The Heidelberg Catechism – An Ecumenical Creed?

The four-hundredth anniversary of the most widely used Reformed catechism has been celebrated recently. The Heidelberg Catechism was commissioned by Frederick III, elector of the Palatinate, and published by him on January 19, 1563. Its chief authors were Zacharias Ursinus, a twenty-eight year old professor of theology at the University of Heidelberg, and Caspar Olevianus, a gifted young court preacher of twenty-six.


A Surprising Suggestion

In an editorial the Christian Century has spoken of the anniversary of this Catechism as “more than a memorial” and called attention to the present-day ecumenical significance of the Heidelberg Catechism. This editorial is both challenging and perplexing to one who is minister and professor in a church which requires of its ministers at least once per Sunday “to explain 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.”1

“Two young men, one 28, the other 26, may have written the confession of faith which can serve as the doctrinal basis for denominational reunion.”2 Thus begins the editorial. Asserting that it was ordered by Frederick III to “mediate Lutheran and Reformed views in a controversy which was tearing Germany apart and inflaming much of Europe,” the editorial goes on to imply that the catechism reflects the advice of Melanchthon that such an agreement should be “based on biblical simplicity, moderation and peace” and should avoid “extremes and scholastic subtleties in theological positions.” Noting that the Catechism was a landmark in its day, the editorial states that “it remains the most attractive, ‘the most sweet-spirited’ of the confessions of faith that came out of the Protestant Reformation. Written at a time when Christendom was falling apart, the Heidelberg Catechism survives as the most ecumenical of the Protestant Confessions of faith.”

The editorial refers also to James J. McCord, President of Princeton Theological Seminary who called the catechism “a living symbol that is accomplishing in its 400th year that for which it was first prepared in the 16th century.” Mention is also made of the fact that Eugene Carson Blake in his famous San Francisco proposal for church union (December 1960) had suggested the Heidelberg Catechism as a good doctrinal basis for agreement among the four denOminations he hoped would unite. The editorial concludes with this challenge: “One of the oldest Protestant confessions in point of time and one of the newest in spirit, the Heidelberg Catechism deserves the careful study of all ecumenical-minded Protestants.”3

Time does not permit an analysis of the inviting statements of this editorial. One would be gratified beyond words if the biblical teaching of the Heidelberg Catechism were generally accepted today so that this Catechism could actually serve such an ecumenical function. That the present characteristics displayed by the ecumenical movement or by the Christian Century itself provide a basis for that hope, is, to say the least, very doubtful. Whether Roswell P. Barnes’ judgment that 1963 marks “the end of the romantic period” in ecumenical affairs, is true, remains to be seen. Even though the Faith and Order Conference at Montreal last summer showed the mountains that had to be scaled, there was no evidence of a turning to the kind of doctrine set forth so beautifully in the Heidelberg Catechism. Let us, however, continue to hope and pray and work for the reformation of Christ’s church throughout the world!

I am, indeed, convinced that the admonition that “the Heidelberg Catechism deserves the careful study of all ecumenical-minded Protestants” is true. I may even add—of all non-ecumenically minded Protestants as well, if there be any who prefer that designation. In this brief paper I shall attempt to assess the so-called ecumenical character of this catechism. I believe that this catechism is eminently worthy of the careful scrutiny especially of those who as members of this society subscribe to “the Bible alone, and the Bible in its entirety, is the Word of God written, and therefore inerrant in the autographs.”

The Reformation in Heidelberg

A brief survey of the historical background of the Heidelberg Catechism will indicate the various strands of Reformation thought that influenced it. The publication date, 1563, at once alerts us to the relative lateness of the Catechism in the Reformation period -a lateness which was all to the advantage of this unique catechism.

The first noteworthy historical element is the tardiness of the Reformation’s penetration of the Palatinate. Although Martin Luther visited Heidelberg in 1518 and held a colloquy at the Augustinian cloister on such questions as good works and Aristotelian philosophy, the Reformation did not gain prominence in Heidelberg until 1545 and the distinctly Reformed emphasis did not take over until the reign of Frederick III from 1559–1576.

