The Distinctive Doctrines of the Heidelberg Catechism

by George W. Richards

THE Catechism was prepared, as stated in its preface, not only "for instruction in Christian doctrine in churches and schools; but that preachers and teachers may have a sure and fixed form and rule for the instruction of youth, and not make daily changes at their pleasure or introduce contrary doctrine." The effort to conform to this twofold design—a catechism and a rule of faith—doubtless accounts for both its merits and its faults. Intended, as it was, to be also a standard of doctrine, it became necessary not only to make an elaborate doctrinal statement of the faith, but to differentiate its teaching from that of other Churches. The form of many of the questions and the contents of many of the answers give evidence of such distinctions. We shall consider, accordingly, the points in which the Catechism differs from Catholicism, from Radicalism (Anabaptism and Socinianism), from Lutheranism, and from high Calvinism.


THE evangelical character of the Catechism is brought out in three ways: 1. by the omission of doctrines which are usually expounded at length in catechisms of the Roman Church; 2. by polemical statements against certain Catholic doctrines and usages; 3. by a presentation of doctrines and ideals which are generally accepted by Protestant Churches.

In its four parts the Catechism of the Council of Trent (1566) conforms to the divisions of Protestant catechisms, though the order is changed as follows: Creed, Sacraments, Decalogue, Lord's Prayer. The exposition of these parts, however, contains detailed explanations of seven sacraments instead of two, of the invocation of the Virgin and the Saints, of the various kinds of sin, of seven holy orders, of penance, of the Pope's authority, etc. Most of these doctrines and ordinances are not even mentioned in the evangelical catechisms—a silence which indicates that a consideration of these points is foreign to the genius of Protestantism. The Heidelberg Catechism, however, dissents from Catholicism, not only by its silence, but by direct statements ranging from mild dissent to bitter polemics.

The vital issue between Evangelical and Catholic Christianity was the doctrine of justification. The answer to the question, "How may I become righteous before God?" divided the Church of the West into two branches. The confessions and catechisms of the 16th century naturally drew sharp distinctions on this point. While the differences are stated in the Heidelberg with moderation, they are none the less clearly and firmly declared. The doctrine of justification is defined in questions 60 and 65, where the relation of faith and good works is admirably set forth.

The word only in the following clauses significantly emphasizes the sufficiency of faith on man's part for justification: "Only by true faith in Jesus Christ" (Ans. 60), and "Why sayest thou that thou art righteous only by faith?" (Qu. 61); I am acceptable to God not even "on account of the worthiness of my faith" (Ans. 61). This statement is doubtless an allusion to the plausible view advanced by the papal legate Contarini at the Colloquy of Regensburg. As a basis of reunion of Catholics and Protestants he offered the proposition that the sinner is justified not by his faith but on account of his faith. An acceptance of this politic proposal would have opened wide the door for the recrudescence of Catholic practices under the guise of the innocent preposition "on account of."

Contrary to Catholic doctrine, good works are not allowed any justifying value, as either "the whole or part of our righteousness before God." For "even our best works in this life are all imperfect and defiled with sin" (Qu. 62). The objection of the Romanists, that "this doctrine makes men careless and profane," was effectually met by the classic 64th Answer: "No; for it is impossible that those who are implanted into Christ by true faith should not bring forth fruits of thankfulness." A fine distinction this between works as the fruit of faith or as a result of fear. The difference is expressed in another way in Question 91: "But what are good works?" "Those only which are done from true faith, according to the law of God, for His glory; and not such as rest on our own opinion or the commandments of men."

Closely related to the doctrine of justification is the theory of the original state and the fall of man. According to the Catholic view the holiness, righteousness, and immortality of man before the fall were a supernatural gift of God, joined to the nature of man and not inhering in it—donum Dei superadditum. Through sin man lost the superadded gift, and while his nature,—i.e. his intellect and will—was weakened, it was not wholly depraved. Man retains the power of will to make himself worthy of divine grace, a view which is at the bottom of the Roman doctrine of salvation by faith and works. In Question 7 the Catechism directly opposes this theory: "From the fall and disobedience of our first parents, Adam and Eve, in Paradise, whereby our nature became so corrupt that we are all conceived and born in sin." With renewed emphasis Question 8 declares that "We are so far depraved that we are wholly unapt to any good and prone to all evil, unless we are born again by the Spirit of God." Through the fall man did not merely lose certain superadded gifts, but the essence of his nature became so corrupt that he retained neither freedom of will, nor power of discerning truth. His salvation depends wholly on divine grace, and his knowledge of saving truth on divine revelation.

The difference between Catholicism and the Catechism is, also, evident in the definition of faith. Answer 21 describes faith as "not only a certain knowledge, whereby I hold for truth all that God has revealed to us in His Word; but, also, a hearty trust, which the Holy Ghost works in me by the Gospel, that not only to others, but to me also, forgiveness of sins, everlasting righteousness and salvation are freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ's merits." Faith is more than assent to propositions and submission to ordinances. It is trust in a living person, wrought in the heart of the believer by the Holy Ghost through the Gospel. The assurance of faith is not found in authoritative declarations of councils, popes, or synods, but in a personal experience of the grace of God in Christ Jesus. The Catholic definition of faith is essentially different. In the preface of the Catechism of the Council of Trent is found the following: "Where we speak of that faith by which we yield our entire assent to whatever has been revealed by Almighty God. That faith thus understood is necessary to salvation, no man can reasonably doubt." Faith is resolved into mere assent to whatever God has revealed. The Church is the guardian of divine revelation. To believe, therefore, is to assent to the doctrines and prescriptions of the Church. The element of a "hearty trust which the Holy Ghost works in me by the Gospel," is not so much as mentioned. The assurance of faith rests altogether on external authority, not on personal conviction based on the soul's experience of God in Christ.

