Happy Birthday to the Heidelberg Catechism

catechismus1563A belated Happy Birthday to the Heidelberg Catechism. On 19 January 1563 (Julian Calendar) the first edition of the catechism was adopted by the Palatinate Church.  Though earlier scholarship thought and wrote about the catechism as if it were the product of two authors (sometimes Zacharias Ursinus, sometimes Caspar Olevianus), modern scholarship recognizes that Ursinus, drawing from several sources, was the primary author (of perhaps 70%) of the catechism. Olevianus probably contributed some of the questions and answers but the final shape of the catechism was the result of an editorial committee.

The first draft of the catechism was complete late in 1562. A synod met in Heidelberg January 11-17, 1563. It was adopted and subscribed. Synod made at least one revision to the catechism revising Q/A 78 in place of the language from Ursinus’ Catechesis Minor Q/A 68 on the Lord’s Supper. That Sunday (17 January) Synod celebrated the Lord’s Supper. Frederick III, Elector Palatinate (governor), addressed Synod and the catechism was published on 19 January.

The first edition had some peculiarities. The questions/answers were separated but not numbered. The division into 52 Lord’s Days was not done until the 4th edition. The biblical proof texts gave only chapter references as Stephanus’ 1551 versification of Scripture had not yet become standard. Those were added to the Latin translation in March, 1563. According to Otto Thelemann (p. 463) a prefatory note to an early edition read, “The Scripture proofs by which the faith of the children is confirmed, are such only as have been selected with great pains from the divinely inspired Scriptures (usually called canonical books) and have been added to each question and answer.” Thelemann adds, “In the first editions one of the proofs from the Apocrypha had crept in (Sir 3.27, under question 105) which soon disappeared.” Further, a comparison of the Latin translation to the German text of the 3rd edition shows variations in the proof texts and, of course, the number biblical proof texts used in modern translations has grown since 1563.

The most famous revision of the catechism, was the addition of Q. 80, against the Tridentine (Roman) doctrine of transubstantiation and eucharistic sacrifice, in the 2nd edition. Q. 80 read,

The Lord’s Supper testifies to us that we have a full pardon of all sin by the only sacrifice of Jesus Christ, which he himself accomplished on the cross. But the mass teaches that the living and the dead have not the pardon of sin through the suffering of Christ, unless Christ is also daily offered for them by the priests. So that the mass at bottom is a denial of the one sacrifice of and suffering of Jesus Christ.

Frederick wanted stronger language so Q. 80 was expanded in the 3rd edition to its present form (probably by Olevianus).

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 ingrafted into Christ, who with His true body is now in heaven at the right hand of the Father, and is to be there worshiped. 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 priests; and that Christ is bodily under the form of bread and wine, and is therefore to be worshiped in them. And thus the Mass at bottom is nothing else than a denial of the one sacrifice and passion of Jesus Christ, and an accursed idolatry.

The status and accuracy of Q. 80 has called into question by the RCA (and perhaps other denominations), which has eliminated the question/answer from the catechism, and by the CRC has tried to cut the baby in half by retaining it in the catechism while declaring

In response to a mandate from Synod 1998, the Christian Reformed Church’s Interchurch Relations Committee conducted a study of Q. and A. 80 and the Roman Catholic Mass. Based on this study, Synod 2004 declared that “Q. and A. 80 can no longer be held in its current form as part of our confession.” Synod 2006 directed that Q. and A. 80 remain in the CRC’s text of the Heidelberg Catechism but that the last three paragraphs be placed in brackets to indicate that they do not accurately reflect the official teaching and practice of today’s Roman Catholic Church and are no longer confessionally binding on members of the CRC.

As I read the Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent and the Catechism of the Catholic Church it seems to me that Olevianus and Frederick III got it right. Rome confesses a eucharistic, propitiatory sacrifice (i.e., a sacrifice that turns away divine wrath). Rome confesses:

1367 The sacrifice of Christ and the sacrifice of the Eucharist are one single sacrifice: “The victim is one and the same: the same now offers through the ministry of priests, who then offered himself on the cross; only the manner of offering is different.” “In this divine sacrifice which is celebrated in the Mass, the same Christ who offered himself once in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross is contained and is offered in an unbloody manner.”

