THE HEIDELBERG CATECHISM: Authors and Composition

Though only twenty-eight years of age when he co-authored the Heidelberg Catechism, Ursinus was by no means no means a novice in the Reformation movement. In the language of our day we would say he “had been around,” and was well acquainted with the several streams of thought within Protestantism.

Zacharias Ursinus was born in the year 1534 in Breslau, a fairly large city in Germany near the Polish border. As a youth he was influenced greatly by his pastor, Moibanus, who introduced him to the catechisms of Luther and Melanchthon. Moibanus is said to have been more a follower of John Calvin than of Luther, and is known to have composed a catechism himself. At Wittenberg Ursinus was a student of Melanchthon and was a favorite of the old master. After a time at Wittenberg, there followed a period of travel during which time Ursinus studied at the universities of Heidelberg, Strassburg, Basel, Lausanne, and also at Geneva, where he made Calvin’s acquaintance. During these extensive travels he became keenly aware of the various opinions which prevailed among Protestant leaders of his day.

In 1558 Ursinus went to his native city, Breslau, to teach in the university there. His inaugural address was a treatise on the importance of catechism instruction for the youth of the church. In it he defined a catechism as “a summary of the doctrine of faith and love once delivered by the prophets and apostles, a summary of Christianity briefly, orderly and plainly composed.” While in Breslau, the young professor also published a work entitled “Theses on the Sacraments.”

He then spent a short time in Wittenberg as a teacher in a gymnasium, something like our high school. By this time he had rather fully endorsed the theology of John Calvin. and did not hesitate to express his views in his lectures. As a result, he encountered trouble from the Lutherans in Wittenberg. He finally left, in 1560, to go to Zurich, Switzerland, where he became a good friend of Peter Martyr. This man was impressed with Ursinus’ talents, and made this fact known to Elector Frederick III of the Palatinate. Not long after, in 1561, Ursinus was called to a position as a professor at the University of Heidelberg.

During his studies and travels Ursinus was assisted financially by a certain Dr. John Krafft, who was physician at the courts of several kings, and who had also studied under Luther and Melanchthon. This man was very in· Ruential among the powers of his day, and successful1y pleaded the cause of the Protestants before the rulers, many of whom were Roman Catholic. Maximilian II, king of Austria, made him a nobleman with the title Dr. Crato of Crafftheim.

Incidentally, the name Ursinus has been perpetuated in the United States by Ursinus College. located in Collegeville, Pennsylvania, not far from Philadelphia. At the present time this college is affiliated with the United Church of Christ.

Caspar Olevianus

Trier, also called Treves, is an ancient city west of the Rhine river not far from Luxembourg. It is one of the oldest cities in central Europe, having been a capital of a Gallic tribe and later, in the fourth century. the residence of Roman emperors. Still later it was an important center of authority in the Roman Catholic church. Even today one can see there many relics of its ancient splendor many of them well preserved.

It was in this city that Caspar Olevianus was born in 1536. Early in life he studied in a number of French schools. among them Paris, Orleans and Bourges. As a youth in Paris he became associated with a small group of reformers. A turning point in his We came while he studied in Bourges. There he became a close friend of the son of the future Elector of the Palatinate, Frederick III. It was there also that he tried unsuccessfully to save Frederick’s son from drowning. In the attempt he nearly lost his own life and pledged, if saved, to devote his life to the evangelical ministry in Germany.

Olevianus became a diligent student of the Bible and of the theology of the reformers, especially John Calvin. He achieved the Doctor’s degree at Bourges at the age of twenty.three. He then went to Geneva to sit at the feet of Calvin and Beza, and later to Basel to hear Martyr and Bullinger.

Now well trained in reformation theology, Olevianus went back, in 1559, to Trier. Here he became lecturer in logic and philosophy at the university. Tradition required all lectures to be given in Latin. But when he noticed that student interest lagged he boldly began to lecture in German also. On many occasions he found an opportunity to inject his religious convictions, and repeatedly attacked the Roman Catholic mass, idol worship and other notions offensive to him. He did this so effectively that within a few weeks it is said he commanded large audiences and had almost a third of the citizenry following him.