The Catechism very happily summarizes the objects of faith—that "which it is necessary for a Christian to believe"—in the articles of the Creed. Human traditions, ecclesiastical ordinances, and the commandments of men are ignored, or by implication excluded. Men are asked to believe primarily not in a book nor in an institution, but in the living God revealed in Jesus Christ. The Catechism thus evades the coördination of Scripture and tradition as found in Catholicism, and the rigid biblical literalism of 17th century Protestants, based on the theory of verbal inspiration.

Without mentioning the term, the doctrine of purgatory is denied by the statement in Answer 57: "My soul, after this life, shall be immediately taken up to Christ, its Head." The invocation of saints and the use of images are prohibited in statements like the following: "That, on peril of my soul's salvation I avoid and flee all idolatry, sorcery, enchantments, invocation of saints or of other creatures" (Qu. 94); "That we in nowise make any image of God, nor worship Him in any other way than He has commanded in His Word" (Qu. 96).

So far the references to Catholic doctrine have been moderate in tone and have displayed little if any bitterness. The polemical spirit, however, controls questions 30 and 80. In answer to Question 30, "Do such then believe in the only Savior, Jesus, who seek their salvation and welfare of saints, of themselves, or anywhere else?" we are told: "No; although they may make their boast of Him, yet in act they deny the only Savior, Jesus." This statement not only is harsh, but exceeds the limits of veracity. For, while the veneration of saints may often have been abused, the Catholic Church has never taught that salvation should be sought of saints, but only of Christ, with the help of the saints. The veneration of saints is not intended to be a denial of the ultimate source of salvation in Christ Jesus.

The 80th Question, "What difference is there between the Lord's Supper and the popish mass?" is most offensively polemical, and is considered by many as a blot upon the Catechism. It not only defines the difference "between the Lord's Supper and the popish mass," but concludes with a sort of Protestant anathema: "And thus the mass at bottom is nothing else than a denial of the one sacrifice and passion of Jesus Christ, and an accursed idolatry."

The points and questions in which the Catechism differs from Catholicism may be summarized as follows: the Original State and the Fall, Quu. 6–8; Faith, Quu. 21–22; Justification and Good Works, Quu. 60–65, 91; Prohibition of Invocation of Saints and of Images, Quu. 30, 94, 96; the Mass and the Sacraments, Quu. 72–78, 80.

The Catechism is based upon the distinctively evangelical doctrines which are common to the two branches of Protestantism, the Lutheran and the Reformed. The psychological ground of the Reformation was the consciousness of man's sin and misery, and the desire for assurance of salvation, the "only comfort in life and in death." It was a repetition in the 16th century of Paul's experience—"Wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me out of the body of this death?" (Rom. 7:24). This cry of distress is heard in the questions of the first part of the Catechism. Man is helplessly and hopelessly depraved, "by nature prone to hate God and my neighbor" (Qu. 5). His efforts to appease God and to save himself "daily increase his guilt" (Qu. 13). He must find salvation in some one else, not one who is a mere creature, but one who is at the same time true God and true man.

The objective ground of salvation is the satisfaction made by Jesus Christ for the sins of mankind. In many of the answers the theory of atonement which was held by both Luther and Calvin may be traced. Passages like the following point men to the source of their redemption and the certainty of their salvation: "Who with His precious blood has fully satisfied for all my sins" (Qu. 1); "God wills that His justice be satisfied" (Qu. 12); "Who by the one sacrifice of His body has redeemed us" (Qu. 31); "He bore in body and soul the wrath of God against the sin of the whole human race" (Qu. 37); "Only the satisfaction, righteousness and holiness of Christ are my righteousness" (Qu. 61). The scarlet thread of the cross is drawn through the whole Catechism and its cardinal doctrine is the salvation of man through the "one sacrifice of Christ accomplished on the cross" (Qu. 66).

The benefits of Christ's atoning sacrifice are appropriated by faith. The object of faith and the cause of faith are set forth in the second part of the Catechism:—Faith is the gift of God, wrought in the heart by the Holy Spirit—a Lutheran and a Reformed doctrine. Prof. Lang says: "Calvin more faithfully defended and defined the original conception of salvation as held by Luther than any dogmatician of the Reformation." The Calvinism of the Catechism does not, indeed, minimize, but rather serves to magnify the material principle of Protestantism, justification by grace through faith.

