Our Heidelberg Heritage

Source: You Shall Be My People. Copyright © 1996 by the Synod of the Reformed Church in the United States.

Rev. Paul H. Treick

OUR beloved Heidelberg!-this is an expression one seldom hears about a confession or a creed of the church. After all, a confession is composed of doctrines which are supposed by many to be dry and unemotional theological statements. Yet, love for the Heidelberg Catechism has characterized the 250-year history of the Reformed Church in the United States and continues. It is not a love for a book or a document as such, but a love for the faith it expresses so well.

Along with us, Christians of many languages from all over the world have uttered these words as they have known the “comfort” so beautifully and soundly expressed by this document first published in 1563. What is it that makes the Heidelberg Catechism so unique?

The continuing history of the Reformed Church in the United States is due in large part to the use of the “Heidelberger.” The defining word here is “use.” What benefit is a creed for us if it is not used? What good is a creed carefully preserved on our “beloved historical document” shelf, if it is not also in our hearts and heads? How can a creed benefit the church if it is not taught to believers and to their children? It is alleged that indoctrination of our covenant children is somehow suspect or simply wrong. Critics say it leads to “dead orthodoxy.” We would counter by saying that not knowing what to believe leads to “unorthodoxy.” The anti-creedal trend in the twentieth century has been to render mere lip-service to the historical, confessional statements of the church, but not make them living documents in the life of the church. If you want to see a dying church, look at one which no longer teaches or adheres to its own creeds. If you want to see a dead church, look at one which can no longer define what it claims to believe. If its belief is unknown, then what reason is there for its existence? The exodus from the historic Reformed faith in recent years has not been the fault of the creeds, but a failure to make them the center of instruction and discipline. {172}

In some quarters, attempts are made to rewrite theology so frequently that a book like the Heidelberg Catechism seems like little more than a relic of the past. The results are clearly seen today and they are disastrous. The pathetic trend of today is doctrinal avoidance where theological awareness is exchanged for feelings. Doctrinal ignorance is often lauded. Feelings, opinions, and experiences have become the basis for truth. People fear that doctrines (usually considered to be too old-fashioned and divisive) will drive people away from the church. In reality, the opposite is true-people leave when they no longer know or can state what they believe. When people are no longer able to distinguish between truth and error, they easily fall prey to liberalism or neo-evangelicalism.

Doctrines are simply teachings and everyone follows some teaching. Everyone believes something-whether true or false. Today’s anti-creedal environment says, “No book but the Bible; no creed but Christ.” As clever as this might sound, this is the creed of many who prefer to disguise their actual beliefs either because of ignorance or because their doctrines are too bizarre to be presented up front.


The Heidelberg Catechism, along with the Belgic Confession of Faith and the Canons of Dort are the official creeds of the Reformed Church in the United States. These all complement each other and were united as a package of creeds by the Synod of Dort in 1618. Of these, the Heidelberg is unique since it is a catechism. It is designed as a teaching tool to be memorized and to become a part of the daily confession of the believer. The latter two creeds are excellent statements of the Reformed faith, but their form and purpose are more suitable as administrative statements than pedagogical tools.

The word “catechesis,” derived from the Greek, describes the teaching and instruction given to “catechumens” in preparation for confirmation. The word “catechism” is from the Greek word Katecheo which means to “sound from above” and came generally to mean “to give instruction concerning the content of faith” (see Lk. 1:4; Acts 18:25; Rom. 2:18; 1 Cor. 14:19 for the use of this word). The method of this instruction involved a teacher asking questions and the student responding with carefully worded answers provided by the teacher. We see in Galatians 6:6 (where this word is used twice) the contrast between the catechumen ( ‘him that is taught in the word”) and the catechizer (“him that teacheth in all good things”).

The word “catechism” is often associated with Roman Catholicism, perhaps because of the papal sanctions and blessings associated with it. The Protestant Church, however, was the first to write a catechism. Luther’s larger and shorter {173} catechisms appeared in 1529. The Heidelberg and the Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechisms are the most important of the Protestant contributions. Peter Canisius (1534-1566), a Roman Catholic Jesuit priest, was the first to issue a catechism within the Roman Church.[1] All catechisms are not of one sort-there are good and bad catechisms depending on the doctrinal content of each.

The use of catechisms became quickly associated with the rite of “confirmation”-not as the Roman Catholics practiced it, but covenantally, where the baptized child would be taught the promises of the Gospel in order to confess them by examination and confirm them as his own. The covenant, the catechism, and confirmation are thereby inseparably intertwined. Calvin, in speaking of confirmation favored . . .

a catechizing, in which children or those near adolescence would give an account of their faith before the church. But the best method of catechizing would be to have a manual drafted for this exercise, containing and summarizing in simple manner most of the articles of our religion, on which the whole believers’ church ought to agree without controversy. A child of ten would present himself to the church to declare his confession of faith, would be examined in each article, and answer to each; if he were ignorant of anything or insufficiently understood it, he would be taught. Thus, while the church looks on as a witness, he would profess the one true and sincere faith, in which the believing folk with one mind worship the one God.

If this discipline were in effect today, it would certainly arouse some slothful parents, who carelessly neglect the instruction of their children as a matter of no concern to them; for then they could not overlook it without public disgrace. There would be greater agreement in faith among Christian people, and not so many would go untaught and ignorant; some would not be so rashly carried away with new and strange doctrines; in short, all would have some methodical instruction, so to speak, in Christian doctrine.[2]

In accord with this, in the Second Helvetic Confession (Swiss) by Heinrich Bullinger (1566), we read,

The Lord enjoined his ancient people to exercise the greatest care {174} that young people, even from infancy, be properly instructed. Now since it is well known from the writings of the evangelists and apostles that God has no less concern for the youth of his new people, when he openly testifies and says: “Let the children come to me; for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven” (Mark 10:14), the pastors of the churches act most wisely when they early and carefully catechize the youth, laying the first ground of faith, and faithfully teaching the rudiments of our religion . . . . Here let the Church show her faith and diligence in bringing the children to be catechized, desirous and glad to have her children well instructed. (Chapter XXV)

Let us never underestimate the importance of catechetical instruction for the believer and for the church as a whole. To the extent that this practice has been neglected we have seen the theology of the church shift and drift. Certainly there are other methods of instruction, but the catechetical approach is difficult to rival in terms of its overall structure and progressive building up of the faith. If just one generation is not instructed in the basic truths of the Gospel the damage done to the next generation is very difficult to recover from.

It is common to attempt to begin instruction with moralistic lessons and a lot of emphasis on how to love God and our neighbor-a noble thought, but a terrible mistake. The basis of the Christian life that glorifies God is a knowledge of sin followed by repentance and faith in Christ. Obedience to God’s law, growing out of thanksgiving, can only come when there is a salvation to be thankful for. The catechism is well-suited to give to children as well as adults the step by step guidance in these blessed truths.

Parents, take heed that you may say to your children, as Paul to Timothy, that “from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures” (2 Tim. 3:15).


Our purpose in this chapter is to uncover the course of development which laid the foundation for the Heidelberg. The book known as the Heidelberg Catechism did not appear out of a vacuum, but was the fruit of God’s providence. Many events and numerous godly men contributed to the final product. To give a complete history of the Heidelberg Catechism would require volumes, since to put ones finger on the pulse of the German Reformation is to feel the heartbeat of the Heidelberg Catechism.

At the time of the Reformation catechisms abounded throughout Europe. Protestants were eager to teach their followers and defend their faith to both ecclesiastical and civil authorities. Many catechisms were written before and many {175} after the Heidelberg.[3] The distinctiveness of the Heidelberg does not lie merely in the question and answer format, but it lies in the very personal, pastoral nature of the questions and answers. This is exemplified in the very first question, “What is your only comfort in life and in death?” The answer provides the response of a confessing Christian, “That I, with body and soul, in life and in death am not my own, but belong to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ. . . .” The Heidelberg not only outlines the essential doctrines of the Christian faith, but it reveals the course of the Christian’s life from sin to salvation to thankfulness. It employs the basic outline of the book of Romans and it follows the definition of the word “redemption”-to be set free from the bondage of sin by purchase through the blood of Jesus to glorify God. It incorporates the fundamental teaching that our salvation includes both our body and our soul (ie. a Calvinistic world and life view). This approach is in distinction to the false dichotomy of the scholastics who saw man’s salvation in terms of the soul, but not of the body. In that sense the Heidelberg Catechism is both doctrinal and practical. Among catechisms the Heidelberg is a unique treasure from which we have drawn great wealth for many generations. It was the stated creed of the RCUS from its organization in the United States, having been already accepted by the German and Dutch immigrants who came to this country.

The format of the Heidelberg was intended to be pastoral-the pastor asking the questions and the student responding with the answers. Early catechisms, including Calvin’s first catechism, were arranged in paragraph format, without questions and answers.[4] Later, it was seen that the question and answer method (the catechetical method) was more effective.[5] Some began using this catechetical method the wrong way-where the student asked the question and the pastor gave the answer. Leo Juda, of Zurich, did this in his first catechism. He reversed this in the second catechism, so the minister asked the questions and the pupil gave the answers. This is still the present method. A number of editions of the Heidelberg were augmented with detailed explanations of each question, numerous Bible texts, {176} prayers, and even hymns written to express each Lord’s Day of the catechism.[6] It was also widely used in homes so fathers could instruct their children.

In this 250th year celebration, happily catechism classes and the memorization of the Heidelberg Catechism still continue among the covenant children of the Reformed Church in the United States. This is still much the same as in the days of the Reformation in the sixteenth century. This practice is continued not out of blind adherence to tradition, but because it has proven to be the most effective method of instilling these precious truths in the minds of our children. It gives them not only a ready grasp of deep truths and definitions for their own benefit, but aids in explaining the Gospel to others.

Some have opined that this catechetical method is spurious because children are giving answers to questions that someone else has prepared. It isn’t their own answer. We’re putting words in their mouth. That is exactly the purpose of catechizing. Were we to allow each child to formulate his own answers to the questions, they would each be formulating a new creed according to their childish understanding. In teaching any other subject, the same method is employed. Water is not just wet, but we tell students that it consists of specific amounts of hydrogen and oxygen. In catechizing, it is expected not just that children are able to parrot the answers, but to demonstrate an understanding of them. It is always our hope and prayer that the Holy Spirit will use this instruction to create a true and living faith in their hearts. A thorough examination is required for confirmation-to determine that the answers recited are also understood and have become the basis for a knowledgeable confession of true faith in Jesus Christ.

The Heidelberg Catechism is not just a children’s book. It is a book for all who are the children of God. One of the most effective tools of evangelism today is still the Heidelberg. Because of its strong biblical basis, it possesses an ageless quality. It must be used, not as a substitute for studying the Bible, but in conjunction with the Holy Scriptures. A thorough knowledge of the Heidelberg should initiate a more intensive study of other creeds, namely, The Belgic Confession of Faith, the Canons of Dort, and other Reformed creeds as well.

In the words of Zacharius Ursinus in the introduction to his Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, catechetical instruction is necessary for the following reasons:

1. Because it is the command of God (Deut. 11:19) {177}

2. Because of the divine glory which demands that God be not only rightly known and worshipped by those of adult age, but also by children, according as it is said, “Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings hast thou ordained strength” (Ps. 8:2).

3. On account of the comfort and salvation; for without a true knowledge of God and his Son Jesus Christ, no one that has attained to years of discretion and understanding can be saved, or have any sure comfort that he is accepted in the sight of God (John 13:3; Heb. 11:6).

