I’m about ready to send off my manuscript on the Heidelberg Catechism (tentatively titled The Good News We Almost Forgot). But I’m still wrestling with one chapter. As you may know, the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) is comprised of 129 questions and answers spread out over 52 Lord’s Days. The most controversial section, by far, is Lord’s Day 30, Q/A 80, which reads:

Q. How does the Lord’s Supper differ from the Roman Catholic Mass?

A. The Lord’s Supper declares to us that our sins have been completely forgiven through the one sacrifice of Jesus Christ which he himself finished on the cross once for all. It also declares to us that the Holy Spirit grafts us into Christ, who with his very body is now in heaven at the right hand of the Father where he wants us to worship him. But the Mass teaches that the living and the dead do not have their sins forgiven through the suffering of Christ unless Christ is still offered for them daily by the priests. It also teaches that Christ is bodily present in the form of bread and wine where Christ is therefore to be worshiped. Thus the Mass is basically nothing but a denial of the one sacrifice and suffering of Jesus Christ and a condemnable idolatry.

I’ve worked on this chapter more than any other because I am trying to understand the Roman Catholic position on the Mass and determine if Heidelberg’s strong language is warranted, especially in light of the recent determination by the Christian Reformed Church “that the last three paragraphs [of Question 80] be placed in brackets to indicate that they do not accurately reflect the official teaching and practice of today’s Roman Catholic Church and are no longer confessionally binding on members of the CRC.” (For more information about this change see the 2008 Acts and Agenda for Synod [http://www.crcna.org/pages/synodical.cfm]). I know the CRC did not make this decision lightly. They talked with Roman Catholic theologians and tried to be as fair as possible in understanding what Heidelberg says and what Catholic teaching says. Nevertheless, I think the substance of Heidelberg’s criticism is still justified.

Honestly, I don’t relish the thought of reviving Protestant-Catholic polemics. I have friends who are Catholics and have benefited from a number of Catholic writers. But this issue of what takes place in the Lord’s Supper is hugely important and the differences between our two positions cannot be brushed aside too quickly. I don’t expect any of my Roman Catholic readers to agree with Question 80 or my interpretation of it, but I do hope at least that I am fair. To that end, I will read carefully the comment section for this post.

Here’s the draft of my chapter on Lord’s Day 30.


The Heidelberg Catechism is famous for being an irenic document. There is no nailing of Lutherans to the wall, or drowning of Anabaptists, and very little anathematizing Catholics in the spirit of what goes around comes around. But there is this concluding line from Answer 80 where Ursinus and his buddies take the gloves off: “Thus the Mass is basically nothing but a denial of the one sacrifice and suffering of Jesus Christ and a condemnable idolatry.” True, as almost every English translation points out, Q/A 80 was not present in the first edition (January 1563) of the Catechism. But the present form was included by the third edition (published later in 1563) and has always been the standard received text. In fact, the first edition was lost until 1864. Ever since then end of 1563, Q/A 80 has been considered a part of the Catechism as much any other question and answer.

So what are we to make of this harsh language in Answer 80? Well, before assessing the rightness or wrongness of Lord’s Day 30, we need some historical background. The Catholic worship service is a called a Mass, which comes from the Latin word for “dismissal” (Ite, missa est is the concluding line in the Latin Mass). Unlike Protestant services where the sermon is the focal point, for Catholics the main event is the Eucharist (what many of us call Lord’s Supper or Communion). The priest may give a ten minute homily on a passage of Scripture (I’ve heard from Catholic friends that 15 minutes is considered long), but the Eucharistic celebration is what makes Mass a Mass.

At the heart of the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist is a belief in the real body and blood of Christ in the bread and the wine. Catholics believe that the elements are transubstantiated, so that when consecrated by the priest, the bread and wine actually become the flesh and blood of Christ. For Catholics, the Lord’s Supper is not just a memorial service remembering Christ’s death, or even a spiritual presence where we feast on Christ in a mystical, spiritual way. The Eucharist, in the Catholic tradition, is also a sacrifice.

And this is what the authors of the Heidelberg Catechism found so offensive in the Catholic Mass. In fact, the reason the Catechism added Q/A 80 in the third edition was, most likely, in order to respond to the Council of Trent. On September 17, 1562, the twenty-second session of the Council of Trent, the official arm of the Catholic counter-reformation, met and issued a statement “on the sacrifice of the Mass.” The first edition of the Heidelberg Catechism was not able to touch on Trent’s statement, which is why a revision several months later was necessary.

