The Heidelberg Catechism appeared on this date in 1563. It went through three editions early on and it is the third edition that was authorized (in Latin) by the Synod of Dort. It is rightly beloved by millions. It has been translated into numerous languages including Korean, Modern Hebrew, and Swahili. If you are unfamiliar with the Heidelberg it is composed of 129 questions and answers intended to explain the basics of the Christian faith to adults and children alike. It is organized into three parts: guilt, grace, and gratitude. It follows the structure of the book of Romans.
It was well received when it was published and it became a part of the theological curriculum at the University of Oxford and in many other schools. Zacharias Ursinus (1534-83) is responsible for most of the catechism. He wrote two catechisms, a larger (the Summa) and the smaller (catechesis minor). The Heidelberg is derived from the smaller. The Elector Frederick III, who authorized the catechism, appointed Ursinus to explain it officially. He lectured on the catechism in the seminary, known as the Collegium Sapientiae. We have his explanation in English as The Commentary of Dr. Zacharias Ursinus on the Heidelberg Catechism, translated by G. W. Williard, which was produced in 1851. On its own terms, Ursinus’ work was a compendium (handbook) of doctrine, which used the catechism as a backbone or a structure. As a translation, the Williard edition is a mixed blessing. He followed the Victorian custom of rendering Ursinus rather freely in places. We need a new English translation of Ursinus. In 1985, at the urging of the Reformed Church in the United States and with the help of the Den Dulk Foundation, P&R Publishing reprinted the 1852 edition of the Williard edition but unfortunately, the Williard edition is now out of print. At the moment, there are only some rather poor print-on-demand options. The Williard edition is available as an e-book from Logos.com. It is available as a PDF on PRDL. A sixteenth-century English translation by Henry Parry, is available on PRDL.
I also heartily recommend Caspar Olevianus’ Firm Foundation (1567) as a commentary on the first two thirds of the catechism. There is some question as to when Olevianus wrote Firm Foundation but it appeared first in print four years after the catechism was published. It is a more popular, accessible account of the doctrine of piety of the catechism. It was translated by Lyle Bierma around 1995 and published by Baker but it has gone out print. It is available electronically from Logos.com. There is also a commentary on the catechism by William Ames, which is still in print from Reformation Heritage Books. It is part of the Classic Reformed Theology series.
If you do not know the Heidelberg Catechism, you are in for a treat. I heartily recommend that you get a good translation, e.g., that published by the CRCNA in 1959, that published by RCUS in 1978, or that published more recently by the URCNA. I think Reformation Heritage Books has good editions. See the survey of translation listed below under the resources. I do not recommend the 1976 CRCNA edition. It is far too paraphrastic and it omits essential terms (e.g., merit). The translation and presentation works against the intent of the catechism.
People often ask me for devotional resources. My first recommendation is the Heidelberg Catechism. Most editions have bible references. Pray for illumination. Read the catechism, look at a few key passages, meditate on it a bit, make your prayers and repeat the process again tomorrow. You will be glad you did. The person and work of Christ is presented clearly and warmly. Our sin is confronted boldly and grace is offered to needy sinners freely. The Christian life is sketched simply and forthrightly. There is hardly a better introduction to the whole of the Christian theology, piety, and practice.
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
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- Why We Memorize The Catechism
- William Ames, A Sketch of the Christian’s Catechism, trans. Todd M. Rester, Classic Reformed Theology Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Press, 2008).
- Caspar Olevianus, Firm Foundation (Logos).
1. How do you get 459 candles on to one cake?
2. Who has the energy to light them?
3. How many people does it take to give the Heidelberg Catechism the bumps (149 of them)?
(I meant 459 of them)