The Irenic/Polemical Nature of the Heidelberg Catechism
or War and Peace in the Heidelberg Catechism
Rev. Angus Stewart
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
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
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."
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.
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
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.
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."
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.
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
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
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."
John Hesselink reckons that the Heidelberger is "the most
irenic and catholic expression of the Christian faith to
come out of the Reformation."
Hendrikus Berkhof states
that Frederick III "was of an irenic nature sharing that
spirit with Melanchthon."
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.
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.
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.
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
"The overall polemical context of the work," writes Karin
Maag, "was unmistakable."
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
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
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
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
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
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)
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.
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."
Third, it was lambasted so virulently.
"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
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
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.
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
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
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
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."
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.
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
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."
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."
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
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"?
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.
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
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.
Therefore, "If any one
saith, that in the mass a true and proper sacrifice is not
offered to God … let him be anathema."
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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."
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."
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."
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."
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
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).
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
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
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.
The catechism's holy
warfare against Rome is also evident, especially in the
first three of the ten commandments (Lord's Days 34-37).
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).
Whereas the polemics of
Question and Answer 80 and Lord's Day 11 are driven by
the holy war against Rome in the Catechism's exposition of
the first three commandments arises out of two other solas.
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).
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.
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. &
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
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
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
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
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?
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)!
design this catechism clearly contrasts Reformed
Christianity with Roman Catholicism and subtly distinguishes
it from elements of Gnesio-Lutheranism," writes Robert
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
and the communication of proper qualities (communicatio
in the person of Christ."
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.
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.
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).
The answer to this last question begins with an emphatic
negative: "Not at all" or, in the original, "Mit
an old-fashioned German word meaning, literally, "with noes"
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
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.
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?"
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 ...
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
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:
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.
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).
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.
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."
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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).
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"
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
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.
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,"
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,"
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.
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.
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).
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
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
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. &
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
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
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).
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"
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).
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).
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:
Fred Klooster, The Heidelberg Catechism: Origin
and History (Grand
Rapids, MI: Calvin Theological Seminary, 1987/1988),
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.
Cf. Wulfert de Greef, The Writings of John
Calvin: An Introductory Guide,
trans. Lyle D. Bierma (Grand Rapids, MI:
Baker, 1993), p. 193.
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.
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.
Klooster, The Heidelberg Catechism,
Philip Schaff, Creeds of Christendom
(New York & London: Harper & Brothers, 1931), vol. 1, p.
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.
Quoted in Lyle D. Bierma, "The Sources and
Theological Orientation of the Heidelberg Catechism," in
An Introduction to the Heidelberg Catechism,
Hendrikus Berkhof, "The Catechism in Historical
Context," in Bard Thompson, Hendrikus Berkhof, Eduard
Schweizer and Howard G. Hageman, Essays on the
United Church Press, 1963), p. 77.
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),
Klooster, for example, writes of "the mild
mannered, irenic Ursinus" (The Heidelberg Catechism,
Zacharias Ursinus, The Commentary of Dr.
Zacharias Ursinus on the Heidelberg Catechism,
trans. G. W. Willard (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1956).
Karin Y. Maag, "Early Editions and Translations of
the Heidelberg Catechism," in An Introduction to the
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,
John W. Nevin, History and Genius of the
Heidelberg Catechism (Chambersburg, PA:
German Reformed Churches, 1847), p. 60.
Maag, "Early Editions and Translations,"
Klooster characterizes the "attack by
strict-Lutherans" on the Catechism as "frenzied" (The
Owen Chadwick, The Reformation
(London: Penguin Books, 1990), p. 143.
Nevin, History and Genius of the Heidelberg
Catechism, p. 62.
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).
Ursinus, The Commentary of Dr. Zacharias
Ursinus, p. 423.
Klooster, The Heidelberg Catechism,
pp. 187, 188.
Klooster, The Heidelberg Catechism,
Ursinus, The Commentary of Dr. Zacharias
Ursinus, The Commentary of Dr. Zacharias
Ursinus, p. 417; italics mine.
Maag, "Early Editions and Translations," p. 105.
Schaff, Creeds of Christendom,
vol. 1, p. 536.
To quote the "Form for the Installation of
Professors of Theology," in The Confessions and the
Church Order, p. 297.
Berkhof, "The Catechism in Historical Context," p.
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).
Schaff, Creeds of Christendom,
vol. 2, p. 184.
Berkhof, "The Catechism in Historical Context," p.
In this, some nominal Protestants sin like Eve,
while others sin like Adam (I Tim. 2:14).
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).
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.
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).
Cf. Clayton Spronk, "Should the Mass Really Be
Condemned?" Protestant Reformed Theological Journal,
vol. 39, issue 1 (November, 2005), pp. 30-53.
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).
Heidelberger also enumerates the Decalogue differently
from Rome and Lutheranism (Q. & A. 92).
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
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.
Strictly speaking, the plural of the Latin sola
is solae, but it is customary today to speak of
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
trans. and ed. Lyle D. Bierma [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker,
1995], p. 7).
The regulative principle of worship also opposes
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).
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.
Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and
Greek Theological Terms
(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1985), p. 312.
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,
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).
Olevianus, A Firm Foundation,
pp. 76, 78.
Ursinus, The Commentary of Dr. Zacharias
Ursinus, p. 253;
italics in the original.
The Confessions and the Church Order,
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.
Jon D. Payne, "'As Certainly As I See and Taste':
The Lord's Supper and the Heidelberg Catechism," in A
Faith Worth Teaching,
Bierma, "The Sources and Theological Orientation,"
Bierma, "The Sources and Theological Orientation,"
Verboom, "The Completion of the Heidelberg
Catechism," pp. 49-51.
Bierma, "The Sources and Theological Orientation,"
The terminology is that of Bierma, "The Sources
and Theological Orientation," p. 94.
Ursinus, The Commentary of Dr. Zacharias
293-303. Election is also treated in the remaining part
of Ursinus' exposition of Question and Answer 54 (pp.
The Confessions and the Church Order,
The Confessions and the Church Order,
In keeping with our earlier observations on
confessions, we note that the Anabaptists are named in
the Belgic Confession (Articles 18, 34, 36).
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.
Cf. Willem Balke, Calvin and the Anabaptist
William J. Heynen (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1981).
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).
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,
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).
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).