The formal principle of the Reformation was the normative authority of the Bible in doctrine and life. This doctrine is taught by implication, more than by direct affirmation, throughout the Catechism. One looks in vain for a definition of the Bible or the Word of God. The books of the Sacred Canon are not enumerated. Question 19 speaks of "the Holy Gospel which God himself first revealed in Paradise; afterwards proclaimed by the holy Patriarchs and Prophets, and foreshadowed by the sacrifices and other ceremonies of the law; and finally fulfilled by His well-beloved Son." This is the nearest approach to a definition of the Bible as a rule of faith. Yet the citation of proof-texts on the margin of the first edition implies that the Scriptures are the source of truth and the standard of authority. It is significant that no appeal is made in proof of a single doctrine to the fathers, councils, or papal decretals. The preface of the Catechism also makes special reference to the Word of God as the foundation of its teaching. When Frederick so courageously defended "his Catechism" before the diet of Augsburg, he claimed that "it was so firmly based on the Holy Scriptures that it could not be overthrown."

The Catechism, in its definition of the Church as "a chosen communion, in the unity of the true faith," is not simply Reformed, but Protestant. "Believers, all and every one, as members of Christ have part in Him and in all His treasures and gifts" (Qu. 55). Thus the Catholic distinction between the hierarchy and the laity, an ecclesia docens and an ecclesia audiens, is abolished, and the biblical doctrine of the universal priesthood of believers is restored to its proper place. The Holy Spirit working through the word takes the place of the priest and his mediating transactions. The gospel takes the place of the sacraments. Only "by His spirit and word" does the Son of God "gather, defend and preserve for Himself a chosen communion in the unity of the true faith" (Qu. 54).

Some writers have considered the organic relation between faith and moral life as being a distinctively Reformed characteristic. It is, indeed, felicitously taught in the 64th Answer in the words, "for it is impossible that those who are implanted into Christ by true faith should not bring forth fruits of thankfulness." Yet the same doctrine is found in the Augsburg Confession: "Also they teach that this faith should bring forth good fruits" (Art. VI), and, "because the Holy Spirit is received by faith our hearts are now renewed, and so put on new affections, so that they are able to bring forth good works" (Art. XX). Evidently this view of faith and works is common to both branches of Protestantism.

To summarize the evangelical doctrines of the Catechism we enumerate the following: 1. the depravity of man; 2. the satisfaction theory of atonement, with emphasis upon the sacrifice on the cross; 3. justification by grace through faith; 4. the normative authority of the Bible; 5. good works a fruit of faith.


THE Reformers of Wittenberg and Zurich, when they came to a reconstruction of the Church in conformity to their experience of salvation, had to steer clear not only of Romanism, but also of radicalism. In its practical form this came to be known as Anabaptism; in its theoretical, as Socinianism.

The Anabaptists were the individualists of the Reformation and differed widely among themselves in doctrine, cultus, and polity. Yet they held certain ideas and principles in common. The term anabaptist was applied to different groups, because they insisted on adult baptism and did not recognize infant baptism of the Roman, or of the State, Church. They denied the legitimacy of the civil magistracy as well as of the ecclesiastical hierarchy. They were disposed to undervalue or ignore the necessity of a regular ministry and of education for the preaching or for the understanding of the Word. They trusted in the guidance of the Spirit, who is to lead men into the truth. They refused to take oaths, bear arms, or hold political office. Many of them laid claim to special sanctity or perfection. The Socinians stood out prominently for their denial of the essential deity of Christ and the doctrine of the Trinity, though they differed in every other cardinal point from the evangelical system.

The Catechism enjoins infant baptism in Question 74. The civil magistrate is authorized to require an oath, when the interest of justice and truth requires it, and to be armed with the sword to restrain murder (Quu. 101 to 104). He may, also, punish theft, robbery and other transgressions (Qu. 107). A fine admonition to render obedience to all in authority is contained in Question 104. The ministry of the Gospel and schools are upheld in Question 103. The legitimate use of oaths is defined in Question 101, while perfection is disclaimed in Question 114. The single allusion to the anti-Trinitarians occurs in Answer 33: "Christ alone is the eternal, natural Son of God. But we are children of God by adoption through grace for His sake." Of course, the spirit of the whole Catechism controverts Socinianism.


AT the time the Catechism was written the controversy was as hot between the Lutherans and the Calvinists as between the Protestants and the Catholics. The point of contention was the doctrine of the sacraments, the Lord's Supper in particular. It was only natural, therefore, that the authors of the Catechism should clearly differentiate their doctrinal positions from those of their Lutheran opponents. The distinctions are made in a moderate tone and without polemical zeal. The variations come to light in the doctrine of the sacraments, of Christ, and of the Church.

The Catechism, evidently in opposition to the Lutheran view, distinguishes sharply between the external signs of the sacraments and the spiritual realities which they symbolize. These realities are not bound up with nor communicated through the material elements. They are merely symbolized and sealed by the visible elements. Baptism and the Holy Supper signify and seal unto thee "that thou hast part in the one sacrifice of Christ on the cross" (Quu. 69 and 75).

In answer to the question, "What benefits does Baptism confer?" the Small Catechism of Luther says: "It worketh (sie wirkt) forgiveness of sins, delivers from death and the devil, and gives everlasting salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare." Observe the active form of the verbs, "it worketh," "delivers," "gives." True, the efficacy of the sacrament is not the water (Wasser thut's freilich nicht), "but the Word of God which is with and in the water, and faith, which trusts in the Word of God in the water." Through the presence of the Word of God, baptism becomes "a gracious water of life and a washing of regeneration in the Holy Ghost."