The Council of Trent pronounced, in no uncertain terms, that the Mass was a re-presenting, not just symbolically but actually, of Christ’s atoning death: “And forasmuch as in this divine sacrifice which is celebrated in the mass, that same Christ is contained and immolated in an unbloody manner who once offered himself in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross; the holy Synod teaches that this sacrifice is truly propitiatory, and that by means thereof this is effected, that we obtain mercy and find grace…For the victim is one and the same, the same now offering by the ministry of priests, who then offered himself on the cross, the manner alone of offering being different” (Canons of Trent, 22.2).

To be fair, Catholic theology does not consider the Eucharist a re-sacrifice of Christ, as Heidelberg puts it. “The sacrifice of Christ and the sacrifice of the Eucharist are one single sacrifice…” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1367). Thus, Catholics theologians do not agree (obviously!) with the Heidelberg that the Mass is “nothing but a denial of the one sacrifice and suffering of Jesus Christ.” The sacrifice of Christ and the Eucharist are one sacrifice performed in different ways, they would argue. So the wording of the Catechism does not, in its entirety, reflect the way Catholic theology would explain the Mass. The CRC is right about that. Official Catholic teaching does not argue that Christ’s death must be repeated over and over. Rather, it teaches that in the Eucharist the death of Christ is pulled into the present for us to enjoy sacramentally.

But having said all this, I still believe Heidelberg 80 is not far from the mark. The Catholic understanding of the Eurcharist does, in my estimation, undermine the once-for-all nature of the cross (though Catholics would deny that it does). Christ’s sacrifice was once for all, never to be repeated (John 19:30; 9:25-26; 10:10-18). There is no need for Christ to be offered again (Heb. 7:27). Our eternal redemption has been secured (Heb. 9:12). Where there is forgiveness for our lawless deeds, there is no longer any offering for sin (Heb. 10:18). The implication of the Catholic position (which Catholics want to avoid, but which I find unavoidable)–namely, that an atoning sacrifice takes place again during every Mass–undermines the efficacy of Christ’s death, the sufficiency of his atonement, and the finality of his redemptive work. When Trent and the Catholic Catechism argue that the Eucharistic sacrifice is “truly propitiatory” (i.e., turns away God’s wrath) it’s hard to see how the Mass does not repeat what Christ said was “finished.” And this is to say nothing of how ordinary Catholics experience the Mass, without the sophisticated nuance of their official tradition.

More to the point, though the language may offend my twenty-first century ears, I still think the Catholic adoration of the bread and wine is idolatrous. I might use a different word than “condemnable” because I don’t believe getting their theology of the Lord’s Supper wrong will automatically keep Catholics out of heaven. But I think the Catholic practice of the Eucharist is sinful. I know I am walking a fine line here. Some will think I’m being too soft and others will say I’m too harsh. What I want to avoid is giving the impression that Catholics cannot be Christians. But I also want to state strongly that the Catholic Mass is, in parts, offensive to God.

The reason I go so far as to still use the word “idolatrous” is, ironically enough, because of something I read a few years ago in a book written by two Catholics. Scott Hahn is a popular Catholic apologist who teaches at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. In the book, Rome Sweet Rome: Our Journey to Catholicism, Scott and his wife Kimberly tell their story of converting from conservative Presbyterianism to Roman Catholicism. Scott actually went to Gordon-Conwell (before I was there) and counts as one of his mentors John Gerstner. At one point in the book, Kimberly tells how, on her way to becoming Catholic, she starting looking at the Eucharist differently:

One evening, we had an opportunity to be at a Mass where there was a Eucharistic procession at the end. I had never seen this before. As I watched row after row of grown men and women kneel and bow when the monstrance passed by, I thought, These people believe that this is the Lord, and not just bread and wine. If this is Jesus, that is the only appropriate response. If one should kneel before a king today, how much more before the King of Kings? the Lord of Lords? Is it safe to kneel or not? But, I continued to ruminate, what if it’s not? If that is not Jesus in the monstrance, then what they are doing is gross idolatry. So, is it safe to kneel (142)?

Kimberly Hahn eventually felt it was safe to kneel. I don’t agree with her decision. But she has presented the options with refreshing clarity. If transubstantiation is true, then the Mass is pleasing to God and we ought to give adoration to the consecrated host. But if “this is my body” is to be taken no more concretely than “I am the gate”, and if the doctrine of transubstantiation only works by importing Aristotelian categories, then Kimberly Hahn’s fear about the Mass is justified. It is not safe to kneel. It is, as she initially worried, gross idolatry.