An explanation why Reformed churches preach the Heidelberg Catechism, defended from Scripture and history.
The Heidelberg Catechism is one of our official Creeds. It represents therefore a part of our Reformed heritage. We believe that this Creed is rich and that it beautifully sets forth the instruction of the Holy Scriptures. It represents the faith of the Reformed saints of past generations back to the time of the Reformation of the church through Calvin at Geneva. These saints were your and my fathers. Their churches are my churches! Not only is the content of the Heidelberg Catechism of concern to us, but so too is the practice of preaching upon the Heidelberg Catechism. This practice is also a part of our heritage. The Reformed church throughout the world has had the practice of preaching each Sunday the Heidelberg Catechism, which is divided into 52 Lord's Days for this very purpose. This has been done throughout the ages wherever the Reformed church has been established. This is a most glorious heritage. This practice was so thorough and complete that generation after generation of Reformed families were well grounded in the truths of Scripture as set forth in our Catechism. Not just the content of the Catechism is our heritage, but also the practice of preaching from it each Lord's Day. Reformed preachers who labour under the authority of the Church Order and have fixed their signature to the Formula of Subscription should be dedicated to this practice. However, though sad to say, some ministers are not dedicated to this task. Reformed people have the right to require that their ministers live up to and honour this pledge.
Let me divide my subject according to the following theme and divisions;
Heidelberg Catechism Preaching: Our Reformed Heritage
I. The Practice
II. The Legitimacy
III. The Benefit
IV. The Calling
A few words in regard to the formulation and the history of the Heidelberg Catechism itself.
In regard to its composition, it is quite commonly known that the Heidelberg Catechism was published in 1563 in the southern province of Germany called the Palatinate. Zacharius Ursinus and Caspar Olevianus were commissioned by Frederick III, Prince of this province, to compose a catechism of instruction in the Reformed Faith. Olevianus had been a student of Calvin at Geneva. Ursinus had been a student of Melancthon at first, and later of the Swiss theologian and champion of the Reformed faith, H. Bullinger. Both Olevianus and Ursinus were also greatly influenced by the French Huguenots.
It is important to note that, prior to the writing of the Heidelberg Catechism, there were in existence several Reformed Catechisms, which served as source material for the composition of the Catechism by these two young scholars. The Heidelberg Catechism is not the product of just two men. We must not be confused about this point. The Heidelberg Catechism is not the product of just two men labouring in isolation. The authors of the Catechism benefited from the labours of these who had led the church of Christ in the process of Reformation. It was not the first catechism nor was its statement of the faith an isolated one. The process of formulation involved the whole Reformed church community. James I. Good writes:
There were, in the main, four sources of the Heidelberg Catechism. 1/ The Strasburg catechisms by Capito 1527, Bucer 1534, and Zell 1535 and 1537. 2/ The Zurich Catechisms of Leo Juda 1534, 1535, and 1538, and of Bullinger 1559. 3/ Calvin's catechisms 1537 and 1541. Sometimes also Calvin's 'Institutes.' 4/ The Lascho catechisms, Lascho's 1551, Micronius 1552, the London compend 1553, and Emden 1554.1
Immediately upon its composition and publication the Heidelberg Catechism found favour with Reformed people and churches throughout Europe and England. It was soon translated into the following languages: Holland, Hungarian, English, Hebrew, French, Greek, Polish, Lithuanian, Italian, Bohemian, Spanish, and Rumanian. It has been translated into over thirty languages and dialects.
With respect to the practice of preaching on the Heidelberg Catechism, we wish to call your attention to the following. Reformed churches, in countries other than Holland, prior to the Synod of Dort already had the practice of preaching catechism sermons. The Holland Reformed Churches adopted this practice. The Synod of s'Gravenhage of 1586 had declared that the Heidelberg Catechism should be preached in all the churches. Article 68 of our Church Order was composed essentially by this Synod.