Such an interpenetration of water and the Word, and such an operation of the Word through water, the Reformed Churches have never acknowledged. The Second Helvetic Confession, next to the Heidelberg Catechism the most widely accepted Reformed symbol, says in Art. 20: "Internally we are born of God through the Holy Spirit, cleansed and renewed; but externally we receive the sealing of these gifts in the water, by which these so-great benefits are represented to us and at the same time set before our eyes." The grace of regeneration and the forgiveness of sins are externally represented to all who are baptized by water, but internally imparted only to the believer by the action of the Holy Spirit. A sharp distinction this between the symbolizing function of water and the generating activity of the Holy Spirit. The same distinction is maintained in the questions and answers of the Heidelberg Catechism (69–74). "I am washed with His blood and spirit from the pollution of my soul, that is, from all my sins, as certainly as I am washed outwardly with water, whereby the filthiness of the body is taken away." (See also Qu. 73.) The washing with His blood and spirit is not accomplished through the water; it is merely symbolized by the water. We are washed with His blood and spirit not because we are baptized, but we are baptized because we are washed with His blood and spirit. This view is confirmed by Calvin in his criticism of the Interim of 1548, when he says: "The reception into sonship precedes baptism. This reception is not half the cause of salvation, so that another half must be added, but gives us salvation wholly and completely, which baptism then confirms" (Staehlin, Life of Calvin, II., p. 187).

Baptism, in the Calvinistic sense, has clearly only representational, symbolical, and confirmatory significance. The blessings of forgiveness and regeneration are not imparted through or by water; but by the Holy Spirit, whose operation may coincide with the baptismal act, but who, under no circumstances, works through the baptismal water.

In the doctrine of the Lord's Supper, also, the Catechism clearly differs from the Lutheran Church. Luther's Small Catechism, in answer to the question "What is the sacrament of the altar?" says: "It is the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, under the bread and wine given unto us Christians to eat and to drink as it was instituted by Christ Himself." Here the real presence of the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ under the bread and wine, is taught. In the Large Catechism Luther used the prepositions "in" and "under" to define the relation of the elements to the body and blood of Christ. Later, in the controversy between Hesshus and Klebitz three prepositions were employed, "in," "with," and "under," and these were incorporated in the Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration. All communicants, worthy and unworthy, receive through the mouth, in, with, and under the elements, the body and blood of Christ. For the former it is a savor of life unto life; for the latter, a savor of death unto death.

The Heidelberg Catechism steers clear of the conception of a corporeal real presence in the elements and a reception of this presence through the mouth by believer and unbeliever. Answer 75 lays stress on the fact "that with His crucified body and shed blood, He himself feeds and nourishes my soul to everlasting life, as certainly as I receive from the hand of the minister and taste with my mouth, the bread and cup of the Lord." This nourishment, however, is not given in, with, and under, the bread and wine. For the bread and cup of the Lord are no more than "certain tokens of the body and blood of Christ—not vehicles or instruments." The most that one could claim is, that the spiritual food is imparted by the mediation of the Holy Spirit at the same time that the bread and wine are received. Nor does any one, save the believer, receive the body and blood of Christ; the unbeliever receives only bread and wine. This fact is not stated in so many words, but it is a legitimate inference from the whole tenor of the Catechism. Question 65 emphasizes the statement that by faith only we are made partakers of Christ and all His benefits. The same position is taken in Questions 75, 76 and 77.

In the doctrine of the Catechism the views of Zwingli and of Calvin are blended. The Lord's Supper is described as both a memorial and a food. The original German of Question 75 says: "Wie wirst du im heiligen Abendmahl erinnert & versichert, etc.," "How art thou reminded and assured in the Holy Supper, etc.?" This is a Zwinglian note. The mind and heart of the communicant are directed to Calvary, where "His body was offered and broken on the Cross for me, and His blood shed for me as certainly as I see with my eyes the bread of the Lord broken for me and the cup communicated to me" (Qu. 75).

On the other hand Calvin's conception of mystical union and spiritual nourishment is brought out in Questions 76 and 79. "But moreover, also, to be so united more and more to His sacred body by the Holy Ghost, who dwells both in Christ and in us, that although He is in heaven and we on the earth, we are nevertheless flesh of His flesh and bone of His bones, and live and are governed forever by one spirit, as members of the same body are by one soul." A clear definition this of the doctrine of the mystical union, which played so large a part in the theology of the German Reformed Church. In Question 79 the idea of the Sacrament as food is set forth in these words: "But much more, by this visible sign and pledge to assure us that we are as really partakers of His true body and blood, through the working of the Holy Ghost, as we receive by the mouth of the body these holy tokens in remembrance of Him; and that all His sufferings and obedience are as certainly our own as if we had ourselves suffered and done all in our own persons." The heavenly nourishment, however, is imparted to the communicant through the mediation of the Holy Ghost, and not through the channel of bread and wine.

