Which English Translation of the Heidelberg Catechism?

There are a several English-language translations of the Heidelberg Catechism. The most popular of these is probably the translation published by the Christian Reformed Church in 1976. There are alternatives, however, which those who intend to use the catechism frequently (which should be everyone!) and who intend to memorize the catechism (which should be everyone!), and who intend to use the catechism for church instruction or for sermon preparation.

The catechism was first translated into English in the 16th century almost immediately after it appeared in German and Latin. It was re-translated again in the 17th century and again in the 19th century. It seems as if most Reformed denominations or federations, with the exception of the URCs, have their own translation. How to choose? On what basis?

My favorite English translation is a revision of the 1978 Modern English version published by the Reformed Churches in the United States. In that version they retained the vocabulary, meter, and style of the older translations but they removed most of the archaic forms from the earlier translations (with the exception of the Bible translation which remained the archaic AV). This version is available in hardcover or in softcover. I recommend the former. I’ve published a revision of that version on my  website. That version, however, probably needs further attention. The Tercentenary edition published by the RCUS in the 19th century is in volume three of Schaff’s Creeds of Christendom. The RCUS published a version in 1963 in honor of the 400th anniversary of the catechism but I haven’t used it much and can’t comment.

There are other useful versions. The version published in the 1959 Psalter-Hymnal (“the Blue Psalter Hymnal”) of the CRC is useful. Beware, however, that not all editions of the 1959 PH are the same. Those editions of the 1959 PH published in 1976 and after contain the 1976 translation of the HC published by the CRC. That is the same version published in a widely used gray paperback collection of the Creeds and Reformed Confessions. I do not recommend this version of the catechism for reasons I will explain below. The version published by the Canadian Reformed Churches in their Book of Praise (largely a wonderful collection of the Genevan Psalms translated into English) seems sound. The URCNA has published their translation of the catechism (and the Belgic Confession and the Canons of Dort). It is available in print from GCP. The committee did a fine job.

Why not the 1976 version? My main objections are two:

  • It revises the traditional vocabulary of catechism in unhelpful ways. E.g., this translation does not use the term “merit.” As a consequence, I believe, it has led younger pastors and others to conclude that the Reformed faith does not confess any doctrine of merit. We certainly do! We confess that we have no merits in ourselves but all of Christ’s merits have been imputed to all those who trust him. One of the principal functions of the catechism is to transmit not just the substance of the faith but also the vocabulary of the faith. This version of the catechism fails us in that regard.
  • By changing the vocabulary of the text and by laying out the catechism as if it were poetry the catechism has become more difficult to memorize. The catechism was intended to be memorized and the meter of the catechism was designed for it. The repetition of key terms and phases facilitates that. It was not intended to be read as a book or a piece of poetry where such repetition might be tiresome. In short, the 1976 version does not respect the genre and intended function of the catechism.

The RCUS has published an excellent modern-language version of the catechism.

Here is the HB version of the catechism.

An audio version of the Heidelberg Catechism

Here is the HB resource page on the catechism.

This page was updated on May 20, 2022.

There are probably other versions that are useful not mentioned here. The most important thing is to read, learn, and inwardly digest the Word of God as it is confessed by the Reformed churches. You will not regret learning to confess the faith with the churches.


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  1. Thanks for this! I am very interested in versions of confessional artifacts, for Daily Confession & Daily Westminster. ! It would be helpful if you could include in this post a concise set of links to online versions of any of these versions.

    As a presbyterian, I’m much more familiar with SC than HC, so the only criterion I have for evaluating a translation of the Heidelberg is Q103. I like the version you have at WSC, because it faithfully follows the German in using the word “Sabbath” only once, at the end, and rendering the earlier feiertag simply as “day of rest”. This as opposed to the version at reformed.org (which sources an e-text from CCEL, which in turn doesn’t have a source), in which that one german word becomes the cumbersome phrase “Sabbath, that is, on the day of rest”.

    I don’t want you to open your can of RRC whupass on me wrt the Sabbath, but I see the unwarranted expansion of feiertag as an attempt to overturn the Calvin/continental view that, in the New Covenant, the Sabbath is primarily eschatological, and the weekly gathering of God’s people on Sunday is more of a circumstance of church order and government than an element. It seems to me that in the original German, HC103 conspicuously avoids the word Sabbath in the beginning of the question, saving that term for the end, in reference to our already-participation in the not-yet age to come (which we enjoy 7 days a week)!

    • It’s a little more complicated than that Ruben, as I showed in RRC. It is not possible to set Calvin against the Westminster Divines on the Sabbath so casually, not without reckoning carefully, historically, and contextually with the entirety of Calvin’s body of work on the Sabbath. Further, the history of Sabbath observance in Heidelberg, concomitant with the catechism won’t allow either. The Heidelberger’s were just as “strict” on the Sabbath as the Westminster Divines. Those are historical facts. The Reformed tradition may be wrong about the Sabbath but the consensus on the Sabbath is very strong.