The Synod of Dort in 1618-1619 merely ratified what had already been done. But it is interesting and instructive to note once again that the Synod of Dort first sought the advice of the foreign delegates to this assembly. These foreign delegates, representing the Reformed church throughout Europe and England, wholeheartedly stated that the Heidelberg Catechism was in full agreement with Scripture and in harmony with the confessions of other Reformed churches. These foreign delegates urged the Synod of Dort and the Holland churches to teach these truths to the future generations.2 This advice the Synod, of course, adopted. Thus Reformed churches have it stated in their Church Order, article 68: 'The Ministers shall on Sunday explain briefly the sum of Christian Doctrine comprehended in the Heidelberg Catechism so that as much as possible the explanation shall be annually completed, according to the division of the Catechism itself, for that purpose.'
There is determined opposition today within the Reformed churches and from supposedly Reformed men to the practice of preaching on the Heidelberg Catechism. Men present several different objections to catechism preaching. First of all, the claim is made that catechism preaching is too doctrinal. Doctrine is viewed as abstract and impractical. Besides, it is alleged that doctrine genders strife and division in the church of Christ. They see catechism preaching, therefore, as without much benefit for the church. Besides, doctrinal preaching leads to an unspiritual intellectualism. Therefore they are opposed to catechism preaching. Their cry is for practical preaching. Let us, then, do away with catechism preaching.
Secondly, the objection is made that catechism preaching is repetitious. The same subjects are dealt with over and over again. Catechism sermons are considered to be boring. And it is claimed that these sermons fail miserably to give the spiritual refreshment and vitality to live for Jesus. They ask, why must we hear the same Lord's Days preached year after year and decade after decade all our life long?
In the third place, men take the position that catechism preaching is preaching on a man-made, fallible document. Their objection is that God's Word is set aside when the catechism is preached to the congregation. These people claim that the Heidelberg Catechism then has displaced the Word of God. The implication of this most serious objection is that for over 400 years the Reformed churches, who have diligently preached the Heidelberg Catechism, have lived in error and sin. God's Word, not the Catechism, must be preached. This is the position, you understand, of some within the Reformed community of churches. It is an objection hoary with age. It has been answered time and again; but the proponents of this objection are adamant in their opposition to Heidelberg Catechism preaching on this basis.
Even though Reformed believers defended their faith at cost of their blood, men today assume, without a moment's hesitation, to point out that these saints made a most crucial and obvious error in that they substituted their Catechism for God's Word.
Many Reformed preachers who hold these objections act upon the basis of their own faulty opinions in their execution of their official duties in the church. A spirit of independency and lawlessness is manifested by them. Either they refuse to preach the catechism at all, or they pay only a lip service to their responsibility to preach God's Word by means of the Heidelberg Catechism. Some who do submit to their calling as Reformed ministers preach the catechism without any joy or enthusiasm. These men who set aside the Catechism and go their own way do this knowing full well that they walk contrary to all Reformed church rules. They refuse to present their objections formally to the Consistory and Classis by way of gravamin or protest. They violate all good order and decency in the church of Christ. They are therefore rebellious and dishonest. Let them, please, bring their objections to Heidelberg Catechism preaching to their consistories and to the ecclesiastical broader assemblies. This is their duty and privilege! They have the right to protest if they believe that catechism preaching is not beneficial or, worse, an inherent evil. But they do not have the right to ignore the Church Order and to go their own way cleverly giving the appearance of compliance while in fact they are undermining our Reformed heritage.
What must we say in response to these objections? Must we capitulate? No, not at all. The practice of catechism preaching, like all Reformed church practice, has a well-reasoned defense and ground.
Let it be pointed out, in the first place, that catechism preaching is admittedly doctrinal and should be. But so is Scripture! The Bible teaches doctrine. Is not Paul's epistle to the Romans a doctrinal letter? So also, most emphatically, his epistles to the Ephesians and Galatians. Surely the historical books of the Old Testament teach us various doctrinal truths. The Old Testament books record the works of God in, upon, and for Israel, which depict for us God's sovereignty, predestination, and faithfulness. They speak of His covenant promise to Israel and of His purpose to save His own through Christ Jesus. The whole of Scripture, not just some parts of it, are explicitly or implicitly doctrinal in content. Besides, all the so-called practical passages of God's Word, which bring us directives for Christian living, are based clearly upon the doctrines and truth of God's Holiness, our regeneration, and calling to walk in gratitude for the salvation freely received through the shed blood of Christ Jesus. Without right doctrine every practical directive for our life is then perverted and corrupted. We must have doctrinal preaching therefore, if we are going to have preaching at all. If one is opposed to biblical doctrine because it is doctrine, then he stands opposed to the Bible itself.
