It Happened 400 Years Ago

When one surveys the history of the Christian church he must recognize the significance for the church of its literature. Some works stand out among others as having been of great influence. One recalls, for example. the Confession or On the City of God by St. Augustine, the Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis, the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas, the Institutes by John Calvin, to mention but a few.

Among the literary pieces which have profoundly affected the history of Protestantism, and especially Reformed Christianity, there are few that can compare with the Heidelberg Catechism. This document has appeared in over forty languages, and has been widely accepted by the Reformed world as its summary of the faith. For four centuries it has stood the test of time, and continues to be, without change, an adequate statement of the Reformed faith.

On this four hundredth anniversary of its composition, it is proper that we pause to reflect upon the Heidelberg Catechism. Many of us may have been exposed to its teachings, but few of us are in a position to evaluate its place in the history of Protestantism. That is to say, we may know its contents as such, but little appreciate the circumstances under which it was composed, the authors who wrote it or the trials of its early history.

Very recently our family had the opportunity to spend a year in the ancient city of Heidelberg. Among other activities, the writer engaged in research on the early history of the Heidelberg Catechism, using the sources found in the University library. The subject proved so interesting that we now want to share our findings with others. We trust the reading of this brief account may increase our appreciation of the Reformed faith through a better understanding of the circumstances which led to the publication of the monumental document we know as the Heidelberg Catechism.

The University of Heidelberg

The University of Heidelberg has been closely associated with the religious history of Germany. This school, the oldest univerSity in Germany, was founded in 1387 by Rupert I, the Elector of the Palatinate at that time. This ruler was one of seven, each of whom ruled over a section of Germany under a king or emperor. The Palatinate area included the rich Rhine valley in the western part of Germany.

During the first century of its existence the University of Heidelberg had little significance for the religious development in its area, probably because the rulers were preoccupied with political strife. However, this is not to say that the fifteenth century was devoid of lasting influences. One should remember, for example, that under King Maximilian printing was invented, which made possible the rapid spread of ideas, some of which were attacks upon the abuses within the church. These new thoughts were eagerly accepted by many peasants who smarted under the taxes imposed by the church. The spirit of the Renaissance, the spirit of inquiry, was taking hold, and people became Jess inclined to accept anything without some questioning.

New life came to the University of Heidelberg and to the Palatinate when, in 1476, Philip (the Just) came to power. He was very much interested in the new humanistic movement as opposed to the sterile Aristotelianism of the Roman Catholic church. Among others, he appointed two Holland-born giants of the new learning, Rudolph Agricola and John Wessel, to positions on the university faculty. Their task was not easy for their colleagues were quite content with the religious status quo. Nevertheless, they openly questioned some Roman Catholic doctrines and practices, and so paved the way for the Reformation of the church.

Martin Luther

Invited in 1508 Philip was succeeded by his brother Ludwig, who continued the reforming trend. During his rule,. in 1518, Martin Luther was invited to give some lectures in the Augustinian monastery in Heidelberg. This young reformer made a very favorable impression upon his audiences, who were astounded by his handling of the Scriptures. His performance won him many followers, among whom were men such as Martin Butzer and Johan Brenz. Of course, such a reception dismayed the Roman Catholics, who tried to discredit Luther in any way possible.

During the next two decades there was bitter strife between the Lutherans and the Roman Catholics. Ludwig tried hard to steer a middle course to keep the peace. His successor, Frederick II, continued to struggle with this problem, but also without any vigorous support of anyone faction. However, it is interesting to note that in 1546 the famous Holy Ghost church in Heidelberg was the scene of the first Lutheran celebration of the Lord’s Supper in that church.

In 1556 the reformers were assisted greatly when Otto Heinrich became Elector of the Palatinate. A patron of the arts, a lover of education, he first turned his attention to improving the university. He donated a large part of his own extensive library to the university and got others to do likewise, so that this library came to be known as one of the finest in Europe. Incidentally, this library was kept in the Holy Ghost church for many years, and later, in 1623, most of it was seized as a prize of war and transported to the Vatican, where it is to this day.

Otto Heinrich was a Lutheran by faith, and he espoused reform with all his might. Leaning heavily upon the advice of Melanchthon, he deposed the Roman Catholics still on the university faculty and replaced them with reformers. One of these was Zacharias Ursinus, later to become one of the authors of the Heidelberg Catechism. Although the university faculty was now of one mind with respect to reformation within the church, it must be understood that within it were still differences of opinion on some important matters. Some of these men were followers of Luther, some of Zwingli, and still others of Calvin. Therefore, it is understandable that debate continued, and often generated a good deal of heat.

In the churches of the Palatinate Otto Heinrich instituted great reforms. He ordered all images removed, as well as altars, crucifixes and other adornments. He substituted German for Latin in the services. He established a new church order, modeJed after that of Brenz already in use in Wurtemburg, and appointed a church council to supervise church affairs in the area.