Closely related to the doctrine of the real presence is the doctrine of the ubiquity of Christ's glorified humanity; affirmed by the Lutherans, denied by the Reformed. The Lutheran theory of the real presence requires the doctrine of the ubiquity, or everywhereness, of the humanity of Christ. For all practical purposes the humanity of the glorified Christ is coextensive with his divinity; where the one is, there the other must be also. This is a metaphysical basis for Luther's view of the real presence.

In the Formula of Concord (The Epitome), Art. VII. V. 2, it is stated, "that the right hand of God is everywhere, and that Christ in respect of His humanity is truly and in very deed seated thereat, and therefore as present governs, and has in His hand and under His feet, as the Scripture saith (Eph. 1:22), all things which are in heaven and on earth." In the same section the opposite view, presumably held by the Reformed, is described as follows: "That Christ's body is so confined in heaven that it can in no mode whatever be likewise at one and the same time in many places, or in all the places where the Lord's Supper is celebrated."

The Reformed view is taught in the Heidelberg Catechism in Questions 46 to 48, in reference to Christ's ascension into heaven. Question 46 says: "That Christ in sight of His disciples was taken up from the earth into heaven; and in our behalf there continues, until He shall come again to judge the living and the dead." Question 47 explains more in detail the relation between the divine and human natures of Christ in His glorified state, as follows: "Christ is true man and true God: according to His human nature, He is now not upon earth; but according to His Godhead, majesty, grace, and spirit, He is at no time absent from us." This is a very clear and definite rejection of the Lutheran doctrine of the ubiquity of Christ's humanity (ubiquitas carnis Christi).

The significance of the descent into Hades (helle in the German, ad inferna in the Latin), as defined in Question 44, is totally different from the interpretation Luther gave to this article in the Creed. He held that the body and soul of Christ went to the place of departed spirits and there suffered, so as to overcome all things on earth and under the earth (1521). Later, he said in a sermon at Torgau (1533): "Christ descended into Hell among the damned, overcame Hell and the Devil, so that those who believe on Him could not be held or hurt, by Hell or the Devil."

The answer in the Heidelberg to the question, "Why is it added: He descended into Hades?" does not really explain the question. The descent is reduced to "His inexpressible anguish, pains and terrors which He suffered in His soul on the Cross and before, and by which He has redeemed many from the anguish and torment of Hell." Not a word is said about His going into Hades, about what He did there, or why He went there. The catechumen is only assured that, on account of Christ's sufferings on the Cross and before, he is delivered from the anguish and torment of Hell. This view coincides with the exposition of this article in the Genevan Catechism by Calvin.

On the doctrine of the Church the Heidelberg Catechism again shows its Reformed character. The Augsburg Confession, Art. 7, defines the Church as "the congregation of saints in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the sacraments are rightly administered." The Reformed Church, also, holds the Church to be a community of believers or saints, and considers the preaching of the Gospel as a mark of the Church. But it distinguishes, in a way the Lutherans did not, at least not until long after the Reformation, between the visible and the invisible Church. The invisible Church, according to Zwingli and Calvin, consists of the elect, or the predestinated. The significance of the Word and of the sacraments, as a mark of the Church, was modified, if not minimized, when Zwingli (not Calvin) taught, that even among the heathen there were elect. In harmony with this view the answer to Question 54, "What dost thou believe concerning the holy Catholic Church?" says, that "out of the whole human race from the beginning to the end of the world, the Son of God, by His spirit and word, gathers, defends, and preserves for Himself unto everlasting life, a chosen communion, in the unity of the true faith; and that I am, and forever shall remain, a living member of the same." The Catechism, in Questions 23 and 54, in the original German retains the term allgemeine (universal), in the article of the Creed, eine heilige allgemeine Christliche Kirche (a holy universal Christian Church), to give expression to the idea of the universality of the Church in the Reformed sense. Luther in his Small Catechism omits the term "Catholic" or "universal," and simply says: "The Holy Christian Church."

The Office of the Keys or the theory of church discipline, as defined in Questions 83 to 85 is in agreement with the doctrine of Calvin. How it differs from the Lutheran view will appear by comparing the Catechism in Otho Henry's Liturgy (1556) with the position taken by the Heidelberg. In the former the question, "What are the keys of the kingdom of God?" is answered thus: "The office of the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ." In answer to the same question the Heidelberg says: "The preaching of the holy gospel and church discipline. By which two things the kingdom of God is opened to believers and shut against unbelievers." The authority of discipline is given "to the church or its proper officers" (Qu. 85). It is an unmistakable mark of Calvinistic polity when the power of discipline is vested in the officers of the congregation instead of a civil body, whether the civil body be a consistory appointed by the prince or a city council chosen by the people.

It may be of interest to add that the Catechism rejects the doctrine of Melancthon, held by him since at least 1548, namely, that the natural man has the power of applying himself to grace (facultas applicandi se ad gratiam). The opposite view is taught in Question 5: "I am by nature prone to hate God and my neighbor," and in Question 8: "We are so far depraved that we are wholly unapt to any good and prone to all evil." The doctrine of Synergism in any form whatever is thus firmly disowned.