4. For the preservation of society and the church. If we are not correctly instructed in our childhood out of the sacred Scriptures concerning God and his will, and do not then commence the practice of piety, it is with great difficulty, if ever, we are drawn away from these errors which are, as it were, born in us, or which we have imbibed from our youth, and that we are led to abandon the vices in which we have been brought up, and to which we have been accustomed.

5. There is a necessity that all persons should be made acquainted with the rule and standard according to which we are to judge and decide, in relation to the various opinions and dogmas of men, that we may not be led into error, and be seduced thereby, according to the commandment which is given in relation to this subject, “Beware of false prophets” (Matt. 7:15).

6. Those who have properly studied and learned the Catechism, are generally better prepared to understand and appreciate the sermons which they hear from time to time. . . .

7. The importance of catechization may be urged in view of its peculiar adaptedness to those learners who are of weak and uncultivated minds, who require instruction in a short, plain, and perspicuous manner . . . .

8. It is also necessary, for the purpose of distinguishing and separating youths, and such as are unlearned, from schismatics and profane heathen, which can most effectually be done by a judicious course of catechetical instruction.

Lastly. A knowledge of the catechism is especially important for those who are to act as teachers, because they ought to have a more intimate acquaintance with the doctrine of the church than others, as well on account of their calling, that they may one day {178} be able to instruct others. . . .[7]


The unique character of the Heidelberg Catechism is the product of the time in which it was written and the exceptional preparation God gave to those responsible for its composition. The heritage of the Heidelberg for the RCUS goes back much further than our years here in the United States. While the authors of the Heidelberg are significant, the impetus it needed to be widely distributed was due in large measure to the one who authorized and defended it. In the sixteenth century, the writing of a confession such as the Heidelberg Catechism could easily cost you your life.

When we survey the history of the Heidelberg Catechism, the names of Elector Frederick III, Zacharias Ursinus, and Casper Olevianus are most conspicuous. These were all gifted workmen of God who were used in a very special way at a crucial time in the history of the church. The sixteenth century was not only a time of tremendous change in the church, but also in the lives of those used in the Reformation. In observing the lives of these men, we will also be exposed to some influential events and individuals who paved the way for the Heidelberg. In looking at this history, behold the hand of God and give Him all the glory.

We should remember that this period of history was at the latter half of the Renaissance which was the rebirth of cultural interest-especially an interest in studying the classic writings of the past. Those engaged in this study were known as “humanists” (not to be equated at all with the secular humanism of today). This revival began in Italy in the twelfth century and gradually moved northward. Its effect north of the Alps in the sixteenth century was characterized more by theological study-especially the writings of the Christian classics from the New Testament period and following. These men were known as “Christian humanists” (such as John Colet, Johannes Reuchlin, Thomas More, Jacques Lef_vre, and Erasmus). Many of these young humanists turned Protestant, such as Ulrich Zwingli, Philip Melanchthon, John Calvin, Theodore Beza, and Casper Olevianus. The interest shifted to the task of reforming the church according to apostolic principles. It may be true that “Erasmus laid the egg that Luther hatched.”


Frederick’s predecessor, Otto Henry (d. 1559), was a Low-Lutheran and a Christian humanist. At this time three groups dominated the Protestant scene-High-Lutheran (closer to the Roman Catholics), Low-Lutheran (more liberal and {179} humanistic), and Reformed. Northern Germany was generally High-Lutheran and the south, since it was reformed more by the Calvinists, was Low-Lutheran. Otto was committed to improving the condition of the University of Heidelberg, which since its change from Catholicism to Protestantism had deteriorated. His desire was to hire the best professors he could find to bring it out of the scholasticism of the Middle Ages. Being more committed to humanism than mere confessionalism, he hired some Reformed professors, most prominent were Peter Boquin (French) and Thomas Erastus (Swiss). No small controversy with Lutherans ensued, but they remained at Otto’s insistence and offered a strong foothold for the Reformed at the university.[8] Thus the door was open for Frederick to appoint Ursinus and Olevianus during his later tenure as Elector.

Otto Henry also was quite broad-minded about allowing the Reformed a place in the realm. It should be remembered that in 1555 the Peace of Augsburg[9] was signed which gave each prince the authority to determine the official religion of his domain according to his own religion (Cuius regio, eius religio). Those citizens who refused were allowed to sell their land and depart. In addition, cities could permit different faiths, if they were already established. This peace applied only to Roman Catholics and those Protestants who subscribed to the Augsburg Confession (1530).[10] Significantly, Calvinists and Anabaptists were excluded from this freedom. However, Otto, being quite broad-minded and somewhat sympathetic to the Reformed, gave permission for Reformed refugees to settle in Frankenthal despite warnings from Phillip Melanchthon that this would create friction.[11]

Perhaps one of the most significant acts of Otto Henry was to reform the worship in the Palatinate according to the Low-Lutheran position. His Church Order of 1556 departed from the High-Lutheran practice of exorcism. He threw out the altars except for the main altar for Lord’s Supper, and he ordered that pictures should be removed from the churches. {180}

A final preparation for Frederick’s reign was Otto Henry’s intervention in the heated disputes between two very vocal and zealous men-Tileman Hesshusius (High-Lutheran) and William Klebitz (Reformed). Here, as controversies erupted around such issues as images, hymn books, the form of Lord’s Supper, and a degree given to a Reformed student from the University of Heidelberg (which was Lutheran at the time), it was Otto Henry who offered the greatest concessions and sympathy to the Reformed.

So, the stage was set for Frederick III to assume the Electorship at the death of Otto Henry in 1559. God had providentially been laying the foundation before Frederick’s time so that out of this High-Lutheran state, one of the greatest confessions of the Reformed faith could be written.


Elector Frederick III (1515-1576) of the Palatinate in Germany might be said to be the “father” of the Heidelberg Catechism since he authorized and defended the writing of the Heidelberg. His reference to the Heidelberg Catechism as “my catechism” reflects not only his love for the doctrines of the Heidelberg, but the responsibility he felt for its creation and defense.

As were many of the Reformers, Frederick was born into a Roman Catholic home, the eldest son of Duke John II of the Palatinate. In 1537 he married Mary a daughter of Margrave Casimir of Brandenburg. She was an outspoken High-Lutheran, even warning Frederick about Zwinglian (ie. Reformed) influences in Heidelberg. As a condition of marriage, she got him to read the Bible. Through her influence he was converted from Roman Catholicism to Lutheran, but a Low-Lutheran, and much more inclined to the Reformed position than the High-Lutheran. He was a very quiet and peaceful man and did not invite controversy. While he was often attacked viciously, he did not respond in kind. The castle at Heidelberg was characterized by a godly atmosphere. It is said that he and his wife prayed and sang a psalm (psalm-singing was forbidden among the High-Lutherans) at the beginning and close of every meal. Every day he prayed for his people and was generous with his wealth.[12]

In 1559, two weeks after Otto Henry died, Frederick was appointed as the Elector of the Palatinate. His predecessor had created some sense of peace and stability, but there was definitely a undercurrent of controversy between the three major factions-Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed. The Hesshusius and Klebitz debates and attacks heated up. Most of the controversy centered around the Lord’s Supper, not only in the manner in which it was served, but especially whether {181} the physical or spiritual presence of Christ was present. Frederick accepted the Low Lutheran position which said that the body of Christ was not “distributed,” but “exhibited” at the Lord’s Supper.

While Frederick did not initially declare that he was Reformed, it became increasingly apparent that he came down on the side of the Reformed whenever controversies had to be settled. This was in part due to his peaceful nature, but perhaps more so to his deepening conviction that all doctrine must be derived from the Bible alone.

Frederick felt that since the Catholics had gained greater unity with the developments at the Council of Trent (meeting in three stages from 1545-1563), all Protestants should present a united front against Catholicism. It is clear that Frederick never espoused the High-Lutheran position. Phillip Melanchthon (also Low-Lutheran) played an important role in supporting Frederick. It was Melanchthon who advised Frederick to settle the dispute as to the formula used in the Lord’s Supper by using the biblical formula of 1 Cor. 10:16 instead of the formula used in the Augsburg Confession (ie. Christ’s body and blood are “communicated” to believers, but it avoided saying that the elements “are” the body and blood of Christ. He added an important clause which said that this “communication” did not occur without thought, as occurs when mice gnaw at bread).[13]

But Frederick was still a Low-Lutheran and had his son Christopher instructed in Luther’s Catechism. Within his own heart Frederick was not satisfied with the conclusions on the matter of the Lord’s Supper and set out on an intensive study of the Bible to find the truth. Day and night he labored, searched, and prayed that God might reveal the truth to him. During this search his motto was also formulated, “Lord, according to Thy will.”[14]

This search of the Scriptures is significant, for Frederick used nothing but the Bible to seek the truth. This is precisely the Reformed principle to determine the truth, even though Frederick may not have employed it because he was self-consciously Reformed at that point in time. The Bible had become the rule of faith with a different emphasis than Luther had held. Frederick forwarded the Reformed principle of theology which said, “only what is commanded in the Bible,” as opposed to the Lutheran principle of, “only what the Bible does not forbid.” The Augsburg Confession contained no biblical references to the Bible as the only rule of faith. Contrast this to the Heidelberg Catechism and its strong biblical basis. This is a first sign that Frederick was openly becoming Reformed in his theology.

Gradually, we see Frederick shift away from Lutheranism toward Reformed {182} theology. He also became tired with the authoritarian nature of Hesshusius (already dismissed from his position at the University of Heidelberg) which he was now demonstrating in his church. He appointed a consistory to rule in the church, headed by a strong Reformed man named Zuleger.[15] In 1560 Casper Olevianus was appointed as a professor of theology at the University of Heidelberg. Fear began to set in that Frederick was becoming a Calvinist. His wife, Mary, was so upset at Frederick’s leanings that she called upon his son-in-law, Duke John Frederick of Saxony (a High-Lutheran), to have prayers in the churches to the end that Frederick might be kept in the Lutheran faith. Mary remained Lutheran for some time, but later changed and also became zealously Reformed. It was certainly true that the High-Lutherans were now a minority and that the large number of Low-Lutherans made the later change to Calvinism in the Palatinate easier.

By 1561 the majority of the faculty at Heidelberg University was Reformed. One striking example is the fact that Heidelberg University supported the teachings of Jerome Zanchius (1516-1590) who was driven from Strassburg by the Lutherans for his teaching of the doctrine of predestination.[16] For a Lutheran university to support the position of a Reformed theologian evidences the Reformed position of the University at this time. Zanchius later became a professor of Reformed theology at the University of Heidelberg. Following a conference at Naumburg, which attempted to unite the Protestants, Frederick made his break with the authority of the early Lutheran faith (which he called “popish”), and with Melanchthon (who with Luther authored the Augsburg Confession of 1530) Frederick was inclined now to distance himself from Melanchthon, concluding that if Melanchthon could be so wrong on the first Ausburg, then why not also on the later editions. While they were a slight improvement over the original Augsburg confession, Frederick deemed these to be in error also.[17] Melanchthon’s 1540 Altered Augsburg Confession, which Frederick eventually signed, stated in Article X that “with the bread and wine the body and blood of Christ are truly shown forth” {183} instead of “are truly present.”[18]

It was in 1561 that Frederick took an openly Reformed position in various areas. Again, he was driven to the Bible for more study. Reformation took place in the worship and the churches. Statues were covered with black cloth, the veneration of the wafer in the Lord’s Supper was halted, pictures in churches were covered with whitewash, the use of the organ ceased, Latin hymns were replaced by Luther’s psalms and other hymns, stone baptismal fonts were removed, altars were thrown out and replaced with communion tables, the golden chalice for Lord’s Supper was replaced with wood or pewter, bread was used in Lord’s Supper instead of the wafer, lay baptism was halted, and communion to the sick was lessened so that it did not appear to be a saving work. Zacharias Ursinus was appointed to the faculty at Heidelberg and Olevianus became the head of the Palatinate church. More and more Reformed writings were coming out of the Palatinate which put fear in the hearts of the High-Lutherans that the Palatinate had fallen to the Reformed. They were right.

