How should Christians approach catechism? Getting back to basics. A consideration of The Heidelberg Catechism.
As part of his Doctor of Ministry (DMin) in Ministry to Emerging Generations (Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary), Tom’s written a number of book responses and given several short presentations (personal and group). In this series he not only “shares the wealth,” but also looks forward to your feedback as he refines his project: An argument for vocational discernment for graduate studies in the context of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (Stay tuned to learn more!). Earlier posts on the program: Ministry to Emerging Generations and The Big Picture of Ministry to Emerging Generations.
The Heidelberg Catechism
The brief “Foreword and Invitation” of The 400th Anniversary Edition of The Heidelberg Catechism (1962) by Allen O. Miller and M. Eugene Osterhaven offers a glimpse of the catechism’s rich history. I particularly appreciated that The Heidelberg Catechism (1563) was “[t]he most ecumenical of the confessions of the Protestant Churches,” commissioned by Frederick III (1515-1576) to bring people together in the midst of political questions raised by the Reformation in the Palatinate (1546). No matter the time and place in the history of the Body of Christ, essential truths drawn from the Word of God are vital not only to speak into the continual renewal of the people of God, but also the ministry structures which arise in her various contexts, including the Gospel instruction of the emerging generation(s). But it is vital for the people of God to continue to develop creative approaches to offering biblically based counter-cultural catechesis.
Catechesis: An essential practice of the Church
In Teaching the Faith, Forming the Faithful: A Biblical Vision for Education in the Church (2009), Gary A. Parrett and S. Steve Kang underscore how most Reformation-era catechisms center “on instruction in three great summaries of the Faith: the Apostles Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer” and “typically some instruction on the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper” (112). All three receive significant attention in The Heidelberg Catechism. In Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church (2010), Kenda Creasy Dean emphasizes catechesis as an essential practice for the Church’s relationship with God, individually and corporately across individuals, local communities, geographies, and time.
For centuries, these two strategies—telling God’s story and enacting it—comprised the heart of Christian formulation, or catechesis, the “handing on” of a faith tradition from one generation to the next.
Catechesis shapes missional imaginations, which help us recognize God’s activity in Jesus Christ and in us, as Christ calls us to participate in his redemptive work in the world. Catechesis clarifies the church’s understanding of who God is; shapes our ability to participate in the Christian community; provides the means for discerning our call as disciples and for claiming our hope in God’s future. Catechesis, therefore, gives teenagers cultural tools that stake up young faith, improve teenagers’ exposure to the Son and therefore the likelihood that their faith will mature and bear fruit. Catechesis makes young people—and the rest of us—more combustible before God. Yet catechesis does not guarantee that teenagers will follow Jesus. Only the Holy Spirit ignites faith, transforming human effort into holy fire that comes roaring into our lives at the first hint of welcome, insistent on igniting us, sharing us, and being shared (62-63).
Quite simply, a way of life cannot be shared with and understood by the next generation without clear imparting of the fundamental teachings. Originally catechesis (from Greek katekhesis) referred to “instruction by word of mouth” of new converts (i.e., catechumens) in the basic elements of the faith before baptism and admission into the Body of Christ.
The value of The Heidelberg Catechism
The Heidelberg Catechism, originally titled The Catechism or Christian Instruction as This Is Conducted in Churches and Schools of the Electoral Palatinate, emphasized Christian instruction for adults and children. Furthermore, Frederick III desired to address the concerns passed onto him by the previous elector, his uncle Otto Henry. According to Heidelberg-Catechism.com’s article Reform in the Palatinate, in researching the spiritual state of affairs of all the local congregations in the Palatinate, Henry’s church visitation team found, “Ministers were not well-trained; congregations were not well-fed; superstitions and traditions were more prominent than the knowledge of Scripture and holy living.” The religious instruction of the next generation in churches, i.e., youth ministry, and schools (alongside German reading and writing for the general populace) became a priority.
The catechism, primarily authored by German Reformed theologian Zacharius Ursinus (1534-1583), begins with a unique, visceral, pastoral and framing question which spans time and location, but is particularly relevant to the emerging culture’s longing for comfort.
Question 1: What is your only comfort, in life and in death?
That I belong — body and soul, in life and in death – not to myself but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ, who at the cost of his own blood has fully paid for all my sins and has completely freed me from the dominion of the devil; that he protects me so well that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, that everything must fit his purpose for my salvation. Therefore, by his Holy Spirit, he also assures me of eternal life, and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him (9).
