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The Irenic/Polemical Nature of the Heidelberg Catechism

or War and Peace in the Heidelberg Catechism

Rev. Angus Stewart


Two words in our title require some explanation. The English words, irenic and polemical, are both derived from Greek, with both appearing (in various forms) in the New Testament. Polemics are concerned with war and irenics with peace, so this article is subtitled "War and Peace in the Heidelberg Catechism." Unlike Leo Tolstoy's famous, epic novel War and Peace (1867), we are dealing here not with a physical war (such as, the invasion of Russia by the French under Napoleon) but with a holy war and peace, the spiritual war and peace of the biblical and Reformed gospel of our Heidelberg Catechism (1563).1


Five Major Reformers

The city of Heidelberg is connected with at least five of the major Reformers (three Lutherans and two Reformed) by way of polemics and irenics.

Born in Bretten in the Electoral Palatinate, the peace-loving Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560) gained his BA from the University of Heidelberg (1509-1511). Twice he received a call to a theological chair at his alma mater (1546, 1557). He influenced the provisional church order introduced by Elector Frederick II (r. 1544-1556), and advised Elector Otto Henry (r. 1556-1559) in the reorganization of the university (1557-1558) and the appointment of the bellicose Tilemann Hesshus (1527-1588) as dean of the theological faculty, general superintendent of the churches and minister of Heidelberg's prestigious Church of the Holy Spirit (1557). Some six months before his death, the irenic Melanchthon helped put out some of the fire which had been fuelled by his flawed staff recommendation.

Seven years after Melanchthon's graduation from Heidelberg, his great friend Martin Luther (1483-1546) came to town. In defence of his 28 theological theses at the Heidelberg Disputation (1518), Luther sharply contrasted his Christocentric theology of the cross with Rome's theology of glory. As a good Augustinian, Luther destroyed the notion that man has free will. Man is justified not by good works but by faith alone in the crucified One!2

Luther's superb polemics were used by God to convert some of his audience on that momentous day in the lecture hall of the Augustinian monastery, including John Brenz (1499-1570), who became the third most significant first-generation Lutheran theologian, behind only Luther and Melanchthon. By the time of the Heidelberg Disputation, Brenz had already gained his master's degree and was giving theological lectures. Because of the evangelical views he had gained from Luther, he was forced to cease his university teaching on Matthew. As a canon of the Church of the Holy Spirit, he was able to continue his lectures there until fleeing when threatened with a heresy trial (1522). Later we shall see that part of the Heidelberg Catechism is a response to Brenz who became "the leading opponent of the Calvinistic developments in the Palatinate during the 1560's."3

Martin Bucer (1491-1551) was also won to the gospel of grace through Martin Luther. His subsequent evangelical public teaching at Heidelberg saw him almost stoned to death by his Dominican brethren. After the annulment of his monastic vows (1521), Bucer served for a time at the court of Elector Louis V (r. 1508-1544), as chaplain to Louis' younger brother, the future Elector Frederick II, before engaging in his main work as the leading Reformer of Strasbourg. Bucer's irenicism led to ecumenical compromises that were lamented by John Calvin (1509-1564) and others.4

Among Calvin's (admittedly weaker) connections with Heidelberg as regards polemics or irenics, we note his controversy on the Lord's Supper with the fiery Lutheran, Tilemann Hesshus, who taught at Heidelberg University. In response to Hesshus' 1560 diatribe, Calvin penned his Clear Explanation of Sound Doctrine Concerning the True Partaking of the Flesh and Blood of Christ in the Holy Supper, in Order to Dissipate the Mists of Tileman Heshusius (1561).5


Lord's Supper Controversies at Heidelberg

Hesshus was also in the thick of heated strict Lutheran-Reformed polemics on the Lord's Supper, with adversaries within Heidelberg itself.6

Round one concerned a Frisian theology student from Leeuwarden, Stephan Silvius, involving the choice of his theses on the second sacrament, his gaining his doctorate and academic liberty at the university (1559). "Not only did Heshusius lose the immediate decision, he was also barred from attending future university senate meetings due to his highhanded conduct."7

In round two, Hesshus attacked Wilhelm Klebitz, a deacon at Heidelberg's Church of the Holy Spirit. Again this controversy started at the university with theses on the Lord's Supper defended by a Reformed man pursuant of a theological degree (this time a bachelor's). However, on this occasion, it was more acrimonious and public, spilling over more fully into the church. Hesshus and other strict Lutherans in Heidelberg preached against Klebitz who, in turn, responded from his own pulpit. Hesshus excommunicated Klebitz and threatened to excommunicate the Elector's deputy, who had told both sides to stop quarrelling. Frederick III (r. 1559-1576) commanded that the censure be lifted and eventually dismissed both men, but Klebitz was given a letter of recommendation, while Hesshus was not.8

Frederick III asked for counsel in this affair from Melanchthon, who duly obliged with his Responsio (1 November, 1559), one of his most Reformed statements on the Lord's Supper, thus making a very positive contribution to peace in Heidelberg. After Melanchthon's death (19 April, 1560), Frederick published his Responsio. Both the Elector and Heidelberg were moving from Lutheran views in a more Reformed direction.

So far we have spoken of polemics in Heidelberg in several places (the Augustinian monastery, the university and the Church of the Holy Spirit) in the form of disputations, lectures, sermons and books, involving church and state, town and gown, and the loss of position and excommunication. Now we turn to a formal debate on the Lord's Supper in Latin in Heidelberg between the Palatinate's Reformed and Saxony's strict Lutheran theologians in connection with, of all things, summer wedding festivities!

Frederick's third daughter Dorothea Susanne's union to strict Lutheran Johann Wilhelm of Saxe-Weimar might seem to have presented an occasion for irenics but instead people were invited to five days of polemics, the famous "Wedding Debates" (3-7 June, 1560). These debates at his daughter's nuptials indicate how serious the second sacrament was for Frederick not only spiritually, ecclesiastically and politically but also within his own family. So far as we know, no one changed sides through the arguments and counter arguments but the Elector, more clearly than before, saw the errors of the strict Lutheran view, despite the arguments of, and pressure from, his Lutheran wife and in-laws.


Reasons for the Catechism's Irenicism

After all this, one might think that the Heidelberg Catechism would major on polemics, but such is not the case. Of the many authorities that could be cited to make this point, we quote just three. The Catechism is "remarkably free," writes Philip Schaff from "polemic zeal."9 Willem van 't Spijker's assessment is similar: "it addressed a number of complicated theological issues without resorting to polemics. The positive tone of the Catechism contributed significantly to the readiness with which it was accepted."10 John Hesselink reckons that the Heidelberger is "the most irenic and catholic expression of the Christian faith to come out of the Reformation."11

Hendrikus Berkhof states that Frederick III "was of an irenic nature sharing that spirit with Melanchthon."12 The argument then would be that the Elector requested a catechism from his theologians (who knew that he wanted an irenic one), and that he wrote its moving preface and repeatedly defended it with love and courage because he got what he wanted.13 But Frederick was also a man interested in the truth, as his calling for a lengthy debate at his daughter's wedding shows, as does his later insertion into his catechism of the highly polemical Question and Answer 80.

Furthermore, Zacharias Ursinus (1534-1583), the principal author of the Heidelberg Catechism, is often referred to as a peace-loving man, influenced by Philip Melanchthon, his honoured teacher at the University of Wittenberg (at whose house he boarded for seven years) and his esteemed advisor.14 Yet Ursinus' famous commentary on the Catechism, copied down from his lectures by students and brought to the press by the irenic David Pareus (1548-1622), does not shy away from controversy.15 "The overall polemical context of the work," writes Karin Maag, "was unmistakable."16

What about the historical circumstances, both theologically and internally, and politically and externally, in which the Catechism was prepared? The overall irenic tone could be due in part to some doctrinal differences in the Palatinate and Heidelberg, and even among the churchmen responsible for its production. Moreover, politically, the Electorate was in a precarious position with the Lutheran and Roman Catholic princes of the Holy Roman Empire.

Undoubtedly, there was an apologetic purpose to the Heidelberger for it sought to gain people to the pure gospel of Jesus Christ. This winsomeness is to be ascribed to spiritual wisdom (cf. Matt. 10:16; I Cor. 9:19-23), not dishonesty or compromise of the truth (II Cor. 2:17). Also lending itself to irenics is the pedagogical intent of the Catechism, so frequently and eloquently stated by the Elector in the preface he wrote for it.17

One should also think here of the Catechism's beautiful motif of comfort, introduced in Lord's Day 1 and developed through the three "parts" of the Heidelberger (cf. Q. & A. 2). No document beginning with this lovely (and sustained) theme could be especially polemical.

Doubtless, the largely irenic tone of the Catechism is to be explained, at least in part, by the various factors mentioned above: the personalities of its great sponsor (Frederick III) and its chief author (Zacharias Ursinus), its historical circumstances (both religiously and politically), its apologetic and pedagogical purposes, and its much loved theme of comfort.

