“Washed from All My Sins”: The Doctrine of Baptism in the Heidelberg Catechism (1)

Typically, discussions of the fierce doctrinal battles raging in the German region of the Palatinate in the 1560s focus on the skirmishes over the Eucharist that took place in Heidelberg, and they seldom include a consideration of any controversies over the meaning and right administration of baptism. We would be mistaken, however, to think that there were no polemics or deep theological reflections surrounding the doctrine and practice of baptism during this period. Unfortunately, the theology of the sacraments as it finds expression in the Heidelberg Catechism (HC) is often treated with minimal or no reference to the historical context in which it was conceived. The result is often a truncated view with little or no connection to the actual sacramental practice that could be experienced, for example, on many a Lord’s Day in St. Peter’s (Peterskirche) or the Church of the Holy Ghost (Heiliggeistkirche) in the late 1560s. Even today, many churches claim to be Reformed in their views of the sacraments and in agreement with the HC, but their practices sometimes bear no resemblance to what one would have witnessed in the years immediately before and after the catechism’s publication. Before we look at what the HC has to say about baptism, then, it is necessary to set the stage briefly with a discussion of the historical background of the controversy surrounding baptism and the context of the catechism in the life of the fledgling Reformed church in Germany.

The Historical Context: Confessional Struggles in the Palatinate

The Lutheran Reformation, justly famous for the rediscovery of the article by which the church stands or falls—justification by grace alone through faith alone—also rethought and reevaluated, in the light of Holy Scripture alone (sola scriptura), the nature and function of the sacraments within the larger ecclesiological and ecclesiastical framework. In the final, inevitable consequence, the Reformation led to a break with the Church of Rome—the only church the people of early sixteenth-century Germany really knew. Therefore, where the true church was and how it was to be distinguished from the false church of the antichrist became the burning questions of the day. The Augsburg Confession of 1530 defines this true church as “the congregation of saints, in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered” (art. 7). Echoes of this minimal working definition of the church can be found in nearly all the Reformed confessions of the sixteenth century. Thus, it was no Reformed invention or peculiarity to rethink the ways in which the sacraments were to be “rightly administered.” The Lutheran doctrine of baptism in itself was certainly no crude repristination of the Roman Catholic dogma.

In the wake of the church union movement in nineteenth-century Germany, the thesis that the Palatine form of Reformed theology really was a kind of “Philippism” became popular.1 It was neither quite Lutheran (measured against the Gnesio-Lutherans) nor fully Reformed (measured, for example, against the arguable standard of John Calvin’s Institutes). Rather, it was viewed as a kind of blend owing more to Philip Melanchthon (1497–1560) than to either of the two great Reformers. However, the practical results of the different Reformations, the Lutheran and the Reformed, paint quite a different picture for the milieu that gave rise to the HC.

The practical reforms of worship and sacraments in the Palatinate reveal a quickly growing and consolidated sense of confessional identity. Already in 1562, the newly founded Reformed church council of Heidelberg on which Caspar Olevianus (1536–1587) and others served under Frederick III (1515–1576) proposed far-reaching and quite visible liturgical reforms. With respect to baptism specifically, Walter Hollweg has argued that Frederick wanted to cleanse the baptismal rite from all “non-Protestant aspects.”2 The specter of Rome loomed large, of course, in these proposed changes. However, Lutheranism was also considered a threat to the pure doctrine of the Bible and to orthodox Christian practice. In an anonymous pamphlet titled “Some Articles Which the Zwinglians in the Palatinate Decided and Perpetrated in their Synod” (1562), we read that the Reformed rejected all Lutheran baptismal formulae.3 In particular, following the initiative of Otto Henry (r. 1556–1559), the Reformed were adamant about ridding the administration of baptism from such Romanizing elements as the abrenunciation of the devil and the godparents’ public agreement with the Apostles’ Creed and assent to the baptism. The Reformed in the Palatinate were quite concerned with purging baptism of the remnants of exorcism that remained part of the Lutheran formula: “Depart, you unclean spirit!” Again, while the Lutherans at the time continued freely to use the baptismal fonts inherited from the Catholics, the Reformed were quite conscientious about this. John Calvin (1509–1564) expressed some indecision toward the fonts, even arguing for their continued use in Protestant churches where that was already common practice. Not much later, however, the Genevans called other Reformed churches that continued to use the old ornate stone fonts lapidarii—“the stony ones.”

