Is it still possible to be truly enthusiastic about preaching the Word according to the summary of its doctrine as found in the Heidelberg Catechism? In this 400th anniversary year of the publication of this Creed this question must be faced, and Dr. Alexander C. De Jong does so in a second of a series of three articles on the Heidelberg Catechism. We believe that both preachers and those far whom they preach will benefit from this contribution.
– THE EDITORSFour hundred years after the Reformed Churches first confessed their faith in the words of the Heidelberg Catechism, the fine practise of preaching the Catechism continues. The words of the Christian Reformed Church Order still control many preaching practises.
Article 68 reads:
The Ministers shall on Sunday explain briefly the sum of Christian Doctrine comprehended in the Heidelberg Catechism so that as much as possible the explanation shall be annually completed, according to the division of the Catechism itself, for that purpose.
Article 57b of the Revised Church Order reads:
At one of the services each Lord’s Day, the minister shall preach the Word as summarized in the Heidelberg Catechism, following the sequence of the Catechism.
A LONG TRADITION
The art of Catechism preaching reaches far back into history. As early as 1533 Lutheran pastors were expected to preach the Lutheran Catechism. Already the Church wanted every man to hear the language of the Church fathers. In 1532 the Churches of North Switzerland followed the advice of Bullinger and Jud in preaching on the Catechism which had been written under the leadership of Jud himself. In the refugee Church of London the larger Catechism of a Lasco was used in connection with preaching. When the Church fathers and brothers of the Palatinate gave birth to the Heidelberg Catechism, it became a favorite document for homiletical exposition. For 400 years, despite the critics and opponents of preaching the Catechism, this practise has been followed. When the voices of protest were loudest and the practise was suspended, the Church lost some of her dynamic power. Her voice became muted, confused, ineffective. We should be grateful that some churches still effectively continue the practise of dynamic Catechism preaching.
A VALUABLE TRADITION
Some of the values of this tradition are obvious. The preacher is compelled to deal with many doctrinal truths which due to his limited personal preference and experience might otherwise escape adequate treatment. Since God’s Word as confessed in the Heidelberg Catechism is good meat for God’s growing children, the congregation is fed a well balanced diet of spiritual food. These are but two obvious values.
More important is the fact that the Heidelberg Catechism is a Church confession. It is not a private explanation by Ursinus and Olevianus. In fact, Church historians claim that many more minds and hearts wrestled with the making of the Heidelberg Catechism than the two well known authors. When the Heidelberg Catechism speaks, the Church speaks, repeating in her own language the priceless truths of God’s revealed Word. The Church today should listen to the Church of yesterday. The Church would not be today without the Church of yesterday. We all are fathers, brothers, and children. In the family of God—for such is the Church—we should long to hear the voice of our fathers. From their spiritual loins came our birth under the control and direction of Christ. Therefore we work to listen, and hearing the echoes of our fathers’ voices, we thank Christ who gave us such spiritual pro-genitors. This is the greatest value of preaching the Catechism in our day. Only the little-minded of today, who have no ear for the voices from yesterday, would want to silence these voices in the pulpits of the Church today.
A DYNAMIC TRADITION
Catechism preaching is an art. This art must be a dynamic expression of the old truth today. We can not preach the Catechism as our fathers did. To try would be to deny our fathers’ voices. They did not speak on the Catechism as did their fathers. The Kingdom of Christ moves on. It must speak about new problems with old overtones. The truth needs re-saying. It must be expressed so that the old, unchanging truths come to interpretation in the new situations of the moment. The tradition must not die, but must be revitalized in the dynamics of today’s questions, tears, pains, and problems. So Catechism preaching must continue, though its form may vary as the face of man’s common problems changes with the passing of time. To preserve the dynamic tradition of Catechism preaching I pass on to the reader three simple observations.
PREACHING A CONFRONTATION
Preaching the Catechism must remain the official proclamation of God’s Word. The preacher envisions the mooting of God and his people. Children purchased by the blood of the Father’s only Son must hear Father’s voice calling them to faith and repentance. It is only Cod’s voice which can build our lives, sharpen our insights, bolster our wills, and release our emotions. God and his people must meet together. Catechism preaching must be God’s voice drawing forth the total response of the believing life.
A danger lurks in every pulpit where the Catechism lies atop the opened Bible. It is the danger of transforming the pulpit into a lectern. It is the danger of administering theological concepts rather than proclaiming the vital Word. It is the danger of delivering a meal of over…cooked theology to a people who need the fresh provisions of Father’s food. For example, when preaching on Lord’s Day II there is the danger of delivering a learned essay on the essence of sin, rather than preaching on the Biblical materials which lay bare the awful truth that “I am prone by nature to hate God and my neighbor.” Only when we resist the temptation to display theological erudition and strive to administer the Word of God can we understand clearly the language of the Catechism which echoes in human voice the very Word of God.
CONFRONTATION WITH THE TRUTHS OF THE CATECHISM
The specific form of the Catechism sermon varies with each preacher; with the number of times a given preacher has covered the materials in a given congregation; with the situation of the day in which the truths must be preached. Long ago, in 1697 to be specific, it was said that the words and sentences of the Heidelberger did not require slavish and pedantic exposition. David Knibbe said that the words and sentences of the Catechism are not to be explained with pedantic and anxious accuracy unless the refutation of heresy requires it.
The sentiment of Knibbe should not give license to those little-minded people who want to camouflage the preaching of the Catechism. Some misguided people rejoice the loudest when a Catechism sermon is not recognized as being a sermon on the Catechism. These people are little-minded, not because they lack erudition, learning, but only because their vision is blinded to the past and their ears are deaf to the voice of the fathers upon whose shoulders we stand to build in the Church of Christ. We would be prejudiced slaves of the present moment were we to silence the voice of the Catechism. God’s children of today should want to hear the voice of yesterday.
But, and this needs saying also, the voice of yesterday must be heard in the language and the situation of today. This is what our fathers did in their day, and this we ought to learn of them. Therefore each sermon can vary in form. It could be an exposition of the Lord’s Day’s exact words and sentences. It could be speaking on some specific aspect of the truth expressed in the Lord’s Day under discussion. A sermon could be the exegesis of a given text in the language of the Catechism. It could be that a specific Lord’s Day needs amplification in a series of sermons. We would regret legislating the precise form of dynamic Catechism preaching. But at all costs we must be sure that the language of the Catechism comes to its own inimitable expression. To disguise this language in the desire to be contemporaneous is to restrict our hearers and impoverish their lives. So the truths, all the truths, of the Catechism must reach the listening church in a dynamic confrontation.
CONFRONTATION WITH THE CATECHISM TODAY
The Church today faces different situations than the Church of yesterday. Hence preaching may require additions and condensations of the Catechism varying with the specifics of our lives. The Heidelberg Catechism never pretended to speak the last word. Which human voice ever could? For example, we may need an extra sermon or two laying bare the glorious comfort involved in the doctrine of election. We may trim down the many Lord’s Days on the Lord’s Supper, without impoverishing the insight of the congregation into the nature of the Sacraments. Lord‘s Day 41 may need greater amplification in view of the sex-sodden character of our generation and the eruption of family life into spliutered divorces and broken lives. No doubt Lord’s Day 42 can use greater explanation in terms of weUare statism, the disappearance of private property, and the rise of corporate businesses, so large that they st.’lgger the imagination of the uninitiated. Thus rea1 Catechism preaching demands fidelity to the voice of our fathers with sensitive awareness of the world in which we live today.