However, as we shall see later, the irenicism of the Heidelberger is often overstated, especially by those seeking to downplay or remove its polemical parts, or smooth the sharp edges of the biblical and Reformed faith (cf. Isa. 30:10). Moreover, one very significant element in explaining the Catechism's apparent lack of militancy is often overlooked entirely.


Different Genres of Creedal Documents

Our Three Forms of Unity, the Belgic Confession (1561), the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) and the Canons of Dordt (1618-1619), consist of three different genres. Each begins with the letter "c": confessions, canons and catechisms.

First, there are confessions. Reformed confessions, like our Belgic Confession, typically have about thirty or so articles or chapters. Though covering fewer subjects than catechisms, they ordinarily treat these topics at greater length. Confessions are more doctrinal than catechisms and are often arranged (more or less) according to the six loci of theology, covering the truth concerning God, man, Christ, salvation, the church and the last things in that order. Thus confessions are less practical and more polemical, often labelling false views as "errors" or "heresies," which we "reject," "abhor" or "detest," and even naming certain heretical groups or persons.

Second, there are canons, the most famous being the Reformed Canons of Dordt and the Romanist Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent (1563). Unlike confessions, canons do not propose to cover all the major doctrines of Christianity. Instead, they address only those topics which have been especially and recently controverted. Thus Dordt responded to the Remonstrants/Arminians with an in-depth treatment of the doctrines of grace, and Trent replied to the Protestants regarding their doctrines of Scripture, original sin, justification, the sacraments, etc. This negative aspect is heightened in that Canons have sections specifically rejecting (what they deem to be) errors.

Third, there are catechisms. From what we have seen of the other two genres of creedal documents, we would expect the Heidelberg Catechism to be less polemical and more irenic than the Belgic Confession and the Canons of Dordt. Such is indeed the case.

Moving from comparisons between catechisms (on the one hand) and confessions and canons (on the other), what are some of the factors involved in comparing the various catechisms themselves?

In general, the more questions in a catechism and the longer the answers, the more opportunity it has for polemics, as is the case with John Calvin's Geneva Catechism (1545). But this then makes it more difficult for the catechumens (ordinarily young people) to memorize it and so counters a principle purpose of the catechism and hence its use and influence.

Another factor is the approach of the catechism. Some catechisms, like the Westminster Shorter Catechism (1647), are objective, stating the truth as a matter of fact. Other catechisms, like the Heidelberg Catechism, are subjective and personal, speaking in the first person: I or we.

The two most influential catechisms in the Reformed and Presbyterian world, the Heidelberger and the Westminster Shorter, bear out the above. The Heidelberg Catechism is both more polemical than the Shorter Catechism (as one would expect, since it has 129 questions to the latter's 107, and longer answers) and more irenical (because it is more personal and develops the theme of comfort).


Polemics Against the Catechism

Whatever the extent of, and reasons for, the Heidelberg Catechism's irenicism, all are agreed that this did not placate the enemies of Reformed doctrine. John Nevin even argues that its (holy) peaceableness actually provoked its adversaries to (unholy) war!

Had there been more of the lion or tiger in its mien, and less of the lamb, its presence might have proved possibly less irritating to the polemical humor of the times. As it was, there was felt to be provocation in its very meekness. Its outward carriage was held to be deceitful and treacherous: and its heresy was counted all the worse, for being hard to find, and shy of coming to the light.18

Three things are striking about the attacks on the Heidelberger. First, it was denounced even more by the strict Lutherans, than by the Roman Catholics, such as Francis Baldwin, a former law professor at Heidelberg who returned to Romanism, and the splendidly named Engelbertus Kenniphovius. Second, it was castigated in print so swiftly, for, as Karin Maag notes, "In most instances, [the responses] appeared already in 1563 and 1564, only weeks or months after the Catechism itself."19 Third, it was lambasted so virulently.20 "Poison" is the word most historians use when summarizing the strict Lutheran condemnation of the Catechism.

Given earlier parts of this article, the names of two of the fiercest strict Lutherans to go into print against the Catechism should come as no surprise. First, out of his lively interest in the Palatinate, Brenz, it is generally agreed, wrote An Inventory of Errors in the spring of 1563. He later co-authored Censures with Jacob Andreae (1528-1590). Second, Hesshus waded in with his True Warning (February, 1564), a broadside fired against the Catechism, hoping to inflict some damage on Frederick III, who had dismissed him, and his various enemies in Heidelberg.

The name of a third strict Lutheran to dip his pen in venom against the Heidelberger has not yet been mentioned in this article, but, for those aware of his track record, it would not be unexpected. Matthias Flacius Illyricus (1520-1575) is identified by church historian Owen Chadwick as "the most learned, militant, and quarrelsome churchman of the sixteenth century"—some accolade!21 Flacius launched his A Refutation of a Small Calvinistic Catechism in late 1563 or early 1564.

The burden of the defence of the Catechism fell to Ursinus, it chief author. In several works in the name of the Heidelberg theological faculty, he responded to the writings of Brenz, Andreae and Flacius. He did not deem Hesshus worthy of rebuttal.

Besides these fierce literary exchanges, there was also an oral debate arranged at the insistent requests of several Lutheran princes. Despite Frederick's misgivings, he gave way, journeying to the monastery of Maulbronn, where his Heidelberg theologians, including Ursinus and Caspar Olevianus (1536-1587), held a disputation with the strict Lutherans, Brenz, Andreae and others (10-15 April, 1564).

Like the five-day "Wedding Debates" before the publication of the Catechism, the six-day Maulbronn Colloquy, held after its printing, focused on the Lord's Supper. In that small town, a little south of Bretten, the birthplace of the irenic Melanchthon, little was achieved as regards peace. Nevin explains more fully,

As usual, in cases of this sort, the whole occasion served only to add new fuel to the flame of controversy, as it raged before. Both parties of course claimed the victory. On both sides were published "true and full reports" of the debate; in the case of which, each side charged the other with grievous misrepresentation. The colloquy itself became a subject of war.22


Question and Answer 80

Moving from more historical concerns, we come to war and peace in the Heidelberg Catechism itself. The logical place to start is with the famous Question and Answer 80, which is its most polemical part for several reasons.

First, Question 80 actually mentions the name of the theological adversary, which is somewhat unusual in catechisms. For instance, not only the Westminster Shorter Catechism but also the Westminster Larger Catechism, despite consisting of 196 questions and containing lengthy answers, do not actually specify the proponents of errors they oppose. Moreover, Question 80 does not speak of the "Roman Catholic mass," using a neutral or descriptive term; it refers to the "popish mass" ("päpstlichen" in the German), a critical or deprecatory epithet, though one that is accurate, for the mass is defined, defended and practiced by the pope and his minions.

Second, after naming (and explaining) the "popish mass," Answer 80 criticizes it very sharply, as, one, "a denial of the one sacrifice and sufferings of Jesus Christ" and, two, not only "idolatry" but "accursed idolatry," adding the adjective for good measure.23 In his commentary, after examining the mass in the light of Scripture, Ursinus concludes, "From what has now been said, it is evident that the mass is an idol, formed by Anti-Christ out of various accursed errors and blasphemies, and substituted in the place of the Lord's supper, which, for this reason, is properly and necessarily abolished."24

Third, the whole (and not just part) of the lengthy Question and Answer 80 is occupied with the polemic against the mass. Lengthy is correct for Answer 80 is the longest answer in the Catechism, excepting those which quote the Apostles' Creed (A. 27), the institution of the Lord's Supper (A. 77) and the Decalogue (A. 92).

While Arminians in the seventeenth century wanted a revision of many parts of the Heidelberg Catechism, false ecumenists in the twenty-first century have especially the section on the mass in their sights. There are four arguments that are made, even by those who go by the name Reformed, which are designed to undermine or neutralize, and so to attack, Question and Answer 80.

First, there is the textual issue. What we now refer to as Question and Answer 80 was not in the first (German) edition of the Catechism (February, 1563). What amounts to about half of it was included in the second (German) edition (March, 1563). In the third (German) edition, "published sometime between March and November" of 1563, Question and Answer 80 "received its definite form."25 From these facts, some argue or imply that this makes Question and Answer 80 somewhat dubious or suspect.

However, the second edition states that a section on the mass had been "overlooked in the first impression" so Frederick III ordered its addition at Olevianus' insistence, as the latter explained to Calvin in a letter.26 There is no indication of any dissenting voice or resistance on the part of any of the parties involved. Ursinus' exposition of Question and Answer 80 betrays no misgivings regarding it.27 He even begins by stating, "This Question is necessary on account of the errors, and horrid abuses which the Mass has introduced into the Church."28 Frederick III included Question and Answer 80 knowing the criticism it would incur, especially from his Roman Catholic political adversaries, and that it would threaten or jeopardize his electoral office. It was not in his (worldly) self interests to insert it and he courageously kept it in despite much Romanist opposition.

