The Early Editions of the Heidelberg Catechism

It must be remembered that at the time the Heidelberg Catechism was composed Protestantism was engaged in a battle for survival against the Roman church. It is no wonder, therefore, that the catechism reflects this fact at a number of points. For one thing, it emphasizes that good works cannot merit salvation, in questions and answers 62 and 63. Eight questions deal with the subject of the Lord’s Supper and how it differs from the mass (75–82). The true meaning of the church and the kingdom of heaven are treated in questions 83 to 85. Idolatry and image worship are condemned in four other questions, 95 to 98. It should be quite clear, then, that this catechism was intended to delineate very distinctly the errors in the Roman Catholic Church.

Considering the catechism as a whole, we observe that the main theme is God’s free grace in the work of salvation. It begins with God’s judgment on sinful man, but by far the larger part of the catechism is devoted to the gospel of redemption and man’s grateful response to such grace. All the way through we are reminded of what God requires of man, and that he does for man what man cannot do for himself.

It is interesting to note that nowhere in the catechism does one find specific mention of the doctrine of predestination or of election, even though such an emphasis would have marked the catechism as clearly Calvinistic. Perhaps this is the way the Elector wanted it, so that it would be more palatable for those who still were inclined to Lutheranism. Perhaps, too, a specific point was not made of these doctrines because, in a very real sense, the catechism was intended for the masses, for popular consumption by the average church member. There is some truth in the observation of Karl Barth, who said of the Heidelberg catechism, “Specifically Reformed teachings play only a small role in this catechism.”

Another feature to notice is the way in which the subject of church discipline is handled. The need of such discipline is clearly set forth. But the answer to question 85 is general enough so that it could be accepted in a variety of localities, for example, in Zurich or Basel as well as in Geneva.

Just one or two more comments of a general nature are in order. Any serious reader of the Heidelberg Catechism must be impressed with the warmth of its presentation of doctrinal truths. Every question and answer reflects the intense personal involvement of the authors in the doctrines outlined, and the need for the reader to face God in the Scriptures.

We close these general comments on the catechism with a quotation which we believe summarizes much we have said about it: “The Heidelberg catechism reflects the several streams of religious thought of that day: Zwingli’s faithfulness to Scripture, Calvin’s clarity of thought, the mildness of Melanchthon, and the faith of Luther.”

We turn now to consider some specific features of the early editions of the catechism, what changes were made, and the reasons for these changes. There were, it must be recalled, no less than four editions printed in 1563, and fairly significant changes were made in these.


The First Edition

The first edition probably appeared, as we said earlier, in February, 1563, in both Latin and German. The Foreword was written by the Elector, Frederick III. It occupies pages 3 to 11, and is addressed to“ Clergymen, Preachers, Church-and School officers.” Then follow pages 12 through 84, consisting of 128 questions and answers. The questions were not numbered, but the words, “Frag” (Question) and “Antwort” (Answer) stand out on lines by themselves in the middle of the pages. Scriptural references appear in the margins, 515 references to the New Testament, 158 to the Old Testament, and one to the Apocrypha of the Old Testament. The scriptural reference texts are given in full on the pages that follow, namely, pages 84 to 94.

It is interesting to observe that the answer to the seventy-eighth question, as submitted by Ursinus and Olevianus, did not please the Elector. It is thought that he himself wrote another answer as we now have it. As the reason for the change, he is reported to have said, “that man would not think to make of the sacrament alone an image.” Apparently he scrutinized the text very closely, and wanted to be sure to leave no room for misinterpretation.

A prominent omission in the first edition is that of the eightieth question as we now have it. This is the question about the difference between the popish mass and the Lord’s Supper. For about three centuries after its publication, it was not known that this question was missing from the original edition. Then a copy was found which shows clearly that it was added later.

The only known copy of the first edition can now be found in the library at Utrecht, the Netherlands.

The Second Edition

This edition appeared only a few weeks after the first. It was not merely a second printing but actually a revision.

