Studying the Heidelberg Catechism In Latin

david-noe-latin-per-diemWe understandably think of the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) as a German-language catechism. Its first translation, however, was into Latin as the Catechesis Palatinae. This was important because, when the catechism was published relatively few people in the world spoke or read German. In the 16th and 17th centuries, Latin was the universal language as English is today. Even in the schools of the time the catechism was taught in Latin. The Synod of Dort adopted a Latin edition of the catechism in 1619. In other words, until the 18th and 19th centuries, most who read the catechism probably read it in Latin.

David Noe has a wonderful YouTube site, Latin Per Diem in which he walks us through various Christian Latin texts for about 4 minutes each day. He has just started a series through Heidelberg 1. If you’re interested in the catechism or in Christian Latin David is “doing work” as they say on sports-talk radio. You should also see his wonderful translation of Franciscus’ Junius, A Treatise On True Theology.

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

    More by R. Scott Clark ›

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  1. Thanks for the Latin Per Diem tip, that sounds very interesting!

    However I’m still confused; Latin was the first “translation” of Heidelberg, from an original (authoritative?) writing in German? Or Heidelberg was originally written in Latin?

    • Ruben,

      The catechism was written first in German and then translated virtually immediately into Latin. The principal source texts for the catechism were two Latin catechisms written by Ursinus, the Summa and the Catechesis Minor. The Summa was a larger catechism. The Smaller Catechism is quite similar to the HC. In the 19th century, however, with the publication of the Tercentenary Edition in 1863 the German text came to dominate attention to the catechism to the virtual exclusion of the Latin. Some of this was due to the fact that Schaff did not publish the Latin text in his Creeds of Christendom and was somewhat disparaging of the Latin text. The Tercentenary volume, however, did contain the Latin text but as Latin instruction declined through the late 19th and into the mid-20th centuries, all but disappearing after WWII, awareness of the Latin text seems to have almost disappeared.

  2. One of the other early translations was Dutch. Since it was adopted as one of the confessions of the Reformed churches in the Netherlands, wouldn’t it be fair to say that most who had read it until the 18th or 19th century had read it in Dutch rather than Latin?

    • Hi Wes,

      Fair point. The Dutch translation was second and widely used. I was thinking of the use of the Catechesis Palatinae across Europe, Peter’s Pan-European audience) and in Great Britain. That I assume was the reason the catechism was adopted and the Latin translation commissioned at Dort. Perhaps I’m wrong to assume that the pan-European and British audience was greater than the number of Dutch readers?

  3. I’m neither a good Latinist nor especially skilled at German, even if I am a history teacher. What I know of the Heidelberg Catechism comes from reading it in either English or Chinese.

    However, were I to engage in deeper Heidelberg Catechism scholarship, I would bone up on my German first–especially of the 16th century kind. The document was, after all, written to instruct German-speaking people, especially the young, and certainly was so used wherever the Reformed faith went in German-speaking Europe (I understand it even got adopted by the Swiss, who were Reformed before Zacharias Ursinus had even learned to read, and whose German is pretty odd in the first place). The Germany of the Renaissance/Reformation era, while perhaps not having as many literate people per thousand as some other areas of Europe, nonetheless saw rising literacy even before the Reformation (with Luther’s Bible not only capitalizing on this phenomenon, but further nurturing it).

    Even before the Reformation, there was a considerable amount of writing and reading going on in the German language area, whether High German, Low German (actually closser to Dutch, with a nod to Wes), or even Judaeo-German (aka Yiddish). There were even Bibles in both the High and Low German dialects, even if these did not “catch on” the way Luther’s or the Swiss version did.

    The appeal of the Latin edition lies in that it was prepared for a pan-European audience of the learned (a relatively small population), to explain the faith of the Palatinate Reformed churches; perhaps even to invite input from the Reformed theologians of other language communities (French and English, for example). But a catechism is first and foremost an instructional tool; hence the version in the language of its initial target audience should probably take precedence.

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