Heinrich ruled only three years, but these years were full of accomplishments. He is recognized as one of the greatest benefactors of the University of Heidelberg. Interestingly, even today the professors of this university must take the oath which this ruler required of them in his day. But his contributions to the Protestant cause are equally great. Under his rule the reformation of the church in the Palatinate was firmly established. However, it is well to remind ourselves once again that all were not yet of one mind on religious matters. Among the university and church leaders there were bitter controversies, especially on the subject of the meaning of the Lord’s Supper.

Frederick III

Elector Frederick III began his rule of the Palatinate in 1559 at the age of forty-four. This is the man we remember as the one who inspired the writing of the Heidelberg Catechism. Early in life he had felt the need for reform within the church. He had married the Lutheran princess, Maria von Brandenburg Bayreuth. He became widely known for his integrity and for his vigorous defense of the truth as he saw it. He was a man who loved learning, and one who contributed liberally of his goods to all worthy causes.

When Frederick III came to power he was a lowLutheran, one who had signed the altered Augsburg Confession of 1540, which said that the body of Christ was only exhibited in the Lord’s Supper. Like many other devout reformers, he wrestled with the problems relating to the Supper. It has been said that on this matter he was especially sympathetic to the views of Zwingli, the great Swiss reformer. It is certain that at the time when he assumed the rule of the Palatinate he was not yet a follower of John Calvin. Certainly, he had heard of the great Genevan reformer, but as late as 1563 he is reported to have said that he had not yet read Calvin’s works.

Frederick III faced the very formidable task of establishing religious peace within his domain. He was greatly disturbed by the continued, and often bitter, arguments among the Reformed leaders. Although professedly a Lutheran, he wanted peace even more than Lutheranism. He yearned to unite the Protestant factions against the threats of Roman Catholicism, so near at hand in the neighboring provinces. It disturbed him much to see some churches in his area using Luther’s catechism while others preferred another one authored by Brenz, for example. Once and again he tried to get the parties to agree on a formula for the Lord’s Supper, but each time he did not succeed. He often sought the counsel of Melanchthon during this time. An ardent Bible student himself, he searched the Scriptures very seriously for the way out of this difficulty.

Early during his rule, Frederick turned his attention to the problem of making the university a bulwark for the Protestant faith. In 1559 he strengthened the faculty with the appointment of Caspar Olevianus as professor of theology. In 1560 he sponsored a debate and conference among the faculty of the university on the precise meaning of the Lord’s Supper. It is said that this meeting impressed him greatly with the strength of the Calvinistic position. However, the meeting apparently also served to point up more clearly the differences of opinion within the faculty. One of the loudest voices heard was that of Professor Heszushius, a student of Melanchthon, who agitated uncompromisingly for adoption of the Lutheran position on the Lord’s Supper, church ritual and the like. So much heat was generated in the debate that Frederick finally ordered a cessation of it and asked the faculty and all other participants to accept the Augsburg Confession as a basis of agreement. This moderate position so infuriated Heszushius that he stormed out of Heidelberg and continued his warfare with the pen, charging Frederick and his followers with being Calvinistic. The fact is that the Elector was still nominally a Lutheran, and sent his son to the Lutheran catechism classes.

Calvinism Wins

Differences of opinion on theological matters are not easily silenced by an edict, and so discussion and debate continued. Once again the Elector sponsored a meeting for debate between the Lutherans -Moerlin and Stoessel, on the one hand -and the Calvinists -Erastus and Boquin, on the other. After about a week of serious struggle, Frederick came to the conclusion that the Calvinists had the better of the argument, a position more in accord with Scripture. From this time forward he openly espoused Calvinism and aggressively promoted it throughout his domain.

In 1561 the Elector called Ursinus to take the place of Olevianus as head of the theological school of the university, and made Olevianus pastor of the Holy Ghost church and superintendent of all the churches in the Palatinate. He also dismissed those of the faculty who did not agree with his theological position, so that now the university was definitely Reformed in character. Furthermore, he ordered all images and altars removed from the churches, banned all feasts in honor of saints, and decreed that German psalms and hymns be substituted for the Latin. He closed all monasteries and used their wealth to support schools and churches.

Finally all seemed to be well under control. Yet Frederick was not entirely satisfied. The churches and schools still lacked a creed and a church order which was needed to unify them. He was concerned particularly about the need for perpetuating the Reformed faith, and, therefore, about proper religious instruction of the youth. As it was, some churches were using a catechism manual written by Brentius. Others, having been influenced by Heszushius, were devoted to Luther’s catechism. Perhaps there were still others in use. All of this led to confusion, and argument was inevitable. So, early in 1562, the Elector appointed a commission composed of leaders at the court, in the university and in the church to write a new catechism for the churches of the Palatinate. This commission delegated the task to two young theologians, Zacharias Ursinus and Caspar Olevianus, then only twenty-eight and twenty-six years of age, respectively. One would think that such a formidable task would not have been given to men with so little experience. But history has vindicated this choice, and we do well to consider these young authors before discussing their monumental product.