Question 36 in the first edition read as follows: “What benefit do you receive from the holy conception of Christ?” In the second edition this question was changed to “holy conception and birth of Christ.” The answer to this question was also modi6ed as follows, the addition given in italics: “That He is our Mediator, and with His innocence and perfect holiness covers, in the sight of God, my sin wherein I was conceived and brought forth.”

The answer to question 117 was changed slightly as follows, again with the addition in italics: “First, that from the heart we call upon the one true God only, who has revealed Himself in His Word, for all He has commanded us to ask of Him…”

The most significant change in the second edition is the addition of another question and answer after question and answer 79 of the first edition. The new question is, “What difference is there between the Lord’s Supper and the popish mass?” The answer given is, “the Lord’s Supper testifies to us that we have full pardon of all our sins by the only sacrifice of Jesus Christ, which He Himself had once accomplished on the cross. The mass, however, teaches that the living and the dead have not the forgiveness of sins through the sufferings of Christ unless Christ is still daily offered for them by the priests. And thus the mass, at bottom, is idolatrous denial of the only sacrifice and passion of Jesus Christ.” We have given the entire answer as found in the second edition to point out, by comparison with the succeeding edition, how this answer developed. You will note that the answer is shorter than the one now in the catechism.

The thoughtful reader must wonder just why this extra question was added. On page 96 of the second edition Elector Frederick makes the comment, “To the Christian reader. That which was overlooked in the first printing, namely on page 55, is now added by order of his grace, the Elector, 1563.” It is on page 55 that the new question and answer appear. What prompted Frederick to add this? We cannot know certainly, but it is thought that it was done as his reaction to the deciSions of the Council of Trent which was just finishing its business that year.

The second edition also contains another added feature. Twenty-two extra pages are added, containing “Christian prayers, which may be used at home and in the churches.” The prayers included are for morning and evening, before and after meals, before and after the sermon, for confession of sin and for the needs of all Christendom.

Copies of the second edition can now be found in the libraries at Rotterdam and Utrecht.

The Third Edition

Still another edition, the third, came off the press in 1563, probably in November. This time it was published together with the Church Order for the Palatinate churches.

For the first time the 129 questions and answers are divided into 52 Lord’s Days. According to the new Church Order, these divisions were made so that the whole catechism shall be covered once a year.

A significant difference from the second edition is to be found in the answer to question 80. The answer is now much longer, and is the one we now have. We quote the entire answer, and italicize the parts which were added in this edition: “The Lord’s Supper testifies to us that we have full pardon of all our sins by the only sacrifice of Jesus Christ, which He Himself has once accomplished on the cross; and that by the Holy Spirit we are ingrafted into Christ, who according to His human nature is now not on earth but in heaven, at the right hand of God His father and wills there to be worshipped by us; but the mass teaches that the living and the dead have not the forgiveness of sins through the sufferings of Christ unless Christ is still daily offered for them by the priests; and that Christ is bodily present under the form of bread and wine and is therefore to be worshipped in them. And thus the mass, at bottom, is nothing else than a denial of the one sacrifice and passion of Jesus Christ, and an accursed idolatry.”

We cannot be sure why this answer was expanded so shortly after it first appeared in the second edition. It may have been done on order of the Elector, who may have wished to strengthen the statement about the mass after he had more fully studied the decisions of the Council of Trent.

Two copies of the third edition remain, one to be found in the library at Karlsruhe, the other in Utrecht.

The Church Order

The Church Order with which the third edition of the catechism appeared requires a brief look, particularly as it bears upon the use to be made of the catechism. It required that a part of the catechism be read clearly to the congregation every Sunday and holiday before preaching is begun, and that this reading of the entire catechism be completed every nine weeks. Furthermore, it required that there be a catechism sermon every Sunday afternoon so that “our children shall be taught in their inherited baptism, true Christian faith and repentance, so that they, before being permitted to sit at the table of the Lord, are able to confess their faith before the whole Christian Church.” It was the practice in those early days to have the youth of the church recite the answers to the catechism questions put to them by the preacher in the presence of the congregation each Sunday afternoon. Incidentally, this emphasis on the use of the catechism explains why it is placed in the church order between the formulas for baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

A copy of the Church Order as it appeared in 1563 can be seen today in the University library at Heidelberg.