In 1562 Thomas Erastus,[19] a Reformed professor at Heidelberg and a physician, demonstrated his extensive knowledge of the Reformed doctrine of the Lord’s Supper with the publication of a remarkable booklet on the body of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. The doctrine of the ubiquity of Christ was denied and here we see the sacraments are called “signs and seals.” Frederick ordered the publication of this work. A second order by Frederick in this year was that a catechism should be written. His desire was that this new catechism should be, above all, biblical. The suggestion for this catechism first came from Olevianus and the majority of the writing of it would be by Ursinus. A commission representing the court, the university, and the churches was set up. It was this commission that gave the primary authorship to Ursinus and Olevianus. In the introduction to the first three editions of the catechism, Frederick III states that it originated, “with the counsel and assistance of our whole theological faculty, also all superintendents and principal church councilors.”[20] That would include such faculty members as Bouquin, Tremellius, Ursinus, Olevianus, Diller, Erastus, and Frederick himself. {184}

God used Frederick’s reign at just this time in history to produce for us a beautiful and biblical expression of the Reformed faith which remains for us today. As we will see later, the catechism of Frederick came under severe attack, yet God caused it to be preserved against almost unbelievable odds.


Zacharias Ursinus (Baer) at age 26 and Casper Olevianus (Van der Olevig) at age 28 were the primary authors of the Heidelberg Catechism. Yet Frederick participated in the structure and everything had to be subject to his assent, including the literal expressions. The Synod of the Palatinate would ask for a change in Question 78 before the first edition was published in 1563[21] and in a later edition Frederick had Question 80 added.[22] Each author formulated his own draft without consulting each other about the main features. The effect was that the first drafts were far apart in form even though both the Genevan Catechism of Calvin and the Emden Catechism of à Lasco were used as a guide. Olevianus’ composition existed of a simple development of the Covenant of Grace, and Ursinus’ division was misery, redemption, and thankfulness. Olevianus deemed the structure of Ursinus’ work as best for this catechism.[23]

These two men were well adapted to perform this monumental work since they were bosom friends and of like faith. Both were brilliant scholars. They belonged to the second generation of Reformers, when the vibrations from the initial blast of the Reformation were less pronounced. Theirs was a period when less of the outward and more of the inward, formative work needed to be done. While the writing of the Heidelberg Catechism will probably remain as their claim to fame, yet we should remember that this was but one work in their lives. They faithfully served the cause of the faith and did a great deal to further the understanding, formulation, and defense of the Reformed faith.


Zacharias Baer, whose last name was Latinized (in Latin “bear” is “ursus”) to become Ursinus, was a native of Breslau, the capital of Silesia. His father was a deacon at the Magdalen Church. He was a gifted scholar whose embrace of mathematics and philosophy served him well to express the faith with keenness and clarity. He possessed a quiet personality and avoided public discourse. In 1550, at {185} the age of 16 he enrolled at the university at Wittenberg where Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560) was not only his professor, but became his lifelong friend. After seven years of study he traveled widely. In Geneva he met John Calvin (1509-1564); in Zurich he met Johann Bullinger (1504-1575) and Peter Martyr (who became a very close friend). His acquaintances were impressed by Ursinus and he in turn was influenced by them. After a short tenure of teaching in Breslau, he was called in 1562 by Frederick III to become Professor of Philosophy (and in the same year made Doctor and Professor of Theology) at the University of Heidelberg.

As a professor he gave himself totally to his work and was closely attached to and loved by his pupils. He did not enjoy being disturbed by lengthy visits in his study and so he attached as sign above his door which read, “Amice, quisquis huc venis: aut agito paucis, aut abi, aut me laborantem juva” (“Friend, whoever you are who enters here: either make your matter short, or go, or assist me in my work”).[24]

With the change of power back to Lutheranism following Elector Frederick’s death in 1576, Ursinus was forced to leave Heidelberg since he could not receive Luther’s catechism or Lutheran doctrine. He was called by the second son of Frederick, John Casimir, to the newly established Reformed Theological School in Neustadt. The school flourished during his stay there. In failing health, the Lord called Zacharias Ursinus to Himself at the age of 49 years. Here he knows fully the “only comfort in life and in death” which he proclaimed so vigorously in this life.


When requested to write a catechism which would express the Reformed faith, we should remember that Ursinus did not begin this work in a vacuum. He was influenced by his past training and the writings of others. As noted earlier, Ursinus was a close friend and, in some respects, a follower of Phillip Melanchthon (1497-1560) who was a Low-Lutheran. It would be an error to think that Ursinus was himself a Melanchthonian. Unlike Melanchthon, Ursinus believed in predestination, he believed that Christ’s physical body was at the right hand of God (see Heidelberg Catechism Questions 46, 76 and 80), and he rejected the teaching that {186} Christ was physically present in the elements of the Lord’s Supper. Melanchthon would not have assented to these teachings.[25]

It might be noted also that Melanchthon was well-respected among the Reformed theologians. In 1543 John Calvin dedicated to Melanchthon a publication in which he set forth the errors of Dr. Albert Pighuis, an opponent of the doctrine of grace. Calvin also edited Melanchthon’s Loci Communes which was translated into French.[26] Calvin did not have such a relationship with Luther, although he did write to him on occasion. Calvin used Melanchthon to get through to the less than congenial Luther, for Calvin said, “For so far as I could understand by report, and by letters from different persons, the scarcely pacified temper of the man might, on very slight occasion, break out into a sore.”[27] So, it is not surprising that we find a very cordial relationship between Ursinus and Melanchthon. While divided by theological issues, the Reformers often had to consider the greater evil and enemy in Rome.

While often siding with the Reformed when disputes arose, the influence of Melanchthon on Ursinus was more personal than theological. Melanchthon was a peaceful man and aided the Reformed cause at times because he wanted to distance himself from Catholicism and from the caustic attacks by the High-Lutherans against the Reformed. We should be aware that there were also sharp differences between the High-Lutherans and the Low-Lutherans, especially in the area of the ubiquitous presence of Christ’s body. In examining the evidence, it is clear that Melanchthon was closer to the High-Lutheran doctrines than to the Reformed.[28] Perhaps we can also conclude that Ursinus, like Melanchthon, had the desire to see a more united front against the papal powers who wanted both Lutheran and {187} Reformed churches destroyed. In this there was sometimes cooperation, and even some attempts to mollify the various parties. Yet, on the basic issues of Calvinism, Ursinus stood with Calvin and Melanchthon did not.[29]


Another noteworthy influence on Ursinus was his childhood training in the church under his pastor Ambrosius Moibanus. Moibanus was a Protestant whose theology was developed before the specific details of the Lutheran or Reformed position were clearly formulated or the heated debate had begun. Later in his life, Moibanus, a student of Calvin’s Institutes, wrote a letter to John Calvin in which he states that Calvin’s writings met with his approval.[30]

Moibanus, as did many in the early Reformation, wrote a catechism for the instruction of the youth in the truths of the Bible. His first catechism (1533) was in Latin, his second (1535) in German, and a third (1537) in Latin. The format of the catechisms also changed. The first was in a ten topic arrangement common at that time-Piety the Law, the Gospel, Christ, the Sacraments, Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, Love and Good Works, Calling, and Prayer.[31] The second and third editions each had an appendix with catechetical questions and answers. Not only the catechetical form, but the practical and personal approach of Moibanus’ catechism is reflected in the Heidelberg Catechism. Ursinus learned Moibanus’ catechism and it left a lasting impression on him. The truths and style that Ursinus learned as a youth stayed with him. These he incorporated into the Heidelberg Catechism some fifteen years later. Moibanus’ beginning emphasis on Christian piety and man’s relationship to God is reflected in the Heidelberg beginning with the “comfort”-with the emphasis on man’s personal redemption and reconciliation more than merely outlining the decrees of God. We see Moibanus’ influence in Ursinus’ treatment of God as a “heavenly Father” (Question 26); of faith as a “hearty trust” (Question 21); in his treatment of the requirements of God’s law as being “love” (Question 4); and in the teaching on the sacraments as promises and assurances. Moibanus’ catechism laid the foundation for Ursinus to direct his catechetical instruction in terms of man’s sin, redemption, and thankfulness. We might note how closely this discipling method is to our Lord’s command, “Deny yourself, take up the cross, and follow me.” Ursinus’ boyhood instruction was remembered and built upon. The Heidelberg Catechism demonstrates a more mature Reformed theology than Moibanus, yet his style is in evidence. {188}

From this, let the church of today also take note of the blessed influence which children receive when they are catechized early and soundly (cf. 2 Tim. 1:5 and 3:14, 15). If what is learned as a youth is actually committed to memory, it will provide a deep spiritual reservoir for every endeavor of Christian life.


Ursinus was well-acquainted with various other catechisms which were available to him.[32] Some of these catechisms proved to be sources for the Heidelberg. Olevianus, on the other hand, was quite familiar with Calvin’s catechism in France and Calvin’s teachings from his stay in Geneva where he studied under Calvin. However, he did not have as an extensive a catechetical background as Ursinus had.

James I. Good lists the following sources (in addition to Moibanus mentioned above):

1. The Strassburg catechisms by Capito, 1527; Bucer, 1534, and Zell, 1535 and 1537.

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

3. Calvin’s catechism, 1537 and 1541. Sometimes also Calvin’s Institutes.

4. The à Lasco catechisms, à Lasco’s 1551; Micronius’ 1552; the London compend 1552; and the Emden, 1554.[33]

In addition to these catechisms, we should be aware that Ursinus had himself written two catechisms-a larger and a shorter catechism before he was given the task to write the Heidelberg. His larger catechism was drawn largely from the Catechism and Institutes of John Calvin. Of the 323 questions in this Larger Catechism, 173 refer back to Calvin’s catechism, 58 are references from à Lasco’s catechisms, 28 are derived from Bullinger, and 31 from Melanchthon’s “Considerations of Ordinances.”[34] In Ursinus’ larger catechism the central theme was the covenant of grace-a theology which was in the process of being formulated and more carefully defined. {189}

It has been said that Olevianus also used his catechism as a basis for the Heidelberg, but that is not likely. His longer catechism, Fester Grundt, das ist, die Artickel des alten, waren ungezweiffelten Christlichen Glaubnis, was published after the Heidelberg. He spoke of writing this larger catechism in a letter to Bullinger, but it was first published in Heidelberg by Michel Schirat to 1567.[35] He had written some materials on the matter of the covenant of grace before 1563, but not a catechism as such.

