The Necessity Of Good Works: Ursinus’ Exposition Of Heidelberg 64

Although the Protestant movement gained political legitimacy with the Religious Peace of Augsburg in 1555, Luther’s reformation had not yet been won. Rome still sought to regain the Palatinate and, by the middle of the 16th century, controversies had already divided the Protestant movement from within— two groups fought over which would carry on Luther’s legacy: the Genesio-Lutherians centered in Breslau and the Phillipists (or crypto-calvinists) in Heidelberg.1 The Augsburg Confession (1530) was the first formal attempt at reconciliation between Rome and the Protestants.2 However, it contained language over the supper that was inimical to Zwinglian and Calvinist reformers in Zurich and Heidelberg. Thus, the document meant to bring reconciliation with Rome functioned to divide the Protestants amongst themselves.3 This was exacerbated by Melanchthon’s revision of the Confession (the Variata) which was produced in 1540 and articulated a view of the Supper more amenable to the Reformed. The internal Protestant debates, though heated, were small compared to the fight with Rome: in the 1546 Schmalkaldic War, Charles V sought to reimpose Roman worship by force. The victorious emperor then imposed the Interim in 1548 as a temporary step towards restoring the full Roman Catholic worship. The Interim itself was dissolved by the Religious Peace of Augsburg in 1555, as the protestant movement proved lasting.4 Frederick III (d.1576) then became Elector of the Palatinate in 1559 and continued the Protestant unification project started by his predecessors (delayed because of the ongoing hostilities), which included the writing of the Heidelberg Catechism (published in 1563).5

Many historians view the Heidelberg Catechism (HC) as an ecumenical document because of its supposed lack of distinctively Reformed doctrines.6 Due to the relative lack of polemics and distinctively Reformed views, especially compared to other writings of the era, scholars seek to promote the HC as a model for irenicism today: “it generally is not a polemic against anything or anyone but simply a positive statement of what the Christians (not just “Calvinists”) believe.”7 “…[it] is generally irenic in nature, attempting to build bridges across the Lutheran and Reformed divide.”8 Scholars also seek to study the publications and letters of its authors to determine the extent that the catechism can be considered Reformed, Calvinistic, or (Phillipist) Lutheran.9 Lyle Bierma argues that “the text of the HC follows essentially the same pattern as its historical context.”10 Thus, it is concluded, a study of the lives of Frederick III (d.1576), Melanchthon (d.1560), Ursinus (d.1583), and Olevianus (d.1587) can help one understand the position struck by the catechism.

What no one seems to doubt is its usefulness for today. The catechism remains relevant in our culture because it takes an “experiential,” or ”man-centered approach.”11 Although overstated, this sentiment is popular in today’s literature,12 which is reflective of the catechism’s accessible approach— simple enough for children and adult converts alike. An irenic spirit is also present, especially when read by the catechumen who is only just being introduced to these doctrines and controversies. However, to say that the HC has an irenic spirit is different than to say that it is ecumenical, because the document is in stark contrast to Tridentine Roman Catholicism. The Council of Trent (1545–63) sharply anathematized any who would adhere to the doctrines of this catechism, in which salvation is appropriately Protestant in the original sense of the term.13 Additionally, the controversial topics of the supper and universal presence of Christ’s two natures take decidedly Reformed positions against the Lutherans, even though they are not explicitly referenced as such in the text

The underlying Protestant spirit is shown most readily by Ursinus’ Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism. Ursinus, the principle author, was also the primary defender of it. Thus, his Commentary provides direct insight into the purpose and position of each question and can help answer the questions above. By looking at the Exposition of Q64, this paper will show how Ursinus defended the Reformed articulation of sola fide against fourteen papal objections by explaining the clear meaning of scripture and distinguishing between accidents, causes, and manners of speech. His method, suitable for the academy, was not suitable for the catechism, where a more positive, popular construction was more desirable, yet the underlying purpose was the same—to protect laity from doctrinal error, and thereby build up their confidence, faith, and comfort.

Explanation of the Thesis: Historical Survey

Most discussions of the Heidelberg Catechism focus on the growing divisions between the Lutherans and the Reformed, yet Rome was still the major threat to the Protestant churches. The Schmalkaldic Wars (1546–47 and 1554) and the Religious Peace of Augsburg (1555) were still fairly recent when Frederick III became Elector of the Palatinate. He sought to unify the Protestants in order to maintain a theological and political defense against Rome, but agreement with the Genesio-Lutherans proved impossible.14

One attempt to unify the region was the creation of a catechism that reflected the developments since Luther, while also articulating an understanding of doctrine contra Rome. The intra-Protestant polemics around these issues made Luther’s Small Catechism less helpful than it had once been, and more needed to be said in light of Trent, which had started meeting to condemn the Protestants in 1544.15 Thus, it served a constructive purpose in the Palatinate, and a defensive purpose against Rome.

