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The Church's Book of Comfort

Rev. Angus Stewart


The Church's Book of Comfort
edited by Willem van 't Spijker, translated by Gerrit Bilkes
Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2009, hardback, x + 291 pp.
ISBN 978-1-60178-056-0

The title of this fine work on the Heidelberg Catechism, The Church's Book of Comfort, alludes to the famous first question: "What is thy only comfort in life and death?" It consists of nine articles in seven chapters by six Dutch theological doctors, dealing with church history, biography, theology and catechetics, and complete with helpful pictures, boxed inserts and bibliographical details.

Summary of Contents

The opening chapter, "The Reformation in Germany," sets forth the historical background very well, dealing especially with Martin Luther, including his Heidelberg Disputation of 1518 (pp. 4-10), the spread of Lutheranism and the rise of Calvinism in Germany.

Chapter 2 homes in on Heidelberg, the centre of the Palatinate electorate, tracing the political and ecclesiastical developments from Elector Philip the Upright (1476-1508) to the godly Elector Frederick III (1559-1576), as the influences of Romanism, Lutheranism and Calvinism waxed and waned (pp. 27-38). The writing of the Heidelberg Catechism is set within progress in education, religious instruction and earlier catechisms (pp. 38-61).

"The People Behind the Heidelberg Catechism," the next chapter, focuses on "Two Crown Witnesses," Ursinus and Olevianus (pp. 67-74); before turning to two men in the theological faculty, Boquinus and Tremellius, a converted Jew (pp. 74-78); four church superintendents, Veluanus, Willing, Sylvanus and Eisenmenger (pp. 78-83); and the four remaining members of the Heidelberg consistory, Zirler, Diller, Zuleger, Erastus (pp. 83-88). These twelve men were a cosmopolitan lot, being born in what are now Poland, Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands and Switzerland. This is a useful chapter, especially since it covers the lesser known figures.

From the more German context of the Heidelberg Catechism in chapters 1-3, chapters 5 and 6 move to the Netherlands. What religious instruction was communicated in family, school and church before and after the Reformation (pp. 129-139)? What were the main Reformed catechisms used by the Dutch in the sixteenth century before and after the publication of the Heidelberg Catechism (pp. 139-145)? What about Peter Dathenus, who translated the Catechism into Dutch and versified the Psalms (pp. 156-161), and Herman Faukelius, who abbreviated the Catechism in the Compendium in 1608 (pp. 161-163)? What about the recognition of the Catechism in the Dutch Reformed church in its synods and classes from Wezel in 1568 to Dordt in 1618-1619 (pp. 163-186)?

Chapter 6 treats, first, the preaching of Heidelberg Catechism sermons from the sixteenth to the twentieth century (pp. 187-199); second, collections of Heidelberg Catechism sermons in book form for the same period (pp. 199-210); third, the instruction of catechumens in classes using the Heidelberg Catechism up to the nineteenth century (pp. 211-250). It is within the best aspects of this tradition that the PRC stands, by God's grace, including the Heidelberg Catechism Memory Books and Work Books by Revs. Wilbur Bruinsma and Dale Kuiper, respectively.

Willem van 't Spijker ably sets forth "The Theology of the Heidelberg Catechism" (ch. 4), which "superbly captured the message of the Reformation" (p. 89), and "The Continued Relevance of the Heidelberg Catechism" (ch. 7), comparing it with other Reformed creeds (pp. 251-264), defending it from criticism (pp. 264-270) and explaining its "eternal youth" (p. 94), as some have described it (pp. 270-272).

This brief summary of the contents of The Church's Book of Comfort hardly does it justice but it at least introduces some of the excellent subjects addressed.

Interesting and Helpful Material

The Church's Book of Comfort states the contemporary consensus on the authorship of the Heidelberg Catechism:

Although the precise course of events leading to the appearance of the Heidelberg Catechism remains obscure, historical research of the last few years has led to the conclusion that Ursinus was its chief author. A draft prepared by him was approved by a team of collaborators from various factions, among whom Olevianus carried the most weight (pp. 60; cf. 54-55).

But not all those involved in the finalizing of the text of the Heidelberg Catechism ended well. Johannes Sylvanus moved from Roman Catholic to Lutheran to Zwinglian to Reformed views, before becoming an Arian! He was beheaded in the marketplace of Heidelberg, while his friend Adam Neuser, minister at St. Peter's Church in Heidelberg, fled to the anti-trinitarians in Transylvania, ending up a Muslim in Turkey (pp. 81-83)!