Ursinus’ shorter catechism (108 questions) was quite unlike the larger. It was not centered as much on the development of covenant theology, but the outline of it is significant in determining where the outline of our Heidelberg began. The format of this smaller catechism had a familiar three-fold division-1. Sin; 2. Redemption; and 3. Thankfulness. Clearly, our Heidelberg Catechism was an expansion of this unique division. Where did Ursinus arrive at this three-fold format? Most likely he got it from a book of instruction republished at Heidelberg in 1558, entitled, “A Brief and Orderly Statement of the True Doctrine of Our Holy Christian Faith for House-fathers” (based on a work by Gallus of Ratisbon).[36] This book appeared between Ursinus’ writing of his larger and shorter catechisms and followed the outline of: 1. The law, including sin and penitence; 2. The gospel or faith; and 3. Good works. This book was Lutheran on the sacraments, which were included in the second part of the outline.[37]

On the doctrine of election, Ursinus in both the larger and smaller catechisms, is very clearly a Calvinist and not sympathetic to Melanchthon. More is said on the doctrine of election and double predestination than even Calvin wrote in his catechism. When the Heidelberg Catechism was written there are markedly less direct references to election, leading to the erroneous conclusion that it was conciliatory toward the doctrines of Melanchthon. This change of emphasis may be because of the nature of the Heidelberg itself. Its purpose is not to simply define a doctrine, but to call the elect of God to repentance and faith. The sovereign grace of God is foundational throughout (see especially Questions 26, 52 and 54). In Ursinus’ explanation of Question 54 in his commentary there is a lengthy explanation of both the nature of the Church and also of the eternal predestination of God. Here he says, “The common place of the eternal predestination of God, or of election and reprobation naturally grows out of the doctrine of the church: and is for {190} this reason correctly connected with it.”[38]

Is the Heidelberg avoiding the doctrines of the covenant and election? Certainly not. While the Heidelberg and Ursinus’ shorter catechism do not expound covenant theology as such, it is important to note that the whole structure of the Heidelberg is covenantal in its purpose and application.[39] It is specifically intended to be the tool to instruct our covenant children. It is covenant theology in practice. The doctrine of the covenant and of election are only briefly mentioned by name, yet the basis for the “comfort” spoken of in the Heidelberg are the comforts that Christians find in these doctrines. The doctrine of election or predestination was viciously attacked by many who opposed the Reformed Church. This is still true today. Ursinus rightly saw the doctrine of God’s sovereign, electing grace as a comfort, not a mystery or a threat. The Christian’s comfort rests in the unshakable stability of his salvation. The doctrine of election provides this for the believer. In addition, the concept of God is not merely that of a sovereign, but of a loving Father. Question 28 rightly teaches the confidence that the believer has in God the Father for the future-that “no creature shall separate us from His love, since all creatures are so in His hand, that without His will they cannot so much as move.” The elect are the children of God by adoption. God, who is our Father through Christ, unfailingly cares for His children. What greater comfort can a child of God have than this?

Quite a number of questions in the Heidelberg Catechism inquire of the learner, “What comfort or benefit is this to you?” (see Questions 1, 2, 28, 36, 43, 45, 49, 51, 52, 57, and 58). A striking example of this approach appears in Question 52 which asks, “What comfort is it to you that Christ shall come to judge the living and the dead?” In most treatments of the second coming of Christ and the judgment the concept of it being a comfort is lacking. Yet, comfort is exactly what the true believer experiences when he contemplates the return of our Lord. Such comfort can only belong to those who are assured that, by true faith in Jesus Christ, the promise of the covenant is theirs forever. The stress on the passive obedience of Christ on the cross which atoned for all our sins, and the active obedience of Christ which merited for us all our righteousness, is foundational to the whole {191} structure of the catechism and of our comfort. The stress on comfort and benefit has led some of the more scholastic critics to accuse the Heidelberg of being merely pragmatic and self-centered. While this approach is practical, it is not mere pragmatism, and it is certainly not centered on man as evidenced from the very first question and answer. Furthermore, the Heidelberg exhibits the central unity of the covenant by placing the Law of Love (Question 4) in its first part and the ten commandments in the third. This is the genius of Reformed covenant theology.


A study of the history of the Heidelberg Catechism would be incomplete without recalling the oft forgotten contributions of John à Lasco. The dominant theme in the Heidelberg Catechism regarding comfort finds its basis in the à Lasco catechism (1546) where a number of questions ask, “What comfort is it . . . ?”

This catechism was written by a remarkable man of God, John à Lasco, the founder and organizer of the Reformed Church in East Friesland, the Netherlands, the lower Rhine, and in England.[40] He was born in Poland of a family of nobility. His study at Zurich under Zwingli’s influence directed him to a more Reformed view of worship and the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. He held unswervingly to the position that faith and life must be subordinate only to the Word and will of God-in contrast to the prevailing view that popes and councils determined all truth for faith and life.

The fiery à Lasco undertook the duties of his office as pastor of the Reformed Church at Emden, and as superintendent of ecclesiastical affairs in East Friesland. Where Luther desired a gradual change in worship, à Lasco aimed for a thorough and decided reformation so as to avoid gradual and successive changes. Regarding change he stated,

For such changes serve to render religion at first uncertain, and then contemptible, in the judgment of the uncultivated. If, therefore, a change of cultus is to be introduced, I desire it to be done in such a way, that no additional changes will be necessary in (the) future; that is, that all papal abominations, as soon as their sinfulness shall be made evident, be abolished, without exception; and in the introduction of new customs, an effort be made to conform as much as possible to the original purity and simplicity of the Apostolic Church, in order thus to supersede the necessity of any subsequent improvement.”[41] {192}

Sensing the need for a confession of faith for the Frisian Reformed Church, à Lasco wrote a catechism (1554) based on Calvin’s. This catechism which was known as the Emden Catechism, was used in all the foreign Reformed churches for a time and provided an important source for Ursinus in the preparation of the Heidelberg Catechism. Several questions of à Lasco’s catechisms (he wrote several) have the theme of comfort which belongs to the believer.

It is interesting to see this theme of comfort and that of the covenant combined in Ursinus’ Larger Catechism. It reads as follows:

“What firm comfort do you have in life and death?” That I am formed of God according to his image. And after I had lost this image willingly in Adam, God, out of His infinite and free mercy, received me into the covenant of his grace, in order that He, on account of the obedience and death of His Son, sent unto us in the flesh, may give to me, a believer, justice and eternal life; and this covenant He had sealed in my heart through His spirit, re-forming me in accordance with the image of God and calling me ‘Abba Father’ through His Word and visible sign of the covenant.”[42]

In comparison, Ursinus’ second, shorter Catechism, reads as follows:

“What is your comfort by which in life and death your heart sustains itself? That God, for Christ’s sake, has truly forgiven my sins and given me eternal life, that in it I may glorify him forever.”[43]

In these forerunners of the Heidelberg we see the change of emphasis on the matter of the covenant, and the comfort theme is expanded to the beautiful expression of our only comfort found in the first question and answer of the Heidelberg Catechism. There is comfort in belonging to the covenant and people of God and of knowing by faith the meaning of “I will be your God, and ye shall be my people.” The Heidelberg Catechism is designed to focus on and impress this covenantal truth upon the hearts of the pupils in a very convincing way.

Thus, Ursinus preferred to view and teach the Christian faith in terms of the comfort we receive from being a member of God’s covenant family. Within that covenant community God has his elect people. While the teaching of the sovereign electing grace of God was certainly a truth precious to Ursinus (see Heidelberg Catechism Question 54), yet he may have felt that this doctrine might appear too harsh for young children (or those not familiar with the Reformed faith) to under {193} stand. So concludes James I. Good. I think this is to miss the depth of thinking that went into the Heidelberg. Ursinus’ view of the Christian faith is rightly defined more in terms of the covenant of grace than in terms of election. The elect are the faithful “remnant” of the covenant people (Romans 11:5-7). Covenant administration does not proceed from election, but the assurance of one’s election must develop out of a strong covenant consciousness. Within God’s covenant He has His elect, and in the final analysis only the elect will ever know the eternal blessings of the covenant. The covenant-breaker will have heard of the blessings, but will only experience the curses.

The comfort that Christians have is based on both of these truths-the security of election by God unto salvation in Christ, and the communion with God that we have as His covenant people. These two important doctrines are carefully and beautifully interwoven into the fabric of the Heidelberg to give us the promise, the ground and the fruits of our salvation.


The oft forgotten coauthor of the Heidelberg Catechism is Casper Olevianus. He did not contribute as many words to the catechism as Ursinus-but let us not underestimate the tremendous contributions he made in the formulation of covenant theology and Reformed ecclesiology. He stands shoulder to shoulder with the Reformers of his day.

Casper Olevianus (van Olewig) was a native of Olewig, a village near Treves (Trier) in France. His father was a baker who also held the office of mayor and senator. He was educated in Paris, Orleans, and Bourges. Here he became acquainted with and accepted Reformed theology. Later he studied theology in Geneva, Zurich, and Lausanne where he was influenced by such eminent leaders as Farel, Calvin, Peter Martyr, Beza, and Bullinger. He was appointed by Frederick III to become the eloquent court preacher in St. Peter’s Church in the Palatinate. Recognizing his commitment to Reformed theology and extraordinary abilities, he was appointed to share in the writing of the Heidelberg Catechism.

It was through a terrible tragedy that Frederick III first became acquainted with Olevianus. When Olevianus was a student of law at Bourges, he became close friends with Herman Louis, the son of Pfalzgraf Hermann Ludwig (later Frederick known as Frederick III of the Palatinate). One day, while strolling along the Eure {194} River, both young men were invited to join another group of students in a boat trip across the river. This group of students was rather drunk. Olevianus declined to go with them, but Herman Louis went. In the course of the crossing, the boat was overturned and all the occupants drowned. Olevianus dove into the water to save his friend, but was not successful. In doing this Olevianus himself very nearly drowned. Here Olevianus also promised God that should he be saved from death he would give himself to the service of the Gospel in his homeland.[44] Olevianus was rescued and he kept his promise by giving himself to the study of the works of John Calvin.

After graduating with a law degree in 1557 he went back to Treves for a short time. In 1558 he actually went to Geneva to study theology under John Calvin himself, and later on to Zurich to become a student of Peter Martyr, Bullinger and Beza. On his way back to Geneva, he met William Farel, the “persuader,” who along with Calvin, convinced him that he must return to his homeland to teach the doctrines of the Reformed faith. He was now well-armed with Reformed theology, especially the teaching of the Covenant and Presbyterial Church government learned at Geneva. These would become important later in his ministry.

This young man, now twenty-three years old, returned to Treves filled with exuberance and fire to teach the Reformed theology. He was hired to lecture in Latin on Melanchthon’s Dialectics at an academy known as The Bursa. It should be remembered that Treves was the city of the “Coat” (a coat supposedly worn by Jesus Christ which the Roman church taught the people to venerate). The size of the audience was so small he decided to preach (on his twenty-third birthday) in German on the subject of the doctrine of justification by faith. In his sermon he attacked the Roman mass, the worship of saints, religious processions, and other evils of the church. This was on August 10, 1559. Word of this spread rapidly to the enemies of the Reformed faith. The authorities favorable to the Roman Catholic Church ordered him never again to use the lecture hall to preach. At this time they did not forbid him to preach elsewhere in the city of Treves, which had a growing Reformed movement. His church grew to 500-600 adults. In a letter to the ministers of Strassburg (written from prison) Olevianus states that about half of the citizens embraced the Gospel.[45] The Elector, Johan von der Layen, returned from a meeting at the Reichstag in Augsburg, and was informed by the Roman Catholic sympathizers that this Calvinistic movement was getting out of hand. By August 25, the Elector’s investigators issued a decree forbidding Olevianus from preaching entirely.