The intra-Protestant issues were centered on the ceremony and nature of the supper (adiaphora and eucharistic controversies, respectively) and the necessity of good works (Majorist controversy), the latter being the more important in light of Trent.16 Georg Major (1502–74) came under fire from Genesio-Lutherans in Breslau for making the imprecise argument that “good works are necessary for salvation.” He wanted to show that they were not necessary for justification, but for sanctification, as a response to the grace we have received.17 He said this because Rome maintained an attack that justification by faith alone would lead to an antinomian theology where morals and ethics were of little concern. Instead they argued that justification could be completed through “grace.. and co-operating with that said grace,” effectively making good works an essential prerequisite for it.18 George Major was seeking to affirm sola fide, while also trying to appease the Papists, but in his insistence on specific language he merely caused confusion. While the Majorist controversy was not of lasting significance on its own, it was formative for the Protestant defense of sola fide. In Question 64 of his Commentary, Ursinus maintained Major’s distinction, but clarified the language in a way agreeable to even the Genesio-Lutherans.

Question 59 marks the beginning of the doctrine of justification by faith alone. This and Q60 are mostly a positive construction of the doctrine, and Q62–64 raise objections in order to address popular errors, or errors that might be expected from those to whom this catechism is given. The Catechism avoids a direct reference to its opponents, but pace Philip Schaff, it does not strike an harmonious position.20 This is shown by the reason given by Ursinus at the outset of his exposition of Q64: “This question is designed to meet the slander which the Papists bring against the doctrine of justification by faith….”20 This is in direct response to the Council of Trent, which condemned this doctrine in Canon IX of the Canons and Decrees.21 Thus, it is more than a catechism. It is also a statement of faith.22

According to Ursinus, the Papists claim this doctrine is “calculated to make men careless and profane.”23 In other words, it leads necessarily to an antinomian theology, where good works are not required, expected, or desired. Another translation says this doctrine makes men “indifferent and wicked,” as if good works are actually undesirable to the justified.24 It is here that the lessons from the Majorist controversy come in, and by responding to it Ursinus shows the importance of clear language. Instead of insisting on specific phraseology, he defends this doctrine from two angles: scripture and distinctions. Of the thirteen objections listed, six are argued from scripture (2, 8–10, 12, and 13), seven by clarifying words and manners of speech (Objections 1, 3–7, and 11).25 What matters is not the truth of a specific phrase, contra Major (“good works are necessary for salvation”), but the truth of biblical doctrine.

Explanation of the Thesis: Use of Distinctions

The first defense comes directly out of the catechism. Q62 begins an apology against the Papists, and Q64 rebuts the antinomian or licentious interpretation of it. The validity of the moral law was one of the principle arguments against the Reformed movement, so the writers ensured their catechumen were taught this doctrine correctly.26 The doctrine of sola fide does not make men careless and profane, because the true believer brings fourth fruits of thankfulness.27 If, Ursinus continued in the commentary, men do become careless and profane, it is only “by accident.” In fact, it is not the application of the doctrine, but the failure to understand it, or apply it to themselves.28 In this response, and throughout his apology, Ursinus used a scholastic approach common to the universities of the era, which employed syllogisms, dialectics, disputations, and Aristotelian categories and causes to discover or explain a position.29 This is evident in his syllogistic presentation of each of the 13 objections, responses, and counter-objections. While the catechism is appropriate for the Church, Ursinus’ commentary is for the seminary.

Objections 3–7 record the attempt to criticize the exclusive particle “alone”: we cannot be justified by faith alone because it does not exist alone, it is always connected to works.30 According to Ursinus, it is “proper” to say that “faith does not exist alone,” if we mean that “justifying faith is never without its fruits and effects.”31 The phrase (“faith is never alone”) cannot by itself remove all ambiguity on its own, thus it becomes necessary to clarify its precise meaning. The question is, to which verb is the adverb “only” applied: exist or justify? “I alone speak… and yet I may not be alone.”32 It is incorrect to attribute the action of the one as the action of another, just because they are connected. This is the fallacy of composition.33 This argument is Ursinus’ primary point of contention, and may be the most important distinction he makes in this section. The adverb “alone” belongs to the justifying action accomplished by faith (faith alone justifies), even though faith and works often are/exist side by side (faith is not alone).

