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The Heidelberg Catechism--Its 450th Anniversary
History of the Text
During the Reformation, the city of Heidelberg in Germany was the capital of the German electorate of the Palatinate in the Holy Roman Empire. It had played a role as a Lutheran center, but now it was about to enter the history of the Reformed faith.
The elector, Frederick III desired a Reformed catechism to promote the Calvinist faith in his domain. Frederick charged Zacharius Ursinus, professor at the Heidelberg University, and Caspar Olevianus, the court preacher, with preparing this new catechism.
This new catechism, approved by Frederick and by a gathering of prominent Calvinists, was published in the beginning of the year 1563. As a result, the 450th anniversary of this great document was observed in 2013.
In the third edition the questions and answers were grouped into 52 sections, called Lord's Days, that the entire catechism might be explained to churches once a year.
This "Heidelberger," as it is sometimes called, is a masterpiece in German. Therefore, that it might also have a influence in the Dutch church, it was translated into Dutch by Petrus Dathenus and added to a Dutch rendering of the Genevan Psalter, published in 1566. In this same year Peter Gabriel began explaining the Catechism in Sunday afternoon sermons to his congregation at Amsterdam. The Great Synod of Dordt (1618-1619) declared the Heidelberg Catechism to be in harmony with the Word of God and required office-bearers to subscribe to it. The Synod issued directives for the Catechism to be used in family instruction, teaching in the schools, and by pastors every Sabbath afternoon.
The influence of the "Heidelberger" has extended in many directions. The Reformed Churches of Germany, the Netherlands, Hungary, Transylvania, and Poland adopted it. It has been translated into over thirty languages, including Dutch, English, French, Polish, Hungarian, Greek, Lithuanian, Hebrew, Italian, Bohemian, Javanese, Arabic, Singalese, and Malay.
Today, the Heidelberg Catechism is regarded as an expression of continental Calvinism, while a British-Scottish Reformed faith appears in the Westminster Standards.
Arrangement of the Text
The Catechism expresses the Christian faith in three parts:
- Sin and Misery, or our fall into sin: Lord's Days 2-4, Questions 3-11,
- Deliverance, or how Jesus Christ delivers us from sin: Lord's Days 5-31, Questions 12-85,
- Gratitude, or our saved life lived in gratitude for salvation: Lord's Days 32-52, Questions 86-129.
The first Lord's Day with Questions 1 and 2 is introductory. Question 1 has become a cherished part of the church's literature with its comforting summary of the gospel:
Heidelberg Catechism Question 1
QUESTION: What is your only comfort in life and death?
ANSWER: That I, with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ; who with His precious blood has fully satisfied for all my sins, and delivered me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; yea, that all things must be subservient to my salvation, wherefore by His Holy Spirit He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me heartily willling and ready, henceforth, to live unto Him.
(From the Anglo-Genevan Psalter, Canadian Reformed Churches. Ezra's version is slightly different (see Heidelberg Catechism by Ezra video below).)
Heidelberg Catechism by Ezra
The Reformed Church in the United States has a website with Heidelberg Catechism materials, both hard copy and audio.
- Heidelberg Catechism
The Reformed Church in the United States (RCUS) is a communion of Christian churches in the Reformed tradition. We stand on the great Reformation principles of Scripture alone, Christ alone, Grace alone, Faith alone, and Glory to God alone.