The Treves city council, in attempting to weaken the grip of power held by the Elector declined to obey. On September 6, with 170 of his knights, Elector Johann returned and agreed to some political freedoms. He still could not gain {195} sufficient support on the city council to stop Olevianus from preaching. His answer was force. He left the city and placed it under siege from late September to October 11. The city council capitulated to the Elector’s demands and Olevianus and his colleagues were placed under arrest with capital charges of high treason.[46]

Through the intervention of Frederick III of the Palatinate (along with six other Protestant electors), Olevianus and eleven of his colleagues were released from prison on December 11, 1559 (after paying a fine of 3,000 gulden) and required to leave the city. After their release other Protestants were soon forced to flee the city. Olevianus’ mother lived there for another twenty years until the next Elector of Treves drove out all Protestants. She fled to Herborn. The Jesuits were then given the task of reconverting all the Protestants. A holiday, “The Whitmonday Procession,” was founded by the Jesuits in 1560, to celebrate the exile of the Protestants who followed the teachings of Olevianus. No Protestant was allowed to live in Treves for 200 years, until in 1784 an edict of religious toleration was issued. In 1817 the first Protestant church service was held.[47] The city of Treves, for better or worse did realize that a prophet had been in their midst! His name was Casper Olevianus.

Olevianus’ journey now took him from prison to Heidelberg. Frederick III invited him to return to Heidelberg with him, where in 1560 he became an instructor in preaching at the College of Wisdom (which had just been converted to a seminary). In 1561 Olevianus was promoted to Professor of Theology at the University of Heidelberg where he was also given a degree of Doctor of Theology. Soon after this he married a girl, Philippina, whom he had met in Strassburg.

Olevianus felt he was better suited to preach than to lecture, so he accepted the position as pastor of St. Peter’s Church and later the Church of the Holy Spirit.[48] His influence here was truly reformational (and revolutionary!), as he not only preached Calvinistic theology, but organized the church of the Palatinate along the lines of Presbyterianism which Calvin had established in Geneva. Especially, the practice of church discipline was instituted (as opposed to the idea that the civil authorities alone could institute and execute discipline).[49] Perhaps Olevianus’ most noteworthy contribution to the theology of the Reformation is in the area of covenant theology. He is deemed by many to be the founder of covenant theology {196} (not the first to expound it, but to define and systematize it).[50]

When appointed to work with Ursinus on the production of a catechism, Olevianus brought with him not only a sound Calvinistic theology, but a zeal which grew out of the fires of affliction, in order to produce a catechism filled with sound doctrine and the heartfelt comfort of knowing that “whatever evil He sends upon me in this troubled life, He will turn to my good; for he is able to do it, being Almighty God, and willing also, being a faithful Father” (Heidelberg Catechism Question 26).

Following the writing of the Heidelberg Catechism, Olevianus labored faithfully as a pastor and was especially responsible for the formation of a Reformed ecclesiology in the Palatinate.[51] After the death of Elector Frederick III (in 1576), the Lutheran doctrines and customs were immediately reinstated by Frederick’s son, Ludwig. Since Olevianus was the primary leader in the Reformed church in Heidelberg, he was singled out as an enemy. He was suspended from office of pastor and professor, forbidden to correspond with any of the scholars, prohibited from holding any private assemblies in his house, and he was even placed under arrest. Another adherent of Reformed doctrine, Count Ludwig, of Sayn-Wittgenstein-Berleberg, was also deposed. He immediately called Olevianus to instruct his sons and also to preach in Herborn (Rhine-Westphalian area). Here Olevianus labored vigorously and tirelessly during the last ten years of his life, especially preparing the way for the introduction of the presbyterial order of church government in the provinces of Nassau, Wittgenstein, Solms, and Wied. This form of government was adopted in this region in 1581.[52]

In 1587, at the age of 50, Casper Olevianus entered into his eternal comfort, leaving behind his wife, two sons and a daughter. In his last testament he gives {197} evidence of his firm faith in the Almighty, saying,

Herewith I also commend my body and soul to my beloved God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, through the eternal High Priest, relying upon His gracious covenant and promise, that he will, to all eternity, be my God, and the God of my seed, and that he will never deal with me in anger, as he has sworn to me in His oath (Isa. 54:9).[53]

Another example of Olevianus’ fatherly concern for his covenant children comes in a letter three days before his death, written to his son Paul, who was too ill to be at his side,

My dear son Paul, with the patriarch Jacob I say: I wait for thy salvation, O Lord! for I have arrived at that point where I exclaim, with the apostle: I have a desire to depart, and to be with Christ, to whom also I commend and commit thee; as I did in holy baptism, so also I do now, when I am about to depart to the Lord. In like manner do I also commend your dear mother, your brother, and your sister to Him, and the word of His grace. True, I would gladly have seen you once more; yet I could not urge you to come, as it is very cold, and your leg is not yet recovered. Yesterday I arranged all my affairs, as it is meet for a pious father to do; and our noble prince, John has ratified, by a document, his liberality toward you, without laying any restraint upon your liberty. Hourly do I expect to make my pilgrimage to the Lord. Do not undertake hastily to come to me. We will see each other again, according to God’s gracious covenant, in eternal life. I commit to you your pious mother, even as I know your love to her. Care for your young brother Ludwig, as for my beloved one; and, with that wisdom which is constitutional with you, treat him gently. Mind not high things, but condescend to men of low estate; and so direct your studies that many may be benefited by them. The blessing of God be with your going out and coming in. Amen. And let your spirit repose upon the free and gracious sacrifice of the Son, expecting the heavenly inheritance only through and in the will of the Son of God. Amen. Your father, Casper Olevianus, of Treves, minister of the Word of God. Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”[54]

Such an epistle of at the end of a life’s journey demonstrates the depth of faith and {198} conviction which characterized the life’s work of Olevianus.

Apart from the trial by fire in prison and the providential connection with Elector Frederick III, there are several elements that are significant in the theology and contributions of Olevianus-his contributions in the area of church polity and discipline, his formation of a more consistent and mature covenant theology than heretofore. We are deeply indebted to God for this faithful laborer in our Reformed heritage.

PETER RAMUS (1515-1572)

Pierre de la RamŽe, a Fench philospher, better known by his Latin name, Peter Ramus, had an effect on the thinking of Casper Olevianus. At the time of the Reformation, the predominant philosophy was still based on the pagan dualism (scholasticism) of Aristotle. The Roman Catholics had merely modified the heathen philosophy of Aristotle. Aristotle not only held that all of life is divided into the realms of form and matter (the spiritual and the physical). He also employed a form of logic to arrive at truth. Ramus led a movement which was critical of the Aristotelian method. In 1561 he was converted to Protestantism which involved Ramus’ application of his principles to the area of theology, especially in the area of “federal” or “covenant” theology.

Today, we would not agree with all the conclusions of Ramus’ philosophy, but one significant conclusion that Ramus and Olevianus came to was that you cannot reform theology without also reforming the whole philosophy of life and approach to truth. On this we would certainly agree. Since the Reformation brought the church back to the Bible as the sole source of all authority for faith and life, it was necessary that the Bible, not logical syllogisms, be seen as the source of truth. Ramus replaced the deductive logic of scholasticism with the inductive method of reasoning. He was still left with a constant and unacceptable method of dichotomizing (dividing everything into two parts). Ramism was a semi-Platonic system of thought which is unacceptable to the Reformed church today. The error was to use Aristotelian logic to refute Aristotle. Using that method which turned logic into rhetoric, one does not reach a Christian philosophy such as Cornelius Van Til has done in this century, but, at best, one can only become Platonic which is also non-Christian. More needed to be done in this area of study, but Ramus did make an important contribution in breaking with the scholasticism of the church of Rome. Ramus had four presuppositions:

The first is a twofold confidence in the ability of man to know, and in the “knowledge” of that which is known. The second is an assumption that the form of presentation is to be determined by the desire for communication rather than the nature of the subject {199} matter. The third is that the cause of a thing is more evident than a statement to its effect. And the fourth, a general and universal is more evident than a particular and single.[55]

Ramism had a great influence on Puritan federal (covenant) theology and also came to Heidelberg in 1569 after visits to Strassburg, Basel, and Zurich. At Heidelberg he made a public profession of Protestantism in the French Reformed Church at Heidelberg. Elector Frederick III was impressed with Ramus and was inclined to have him as a professor there. He appointed him to fill a vacated chair in the ethics department. Among the professors who accepted him was Olevianus. The university senate, predominately Aristotelian, however, refused to have Ramus join the faculty and immediately appointed another man, ignoring Frederick’s appointment. Their reason: Heidelberg University was Aristotelian and Ramus was Platonic. Frederick did appoint him to teach a course in the classics and later in Aristotelian philosophy, but much opposition against him was raised by both students and faculty. Zacharias Ursinus prevailed upon Frederick III to suspend any further lectures by Ramus.

Ramus returned to Paris. In August of 1572 he fell victim to the St. Bartholomew’s Massacre in which Roman Catholics deceived the Reformed with the promise of protection, when in fact, they ambushed and slaughtered over 2,000 Reformed Christians. Assassins entered his fifth floor room at the college. They pillaged his room, then despite his plea for mercy shot him in the head, dragged his body about the room, and then threw it out the window. Students then dragged him about the streets to the River Seine where a surgeon cut off his head and had his body thrown into the river. They retrieved the body, and literally hacked it to pieces. Such was the hatred for this reformer.[56]

The significance of Ramus is that Ursinus and Olevianus were on opposite sides of the Ramus controversy. Olevianus stressed the practical which was more consistent with Ramism; Ursinus stressed the analytic which was more consistent with scholasticism. Together these temperaments and outlooks resulted in the production of the Heidelberg.[57] We do not read that this difference in philosophical approach ever caused a real breach between Ursinus and Olevianus. There is a difference of opinion regarding how much of Ramus’ philosophy affected the work of Olevianus. It is doubtful that Olevianus ever fully embraced Ramism for it is not {200} evident in his work.[58] What is significant is that Olevianus recognized the error of Aristotelianism and saw the need for a more consistent biblical philosophy.


Any overview of the life of Olevianus without seeing his contribution to covenant theology would be incomplete. While Ursinus stressed covenant theology in his first, Larger Catechism, the covenant receded into the background in his later writings. In the case of Olevianus, his interest and formulation of a consistent covenant theology grew more prominent after the completion of the Heidelberg Catechism. We cannot say that Olevianus was the first to use covenantal theology, but it is clear that he was instrumental in its development. While in Zurich he became acquainted with the early covenant theology of Zwingli and Bullinger.[59]

For Olevianus, “the covenant of grace is the kingdom of Christ, or better: through the covenant of grace that the kingdom of Christ is brought about. In the covenant it takes shape.”[60] He says that the articles of the Apostles’ Creed are really a summary of the covenant of grace-the Father is the first party; the Son is the Mediator of the covenant, the Holy Spirit is the Applicator of the covenant, and the Church is the second party of the covenant. In his Fester Grund, a catechism he wrote after the writing of the Heidelberg Catechism, he beautifully states the basis for the covenant of grace in saying, “One’s salvation consists in union and communion with God.[61]

Olevianus saw the covenant of God as the covenant of works with Adam before the Fall and the covenant of grace after the fall which God secured in the crucifixion of Christ.[62] Olevianus stood between the early covenant theologians and the later 16th and 17th century covenant theologians. The school which Olevianus founded in Herborn saw the professors there expound and expand upon the covenant theology of Olevianus.

