Considering its principals, the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) was an unlikely document. In the years before moving to Heidelberg, the seat of government in the Palatinate, one of seven electoral districts in the Holy Roman Empire, Zacharias Ursinus (1534–83) was a graduate student with Philip Melanchthon (1497–1560). The latter was Martin Luther’s aide and successor, the author (and reviser) of the Augsburg Confession (1530 and 1540). After Melanchthon’s death, Ursinus’ resolved some longstanding questions and associated with Reformed and was invited to by the Elector Frederick III (1515–76) to join the faculty in the University.
In the year before arriving in Heidelberg, the other contributor to the Catechism, Caspar Olevianus (1536–87), was in his hometown, Trier, preaching the Reformation, which landed him jail when the elector returned to town to discover it in an uproar caused by evangelical preaching. The Elector bailed him out of jail and brought the young theologian to Heidelberg to help advance the Reformation there.
Frederick III, prince of the house of Simmern, who commissioned the writing and publication of the Heidelberg Catechism. Under the principle of the Peace of Augsburg, Cuius regio, eius religio (whose the region, his the religion), Frederick set about to bring religious clarity to the Palatinate. In 1562, when Frederick III commissioned the Heidelberg Catechism, the confession of the Gospel by the magisterial Protestant churches was clear enough but on the picture on the ground was not so clear. Further, the Palatinate church had been through two revolutions in the previous twenty years. In 1543 they were Roman Catholic. By 1553 they were Protestant and ten years after that they were about to become confessionally Reformed. The churches needed a clear, unambiguous articulation about what Scripture teaches concerning the most important questions of the Christian faith and life. Nothing is more important than the question of how we are right with God and nothing is clearer in the catechism than the confession of the good news of free acceptance with God in Christ.
That Frederick von Simmern should be the one to advance the Reformed reformation in the Palatinate was unlikely. The child of an impecunious branch of one of the historic houses of Germany, the Wittelsbach, Fredrick’s father was Count Palatine John II of the Palatinate-Simmern. Frederick was well educated at home and abroad. He lived for a time with Charles V and fought with the Emperor’s army against the Ottoman Empire. He was raised Roman Catholic but married a devout Lutheran woman and through her influence he became an evangelical. His Protestant convictions were tested and developed in the period between their marriage and his accession to the electorate in 1559. Charles’ attempt to crush the Protestant (Schmalkadic) Princes in 1546 and the armed Diet of Augsburg and the interim following (1548) demonstrated that the his Protestant convictions would not make life easier. His conscience would not allow him to submit to the Augsburg Interim (which Calvin had called the “Adultero-Interim” because of its compromises with Rome) and so returned to Simmern. The next 8 years were miserable.
When he the electoral seat fell to him his own family was religiously divided, some devoutly confessionally (gnesio or genuine) Lutheran and some confessionally Reformed. His eldest son and heir apparent died in a boating accident in France, which is how Frederick became aware of Olevianus. The latter was present for the accident and failed in his attempt to save the young prince. The next son, Ludwig VI (1539–83) was raised Lutheran and, upon succeeding his Father in 1576, ejected all the Reformed pastors and theologians from the Palatinate and instituted confessional Lutheranism, only to be succeeded by his son Frederick IV (1574–1610), who re-instituted the Reformed theology, piety, and practice under the influence of Johann Casmir (1543–92), Frederick III’s younger son.
For his part Frederick III professed not to be a “Calvinist” (an expression created by Lutheran critics of the Reformed) and never to have read Calvin. Whether this is true is open to debate but it illustrates his tense relations with the other electorates in the empire. Nevertheless, almost from the moment he became Elector Palatinate in 1559 he came under scrutiny by the other electors because of his religion. For his entire reign Heidelberg was under threat of potential invasion by Lutheran and Roman Catholic electors because the Reformed confession had no official status under the Peace of Augsburg (1555). The tensions created by the Pax Augustana were not relieved until 1648 and then only after the brutal and destructive Thirty-Years War.
Frederick III had good reasons to be concerned about the state of the Reformed confession in Europe. Three years after the abdication by Charles V, Ferdinand I (1503–64) became Holy Roman Emperor until his death eight years later. Philip II (1527–98) acceded to the throne in Spain and began a violent suppression of the Reformed there resulting in the martyrdom of thousands of Reformed Christians. The reign of “Bloody Mary” Tudor in England, which drove English Reformed Christians to Geneva, Frankfurt, and Heidelberg, the outbreak of the First French War of Religion (1562–63), which would continue intermittently and end with the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre (1572), in which no fewer than 30,000 French Reformed Christians would be slaughtered in the space of week, combined to justify his sense that the Reformed were a persecuted people who needed a safe haven outside of Geneva and who needed to be able to articulate the Reformed confession in a way that made sense to fellow evangelicals and that demonstrated the real common ground that existed between the two principal Protestant traditions, Lutheran and Reformed as well as explaining clearly the basis for the Reformed dissent from the the Lutheran theology on Christology, the sacraments, and the practice of worship to name the major areas.
Frederick inherited a religiously confused Palatinate. Otto Heinrich (1502–59) was influenced by Philipp Melanchthon (1597–60) had collected representatives from a variety of Protestant traditions: confessional Lutheran (e.g., Tileman Hesshussen 1527–88) and Reformed (e.g., Pierre Boquin, 1518–82), and Zwinglian (e.g., Wilehelm Klebitz, c. 1533–88). There was theological tension and confusion within the University and the church when Frederick arrived. The tensions forced him him to study and come to conclusions. As he did he called confessionally Reformed theologians to the University and the church, and commissioned the catechism in 1562.