      As to translating the Latin Festis Diebus or the German Feiertag, the use of Sabbathum (in the Latin text) should, however we translate the former, color how we understand the doctrine taught with respect to “rest days.”

    • Ruben,

      You need to read Lyle D. Bierma, “Remembering the Sabbath Day: Ursinus’ Exposition of Exodus 20:8–11,” in Biblical Interpretation in the Era of the Reformation, ed. Richard A. Muller and John L. Thompson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 272–291.

      Of note are the few similarities between Calvin and Ursinus but especially the major differences between the two. Also, he shows where Ursinus’ Commentary on the Catechism has been skewed in English translation.

      On a side note concerning the word feiertag. Since this comes up often I’ve had to do some research. In a nutshell, feiertag was the word used for holidays/holy days in medieval German lands, yet it was also used synonymously for the Sabbath. As evidence one need only read how Luther’s Large Catechism explains the third (fourth for us) commandment:

      Our word “holy day” or “holiday” [Feiertag] is so called from the Hebrew word “Sabbath,” which properly means to rest, that is, to cease from work; hence our common expression for “stopping work” [Feierabend machen] literally means “taking a holiday” [heiligen Abend geben]. (The Book of Concord, ed. Kolb and Wengert, 396)

      It seems to me that the German (feiertag) and Latin (festis diebus) texts are properly rendered by the Dutch, “op den Sabbath, dat is op den rust-dagh.”

    • RubeRad,
      your reasoning that HC103 “conspicuously avoids the word Sabbath in the beginning of the question” falls by the wayside since the end of HC103 conspicuously uses it.

      As to the German word “Feiertag”, it was (and still is!), for all intents and purposes the equivalent of Sunday, but also of all other (Roman-Catholic) “holy days”.

  2. Scott: Thanks for the post.

    I fully concur that a new and readable translation of the Three Forms of Unity (if I may expand your point on the HC to the TFU) is needed. In a church plant setting (and “normal” church settings, no doubt) we’ve had those who are new to the faith and those who are coming to Reformation theology from other traditions. Some of these older confessions are difficult enough for them (biblical/doctrinal words), and the old-school language/prose is a double difficulty. It would make it easier to learn (and teach!) if we didn’t have to explain grammar/syntax/prose along with the biblical doctrines.

    You’re right, I’m sure it would be a great asset to many churches to have an updated TFU booklet with, as you said, ESV text. And, of course, published “handsomely” as you also noted.

    Thanks again,
    rev shane lems
    sunnnyside wa

  3. My preferred rendition of the Heidelberg (all Three Forms of Unity) is that of Canadian Reformed Churches. The simplest reason, I was in one of the American Churches of the Canadian (& American) Reformed Federation for many years. So it is the one I’ve used.

    Although the page format in the CanRC BOP is set like poetry (not simple paragraphs), I never found it hard to memorize or read. And that format works very well for pacing or tempo in public (unison) reading of the HC.

    I taught myself many of the features of WordPerfect back in Pre-Windows times by typing up the HC and following the format of the CanRC translation (night-shift computer operator with time on my hands back then). My fingers are very confessional!

  4. Which version is the one that is on the wscal website under “About WSC” under the tab “Doctrinal Standards”?

      • Interesting. A quick check shows it is NOT the translation of the Canadian Reformed, the Christian Reformed, the Protestant Reformed, the Reformed Church of American and not the Reformed Church, US. Also, not the PCUSA or the UCC.

  5. Thanks, Scott. Very interesting!
    We are currently editing the “authoritative” (for us anyways – the new and yet to be constituted Free Evangelical-Reformed Church of Germany) German version for our book of confessions (3Forms of U). We also took the approach of textual fidelity to the original intent and language, but got rid of archaic wording. There’s a plethora of toned down German versions produced by one liberal German church after another over the last decades, usually inserting their “Melanchthonian” reading of it as well as other ecumenical elements.
    I’d be glad to see a faithful new English version too!

    • Hi Sebastian,

      What role is the Latin text playing? I think that, since the Tercentenary edition here in 1863, the German text has been given precedence over the Latin but it was the Latin text that Ursinus explained and it was the Latin text adopted by Dort. It was the Latin text that was sent abroad. It ought to have some role in the translation of the catechism.

      Hi Wes,

      That’s interesting. Our committee was working on this but I don’t know what happened or if it continues.

      > >

      • Scott,
        the Latin text doesn’t play much of a role. For one, it was the German text (that we stay very close to) that was adopted in the Palatinate church order (which we also stay close to) and which, in a sense, is still the “received text” and confession of the “continuing” Reformed church in Germany. Besides, if the German text satisfied the framers, then it must have been sufficiently close to the Latin as well.
        Also, we do not deviate much at all from the 1563 (3rd edition) German text.

  6. Scott,

    I’ll add my voice to the growing din of support for your proposal. But I would add that this might be a good project for the combined energies of the CanRC and URC liturgical forms and confessions committees. At least from the CanRC side, it’s part of our mandate.