Thus the textual criticism of Question and Answer 80 can be turned on its head. One can easily argue that so important was the addition of a critique of the Roman mass that it was included in the second edition, just one month after the first edition, and it was then lengthened and strengthened shortly thereafter in the third edition which "became the definitive version on which both later German editions and translations in other languages were usually based."29

Second, it is stated or implied by some that Question and Answer 80 was a knee-jerk and/or sinful reaction to the Roman Catholic Council of Trent and especially Session XXII (17 September, 1562), which declared the mass a propitiatory sacrifice and cursed those who deny it. Philip Schaff characterizes this question and answer "as a Protestant counter-blast to the Romish anathemas of the Council of Trent" which "returns evil for evil."30

The obvious rejoinder is that the Catechism's polemic against the mass originated not of personal petulance but out of the biblical truth of Jesus Christ and His one and only sacrifice on the cross. What is wrong with the Elector and the Heidelberg theologians being up to date with current developments in the Roman church and refuting "errors and heresies of the old, but especially of the new day"?31

Third, some deny or doubt whether the Catechism's condemnation of the mass is theologically accurate, especially given modern developments in Rome's sacramental theology. Hendrikus Berkhof asks,

Can we still say that the Mass is one of the main points of contradiction with the Roman Catholic Church? Is it really "a complete denial of the once-for-all sacrifice and passion of Jesus Christ and as such an idolatry to be condemned"? The answer depends on how we estimate the recent Eucharistic theories propounded in the Roman Catholic Church and the corresponding reinterpretation of the Tridentine expressions.32

In the history of the Christian church, there has never been such intense study on the Lord's Supper as in the sixteenth century, especially because of the controversies between Romanists, Lutherans and Reformed, with some discussion even within the Reformed camp, particularly in the earlier days because of Zwingli's weaker views. This issue loomed as large in Heidelberg as anywhere, given the Palatinate's movement from Roman Catholicism to Lutheranism and then (under Frederick III) to the Reformed faith, as well as the literary and oral debates on the Lord's Supper, both before and after the production of the Heidelberg Catechism.

Are we really to think that after all of that, plus the extremely high stakes, that the Elector and the Heidelberg churchmen (who had been Roman Catholics) really did not know what the mass was, nor the other sixteenth-century Reformers who approved the Catechism, nor the various churches and the Synod of t (1618-1619) which officially adopted the Catechism, nor the faithful Reformed Christians, ministers and theologians who have maintained Question and Answer 80 for centuries?

This is what Trent said about the mass:

This sacrifice is truly propitiatory, and that by means thereof this is effected, that we obtain mercy, and find grace in seasonable aid … For the Lord, appeased by the oblation thereof, and granting the grace and gift of penitence, forgives even heinous crimes and sin … Wherefore, not only for the sins, punishments, satisfactions, and other necessities of the faithful who are living, but also for those who are departed in Christ, and who are not as yet fully purified, is it rightly offered, agreeably to a tradition of the apostles.33

Therefore, "If any one saith, that in the mass a true and proper sacrifice is not offered to God … let him be anathema."34

The modern Roman Church has officially endorsed Trent, for example, at Vatican II (1962-1965) and the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992), in accordance with its notion of itself as infallible. Hendrikus Berkhof himself realizes that the recent "reinterpretations" of Trent "have no official authority."35 He ought to go further and condemn the dishonesty and devious language of some Roman Catholic theologians' "repackaging" or "representing" of the mass in order to deceive the unwary or encourage those who desperately want to believe that Rome has changed.36 Rome's duplicity only makes her sin the greater.

The fourth objection is probably both the vaguest and the most influential: Question and Answer 80 is out of kilter with the irenic tone of the rest of the Catechism.

This is a strange objection since we have no indication that either the Heidelberg churchmen who prepared it or the Elector who had it published thought that it jarred with the Catechism's theme of comfort. One would have thought that they or the historic Reformed church, which has loved and steadfastly maintained the Heidelberger, would have noticed if Question and Answer 80 had really sounded a discordant note.

Moreover, as well as being overstated, the irenicism of the Catechism is misunderstood by many. The peace of the Heidelberger is that of the one true gospel of Jesus Christ, not peace with heresy or false churches. It is precisely out of the peace of salvation in Christ and His cross alone that true polemics arise and are sustained.

Solus Christus (Christ alone) is the issue in Answer 80:

The Lord’s Supper testifies to us that we have a full pardon of all sin by the only sacrifice of Jesus Christ, which He Himself has once accomplished on the cross; and that we by the Holy Ghost are ingrafted into Christ, who according to His human nature is now not on earth, but in heaven at the right hand of God His Father, and will there be worshiped by us—but the mass teaches that the living and dead have not the pardon of sins through the sufferings of Christ, unless Christ is also daily offered for them by the priests; and further, that Christ is bodily under the form of bread and wine, and therefore is to be worshiped in them; so that the mass, at bottom, is nothing else than a denial of the one sacrifice and sufferings of Jesus Christ, and an accursed idolatry.

Every part, in both halves, of the answer concerns Christ and His "only sacrifice," which He "once" offered on the cross, bringing peace by the "full pardon of all sin."37 Here we have the same message as Question and Answer 1: It is because the Lord has "fully satisfied for all my sins" that my "only comfort in life and death" is "That I with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Savior Jesus Christ."

"Now it strikes us correctly that the Catechism does not seek its strength from a spirit of anti-papism to hack and slash at Rome," writes Herman Veldkamp. He is correct: "Upon the question, 'What difference is there between the Lord's Supper and the popish Mass?' three points of difference are brought to the fore, which have reference to the reconciliation brought by Christ, communion with Christ, and the homage which must needs be brought to Christ."38 Solus Christus is the key!

Thus we have the antithesis in Question 80: "What difference is there between the Lord's Supper and the popish mass?" where both the Lord Jesus and His "Supper" are sharply contrasted with the pope and his "mass."39

The real problem is not that Question and Answer 80 clashes with the (true) irenicism of the Catechism, but that it opposes the (false) irenicism of many, modern, compromising churchmen who have drunk deeply of the spirit of the age and become snared by political correctness. They are embarrassed by the bold testimony of the Heidelberger for they do not truly believe the solus Christus of the biblical and Reformed faith. Jesus Christ is the "Prince of Peace" (Isa. 9:6) and, therefore, there is no peace outside, or in defiance, of Him and His one sacrifice on the cross alone. The Catechism's polemic here is crucial for, in exposing the mass, it condemns the sacramental system, priesthood, worship and church of Rome, for the mass is the heart of Romanism and central in all these aspects of that false church (Belgic Confession 29). Thus Question and Answer 80 opposes all communion with Rome as false ecumenism.40

In their spiritual blindness, liberal churchmen and departing churches are unable to see the crucial "difference" between the supper instituted by Christ and the idolatry promoted by the Pope (Q. 80), just as they cannot "distinguish" between the true church and the false church, between the bride of Christ and the whore of the devil, even though "These two Churches are easily known and distinguished from each other" (Belgic Confession 29). These churchmen and churches show false charity to Rome (and other false churches) because they are unfaithful in their own preaching, sacraments and church discipline (Belgic Confession 29) and so naturally have an affinity with those of like mind. If the church militant loses the love of the truth and the antithesis it engenders, it seeks out the church apostate. Once a church stops earnestly contending for the faith one delivered to the saints (Jude 3), it starts foolishly reappraising the heresies once condemned by the church.



Moving from Question and Answer 80, we come to other aspects of the Catechism's polemic against Rome. Lord's Day 11, on the meaning of the name "Jesus" in the Apostles' Creed, is the second strongest anti-Rome passage. Though not mentioned by name, especially the reference to "saints," in the denunciation of those "who seek their salvation and welfare of saints, of themselves, or anywhere else," is unmistakeable (Q. 30). Again Christ alone as the all-sufficient Redeemer is key, for Lord's Day 11 proclaims Jesus as the "only Savior" (Q. 30) and "the only deliverer and Savior," since He is the "complete Savior" and we "find all things in Him necessary to [our] salvation" (A. 30). Thus "we ought not to seek, neither can find salvation in any other" (A. 29).41

From the truth of solus Christus, two conclusions inescapably follow: first, Roman Catholics and other false Christians are not saved; second, such hypocrites actually "deny Jesus the only deliverer and Savior":

Q. 30. Do such then believe in Jesus the only Savior, who seek their salvation and welfare of saints, of themselves, or anywhere else?
A. They do not; for though they boast of Him in words, yet in deeds they deny Jesus the only deliverer and Savior; for one of these two things must be true, either that Jesus is not a complete Savior, or that they who by a true faith receive this Savior must find all things in Him necessary to their salvation.

Lord's Day 11 and Lord's Day 30 are at one in stressing Rome's denial of Christ.

... though they boast of Him in words, yet in deeds they deny Jesus the only deliverer and Savior ... (A. 30).
.... the mass, at bottom, is nothing else than a denial of the one sacrifice and sufferings of Jesus Christ ... (A. 80).