Thus, it was quite likely that under the influence of Geneva-trained Olevianus the council decided to remove the old baptismal fonts from the Reformed churches. In any case, we know from his letters that Frederick saw a good measure of popular “superstition and sorcery” connected with them, as they were still considered consecrated baptismals (baptisteria consecrata) by many and often bore images of Christ or the saints on them. He wrote to his son-in-law, Johann Friedrich of Saxony (1529–1595), that we are not commanded by the Word of God “to baptize in coffins of stone, but with water, be it moving or not; certainly none of the Apostles or Jesus Christ were baptized in a stony coffin.”4

As the Heidelberg polemicizes in question 94 “that, on peril of my soul’s salvation, I avoid and flee all idolatry, sorcery, [and] enchantments,” we may well conclude that the “idolatry” and “sorcery” in this list had in mind the baptismal fonts.5 Thus, they were generally replaced by plain, cheap tin basins. This liturgical innovation, like others (e.g., the fractio panis, the breaking of the loaf of bread in the liturgy of the Lord’s Supper),6 served the dual motivation of conforming the practices more closely to the Word of God and creating a strong Reformed identity.7

Another example of this Palatinate “further reformation” over against Lutheran baptismal practices was the outlawing of so-called emergency or midwife baptisms. The Lutherans continued this practice, which dated back to at least the eleventh century, viewing it as a legitimate form of baptizing children who were dying in the hospital right after birth. Frederick wasted no time and outlawed this practice for the Reformed church on the basis that our Lord instituted as part of the Great Commission not only the command to baptize but also the agents—the apostles and ministers of the church—who alone are called to perform legitimate baptisms. The emergency baptism, thought Frederick, rests on the misunderstanding of the medieval scholastics, who taught that baptism is strictly necessary for salvation and believed that it was better for someone who was neither ordained by the church nor called by God to perform baptism than for the child not to receive it before his untimely death.8

These and other reforms of the liturgical life of the church were such clear lines in the sand, as it were, that Heppe was probably correct, despite his unionist agenda, when he penned these well-known words: “The Reformation of the Palatinate spread fear and terror across the whole protestant Germany.”9 It did so because it was a force to be reckoned with that understood the necessity of reforming all aspects of church life and doctrine, including purging the liturgy and the sacraments of the last Lutheran vestiges.

The “System of Catechism”

The dual importance of baptism, as expressed in the Augsburg Confession, that it is both “necessary to salvation, and that through [it] is offered the grace of God,” led to a strong Lutheran conviction that baptism is a means (medium) by which the grace of God is surely conveyed. In the words of Luther’s Small Catechism: “What does Baptism give or profit? Answer: It works forgiveness of sins, delivers from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare.”10 If we were to ask “How can water do such great things?” the Small Catechism answers: “It is not the water indeed that does them, but the word of God which is in and with the water, and faith, which trusts such word of God in the water.”11 According to Lutheran teaching, then, baptism does not work apart from faith but is based on God’s word of promise, which itself creates faith. Children, says the Augsburg Confession, “are to be baptized who, being offered to God through Baptism are received into God’s grace.”12 Thus, baptism stands at the beginning of the Christian life; in fact, it is the beginning of the Christian life, the very medium or instrument by which the forgiveness of sins and regeneration are worked and obtained.

The Reformed, on the other hand, though generally in agreement with the Lutherans that baptism is a means of grace (medium gratiae), refrained from teaching that baptism “works forgiveness of sins”—that it presumes a faith in the child being baptized (fides infantium). At least they qualified such statements very carefully, generally rejecting the equation of baptism and regeneration.

While this is not the place to compare Lutheran and Reformed views of baptism in detail, I provide this brief comparison in order to draw out an important point even before we approach the actual text of the HC. It is this: for the Lutheran, the baptized child was to be considered for all intents and purposes a regenerate Christian. Catechesis, then, in Lutheranism, was the means to be employed to teach a child about the faith he or she already possessed. For the Reformed, this was not the case. Thus, the place of catechesis became a watershed issue in the latter half of the sixteenth century.

The Reformed religion, from the beginning, was an educational religion—not that the Reformed thought unbelievers simply had to be educated in the faith in order to become Christians. They did not teach that. After all, they believed that “true faith is not only a sure knowledge whereby I hold for truth all that God has revealed to us in His Word, but also a hearty trust, which the Holy Spirit works in me by the Gospel” (HC 21). Knowledge to be taught intellectually and experiential assurance of the heart always belonged together in the Reformed conception of true, biblical faith. However, the Reformed strongly believed that there are things that are absolutely “necessary for a Christian to believe,” namely, “all that is promised us in the Gospel, which the articles of our catholic, undoubted Christian faith [i.e., the Apostles’ Creed] teach us in summary” (HC 22). These articles needed to be taught not only to the adult converts from the papal church coming to faith under the preaching of the true gospel but also to the children growing up within the fold of the church. Catechesis was part of the warp and woof of the Reformed religion from the beginning. The faith by which we believe (fides qua) and the faith which is believed (fides quae) were thought to condition and to require each other for a full-blown biblical faith.