Luther’s visit did have noticeable effects, but these were like seeds waiting for more favorable conditions for germination. Among Luther’s hearers in 1518 were John Oecolampadius, later the Reformer of Basel, Switzerland, and also Martin Bucer, whose reformatory work at Strassburg was to have a significant influence upon the exile John Calvin. But under the elector Louis I, surnamed the Pacific, who was more interested in hunting and building, the Reformation made little progress in the Palatinate. Although Louis remained a moderate Roman Catholic, his pacific nature did not permit harm to befall those who inclined to the evangelical faith.

During the reign of his successor, Frederick n, surnamed the Wise (1544–1556), the Reformation broke forth into public when during a December 20 mass in the Heilige Geist Kirche, the people burst forth in singing the hymn “Es ist das Heil uns Kammen Her.” This public emergence of Lutheranism was short lived, for the defeat of the Schmalcaldic League in 1547 again brought Roman Catholicism to power. But under the Peace of Augsburg in 1555 with its principle of the ruler’s right to choose the faith of his realm (cuius regio, eius religio), Frederick the Wise openly chose for Lutheranism again and this now became the official religion of the Palatinate. The Augustinian cloister was then opened as a training school for ministers and was called the Collegium Sapientiae (the college of wisdom). Under the next elector, Otto Henry ( 1556-1559), the cause of Lutheranism continued to advance under the Augustana Variata as the creed. But under the cousin of Otto Henry, the next elector, Frederick III, surnamed the Pious (15591576), the Reformed branch of the Reformation became dominant in subtle but natural ways and was crowned by the production of the Heidelberg Catechism—a beautiful Reformed catechism developed on German soil and unique in numerous ways. Although Frederick III remained loyal to the Augsburg Confession and was genuinely convinced that he simply held the biblical faith and was not disloyal to the Peace of Augsburg and never called himself a Calvinist, he did endorse the Second Helvetic Confession of Henry Bullinger in 1566.

Secondly, we note that when the Heidelberg Catechism was published in 1563, the Reformation had come to full bloom and the influence of the major Reformers had been clearly enunciated in their various writings. This was one year before Calvin’s death and so the definitive edition of the Institutes (1559) had had ample time for circulation. Even before Calvin’s death, Luther, Melanehthon and Zwingli had, of course, passed from the earthly scene. Hence their mature writings were also available to the authors of the Heidelberg Catechism. Numerous other second-generation Reformers were available personally or through their writings.

Creedally the Heidelberg Catechism had many forerunners. The Augsburg Confession of 1530 had undergone Melanchthon’s revision in the Augustana Variata of 1540. Tensions among the Lutherans were growing and the need for the Formula of Concord was becoming increasingly evident; the Stuttgart Confession itself provided an important intermediate step. Many Reformed confessions had also come into being, reflecting the national variations on the same Reformed theme: the French or Gallican Confession of 1559, the Scotch Confession of 1560, the Belgic or Netherlands Confession of 1561 to name only the most enduring ones. Thus, the authors of the Heidelberg Catechism had the opportunity to benefit from a multitude of prior Reformation creeds and treatises. They did, in fact, make use of these materials, and their end product proves that they learned wisely.

Influences on the Authors

A third factor in the ripe Reformation developments which influenced the Heidelberg Catechism is to be seen in these same influences upon the two men largely responsible for its composition. Zacharias Ursinus (1534–1583) was born in Breslau in Silesia. For seven years he had been a student of Melanchthon at Wittenberg, and both teacher and student thought highly of one another. Ursinus was also personally acquainted with Bullinger, Beza and Calvin, the latter having presented him with a copy of his works. After serving as rector in the Elizabethan Gymnasium in his hometown, Ursinus was charged with crypto-Calvinism and forced to leave. He chose Zurich as his new home and from there, after Peter Martyr had himself declined the appointment to Heidelberg and recommended his student, Ursinus was called to Heidelberg. Thus the various strains of Reformation thought and influence were known to Ursinus first hand. Although his own basic sympathies were clearly Calvinistic, as his Major and Minor Catechisms as well as his Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism clearly indicate, the advantage of a first-hand acquaintance with Wittenberg, Zurich and Geneva is not to be underestimated in assessing the ecumenical character of the Heidelberg Catechism.