Parrett and Kang refer to Question 1 as “a beautiful summary of critical components of a Gospel-centric worldview” (327). Question 2 “How many things must you know that you may live and die in the blessedness of this comfort?” builds upon the theme of comfort by stating:
Three. First, the greatness of my sin and wretchedness. Second, how I am freed from all my sin and their wretched consequences. Third, what gratitude I owe to God for such redemption (11).
In The Heidelberg Catechism Article, Lyle Bierma outlines the rest of the catechism:
I come to know my misery through the (summary of the) Ten Commandments (Q & A 3–5). I come to know my deliverance through the Gospel as summarized in the Apostles’ Creed (Q & A 19–58), and I am assured of that deliverance through the sacraments (Q & A 65–85). Finally, it is through the (individual) Ten Commandments (Q & A 92–115) and the Lord’s Prayer (Q & A 116–129) that I come to know ways of expressing my gratitude for this deliverance. In short, the HC directs all the fundamentals of the Christian faith toward the comfort of the believer.
Another beautiful piece of The Heidelberg Catechism’s teaching on comfort by walking through “Misery, Deliverance, and Gratitude” is that it builds upon the Lord’s Day. This structure gives opportunity for instruction in the home and the local congregation over the course of a year, with the ability to weave in the questions through a variety of structures, e.g., church communications, confirmation preparation, family lessons, preaching or simple recitation during the worship service, Sunday School.
In the version I read, I treasured the citation of the Biblical texts which were the origin of the teaching. Some elaborated upon simple questions, e.g., Question 4. What does the Law of God require of us? (13), and others on more difficult questions, e.g., Question 21: What is true faith? (27). The Heidelberg Catechism and complimentary texts help unpack the significant resources of the Apostle’s Creed, the Holy Sacraments, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer. After reviewing the catechism and texts, I enjoyed listening to The Heidelberg Catechism Audio Recording and recommend contemporary translation audio files to members of the emerging generations seeking to likewise engage with the church’s historic teachings while about various daily activities.
When reading Bierma’s The Heidelberg Catechism, another bridge to the emerging generations came to my attention:
Surprisingly, the HC is silent or at least muted on certain teachings that are often associated with the Reformed theological tradition: election, reprobation, covenant, limited atonement, perseverance of the saints, and strict Sabbatarianism. Why, then, has this document had such extraordinary staying power and popularity in Reformed and Presbyterian circles and beyond? It is because this is a catechism that today still connects with believers at the core of their being, beautifully blending biblical doctrine and piety.
The Heidelberg Catechism was written with the intention to be Protestant Christian, a gift which no doubt has led to its broad and continued appreciation. The only direct critique of Roman Catholicism comes in Question 80: What difference is there between the Lord’s Supper and the Papal Mass?
. . . the Mass teaches that the living and the dead do not have forgiveness of sins through the sufferings of Christ unless Christ is again offered for them daily by the priest (and that Christ is bodily under the form of bread and wine and is therefore to be worshiped in them). Therefore the Mass is fundamentally a complete denial of the once for all sacrifice and passion of Jesus Christ (and as such an idolatry to be condemned) (79).
Sharing The Heidelberg Catechism today
But what evidence does one have regarding the current relevance of The Heidelberg Catechism? In Why Preach Sermons Based on a Catechism? (2007), Joan Huyser-Honig shares examples of the “Many church planters . . . [who in a Reformed Worship intergenerational survey] decided that catechisms and confessions are still relevant because they provide background and guidelines for preaching about basic Christian truths.” For example, Peter Choi, the senior pastor of Cornerstone Christian Reformed Church in Ann Arbor, Michigan, couches his preaching to a mainly postmodern generation in a relational context. He used The Heidelberg Catechism to guide a series on “The Journey Home,” giving attention to “the way home [with God] in a world where belonging is elusive.” The target was a largely transient population of students and young professionals. His sermon series focused on Questions 1, 3-7, 26-27, 88-89, and 125 with an emphasis on sin, salvation, and service:
Act I: The Sidewalk / catechism: a journey from sin / movement: from strangers / problem: homelessness
Act II: The Living Room / catechism: a journey into salvation / movement: to friends / problem: rootlessness
Act III: The Kitchen / catechism: a journey for service / movement: to family / problem: restlessness
Choi revealed the basis of the “The Journey Home” at the end of the series. He found the biblical versus popular basis of great encouragement and looks to return to the catechism.
Huyser-Honig notes that Stanley Mast, based upon his study with church planters, offers a number of matches between The Heidelberg Catechism and postmodern mindset.