Zacharias Ursinus, who also studied the covenant extensively, was the first {201} Reformed theologian to speak of a covenant of nature (or “works” as it was referred to later) in addition to the covenant of grace. This covenant of nature was initiated by God with man at creation and remains with man. This is that part of God’s image in us which results in the perception of the divine will and gives the ability to determine right from wrong. This was a step toward a fuller formulation of the covenant and understanding of the nature of man. Calvin also speaks of the “sensus divinitatus” as the sense of the deity in man even after the fall (see Rom. 1:21). Ursinus saw the Christian not only as a member of the covenant but as a member of Christ Himself-a union with Christ in all things (see Heidelberg Catechism Question 43)

Olevianus was the first theologian to speak of a covenant with the devil (which man entered into at the Fall), a covenant which believers have with other creatures, and a pretemporal redemptive arrangement between the Father and the Son (which we sometimes today call the covenant of redemption).[63] He also spoke of the covenant of grace in terms of a mutual covenant instead of a unilateral covenant. By this he did not deny the fact that God unilaterally imposed the covenant on man, but that the essence of the covenant requires faithfulness and obedience on the part of man. This covenantal consistency is clearly seen in the unique position of the law of God in the Third Part of the catechism under “Thankfulness.” The covenant of grace does not abrogate moral requirements on the part of the believer, but the believer, who now has a different relationship to God, has a different relationship to the law-a joyful, thankful service rendered to a heavenly Father whose covenant not only requires us to be faithful, but by the fulfillment of redemption, has rendered us willing servants. Man, after the Fall, sees his sin and misery in the fact that he cannot fulfill the Law of Love-the basic requirement of God (Question 4 of the Heidelberg Catechism).

Olevianus spoke of a “general administration of the covenant promise to all within the visible church-elect and non-elect alike-and a special administration of the substance of this promise to the elect alone. The . . . outward administration of the covenant promise.” . . was given to all of Israel (ie. circumcision), but . . . “the administration of the substance of the covenant promise only to the elect” (i.e. spiritual circumcision). Therefore, “while the reprobate in the visible church partake of the visible signs of the covenant, they do not partake of its substance.”[64]

Both Ursinus and Olevianus were quick to point out that any obedience is due to the work of God’s Holy Spirit working in us (Phil. 2:12, 13). The mutual aspect of the covenant is seen in the administration of the Word and sacraments (see Heidelberg Catechism Question 82). Reconciliation between the King and subject {202} involves a mutual commitment. This commitment is by the grace of God through His Holy Spirit. It appears that when Olevianus interprets, “I will be your God, and you shall be my people,” he is taking the latter part of this covenant promise to be both a statement of promise by God and a required commitment on the part of his people. Here we see the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man brought into harmony. This was indicative of a move away from the supralapsarianism of that day toward sublapsarianism.

Olevianus and Ursinus together have given us a rich heritage in the precious doctrines of covenant theology, of which the Heidelberg Catechism is more the product than the instruction manual. Due to the work of these men the roots of covenant theology were established on the continent of Europe and later developed further by Scottish and British theologians (such as Robert Howie, 1565-1654; Robert Rollock, 1555-1598; William Ames, 1576-1633, and others).


From the quiet, contemplative theology of Ursinus and the eloquent, practical theology of Olevianus a new catechism was produced which literally shook the world. It brought comfort to some and made others very uncomfortable. Other creeds were harsher and more negative toward their enemies. The Heidelberg, while defining the essentials of the Reformed faith, did not set out to simply condemn the errors of others, but to deal with the personal sin of man, the way of salvation, and the purpose of God’s redemption-His glory. This is the genius and uniqueness of the Heidelberg. It did not set forth all the details of the covenant, but it put the covenant responsibilities into practice. It did not set forth in detail the doctrines of God’s sovereignty as the Canons of Dort did later, but it assumed these as the foundation of man’s salvation.

In many ways the Heidelberg Catechism grew out of theological controversy, as creeds generally do. And it was a creator of controversy by those who hated the Reformed faith. For those who saw in it a summary of biblical truths, it was a confession of comfort. For pastors in their churches and fathers in their homes it was an implement of tremendous value to instill the promises of the covenant in the hearts of students and children. It was a statement of faith useful for the church, but no less so for the homes. We might think that everyone would have embraced it with great affection, but storm clouds rapidly overshadowed it in its infancy.

The ink on the pages of the Heidelberg Catechism was barely dry when it became the center of controversy. Much of the abhorrence for the Heidelberg centered around its teaching on the sacraments. Those who opposed it saw this as the point of attack and missed seeing how the sacraments as set forth in the catechism were the natural outworking of the covenantal basis of the catechism. In {203} the Heidelberg Catechism the sacraments were set forth as the covenantal signs and seals which God has appointed for his covenant people. By directing their attack against the sacraments, opponents were causing the tail to wag the dog. Yet, the sacraments were the most visible points to attack. Had these assaults not been heroically thwarted by the grace and power of God, the Heidelberg might have been put to ashes-the heritage destroyed by the heretics.

If Frederick took credit for the production of the Heidelberg and was willing to call it “my catechism,” so too he would have to defend it with his life. And defend it he did. This was a critical time in the life of the Reformed Church, for in the Heidelberg, doctrines were defined and allowed to see the light of day. Opposition to Frederick and his catechism grew until in the year 1566 Frederick was summoned by Emperor Maximilian to defend the Heidelberg (and the Reformed faith) at the Diet of Augsburg.

Maximilian (inclined toward the High-Lutherans) wanted unity in the empire, but the Calvinists here, as in France and in the Netherlands, were stirring up controversy. They were branded as rebels. As the diet convened Maximilian appeared to take the side of the Catholics. Few sided with Frederick and the Reformed. Lutherans were not willing to unite with the Reformed for the cause of Protestantism in general. The Elector of Saxony, a Low-Lutheran, had the foresight to see that if the Lutherans and Reformed were not united, Catholicism would rise to power. The Protestants at the diet did not agree to isolate Frederick, so it would be up to the Catholics (with the help of High-Lutherans) to bring charges against him. This they did as they charged Frederick with casting out images, altars, and introducing Reformed liturgy.

Maximilian issued a decree against Frederick that if he would not cast out all the Reformed changes that were made in the regions of Neuhaus and Sinzheim, he would be deposed. With that deposition would go the Heidelberg Catechism! Frederick had less than two days to prepare his defense which would take place on May 14, 1566. Frederick protested against the procedures and against the fact that he was condemned before he had an opportunity to defend himself. In other Diets we have seen theologians such as Luther defend the faith. Here, a layman, a civil ruler, would be taking up the cause of Christ and the Reformed faith. His son, John Casimir, stood at his side carrying a Bible.

Taking a page from Luther’s defense at the Diet of Worms, Frederick finally appealed to the conscience which must be bound by the Word of God. In his defense he said,

So far as matters of a religious nature are involved, I confess freely that in those things which concern the conscience, I acknowledge as Master, only Him, who is Lord of lords and King of kings. For {204} the question here is not in regard to a cap of flesh, but it pertains to the soul and its salvation, for which I am indebted alone to my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and which, as His gift, I will sacredly preserve. Therefore I cannot grant your Imperial Majesty the right of standing in the place of my God and Savior.[65]

Frederick then began to defend the faith as set forth in the Heidelberg Catechism,

But that my catechism, word for word, is drawn, not from human, but from divine sources, the references that stand in the margin will show. For this reason also certain theologians have in vain wearied themselves in attacking it, since it has been shown them by the open Scriptures how baseless is their opposition. What I have elsewhere publicly declared to your Majesty in a full assembly of princes; namely, that if any one of whatever age, station or class he may be, even the humblest, can teach me something better from the Holy Scriptures, I will thank him from the bottom of my heart and be readily obedient to the divine truth.[66]

Frederick closed his defense with courage and commitment borne out by the words,

Should, contrary to my expectations, my defense and the Christian and reasonable conditions which I have proposed, not be regarded of any account, I shall comfort myself in this that my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ has promised to me and to all who believe that whatsoever we lose on earth for His name’s sake, we shall receive an hundred fold in the life to come.[67]

Silence fell on the assembly until his sole friend, Elector Augustus of Saxony, slapped him on the shoulder and exclaimed, “Fritz, you are more pious than all of us.” He was right.[68] Maximilian adjourned the assembly which was to meet again in six days to consider the decree he had made. At this meeting the Protestants held together, fearing that what might happen to Frederick might also be brought against them. Frederick did not agree with them on the matter of the ubiquity of Christ, but they were willing to overlook this for the sake of unity. They declared that Frederick was an adherent of the Augsburg Confession despite the one doctrine {205} on the Lord’s Supper that he objected to and therefore they would side with Frederick. On May 24, the diet was called together again by those who would not agree with Frederick’s exception. Now Frederick was called on to allow nothing else than what was taught in the Augsburg Confession to be preached. They deemed the teachings of Frederick to be more dangerous than Calvin’s. These teachings should cease, the teachers driven out and their books destroyed. Frederick refused to do this. On the matter of the Lord’s Supper, Frederick took his Bible, laid it on the table, and urged anyone present to teach him something better out of the Bible. No one dared.

Frederick left the council that day. Maximilian’s decree was overturned, but he was still determined to rid his realm of Calvinism. There was celebration in Heidelberg as Frederick returned and had retained his reign. The next day at a church service he grasped Olevianus’ hand and publicly admonished the whole congregation to demonstrate the same faithfulness that he had shown.

A final diet convened in September of that year exonerated Frederick. Not only was Frederick cleared of charges, but the Heidelberg Catechism was allowed to be used in Germany. Had Frederick failed, his catechism might well have been destroyed. It was a victory for Frederick, but more importantly a victory for the Reformed faith.

Frederick would likely be a forgotten man were it not for the Heidelberg Catechism which continues today as the fruit of Frederick, Ursinus, and Olevianus. Without question, the courage and abilities which God gave these men was responsible, more than any others, for the establishment of the Reformed Church in Germany. In God’s providence these men were able to learn and develop the doctrines of the Reformed faith from institutions and men of many countries, primarily Switzerland, France, and the Netherlands. Their catechism was returned {206} to these lands and many others in gratitude.


The Heidelberg Catechism, like few other books at that time, became an international catechism. It was first published in the German language and since 1563 it has been read by many thousands of people in scores of languages throughout the world. Our own efforts to provide the Heidelberg Catechism for Zaire may be the most recent-with translations in Swahili, Tschiluba, Kiluba, and Lingala. In the 17th Century the Dutch published a Greek version of the Heidelberg bound with the Canons of Dort and the Belgic Confession of Faith.

