The Catechism Was Meant To Be Heard More Than Read

This year on the Heidelcast the HRA has been releasing an audio version of one question and answer of the Heidelberg Catechism daily 6 days a week. The first reason that we are doing this is to get the catechism into peoples ears, heads, and hearts. It is the Heidelberg Reformation Association, after all. Our mission is t0 help Reformed Christians to recover their theology, piety, and practice. It is also to help others discover the Reformed Reformed confession.

As we have been doing this project, however, I have learned something that I should have known decades ago but just realized recently: the catechism was meant to be heard more than read. To be sure, in order to hear it, someone must read it but it is an aural text. It is meant to be heard. It is meant to get to your mind, and thence to your heart, through your ears.

One of my complaints about one of the more widely-used English translations of the catechism, published in the 1970s, is that it ruined the rhythm and economy of the catechism. The reason that matters is that the catechism was meant to be heard and memorized. The rhythm, economy, and repetition of the catechism were designed to help the communicant and catechumen learn the essentials of the Christian faith. The catechism is cumulative, i.e., it builds from one question and answer to the next. The whole thing is interwoven from front to back. What one learns in an earlier question is used to help with a later question.

All this to say that it has been a unexpectedly wonderful experience to read the Heidelberg Catechism out loud. I have heard and seen it in new ways and this after teaching the catechism since 1987 and after spending several years trying to complete a commentary on the catechism, which I hope to finish this summer.Reading and hearing the catechism has shown me connections and truths that I had not seen before. This is because most of the time I have related to the catechism as a written text, which of course it is, rather than as a text that is meant to be recited, heard and memorized.

The last of these, memorization, has become a strange, forgotten skill in our time. It is almost as if modern education is out to wreck genuine learning. Memorization is absolutely foundation to education and please do not let anyone tell you differently. One can learn a language inductively over years. That is how we learn our first language. To gain a second language, however, especially when one is not immersed in it, one must deliberately memorize vocabulary and forms. It is inescapable. Inductive approaches to a second language are doomed to fail.

The Christian faith is a language. It has its own vocabulary. It has its own rhetoric. There is a historic Christian and Reformed way of speaking about Christian theology, piety, and practice. The Heidelberg Catechism is a marvelous example of a historic Christian way of speaking about Christian faith and practice. Learning a language induces one into another culture and, in the case of the classics, into another time and place. It induces one to another way of thinking and another way of looking at the world. Once, when talking with some academic accreditors about whether my school is sufficiently multi-cultural, I argued that we spend our whole time engaging with other cultures. When we read Augustine’s City of God, we are taken to fifth-century North Africa. When we learn biblical Hebrew we are taken to the sixteenth-century B.C. When we learn New Testament Greek we are taken to the first-century A.D. We engage the Greek Church, the Latin Church, Germans, French, Italians, Dutch, Africans, Americans, Asians, Europeans, Americans etc. ad infin. If that is not multi-cultural, I do not know what is. So it is when we really learn the catechism, i.e., when we memorize it. We take into our hearts and minds the language of the church before, the culture of the church before us, the concerns of the church before and we allow the church before us both to form and inform us. We learn to read the Bible with our Christian family and to think about the theology, piety, and practice the way they did. We learn to pray the way they did. We learn to think about sin, virtue, and vice the way they did. It frees us from the prison of the present.

So, when you see an episode the Heidelcast with a 60-second (or so) bit of audio with a question and answer from the Heidelberg Catechism I hope that you will listen and that you will share it with others. It might change your life.

Listen to the catechism one question at a time»

Here is the entire catechism»

If you subscribe to the Heidelcast (in any podcast app) the catechism will come directly to your device.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.

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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.

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3 comments

  1. Audio resources are just plain easier for a lot of people. I’m not too busy to read a catechism question every day, but even more so I’m definitely not too busy to listen to a question that automatically appears on my phone. I can feed a baby and be catechized at the same time. Listening instead of reading forces us to slow down. I’m not too proud to say I’m a better listener than reader. Thank you for all you do. The HRA is in my prayers.

  2. Sir David Suchet read the Gospel of John and it was so moving to hear it.

    Enjoying the Minicasts; when you are finished, can we have a full version? Listening to the HC on the commute home would be good.

    Memorisation is hard for me and I need to listen and re-listen a few times to get things down pat.

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