The reference is to the Council of Trent, September 1562 on the Eucharist, which reads:

If any one says, that the sacrifice of the mass is only a sacrifice of praise and of thanksgiving; or that it is a bare commemoration of the sacrifice consummated on the cross, but not a propitiatory sacrifice; or, that it profits him only who receives; and that it ought not to be offered for the living and the dead for sins, pains, satisfactions, and other necessities; let him be anathema. [emphasis added- rsc]

Yes, the Catechism of the Catholic Church today emphasizes the memorial character of the Supper but it continues to confess the same doctrine that we rejected in 1563. Further, Rome confesses the moral necessity of the adoration of the transubstantiated host (victim).

1378 Worship of the Eucharist. In the liturgy of the Mass we express our faith in the real presence of Christ under the species of bread and wine by, among other ways, genuflecting or bowing deeply as a sign of adoration of the Lord. “The Catholic Church has always offered and still offers to the sacrament of the Eucharist the cult of adoration, not only during Mass, but also outside of it, reserving the consecrated hosts with the utmost care, exposing them to the solemn veneration of the faithful, and carrying them in procession.” [emphasis added – rsc]

What of substance has changed since 1562?

The catechism’s doctrine of the Supper is just right. It is neither merely memorial (purely psychological) nor is Christ literally, physically present in the elements nor is the substance of the elements transformed into the body of Christ. Rather, by the mysterious operation of the Spirit we feed on the true and real (the Belgic says “proper” and “natural”) body and blood of the ascended Christ by the mysterious operation of the Holy Spirit.

Since the 19th-century celebration of 300th anniversary (tercentenary) of the publication of the catechism it has become common to regard the German translation as normative in fact the Latin translation was widely used and was the basis of instruction in the seminary in Heidelberg (Collegium Sapientiae) and in the University. Usinus’ (authorized) exposition of the catechism, by way of a series of lectures, was in Latin and gave the text of the catechism in Latin and the text authorized by the Synod of Dort was Latin. There are not major differences between the Latin and German texts but it would be interesting to make a complete translation of the Latin text sometime.

The catechism was translated into several languages almost immediately including Dutch, Greek, Hungarian, French, and Hebrew. William Turner, an English physician made the first English translation in 1567 (probably from the Latin text). Henry Parry produced an English version in 1591. Archibald Laidlie, a Scots Presyterian who became the first English-speaking minister in the RCA and pastor of the Collegiate Dutch Reformed Church in NYC, made another English translation in 1770. The Tercentenary Edition, edited by Philip Schaff, appeared in 1563. This is the text found in Schaff’s Creeds of Christendom. The version that appears in the CRC 1959 Psalter-Hymnal varies somewhat from the 1863 edition and the 1976 CRC edition in a fairly significant departure from the earlier translations. In my view the 1976 translation makes the catechism quite difficult to memorize and unnecessarily replaced accepted ecclesiastical language (e.g., “merit”) thus cutting off the contemporary church from its vocabulary. The RCUS produced a very contemporary English version in 1978 retaining the older language but revision archaic spellings and forms. The only significant question I have about it is the translation of the German “bei” in Q. 86. with “by” in English. From 1978-2001 that edition read “by our faith” rather than “of our faith.” On the RCUS website, however, it reads “of our faith.” The Latin text is ambiguous and needs further consideration. It has been suggested to me that the older translation, “of our faith,” is a better translation of the German text. The question is whether the catechism means to say that the fruits, produced by the Spirit, by grace alone, through faith alone, assure us that we do actually have faith or whether our faith and fruits are parallel, secondary sources of assurance.

If Q. 80 is controversial, I suspect one of the most overlooked questions and answers of the catechism is Q. 96.

96. What does God require in the Second Commandment?

That we in no wise make any image of God, nor worship Him in any other way than He has commanded in His Word.