The catechism's holy warfare against Rome is also evident, especially in the first three of the ten commandments (Lord's Days 34-37).42 Just as we are not saved by "saints" (Q. & A. 30), so the first and third commandments forbid, respectively, praying to, and swearing by, "saints" (Q. & A. 94, 102). Rome is also the chief target in Lord's Day 35's exposition of the second commandment's prohibition of "images." Its notion that "images" are "books to the laity" is specifically refuted (Q. & A. 98).43

Whereas the polemics of Question and Answer 80 and Lord's Day 11 are driven by solus Christus, the holy war against Rome in the Catechism's exposition of the first three commandments arises out of two other solas.44

First, there is soli Deo gloria (the glory of God alone). I must "worship" Jehovah (A. 96), who is the "one true God" (A. 95). As "the only true God," I must "rightly" "know," "trust" and "glorify" "Him alone" "with my whole heart; so that I renounce and forsake all creatures, rather than commit even the least thing contrary to His will" (A. 94). We "honor" Him as "the only one who knows the heart" (A. 102) and, in general, we must use His "holy name" "no otherwise than with fear and reverence; so He may be rightly confessed and worshiped by us, and be glorified in all our words and works" (A. 99).45

Second, there is sola Scriptura, the truth that Scripture alone is the supreme standard and rule for faith and life (cf. Belgic Confession 7). We must have as our God "that one true God who has manifested Himself in His Word" (A. 95), and we must not glorify Him "in any other way than He has commanded in His Word" (A. 96).46 The regulative principle, the truth of sola Scriptura applied to His worship, as per the second commandment (Q. & A. 96), leads to the primacy of preaching: Jehovah "will have His people taught, not by dumb images, but by the lively preaching of His Word" (A. 98).

On the basis of soli Deo gloria, as explained by sola Scriptura, Rome's image worship and invoking, and swearing by, saints can only be described as idolatry, for "Idolatry is, instead of, or besides that one true God who has manifested Himself in His Word, to contrive or have any other object in which men place their trust" (A. 95). Likewise, Rome's unbiblical doctrine of transubstantiation "that Christ is bodily under the form of bread and wine, and therefore is to be worshiped in them" is undoubtedly an "accursed idolatry" (A. 80). Even the adjective "accursed" fits with the Heidelberger which quotes Scripture (Deut. 27:26; Gal. 3:10) to the effect that all disobedience to Jehovah's law (including the first two commandments) is "cursed" of God warranting "His just judgment temporally and eternally" (A. 10).

The sacraments, a third major area of the Catechism's polemics against Rome, also help our understanding of Question and Answer 80, since the mass is discussed in the context of Reformed sacramental theology. Christ alone is the key note throughout this section (Lord's Days 25-30). The "one sacrifice of Christ" (A. 66, 67) is "the only ground of our salvation" (Q. 67). It is not the church but "Christ" who has "instituted" "two" "sacraments" in "the new covenant," not seven as Rome or three as Lutheranism (Q. & A. 68).

The "external baptism with water" is "not at all" "the washing away of sin itself" (as with baptismal regeneration in Romanism and Lutheranism), "for the blood of Jesus Christ only," applied by the Spirit, cleanses us "from all sin" (Q. & A. 72).

Lord's Day 28 teaches that by eating and drinking Christ in the Lord's Supper spiritually and by faith, we are partakers of His "one sacrifice … accomplished on the cross" (Q. 75). Hence Lord's Day 29 explains that the "bread and wine" in the Lord's Supper do not become (and do not need to become) "the very body and blood of Christ" (Q. 78), whether through Roman transubstantiation or Lutheran consubstantiation. The "minister," not a priest, administers the sacrament (A. 75).

Whereas some reckon Question and Answer 80 to be out of sync with the rest of the Catechism, we can only conclude that it is masterfully integrated in the Heidelberger's sacramental theology and fits perfectly with its polemic against Romanism, especially as regards Rome's denial of Jesus "the only Savior" (Lord's Day 11) and idolatry (Lord's Days 34-37 on the first three commandments). Salvation in Christ alone to the glory of God alone according to Scripture alone is the source and power of this holy warfare.

We can be briefer with the Catechism's main remaining polemics against Rome. Christ alone governs the Heidelberger's exposition of the Apostles' Creed's "He was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary" (Lord's Day 14) and "He descended into Hell" (Q. & A. 44). Though the Catechism takes a very different (and biblical!) line from Rome on these articles, it is entirely positive, saying nothing negative.

The warm, scriptural definition of faith and assurance (Q. & A. 21) is, of course, contrary to Rome, which views assurance of salvation as a heresy, though again this is unstated. But it is where justification (and its relationship to works) is treated that the Catechism's faith alone (sola fide) and grace alone (sola gratia) do battle with the false gospel of Rome (and others). We are righteous before the Holy One "only by a true faith" (A. 60) or "by faith only" (Q. & A. 61) and are "partakers of Christ and all His benefits by faith only" (A. 65).

Each individual Christian rejoices in sola gratia: "to me also, remission of sin, everlasting righteousness, and salvation are freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ's merits" (A. 21). The Reformation gospel of grace alone is always engaged in a holy warfare against salvation by man's works, for "we are delivered from our misery merely of grace, through Christ, without any merit of ours" (Q. 86). Every true believer confesses that it is "without any merit of mine, but only of mere grace" that I am "righteous before God" through Christ (Q. & A. 60). Our merits and works are excluded not only because of salvation by faith alone through grace alone but also due to Christ alone, for we are delivered "only for the sake of Christ's merits" (A. 21).

Lord's Day 23 unites solus Christus, sola fide and sola gratia: I am "righteous before God" (Q. 60) "only by a true faith" and "only of mere grace" (A. 60) "because only the satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ is my righteousness before God" (A. 61). This is the comforting, antithetical gospel of the sovereign grace of our covenant God: "For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast" (Eph. 2:8-9). Believing this, the true church must be militant against Rome and all who deny the gospel of Christ.

Lord's Day 24 answers three objections, arising from a false view of good works, made by Roman Catholicism against the gospel of salvation by faith alone through grace alone in Christ alone:

Q. 62. But why cannot our good works be the whole or part of our righteousness before God?
Q. 63. What! Do not our good works merit, which yet God will reward in this and in a future life?
Q. 64. But doth not this doctrine make men careless and profane?

Beginning with our "only comfort in life and death" (Q. 1), our Catechism includes and presents, both positively and negatively, the five great solas of the biblical and Reformed faith. Only by maintaining these five gospel solas, which necessarily bring conflict with Rome, can we, and do we, confess that our "only comfort in life and death" is "That I with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Savior Jesus Christ" (Q. & A. 1)!47


Strict Lutheranism

"By design this catechism clearly contrasts Reformed Christianity with Roman Catholicism and subtly distinguishes it from elements of Gnesio-Lutheranism," writes Robert Godfrey.48 Definitely the Heidelberger is more critical of Romanism than strict Lutheranism, though Godfrey understates its differences with the latter, as we shall see.

Lord's Day 18 on Christ's ascension contains the most polemical section in the Catechism against strict Lutheranism. However, this controversy began with the Lord's Supper (also where the Heidelberger's holy war with Rome is fiercest), for the Lutherans taught that Christ's body and blood are present in, under and along with the bread and wine (this is often called consubstantiation). This view led strict Lutherans to the doctrine of ubiquity: "the illocal, supernatural presence of Christ's human nature resulting from the communion of natures (communicatio naturarum) and the communication of proper qualities (communicatio idiomatum) in the person of Christ."49

Yet it was not until the Stuttgart Confession (1559), 42 years after Luther's publication of the Ninety-Five Theses and 13 years after his death, that ubiquity was given confessional status. Ironically, the Stuttgart Confession was written by Brenz, who had earlier been a more moderate Lutheran.50 Thus whereas Question and Answer 80 was a response to Rome's Council of Trent (1545-1563) on the mass, Lord's Day 18 replies to strict Lutheranism's Stuttgart Confession (1559). Neither was a petulant, knee-jerk reaction. The Catechism simply teaches the Word "in season, out of season" (II Tim. 4:2).

There is a difference in the tone of the respective polemics, though. First, Rome is named ("the popish mass," Q. 80); strict Lutheranism is not. Second, Rome's position is strongly condemned ("a denial of the one sacrifice and sufferings of Jesus Christ and an accursed idolatry," A. 80); no such terminology is used here against strict Lutheranism. Third, Question and Answer 80 strongly contrasts the mass and the Lord's Supper throughout; Lord's Day 18's four questions and answers are more defensive. They explain the truth of the Lord's ascension, especially concerning His body, anticipating and answering two critical questions of the strict Lutherans: "Is not Christ then with us even to the end of the world, as He hath promised?" (Q. 47) and "But if His human nature is not present wherever His Godhead is, are not then these two natures in Christ separated from one another?" (Q. 48).51 The answer to this last question begins with an emphatic negative: "Not at all" or, in the original, "Mit nichten," an old-fashioned German word meaning, literally, "with noes" (A. 48)!