Further objections were given responses. In Obj. 4, Ursinus accepted that good works are required, yet not “in the same sense” as faith.34 He was making another distinction, this time about how the adjective “required” is used. It is not enough to say they are required, what matters is how they are required. Although good works are “necessarily connected with faith, [they are] nevertheless not necessary for the apprehension of the merits of Christ.”35 Thus, good works are required not for justification, but for something else. Again, this error common to most of Ursinus’ papal objections is the fallacy of composition: Although he concedes that faith is never alone, it is faith alone that justifies.36 Faith alone is the agent. Although works must be present, they do not affect justification, but are a result of it.

Still another distinction was required to clarify this doctrine, given in Obj 6. Faith alone is the agent that apprehends the merits of Christ, yet it is the merits of Christ by which we are considered just. Thus, it is accurate to say that were are justified by faith alone and by the merits of Christ alone. Although Ursinus was wise to avoid the latter phrase directly in the midst of this possibly confusing argument, it is implied by his concession of the minor premise, which he answers by distinction.37

The distinction made in Obj. 6 is not in manners of speech, but of causes. Again, he wrote each is a cause of our justification in a different sense: “The merits of Christ are the formal cause of our righteousness,” while faith is the instrumental cause.38 As was shown above, Ursinus employed academic methods of this period, which include the use of Aristotelian categories. Aristotle showed how there can be multiple answers to the question of why something exists or happened based upon a four-fold causal paradigm: the instrumental (agent), final (purpose), material (stuff) and formal (essence) causes.39 By using these causes, Ursinus explained how we can be justified by two different things and still use the exclusive particle “alone” for both. It is because, as he said, each is explaining how we can be justified (Q60). We are justified formally by the merits of Christ, yet faith is “that which apprehends” this foreign righteousness as the instrumental cause.40

Explanation of the Thesis: Use of Scripture

This sums up Ursinus’ use of distinctions: the proper application of the exclusive particle, understanding that things can be required in different ways and for different ends, and the four-fold nature of causes. Ursinus also defended this doctrine from scripture, however, in Q64, he was merely responding to papal interpretations of verses that are used to deny sola fide. The positive defense of the doctrine can be found under Q61, and was referred to by Ursinus in the second objection of Q64. Thus, this section only appears to rely less on scripture and more on an academic disputational style. The foundation is found elsewhere. This section is so his students know how to respond to errors, and cannot be read out of context.

Ursinus defended this doctrine from scripture in Obj. 8–10, 12, and 13. The most familiar of these to the modern audience is James 2:24, handled in Obj. 8. He explained this verse by clarifying a “double ambiguity:” First, that this verse is merely describing how we are considered just before men, not God; Second, by the word faith, in which it is truly meant a faith without confidence, or mere knowledge.41 For each, he contextualizes the verse and clarifies the meaning. Regarding the faith argument, it is important to maintain his earlier distinctions, because he readily concedes (by affirming James) that faith cannot be alone, and without works it is dead.42 Again, both of those exclusive particles pertain to the copulative “be/is,” not to the justifying action.

With this and Obj. 9, Ursinus previewed the gratitude portion of his catechism, which he took up in Q86.43 He showed the purpose of our works through Matthew 5:16. We do good works so that other men may see them, and be encouraged to glorify God.44 This is but one reason, with the rest treated in the gratitude portion of the catechism. Thus again, with this apology Ursinus referred his readers to the other portions of the catechism where scripture is used positively to build up the doctrine, but when one doctrine becomes contentious, and scripture is used by both sides of the argument, he instead chooses to clarify the use of words by the aforementioned distinctions in a special section.45

After reading his Commentary, one might argue that Ursinus exhibited an intolerant polemic against Rome and the ubiquitarian Lutherans,46 but that this must have been suppressed by other collaborators of the catechism. This should be dismissed for four reasons:

  1. Ursinus was the primary author and structured the catechism on his previous work, the major and minor catechisms. He was also its chief defender in print.47 Furthermore, his distance from politics, along with his attention to his classroom, show that he exhibited the most restraint amongst its authors, leading Dirk Visser to dub him the “reluctant reformer,” as opposed to Olevianus, a co-author/editor, who was active in court politics and closer to Frederick III.48 If anything, we might expect Olevianus to have added controversial elements, not Ursinus, yet Bierma proved that Olevianus’ “personal shortcomings… were rarely transmitted though his pen.”49
  2. The catechism consistently advocates views that are antagonistic to Genesio-Lutheran and Roman theology.50 It is true that those issues may be few, but they are heated and important, so, pace Barth, the quantity of controversial questions is not a predictor of its ecumenical acceptance.51
  3. The purpose of the catechism was to teach and convince, building ecumenical harmony by careful exposition to the biblical text, not by conceding for the sake of harmony. According to the words of Ursinus, the catechism was necessary to “distinguish and separate the youths from schismatics and profane heathens.”52 It is, by design, a tool to distinguish heresy from within (schismatics) and without (heathens).
  4. The catechism was not the place for controversy, and referencing opponents directly might have discredited the document for those they wanted to sway, namely youth and the spiritually uneducated Avoiding the names and heated tone of the scholarly debate is a more effective strategy to win the theological argument in the minds of the laity.53


Question 64 clarifies the perennial misunderstanding of the role of works in salvation. The catechism, though suitable in tone for its audience, articulates a position staunchly against the Tridentine faith of Rome, shown in detail by Ursinus’ Commentary. His exposition of Q64 shows the underlying Protestant spirit, which combines the theological investigation demanded by 1 Thessalonians 5:21 and the scholastic methodology typical of the medieval university. Primarily, he differentiated between manners of speech by showing that although faith may not be alone, it is faith alone that justifies. His exposition thoroughly defended this all-important doctrine in line with Luther and the broader Protestant movement. It is this reason that the Catechism and Commentary can remain valuable tools for learning and defending the Reformed faith, respectively.


