John R. Muether
When Frederick III (or Frederick the Pious), elector of the Holy Roman Empire from the Palatinate, came to Reformed convictions in 1561, he removed Lutheran leaders from the capital city, Heidelberg, and replaced them with Calvinistic pastors and professors, including Caspar Olevianus and Zacharias Ursinus. The two were traditionally credited with co-authoring the Heidelberg Catechism (when they were twenty-six and twenty-eight years old, respectively), although the consensus of recent scholarship is that the older Ursinus was the primary author and Olevianus played a secondary role.
The “triple knowledge” of “guilt-grace-gratitude” divides the catechism into three sections of different lengths. The first section outlines the predicament of human misery: “We are totally unable to do any good and inclined toward all evil,” (Q. 8). The longest section on grace follows, describing redemption and its benefits by following the structure of the Apostles’ Creed. Gratitude provides instruction on thanking God for his deliverance. The third use of the law is affirmed in the placing of the Decalogue (along with the Lord’s Prayer) in this third section, as guides for the Christian’s life of gratitude.
The Heidelberg throughout exhibits an experiential, autobiographical character, with questions phrased in the second person (Q. 1, “What is your only comfort in life and in death?”) and answers in the first person (A. 1, “That I am not my own, but belong, body and soul, in life and in death, to my faithful savior Jesus Christ . . .”). Like the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg was designed as a statement of faith particularly under conditions of persecution. Its kinder, gentler Calvinism largely avoided the polemics of its age. One notable exception was question 80, inserted at Frederick’s instance, which dismissed the Roman Catholic mass as a “condemnable idolatry.”
Within a year the Heidelberg Catechism was translated into Dutch and Latin, and soon after in French and English. Although Lutheranism was restored in the Palatinate by Frederick’s son and successor, Lewis, in 1576, the Synod of Dort established the catechism as a confessional symbol of the Reformed Church in the Netherlands in 1619, and it came to North America through Dutch Reformed and German Reformed immigration. After the Bible, Pilgrim’s Progress, and the Imitation of Christ, it is considered the most widely circulated book in the world. Ursinus’s lectures on the catechism, edited by his successor, David Pareus, became a standard text in Reformed theology for centuries.
The catechism not only instructed the young, but also found a role in Reformed pulpits. To facilitate its use in catechetical preaching, the catechism’s 129 questions and answers were divided into fifty-two “Lord’s Days,” allowing it to be covered within one year, typically in the preaching at a congregation’s second Sunday service.
Philip Schaff said of the Heidelberg, “It combines Calvin’s strength and depth without his severity, Melanchthon’s cordiality and warmth without his indecision, and Zwingli’s simplicity and clearness without his cool sobriety.”
Q. What do you believe when you say: “I believe in God the Father, almighty, maker of heaven and earth?
A. That the eternal Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
who out of nothing created heaven and earth
and everything in them,
who still upholds and rules them
by his eternal counsel and providence,
is my God and Father
because of Christ his Son.
I trust him so much that I do not doubt
he will provide
whatever I need
for body and soul,
and he will turn to my good
whatever adversity he sends me
in this sad world.
He is able to do this because he is almighty God;
he desires to do this because he is a faithful Father.
Sixty-Seven Articles of Ulrich Zwingli (1523)
Tetrapolitan Confession (1530)
First Helvetic Confession (1536)
French Confession of Faith (1559)
Scots Confession (1560)
Belgic Confession of Faith (1561)
Heidelberg Catechism (1563)
Second Helvetic Confession (1566)
Canons of the Synod of Dordt (1619)
Westminster Confession & Catechisms (1643)
 Quoted in W. Robert Godfrey, Reformed Sketches: Insights into Luther, Calvin, and the Confession (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2003), 122.
John R. Muether serves as a ruling elder at Reformation Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Oviedo, Florida, dean of libraries at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida, and historian of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Ordained Servant Online, August–September 2017.