The Ecumenical Character of the Heidelberg Catechism

In the light of the current ecumenical popularity of the Heidelberg Catechism, it is instructive to observe that when it was first published Roman Catholics as well as Lutherans vigorously attacked it. That opposition continued for a long time.

Roman Catholic opposition to anything Protestant was understandable in the age of the Reformation as well as in the period of the Counter-Reformation. News of the decisions of the Council of Trent which concluded its eighteen-year history in 1563 may have been the occasion for the addition of the 80th question in the Second edition of the Heidelberg Catechism and its enlargement in the third edition which still appeared in 1563, the year of publication. At any rate the reference to the Roman Catholic sacrifice of the mass as “a cursed idolatry” was certainly calculated to demonstrate that this Catechism did not have the ecumenical aim of placating Rome. In addition to this outspoken opposition to Roman doctrine, the entire Catechism and specific sections more clearly were in evident conflict with Roman Catholicism. Hence the violent opposition of Rome to this Catechism was no mystery.

The Lutheran opposition must be seen in the broader context of political involvement as well as in doctrinal differences. Many Lutherans looked upon the Catechism as a composite of Zwinglianism and Calvinism and denounced it as dangerous to sound doctrine and true piety. The three Lutheran princes who addressed Frederick III on May 1563 expressed themselves in this way;

“We know by the gracious help of God, that Zwinglianism and Calvinism in the article on the Lord’s Supper are seductive and damnable error; in direct contradiction to the Holy Scriptures, the Apostolic Church, the true Christian understanding of the Augsburg Confession, and the commonly accepted and defended religious Peace of Augsburg.”7

On the other hand, there have been scholars of a later period who have contended that the Catechism reflects the clear influence of the Lutheran, Philip Melanchthon. Heinrich Heppe expresses this as his considered judgment as does Philip Schaff.8 While it is historically clear that Frederick III did seek the advice of Melanchthon, and Ursinus had himself been a student of Melanchthon, the evidence for a Melanchthonian character in the Heidelberg Catechism is lacking. This view receives little credence today.


Another suggestion has been made by Professor Gooszen who has made an exhaustive study of the sources of the Catechism. He contends that the spirit which really predominates is that of Henry Bullinger, the successor of Zwingli at Zurich. Again, the influence of Bullinger is beyond dispute. But the response of Karl Muller in his Symbolik is probably correct when he states that

“Gooszen’s one-sided predilection to find Bullinger’s type of doctrine in the Heidelberg is historically no more trustworthy than Heppe’s contention that it is Melanchthonian. The theories of both these men are shaped largely by their personal inclination to the doctrinal views of their respective heroes.”9

Professor Lang’s argumentation also refutes the thesis of Gooszen for he shows that the Catechism is really Calvinistic in its spirit and tendency. Lang adds, however, that it is a unique German Reformed spirit which the Catechism displays—one which reflects Calvin mainly, but which has been enriched by the influence of other Reformed theologians as well and even by certain Lutheran influences. Professor Lang makes this point emphatically when he contends that

“specifically German-Reformed Protestantism has, with the exception of Bucer, brought forth none of the great Reformers, none of the powerful war heroes and men of state such as Coligny or the Oranges, none of the original religious characters such as Cromwell. Upon the development of the political or economic life she has not exerted so decisive an influence as have the Huguenots, or the Netherlands, or above all the Pilgrim fathers—but German Reformed Protestantism has created the Heidelberg Catechism and with that at least proved the worth of her existence.”10

What is there, then, in this German Reformed catechism that aroused immediate Roman Catholic and Lutheran opposition, when scholars have variously assessed its predominant spirit to be that of Melanchthon, Bullinger, Calvin. or German Reformed Protestantism and when contemporary theologians hail its present ecumenical significance? Or docs it perhaps possess something from each of these movements, as one writer has lyrically expressed it:

“It has Lutheran inwardness, Melanchthonian clearness, Zwinglian simplicity, and Calvinistic fire, harmoniously blended together.”11

While it is true that it authors learned from each and all of these, the Heidelberg Catechism is not a doctrinal mosaic nor a theological patchwork. Nor is its doctrinal emphasis so vague that almost anyone can read it as he likes.

Although benefiting from a variety of predecessors, this Catechism was a new creation with its own unique strength and beauty, a work of art and a book of doctrine in one stroke. It displays an organic unity and coherence. In seeking to express its doctrinal character and its ecumenical merits for our day, I shall now indicate that this Catechism is distinctly Protestant rather than Roman Catholic; that it is distinctly Reformed Protestantism furthermore rather than Lutheran, Melanchthonian or Zwinglian; and finally that it is uniquely Reformed or Calvinistic in its irenic expression, its warm personal approach and its biblical simplicity. This constitutes its ecumenical appeal in our day.