It is significant that the Catechism's polemics against Rome are based on the solas (especially solus Christus) but this is not the case with strict Lutheranism, which was, of course, a Reformation movement. Instead, Lord's Day 18 bases its (and the Heidelberger's main) polemic against strict Lutheranism upon the ecumenical creeds and their teaching regarding Christ and His two natures.

Lord's Day 18 is, after all, part of the Catechism's exposition of the Apostles' Creed. Its first question quotes that ancient formulary: "How dost thou understand these words, 'He ascended into heaven'?" (Q. 46). Truly explained, this article refutes strict Lutheranism's doctrine of ubiquity.

Olevianus, a significant member of the body responsible for producing the Heidelberger, repeatedly appeals to the Apostles' Creed in his exposition of Lord's Day 18, concluding with some polemics:

This is the confession of the Christian Church, according to the simple understanding of the Articles of the Christian Faith … it is also an article of the faith that He ascended from earth into heaven … Therefore, Christ will use His omnipotence not to annul the articles of our ancient, true, Christian faith, but only to punish those who misuse His omnipotence to undergird their idolatry and hypocrisy.52

Likewise, Ursinus appeals to the Apostle's Creed in his twelve-page explanation of Lord's Day 18. Its last paragraph begins, "What then are we to understand by the Article, I believe in Jesus Christ, who ascended into heaven?"53

The second ecumenical creed involved in this Reformed polemic is the Creed of Chalcedon (451), especially its statement that Christ is

… truly God and truly man ... to be acknowledged in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one person and one subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons ...54

Chalcedon underlies, and is assumed by, Questions and Answers 47 and 48, especially in the Catechism's affirmation that Christ's two natures are not "separated" (Q. 48), but are "personally united" (A. 48). Instead, it is the strict Lutherans who contradict Chalcedon by their doctrine of ubiquity, for they "confuse" and "change" Christ's human nature, since they fail to "preserve" its "properties" by making it omnipresent.55

After considering the background in Heidelberg and the Catechism's teaching on the Lord's Supper over against Rome and strict Lutheranism, we can agree with Jon D. Payne's evaluation:

The [Heidelberger's] theologically rich and eminently pastoral teaching on the Lord's Supper was crafted in the context of vigorous debates and fiery dissensions in both the civil and ecclesiastical arenas. Its aim was to condemn the popish Mass, discredit and sideline Lutheran views on ubiquity, and direct the citizens of Elector Frederick's realm to embrace a Reformed and Calvinistic view of the Supper … [which] would uphold the biblical teachings on Christ's ascension and the nature of His true humanity. Moreover, it would serve to drive citizens of the Palatinate to rest their faith in Christ alone, not in self, ceremony, or superstition.56

Having analyzed Lord's Day 18 and several other differences between the Reformed and the strict Lutherans (in our section on Romanism earlier), we should point out that the Catechism not only has fewer disagreements with Lutheranism than with Rome (as one would expect), but it also has more agreements with the former (as one would also expect).

Bierma summarizes the arguments of various scholars for the most likely source of the threefold structure of the Heidelberger: sin and misery, deliverance and gratitude (Q. & A. 2). Amongst the possible origins, including Paul's epistle to the Romans, Calvin and Beza, Bierma lists Luther himself, Melanchthon and a catechism by Nicholas Gallus, a former student of Melanchthon.57

Bierma's conclusion is not that the Catechism's threefold division definitely had a Lutheran origin but rather that it was taken from "the common stock of Protestant theology."58 This is an example of positive and helpful Reformed-Lutheran irenics, not only because Luther and Melanchthon were associated with Heidelberg, but especially because Gallus' catechism, A Brief Orderly Summary (1547 or 1554) was reprinted in Heidelberg in 1558 and used there before the Heidelberg Catechism.59 The common threefold structure in these two catechisms was one way of bringing the people of the Palatinate into the riches of the Reformed faith.

Bierma also notes that the Catechism's biblical teaching that good works arise out of gratitude (Q. & A. 86) is rooted in common Reformed and Lutheran soil, including Luther himself, Luther's Small Catechism, Melanchthon, the Augsburg Confession (1530), the Apology of the Augsburg Confession (1531) and Urbanus Rhegius, as well as Brenz's Catechism and Gallus' A Brief Orderly Summary.60 Since these last two catechisms were in use in the Palatinate before the Heidelberger, we again see our Catechism's wise and peaceful way of furthering the Reformation in the Electoral Palatinate.

Some argue that the Catechism "sought to minimize conflict" with "key silences," especially on predestination.61 It is true that it does not mention reprobation or define election. However, election or God's choice of us is spoken of in two places in the Heidelberger. In connection with Christ's second coming, we read that He shall "translate me with all His chosen ones to Himself, into heavenly joys and glory" (A. 52). As regards the "holy catholic church" that Christ "gathers, defends and preserves to Himself," we are told that it is "chosen to everlasting life" (Q. & A. 54). Moreover, the Catechism teaches that the first line of the Apostles' Creed means that Almighty God "upholds and governs" all things "by His eternal counsel and providence" (A. 26), which is of great "advantage" to us, for it leads us to "place our firm trust in our faithful God and Father, [knowing] that nothing shall separate us from His love" (Q. & A. 28).

In not mentioning reprobation or defining election, the Heidelberger is in keeping with the Westminster Shorter Catechism, the (longer) Westminster Larger Catechism and Calvin's (even longer) Genevan Catechism. None of these four catechisms is guilty of a sinful silence in this regard. Ursinus, the main author of the Heidelberger, even devotes over 60% of his commentary on the "holy, catholic church" (Q. & A. 54) to a section "Of The Eternal Predestination of God," in which he confesses God's eternal and unchangeable decree of election and reprobation.62

As Reformed Christians, we receive the Heidelberg Catechism as part of our Three Forms of Unity. Head II of the Canons of Dordt sets forth the truth of double predestination which governs our understanding of the Catechism, including its references to election (A. 52, 54).

In our "Formula of Subscription," church office-bearers affirm that we

... do hereby sincerely and in good conscience before the Lord declare by this, our subscription, that we heartily believe and are persuaded that all the articles and points of doctrine contained in the [Belgic] Confession and [Heidelberg] Catechism of the Reformed Churches, together with the explanation of some points of the aforesaid doctrine made by the National Synod of Dordrecht, 1618-’19, do fully agree with the Word of God. We promise therefore diligently to teach and faithfully to defend the aforesaid doctrine, without either directly or indirectly contradicting the same, by our public preaching or writing. We declare, moreover, that we not only reject all errors that militate against this doctrine, and particularly those which were condemned by the above mentioned synod [i.e., Arminianism, including its denial of election and reprobation], but that we are disposed to refute and contradict these, and to exert ourselves in keeping the church free from such errors.63

Similarly Article 55 of our Church Order states,

To ward off false doctrines and errors that multiply exceedingly through heretical writings, the ministers and elders shall use the means of teaching, of refutation or warning, and of admonition, as well in the ministry of the Word as in Christian teaching and family-visiting.64

Since Article 68 requires ministers to preach the Heidelberg Catechism on the Lord's Day, this is one obvious way in which they pursue their holy warfare against heresies.



Unlike the Romanists, but like the Lutherans, the Anabaptists are not specifically named in the Catechism.65 However, there is no doubt that the presentation of infant or family or covenant baptism in Question and Answer 74 opposes this sixteenth-century movement (and twenty-first century Baptists):

Q. 74. Are infants also to be baptized?
A. Yes; for since they, as well as the adult, are included in the covenant and church of God; and since redemption from sin by the blood of Christ, and the Holy Ghost, the author of faith, is promised to them no less than to the adult; they must therefore by baptism, as a sign of the covenant, be also admitted into the Christian church, and be distinguished from the children of unbelievers as was done in the old covenant or testament by circumcision, instead of which baptism is instituted in the new covenant.

As well as the rabid Anabaptist attack on infant baptism, the Heidelberger opposes their ambivalence to civil authority. Whereas anti-Romanist polemics are found in the Catechism's exposition of the first three commandments (Lord's Days 34-37), anti-Anabaptist ideas occur in connection with the third, fifth and sixth commandments (Lord's Days 37, 39-40).