The Dutch were instrumental in bringing the Heidelberg Catechism to their trading partners. The Dutch East India and West India Companies had the Heidelberg translated into the languages of the countries they traded with in the hope of converting these people.[69] Their own coat-of-arms was placed on the title page of the catechism. When they established colonies, they often sent missionaries with the ships. In contrast, the East India Company of Great Britain was forbidden from introducing Christianity to their colonies for fear of exciting the hostility of the natives.[70]

Some additions and deletions appeared in the course of history. The first edition of the Heidelberg did not have Question 80, the second had most of what we now have, and the third edition added the phrase which said that the Mass was an “accursed idolatry” The Swiss added to the 27th question a sentence which said that, “God is not the author of sin.”[71] In Hungary, Empress Maria Theresa forbade the use of the Heidelberg. Her son, however, allowed the use of an altered edition which removed all references to the Roman Catholic Church.[72]

King Frederick William I of Prussia stated in his 1717 regulations, “that in all the evangelical churches and schools of my dominion there shall be used and taught no other catechism than the Heidelberg Catechism, to which I myself hold allegiance.”[73] Henry Bullinger, the successor of Zwingli at Zurich, said, “I am confident that no better catechism has made its appearance. God’s name be praised {207} for it. May He grant it abundant success.”[74] We can all join in the sentiments of Henry Alting, Professor at Heidelberg and Groningen (d. 1644) that, “the Heidelberg Catechism is at the same time milk for babes and strong meat for adults.”[75]

Various shorter versions of the catechism also appeared-the first in German by Count John Casimir (son of Frederick III)[76] in 1585, then a short version was produced by the Synod of Dort entitled, “A Compendium of the Christian Religion.” Various other short versions were produced through the years. Some, as early as 1597, were set to poetry in various languages. And as mentioned earlier, some editions included the teachings of each Lord’s Days set to music. Many versions of the Heidelberg Catechism are spotted with the blood of martyrs-Reformed Christians who were shamefully martyred for the cause of the faith, of which the Heidelberg Catechism was a vital part.[77]

There is probably no other Reformed Church existent today in which the Heidelberg Catechism plays such a central role in the instruction of the covenant youth as in our beloved Reformed Church in the United States. After 250 years here in the United States, and for years before that, we continue to utilize it in very much the same way as the families and churches of our forefathers. May this never change for the sake of our youth and the glory of our Lord from whom we draw this everlasting comfort for body and soul.


We should understand the unique character of the Heidelberg Catechism as a “creed-catechism.” There were great Reformed creeds and many good catechisms to teach the faith. The creeds were statements of doctrine and the catechisms were used only for catechizing. But it was not until the Heidelberg that a catechism became a creed and a creed became a catechism. Frederick was very cautious in endorsing the Heidelberg, since only the Augsburg Confession was legal in Germany. The Heidelberg was carefully written to instruct the youth, but it was also written to be the creed of the Reformed Church in Germany. Children recited it in the schools, and ministers would preach catechetical sermons from it. {208}

In the turmoil of the history of the Reformed Church in the United States in the 1930s, the stubborn refusal to give up the Reformed faith and the Heidelberg Catechism attests to the powerful influence that the Heidelberg has had upon us as a denomination. The proposed merger of the RCUS with the Evangelical Church of North America placed the Heidelberg on the same par as Luther’s Catechism-a compromise that would surely have enraged our forefathers from Heidelberg! Those committed to a Reformed position would have been allowed to choose the Heidelberg, others could have followed Luther’s, and for the undecided, both! What a bargain!-the faith for a bowl of pottage. The Reformed get to keep the Heidelberg and still end up with the benefits of this huge denomination. Those committed to the Reformed faith knew that this compromise was unholy, and also that the use of the Heidelberg would soon end. And end it did in the resulting united churches. It is difficult to say whether the people held on to the Heidelberg, or whether the Heidelberg held on to them. Either way, through a firm commitment to the biblical faith as set forth in the Heidelberg, God was pleased to preserve both the Heidelberg as a confession and, more importantly, His church. This steadfastness which God wrought is part of our Heidelberg heritage. There will certainly be challenges in days to come. Be prepared.

In recent days the RCUS has again officially adopted the Belgic Confession of Faith and the Canons of Dort. These were the creeds of the RCUS at its beginnings in the United States. It is fitting that on this anniversary of the 250th Synod we should be able to lay claim to all three again. It was feared by some that having three creeds would undermine the importance and the use of the Heidelberg. If it falls into obscurity, it is not the fault of other creeds, but of those who are willing to neglect them all. The Synod of Dort was really the first to bind these three creeds together as necessary and complementary confessions of the Reformed Churches.[78] The teachings of the Heidelberg are beautifully supplemented and “fleshed out” by these other expressions of biblical teachings. The Heidelberg Catechism will always be the unique teaching tool of these three. The Heidelberg is very much at home with what is sometimes referred to as the Three Forms of Unity.

This is the remarkable nature of the Heidelberg. It is loved dearly by those who love the faith. It is hated intensely by those who deny the faith. Yet the Heidelberg, and the true faith it expresses, still stand and cannot be ignored. Its teachings are fundamental. Due to its firm biblical foundation, it has proven itself to be not only an enduring creed, but a rich blessing for many generations. It is not {209} simply a children’s instruction book.

It’s enduring quality is seen in the picture of children at their parents knee struggling to memorize the first question, to the catechumen coming to catechism class with a Heidelberg stuffed in the back pocket of his jeans, to the funeral service where it is often quoted to provide a special sort of comfort and warmth for the families of those who have carried these words of comfort in their hearts throughout their lives.

Ursinus perhaps best describes the design of the catechism in his closing words of the introduction to his Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism:

The design of the doctrine of the catechism is our comfort and salvation. Our salvation consists in the enjoyment of the highest good. Our comfort comprises the assurance and confident expectation of the full and perfect enjoyment of this highest good, in the life to come, with a beginning and foretaste of it already in this life. This highest good is that which makes all those truly blessed who are in the enjoyment of it, whilst those who have it not are miserable and wretched. What this only comfort is, to which it is the design of this catechism to lead us, will be explained in the first question . . . .[79]

What is your only comfort in life and in death?

That I, with body and soul, both in life and in death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ, who with his precious blood has fully satisfied for all my sins, and redeemed me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, that all things must work together for my salvation. Wherefore, by His Holy Spirit, he also assures me of eternal life, and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live unto him.


Countless people through the years have carried on the Heidelberg tradition. That is well, but will we and our children continue to carry on the Heidelberg’s truths? Will we continue to commit it to our heads and our hearts? Will we faithfully teach our covenant children to walk in the doctrines it so clearly expounds? Would we be willing, as many before us, to put our life on the line to cling {210} to the Christian faith as set forth in the Heidelberg? The use of the Heidelberg is very much a part of our past, but will we take that heritage with us into the future? To recount the rich heritage of our forefathers is an exercise in futility and no more than “name-dropping” unless we still walk in those shoes and are committed to instill these truths in the hearts and minds of the generations to come. Just to preserve and honor a heritage as a thing of the past is to make an idolatrous icon of it. To persevere the faith expressed in our Heidelberg heritage will be a blessing to us and to our covenant children. The Heidelberg is not just a book to memorize, but to use so that the Scriptures might be opened to us in a most beautiful and comforting way.

The Heidelberg Heritage is not something we should speak of merely in the past tense. We are the ones who, with others of like precious faith, must carry this heritage into the future. We appear to pale in comparison to some of the men instrumental in producing the Heidelberg, yet we should not view ourselves as under them. As Dr. Cornelius Van Til used to teach, each generation must stand on the shoulders of those preceding to further the cause of Christ and His Kingdom.

As a Reformed Church, celebrating our 250th Synod by the grace of God, the Heidelberg is a vital part of our heritage. It can only be our fervent and continued prayer that the Heidelberg Catechism will always be “our beloved Heidelberg”-an expression of our only comfort-for generations to come.

Praise God for our Heidelberg heritage! {211}


Bierma, Lyle Dean, The Covenant Theology of Casper Olevian. Ann Arbor: UMI Dissertation Services, 1995.

Buehrer, Emil, The Reformation. Green Bay: Reliance Publishing Company, 1945.

Calvin, John, Institutes of the Christian Religion. McNeill, John T., Ed., Transl. and Indexed by Ford Lewis Battles. The Library of Christian Classics Vol. XX. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960.

Catechismus, Oder Kurtzer Unterricht Christlicher Lehr. Schaffhausen: Johan Ulrich Ziegler, 1789.

Empie, Paul C. and McCord, James I., Marburg Revisited. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1966.

Faulenback, Dr. H., Meyer, Dr. D., Mohr, Dr. R., editors, Casper Olevian (1536 bis 1587). Kšln: Rheinland-Verlag-GmbH, 1989.

Fuhrmann, Paul T., Transl. and Ed., Instruction in Faith (1537) by John Calvin. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992.

Godfrey, Robert and Boyd, Jesse L. III, editors, Through Christ’s Word. Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1985.

Good, James I., The Heidelberg Catechism in its Newest Light. Philadelphia: Publication and Sunday School Board of the Reformed Church in the United States, 1914.

Harbaugh, Rev. Henry, The Fathers of the German Reformed Church in Europe and America, Vol. I. Lancaster: Sprenger and Westhaeffer, 1857.

Heyns, W., Handboek voor de Catechetiek. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans-Sevensma Co. Date unknown.

Kindler, F. P., Der Heidelberger Catechismus. Erlangen: 1846.

Schaff David S. DD., Our Fathers Faith and Ours. New York: G. P Putnam’s Sons, 1928. Schaff Philip, The Creeds of Christendom, Vol. III. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1882.

Spitz, Lewis W, Ed., The Protestant Reformation. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1966.

StŠhelin, Christoph, Catechetischer Haus-Schatz, Oder ErklŠrung des Heidelbergischen Catechismi. Zurich: F. Hanke, 1724.

The Encyclopedia of Christianity, Vol. III. Marshallton, DE: The National Foundation for Christian Education, 1972.

The Heidelberg Catechism. Publications Committee, RCUS. Freeman, SD: Pine Hill Press, 1986. {212}

Thelemann, Otto, An Aid to the Heidelberg Catechism. Trans. by Rev. M. Peters, Grand Rapids: Douma Publications, 1959.

Ursinus, Zacharias, The Commentary of Dr. Zacharias Ursinus on the Heidelberg Catechism . Trans. by Rev. G. W Williard, Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1956.

Van Halsema, Thea, Three Men Came to Heidelberg. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1963.

Zanchius, Jerome, The Absolute Doctrine of Predestination. Trans. by Augustus Toplady. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1977.


[1] David Schaff, Our Fathers Faith And Ours: A Comparison Between Protestantism and Romanism, (New York, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1928) p. 20.

[2] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, IV. xix. 13.

[3] The first Protestant Catechism (which inclined to the Reformed faith), according to August Lang (Lutheran historian) was a Dialogue-book by Rev. John Bader, of Landau, 1526. In 1527 a catechism appeared in St. Gall and was used until the Heidelberg replaced it in 1615. Luther’s Larger and Shorter Catechism was published in 1529.

[4] See John Calvin, Instruction in Faith (1537), Paul T. Fuhrmann, Trans. & Ed., (Louisville, Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992).

[5] Some, such as J. I. Good, refer to this as the “Socratic” method. While this method resembles the Socratic method, it differed greatly from the premise of Socrates (an unbeliever) which held that all men had an inherent or innate knowledge which the instructor was to draw out of the student by a series of questions. In contrast to this, the catechetical method assumes just the reverse-that man’s knowledge is totally corrupted. A proper catechism, therefore, provides not only the question but also the correct answer.

[6] Examples of these are: Catechismus, oder Kurtzer Unterricht Chrislicher Lehr, Schaffhausen, (Gedruckt, bei Johann Ulrich Ziegler, 1789); Christoph Stähelin, Catechetischer Haus-Schatz, oder Erklärung des Heidelbergischen Catechismi, (Zurich, bei F. Hanke, 1724); F. P. Kindler, Der Heidelberger Catechismus, (Erlangen, 1846).

[7] Zacharias Ursinus, Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, (Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1956) pp. 14-16.

[8] James I. Good, The Heidelberg Catechism In Its Newest Light, (Philadelphia, Publication and Sunday School Board of the Reformed Church in the United States, 1914), pp. 124-132.

[9] This ruling was tremendously significant in that it permanently shattered both the political unity of Germany and the medieval unity of Christendom. It remained the law of the land until the end of the Thirty Years War and the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. It was not until the end of the Thirty Years War that the Reformed Church was given official status in Germany.