The Roman Catholic Elector of the province became alarmed and threatened to charge him with heresy and rebellion, charges worthy of death. At tIlls point Frederick III and other nobles intervened for him at a hearing held in Worms. The Trier authorities asked him to leave the city, but first to sign a document admitting the charges of heresy and rebellion. This he refused to do. It was then that Frederick III invited Olevianus to take a position as professor at the university of Heidelberg. Somehow he escaped the clutches of the powers in Trier and made his way to Heidelberg, where, after a short term. as professor, he became the preacher in the Heiliggeist church and overseer of the churches in the Palatinate.

It is interesting to note that Trier is still today a Roman Catholic stronghold. In fact, it was not until 1817 that the first Protestant service was held in that city. After Olevianus escaped from Trier, the Jesuits, in 1560, celebrated their deliverance from the Protestant menace on Whitmonday, and this has been an annual event there since that time.

The Composition of the Catechism

The stage was now set ill Heidelberg for the writing of the catechism. The Elector, Frederick III, was eager to unite the Protestants in the Palatinate under one banner. He was now (1562) convinced of the truth of John Calvin’s theological position, and wished very much to see the youth instructed in this faith. He now had in Heidelberg two men who, young though they were, thoroughly understood the thinking among Protestants of that day and were committed to the Calvinistic way of life and thought.

It is not too surprising that the task of writing a catechism was entrusted to Ursinus and Olevianus. Ill; professor of theology at the university, Ursinus had already prepared a “Summa Theologica,” or Summary of Theology, for use in his university classes. This work, sometimes called his larger catechism, begins with the same thought that is expressed later in the first question and answer of the Heidelberg catechism. Its central idea is the covenant of grace, and obviously it draws heavily on Calvin’s works. It contained a total of 323 questions and answers. Of these, 173 can be traced directly to John Calvin, 58 to Lasco, 28 to Bullinger and 31 to Melanchthon.

Then, in the early part of 1562, Ursinus also composed a shorter summary of doctrine for use in the instruction of the youth in the schools. This work contained only 108 questions and answers, and omitted all reference to church discipline. It was divided into the three parts: sin, redemption and gratitude. Some historians contend that this three· fold division is taken from an older Lutheran catechism, reprinted in 1558 in Heidelberg. At any rate we notice that this outline is the one eventually adopted in the Heidelberg catechism.

So we see that, before the Heidelberg catechism was actually written, at least Ursinus was no novice at such writing, and had definite ideas in mind about what a catechism should contain. And Olevianus had developed a wide acquaintance with a variety of such works in his travels and studies at a number of schools.

In the summer of 1562 Ursinus and Olevianus turned their full attention to the task of composing a new catechism as Frederick III had directed. It is not entirely clear just what part each man played in producing the catechism. It seems likely that they soon agreed on the general form—the threefold division—as found in the shorter summary of doctrine by Ursinus. It is also probable that Ursinus took the responsibility for the theolOgical content while Olevianus assembled the parts and gave the catechism its practical form.. It was composed in Latin but was translated into German by Olevianus. The catechism was published in both languages at the same time.

The authors completed their work late in 1562, and submitted it to the Elector for approval. Frederick was impressed with it, but suggested one change in what is now the 78th answer, the one answering the question, “Do, then, the bread and wine become the real body and blood of Christ?” It is believed that the Elector himself wrote the answer as we now have it. Of this we shall say more in the next chapter.

After Frederick had approved the catechism, he called a meeting of the leading churchmen in the Palatinate for the purpose of examining it. This group met in Heidelberg late in the year 1562. Nothing is known of any changes suggested by this “synod.” Apparently the work was well received by this body. At this meeting Frederick also explained his plans for the use of this catechism. Furthermore, he told the delegates that a new church order was being formulated to bind together, and govern, the churches in his area.

The first edition of the Heidelberg catechism was now ready for publication. It appeared early in 1563. The foreword, written by Frederick, was dated January 19, 1563, but it probably did not come from the printing press before February of that year. The title on the first edition appeared as follows (my free translation–EW):

Catechism or Christian Instruction as it is to be carried out in the Churches and Schools of the Palatinate

Printed in the Elector’s seat, the city of Heidelberg, by Johannem Mayer 1563