Friday, August 9, 2013

The Year of the Heidelberger: 450th Anniversary of Great Catechism

"In 1563 the Lord blessed His church with a remarkably clear and warm-hearted statement of biblical Christianity," writes Dr. Joel Beeke, one of today's leading admirers of the Heidelberg Catechism. "The Heidelberg Catechism was written by two men in their twenties, yet it has served as a book of comfort to the international Reformed movement for four-and-a-half centuries. It is doctrinal, experiential, Christ-centered, and practical."

2013 is the 450th anniversary of the writing of the Heidelberg Catechism. It was published on Jan. 19, 1563; and this year a number of commemorative events have been held, including one in mid-July attended by recent GPTS graduate Rev. Steve Walton, now ministering in Stuttgart, Germany, who described the event as "Good fellowship, great lectures, and much encouragement."

The Catechism was commissioned by Elector Frederick III of the Palatinate. The commission was given to Heidelberg University Theology Professor Zacharius Ursinus, age 28, and 26-year-old Casper Olevianus, Frederick's court preacher. It was designed to serve as a guide for religious instruction of young people in the church, to provide a confessional framework for Sunday worship (hence its 52 "Lord's Days"), and to help settle controversies between Lutherans and Calvinists concerning the meaning of the Lord's Supper.

Church historian Philip Schaaf once called it "a product of the heart as well as the head." The description is no doubt a reflection of the fact that while the Catechism is intensely theological, it is also deeply devotional. 

These two faces of the work are visible in its famous opening questions and answers: 
1. Q. What is your only comfort in life and death? A. That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with His precious blood, and has set me free from all the power of the devil. He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, all things must work together for my salvation. Therefore, by His Holy Spirit He also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for Him.
2. Q. What do you need to know in order to live and die in the joy of this comfort?. First, how great my sins and misery are; second, how I am delivered from all my sins and misery; third, how I am to be thankful to God for such deliverance.
Dr. Don Sweeting, president and church history profession at Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando, says, of the Catechism, "What is unique about the Heidelberg Catechism is its warm and personal tone. ... It presents pastoral guidance that is robustly theological. Unlike some other confessions of the period, it is nearly devoid of polemics. Its tone is irenic."

While Greenville Seminary gives primacy to the Westminster Standards, it includes the Continental Reformed churches' "Three Forms of Unity," of which the Heidelberg is a component, in its endorsed list of historic Reformed confessions (see 2013-2016 Academic Catalog, p. 7). Go here to read the Heidelberg Catechsim on the GPTS web site.