1.For a detailed background, consult Lyle D Bierma et al., An Introduction to the Heidelberg Catechism: Sources, History, and Theology: With a Translation of the Smaller and Larger Catechisms of Zacharias Ursinus, Texts and Studies in Reformation and Post-Reformation Thought (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005); Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom with A History and Critical Notes, 3 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1877), vol. 1, 531; Dirk Visser, Zacharias Ursinus: The Reluctant Reformer (NY: United Church Press, 1983), 3–29.
2. Visser, Reluctant Reformer, 3.
3. Ibid., 4.
4.Visser, Reluctant Reformer, 4; Schaff, Creeds, 1. 531.
5. Frederick II (elector, 1544–66) and Otto Henry (elector, 1556–59), Frederick’s immediate predecessor, started the Protestant reorganization of the Palatinate, yet both died before their project had hardly begun. Frederick III took up the task under the theological guidance of Phillip Melanchthon. Schaff, Creeds, 531.
6. For an in-depth theological survey, see Lyle Bierma, The Theology of the Heidelberg Catechism: A Reformation Synthesis (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2013), 1.
7. Karl Barth, The Heidelberg Catechism for Today, trans. Shirley C. Guthrie Jr (Richmond, VA: John Knox Press, 1964), 13 (translator’s preface) and 25.
8. Allen O. Miller, “The Theology of the Heidelberg Catechism: Then and Now,” in Visser (1986), 220.
9. Dirk Visser, ed., Controversy and Conciliation: The Reformation and the Palatinate: 1559-1583 (Alison Park, PA: Plickwick Publications, 1986), 1; Bierma, Theology, 11.
10. Bierma, Theology, 11.
11. Cornelis P. Venema, “Grace and Gratitude: Justification and Sanctification in the Heidelberg Catechism,” in Payne and Heck (2013), 147; Harry R Boer, “The Heidelberg Catechism: an ecumenical symbol.,” Reformed Journal 14, no. 1
(1964): 6.
12. Jon D. Payne and Sebastian Heck, eds., A Faith Worth Teaching: The Heidelberg Catechism’s Enduring Heritage (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2013); Boer, “The Heidelberg Catechism: an ecumenical symbol.”; Barth, The Heidelberg Catechism for Today.
13. The term Protestant inherently suggests a non-ecumenical reality.
14. His geography— situated between Lutheran Breslau and Calvinist Geneva—and political need for unity against
Rome was certainly relevant, but his theological convictions should not be dismissed. While he at times tried to
downplay the wording of Calvin and Zwingly to strike a mediating position between Breslau and Geneva, he affirmed distinctively Phillipist views of the supper that were unacceptable to those in Breslau. Schaff, Creeds, 531; Bierma, Theology, 7–9.
15. Hebdrikus Berkhof, “The Catechism in Historical Context,” in Essays on the Heidelberg Catechism (Philadelphia: United Church Press, 1963), 77.
16. Visser, Reluctant Reformer, 5, 28.
17. Lutheran Cyclopedia, ed. Erwin L. Lueker (St. Louis: Concordia, 1975), 512.
18. Canons and Dogmatic Decrees of the Council of Trent, in Schaff, trans. J. Waterworth, vol. 2 (1563, 1877), 93.
19. Schaff, Creeds, vol. 2. 536.
20. Zacharias Ursinus, The Commentary of Zacharias Ursinus on the Heidelberg Catechism, Fourth American Edition, trans. Latin G. W. Williard (1616, 1851), 336. See also 334, which begins to a similar effect.
21. Canons and Decrees, 112.
22. Schaff, Creeds, vol. 1, 540.
23. Ursinus, Commentary, 336.
24. Bierma, Theology, 101.
25. Ursinus, Commentary, 336–340.
26. Canons and Decrees, 100–101. Session 6, Chapter XI. See all of Session 6.
27. Q64 and answer. Ursinus, Commentary, 335.
28. Ursinus, Commentary, 336.
29. This paper assumes the conclusions regarding Protestant Scholasticism of Richard Muller in his seminal work
Richer Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy ca. 1520 to ca.
1725 (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2002).
30. Obj. 7 has the same goal as 3–6 (discrediting the particle “alone”) but it falls under the exposition of scripture.
Ursinus, Commentary, 336–338.
31. Ibid., 337 Obj. 3.
32. Ibid., 337. Obj. 3. Emphasis Added.
33. Ibid., 337 Obj. 3.
34. Ursinus, Commentary, 337, Obj. 4.
35. Ibid.
36. Ibid., 337, Obj. 3.
37. Ibid., 337, Obj. 6.
38. Ibid. For the “instrumental” claim, see reference to Q61 on 332.
39. Aristotle, The Basic Works of Aristotle, ed. Richard McKeon (New York: Random House, 1941), 7-39.
40. Ursinus, Commentary, 337. Obj. 6.
41. Ibid., 338. Obj. 8
43. Ibid., 339. Obj. 9.
44. Ibid.
45. The other objections follow a similar pattern, relying more on these clarifying ideas in the face of erroneous
interpretation than on the positive construction of doctrine. ibid., 339–40.
46. The Ubiquitarian view held by Lutherans is essential to the Supper. Lutherans argue that Christ’s physical body ispresent everywhere (ubiquitous), and thus in the Supper, while the Reformed believe Christ’s physical body remains in Heaven. Christ is truly present at the table, but not in bodily form.
47. Visser, Reluctant Reformer, 144.
48. Visser, Reluctant Reformer.
49. Lyle D Bierma, “Olevianus and the authorship of the Heidelberg Catechism: another look.,” The Sixteenth Century
Journal 13, no. 4 (1982): 19.
50. Against the Lutherans (or Ubiquitarians), see Q47–48, 72, 75–80. Against Rome, compare Session 6 of The Canons
and Decrees of the Council of Trent with these, 59–64, et. al.
51. Barth, The Heidelberg Catechism for Today, 24.
52. Ursinus, Commentary, 15.
53. Regarding Q80, Schaff argues that it was a later addition that broke the peaceful harmony of the previous editions. He goes on to say “it countenances intolerance, which is un-Protestant and unevangelical.” He forgets what is meant by the term Protestant. Schaff, Creeds, 536; His view— that the catechism is generally irenic and ecumenical—is held by most commentators, as shown above. Bierma, Theology, 1. Though its true the question stands out as the only one with a specifically referenced interlocutor, it cannot be said that this question alone breaks the harmonious character. It is merely the only place where these distinctions are explicit. In other words, if I may concede in part, it stands out in tone, but not in substance. Any educated reader would have recognized the incompatibility with the decrees that had just come out of Trent (1545–63) and with the Lutheran ubiquitarianism. The task of educating the laymen required that the Popish mass be addressed directly. The supper was the issue separating Rome, Breslau, Geneva, and Zurich. The vacillating practices of the supper within the Palatinate churches due to the Palatinate Reformation, Interim, and Peace of Augsburg made the issue of the supper a part of the public consciousness. Thus, a positive construction was harder to make. The people needed to be taught against this error directly.


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  1. Heidelberg 64 answers the question, “but doesn’t this teaching make people indifferent and wicked?” with “No. It is impossible for those grafted into Christ by true faith not to produce fruits of gratitude.” But for those who are not grafted into Christ by true faith it is a different story. The governments of post Reformation Europe wanted to use the Christian religion as a moral force to control their people. For them the idea of free grace, through faith alone for a right standing with God was perceived as a threat of antinomian anarchy. Enter moralism, designed to harness grace to works, so it would make sense to those not grafted into Christ by true faith, who rely on the default position of the natural man, that their final right standing before God depends on their own righteousness.

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