An Introduction to the Heidelberg Catechism

heidelberg_study guideThe History of the Heidelberg Catechism

The Heidelberg Catechism is named after the place in which it was composed –  Heidelberg, a city in the Palatinate, which was a province in Germany. It was composed at the behest of the ruler of the Palatinate, Elector (or Prince-Elector) Frederick III (1516-1576), and first published in 1563.

The primary author of the catechism was Zacharias Ursinus (1534-1583), who was just 28 years-old at the time (!), and was professor of theology at the Heidelberg University. Caspar Olevianus (1536-1587), who himself was just 26 years-old at the time, and was the court preacher of Frederick III, is thought by some to be the co-author of the catechism, but many hold that he was mainly responsible for the editing and final composition of the original edition that was approved by the Synod at Heidelberg in 1563.

Its original full title translates to “Catechism, or Christian Instruction, as Conducted in the Churches and Schools of the Electoral Palatinate.” (See The Creeds of Christendom, by Philip Schaff, Vol.III, p.307.) This gives us a good idea of the extent of its originally-intended use – not only as a means of promoting doctrinal unity throughout the Palatinate, but also as a teaching tool in both the churches and in schools as well.

The Structure and Outline of the Heidelberg Catechism

Not long after its original composition the questions in the Heidelberg Catechism were numbered, and it was divided up into 52 sections, one for each Lord’s Day (i.e. Sunday) of the year, so that it could be more easily used as a teaching tool in the churches, both for instruction as well as for catechetical preaching. In this way a church could teach her members the entire summary of the basics of the faith at least once every calendar year!

Not only that, but the entire catechism is outlined or structured around three (3) points or sections, often summarized as the “3 G’s” –  Guilt (Q.3-11), Grace (Q.12-85), and Gratitude (Q.86-129). This very outline (although not employing these exact terms) is made explicit in Q.2, which says:

“Q.2 What must you know to live and die in the joy of this comfort?
A. Three things: first, how great my sin and misery are; second, how I am set free from all my sins and misery; third, how I am to thank God for such deliverance.”

Those “three things” that we must know in order to live and die in the joy of our comfort in Christ Jesus correspond to the “3 G’s” listed above. To know our guilt is to know how great our sin and misery are; to know God’s grace in Christ is to know how we are set free from all our sins and misery; and to know true gratitude is to know how we are to thank God for such deliverance.

The catechism (like many others composed since the start of the Protestant Reformation) includes somewhat lengthy expositions of the The Apostles’ Creed (Q.22-58), The Ten Commandments (Q.92-115), and the Lord’s Prayer (Q.116-129), which are commonly considered to be the ABC’s or building blocks of the Christian faith and life. As Puritan writer Thomas Watson well states it:

“The ten commandments are the rule of our life, the creed is the sum of our faith, and the Lord’s prayer is the pattern of our prayer.”  (The Lord’s Prayer, p.1)

No wonder those three (3) things were so commonly taught in the catechisms of the churches of the Reformation!

The Influence of the Heidelberg Catechism

In the Introduction to his book, The Heidelberg Catechism: A Study Guide, G.I. Williamson writes,

“The Heidelberg Catechism is one of the finest creeds of the Reformation period. A faithful teacher of millions, it has stood the test of time. It is still, today, one of the best tools available for learning what it means to be a Christian.” (p.1)

That is high praise indeed, and well-earned at that. Regarding the widespread reach and influence of the Heidelberg Catechism, Philip Schaff writes:

“It is stated that, next to the Bible, the ‘Imitation of Christ,’ by Thomas a Kempis, and Bunyan’s ‘Pilgrim’s Progress,’ no book has been more frequently translated, more widely circulated and used.” (The Creeds of Christendom, Vol. I, p.536)

The fact that this catechism has endured the test of time for over 450 years is a testament to its clarity and usefulness. It still remains a vital part of the doctrinal standards (known as the “three forms of unity”) of the Reformed Churches in continental Europe and America.


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