  7. Scott,
    Thanks so much for the link to the Canadian Reformed Church’s Book of Praise. First time I sang the Genevan Psalms was in the Hungarian Reformed Church, but my lack of Hungarian spoiled the experience somewhat… I will get myself an English copy, thanks.

  8. This is too confusing. I just want to know the safest, best one to memorize. Which one do you have memorized Dr. Clark? And which one do/did you teach your children?

    • Hello Frank:
      I would like to contact you to ask permission to print a quantity of your version of the HC for my own personal outreach. Would I be able to get your email address. Thanks.

  9. Dr. Clark,

    Do you have any thoughts on the “received” American version of 1771? That’s the one I am most attracted to, as it was the one I first encountered. Of course the language is archaic, but perhaps no more so than the Westminster Catechism versions used by American Presbyterians. From what I gather, it’s based on the Latin translation, but based on your comments here, I am not sure that’s a liability.

    • Hi David,

      Your question set me to searching and I’ve not been able to come up easily with a copy. I have Latin, German, and English texts from the 16th-20th centuries but I don’t have the 1771 — this is the version adopted by the RCA, right?

      Do you have access to it?

  10. Dr. Clark,

    I think it is the one adopted by the RCA. I’m not positive, but based on Schaff’s comparisons of the first couple of Q&As of various versions, I believe it is the one at CCEL: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/brannan/hstcrcon.vi.i.i.i.html

    I had to search around to figure out it was the 1771 version (if I’m not mistaken). I think I first encountered it at Reformed.org (where it’s unlabeled).

    • Thanks David.

      What makes yo think that this (which is really the CCEL text) is the 1771 edition? I guess that Schaff’s tercentenary (1863) is probably similar to it but without the original before us to compare it’s hard to ascertain isn’t it?

  11. Dr. Clark,

    Schaff’s transcription of the 1863 is not the same version as the one I’m referring to. Admittedly, I’m assuming, based on his transcription of Q&As #1 and #2 of the 1771 edition, as these are perfectly identical to Q&As #1 and #2 of the CCEL text.

    Here’s the link to Schaff: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/creeds1.ix.iv.ii.html

    If you scroll about halfway down the page, you get to Schaff’s transcription of the 1771 edition, which I’ll copy and paste:

    The Received American Version, 1771.

    Ques. 1. What is thy only comfort in life and death?

    That I with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ, who, with his precious blood, hath fully satisfied for all my sins, and delivered me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my heavenly Father, not a hair can fall from my head; yea, that all things must be subservient to my salvation; and therefore, by his Holy Spirit, he also assures me of eternal life, and makes me sincerely willing and ready henceforth, to live unto him.

    Ques. 2. How many things are necessary for thee to know, that thou, enjoying this comfort, mayest live and die happily?

    Three; the first, how great my sins and miseries are; the second, how I may be delivered from all my sins and miseries; the third, how I shall express my gratitude to God for such deliverance.

    As far as I can tell, these are identical to the CCEL version. Though of course one can’t rely solely on a comparison of only two Q&As…. But if it’s not the 1771, I wonder which one it is.

    • Hi David,

      Let me go the library over the next few days and see what I can find. I would be surprised if CCEL was using the 1771 text. It isn’t very well known. It’s more likely that they used the Tercentary text since that was digitized pretty early on I think.

  12. Thanks, Dr. Clark, I’ll be interested to see what you find.

    Notice however, Schaff’s note that immediately following his comparison of the 1771 and 1863 versions:

    Note.—All the English versions, except the last [i.e., the 1863 –DR], follow the Latin in its departures from the German, as ‘most faithful Lord’ (fidelissimi Domini) for ‘faithful’ (getreuen), ‘heavenly Father’ (Patris cœlestis) for ‘Father in heaven’ (Vater im Himmel). The dependence on the Latin may be seen also in the words ‘most fully satisfying’ (plenissime satisfaciens), ‘delivered’ (liberavit) for ‘redeemed’ (erlöset), ‘delivery’ (liberatio) for ‘redemption’ (Erlösung) and in the omission of ‘heartily’ (von Herzen), for which, however, the common American version (which seems to have made use also of the Dutch version) substitutes ‘sincerely.’

    But in view of Schaff’s examples here, the CCEL text follows the Latin and not the German, e.g., “delivered” instead of “redeemed,” “heavenly Father” instead of “Father in heaven,” and “sincerely” instead of “heartily.” So if Schaff is accurate on this, the CCEL version can’t be the Tercentary, but would have to be a Latin-based text.

    • Interesting. Good work!

      I don’t agree with Schaff’s disdain for the Latin. The German was first but it was not the text used in the schools nor was it the text that was used internationally nor the text adopted by Dort. My sense is that the German only became THE text in 1863. Since that time the Latin has been ignored. There are advantages to the Latin text. So I’m happy to use a translation that depends on the Latin. I don’t see it as second rate.

  13. All of the links in the article except for the one for the Canadian Reformed Church give me an error message.

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