Secondly, those who complain of repetition in the catechism preaching fail to recognize the fact that the Catechism develops the truth from Lord's Day to Lord's Day. Development of the truth requires treating the same subject from different points of view. That is not idle repetition. Surely the believer has a keen interest in the saving work of God in Christ Jesus. We want to know and understand, as much as possible, God's work of grace in time and history. Careful development of the truth of Scripture, which admittedly requires a healthy repetition, is necessary 'that we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive; But speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head even Christ' (Eph. 4:13-14). No one, of course, desires vain repetition. But surely a hasty superficial treatment of the text of God's Word is an equally horrible evil. I fear superficiality in our day more than repetition. But let us note that development of the truth implies viewing this truth from many different view-points and over against error. This will admittedly involve repetition, but a repetition that is healthy, necessary, and beneficial. Many people of God today are crying out for in-depth instruction in the truth. Let us continue to preach the Heidelberg Catechism as did our fathers, and God's people will enjoy and prosper from it.
We have yet to answer the most serious objection to catechism preaching. The objection was that catechism preaching sets aside the Word of God. Man's word is preached, then, and not God's Word. Our answer to this objection is of several parts. Note first of all, the instruction of each Lord's Day of the Heidelberg Catechism is gleaned from Scripture. It is thoroughly biblical. The Catechism, however, systematically presents the truth of the Word of God. Anyone who examines the Heidelberg Catechism will soon discover that the very terminology and thought of this Reformed document is thoroughly biblical. In each Lord's Day the sacred Scriptures are expounded. In addition, many texts of Scripture are appended to each question and answer in proof or demonstration of the instruction given.
Furthermore, those who make this objection do not understand three principles upon which our practice and heritage rests. We believe that when the Catechism is preached, the Word of God is being preached. The question may be asked how is that possible? First of all, note well that God's Word is always communicated externally to us through the medium of one other than God Himself. Surely in the old dispensation the Lord made His Word known to Judah! But how? Through the means of a human instrument, the prophet. The Word did not come directly from God to His people. So also today, when the Word is preached, when a text taken directly from the Bible is preached, it is done through the means of the limited understanding, perception, and insights of a mere fallible man. His sermon does not consist of just reading a portion of Scripture. If the objection to catechism preaching is correct on the ground that it sets aside God's Word, then any sermon should be no more than just reading the passages of God's Word. Then all interpretation and unfolding of the message of the gospel by the preacher is to be forbidden. But this view is all wrong. The sermon is always the conveying of God's Word by the medium of a human instrument who stands in the service of Christ Jesus. Besides, Reformed people acknowledge that this fallible man's preaching is God's Word to and for them. Even though the Word is brought through a mere fallible man, nonetheless, his sermon which is in harmony with Scripture is God's Word to the church. It always is. We do not say of the sermon based on a particular text of Scripture, that it is just a man's word and that God's Word was set aside. If Heidelberg Catechism preaching is to be condemned on the ground that it sets aside God's Word, then all preaching will have to be regarded as man speaking to man, and not, as it is truly, God speaking to us through His servant.
From a little different viewpoint, can not a believing father instruct, warn, rebuke an evil son by means of the Word of God as it lives in his heart and say to this son, 'Thus saith the Lord'? Do we not do this every day? As parents we do not just read the Bible itself to our children every time they need admonishment for their sin. Not at all. We often declare to our children and at great length what they may do and may not do; we bring words of guidance and correction and encouragement, and emphasize to them that this is indeed God's Word for them. The Word of God was brought emphatically, even though in many instances the Bible itself was not taken from its place. The children heard the Word of God through the medium of a mere man.
So also catechism preaching is the Word of God itself brought to us by way of the church's confession—not now the labor and insights of one or two men, but the labour and careful exegesis and the repeatedly weighed conclusions of the church itself. This catechism is to be preached in the light of Scripture. What a blessed advantage we have as Reformed ministers to have the church by her confession lead us in the preparation of a sermon in which the truths of God's Word are preached.