• Postmoderns are basically uninformed about Christianity. They may be anti-authority or “not religious” but are often interested in spirituality. The Heidelberg Catechism conveys basic Christian truths on “what to believe, how to live, and how to relate to the transcendent.”
• Postmoderns don’t necessarily believe one tradition has the corner on truth but they respect others’ traditions. The ethos, Mast says, is “your story is as good as mine, so I don’t want to write you off.” He sees The Heidelberg Catechism as a “warm presentation” of the Reformed tradition, one a preacher can present as a way of letting others know where the preacher is coming from, as a way of relating to the preacher.
• Postmoderns are less interested in what’s true than in what works. The Heidelberg Catechism is pragmatic in explaining what difference it makes in your life if you accept it.
• Postmoderns resonate with the metaphor of life as a journey. They yearn for relationships, community, and identity. The Heidelberg Catechism’s central theme is belonging.
• . . . the catechism highlights major life issues, such as “Who am I? What’s wrong with this world? How did it get this way? How do you fix it? How do I live?”
o These stories talk especially about preaching to postmodern audiences. How closely do the profiled congregations match your congregation…especially your new members or visitors?
o In what ways, if any, does your church use a catechism? How has this use changed over the years? What advantages or disadvantages do you see in these changes?
o What are the best reasons you see for basing sermons or church education on preaching? What are potential dangers or drawbacks?
o Which first steps might you like to experiment with in catechism preaching during your worship services?
o Did you create a catechism-based sermon series that is especially multisensory or interactive? If so, will you share your materials with us?
o If yours is a congregation with a history of catechism preaching, did you interview people from different age groups about what they found helpful or not helpful about the catechism and which catechism insights have shaped their lives?
In the postmodern milieu, Question 87: Can those who do not turn to God from their ungrateful, impenitent life be saved? will be difficult question to address. In the 1963 edition the answer reads:
Certainly not! Scripture says, “Surely you know that the unjust will never come into possession of the kingdom of God. Make no mistake; no fornication or idolater, none who are guilty either of adultery or of homosexual perversion, no thieves or grabbers or drunkards or slanderers or swindlers, will possess the kingdom of God.”
In Does the Heidelberg Catechism have anything to say about homosexuality? (2012), Kevin DeYoung agrees that the answer in the new joint CRC-RCA version is more accurate to the translation of the original:
No unchaste person, no idolater, adulterer, thief, no covetous person, no drunkard, slanderer, robber, or the like will inherit the kingdom of God.
But DeYoung comments:
. . . In summarizing 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, Ursinus (Heidelberg’s chief author) does not include every sin in the vice list. Most notably, he leaves out several terms related to sexual immorality. This is certainly not because Ursinus and the reformers were ambiguous in their assessment of homosexuality. The reason no explicit mention is made of homosexuality in Answer 87 is because it was considered inappropriate and obscene to even mention such deeds. . . . Furthermore, we must remember that Frederick’s first purpose in commissioning The Heidelberg Catechism was “that our youth may be trained.” The Catechism was meant first of all for children, and children, it was thought, should not be corrupted by exposure to such unnatural behavior. Adults would have understood that Answer 87 forbids all the vices mentioned in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, including the ones left out or too unseemly to mention. . . .
Whether approached question by question or in broad brushstrokes, the response to homosexuality will be important to address at some point in adolescence.
Concluding reflections on The Heidelberg Catechism: Family, local assembly and ministry
As a youth I learned The Westminster Catechism. No doubt the teachings not only formed a vital foundation, but also led me to the question and answer instruction of my children while in the context of a congregation which walks through the biblical narrative, but lacks a framework for shared doctrinal instruction. I value the above lens and creative approaches to teaching The Heidelberg Catechism. I will explore their possible application not only in my household, but also with pastors and parents in the local assembly of which I am a member.
If I chose to introduce my children to The Heidelberg Catechism I will use Book of Comfort: The Story of the Heidelberg Catechism.
To provide oral instruction involving question and answer, I appreciate Heidelberg-Catechism.com sponsored by the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary (including Lord’s day with links to texts and topical tags, http://www.heidelberg-catechism.com/en/lords-days/1.html, and teaching outlines, http://www.heidelberg-catechism.com/en/resources/teaching-outlines.html) and The Heidelberg Catechism Curriculum for Families (http://urclearning.org/families/). I think that it may very well be a helpful tool for teenage instruction as children step into owning the faith. For the younger girls (6, 9 years of age), the Short Catechism or Compendium of the Heidelberg Catechism (http://heidelberg-catechism.s3.amazonaws.com/Compendium%20of%20the%20Heidelberg%20Catechism.pdf) appears a good match.