HISTORIANS and theologians have differed widely in their characterization of the doctrinal type of the Catechism. The Lutheran opponents, soon after its publication, denounced it as a composite of Zwinglianism and Calvinism, dangerous to sound faith and true piety. In the address of the three princes to Frederick III., May, 1563, we find the following unvarnished statement: "We know by the gracious help of God, that Zwinglianism and Calvinism in the article on the Lord's Supper are a seductive and a damned error; in direct contradiction to the Holy Scriptures, the Apostolic Church, the true Christian understanding of the Augsburg Confession, and the commonly accepted and defended religious Peace of Augsburg" (1555). Heppe, however, dissented from this judgment of the Lutheran princes and considered the Catechism a Melancthonian work. Gooszen, in an exhaustive study of the sources of the Catechism, concludes that the spirit of Bullinger of Zurich predominates. On this point Karl Müller, in his Symbolik, says, "Gooszen's one-sided predilection to find Bullinger's type of doctrine in the Heidelberg is historically no more trustworthy than Heppe's contention that it is Melancthonian. The theories of both these men are shaped largely by their personal inclination to the doctrinal views of their respective heroes." Dr. Nevin says the Catechism is "substantially Calvinistic in its doctrine of the sacraments; but it has carefully refrained from committing itself to Calvin's doctrine of the decrees." Prof. Lang, the greatest living authority on Calvin and the Reformation in South Germany, conclusively disproves the thesis of Gooszen and shows that the Catechism in spirit and tendency is Calvinistic; yet its Calvinism is modified by influences from other Reformed, and from Lutheran, sources. One may define it as Calvinism modified by the German genius. To use Goebel's rhetorical phrase: "It has Lutheran inwardness, Melancthonian clearness, Zwinglian simplicity, and Calvinistic fire, harmoniously blended." Yet it is not simply a mosaic of excerpts from various sources but a new creation with original strength and beauty, both a work of art and a book of doctrine.

A comprehensive standard of Reformed (Calvinistic) doctrine and piety is found in Staudlin's Geschichte der theologischen Wissenschaften, 1811. Theil II., p. 66. According to this standard an orthodox and loyal member of the Reformed, in distinction from the Roman Catholic or the Lutheran, Church must answer to the following questions: (1) Are the body and blood of Christ truly and substantially present in the Lord's Supper, so that they are received through the mouth by both the believer and the unbeliever? No. (2) Is the human nature of Jesus everywhere present and are the attributes of the divine nature communicated to the human nature? No. (3) Does God will the salvation of all men; did Christ therefore die for all men; is grace offered unto all men for conversion; has God predestined men according to his fore-knowledge of their faith or their unbelief? No. (4) Can true believers or saints ever fall away altogether from the grace of God? No. (5) Does baptism effect regeneration and faith as the ordinary and necessary means of salvation; in cases of necessity, may laymen or women baptize; is exorcism to be practiced with baptism? No. (6) Are confession and absolution to be continued? No. (7) Is it appropriate that, for a solemn celebration of the Lord's Supper, candles be lighted; that priests wear white gowns; that altars and golden chalices be used; that bread be not broken; that wafers be distributed; that the elements are not to be given into the hands of the communicant; that the Communion be brought to the sick in their homes? No. (8) Ought one to bow his knee or uncover his head at the mention of the name of Jesus? No. (9) Should there be images and organs in the churches? No. Tested by this standard of Reformed orthodoxy the Heidelberg Catechism is true to type in answering negatively, either directly or by implication, questions 1, 2, 4, 5, 9. There are no references in the Catechism to questions 6, 7 and 8. The early customs in the Reformed churches of Germany, however, would require a negative answer to these questions.

The Catechism fosters a truly Calvinistic type of piety. The sole authority of the Word of God, as over against the commandments or opinions of men, die Kirche nach Gottes Wort reformirt, is frequently reiterated in the answers. Observe the following: "Wherefore the Christian Church is bound, according to the order of Christ and His Apostles" (Qu. 82); good works are described as "those only which are done from true faith, according to the Law of God, for His glory" (Qu. 91); the second commandment requires that "we in no wise make any image of God, nor worship Him in any other way than He has commanded in His Word" (Qu. 96). In worship and deed men are to be guided by the word of God and impelled by the Glory of God—a thoroughly Calvinistic note.

True to the Reformed genius, also, is the emphasis on the absolute dependence of the believer on God (Quu. 26, 27, 28), the unconditional assurance of salvation or belief in perseverance of the saints (Quu. 1, 31, 54, 56), the demand for ethical proof of faith and the rejection of all material channels for the mediation of grace and salvation (Quu. 29, 30, 65, 66, 94, 96). In its definitions of these points the Catechism conforms to the spirit and doctrine of Calvin.

Yet it is generally acknowledged that the Catechism represents a modified or moderate form of Calvinism, in distinction from what is commonly termed high Calvinism.