The sixth commandment gives authority to the state to execute capital punishment: "the magistrate is armed with the sword to prevent murder" (A. 105). The state also has the right to call upon its citizens to make (appropriate) oaths, for, according to the third commandment, we many "swear religiously by the name of God" "when the magistrates demand it of the subjects" (Q. & A. 101). These duties are reinforced by the more general teaching of the fifth commandment, which requires not only "That I show all r, love, and fidelity to my father and mother" but also to "all in authority over me," including the civil powers (A. 104). The Peasant's War (1524-1525) and the Münster Rebellion (1534-1535) would not have occurred if the Anabaptists had submitted to, obeyed, and "patiently" borne with the "weakness and infirmities" of, their civil leaders, believing that it pleased "God to govern [them] by their hand" (A. 104).66

If the Romanists are centrally opposed by the five solas (especially solus Christus) and the Lutherans by the ecumenical creeds (the Apostles' Creed and the Creed of Chalcedon on Christ's human nature), the Heidelberg Catechism's polemic against Anabaptism could be summed up by two words, both beginning with "c": covenant and creation. The covenant is the key doctrine in defending and maintaining the baptism of the children of believers. The word "covenant" is used four times and at the start, middle and end of Answer 74. Anabaptistic radical and world-flight ideas are refuted by the truth of God's order in His creation (Lord's Days 9-10) which means that God's "hand" (A. 27, 28) rules providentially through the "hand" of civil magistrates, since "it pleases God to govern us by their hand" (A. 104).


One's Own Church

There are times when polemics against heresies and other churches "out there" are relatively easy, when one is preaching to the converted about the unconverted, so to speak. Of course, those of Roman Catholic or Lutheran or Anabaptist persuasion may be in the meeting or some of their ideas may be bothering the members of the church. Also one needs to equip the saints to battle against these errors and witness to those who are led astray by false doctrines. But the Catechism also battles against false notions and sinful practices which may arise in one's own congregation and denomination. The church militant must fight against her own sins, by God's grace!

Is anyone in the congregation tempted to the folly of (sinless) perfection in this life? To this the Heidelberger answers with a firm "No" or "Nein" in the German:

Q. 5. Canst thou keep all these things perfectly [i.e., the commands to love God with all one's heart and to love one's neighbor as oneself]?
A. In no wise; for I am prone by nature to hate God and my neighbor.
Q. 114. But can those who are converted to God perfectly keep these commandments?
A. No; but even the holiest men, while in this life, have only a small beginning of this obedience ...

Yet the last answer also exposes antinomianism, a deadly scourge in any church: "yet so, that with a sincere resolution they begin to live not only according to some, but all the commandments of God" (A. 114).

As well as perfectionism and antinomianism, the Catechism also opposes another wrong view of the law which can ruin a congregation: moralism. Good works arise out of "gratitude to God for His blessings" (A. 86) and "proceed from a true faith, and are performed according to the law of God, and to His glory" (A. 91).

Another error that, like perfectionism, antinomianism and moralism, is often associated with more radical forms of Anabaptism is universalism, whose ugly head could arise in any church. It is opposed with a decisive "No" or "Nein" in Question and Answer 20:

Q. 20. Are all men then, as they perished in Adam, saved by Christ?
A. No, only those who are ingrafted into Him, and receive all His benefits, by a true faith.

It is denied with an emphatic "Mit nichten," "with noes":

Q. 10. Will God suffer such disobedience and rebellion to go unpunished?
A. By no means; but is terribly displeased with our original as well as actual sins; and will punish them in His just judgment temporally and eternally, as He hath declared, Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them.

Finally, it is rejected with an astounded "Keineswegs," "No way!"

Q. 87. Cannot they then be saved, who, continuing in their wicked and ungrateful lives, are not converted to God?
A. By no means; for the Holy Scripture declares that no unchaste person, idolator, adulterer, thief, covetous man, drunkard, slanderer, robber, or any such like, shall inherit the kingdom of God.

In our day, creation and providence must be taught (Lord's Days 9-10) especially over against evolutionism and "chance" (A. 27). In this way, the members of the congregation will trust "the eternal Father of our Lord Jesus Christ" (A. 26) and "His fatherly hand" in all circumstances (A. 27), and not be seduced by theistic evolutionism (in its various forms) or give way to despair or pride in "adversity" or "prosperity" (A. 28).

Preaching, the first key of the kingdom of heaven, proclaims and conveys peace to believers and no peace to the impenitent in the assembly:

Q. 84. How is the kingdom of heaven opened and shut by the preaching of the holy gospel?
A. Thus: when according to the command of Christ it is declared and publicly testified to all and every believer, that, whenever they receive the promise of the gospel by a true faith, all their sins are really forgiven them of God, for the sake of Christ’s merits; and on the contrary, when it is declared and testified to all unbelievers, and such as do not sincerely repent, that they stand exposed to the wrath of God and eternal condemnation, so long as they are unconverted; according to which testimony of the gospel God will judge them, both in this and in the life to come.

Though gratitude for God's rich salvation and the demands of Jehovah's holy Word are the chief reasons why the Heidelberger insists on godliness in the church and among her members, Anabaptist criticisms of the lifestyle of some in the congregation is also an incentive.67 With regard to the third commandment, for example, though the Anabaptists err by defect by refusing lawful oaths (Q. & A. 101), the people in the Palatinate (and Reformed church members today) must not err by swearing too frequently or rashly (Lord's Day 36), since that is to "profane or abuse the name of God" (A. 99).

It is only with the whole counsel of God, summed in the Catechism, being faithfully taught (cf. Acts 20:27) and with heresies being solidly refuted (Jude 3) and "the ten commandments so strictly preached" (A. 115) that the congregation will understand and exercise biblical church discipline of "those who under the name of Christians maintain doctrines, or practices inconsistent therewith" (A. 85). But if this second key of the kingdom of heaven (Q. & A. 83, 85) is not used properly, the church will apostatize (II Tim. 4:3-4) and true spiritual peace will be lost.68

This is vital for the administration of the Lord's Supper. This sacrament is "instituted" only

For those who are truly sorrowful for their sins, and yet trust that these are forgiven them for the sake of Christ, and that their remaining infirmities are covered by His passion and death; and who also earnestly desire to have their faith more and more strengthened, and their lives more holy; but hypocrites, and such as turn not to God with sincere hearts, eat and drink judgment to themselves (Q. & A. 81).

A resounding "No" or "Nein" is uttered in the next Question and Answer:

Q. 82. Are they also to be admitted to this supper, who, by confession and life, declare themselves unbelieving and ungodly?
A. No; for by this the covenant of God would be profaned, and His wrath kindled against the whole congregation; therefore it is the duty of the Christian church, according to the appointment of Christ and His apostles, to exclude such persons, by the keys of the kingdom of heaven, till they show amendment of life.

Significantly, regarding the two covenant sacraments (Q. & A. 68), it is God's covenant (with believers and their seed) which gives a resounding "Yes" or "Ja" (in the German) to the baptism of the children of believers, and it is God's (holy) covenant with His (adult) people which issues a loud "No" or "Nein" to the admission to the Lords' Supper of those "who, by confession and life, declare themselves unbelieving and ungodly" (Q. & A. 82).69

Of course, the minister must also, even primarily (like the Catechism), bring the comforting message of the gospel (Isa. 40:1-2): the saving knowledge of the Triune God as our Creator, Governor, Redeemer and Sanctifier (Lord's Days 8-10); through Christ's Person and work, both in His state of humiliation and His state of exaltation (Lord's Days 11-19); and by the abiding Spirit (Lord's Day 20). On the basis of our Saviour's full atonement (Q. & A. 29-30, 37), we are ingrafted into and partakers of Christ (Q. & A. 20, 53, 64-65) and so forgiven and righteous (Q. & A. 21, 56, 59-61, 126) and preserved for ever (Q. & A. 1, 28, 53), as living members of God's one, holy, catholic and apostolic church (Q. & A. 54). The Lord Jesus communicates Himself and His blessings to us by Word and sacrament (Lord's Days 25-30), so that we have fellowship with the living God in prayer (Lord's Days 45-52) and communion with Christ and His saints (Q. & A. 55). As regards our future, in this life we are blessedly secure (Q. & A. 1, 26-28) and in the next we will be perfectly joyful (Q. & A. 52, 57-58), thus our prayers are infused with confidence and hope (Q. & A. 120, 123, 125, 127, 129). No wonder the questions of our Heidelberger so often ask about our "comfort," "advantage," "profit" and "benefit." How rich is God's church in Jesus Christ!



Not only does the Catechism contain polemics against various groups "out there" and against sinful ideas and behaviour in one's own church, but it also brings a deeply personal message of holy war and peace to every one of us.

This word of spiritual warfare and peace comes to us individually, of course, within the framework of the celebrated triple knowledge. I must know three things: "the first, how great my sins and miseries are; the second, how I may be delivered from all my sins and miseries; the third, how I shall express my gratitude to God for such deliverance" (A. 2). This is "necessary" so that I "enjoying this comfort" may " live and die happily" (Q. 2). To express this differently, it is through knowing our sinfulness (Lord's Days 2-4), believing the gospel of Jesus Christ (Lord's Days 5-31), walking according to the ten commandments (Lord's Days 32-44) and communing with the Triune God in prayer (Lord's Days 45-52), by His grace, that we know "the peace of God, which passeth all understanding" (Phil. 4:7).