Secondly, those who object to Heidelberg Catechism preaching do not understand that this practice is based upon the confessional character of the church of Christ Jesus in the world. Those who oppose catechism preaching on the ground that it sets aside God's Word reveal that they have a conception of the church which does not allow for Creeds. It is an objection that we would expect from a fundamentalist. The fundamentalist boasts that he has no Creed, only Christ. He has no understanding of the text, 'We having the same spirit of faith, according as it is written, I believed, and therefore have I spoken we also believe, and therefore speak' (II Cor. 4:13). The church of Christ collectively expresses her faith. Faith must speak! The believer has a creed! All believers do. The church of Jesus Christ, of inward spiritual necessity, is a confessional church. She stands before a God denying world and declares boldly 'this is the truth' as we have been taught the Word of God through the indwelling Spirit of Christ Jesus. Consequently, the Reformed church is a confessional church. She believes that her confession is the fruit of the indwelling Spirit of Christ Jesus. Her confession is, therefore, the reflection of the truth of Scripture as God's Word is written upon the hearts of the saints. Is this not the promise of Christ to the church, 'But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you' (John 14:26)? Certainly Jesus' instruction of John 6:45 is applicable: 'It is written in the prophets, And they shall be all taught of God. Every man therefore that hath heard, and hath learned of the Father, cometh unto me.' Without a doubt the Heidelberg Catechism is a work of man; it is not infallible. But we do confess that it faithfully and accurately sets forth the truth of the Word of God. It is surely possible to know and understand the truth of the gospel. We have the unction of the Holy One. Therefore, the church is able to make her confession confidently. The Heidelberg Catechism is then the reflection of God's Word as it lives in the hearts of God's people.
The third principle that is the basis for catechism preaching is the following: The church institute, not the individual minister, determines what is to be the doctrinal content of the preaching. The individual minister does not stand above or over against the church to dictate to it what is to be preached. But the teaching elder, the pastor, stands in the service of the church and her officebearers. That is, the people of God as the instituted church calls one to preach to them the Word of God according to their confession. Therefore, the individual minister stands not independently over against God's people to preach what he will, but in subordination to them and in their service. In this way the Reformed church and its pastor stand together and unitedly in the service of the living Christ Jesus, Who by His Spirit has written his Word upon their hearts.
As to the method of preaching the Catechism, therefore, there can be no doubt but that our fathers wanted the Catechism itself to be explained and applied in the Light of Scripture. Some Reformed preachers do not want to have the Lord's Day itself as their text. They feel that they should preach on a text of Scripture and preach the Scriptures in the light of the Catechism. This view is horrendous for it effectively places the Heidelberg Catechism over and above the Scriptures, which no Reformed man really wants to do. But let me quote from the Church Order Commentary of Van Dellen and Monsma:
Sometimes it has been objected that Catechism preaching is the setting aside of the Word of God. It is claimed to be preaching of Man's Word. This presentation is utterly false for every Lord's Day division of the Catechism is the summary of several Bible passages.... When we preach a Catechism sermon, we are preaching the Word of God just as well as if we preach on a certain text or passage taken directly from the Bible. Only, in case of catechism preaching, one expounds and applies the Word of God according to a summary of that Word adopted by all the Churches and agreed to by all the members of our Churches.3
In addition, please give heed to the instruction of Rev. Nicholas J. Monsma, who wrote the following in the January 1, 1954 issue of The Banner:
Now I would not be so presumptuous as to prescribe for others a definite method for the construction and preaching of Catechism sermons. I suppose that in course of time every minister will develop his own method—a method best suited to the congregation he serves and to himself. However, possibly due to the difficulties of preaching these sermons to the edification of the congregation, ministers have resorted to a method which, it seems to me, subverts the very idea and purpose of the Catechism sermon. A passage of Scripture or a single text is selected and expounded at length and in course of the exposition the Catechism is mentioned, but not explained or applied. Of course, there is no objection to the use of Scriptural passages. How could there be? But the idea and purpose of the Catechism sermon is to take all of Scripture in purview as much as possible. This purpose is not attained by treating a single text exclusively. Either the text will be neglected or the Catechism. Besides no Lord's Day rests upon a single text or passage. Such sermons do not deserve to be called Catechism preaching. No congregation is permanently edified by them. It is interesting to note that the history of the preaching on the Catechism warns against this method.4
Allow me to underscore what Rev. Monsma has written. Sermons that do not really explain and apply the Catechism do not deserve to be called Catechism preaching! No congregation is permanently edified by such sermons! The history of the preaching on the Catechism warns against this method!
