THE HEIDELBERG CATECHISM: A STUDY GUIDE by Rev. G. L Williamson, 241 pages includes Scripture Index; P & R Publishing, PO Box 817, Phillipsburg, N.J. 08865. Reviewed by Rev. Paul T Murphy.
Rev. G.I. Williamson is perhaps best known for writing the Study Guides for the Westminster Shorter Catechism (Vols. 1 & 2) and the Westminster Confession. Anyone familiar with those works knows the immense contribution they have made to the church. Written with theological precision and pastoral sensitivity they have led many young Christians into the deeper truths of the Reformed faith. I have personally used them in both high school and adult situations and seen them appreciated by both. Rev. Williamson writes out of his vast experience as a teacher and pastor. As such he has been exposed to both Presbyterian and Reformed traditions.
This makes his contribution of a study guide on the Heidelberger quite unique. It is an important contribution to the already large number of resources on this catechism precisely because it is written by a Presbyterian. More and more in our day we are seeing an increasing appreciation of and affinity for the doctrinal standards of other confessionally orthodox denominations. Both Westminster seminaries have adopted the Three Forms of Unity along with the Westminster Standards; the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the Alliance of Reformed Churches among others are considering equal recognition of these two sets of symbols. One can only welcome this addition by Rev. Williamson as furthering true Biblical ecumenicity.
Like his guides on the Westminster Standards, this study guide follows a format of exposition followed by questions. There are first questions on the lesson itself and then further questions for study and discussion. Generally these latter questions are more in depth and thought provoking. The guide itself follows the format of the Heidelberger setting forth 52 Lord’s Days’ lessons according to the three part division of the catechism (Misery, Deliverance, Gratitude).
In a brief introduction Rev. Williamson gives an apologia for catechetical studies. This is much needed in our day either because of those who denounce creeds as unbiblical, or those who elevate them to a position higher than Scripture itself. Rev. Williamson sets forth the Biblical justification for a catechism from Luke 1:1–4 where Luke explains his purpose in writing to Theophilus “so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught (catechized).” Rev. Williamson continues by concluding: “Our starting point will be the catechism, but our final reference point will be the Bible. Only when we are sure that the catechism agrees with the Word of God will we have the kind of certainty that Luke recommended to Theophilus” (p. 3). Thus the necessary balance is achieved.
Rev. Williamson sets forth the truths of the catechism in faithfully explaining the doctrine of each Lord’s Day according to the Scriptures. He has the ability to not only set forth the truth bur also clearly delineate it from error. In almost every lesson the Reformed position is maintained as over against other positions within the Christian Church. Whether it is the Roman church on the sacraments, evolutionists on creation, Pentecostals on the Holy Spirit, or other subjects, the Biblical reasons for and against various positions are made clear. This antithetical method of instruction is an element that is absent in most expositions of the catechism. It is invaluable for instilling discernment in pupils. And if there is one thing that is presently absent from too many Christians it is discernment.
Rev. Williamson is not beyond tackling controversial issues either. He unashamedly defends Sabbatarianism when many in the Presbyterian and Reformed world are dismissing it. He goes so far as to critique the Synod of Dort’s statement that there is a ceremonial aspect in the fourth commandment (p. 180). This may make one wonder if he is narrower than the catechism itself in doctrinal matters. But he is not above suggesting an amendment in the catechism. For Q & A 93 , “How are these commandments divided?” Rev. Williamson humbly suggests an improvement. Rather than the second table of the Law being “what duties we owe to our neighbor” he suggests “what God requires of us in His service.” This would relate even the second table of the Law to our relationship with God.
The lessons are superbly illustrated, providing “windows” to the truth of the particular lesson. I found this study guide to be one that could be used equally well by both youth and adults, new believers needing to be discipled in the faith or seasoned saints wanting richer insights in the catechism. I would highly recommend this book for any of those uses. Rev. Williamson writes with clarity of thought and precision in doctrinal explanation. That is sure to make this study guide as valuable to the church as his previous ones on the Westminster Standards.