Though we may not usually think of polemics in this way, the Heidelberger's holy warfare is chiefly directed against ourselves and our own sinful nature. The "first part" concerning "the misery of man" (Lord's Days 2-4) begins with this personal question, "Whence knowest thou thy misery?" (Q. 3), and contains this anguished confession, "I am prone by nature to hate God and my neighbor" (A. 5). The true believer laments, "I have grossly transgressed all the commandments of God, and kept none of them, and am still inclined to all evil" (A. 60).

The seventh commandment teaches us that "we must with all our hearts detest" "all uncleanness," for it is "accursed of God" (A. 108). The tenth commandment, which summarizes the whole Decalogue, requires that "at all times we hate all sin with our whole heart" (A. 113). This mortification, the putting to death, slaying or killing of sin, is "a sincere sorrow of heart that we have provoked God by our sins, and more and more to hate and flee from them" (A. 89). This detesting or hating, fleeing from, and mortifying of, sin is also described as a "struggle," for each child of God confesses, "I have to struggle all my life long" against "my corrupt nature" (A. 56).

There is an antithesis that exists deep within the believer in this life: the flesh versus the spirit (Rom. 7:15-25; Gal. 5:17) or the "old man" versus the "new man" (Lord's Day 33). Our warfare is against the "old man"—mortification (Q. & A. 89). Our peace comes through the "quickening" or vivification of the "new man"—"a sincere joy of heart in God, through Christ, and with love and delight to live according to the will of God in all good works" (Q. & A. 90).

But it belongs to the last prayer in the Catechism and its last Lord's Day to provide the Heidelberger's fullest account of the believer's personal "spiritual warfare."

Q. 127. Which is the sixth petition?
A. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil; that is, since we are so weak in ourselves that we cannot stand a moment; and besides this, since our mortal enemies, the devil, the world, and our own flesh cease not to assault us, do Thou therefore preserve and strengthen us by the power of Thy Holy Spirit, that we may not be overcome in this spiritual warfare, but constantly and strenuously may resist our foes, till at last we obtain a complete victory.

Of this evil triumvirate, we have already spoken of our struggle with "our own flesh." Concerning our other two "mortal enemies, the devil, [and] the world" (A. 127), we read that Christ, seated at God's right hand, "defends and preserves us against all enemies" (A. 51) and that, at His second coming, He "shall cast all His and my enemies into everlasting condemnation" (A. 52).

Thus in the second petition of the Lord's Prayer, we ask the Almighty to "destroy the works of the devil and all violence which would exalt itself against Thee; and also, all wicked counsels devised against Thy holy Word" (A. 123). We fight this "spiritual warfare" against the "assault" of our "evil" "foes" (A. 127) with the weapons of prayer, the Word and the grace of the Holy Spirit (A. 123, 127). "For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds" (II Cor. 10:4).

The Catechism helps us in our polemics by pointing out that the sixth commandment requires "that we do good, even to our enemies" (A. 107).70 The Christian, also in his spiritual warfare, must, like an athlete, "strive lawfully" to obtain the prize (II Tim. 2:5). We must realize that "we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places" (Eph. 6:12).

The believer's holy war in this world and perfect peace in the next is part and parcel of His being a "Christian," that is, "a partaker of [Christ's] anointing," especially as a king, so "that with a free and good conscience I may fight against sin and Satan in this life, and afterwards reign with Him eternally over all creatures" (A. 32).71

Of course, we can only fight because "our Lord" fully atoned for all our sins, and so defeated Satan and his hosts, and "delivered us from all the power of the devil; and thus hath made us His own property" (Q. & A. 34). He gives us peace for we are "not [our] own" but belong unto our "faithful Savior Jesus Christ" (A. 1).

