The Early Reception of Our Catechism

As one might expect under the circumstances of those times, the catechism was both warmly received and vigorously assailed.

Among Protestants inclined to the theology of John Calvin, the catechism was immediately received with joy. Already in 1563 it was translated into three different languages. It appeared in Latin, the translation of the third edition, for use in the schools. The people of northern Germany were served by a translation into the Saxon language. And a Dutch translation of the second edition was published in Emden that same year.


The Heidelberg catechism found fertile soil for its early growth especially in the Netherlands. Besides the Dutch version of the second edition, there appeared, in 1566, two other translations of the catechism, this time of the third edition. One of these, the translation of Peter Dathenus, was published together with the Psalms and Liturgy for use in the Reformed churches. It had three printings in 1566, four in 1567 and three in 1568. indicating its great popularity. This is essentially the version used to this day in the churches of the Netherlands.

As we view the progress of the catechism in the north. we find that it was not adopted at once by all of the churches. For a time there was considerable tolerance of those who preferred to use some other catechism. In 1571 a synod at Emden ruled that a church might choose to use another which is true to God’s Word. By 1586 all Dutch services were required to treat the Heidelberg catechism in the Sunday afternoon services. And then, in 1619, the great synod of Dordt finally confirmed this catechism as its statement of the Christian faith. It required a pledge of faithfulness to it not only from the preachers but also from all persons in public office, such as professors of theology, rectors, school masters and so forth. This synod, attended by delegates from several countTies, adopted the Heidelberg catechism and made it the symbol of the Reformed faith for the world.


But let no one think that the critics were asleep when the Heidelberg catechism appeared. As soon as the first edition had come off the press, objectors arose in various places. Already in April, 1563 Frederick received a letter of dissent from three Lutheran princes, and another from the Roman Catholic king, Maximilian. The complaints were that the catechism did not agree with the Augsburg confesSion, that it embraced too fully the doctrines of Zwingli and Calvin, and that it did not present the pure doctrines of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Frederick asked the Swiss reformer, Bullinger, to reply to some of these objections. The Elector also met with these princes to iron out the differences, but to no avail.

Also in 1563 there appeared a more formidable list of objections from two Lutheran theologians, Brentz and Andreae. Their publication centered around eighteen questions about various parts of the catechism and six more specifically on the Lord’s Supper. It questioned many of the Scriptural references cited in the catechism in support of its position. The following year, 1564, Ursinus answered these objectors with the publication of an “Apology,” in which he mightily defended the catechism. Some of the early editions of the catechism contain parts of this defence. Needless to say, Ursinus also defended his work in his lectures at the university, and continued a systematic presentation of it as professor until 1577. The substance of these lectures is preserved in his commentary on the Heidelberg catechism, which was published in four volumes in 1591.



Vigorous debate continued for a few years, but Elector Frederick was not deterred, for he was convinced of the rightness of his position. Finally, in 1566, the king, Maximilian, called for a Diet at Augsburg, to which Frederick was invited for the specific purpose of defending his faith and his catechism. With so much opposition from many influential princes and from the Roman Catholic king, it seemed that Frederick was headed for sure defeat. His friends begged him not to go for it was likely he would not only lose his crown but perhaps even his life. In spite of all the odds against him, Frederick was convinced that if ever he must defend his faith it was now.

The Diet of Augsburg convened on May 14, 1566. Elector Frederick boldly faced the largely critical audience, and nobly, even eloquently, made his defence in the words (in part):

“I am, as I have told your majesty personally, still minded to acknowledge in faith one Lord who is Lord of Lords and King of Kings. And since not my body but my soul and its salvation is at stake, which was entrusted to me by my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, therefore I am pledged to keep it. Hence I cannot acknowledge that your majesty has any authority over my soul, but only God Who created it. I can testify before God and my Christian conscience that I have never read Calvin’s writings, and I do not know what is meant by Calvinism. But concerning my catechism, that I acknowledge and confess. It is also supported in the margins with Scriptural references, so that it has defeated all boasts of theologians to refute it, and with God’s help will continue to do so. Besides, I comfort myself with the fact that my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, has given me and all His believers the sure promise that whatever I lose for his sake he will restore to me a hundredfold in the world beyond.”

This defence made a very deep impression upon the entire assembly. 1t was clear to all that Frederick knew what he believed, that he stood firmly on the Bible, and that he was ready to sacrifice his own life for his faith. Even the king, a Roman Catholic, was moved. Almost to a man the Diet agreed that no fault could be found with this just man. Only the Bishop of Worms expressed the belief that perhaps the eightieth question and answer of the catechism might be changed to make it less offensive, but this was not done. The Diet agreed that the Heidelberg catechism should be recognized as a legitimate expression of Protestant faith. And so it was at the Diet of Augsburg that Elector Frederick saved the day for his catechism and for Calvinism in Germany and throughout the world. For a time, at least, the foes were silenced.