Here we have the briefest statement of the Reformed confession regarding worship but one wonders if anyone, even the most, ostensibly “conservative” Reformed denominations even approach the original understanding of this Q/A? When it was published the Palatinate Churches rid themselves of musical instruments (organs) and they sang only God’s Word (psalms). Today, how many of our churches still understand the teaching of the catechism to require us to do away with musical instruments and to respond to God’s Word with God’s Word in public worship? They did that not because they were bigoted or narrow-minded but because they understood that the doctrine of sola Scriptura means that where Scripture speaks it is authoritative and determinative of theology, piety, and practice. They understood that Scripture has plenty to say about worship and that new covenant worship doesn’t replicate the practice of the types and shadows (e.g., instruments and sacrifices). Today the “conservative” Reformed churches seem to be convinced of the sufficiency of Scripture for everything but worship.

In our worship on this Lord’s Day are we certain that we are worshiping God in no “other way than he has commanded in his Word”? Has God commanded us, in the new covenant, to praise him with organs, pianos, drums, and guitars? Has God commanded us to praise him with non-inspired songs? Has he? Are consistories free to bind the consciences of worshipers by requiring them, on pain of discipline, to attend to divine services where the practice of worship deviates significantly from that taught by the catechism as it was originally understood?

Finally. we probably need to sit down with the Latin and German texts once more and work through them carefully to produce a comprehensive edition and translation.  There are resources for the study of the catechism online here.

Happy Birthday to the Heidelberg Catechism. Long may it continue to teach us and guide our theology, piety, and practice.


Could Instruments Be Idols?

Calvin on Instruments

On Elements and Circumstances

When Happy-Clappy Isn’t

Lex Credendi

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  1. Are there any churches that you are aware of that worship God only in the way that he has commanded in his word (i.e. no instruments & only inspired songs)? I would love to worship there!

    • The RPCNA (Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America) does sing the Psalms only without musical accompaniment and has done so since its came over from Scotland in 1798.

      If you want to know about our psalter go to http://www.psalter.org.

      Also their was great sermon preached at my church this past Lord’s Day by a visiting pastor James Farris called “There’s a Psalm for That!” (http://www.reformedlafayette.com/mp3/ser20100117r.mp3).

      We are not a very big denomination, but depending on where you live there might be one close by or there might be someone trying to start a new congregation.

  2. Thank you, Scott. I especially appreciated your explication of Q&A 80. I would look forward to a new translation. As an ordained CR minister, I like the translation the CRC made, because it is flows easily. However, it leaves out important biblical words like propitiation, which is not good.

  3. Very interesting, thank you for posting this Dr. Clark. I am trying to get ahold of the major Reformed confessions and catechisms (WCF, WLC, Heidelberg, etc.), and was wondering what you recommended. Schaff is obviously available, and inexpensive, but I have read that his is not necessarily the best translation. Any thoughts? Thanks in advance!

  4. Carter:

    The Westminster Stds are available from the OPC in hardback, with proof texts, for $12.00 US, postpaid in the USA.

    From many years in the Canadian Reformed Church, I am partial to their translations of the Three Forms and the Ancient Creeds. They print them in the back of their Book of Praise (Psalms, Hymns, etc). The confessional documents are posted online at http://www.canrc.org.
    They don’t have posted how to purchase a hard copy. If I get that info, I’ll pass it along.

    In reality, all of the NAPARC bodies have their confessional documents online. And from one federation you can find links to others. From opc.org you can get to NAPARC members (look for Inter-Church Relations).

    I would obtain Schaff only if you are really interested in history of the creedal documents and for delving into those not readily available (not currently adopted by existing fellowships).

    Hope this helps.


    • Here’s ordering info for the Canadian Reformed Churches Book of Praise, includes 3 Forms of Unity, Church Order, etc.
      Inheritance Publications
      In the U.S.A.: Box 366, Pella, IA 50219 or email: inhpubl@telusplanet.net

      Go to the Title Index link on Products page, go to title index, Main catalogue A-E and scroll to Book of Praise, there’s a black edition (hardbound) and a Red edition (flexible cover, if the old pattern holds up), it’s $22.00 US including shipping, to the US.

      • Thanks again! This is great. I’m trying to get acquainted with these before I head off to seminary next year, this helps a lot. I appreciate it!

  5. Dr. Clark would you please post the German answer to 86 you have? The one I have is not correctly translated in the reformed.org.