Gooszen, following Ebrard, finds in Reformed Protestantism two leading tendencies—the soteriological and biblical, or anthropological and soteriological, on the one hand; the intellectual and speculative on the other. The former he traces to Bullinger, the latter to Calvin. Dr. Nevin refers to the same tendencies, but discerns both of them in Calvinism itself. In the Historical Introduction of the Tercentenary Edition of the Heidelberg Catechism, p. 80, he says: "There is an innate opposition here, unquestionably, between the two sides of Calvin's system, as it was taught by himself in the sixteenth century; his theory of election and reprobation can never be made to agree fully with the old church idea which he labored with so much ingenuity to conserve in his theory of the sacraments." Prof. William A. Brown, in an article on "Changes in the Theology of American Presbyterianism," in The American Journal of Theology, July, 1906, speaks of "two streams of thought and feeling, flowing side by side through the early history of Protestantism." These "meet and blend in the theology of Puritanism. The Westminster standards are the joint products of minds of different types." Then he goes on to say that, "looked at from one point of view the theology of Westminster is experimental through and through. The immediate contact between God and the soul is affirmed." This indicates an experimentalism and a mysticism worthy of Luther himself. Yet there is "another strand of thought" intervowen through the Westminster Confession, a strand which is less personal and immediate, but far more legalistic and forensic.

However these men may define the two currents coursing through Protestantism, they seem to agree that in one form or another the difference exists and makes itself felt in catechisms and in confessions.

A comparison of the plan of the Genevan and the Heidelberg catechisms will enable us to understand the distinction made by Gooszen. In Calvin's Catechism the material is arranged in the following order: first, the Creed; next the Decalogue; then the Lord's Prayer; and finally the Word and the Sacraments. The ultimate question to be answered in the four parts is, "How is God to be rightly honored or glorified?" The Catechism of Calvin seeks to teach men how to glorify God, and every part of it is controlled by that idea—God's glory and God's will. It is theological and legalistic in spirit. The questions lack the personal note, and many of the answers are theoretical and speculative. The introductory questions will illustrate this point: "What is the chief end of human life?" "What reason have you for affirming this?" "What is man's highest good?" Questions like these may be discussed in a school of philosophy, pagan or Christian, perhaps with more propriety and interest than in a catechetical class. They are too theoretical and speculative, not sufficiently personal, experimental, and confessional.

The Heidelberg Catechism is divided into three parts: 1. Man's Misery; 2. Man's Deliverance; 3. Man's Thankfulness for his Deliverance. The divisions correspond to the way of salvation as experienced by Paul and outlined in the Epistle to the Romans. It is the logic of life, not of the schools. The ultimate question to be answered in the Heidelberg is, "how man is to find comfort in life and in death?" The primary purpose is to comfort men through the salvation which they receive through their faithful Saviour Jesus Christ. Every part of the Catechism is controlled by that idea—the comfort of man in the salvation of Christ. It is anthropological, starting with a cry for help out of the depths of sin; it is soteriological, showing the way of salvation. The motive of Christian living is not primarily the glory of God, but thankfulness for deliverance. That is, the Christain obeys the law of God not simply because it is prescribed in the Scriptures nor because God is to be glorified, but because he is thankful for his salvation; a soteriological basis even for Christian ethics.

It cannot be gainsaid that the theological and speculative tendency also is found in the Heidelberg Catechism, but it is no longer the controlling factor, as in the Genevan Catechism or in the Westminster standards.

The doctrine of the sacraments is clearly Calvinistic, as we have shown in the preceding section. Yet certain functions of the sacraments, which are emphasized in other Reformed catechisms, like Leo Jude's and Calvin's, are not even mentioned in the answers of the Heidelberg. With great care is the objectivity and reality of grace in the sacraments intoned. The repetition of the formula "not only … but much more" in Questions 73, 76, 79, is to make clear the fact that the sacraments are not mere empty signs of salvation, but symbols of personal communion with Christ glorified. All this was to avoid unnecessary offense against the Lutheran subjects of the Elector.

But in their zeal for the real presence in the Sacrament the authors lost sight of its social and ethical significance. In answer to the question in the Catechism of Leo Jude: "Warzu dient es (das Nachtmal)?" ("What is the purpose of the Lord's Supper?") we are told: "That we commemorate His love, that we love one another, and live devoutly." In like manner Micronius, in his small Catechism, says (Qu. 100): "Of what more are we admonished in the Lord's Supper?" Ans. "Of our service both to God and to our neighbor.… That we shall show brotherly love to the helpless, and to aid the poor liberally according to our possessions." A similar statement is made in reference to the Lord's Supper in Calvin's Catechism. The more one weighs the value of these truths inculcated by the Sacrament as originally interpreted in the Reformed Churches, the more will one regret their omission in the answers of the Heidelberg Catechism. An instance, it may be, where the spirit of reconciliation resulted in a neglect of important truths.

The moderate Calvinism of the Catechism is especially evident in the doctrine of predestination which plays so prominent a part in Reformed symbols. Both Olevianus and Ursinus were predestinarians, yet they seem to refrain carefully from introducing the doctrine of the decrees into the Catechism. One looks in vain in the Heidelberg for statements like the following, taken from Calvin's Catechism: "The church is the society of believers, whom God has predestinated"; "He shows mercy, when He wills, toward the children of the ungodly, yet He has not so bound His grace to the children of believers that He cannot reject whom He wills"; "two kinds of men"—referring to the elect and to the reprobate. The passages in the Heidelberg which refer to the doctrine of election have a different sound. The following are the more prominent: "Wherefore, by His holy spirit He also assures me of eternal life" (Qu. 1); "and our eternal King, who governs us by His word and spirit, and defends and preserves us in the redemption obtained for us" (Qu. 31); "that no creature shall separate us from His love, since all creatures are so in His hand that without His will they cannot so much as move" (Qu. 28); "and shall abide with me forever" (Qu. 53); "that out of the whole human race … the Son of God gathers, defends and preserves unto Himself a chosen communion … and that I am, and forever shall remain a living member of the same" (Qu. 54).

