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A Sketch of the Christian's Catechism

Rev. Angus Stewart


A Sketch of the Christian's Catechism
William Ames, trans. Todd M. Rester
Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2008, hardback, xxxii + 253 pp.
ISBN 978-1-60178-045-4

Not Really a Heidelberg Catechism Commentary

If you are looking for a commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, this book will disappoint you, for it is not really an exposition of the Heidelberger. William Ames did not believe in preaching the Heidelberg Catechism. Instead, he picked a verse or verses from the Bible on the subject of the Lord's Day and expounded his scriptural text.

The 52 Lord's Days are treated in 48 chapters, with Ames taking Lord's Days 26 and 27 (on baptism), 28 and 29 (on the Lord's Supper) and 36 and 37 (on the third commandment) together, and not covering Lord's Day 32, evidently reckoning it dealt with in his discussion of good works in Lords' Day 25. Ames' 48 chapters, averaging about 4 ½ pages, are headed with the relevant Lord's Day: "Lord's Day 1," "Lord's Day 2" and so on.

However, the text of the specific Lord's Day is not quoted at the start (or the middle or the end) of a single chapter; the ideas, sentences, clauses or terminology of the Lord's Day are not explained; and sometimes the chapter does not even refer to the Catechism at all. This is always Ames' approach throughout the book. This is what he taught his students to do. But these are not model Heidelberg Catechism sermons!

Perhaps this is why Ames' friends—"former students and colleagues from the Academy at Franeker"—compiled and published this work under the (Latin) title Christianae Catecheseos Sciagraphia (p. xxvi), rendered in English as A Sketch of the Christian's Catechism, recognizing that it is closer to a sketch than an exposition of the Heidelberg Catechism.

Furthermore, it is hard to see how Ames' view of faith and assurance (pp. 37-43; cf. xxi-xxii) can be squared with Lord's Day 7.

Practical Use

Ames' method is one which twenty-first century readers might take a while to get used to. After quoting his scriptural text, his first paragraph makes exegetical remarks. Then he draws several "Lessons" (ranging from two to seven), which he reinforces with "Reasons" and applies with "Uses." Sometimes he includes "Questions" with their accompanying "Responses."

As in Ames' famous The Manner of Theology, his writing style is terse, with deep truths being stated in a short space. A Sketch of the Christian's Catechism is not, therefore, an easy read. However, it does contain profound theology—examples are too many to cite—and it repays a more meditative form of reading, including pausing for reflection. This is the way in which, I reckon, God's people today would most benefit from the work, and preachers on the Heidelberg Catechism could find it stimulating in their sermon preparation.

Historical Value

Beside the practical use of A Sketch of the Christian's Catechism, it is also of value historically, as the book's fine biographical and historical introduction especially shows (pp. xii-xxxii).

First, it fills out our picture of William Ames (1576-1633), a highly regarded Reformed preacher, and professor, the chief theological advisor and secretary to Bogerman (the presiding officer at the Synod of Dordt) and the author of The Marrow of Theology and Conscience With the Power and Cases Thereof, a significant manual of Puritan casuistry.

Second, Ames demonstrates well the inter-connections and cross-pollination of the Reformed world. He was an English Puritan who taught at a Dutch university and who was most influential in New England, especially at Harvard College and amongst the Congregationalists. Moreover, this book deals with a great German creed, the Heidelberg Catechism, and was originally printed in Latin in Franeker, Friesland (p. 1).

Third, we see in Ames and his A Sketch of the Christian's Catechism a fusion of Reformed theology and piety, doctrine and practice. This was served by the Ramist theological method and rigorous scholarship, including a discriminating use of Latin translations of the Old Testament (always the Tremellius-Junius version, with a few of Ames' own emendations) and the New Testament (usually the Beza version, with several Amesian variations) (pp. xxix-xxx, 231-238).

Ames' A Sketch of the Christian's Catechism is the inaugural volume of the Classic Reformed Theology series under the general editorship of R. Scott Clark. It sounds like a fine project (pp. vii-xi) and one looks forward to more scholarly critical English translations of primary texts of Reformed orthodoxy.