No less significant were the experiences and training of Caspar Olevianus, co-author of the Heidelberg Catechism. Born in Trier (Treves) on August 10, 1536, he studied law at Paris, Bourges and Orleans. In an attempt to rescue the son of Frederick III from drowning, Olevianus himself almost drowned. Then he vowed that if he were saved he would study theology and preach the gospel in his native city. He pursued theological study in Geneva and Zurich with Calvin, Farel and Peter Martyr and came into personal friendship with Beza at Lausanne. After beginning a Reformation movement in Trier, he was exiled from the city of the Holy Robe and called to Heidelberg about 1560 where he taught at Sapienz College, then at the university and later became Frederick’s court preacher at the Heilige Geist Kirche.

Thus the training and the experiences of the two main authors of the Heidelberg Catechism were such that they could and did benefit from the ripe fruit of the well-developed Reformation. Although they largely followed Calvin, they also had first-hand contact with all the other musicians of the Reformation symphony. The ecumenical character of the Heidelberg Catechism is unexplainable apart from this factor.

Earlier Catechisms

A fourth element in assessing the ecumenical character of the Heidelberg Catechism is closely allied to the above. The authors of the Heidelberg Catechism had access to a rich library of catechisms and creeds. In addition to the catechisms of Luther, there were also numerous other Lutheran catechisms in circulation during this period. The catechism of Brenz and that of Moibanus have left their impact upon the Heidelberg Catechism. But there were also a large number of Reformed catechisms that had an influence. Calvin’s catechism of course deserves mention. But there were many others as well. Professor Gooszen and Professor LangS have long ago demonstrated the major influences here to have been four families of Reformed catechisms:

1. The Strassburg catechisms of Capito (1527), Bucer (1534) and Zell (1535 & 1537).

2. The Zurich catechisms of Leo Juda (1534, 1535, 1538) and of Bullinger (1559).

3. Calvin’s catechisms (1537 & 1541). Also the Institutes.

4. The Lasco catechisms, Lasco (1551), Micronius (1552), the London compend (1553), the Emden catechism (1554).

Recently Professor Walter Hollweg6 has called attention also to the two confessions of Beza as two until now un-noted sources of the Heidelberger. From biographical and historical study one can readily understand how such influences came to bear in the drafting of the Heidelberg Catechism. But a careful analysis of the Catechism itself will demonstrate the nature and extent of such influence. Sometimes the influence is so subtle that it is barely noticeable. At times the division or principle of division is derived from various predecessors. In many questions the wording and phrasing of the earlier catechisms is clearly present. Thus the authors of the Heidelberg Catechism were able to benefit from the amazing amount of catcchetical work that had preceded them. And learning from them and borrowing from them, while avoiding a mere synthesis or patchwork effect, they were able to produce a catechism of amazing unity and beauty.

In this historical survey we have seen those elements which contributed to the so-called ecumenical character of the Heidelberg Catechism. The late penetration of the Reformation into Heidelberg and the Palatinate is one factor. The ripe fruit of Reformational development by 1563 is a second consideration. The personal contacts of the main authors, Ursinus and Olevianus, with all major Lutheran and Reformed theologians of the Reformation period is a third point to note. And the use made of the rich variety of the catechetical literature produced in the decades preceding 1563 is another. IT these factors warrant the designation “ecumenical,” we must attempt to describe that ecumenical character of the Catechism more precisely. What is the doctrinal character of the Heidelberg Catechism? In what sense is it “ecumenical” and what are its merits and possibly demerits in the ecumenical situation of our day?

The second installment will concern itself more directly with the theological or doctrinal character of the Heidelberg Catechism as this relates to its ecumenical character.


1. Church Order of the Christian Reformed Church, Article 68.

2. “More Than a Memorial,” The Christian Century, Vol. LXXX, No. 7 (February 13, 1963), p. 198.

3. Ibid.

4. Spoken in the aftermath of the Faith and Order Conference of Montreal, July, 1963.

5. M.A. Gooszen, De Heidelberg Catechismus, 1890. A. Lang, Der Heidelberger Catechismus, 1907. The latter work has not boon available to me. For the following summary of sources see James 1. Good, The Heidelberg Catechism in Its Newest Light. (Philadelphia: Reformed Church in US, 1914), p. 42.

6. Neue Untersuchungerl zur Geschichte und Lehre des Heidelberger Katechismus. (Neukirchen; Verlag der Buchhandlung des Erziohungsvereings, 1961).