Definitions

Heidelberg Catechism

Heidelberg Catechism

The Heidelberg Catechism is a Protestant confessional document taking the form of a series of questions and answers, for use in teaching Reformed Christian doctrine. It has been translated into many languages and is regarded as one of the most influential of the Reformed catechisms.

History

Elector Frederick III, sovereign of the Palatinate from 1559 to 1576, appointed Zacharius Ursinus and Caspar Olevianus to write a Reformed catechism based on input from leading Reformed scholars of the time. Fredrick wanted the two to even out the religious situation of the city, but also to draw up a statement of belief that would combine the best of Lutheran and Reformed wisdom and could instruct ordinary people on the basics of the newfound Protestant version of the Christian faith. One of the aims of the catechism was to counteract the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, and so it based each of its statements on the text of the Bible.

Commissioned by the sovereign of Palatinate, it is sometimes referred to as the Palatinate Catechism.

The Catechism is divided into fifty-two sections, called "Lord's Days," which were designed to be taught on each of the 52 Sundays of the year. The Synod of Heidelberg approved the catechism in 1563. In the Netherlands, the Catechism was approved by the Synods of Wesel (1568), Emden (1571), Dort (1578), the Hague (1586), as well as the great Synod of Dort of 1618-1619, which adopted it as one of the Three Forms of Unity, together with the Belgic Confession and the Canons of Dort. Elders and deacons were required to subscribe and adhere to it, and ministers were required to preach on a section of the Catechism each Sunday so as to increase the often poor theological knowledge of the church members. In many Dutch Reformed denominations this practice is still continued.

Structure

In its current form, the Heidelberg Catechism consists of 129 questions and answers. These are divided into three main parts:

I. The Misery of Man

This part consists of the Lord's Day 2, 3, and 4. It discusses:

II. The Redemption (or Deliverance) of Man

This part consists of Lord's Day 5 through to Lord's Day 30. It discusses:

  • The need for a Redeemer
  • The importance of faith, the content of which is explained by an exposition of the 12 Articles of the Christian faith, known as the Apostle's Creed. The discussion of these articles is further divided into sections on:
    • God the Father and our creation (Lord's Days 9-10)
    • God the Son and our salvation (Lord's Days 11-19)
    • God the Holy Spirit and our sanctification (Lord's Days 20 - 22)
  • Justification
  • The Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord's Supper

III. The Gratitude Due from Man (for such a deliverance)

This part consists of the Lord's Day 31 through to Lord's Day 52. It discusses:

Lord's Day 1

The first Sunday section should be read as a summary of the catechism as a whole. As such, it beautifully illustrates the character of this work, which has a devotional rather than dogmatic quality. This can be seen in the first question, which is: The answer is:

Use in Various Denominations and Traditions

The fact that this booklet was also meant to form bridges between Lutheran and Reformed Protestants in Germany can for example be seen from the role the Law takes as both the source of knowledge of human depravity and misery (first part of the Catechism) and the 'rule for gratitude', the source of knowledge of God's will for a holy life. It would be until the early 19th century, however, before King Frederick William III united significant portions of the Lutheran and Reformed churches in Germany, and much of that union took on a pietistic rather than a confessional character.

The influence of the Catechism extended to the Westminster Assembly of Divines who, in part, used it as the basis for their Shorter Catechism.

The Heidelberg Catechism is one of the three Reformed confessions that form the doctrinal basis of the original Reformed church in The Netherlands, and is recognized as such also by the Dutch reformed churches that originated from that church during and since the 19th century.

Several Protestant denominations in North America presently honor the Catechism officially: the Christian Reformed Church, the United Reformed Churches, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Reformed Church in America, the United Church of Christ (a successor to the German Reformed churches), the Reformed Church in the United States (also German Reformed) the Free Reformed Churches of North America, the Heritage Reformed Congregations, the Canadian and American Reformed Churches, and several other Reformed churches of Dutch origin around the world.

External links

References

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