That thiS Catechism is distinctly Protestant should be beyond dispute. It is certainly not ecumenical in the sense that it could be embraced by Roman Catholic and orthodox Protestant churches at present, unless Rome radically modifies her doctrine and life to conform to biblical norms.

The entire Catechism is cast into the mold of the comfort of the Christian who is redemptively united to Jesus Christ as his only Saviour. That emphasis upon comfort was foreign to Roman Catholicism as Luther and Calvin knew from anxious experience. Also the sola gratia is evident from the Catechism’s emphasis upon justification by faith alone. while it clearly emphasizes the necessity of the believer performing good works unto the glory of God to express his gratitude for full salvation wrought by Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. That is still as distinctly a Protestant, even Calvinistic, emphasis in the 20th as it was in the 16th century.

In addition to the clear opposition to the Roman view of the mass in the 80th question, there is a more subtle rejection of Roman Catholic doctrines in other parts of the Catechism. Question 57, for example, rejects the doctrine of purgatory without even mentioning the word when it asserts that “my soul, after this life, shall immediately be taken tip to Christ, its Head.” Again questions 30 and 98 speak against veneration of saints and image worship. And obviously the lengthy section on the sacraments (questions 66–82) presents a view that is incompatible with that of Home. Thus we see just a few of the more obvious features which demonstrate that this Catechism is distinctively Protestant. Its ecumenical character is thereby indicated in part.

Furthermore the Heidelberg Catechism is distinctly Reformed rather than Lutheran, Melanchthonian or Zwinglian. Questions 5 and 8, for example, emphasize the depravity of man’s nature and his proneness to evil which is in conflict with any synergistic tendency such as was present in Melanchthon after 1548 and in some later Lutheranism. The view of the communication of attributes (communicatio idiomatum) with respect to the person of Christ and his two natures as reflected in questions 47–48 is clearly Calvinistic. The so-called “extra-Calvinisticum” doctrine found in this Catechism has recently called forth opposition from an ecumenical admirer of the Catechism, Professor Hendrikus Berkhof of Leiden, the Netherlands. The doctrine of the Lord’s Supper is certainly Calvinistic rather than Lutheran or Zwinglian, as is the entire doctrine of the sacraments. The important question of the relation of law and gospel is also decidedly Calvinistic. The summary of the law is employed in the first section of the Catechism to show man’s sin and misery while the Ten Commandments themselves are fully explained in the third section expressing the way of gratitude and thanksgiving for pardon from the guilt of sin and the curse of the law through the salvation of Jesus Christ.

The suggestion of B. B. Warfleld12 that a comparison of the Heidelberg Catechism and the Westminster Shorter Catechism, especially with reference to the first question of each, leads to the conclusion that the Heidelberg Catechism displays a more Lutheran, anthropocentric approach, does not stand up under careful scrutiny. Although the Heidelberg Catechism emphasizes the believer’s comfort in Christ and the assurance of faith, it also emphaSizes the Christian’s chief end which is to glorify God, so beautifully stressed by the Shorter Catechism in harmony with Calvin’s Genevan Catechism of 1541. But the Heidelberg includes in its first question the assertion that the Christ who fully saves and comforts and assures me of eternal life also “makes me heartily willing and ready, henceforth, to live unto Him.” Thus question 2 indicates that the Christian’s comfort involves the three-fold knowledge of “how great my sins and misery are;. . .how I am delivered from all my sins and misery; (and)…how I am to be thankful to God for such deliverance.” This is explained in the significant third part on gratitude with which the Catechism concludes. In all of this the Catechism is certainly Reformed or Calvinistic. But the subtle blending of the emphasis upon the glory of God and the comfort of the believer in the assurance of faith calls attention to the unique combination of elements in this distinctly Reformed Catechism.

We turn now to consider the unique character of this Reformed or Calvinistic emphasis of the Heidelberg Catechism.

‘Why does this particular Reformed catechism developed on German soil have such ecumenical appeal today? Structurally the Catechism is unique in the way in which it has woven the customary elements of a catechism—the Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer and the doctrine of the sacraments—into a beautiful organic unity. With comfort as its central emphasis, it has brought these elements together under the meaningful divisions of misery, deliverance and gratitude (also expressed as sin, salvation, service; or guilt, grace, gratitude). Beautiful structure and organic unity, however, do not alone explain the Catechism’s uniqueness.