What an emphatic rejection of the erroneous idea that we must not preach the Heidelberg Catechism itself. May we have the grace to pay heed.
The Reformed church employs several means to make sure that the Catechism is preached. First of all there is the requirement of article 68 of the Church Order. Secondly, the Church Visitors are authorized by the Classis to investigate in each particular congregation whether or not this is being done. (Cf. article 44 of our Church Order and the questions for Church Visitation.)
If we love the Reformed faith and the Reformed church then we must urge one another to make diligent use of these means that our Reformed fathers have given us for the preservation of the truth and our heritage.
The Heidelberg Catechism has several qualities or characteristics that make it rich and a great blessing to the church of Christ. The Catechism is not incomplete or neglectful of certain Christian doctrines in its treatment of the faith. It is all-comprehensive in its presentation of the truth of Scripture. All the essentials are treated. Therefore, when the catechism is preached on a regular basis, we may be assured that the whole counsel of God is preached and no doctrines are forgotten. Ministers are forgetful and one-sided, and, if they are not required to preach on the Heidelberg Catechism, many doctrines would be left untreated. In addition, catechism preaching is an excellent means to preserve the truth of Scripture. By it we are able to give our heritage again to our children and grandchildren. What a sad thing it is when in the church a generation grows up that does not know the Lord nor the works that He has done for Israel, as was the case in the time of the Judges in Israel. The doctrinal preaching on the Catechism is one very important means we have to prevent that from happening to our children. Moreover, we should note here briefly that the Catechism is personal and experiential, in a good sense of the word. The Catechism is not abstract and merely objective. It follows the experiential path of faith in Christ Jesus. It views the objective truth from the vantage point of the believer's confession. This personal, subjective note is found throughout this Catechism. The preaching on the Catechism should preserve this quality of the Heidelberger. Finally, I would emphasize the fact that the Heidelberg Catechism is an excellent means to hold before the church our catholicity and unity with the church of Christ Jesus in the past. This doctrine is not only specifically treated in Lord's Day 21, but is implied throughout. The church today is one in faith and hope in Christ Jesus. But we must ever be reminded that we are also one with the church that has already been brought to glory in the way of its confession of the truth of Scripture.
We must not seek to have a different confession. We and our children must recognize that our fathers believed, lived, and confessed the same truths we do. There is one Christ Jesus, one God, one faith, and one church of Christ in all ages of time and found in all the world. The Heidelberg Catechism holds before us that one faith!
The blessings and the benefit of true catechism preaching can readily be understood on the dark background of departure from the truth which is so prevalent in our day. Catechism preaching is demanded by necessity itself. It is no secret that today the dark clouds of apostasy more and more envelope the Reformed churches. Is it not true that our society is permeated with many evils that powerfully influence the church, and that with devastating consequences? Does not necessity itself demand faithful catechism preaching?
Please answer me! Would not a clear explanation of the Lord's Days two through four, in which we are taught the true nature of man's misery as those fallen into sin and depravity in Adam, serve to expose the wretched vanity of humanism? Over against the humanist's boast of man's basic goodness, we would hear that the fallen sinner is an enemy of God and his neighbour. The sinner, then, would be taught a humility that would lead him to the cross of Calvary.
Secondly, would not God's people be helped to live chaste lives by the clear exposition of the seventh commandment as explained in the Heidelberg Catechism? Our society is one of sexual promiscuity and perversion; and the church more and more in this flood of evil is losing its moorings. We need to hear the voice of our fathers once again, because they brought us God's Word by means of their confession.
Thirdly, would not Reformed people be strengthened in the truth of Christ's atonement for the sins of His people by a faithful exposition of Lord's Days five and six, which teach that Jesus paid for our sins by satisfying the justice of God in regard to our sin and guilt? Is not the denial of this truth the cornerstone of Arminianism, which more and more infiltrates the Reformed church community?