As for my labors with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, I desire to work in the direction of offering an Emerging Scholars Network Blog series drawing upon the Apostle’s Creed, Ten Commandments, and Lord’s Prayer. In addition, I desire to explore the history of The Heidelberg Catechism (with an emphasis on the challenges faced by those with academic callings), sharing the Lord’s Day pages (http://www.heidelberg-catechism.com/en/lords-days/1.html), and the call to developing new catechisms with rich history. With regard to the final point, in my research I was drawn to Timothy Keller’s creative labors with the New City Catechism (2012). In his Introduction, Keller writes a compelling case for writing new catechisms and although appreciating the value of The Heidelberg Catechism, I may take next steps in catechesis with the rich on-line resources offered by the New City Catechism.
Catechisms were written with at least three purposes. The first was to set forth a comprehensive exposition of the gospel—not only in order to explain clearly what the gospel is, but also to lay out the building blocks on which the gospel is based, such as the biblical doctrine of God, of human nature, of sin, and so forth. The second purpose was to do this exposition in such a way that the heresies, errors, and false beliefs of the time and culture were addressed and counteracted. The third and more pastoral purpose was to form a distinct people, a counter-culture that reflected the likeness of Christ not only in individual character but also in the church’s communal life.
When looked at together, these three purposes explain why new catechisms must be written. While our exposition of gospel doctrine must be in line with older catechisms that are true to the Word, culture changes and so do the errors, temptations, and challenges to the unchanging gospel that people must be equipped to face and answer.
To God be the glory!
Bierma, Lyle. “Heidelberg Catechism Article.” Ligonier Ministries, n.d. Web. 11 Jan. 2015. <http://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/heidelberg-catechism/>.
Dean, Kenda Creasy. Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. Note: Thomas B. Grosh IV’s Book Response is now available at <https://blog.emergingscholars.org/2016/02/book-response-almost-christian-by-kenda-creasy-dean/>.
DeYoung, Kevin. “Does the Heidelberg Catechism Have Anything to Say About Homosexuality?” The Gospel Coalition, 16 Mar. 2012. Web. 11 Jan. 2015. <http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevindeyoung/2012/03/16/does-the-heidelberg-catechism-have-anything-to-say-about-homosexuality/>.
“Heidelberg Catechism Audio Recording : Wes Bredenhof : Free Download & Streaming : Internet Archive.” Internet Archive, n.d. Web. 4 Jan. 2015. <https://archive.org/details/HeidelbergCatechismAudioRecording>.
Huyser-Honig, Joan. “Why Preach Sermons Based on a Catechism?” Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, 31 Aug. Web. 11 Jan. 2015. <http://worship.calvin.edu/resources/resource-library/why-preach-sermons-based-on-a-catechism-/>.
Keller, Timothy. “Introduction.” New City Catechism. Redeemer Presbyterian Church, Oct. 2012. Web. 15 Jan. 2015. <http://www.newcitycatechism.com/intro.php>.
Miller, Allen O., and M. Eugene Osterhaven, trans. The 400th Anniversary Edition of The Heidelberg Catechism. Philadelphia, PA: United Church Press, 1962.
Parrett, Gary A. and S. Steve Kang. Teaching the Faith, Forming the Faithful: A Biblical Vision for Education in the Church. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009. Note: Thomas B. Grosh IV’s Book Response is now available at <https://blog.emergingscholars.org/2016/02/book-response-teaching-the-faith-forming-the-faithful/>.
“Reform in the Palatinate.” Heidelberg Catechism. Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary, n.d. Web. 11 Jan. 2015. <http://www.heidelberg-catechism.com/en/history/>.
Tom enjoys daily conversations regarding living out the Biblical Story with his wife Theresa and their four girls, around the block, at Elizabethtown Brethren in Christ Church (where he teaches adult electives and co-leads a small group), among healthcare professionals as the South Central PA Area Director for the Christian Medical & Dental Associations (CMDA), and in higher ed as a volunteer with the Emerging Scholars Network (ESN). The Christian Medical Society / CMDA at Penn State College of Medicine is the hub of his ministry with CMDA. Note: Tom served with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship / USA for 20+ years, including 6+ years as the Associate Director of ESN. He has written for the ESN blog from its launch in August 2008. He has studied Biology (B.S.), Higher Education (M.A.), Spiritual Direction (Certificate), Spiritual Formation (M.A.R.), Ministry to Emerging Generations (D.Min.). To God be the glory!