In this Catechism the Reformed or Calvinistic position is expressed in an irenic, pacific, sweet-tempered manner.

Recognizing that they were writing a catechism, and a catechism to be used in the instruction of children as well as the entire church, the questions and answers are expressed in a warm and personal but also simple, confessional manner.

Although the total emphasis of the Catechism is Calvinistic, one must observe that there is little express mention of some features of Calvinistic doctrine. There is clear reference to the total depravity of the fallen sinner, to the irresistible grace of God’s Spirit in regeneration and to the comfort and assurance of faith intimately related to the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. However, it has been said that this Catechism does not commit itself to Calvin’s doctrine of the decrees or to the doctrine of predestination.

It is true that these matters do not receive consideration in express questions and answers. However, these doctrines are implicit throughout the Catechism and especially in such questions as 26–28 on providence, and in question 54 on the church. The latter, for example, speaks of “a Church chosen to everlasting life” and of the confessor’s conviction “that I am, and forever shall remain, a living member thereof.” Similarly the doctrine of limited atonement is not expressed in so many words. On first reading question 37 may even appear to go in another direction. But this doctrine is implicit in numerous statements of the Catechism.13 The covenant of grace is mentioned only in passing at various points, but it does constitute the matrix for an understanding of the personal emphasis and comfort of the Catechism.

That the authors saw these implications is evident from Ursinus’ Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism. There is not adequate time here for the evidence for each of these considerations. But let it be remembered that this is a catechism, and a catechism is not the same as a more elaborate confession of faith and certainly not the same as a theological treatise. One need only compare Calvin’s Genevan Catechism of 1541 with the French Confession of 1559 and the definitive edition of the Institutes of the same year.

One quite different possibility must be considered briefly. Is there a certain theological vagueness about this Catechism in wording or in brevity of exposition? And if so, is that what constitutes its ecumenical appeal today? The thought can not be banished since the writer heard a competent Presbyterian scholar express an opinion with such implications. It was said that the Shorter Catechism was theologically too precise and that was why the Heidelberg Catechism could better serve as an ecumenical creed for our day. The considerations adduced above conflict with the contention that the Catechism is theologically imprecise, while taking account of its unique features. One can only assert here that if the Heidelberg Catechism were to be used in ecumenical endeavors to foster doctrinal ambiguity and theological latitude, it would be better to leave the Catechism alone and not prostitute it to such ecumenical activity.

Rather, I believe it is because the Heidelberg Catechism is so genuinely Reformed, that is, biblical in character, and so warmly and winningly expressed that it has its appeal still today. Since genuine ecumenicity must be based upon a recognition of the Scripture as God’s authoritative Word, nonnative for faith and practice, and not upon some least common denominator, this Catechism should be of vital concern to all of the members of this Society. If this Catechism is ecumenical in the biblical sense, then a good test of its ecumenical serviceability in our day will be the response of you, the members of this Evangelical Theological Society, and the churches you serve. Therefore I recommend to you for your study and stimulation the Heidelberg Catechism—an ecumenical catechism of the highest order!

7. Cf. G.W. Richards, The Heidelberg Catechism, Historical and Doctrinal Studies (Philadelphia: Publication Board of the Reformed Church in U.S., 1913), p. 61.

8. Cf. Richards, op.cit., p. 95; Good, op.cit., p. 173, August Lang, “Der theologische Charakter des Heidelberger Katechismus” in Reformation and Genenwart, (Detmold: Weywersche Hofbuchhandlung, 1918), pp. 254–271; Lothar Coenen, editor; Handbuchzum Heidelberger Katechismus, (Neukierchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag de Erizehungsvereins GMBH, 1963), pp. 3ff.

9. Quoted from Richards, op. cit. p. 95.

10. Op. cit., p. 255 (translation mine).

11. Cf. Richards, op.cit., p. 96.

12. The Princeton Theological Review, Vol. VI, No. 4 (October 1908) pp. 565f.

13. Cf. Roger Nicole, “A Modest Contribution on the 400th Anniversary Year of the Heidelberg Catechism” in Torch and Trumpet, Volume 14, No. 6 (July/August 1964), pp. 10–12.

Why does the venerable Heidelberg Catechism continue to have such a large and lasting appeal, so much so that recently a champion of the ecumenical movement has suggested that this creed can serve as a rallying-point for that Christian unity?

In this second article on the subject, Dr. Fred H. Klooster, professor of Systematic Theology at Calvin Seminary, analyzes the doctrine contained in the Catechism in the light of the above-mentioned suggestion.