In the fourth place, what about the doctrine of Scripture? Do not God's people need instruction in this truth as never before? The Reformed community of churches is tormented by many within it who deny the infallibility and absolute authority of God's Word. Please note that the Heidelberg Catechism calls our attention to the sole authority of God's Word. Lord's Day seven asks: What is true faith? We are taught to answer, that true faith is a certain knowledge whereby we 'hold for truth all that God has revealed to us in His Word.' Besides, we are instructed to worship God according to His Word. Question twenty-five is: Why speakest thou of Father, Son and Holy Ghost? The significant answer is: 'because God hath so revealed himself in his Word.' And consider the answer of the fathers to the question: What is idolatry? Idolatry is instead of, or besides that one true God, who has manifested himself in his Word....' Many today demand to worship God as they see fit. Scripture does not mean much to them. We and our children must be thoroughly instructed that we are to worship God according to His will as revealed in His Word. Heidelberg Catechism preaching is, therefore, the answer to the need of the day, for by it the Word of God in its fullness is preached.
In the fifth place, instead of using movies or films on family living which are produced by non-Reformed men, to instruct the people of God, should we not give the instruction of the Catechism? Do not Reformed people have excellent instruction for family living set forth in the Heidelberg Catechism's explanation of the fifth commandment—especially its balanced emphasis upon authority and obedience on the one hand, and on the other the instruction to children to bear patiently with the weaknesses and faults of their parents? In addition, do not the Lord's Days on the Sacrament of Baptism set forth the blessed and glorious position which both children and parents have in God's covenant of everlasting friendship in Christ Jesus? What more stabilizing and reassuring word can one bring to our children and young people than that our children are God's children and the objects of His love and grace in Christ?
Finally, let me remind you of the Heidelberg Catechism's instruction in regard to the Keys of the Kingdom. If Reformed saints today are to be enabled to deal effectively with unfaithful men in their churches, then they will have to have instruction in Lord's Day thirty. It is God's purpose that through the preaching of the gospel Zion be cleansed of evil doers. The preaching of the gospel opens the door of heaven to the repentant, but it also shuts this same door to the impenitent. The solemn calling of the church, and of the office-bearers in particular, to discipline those who are unfaithful in their teaching is emphasized in this Lord's Day. Unless the Reformed churches regain an understanding of their high calling to cleanse Zion of evil doers through the exercise of the Keys of the Kingdom, the light of the gospel will be put out by evil men within in the not too distant future. We need therefore Catechism preaching! With this instruction in the Keys of the Kingdom God's people will stand up and do what is necessary to defend God's honour and the well-being of His church.
Certainly it is our calling as Reformed churches to preach the Word of God alone. No one denies this. But we have faced the question: What is the best way to do this? The answer of our father's was catechism preaching. It was their prayer that these truths of the Catechism would be proclaimed until the day Jesus returns upon the clouds of heaven. As Reformed churches we are committed to preaching the Heidelberg Catechism as the systematic expression of the truths of God's Holy Word. In conclusion it is fitting to remind ourselves of the admonition of Jude: '... that ye should earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints.' Why must we ever contend? 'For there are certain men crept in unawares, who were before of old ordained to this condemnation, ungodly men, turning the grace of our God into lasciviousness, and denying the only Lord God, and our Lord Jesus Christ.'
Let us pray daily for the gift of God's grace and for the Spirit of our Lord, that as churches and ministers we may carefully and clearly explain and apply the truth of Scripture to our congregations as this truth is set forth in the Heidelberg Catechism.
May the Lord God continue to bless catechism preaching unto those who would be instructed in the glorious truth of our salvation by sovereign grace alone through the shed blood of our Saviour, Jesus Christ.
As we stand before this awesome responsibility to preach and teach the truth of Scripture to the church, let us be comforted with this versification of Psalm 105:
Jehovah's truth will stand forever
His covenant bonds He will not sever;
The Word of grace which He commands
To thousand generations stands;
The Covenant made in days of old
With Abraham He doth uphold.
4Rev. Nicholas J. Monsma, 'The Reader Asks'; The Banner, Jan. 1, 1954, p.5.