Frederick III's preface to the first edition of the Catechism (19 January, 1563) is helpfully cited in full (pp. 63-65), including these words on its origin and purpose, emphasizing the instruction of the youth of the church:

For this reason, on the advice of our entire theological faculty here, also in cooperation with all superintendents and the chief ministers of the church, we have had prepared and compiled in both German and Latin a concise booklet of instruction or catechism of our Christian religion extracted from the Word of God. This was done so that in the future not only will our young people be instructed in the Christian doctrine in a godly manner and admonished in unanimity, but also so that pastors and schoolteachers themselves will have a reliable model and a solid standard as to how to approach the instruction of our young people, and so that they will not change one thing or another on a daily basis or introduce a contrary doctrine (p. 64).

This is true Reformed "youth ministry"!

The Elector's noble defence of the reformation in the Palatinate and the Heidelberg Catechism before Roman Catholic Emperor Maximilian II at the Imperial Diet of Augsburg in 1566 is also provided in a boxed insert (pp. 56-58):

As far as my catechism is concerned, I confess it. In its margins it is also so solidly grounded in Holy Scripture that it has proven to be irrefutable. Indeed, thus far you yourself have not succeeded in doing so and I hope that with God's help it will continue to be irrefutable for a much longer period to come (p. 57).

Zurich Reformer Heinrich Bullinger highly praised the Heidelberg Catechism as the "best catechism" in a latter to Olevianus:

I have read with great eagerness the Catechism that was produced with the encouragement of the eminent Elector Frederick III of the Palatinate, and while reading it I sincerely thanked God, who initiated and prospered this work. The structure of this book is clear, its content pure truth; everything is very easy to follow, devout and effective. In succinct conciseness it contains the fullness of the most important doctrines. I consider it to be the best catechism that has ever been published. Thanks be to God! May He crown it with His blessing (p. 252).

The Church Order of Heidelberg placed the Catechism after the baptism form and before the Lord's Supper form, clearly presenting a thorough catechizing of the covenant children and their believing response as the way from their (passive) reception of the first sacrament to their (active) participation in the second sacrament (pp. 96-97). Moreover,

The forms for the administration of baptism and the Lord's Supper that are incorporated in this [Heidelberg] church order closely resemble the classical forms of the Dutch Reformed tradition. They express the "doctrine as taught here in these churches as the doctrine of complete salvation" (p. 97).

Around the turn of the sixteenth into the seventeenth century, profession of faith was typically made in the Palatinate at age 14 (p. 43).

Marten Micron's (1523-1559) Shorter Catechism (1552), one of the catechisms used in the Netherlands before Dathenus' 1566 Dutch translation of the Heidelberg Catechism, indicates a firm grasp of God's covenant with the children of believers. It defends infant baptism "on the grounds that small children share in God's salvation, not as a reflection of their profession, but on the basis of God's Word" (p. 142). Note also its care for deaf or mentally handicapped church members:

92. Q. Why was faith and its oral profession not equally demanded from the children of the church prior to baptism?
A. The church has far surer confirmation of its salvation from the Word of God than from the profession of adults. And congenital illness, as a result of which some persons can neither believe nor make profession, is not counted against them for Christ's sake, in whom they are blessed—that is, regarded as holy, righteous, clean, and faithful—no less than are other adult believers. The same must be thought with respect to the baptism of adults of the church who are deaf or mentally handicapped (p. 142).

Indeed, A Brief Orderly Summary (1558), a catechism used in the Palatinate before the publication of the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), concluded with A Brief Christian Confession for Young Children and the Mentally Handicapped, in which the following three things are centrally confessed: "(1) I am a poor sinner, (2) I am saved by Christ, and (3) I confess that I am called to gratitude" (p. 50)—essentially, the three "parts" of our Heidelberg Catechism.

What Christian parent or minister or elder is not moved by these words of a dying fourteen-year-old Dutch girl?

My dear Father, I desire that thou wilt promise me that thou wilt go to Rev. De Witte and Rev. Ardinois and thank them that they have taught me catechism classes (for they teach the Catechism every Tuesday in the Mare Church, as their colleagues do in due course in other churches) and tell them that those beautiful Scripture references that they have taught me in their catechism classes have brought me so much comfort on my deathbed, indeed have brought me salvation. Oh! Oh! Those wonderful and lovely catechism classes that I always attended with so much joy and never once missed in all the time that I attended them ready to respond to questions (p. 223).

Also included are encouraging examples of ladies reading and discussing catechism sermons while ironing or sewing, or of saints reading aloud from a catechism sermon book to each other in their homes on the Lord's Day or through the week (pp. 205-208).

But not all in the Netherlands enjoyed Heidelberg Catechism preaching, especially, though not exclusively, the Arminians and worldly folk (pp. 187-199), with apostasy leading to dropping Catechism preaching which led to deeper apostasy (p. 199). Something to guard against here!

Besides the authorial labours of the six Dutch doctors, we must register our thanks for the translational work of three members of the Bilkes family, especially Gerrit, the main translator, for this was a big task (p. x).