This fact gave the HC a very specific prominent place in the life of the church. It was never intended to be merely a unifying confessional document; neither was it intended to be used merely for a kind of ex post facto catechesis of those who had already become regenerate through baptism. Rather, the strategic, purposeful placement of the HC as part of the constitution of the Reformed church in the Palatinate, placed in the center of the church order13 and bookended, as it were, by the liturgical “Form for the Administration of Baptism” (Form zu tauffen) before and the “Form for the Administration of the Lord’s Supper” (Form das Abendmal zu halten) after, gives us an interpretative grid not to be missed. Catechesis is the pathway from baptism to the Lord’s Table. As Karl Barth (1886–1968) explained so eloquently, the HC is “the integrating part of the liturgy, placed between the formulas for baptism and the Lord’s Supper—on the way, so to speak, between the grace which has already been shown and the grace yet to be shown.”14 Thus, anyone who would look at the meaning and function of the sacraments according to the HC has to come to terms with this aspect of educational religion. As J. W. Nevin put it, “The Catechism proceeds throughout on this theory of baptismal, educational religion.”15 This system, or “theory of the catechism,”16 has but one design for the children being reared in the faith: “The very thing it designs is to prepare them for an open personal profession of their faith and an approach to the Lord’s Supper at a certain given time.”17 This system finds expression in the entire structure of the church order, which sought to regulate church life and churchly piety in the Palatinate. In it, we read how the system of catechesis conforms to this Reformed, educational view of religion. In the section titled “Of the Catechism,” we read that catechesis is first for “the instruction of the young and the unlearned” in general. But then, the church order continues, “All pious people from the commencement of the Christian Church have been careful to instruct their children in the fear of the Lord, as well at home, as in schools and churches.”18 The rationale for such catechesis is given thus: “They were driven by the express command of God—Ex. chapters 12, 13; Deut. chapters 4, 6 and 11.”19 Next follows the primary, biblical-theological rationale for catechesis of baptized covenant children of the church:

Finally, just as the children of the Israelites, after their circumcision, when they reached the years of understanding, were instructed in the mysteries of that sign of the covenant, as well as in the covenant of God itself, so also shall our children receive instructions concerning the baptism they received in infancy, and the true Christian faith and repentance, so that they may make a proper confession of their faith before the whole congregation before they are admitted to the table of the Lord.20

Zacharias Ursinus (1534–1583) also gives a brief synopsis of the system of the catechism in his academic lectures on the HC, edited posthumously, in which he discusses the small children of the church, or the children of Christian parents. These children, very soon after their birth were baptized, being regarded as members of the church, and after they had grown a little older they were instructed in the catechism, which having learned, they were confirmed by the laying on of hands and were dismissed from the class of Catechumens, and were then permitted, with those of riper years, to celebrate the Lord’s Supper.21



Thus, we see the church order, along with the HC, to be the structural outgrowth of the newly discovered covenant theology. In this system, which the HC presupposes throughout, baptism stands at the beginning of the Christian life for the covenant child, and admission to the Lord’s Table (the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper) is the culmination of the educational or covenantal catechism process. Theologically speaking, the Heidelberg envisions baptism as the sign and seal of entry and membership in the covenant of grace, while public confession of faith and consequent partaking of the Lord’s Supper are the confirmation and culmination of the covenantal nurture process and, more importantly, of God’s covenant faithfulness. The baptized child has, as far as we are concerned, by God’s grace, through the instrumentality of catechesis at home, in the schools, and in church, at last become a full participant in the life of the covenant community and a partaker of the benefits of the covenant of grace. Two relatively widespread trends in Reformed churches today—paedocommunion on the one hand, and the practice of admitting children and youth without requiring a full, public profession of faith substantiated and limited by the very content of the catechism on the other—are equally outside the pale and vision of this Reformed system of catechism the HC presupposes.

Reprinted by permission from A Faith Worth Teaching: The Heidelberg Catechism’s Enduring Heritage, edited by Jon D. Payne and Sebastian Heck and published by Reformation Heritage Books, Grand Rapids, MI (              1  This view was propounded by, among others, liberal theologian Heinrich Heppe (1820–1879) in his Die Dogmatik der evangelisch-reformierten Kirche dargestellt und aus den Quellen belegt (Elberfeld: Friderichs, 1861) and in his Die confessionelle Entwicklung der altprotestantischen Kirche Deutschlands, die altprotestantische Union und die gegenwärtige confessionelle Lage und Aufgabe des deutschen Protestantismus (Marburg: Elwert, 1854).

