Happy Birthday to the Heidelberg Catechism

As several others have noted, today is the birthday of the Heidelberg Catechism. On this date, in 1563, the Heidelberg Catechism was published. Westminster Seminary California student Jared Beaird has a nice summary and some resource links.

What is a catechism? It’s a book of questions and answers. It’s a teaching tool. It’s a way of summarizing God’s Word. The second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (1989) defines a catechism thus:

“An elementary treatise for instruction in the principles of the Christian religion, in the form of question and answer; such a book accepted and issued by a church as an authoritative exposition of its teaching, as the (Church) Catechism, that of the Church of England in the Book of Common Prayer, the Longer and Shorter Catechisms, of the Westminster Assembly of Divines, used by the Presbyterian churches, etc.”

The word “catechism” comes from the NT word, “to teach” (κατηχεω). It occurs in Luke 1:7, Acts 18:25; Acts 21;21, 24; Rom 2:18; 1 Cor 14:19; Gal 6:6).

The Reformation produced a little explosion of catechisms. Luther gave us two (the small and the large in 1529) and the Reformed churches used a variety of catechisms in Germany and in the Swiss Cantons. Calvin wrote two catechisms and when the Elector Frederick settled on the Reformed confession of faith he authorized what became the Heidelberg Catechism. This teaching tool has been used by Reformed Christians ever since.

Resources

If you want to learn more about the catechism you can find resources on my website at Westminster Seminary California. Here’s a bibliography relating to the confessions and an argument for memorizing the catechism. Here’s the beginning of a commentary on the HC (which is what the HB started out to be).  Kevin DeYoung has done a nice introduction to the catechism. For more advanced study see the lectures on the catechism published by its primary author, Zacharias Ursinus (Zach Baer Latinized his name with a pun, “little bear” because he wasn’t petite).

As J. I. Packer said in class years ago, “The Bible is a very big book.” Indeed. So the church has given us helps to summarize and understand Scripture and the Heidelberg Catechism is one of the best of those helps. It is one of those places where the church confesses her faith, her understanding of Scripture, her application of Scripture to the Christian life. It is a great summary of our theology, piety, and practice. Check it out.