1 All quotations from the Heidelberg Catechism (plus the Belgic Confession and the Creed of Chalcedon) are from The Confessions and the Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches (Grandville, MI: PRCA, 2005).
2 For an excellent discussion of this, see Gerhard O. Forde, On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther's Heidelberg Disputation, 1518 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997).
3 Fred Klooster, The Heidelberg Catechism: Origin and History (Grand Rapids, MI: Calvin Theological Seminary, 1987/1988), p. 35.
4 A third significant convert through Luther's Heidelberg Disputation was Martin Frecht, who laboured with Brenz and Bucer in reforming the free imperial city of Ulm in southern Germany. Later Frecht became a theological professor and rector in Heidelberg.
5 Cf. Wulfert de Greef, The Writings of John Calvin: An Introductory Guide, trans. Lyle D. Bierma (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1993), p. 193.
6 The strict Lutherans, also called Gnesio-Lutherans (genuine Lutherans), high Lutherans, ultra Lutherans, hyper-Lutherans, ubiquitarians, etc., were a theological party in Lutheranism, after the death of Luther (1546) and before the Formula of Concord (1577), in opposition to the Philippists or Melanchthonians, named after Philip Melanchthon. Though the strict Lutherans and the more irenic Philippists differed on several doctrines, the main issue dealt with in this article is the Lord's Supper. Whereas the Philippists approached the Reformed doctrine, the strict Lutherans denounced this as a treacherous and fatal compromise of Luther's teaching.
7 Charles D. Gunnoe Jr., "The Reformation of the Palatinate and the Origins of the Heidelberg Catechism, 1500-1562," in Lyle D. Bierma, Charles D. Gunnoe Jr., Karin Y. Maag and Paul W. Fields, An Introduction to the Heidelberg Catechism: Sources, History, and Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2005), p. 38.
8 Klooster, The Heidelberg Catechism, pp. 86-89.
9 Philip Schaff, Creeds of Christendom (New York & London: Harper & Brothers, 1931), vol. 1, p. 542.
10 Willem van 't Spijker, "The Theology of the Heidelberg Catechism," in Willem van 't Spijker (ed.), The Church's Book of Comfort (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2009), p. 89.
11 Quoted in Lyle D. Bierma, "The Sources and Theological Orientation of the Heidelberg Catechism," in An Introduction to the Heidelberg Catechism, p. 78.
12 Hendrikus Berkhof, "The Catechism in Historical Context," in Bard Thompson, Hendrikus Berkhof, Eduard Schweizer and Howard G. Hageman, Essays on the Heidelberg Catechism (Philadelphia, PA: United Church Press, 1963), p. 77.
13 Frederick's deep affection for the Heidelberger is seen, for example, in his faithful defence of it before Emperor Maximilian II at the Diet of Augsburg (1566) and his personal testament of faith, which borrows much of its structure and language from the Catechism. See "The Confession of Frederick III (1577)," accompanied by a short introduction, in James T. Dennison Jr. (ed.), Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries in English Translation: Volume 3, 1567-1599 (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012), pp. 439-457.
14 Klooster, for example, writes of "the mild mannered, irenic Ursinus" (The Heidelberg Catechism, p. 208).
15 Zacharias Ursinus, The Commentary of Dr. Zacharias Ursinus on the Heidelberg Catechism, trans. G. W. Willard (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1956).
16 Karin Y. Maag, "Early Editions and Translations of the Heidelberg Catechism," in An Introduction to the Heidelberg Catechism, p. 111.
17 Eight times Frederick refers to the "youth" or "young people" or those of "younger years" as those who are to be taught the Catechism "at school and in church" in this important document, which is quoted in full in Christa Boerke, "The People Behind the Heidelberg Catechism," in The Church's Book of Comfort, pp. 63-65.
18 John W. Nevin, History and Genius of the Heidelberg Catechism (Chambersburg, PA: German Reformed Churches, 1847), p. 60.
19 Maag, "Early Editions and Translations," p. 112.
20 Klooster characterizes the "attack by strict-Lutherans" on the Catechism as "frenzied" (The Heidelberg Catechism, p. 209).
21 Owen Chadwick, The Reformation (London: Penguin Books, 1990), p. 143.
22 Nevin, History and Genius of the Heidelberg Catechism, p. 62.
23 Herman Hoeksema agrees: "It is on the basis of this two-fold Roman Catholic teaching concerning the mass that the Heidelberg Catechism pronounces the severe, but nevertheless perfectly true judgment, that 'the mass, at bottom, is nothing else than a denial of the one sacrifice and sufferings of Jesus Christ, and an accursed idolatry'" (The Triple Knowledge: An Exposition of the Heidelberg Catechism [Grand Rapids, MI: RFPA, 1988], vol. 2, p. 638).
24 Ursinus, The Commentary of Dr. Zacharias Ursinus, p. 423.
25 Klooster, The Heidelberg Catechism, pp. 187, 188.
26 Klooster, The Heidelberg Catechism, p. 186.
27 Ursinus, The Commentary of Dr. Zacharias Ursinus, pp. 416-424.
28 Ursinus, The Commentary of Dr. Zacharias Ursinus, p. 417; italics mine.
29 Maag, "Early Editions and Translations," p. 105.
30 Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, vol. 1, p. 536.
31 To quote the "Form for the Installation of Professors of Theology," in The Confessions and the Church Order, p. 297.
32 Berkhof, "The Catechism in Historical Context," p. 114.
33 Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, vol. 2, pp. 179-180. Even worse than the Word-Faith teachers who portray Christ as making atonement in hell after His death and the Socinians who say that He made atonement with His blood in heaven after His ascension (though "atonement" is used in a vague and erroneous sense in Socinianism), Romanism presents priests as offering sacrifices of Christ and placating God's wrath in the mass on "altars" all around the world for 2,000 years every day (contrast Heb. 10:11-14).
34 Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, vol. 2, p. 184.
35 Berkhof, "The Catechism in Historical Context," p. 114.
36 In this, some nominal Protestants sin like Eve, while others sin like Adam (I Tim. 2:14).
37 Referring to Question and Answer 80, G. C. Berkouwer rightly states, "Our mention of the cross of Christ at this point follows immediately from the fact that in all of the controversy, the crux of the matter turns out to be the significance of the cross" (The Sacraments [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1969], p. 259).
38 Herman Veldkamp, Children of the Lord's Day: Notes on the Heidelberg Catechism, trans. Dr. Harry Kwantes (no place of publication or publisher, 1990), vol. 2, p. 285; italics Veldman's.
39 The same spirit is evident in the apostle's rhetorical questions: "... for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness? And what concord hath Christ with Belial? or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel? And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols?" (II Cor. 6:14-16).
40 Cf. Clayton Spronk, "Should the Mass Really Be Condemned?" Protestant Reformed Theological Journal, vol. 39, issue 1 (November, 2005), pp. 30-53.
41 Louis Praamsma explains that Roman Catholics "see Mary as the mediator next to Jesus. They often call upon saints to help contribute to their salvation, even going so far as to believe that statues of Mary contain miraculous powers. People themselves can contribute directly to their salvation through good works. They may not be able to remove the eternal punishment for sin, but they can bear some of the temporal punishment for themselves or even for others." He correctly identifies this soul-destroying, blasphemous heresy as the denial of Christ alone: "These foolish beliefs make a mockery of Jesus' redemptive work. He is the only Savior, and nothing short of His blood, the blood of God's only Son, can wash away our sins" (Before the Face of God: A Study of the Heidelberg Catechism Lord's Day 1-24 [Ontario, Canada: Paideia Press, 1987], p. 46).
42 The Heidelberger also enumerates the Decalogue differently from Rome and Lutheranism (Q. & A. 92).
43 The refusal to tolerate images "in the churches" (Q. & A. 98) also criticizes Lutheranism and addresses a local issue a few years before the publication of the Catechism: the erection of a monument as a memorial to Elector Otto Henry in the Church of the Holy Spirit (1558 or 1559). Bard Thompson explains, "It was an ornate piece of statuary, depicting cherubs and virgins in various stages of undress; and it was erected in the choir of the church, exactly where communicants received the Lord's Supper, Hesshus had approved the monument with delight, knowing that it would surely affront the Reformed theologians who prized simplicity" ("Historical Background of the Catechism," in Essays on the Heidelberg Catechism, p. 17). This issue was part of the controversy between Hesshus and Klebitz mentioned earlier. Hesshus lost and the statue was removed.
44 Strictly speaking, the plural of the Latin sola is solae, but it is customary today to speak of solas.
45 Reflecting upon the truth of Lord's Days 5-6, Caspar Olevianus, who has been seen historically as the number two author of the Catechism, polemicizes against all false religions and faiths: "Only the Christian religion and faith is the true faith; all others are false. For only Christians recognize God as one true God, who is perfectly just and perfectly merciful and thus the true God. He is perfectly just in that He does not leave sin unpunished but punished each and every sin with unspeakable hellish torment in his Son on the wood of the cross, whereby not a half but a full and just payment for our sins was made. He is perfectly merciful in that He makes us pay absolutely nothing but out of sheer mercy gave us the Son for our payment, without any merit on our part while we were yet sinners. By contrast, all other religions and faiths do not recognize God as perfectly just and merciful. Think once of the Jews, the Turks, or the Papists ..." (A Firm Foundation: An Aid to Interpreting the Heidelberg Catechism, trans. and ed. Lyle D. Bierma [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1995], p. 7).
46 The regulative principle of worship also opposes Lutheranism.
47 This comfort the Roman church and gospel does not, and cannot, give. For a good, recent work on the necessity of polemics against Romanism today, see Robert L. Reymond, The Reformation's Conflict With Rome: Why It Must Continue (Great Britain: Christian Focus Publications, 2001).
48 W. Robert Godfrey, "The Heidelberg Catechism among the Reformed Catechisms," in Jon D. Payne and Sebastian Heck (eds.), A Faith Worth Teaching: The Heidelberg Catechism's Enduring Heritage (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2013), p. 221.
49 Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1985), p. 312.
50 Cf. Klooster, The Heidelberg Catechism, p. 92. Willem Verboom explains that, before the appearance of the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), Luther's full Catechism (1529) and Luther's Large Catechism (1529) were used in the Palatinate, but Elector Otto Henry prescribed Brenz's Catechism (1535) in 1556, which was not sharply Lutheran on the Lord's Supper and penance. Hesshus, wanting to promote the strict Lutheran view of the second sacrament, sought to get rid of Brenz's Catechism ("The Completion of the Heidelberg Catechism," in The Church's Book of Comfort, pp. 44-49).
51 Ursinus declares that Question 47 "anticipates an objection on the part of the Ubiquitarians," and Question 48 "contains another argument, or objection, which the Ubiquitarians are wont to urge" (The Commentary of Dr. Zacharias Ursinus, pp. 247, 248).
52 Olevianus, A Firm Foundation, pp. 76, 78.
53 Ursinus, The Commentary of Dr. Zacharias Ursinus, p. 253; italics in the original.
54 The Confessions and the Church Order, p. 17.
55 No wonder that ubiquity was the issue debated by the Reformed and the strict Lutherans at eight of the ten sessions of the Maulbronn Colloquy (1564), a year after the publication of the Heidelberg Catechism.
56 Jon D. Payne, "'As Certainly As I See and Taste': The Lord's Supper and the Heidelberg Catechism," in A Faith Worth Teaching, p. 123.
57 Bierma, "The Sources and Theological Orientation," pp. 81-86.
58 Bierma, "The Sources and Theological Orientation," p. 86.
59 Verboom, "The Completion of the Heidelberg Catechism," pp. 49-51.
60 Bierma, "The Sources and Theological Orientation," pp. 86-89.
61 The terminology is that of Bierma, "The Sources and Theological Orientation," p. 94.
62 Ursinus, The Commentary of Dr. Zacharias Ursinus, pp. 293-303. Election is also treated in the remaining part of Ursinus' exposition of Question and Answer 54 (pp. 287-288, 292-293).
63 The Confessions and the Church Order, p. 326.
64 The Confessions and the Church Order, p. 397.
65 In keeping with our earlier observations on confessions, we note that the Anabaptists are named in the Belgic Confession (Articles 18, 34, 36).
66 Anabaptist ideas are also opposed by the Catechism's teaching on original sin (Lord's Day 3), justification by faith alone and salvation by grace alone, as well as its high view of the means of grace, i.e., the preaching and the sacraments (Lord's Day 25-30), etc., but here we are listing errors more specific to the Anabaptists, not errors they share with other major groups.
67 Cf. Willem Balke, Calvin and the Anabaptist Radicals, trans. William J. Heynen (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1981).
68 Thankfully, not only does our Belgic Confession have a robust ecclesiology (articles 29-35), but also our Heidelberg Catechism is strong on church discipline (Q. & A. 81-85).
69 A controversy arose in Heidelberg (1568-1570) concerning who should exercise church discipline (even to the point of excommunication), which the Catechism rightly states is a key to the kingdom of heaven (Q. & A. 83, 85), contrary to Henry Bullinger of Zurich. Caspar Olevianus championed the Reformed position over against Thomas Erastus, after whom Erastianism is named, and Frederick III agreed, authorizing the new Church Discipline Order (1570), thus making the church in the Palatinate more completely Reformed. For more, see Klooster, The Heidelberg Catechism, pp. 249-278.
70 John Calvin summed up our calling well: "Let us be peaceable as near as we can: let us relent of our own right: let us not strive for these worldly goods, honor, and reputation: let us bear all wrongs and outrages, rather than be moved to any debate through our own fault. But in the meanwhile, let us fight for God’s truth with tooth and nail" (Sermons on Galatians [Audubon, NJ: Old Paths, 1995], p. 169).
71 Accordingly, in the "Thanksgiving" prayer in our "Form for the Administration of Baptism," we "beseech" God for those baptized that they may "live in all righteousness under our only Teacher, King, and High Priest, Jesus Christ; and manfully fight against and overcome sin, the devil, and his whole dominion, to the end that they may eternally praise and magnify Thee" (The Confessions and the Church Order, p. 260; cf. p. 263).