[10] The 1530 edition of the Augsburg Confession (a Lutheran document) allowed for the physical presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. A 1531 edition had this particular reference removed. The Protestant princes signed this “Altered Augsburg Confession.” Frederick III signed this Altered Augsburg Confession which was generally accepted by the Low-Lutherans. If the Reformed church was to have any freedom to worship they were forced to agree with the Augsburg Confession. The Altered Confession was broad enough to allow the Reformed to sign it until the time when the Heidelberg was officially recognized in Germany in 1566.

[11] James I. Good, loc. cit.

[12] Thea B. Van Halsema, Three Men Came To Heidelberg and Glorious Heretic, (Grand Rapids, Baker Book House, 1963), p. 69.

[13] James I. Good, op. cit., p. 144.

[14] op. cit., p. 146.

[15] Ibid., p. 147.

[16] See Jerome Zanchius, The Absolute Doctrine of Predestination, Translated by Augustus M. Toplady, (Grand Rapids, Baker Book House, 1977).

[17] Ibid., p. 159. See footnote 205 also. Melanchthon was the primary author of the Augsburg Confession of 1530. More significantly, he authored the Altered Augsburg Confession of 1540 (Confessio Augustana Variata). In this confession there was enough latitude concerning the physical presence of Christ to satisfy the Low-Lutherans, and the Reformed who wished to find some area of agreement with their Lutheran counterparts. The High-Lutherans repudiated this Altered Ausburg Confession. Elector Frederick III signed this confession, but refused the earlier versions. John Calvin also subscribed to Melanchthon’s Altered Confession. While Melanchthon was not totally embraced by the Reformed, he and his followers had also lost respect and influence in the Lutheran Church which was gradually becoming solidified in High-Lutheran doctrine.

[18] John T. McNeill, The History and Character of Calvinism (NY: Oxford University Press, 1962) p. 197.

[19] Thomas Erastus, a Zwinglian and although helpful in this area of the Lord’s Supper, later became an opponent to Olevianus. He opposed Olevianus’ establishment of a presbyterian government and church discipline. Erastus held that the state has the right to intervene and overrule in church affairs. He denied that the church had the power to excommunicate-only the state had that power. He served both on the Heidelberg faculty and as Elector Frederick’s personal physician. He eventually was forced to leave Heidelberg. His teaching (much like Richard Hooker’s in England) became known as Erastianism.

[20] Emil Buehrer, The Reformation, (Green Bay, Reliance Publishing Company, 1945) p. 92.

[21] Ibid., p. 168.

[22] Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, Vol. III, (New York, Harper & Brothers, 1882), p. 336. This 80th Question was designed by Frederick to be a counter to the Council of Trent which adjourned Dec. 4, 1563. This question caused a temporary prohibition of the catechism in the German Empire.

[23] W. Heyns, Handboek voor de Catechetiek, (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans-Sevensma Co.) p. 53.

[24] Henry Harbaugh, The Fathers of the German Reformed Church in Europe and America, Vol. I, (Lancaster, Sprenger & Westhaefer, 1857), pp. 240-241.

[25] The Marburg Colloquy between Luther and Zwingli having failed, Martin Bucer invited Luther to meet in Wittenberg in 1536 to seek some union. The resulting document, the Wittenberg Concord, is illustrative of Melanchthon’s position on the Lord’s Supper. In drafting this Concord, Melanchthon wrote, that “with the bread and wine the body and blood of Christ are truly and substantially present, offered, and received.” Paul C. Empie and James I. McCord, Marburg Revisited (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1966) p. 59.

[26] Bonnet, Jules, Letters of John Calvin, Vol. I, (Edinburgh: Thomas Constable and Co., 1855) p. 349. Jules Bonnet cites the following statement from a letter of Calvin to Melanchthon, “Would that the union between all Christ’s Churches upon earth were such, that the angels in heaven might join their song of praise!” Melanchthon’s Loci Communes, first published in 1521, was a systematic treatment of Luther’s theology. In this work Melanchthon treated the doctrines of free will, the Law-Gospel dichotomy, and justification by grace through faith. He strongly repudiated scholasticism.

[27] Ibid., p. 412.

[28] J. D. Douglas, ed., The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1974) Carl S. Meyer states in an article on Melanchthon, “Recent scholarship has asserted Melanchthon’s integrity as a Lutheran theologian against those who fault him for deviations.” p. 647.

[29] See James I. Good, op. cit, p. 45 where he concludes that Ursinus gave up Melanchthonianism for the Reformed faith after he went to Zurich.

[30] James I. Good, op. cit., p. 245.

[31] Ibid., p. 87.

[32] Ibid., p. 41. There were scores of catechisms, filling several thousand pages, published before 1563 and unto the end of the sixteenth century in Germany and Switzerland.

[33] Ibid., p. 42. In addition to the four groups listed, there was also the Brenz catechism of the Palatinate which Otto Henry had incorporated into the Church Order. It has some phrases similar to the Heidelberg, but nearly the entire catechism deals with the sacraments. It would be considered to be Low Lutheran.

[34] Ibid., p. 45.

[35] Lyle Dean Bierma, The Covenant Theology of Casper Olevian, Doctoral Dissertation for Duke University (Ann Arbor, University Microfilms International, 1980), p. 7.

[36] Ibid., p. 47.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Zacharias Ursinus, The Commentary of Dr. Zacharias Ursinus on the Heidelberg Catechism, translated by the Rev. G. W. Williard, (Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1956), p. 293. Fully eleven pages are given to thoroughly setting forth the matter of predestination and election.

[39] Ibid., p. 97. Here we read Ursinus’ definition of the Covenant as “a mutual promise and agreement between God and men, in which God gives assurance to men that he will be merciful to them, remit their sins, grant unto them a new righteousness, the Holy Spirit, and eternal life by and for the sake of his son, our Mediator. And, on the other side, men bind themselves to God in this covenant that they will exercise repentance and faith, or that they will receive with a true faith this great benefit which God offers, and render such obedience as will be acceptable unto him. This mutual engagement between God and man is confirmed by those outward signs which we call sacraments. . . .”

[40] Henry Harbaugh, op. cit., pp. 190-218.

[41] Ibid., p. 198.

[42] James I. Good, op. cit., p. 65.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Bierma, op. cit., p. 3.

[45] James I. Good, op. cit. p. 235.

[46] Lyle Dean Bierma, op. cit. p. 5. cf. also James I. Good, op. cit., pp 204 ff. for a detailed account of this ministry of Olevianus in Treves.

[47] James I. Good, op. cit., p. 241.

[48] It was Olevianus’ desire to have his friend Peter Martyr fill his seat, but when he turned down this request, it was Zacharias Ursinus who filled the vacancy left by Olevianus. Olevianus and Ursinus became close friends and co-workers as a result.

[49] Lyle Dean Bierma, op. cit., p. 6.

[50] The earliest treatise on the subject of the covenant was that of Henry Bullinger, A Brief Exposition of the One and Eternal Testament or Covenant of God which was written in 1534. This predates Olevianus’ writings on this subject by nearly 30 years. Yet, Olevianus was a student of Bullinger for some time before writing on the subject himself. John Murray says that “Bullinger mapped out the lines along which the thinking of covenant theologians proceeded.” (J. Murray, Encyclopedia of Christianity Vol. III [Marshallton, DE: The National Foundation for Christian Education, 1972] p. 204.) For a translation of Bullinger’s Treatise, see Charles S. McCoy and J. Wayne Baker, Fountainhead of Federalism: Heinrich Bullinger and the Covenantal Tradition (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991) pp. 99-139.

[51] The teaching of the key of Christian discipline in Question 85 of the Heidelberg Catechism was a courageous move in the Palatinate. It was a direct challenge to the prevailing position that the state alone had this power. Were it not for the fact that Frederick III, a part of the civil establishment, commissioned the writing of the catechism, the Heidelberg would have met with immediate opposition if not banishment by the state. Olevianus, who learned much concerning Christian discipline from Calvin, must be credited for stressing this matter both in the catechism and in the Palatinate.

[52] Henry Harbaugh, op. cit., pp. 257-258.

[53] Ibid., p. 259.

[54] Ibid., p. 260.

[55] W. Robert Godfrey, Jesse L. Boyd III, ed., Through Christ’s Word, “Federal Theology” by W. Wilson Benton Jr. (Phillipsburg, NJ, Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company) 1985, p. 196.

[56] James I. Good, op. cit., pp. 112-113.

[57] James Good notes that there was one dispute regarding Question 35, but “God’s grace prevented it.” (op. cit., p. 115).

[58] Lyle Dean Bierma, op. cit., pp. 230-238, has a lengthy discussion on Ramus. His conclusion is that Olevianus never adopted the philosophy or theology of Ramus. Olevianus entered the debate between Ramus’ empirical theology and Beza’s rationalism in order to neutralize Beza’s predestinarianism with the covenant idea of Calvin. This placed Olevianus in opposition to Ursinus who “remained a defender of the Aristotelian-Reformed orthodoxy.”

[59] Lyle Dean Bierma, op. cit., p. 215, and Dr. H. Faulenbach, Dr. D. Meyer, Dr. R. Mohr, ed., Casper Olevian (1536 bis 1587), Köln, Rheinland-Verlag-GmbH, 1989), pp. 85-86.

[60] Dr. H. Faulenbach, Dr. D. Meyer, Dr. R. Mohr, ed., op. cit., p. 87. (translation mine)

[61] Lyle Dean Bierma, op. cit., p. 211 and p. 93. In two of Olevianus’ greatest works, the Expositio and De Substantia, the covenant is the major theme, as it was in the majority of Olevianus’ writings.

[62] Ibid., p. 86.

[63] Lyle Dean Bierma, op. cit., p. 227.

[64] Bierma, op. cit., pp. 126-126.

[65] James I. Good, op. cit., p.

[66] Ibid.

[67] Ibid.

[68] Frederick III is often referred to as “Frederick the Pious” since that remark.

[69] This mission enterprise was a requirement of their charter from the Dutch government.

[70] Ibid., p. 11.

[71] Ibid., p. 17.

[72] Ibid., p. 17. Question 30 was largely omitted; Question 80 had the last sentence removed. In 1891 the complete version was again published and used in Hungary.

[73] Otto Thelemann, An Aid to the Heidelberg Catechism, (Grand Rapids, Douma Publications, 1959) p. xx.

[74] Ibid.

[75] Ibid., p. xxi. We might be surprised to find B. B. Warfield among the critics of the Heidelberg. He charged in the Princeton Review, 1908 p. 565, that the Heidelberg is hedonistic and contains a spiritual utilitarianism because it asks such questions as, “What is my comfort, benefit, profit, etc.” This, he said would attract a child to religion by selfish ideas of enjoyment. (J. I. Good, op. cit., p. 296.)

[76] John was responsible for bringing the Reformed faith back to the Palatinate after a brief lapse into Lutheranism after the death of his father, Frederick III.

[77] Ibid., pp. 19, 20. James I. Good rightly notes that at the center of the Heidelberg history written in blood is the “blood of Christ. “

[78] Otto Thelemann op. cit., p. xx, quotes from the Synod of Dort (1618), “That the doctrine contained in the Palatinate Catechism is in accordance with the Word of God, and that it contains nothing which on the ground of dissonance with the Word of God needs to be altered or amended, and that it is also an exceedingly correct hand-book of sound Christian doctrine, adapted with special skill not only to the capacity of youths, but also of adults. “

[79] Zacharias Ursinus, op. cit., p. 16.

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