2.  Walter Hollweg, Neue Untersuchungen zur Geschichte und Lehre des Heidelberger Katechismus (Neukirchen: Neukirchener, 1961), 186.

3.  “Ettliche Artickell So die Zwinglianer in der Pfalz in irem Synodo berathschlagt und angerichtet haben,” dated 1562, in Zur Urgeschichte des Heidelberger Katechismus, Theologische Studien und Kritiken XL, by Albrecht Wolters (Gotha: Perthes, 1867), 15–18.

4.  Quoted in Hollweg, Neue Untersuchungen, 189.

5.  The Heidelberg Catechism, in “Doctrinal Standards,” in The Psalter Hymnal (Grand Rapids: Board of Publications of the Christian Reformed Church, 1976), 26. All citations of the HC in this essay are from this source.

6.  Lyle Bierma, The Doctrine of the Sacraments in the Heidelberg Catechism: Melanchthonian, Calvinist, or Zwinglian?, in Studies in Reformed Theology and History, New Series, no. 4 (Princeton: Princeton Theological Seminary, 1999):16. Bierma believes the fractio panis is no “Reformed slant,” “not strictly” Reformed, but a “later Zwinglian” practice. Contra Charles D. Gunnoe Jr., Thomas Erastus and the Palatinate: A Renaissance Physician in the Second Reformation (Leiden: Brill, 2011), 101–4; also contra Bodo Nischan, “The ‘Fractio Panis’: A Reformed Communion Practice in Late Reformation Germany,” Church History 53 (1984):17–29.

7.  “The Baptismal office is largely Genevan.” Bard Thompson, “The Palatinate Church Order of 1563,” Church History 23, no. 4 (Dec. 1954): 348.

8.  A quite moving account from Frederick’s life confirms this understanding. When his daughter Elisabeth, wife of Johann Wilhelm of Saxony, gave birth to a stillborn daughter and was grieved that the child had not received an emergency baptism, Frederick consoled her and her husband: “We parents shall not be so reckless and insinuate that our loving God and father in heaven would not have our children (if they are born to believing parents, even if they have not received the external sacrament and earthly element) be saved and receive them to himself.” August Kluckhohn, ed., Briefe Friedrichs des Frommen, Kurfürsten von der Pfalz (Braunschweig: Schwetschke, 1868), 1:530–33.

9.  Heinrich Heppe, Geschichte des deutschen Protestantismus (Marburg: Elwert, 1853), 2:6, as quoted in Hollweg, Neue Untersuchungen, 193.

10.  Martin Luther, Small Catechism, 4.2.

11.  Luther, Small Catechism, 4.3.

12.  Augsburg Confession, article 9.

13.  For the full German text of the Church Order of the Palatinate, see Wilhelm Niesel, ed., Bekenntnisschriften und Kirchenordnungen der nach Gottes Wort reformierten Kirche (Zürich: Zollikon, 1938), 136–218. For the full English text with notes and commentary, see John B. Payne, The Living Theological Heritage of the United Church of Christ, vol. 2, Reformation Roots (Cleveland, Ohio: Pilgrim Press, 1997), 359–76 (document 2). Also John H. A. Bomberger, “The Old Palatinate Liturgy of 1563,” The Mercersburg Review 2 (1850): 81–96, 265–86; John H. A. Bomberger, “The Old Palatinate Liturgy of 1563,” The Mercersburg Review 3 (1851): 97–128. For background cf. Thompson, “Palatinate Church Order,” 339–54.

14.  Karl Barth, Die christliche Lehre nach dem Heidelberger Katechismus (Zürich: Zollikon, 1948). English translation: Karl Barth, Learning Jesus Christ through the Heidelberg Catechism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), 23.

15.  John W. Nevin, History and Genius of the Heidelberg Catechism (Chambersburg, Pa.: Publication Office of the German Reformed Church, 1847), 158.

16.  Nevin, History and Genius, 157.

17.  Nevin, History and Genius, 160.

18.  Bomberger, “The Old Palatinate Liturgy,” 90.

19.  My translation from the German original.

20.  Bomberger, “The Old Palatinate Liturgy,” 90–91.

21.  Zacharias Ursinus, Explicationes Catecheseos Palatinae, in Opera, Tomus I (Heidelberg: Quirinus Reuter, 1612). English translation: G. W. Williard, trans., The Commentary of Dr. Zacharias Ursinus on the Heidelberg Catechism (Columbus: Scott & Bascom, 1852), 11.

Sebastian Heck is pastor of Selbständige Evangelisch-Reformierte Kirche in Heidelberg, Germany.