John R. Muether
In the early years of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, a few Dutch-Americans with backgrounds in the Christian Reformed Church strongly (even excessively, some would say) shaped the Reformed identity of the young church. Among them were Westminster Seminary professors Ned Stonehouse, R. B. Kuiper, and Cornelius Van Til.
But as influential as those men may have been, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church seems to have paid little attention to the Heidelberg Catechism during its early decades. Reasons for this relative neglect are not hard to imagine. The OPC’s Committee on Christian Education was particularly eager to commend the Shorter Catechism to the young church, and a series on it by John Skilton ran in the Presbyterian Guardian.
Furthermore, it did not help that one voice of admiration for the Heidelberg Catechism was that of Karl Barth. When the 400th anniversary of the catechism was observed in 1963, Barth and other commentators lauded it especially for what it did not contain. Unlike other Reformation catechisms and confessions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Heidelberg Catechism lacked a “hardened predestinarian theology” (especially in omitting overt reference to the doctrine of reprobation). And its treatment of the Sabbath was free, admirers claimed, from the dour sabbatarianism of the Westminster Standards. This sixteenth-century catechism was so well in tune with modern sensibilities that it was added to the Book of Confessions that the Northern (mainline) Presbyterian Church created in 1967, even as that denomination demoted the Westminster Larger Catechism from confessional status.
No doubt the OPC’s Dutch Reformed connections yielded some exposure to the Heidelberg Catechism. When it came up in the General Assembly minutes, it was often in the context of assessing the OPC’s relation to the CRC, with whom it conducted conversations about uniting. But, as Darryl Hart recently observed, the Heidelberg Catechism seemed to be associated in America more with the German Reformed (the Reformed Church in the United States) than the Dutch Reformed. It was the only confessional standard for the original RCUS, a once-robust Reformed denomination that gradually assimilated into the very liberal United Church of Christ during the course of the twentieth century.
But not all of the RCUS merged into the Protestant mainline. A remnant, known for a time as the Eureka Classis, remained separate, and when some of their ministerial candidates came to study at Westminster Seminary, Van Til accommodated their desire to study the Heidelberg Catechism by adding an elective course on it. Characteristically, Van Til used this as an occasion to challenge Barth’s take on the catechism. In a syllabus that he wrote for the class, The Triumph of Grace (1958), Van Til noted that the ecumenical tone of the catechism did not come at the expense of its Reformed character. Rather, it was joining the Protestant protest against all who “fail to proclaim the triumph of the grace of God in Christ.” That would include the corruptions of Rome, the errors of Arminianism, and the unbelief of modernism. If this rhetoric clashed with the warm, irenic spirit that others identified with the catechism, then Van Til was closer to the spirit of the Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism (written by the catechism’s author, Zacharius Ursinus) than many of the mid-twentieth-century admirers of the catechism.
Van Til’s class likely had the spillover effect of heightening the visibility of the Heidelberg Catechism here and there in the OPC. But an even greater breakthrough came several decades later, when G. I. Williamson published his Heidelberg Catechism: A Study Guide (P&R, 1993). Exposed to the Heidelberg Catechism during his labors with the Reformed Churches in New Zealand, Williamson patterned his book after his popular studies on the Westminster Confession and Shorter Catechism. As Greg Reynolds noted, the result was a testimony to Williamson’s “Reformed ecumenical instincts,” and it introduced the Heidelberg Catechism into many adult Sunday school classes in the OPC.
This brief survey suggests that the Heidelberg Catechism found its way into the OPC from its exposure to a variety of ecclesiastical influences, beyond the CRC, including contacts with the RCUS and the RCNZ. An interesting development took place in the RCUS in the 1980s, when it elevated the Belgic Confession and the Canons of Dort to confessional status alongside the Heidelberg Catechism, together forming the “Three Forms of Unity.” The unusual step of adding to confessional standards suggested not only the compatibility of these documents but also the insufficiency of the Heidelberg Catechism alone to function as a subordinate standard.
If there is such safety in numbers, should the OPC adopt the Heidelberg Catechism as well as the Westminster Standards? This question has been considered by the General Assembly on at least two occasions. In 1959, the Presbytery of the Dakotas overtured the General Assembly to “study the desirability of adding the Heidelberg Catechism to the doctrinal standards of the OPC in the interest of Reformed ecumenicity.” The General Assembly’s response was simply to “commend to the ministers and sessions of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church for study the Three Forms of Unity” in light of “the fraternal relations which the Orthodox Presbyterian Church sustains to various Reformed churches.”
A more ambitious overture came from the Presbytery of Northern California to the 58th General Assembly in 1991, requesting the General Assembly to add the Three Forms of Unity to the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms, creating, in effect, six forms of unity as the OPC’s subordinate standards. The grounds for the overture were strongly ecumenical and Reformed: “The Three Forms of Unity harmonize well with, and complement, our present subordinate standards: Many of the churches with whom we have ecumenical relations have the Three Forms of Unity as their doctrinal standards. Our adoption of these standards may further the cause of Biblical unity.”
The committee assigned to respond to the overture underscored its appreciation for the Three Forms of Unity as “a faithful—and therefore quite acceptable—expression of the Reformed Faith.” In their essential teaching, there was no conflict between these two sets of symbols. Yet the committee counseled against adopting the overture, in part because of the burden it would place on church officers to become familiar with a large body of new material. “As it is now,” it counseled, “we believe the Larger Catechism is neglected because it is so extensive.” Because the overture might actually diminish the OPC’s familiarity with its confessions, it was denied.
The committee also reminded the General Assembly that the Reformed tradition had always embraced “unity in diversity.” Various confessions were capable of giving expression to the Reformed tradition. This is a point worth underscoring this year, which is the 450th anniversary of the Heidelberg Catechism. This anniversary provides another occasion to remember the importance of creeds and catechisms that reinforce our confidence in the Christian faith.
Tragically, this is a lesson that the Christian Reformed Church (with whom the OPC severed fraternal relations in 1997) seems to have forgotten. In his book, Calvinism in the Las Vegas Airport, Richard Mouw expresses skepticism about the value of Reformed confessions. Much of their teaching consists of “shelf doctrines” (i.e., doctrines beset with “harsh language” and “rhetorical excess,” which should be stored away and used only occasionally). However, Mouw acquits the Heidelberg Catechism of these charges, because it “travels well” and continues to serve the contemporary church effectively.
But a more recent Christian Reformed author is unwilling even to make that concession regarding the Heidelberg Catechism. In his book, Not Sure: A Pastor’s Journey from Faith to Doubt (2011), John Suk, former editor of the Banner, writes: “How dare we use what we know to be fallible theories about God coercively, when they are not confessions anymore but goads to enforce unity and communal compliance?” In order to survive, he argues, denominations must “water down” their distinctive teaching; the “explosive and divisive” character of all confessions from the past must not prescribe the faith and practice of the church today.
Some Dutch Reformed in America seem determined to repeat the story of the German Reformed: in the interest of broadening their identity, confessional burdens must be lifted. For them, the Heidelberg Catechism can be celebrated, but only as it resonates with generic Protestantism. But the OPC’s exposure to the Heidelberg Catechism suggests a different reason to celebrate. The ecumenical impulse, properly conceived, does not inhibit confessional identity, and the OPC’s interchurch relationships have served to deepen the church’s Reformed sensibilities.
The author is the historian of the OPC and serves as professor of church history and library director at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Fla. New Horizons, October 2013.