Happy Birthday Heidelberg

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Today is the 455th birthday of the Heidelberg Catechism.

I grew up with the Heidelberg. I don’t recall having to memorize it cold like some organic chemistry nightmare. It wasn’t always front and center in my life, but it was always there.

I’ll forever be grateful to my childhood pastor for making me read the Heidelberg Catechism and meet in his big office with him to talk about it before I made profession of faith in the fourth grade. I was nervous to meet with him, even more nervous to meet before all the elders. But both meetings were pleasant. And besides, I was forced to read through all 129 questions and answers at age 9. That was a blessing I didn’t realize at the time. Ever since then I’ve had a copy of the catechism and have grown to understand it and cherish it more and more over the years.

An Old Story

In 1562, Elector Frederick III of the Palatinate, a princely state of the Holy Roman Empire (think Germany), ordered the preparation of a new catechism for his territory. A new catechism would serve three purposes: (1) as a tool for teaching children, (2) as a guide for preachers, and (3) as a form for confessional unity among the Protestant factions in the Palatinate. Frederick wanted a unifying catechism that avoided theological labels and was plainly rooted in the texts of Scripture. To that end, he commissioned a team of theological professors and ministers (along with Frederick himself) to draft a new catechism. Although the catechism was truly a team effort (including Caspar Olevianus who used to be considered a co-author of the catechism, but now is seen as simply one valuable member of the committee), there is little doubt the chief author was Zacharias Ursinus.

Ursinus, a professor at the university in Heidelberg, was born on July 18, 1534, in what is today Poland but at that time was part of Austria. Ursinus was the chief architect of the Heidelberg Catechism, basing many of the questions and answers on his own Shorter Catechism, and to a lesser extent, his Larger Catechism. The Heidelberg Catechism reflects Ursinus’s theological convictions (firmly Protestant with Calvinist influence) and his warm, irenic spirit.

This new catechism was first published in Heidelberg (the leading city of the Palatinate) on January 19, 1563, going through several revisions that same year. The Catechism was quickly translated into Latin and Dutch, and soon after into French and English. Besides the Bible, John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, and Thomas a Kempis’s Imitation of Christ, the Heidelberg Catechsim is the most widely circulated book in the world. Since its publication in 1563, the Heidelberg Catechism has been used in scores of languages and widely praised as the most devotional, most loved catechism of the Reformation.

An Old Friend

Not everyone is as keen on catechism as I am. For some, catechisms are too linear, too systematic, too propositional. For others, the catechism gets a bad rap because, fairly or unfairly, the only stories that we hear about catechetical instruction are the stories of old Domine Vander SoAndSo who threatened to smite us hip and thigh if we couldn’t remember what God required of us in the eighth commandment.

More often, catechisms simply never get tried because they are said to be about theology and theology is said to be boring and words like “Heidelberg” and “Westminster” are even more boring. (Incidentally, I have never been a fan of snazzy Sunday school curriculum that tries to pretend that a catechism is something other than questions and answers about the Bible. You can call it “Journeys with God from the Palatinate” or “Heidelberg Truth Rockets” but it’s still a catechism and our kids know it.)

But even with all this bad press, I am firm believer in catechisms, especially the best ones like Westminster or Heidelberg. I’ll never forget sitting in my Christian Education class at my evangelical, non-Dutch, non-denominational seminary. One of our assigned texts was the Heidelberg Catechism—this little book that growing up was usually good for rolling the eyes of students into the backs of their little heads. But my fellow students at seminary marveled at this piece of work. “Where has this been all their lives?” “This will be perfect for Sunday school!” “I’m going to use this for new member’s classes!” Most of the Dutch Reformed kids I knew were ready to see the Heidelberg Catechism go the way of the dodo bird. But at seminary, my classmates were seeing something many of my peers had missed: the Heidelberg Catechism is really, really good.

Happy birthday, old friend. May you make many new friends in the years ahead.

Want to know more about Heidelberg? Check out The Good News We Almost Forgot: Rediscovering the Gospel in a 16th Century Catechism.

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