The Catechism, in harmony with its purpose, presents that aspect of the doctrine of divine sovereignty or of election which serves to comfort and to uphold men in the struggle of life. It is the assurance of divine providence, of the efficacy and continuity of divine grace, of the perseverance of the believer, of the ultimate victory of the truth and love of God, that the catechumen receives in a number of answers. He is not, however, confronted by the metaphysical problem of divine decrees in relation to the fall, or to the destiny of angels and men, or to the salvation of children dying in infancy. The Catechism confines itself to the religious truth in the doctrine of divine sovereignty which both consoles and edifies. It was happily expressed by Calvin, when he dismissed his students after an hour's lecture with the words: "If God be for us who can be against us?"—a truth which appeals to faith and by no means requires the inference of a double predestination.

The authors of the Catechism may have avoided the doctrine of predestination because it does not belong to a book for the instruction of youth. Yet a far more satisfactory reason for the silence on the decrees seems to be that their presentation is not in accord with the genius which pervades the Catechism from beginning to end. Its purpose is to comfort men; and the comforting element of the doctrine of election is adroitly woven into the texture of the Catechism, while the offensive and speculative element of reprobation is deftly omitted.

By a comparative view of the general scheme of the Catechism, perhaps as much as by detailed analysis, its peculiar doctrinal positions must be understood. In general it is Calvinistic and not Arminian. The Augustinian doctrine of sin and grace is held, over against Pelagianism. The depravity and helplessness of the race through the fall are clearly affirmed. Neither the race nor the individual has natural ability to escape from this lost condition. The fall is traced to a concrete historical fact—the disobedience of our first parents. It is generic, involving all men; not, as in the Pelagian view, merely the individual. The origin of sin is not referred to a metaphysical mystery beyond the scope of historical revelation, but to a definite act of man.

Man's salvation is attributed absolutely to the free and unmerited grace of God in Jesus Christ. The starting point is not in the divine sovereignty nor in the eternal abstract will of God as metaphysically apprehended, but in Jesus Christ. He freely offers Himself as a propitiatory sacrifice for all men. The Catechism steers clear of Synergism and Arminianism. It does not limit the atonement to the elect. As the fall is organic, so is redemption. Yet the redemption wrought out by Christ inures to the salvation of those only who are born again and are made partakers of His life by the Holy Ghost. The subjective condition by which men become partakers of Christian redemption is faith. This involves not only assent to a doctrine or belief in a decree, but "a living apprehension of the whole perennial fact of Christianity as embodied in the Apostle's Creed." Faith itself is a product not of the human will, but of the Holy Ghost, who "works it in our hearts by the preaching of the Gospel and confirms it by the use of the Sacraments." We find here, then, the substantial and positive elements of the Calvinistic system, at least under some of its aspects; but the subject is treated rather Christologically than theologically, and the metaphysical questions pertaining to the sovereignty of God in relation to the human will are not brought forth.

The most recent critical analysis and comparative estimate of the Catechism have been made by A. Lang, in a work entitled, Der Heidelberger Katechismus und vier verwandte Katechismen, 1907. In the last pages of the Introduction he assigns the Catechism its proper place in Protestantism. We shall freely reproduce his statements. The Heidelberg is the rich, ripe product not only of Calvinism, but of influences which came from all the earlier Reformed catechisms, as well as from those of the German Lutheran Reformation. It is simplified, clarified, and made more practical. In it the religious and ethical elements are separated from the theological, in spite of certain oversights, far more sharply than in any preceding catechism. It speaks to the heart more directly and reaches into life far more practically than either Calvin's or Bullinger's catechism. Not so much in a dogmatic tendency, but in the wealth of its contents, in the biblical purity of its religious and ethical motives, does the difference between the Heidelberg and Genevan catechisms appear. The Heidelberg clearly shows a closer approach to the German Lutheran Reformation. This is affirmed not so much on account of the doctrine of the sacraments or of the remnants of Melancthonianism in the Catechism, but especially on account of the first two parts of the outline and the Christocentric tendencies, according to which the Christian's only comfort is based not so much on knowledge or on the covenant of God, as on the one sacrifice of Christ on the cross. This is, of course, not an actual dogmatic difference from Calvin, but, nevertheless, a difference of tendency and of original religious feeling.

On account of these various qualities the Catechism has obtained a certain ecumenical character within Reformed Protestantism. A broad bridge leads from the Heidelberg to the Lutheran sister confession. Within the Reformed Church theologians have based on it different theological systems (Voetius, Coccejus) and developed various religious tendencies, orthodox and pietistic. This ecumenicity is based on the fact that the Heidelberg, leaning on the earlier Reformed catechisms, combines the deepest and most efficient religious and ethical motives of Reformed Protestantism, especially of its most important though not only branch, Calvinism, and presents them in biblical simplicity and purity.


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