    Antwort: Darum, daß Christus, nachdem er uns mit seinem Blut erkauft hat, uns auch durch seinen Heiligen Geist erneuert zu seinem Ebenbild, daß wir mit unserm ganzen Leben uns dankbar gegen Gott für seine Wohltat erzeigen und er durch uns gepriesen werde. Darnach auch, daß wir bei uns selbst unsers Glaubens aus seinen Früchten gewiß seien und mit unserm gottseligen Wandel unsere Nächsten auch Christo gewinnen.

    Answer: Because Christ, having redeemed and delivered us by his blood, also renews us by his Holy Spirit, after his own image; that so we may testify, by the whole of our conduct, our gratitude to God for his blessings, (a) and that he may be praised by us; (b) also, that every one may be assured in himself of his faith, (c) by the fruits thereof; and that, by our godly conversation others may be gained to Christ. (d)

    • Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, vol 3, has:

      Frage 86.

      Dieweil wir denn aus unserm Elend, ohne all unser Verdienst, aus Gnaden durch Christum erlöset sind, warum sollen wir gute Werke thun?


      Darum, daß Christus, nachdem Er uns mit seinem Blut erkauft hat, uns auch durch seinen

      Heiligen Geist erneuert zu seinem Ebenbild, daß wir mit unserm ganzen Leben uns dankbar gegen Gott für seine Wohlthat erzeigen, und Er durch uns gepriesen werde. Darnach auch, daß wir bei uns selbst unsers Glaubens aus seinen Früchten gewiß seien, und mit unserm gottseligen Wandel unsern Nächsten auch Christo gewinnen.

      QUESTION 86.

      Since, then, we are redeemed from our misery by grace through Christ, without any merit of ours, why must we do good works?


      Because Christ, having redeemed us by his blood, renews us also by his holy Spirit after his own image, that with our whole life we may show ourselves thankful to God for his blessing, and that he may be glorified through us; then, also, that we ourselves may be assured of our faith by the fruits thereof, and by our godly walk may win our neighbors also to Christ.

      • Thank you. The translation you have is accurately rendering the German, unlike the reformed.org version.

        The “bei’ refers not to the faith but to “ourselves” and thus is not relevant to the “by our faith”, but “users Glaubens” means “of our faith”. “Unser Glauben” is “our faith” and “unsers Glaubens” is “of our faith”.

  6. If the German above is correct then it translates the last sentence to:

    Also, that we ourselves may be assured of our faith by the fruits thereof…

    The “bei’ refers not to the faith but to “ourselves” and thus is not relevant to the “by our faith”, but “users Glaubens” means “of our faith”. “Unser Glauben” is “our faith” and “unsers Glaubens” is “of our faith”.

  7. In wishing the Heidelberg Catechism a Happy Birthday, can anyone shed some light on Q/A 1? Specifically, Calvin’s Institutes, III.vii.1 (Vol 1, p. 690 in Battles trans) has this:
    We are not our own: let not our reason nor our will, therefore, sway our plans and deeds. We are not our own: let us therefore not set it as our goal to seek what is expedient for us according to the flesh. We are not our own: in so far as we can, let us therefore forget ourselves and all that is ours.
    Conversely, we are God’s: let us therefore live for him and die for him. We are God’s: let his wisdom and will therefore rule all our actions. We are God’s: let all the parts of our life accordingly strive toward him as our only lawful goal.

    So, did Calvin influence the opening of the Heidelberg Catechism? Maybe this is old news to the youngsters, but I don’t recall lectures on any Calvin/Olevianus connections or influences back in my M.Div. days.


    • Olevianus lectured through the Institutes annually.

      Whether there’s a direct connection I don’t. The “not our own” theme is widespread in confessional 16th-century Protestant theology.

      • Thanks, Dr. Clark, it is sort of a which-came-first question.

        Wonder if the kids wore bracelets inscribed IANMO (“I am not my own”)?
        The Latin “non meus” and the German “nicht mein” would both be represented by the same NM bracelet. Somehow the verbosity of English, for the opening phrase works a little better.

        There’s a nifty Latin/German – German/English Heidelberg Catechism online at:


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