of the Heidelberg Catechism and other volumes published by the Reformed Church in the United States are available through this link link:
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