We’re in a series of articles exploring the councils and creeds of the Christian church. Why? Because when it comes to faithfully and diligently working out our salvation with fear and trembling (Phil 2:12) we miss a great deal when we simply try to construct our own “real Christianity” with nothing more than a bible. To take heed from those who have gone before us is to benefit from the wealth found in the most important theological declarations of the Christian tradition.
Today we continue the series with a look at the Heidelberg Catechism.
Only a few decades after Luther’s 95 theses appeared in Wittenberg, the Protestant church was already diverse in its theology. Unlike the Catholic church which had a set of central doctrines (established at the council of Trent), there was disagreement, and Protestants were only unified at the level of the five Solas, with various branches of Protestantism able to place their own interpretations over the top of that foundation. The Heidelberg Catechism served as a rallying point for the Reformed Protestant faith, unifying the doctrine while simultaneously providing a way of clearly teaching it to young and old Christians alike.
Aiming to be both of these things (a guide for religious instruction as well as a solid unified confession of faith), the catechism is divided up into 129 questions, which are then also formatted into 52 days to aid in teaching throughout the Sundays of the calendar year. Within these questions, there are discussions of every major area of Christian faith; including the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Supper, the Apostles’ Creed in detail, the gospel, and humanity’s response to the gospel. Question 1 of the catechism captures this summary of the whole gospel:
Question. What is your only comfort in life and death?
Answer. That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from all the power of the devil. He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, all things must work together for my salvation. Therefore, by his Holy Spirit he also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for him.
Why It Matters
The Heidelberg catechism is one of the most famous documents of the Protestant Reformation, and not only did it rapidly gain popularity in its day, but 450 years later it is still the official statement of theology for many Reformed Protestant churches. It speaks clearly and without hesitation to divide heresy from sound doctrine in the fundamental issues of Christian faith, especially the content of the gospel.
Heinrich Bullinger wrote of the Heidelberg catechism:
“The order of the book is clear; the matter true, good, and beautiful; the whole is luminous, fruitful and godly; it comprehends many and great truths in a small compass. I believe that no better catechism has ever been issued.”
In short, this document deserves to be frequently read by and taught to Christians of every age.
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