The Heidelberg Catechism (1563), one of the Three Forms of Unity, is a Protestant confessional document taking the form of a series of questions and answers, for use in teaching Reformed Christian doctrine. It was written in 1563 in Heidelberg, present-day Germany. Its original title translates to Catechism, or Christian Instruction, according to the Usages of the Churches and Schools of the Electoral Palatinate. Commissioned by the prince-elector of the Electoral Palatinate, it is sometimes referred to as the "Palatinate Catechism." It has been translated into many languages and is regarded as one of the most influential of the Reformed catechisms.
Elector Frederick III, sovereign of the Electoral Palatinate from 1559 to 1576, commissioned the composition of a new Catechism for his territory. While the catechism's introduction credits the "entire theological faculty here" (at the University of Heidelberg) and "all the superintendents and prominent servants of the church" for the composition of the catechism, Zacharius Ursinus is commonly regarded as the catechism's principal author. Caspar Olevianus (1536–1587) was formerly asserted as a co-author of the document, though this theory has been largely discarded by modern scholarship. Johann Sylvan, Adam Neuser, Johannes Willing, Thomas Erastus, Michael Diller, Johannes Brunner, Tilemann Mumius, Petrus Macheropoeus, Johannes Eisenmenger, Immanuel Tremellius and Pierre Boquin are all likely to have contributed to the Catechism in some way. Frederick himself wrote the preface to the Catechism and closely oversaw its composition and publication.
Frederick, who was officially Lutheran but had strong Reformed leanings, wanted to even out the religious situation of his highly Lutheran territory within the primarily Catholic Holy Roman Empire. The Council of Trent had just concluded with its conclusions and decrees against the Protestant faiths, and the Peace of Augsburg had only granted toleration for Lutheranism within the empire where the ruler was Lutheran. One of the aims of the catechism was to counteract the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church as well as Anabaptists and "strict" Gnesio-Lutherans like Tilemann Heshusius and Matthias Flacius, who were resisting Frederick's Reformed influences, particularly on the matter of Eucharist.
The Catechism based each of its statements on biblical proof-texts, and Frederick himself would defend it as biblical, not reformed, at the 1566 Diet of Augsburg when he was called to answer to charges of violating the Peace of Augsburg.
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. A synod in 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.
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 31. 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)
- The Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord's Supper
- And the keys of the kingdom of heaven The Preaching of the Gospel and Church Discipline
III. The Gratitude Due from Man (for such a deliverance)
This part consists of the Lord's Day 32 through to Lord's Day 52. It discusses:
- Conversion (Lord's Days 32-33)
- The Ten Commandments (Lord's Days 34 - 44)
- The Lord's prayer (Lord's Days 45 - 52)
Lord's Day 1
The first Lord's Day should be read as a summary of the catechism as a whole. As such, it illustrates the character of this work, which is devotional as well as dogmatic or doctrinal. The first Question and Answer reads:
"What is Thy only comfort in life and death?"
The answer is:
"That I with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Savior Jesus Christ; who, with his precious blood, hath fully satisfied for all my sins, and delivered me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my heavenly Father, not a hair can fall from my head; yea, that all things must be subservient to my salvation, and therefore, by his Holy Spirit, he also assures me of eternal life, and makes me sincerely willing and ready, henceforth, to live unto him."
Lord's Day 30
The Catechism is most notoriously and explicitly anti-Catholic in the additions made in its second and third editions to Lord’s Day 30 concerning "the popish mass," which is condemned as an "accursed idolatry."
Following the War of Palatine Succession Heidelberg and the Palatinate were again in an unstable political situation with sectarian battle lines. In 1719 an edition of the Catechism was published in the Palatinate that included Lord's Day 30. The Catholic reaction was so strong, the Catechism was banned by Charles III Philip, Elector Palatine. This provoked an international reaction from Reformed countries, leading to a reversal of the ban.
In some Reformed denominations Q&A 80 has been removed, bracketed, and/or noted as inaccurate and not binding doctrine.
Use in various denominations and traditions
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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 Presbyterian Church in America, the Christian Reformed Church, the United Reformed Churches, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Reformed Church in America, the Communion of Reformed Evangelical Churches, the United Church of Christ (a successor to the German Reformed churches), the Reformed Church in the United States (also of German Reformed heritage), the Free Reformed Churches of North America, the Heritage Reformed Congregations, the Canadian and American Reformed Churches, Protestant Reformed Churches, and several other Reformed churches of Dutch origin around the world.
A revision of the catechism was prepared by the Baptist minister, Hercules Collins. Published in 1680, under the title 'An Orthodox Catechism', it was identical in content to the Heidelberg catechism, with exception to questions regarding baptism, where adult immersion was defended against infant baptism and the other modes of affusion and aspersion.
- Emil Sehling, ed., Die evangelischen Kirchenordnungen des XVI. Jahrhunderts, Band 14, Kurpfalz (Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck), 1969), 343: “Und demnach mit rhat und zuthun unserer gantzen theologischen facultet allhie, auch allen superintendenten und fürnemsten kirchendienern einen summarischen underricht oder catechismum unserer christlichen religion auß dem wort Gottes beides, in deutscher und lateinisher sprach, verfassen und stellen lassen, damit fürbaß nicht allein die jugendt in kirchen und schulen in solcher christlicher lehre gottseliglichen underwiesen und darzu einhelliglichen angehalten, sonder auch die prediger und schulmeister selbs ein gewisse und bestendige form und maß haben mögen, wie sie sich in underweisung der jugendt verhalten sollen und nicht ires gefallens tegliche enderungen fürnemen oder widerwertige lehre einfüren.”
- Lyle Bierma, “The Purpose and Authorship of the Heidelberg Catechism,” in An Introduction to the Heidelberg Catechism: Sources, History, and Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005), 67.
- J.F. Gerhard Goeters, “Zur Geschichte des Katechismus,” in Heidelberger Katechismus: Revidierte Ausgabe 1997, 3rd ed. (Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag, 2006), 89.
- FRC: Heidelberg Catechism - Historical Background
- Rines, George Edwin, ed. (1920). "Heidelberg Catechism". Encyclopedia Americana.
- German text of Heidelberg Catechism
- Heidelberg Catechism (modern English translation): From the Reformed Church in the United States
- Heidelberg Curriculum for Families (text and audio)
- Audio Recording of the Heidelberg Catechism (mp3)