The Text History of the Catechism
Frederick did not want anyone to know exactly who wrote the Heidelberg Catechism. Thus, source criticism of the catechism is difficult but some things are relatively clear. Ursinus was the major author of the catechism. He prepared two documents prior to the catechism, a Summa or a large catechism and a Catechismus Minor. There is a strong genetic relation between these two documents and the Heidelberger. The Catechism also reflects, however, the influence of Luther’s two catechisms (1529), Calvin’s catechisms (1537 and 1541), Theodore Beza’s Confession of Faith (1559), and catechisms by Martin Bucer (1491–1551), Wolfgang Capito (1478–1541), Johann Brenz (1499-1570), Maarten Micronius (c. 1522–59), Leo Jud (1482–1542), among others Jan Laski (1499–1560). Some nineteenth-century accounts of the catechism attributed much of it to Caspar Olevianus, but it appears now that he was primarily an editor and contributed perhaps the text of question and answer 80 to the third and final edition in 1563. There are similarities between the catechism and his popular catechetical work 1567 Vester Grund (Firm Foundation) but it is most likely that work was a commentary upon or an aid to the catechism rather than a source for it.
The first draft of the catechism was complete by 1562. It was revised by a synod in Heidelberg in January, 1563 and there the ministers subscribed it (i.e., they wrote their names underneath it as a sign of their affirmation of its doctrine). The first edition had some peculiarities. The questions and answers were not numbered. They were numbered in a subsequent edition. The third edition added the current question and answer 80, likely in response to the Council of Trent (which adopted canons and decrees on the mass in 1562) and that edition was translated into Latin, which became the version used in schools and by churches and schools across Europe and the British Isles. It was the Latin edition that was adopted by the Synod of Dort (1619). In the fourth edition, the division into 52 Lord’s Days was introduced. The catechism has been translated into English, Greek, Hebrew, Japanese, Korean, Spanish, and many other languages and has been used by millions of Christians to confess the faith since its publication.
The Heart of the Catechism
When we think of the Reformation, we think of the recovery of the good news of free acceptance with God for Christ’s sake alone. That perception of the Reformation is certainly correct. What is less well known is that almost as soon as the gospel was recovered it was attacked:
- In the 1520s all the Anabaptists rejected the Protestant gospel on the ground that it would lead to careless living.
- By 1530 there was a Lutheran theologian, Andreas Osiander (1498-1552), teaching that we are accepted by God on the basis of the indwelling Christ within us.
- In 1547, Rome decreed that anyone who confessed justification by grace alone, through faith alone is eternally condemned.
- In the early 1550s a Lutheran theologian, Georg Major (1502–74), was teaching that good works are necessary as a condition of righteousness before God.
- In the same year the Heidelberg Catechism was published, a leading Lutheran theologian, Johann George Karg (1512–76) was denying that all of Jesus’ perfect obedience was for us and is imputed to us. This denial of the imputation of the active obedience of Christ would open the way for some to later say that Christ makes it possible for us to be saved but we must do our part.
Thus, the Heidelberg Catechism was produced in a controversial and turbulent context. The Reformation achievements, the recovery of the doctrine of justification by God’s free acceptance alone (sola gratia), through trust, resting, receiving alone (sola fide), and the principle of Scripture as the sole magisterial authority (sola Scriptura) were all under attack at the very moment the Reformed Church was being established in the Palatinate. The catechism was was written to preserve the gospel of justification by grace alone, through faith alone, on basis of the imputation of the finished work of Christ alone in a time when that gospel was being questioned.
The catechism is in three parts:
- Law (Questions/Answers 2-11)
- Gospel (Questions/Answers 12-85)
- Sanctification (Questions/Answers 86-129)
The first question sets the tone for the rest of the catechism, by centering the Christian’s hope and confidence outside himself, in Christ and in his work for us.
The rest of the catechism should be familiar to anyone who knows the basics of Protestant theology. It is a Reformed catechism. It takes distinctly Reformed views on Christology, the sacraments, and worship but those from outside the Reformed tradition will find much with which to resonate. There is a clear distinction between law and gospel, Spiritual union and communion with Christ through faith, the third use of the law as the norm of the Christian life, an affirmation of the unique authority of Holy Scripture. On the Supper the reader will find that the catechism clearly wants us to understand that the believer is eating nothing less than the true body and blood of Christ. How this happens is left to the mysterious operation of the Spirit but that it happens cannot be questioned.
Repeatedly, however, the framers of the catechism sought to articulate the gospel unambiguously. The bad news is that, in Adam all have sinned and have died. The good news is that Christ rendered perfect obedience to the law for us and that righteousness and merit is imputed to all who believe so that it is as if they had all that Christ did for them. According to the Heidelberger, our righteousness is extra nos (outside us) but, following Calvin, Christ cannot remain outside of us if we are to benefit from his work. The Spirit raises us to life, works faith (knowledge, assent, and trust), in us and through it unites us to Christ and it is in this union that we live the Christian life, dying to sin and being renewed inwardly by the Spirit. The catechism is realistic about the nature of the Christian life on this side of glory. In its focus on the gospel, Christ, the gospel, and a Word and sacrament piety it breathes Luther’s theologia crucis.