Friday, September 08, 2006

Is the Heidelberg Catechism Lutheran?

There has always been a movement to identify the Heidelberg Catechism with Lutheranism. It dates back as far as John Nevin and Philip Schaff. It served their purposes to try and read Lutheranism into the Catechism of Ursinus and Olevanius because they wanted to Lutheranize (or Romanize) the German Reformed Church. Playing down the Reformed character of the foundational Catechism seemed a good way to accomplish the task. The Confessing Evangelical revives this claim. He states,

Back in my Reformed days, this was my favourite of the Reformed catechisms. It turned out that this was because it is the most Lutheran, not least because it was written for a Lutheran crowd: it was intended to unite Reformed and Lutheran believers in the Palatinate, or at least to express Reformed doctrine in a manner that would be as palatable as possible to Lutherans.

Now, I am not denying that the Heidelberg was written to unite the Lutherans and Reformed in the Palatinate, but it was not written for a Lutheran crowd. It did avoid a few things that may have angered Lutherans, such as a clear teaching about election, but it was written to untie Lutherans with Reformed by making them Reformed. Even the Confessing Evangelical admits this by accident in his next paragraph.

From a Lutheran perspective, a lot of the Catechism's answers are pretty unsatisfactory, especially its explicit rejection of baptismal regeneration and the Real Presence. Instead, it takes a "just as surely as X happens, so does Y" approach:

He also makes the hard to understand claim that the Heidelberg was not pastoral, but didactic. Hardly a document written for a Lutheran crowd since it explicitly rejects the main contention of sacraments between the two parties. This difference is explained a bit further by the Confessing Evangelical in his next post. Note the sacraments do something different in the two catechisms, baptism and the Lord’s Supper are both very different. Hard to imagine that one is based upon the other, as the original claim contends. The Confessing Evangelical even tries to state that the Heidelberg was based on Lutheran documents. He tries to show how Question and Answer number 1 are based on Luther’s exposition of the Second Article of the Smaller Catechism, even claiming it is “clearly” based. Yet, the four areas of comfort spelled out in Q and A #1 from Christ and in fact the entire idea of comfort and joy being the unifying principle of the catechism probably came from John A’Lasco and his series of catechisms. The catechisms of A’Lasco, Leo Juda, Calvin, and the Strassbourgh Refomers (Capito and Bucer) are the four main sources. James I Good has an excellent book on the sources of the Heidelberg Catechism called, The Heidelberg Catechism in its Newest Light. Some of it is out of date now, such as I believe Olevianus’s contribution is better understood, but it is still very good. It is in the RCUS James I Good collection available at

Now this post has led some to comment about the Heidelberg Catechism being ‘weak’ on the sacraments. However, I think it ought to be viewed as separate from the Lutheran view and sources, and thus, it should simply be viewed as different. For while I disagree with the Confessing Evangelical’s idea that Lutheranism stands as a source for the Heidelberg, he is at least honest enough to see that the Heidelberg does not allow a Lutheran view of the sacraments, not at all. Something to rememeber as the Federal Vision discussion proceeds.


John H said...

Thanks for the link, and thanks in particular for the further information on the Heidelberg Catechism's origins. I accept that the Lutheran confessions were not a source for Heidelberg, though it still looks very much like certain Q&As in Heidelberg were intended to counter the Lutheran position.

But, just to clarify the position taken in my post, I was not remotely trying to claim Heidelberg as a Lutheran document. My posts were precisely intended to contrast Heidelberg's Calvinism with the teachings of Lutheranism.

And I agree entirely with your statement that Heidelberg "was written to unite Lutherans with Reformed by making them Reformed". So there was nothing "accidental" in my "admission" that Heidelberg disagrees with Lutheran teachings.

My point about the pastoral vs the didactic was that there is a discernable shift between the Small Catechism (which sets out what "the head of the household is to teach his family" on Christian basics) and the Heidelberg Catechism, whose division into "Lord's Days" moves the focus onto weekly catechetical instruction by the pastor. The Small Catechism has been described as "the only catechism that can be prayed".

I think [Heidelberg] ought to be viewed as separate from the Lutheran view and sources, and thus, it should simply be viewed as different.

Actually, I think the word there is "wrong". Seriously. Just as someone who confesses Heidelberg is (by doing so) obliged to conclude that the Lutheran confessions are not merely "different" or "weaker/stronger" on the sacraments, but wrong.

We can disagree over our respective confessions, I hope in a spirit of mutual respect and "the friendship of the baptised", but what we can't do is simply shrug our shoulders and say, "Diff'rent strokes for diff'rent folks".

I used to agree with Heidelberg and disagree with the Small Catechism, and now it's the other way round. At no point, however, have I been indifferent as to which one was correct - and I'm sure you're not either.