Why Pastors Should Engage the Heidelberg Catechism
One of the features of the Protestant Reformation, whose 500th birthday we recently commemorated, was a revival of interest in catechisms. Ordinary people had long been deprived of solid biblical teaching, so these catechisms were designed as discipleship manuals to instruct children and lay adults in the basics of Scripture and the Christian life. Of the hundreds of catechisms produced in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) became one of the most widely used and deeply loved statements of the Christian faith. Shortly after it appeared, Heinrich Bullinger, Zwingli’s successor in Zurich, called it “the best catechism ever published,” and within sixty years it had been translated from German into Latin, Dutch, English, Hungarian, French, Greek, Romansch, Czech, and Spanish. Today it can be found in many African and Asian languages as well. Especially admired are its famous opening lines: “What is your only comfort in life and in death? That I am not my own but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.”
Why has the Heidelberg Catechism (hereafter HC) had such staying power, and why should pastors still engage it today? There are many ways to answer those questions, but we will focus here on three:
1. It Introduces Us to Scripture.
The HC is a document steeped in Scripture. Frederick III, the German ruler who commissioned the HC, refers to it in the preface as “a catechism of our Christian religion out of the Word of God,” and later he would claim that “my own catechism is drawn word for word from divine, not human, sources.” These deep roots in Scripture can be seen, for example, in the biblical text references that support every one of the 129 questions and answers, as well as in the threefold structure of the catechism (Human Misery, Deliverance through Christ, Lives of Gratitude), which follows the sin-salvation-service pattern of Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Indeed, the very terminology of the threefold division of the HC echoes Paul’s summary of this pattern in Romans 7:24-25: “What a miserable man I am! Who will deliver me from the body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!” The Heidelberg Catechism is a finely-crafted tool for introducing others to the main teachings of Scripture. Click To Tweet
The HC, however, is not only itself deeply scriptural, it is also a finely-crafted tool for introducing others to the main teachings of Scripture. Like all catechisms for a thousand years before the Reformation, the HC is essentially an explanation of the basic elements of Christianity: the Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and the sacraments. The commandments, Lord’s Prayer, and institutions of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are, of course, parts of Scripture itself, and even the statements of the creed are based directly on the biblical text. Since ancient times, the Christian community had considered it important to teach these key portions of the Bible to children, laypeople, and new Christians as a way of instilling in them the fundamentals of the Christian faith. And that is precisely what the HC does as it weaves these basic elements of Scripture into the threefold structure: we come to know our misery through the (summary of the) commandments (Q/A 3-11); we come to know our deliverance through the gospel as summarized in the creed and the sacraments (Q/A 12-85); and we learn ways to show our gratitude for such deliverance through the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer (Q/A 86-129). What we have in the HC, therefore, is biblical content within a biblical structure, resting on a biblical foundation.
2. It Relates Doctrine to Life.
The HC is not only a profoundly biblical document but also a practical one. For one thing, it does not treat biblical doctrine theoretically but illustrates for preachers and teachers how such truths relate to Christians personally and pastorally. This is clear already in the opening question and answer, where Christ is presented not as an abstract theological concept but as a person to whom I belong, someone who is “my faithful Savior,” someone who “has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil.” All of this is part of the comfort of the gospel, addressed to people in great spiritual “dis-comfort” and in need of that good news.
This emphasis on the practical application of doctrine is found throughout the entire catechism. How do the doctrines of creation and providence help us (Q/A 28)? How does the resurrection of Christ benefit us (Q/A 45)? How does the return of Christ comfort us (Q/A 52)? What good does it do us to believe the gospel as summarized in the Apostles’ Creed (Q/A 59)? How do baptism and the Lord’s Supper remind and assure us that Christ’s sacrifice on the cross benefits us (Q /A 69, 75)? This is not academic theology but pastoral and relational theology, doctrine that is connected to the lives and experience of real people.
3. It Shows Us How to Live Out Our Faith.
The HC is also practical in that, like a good preacher, it tells us how we then might live, how we as Christians can or should respond to the biblical truths that have been explained. This is most clearly seen, of course, in the third section of the catechism on gratitude, which teaches us how “in all our living we may show that we are thankful to God for all he has done for us” (Q/A 86). But this kind of application is also found earlier in the second section on deliverance. In Q/A 31, for example, the catechism explains that Jesus is also called Christ, or the anointed one, because he was ordained by the Father and anointed by the Holy Spirit to be our chief prophet, only high priest, and eternal king. Then the HC goes on in the very next question to ask about our response to the threefold office of Christ. If Jesus is called Christ, “why are you called a Christian,” that is, a follower of Christ?
Because by faith I am a member of Christ and so I share in his anointing. I am anointed [as a prophet] to confess his name, [as a priest] to present myself to him as a living sacrifice of thanks, [as a king] to strive with a good conscience against sin and the devil in this life, and [also as a king] afterward to reign with Christ over all creation for all eternity.
Christ is anointed as prophet, priest, and king; we belong to Christ; therefore, we too are anointed to be prophets, priests, and kings. Here is Christian doctrine at its best—not just a summary of divine revelation but also a call to respond to that revelation in Christian living.
The HC’s remarkable shelf life, therefore, is a testament to its resonance with the grand themes of Scripture and to its exquisite blend of doctrine and piety. It opens up the heart of the Scriptures, pastorally addresses the spiritual anxieties of its readers, draws connections between doctrine and life, and demonstrates not only how to understand our faith but also how to live it. For pastors, teachers, and preachers today the HC is itself, in a sense, a model pastor, teacher, and preacher, even four and a half centuries after it was composed.