Is Catechism preaching outdated?
When elector Frederick III commissioned the composition of a new catechism to transform the Palatinate into a Melanchthon-Reformed territory he made his intentions public. He wanted the catechism to serve as an educational tool for teaching youth and a unifying confession for the factious Protestantism of his day. Moreover, he wanted this catechism to be a preaching guide for the common people of the church, an idea facilitated by its early division into 52 sections for the 52 Sundays in a year. Elector Frederick made those objectives plain in his preface to the Heidelberg Catechism which he sent to the publisher on January 19, 1563.
Even prior to the fulfillment of Elector Frederick's wishes, the idea of creedal preaching had been entertained and, in places, practiced. It's well-known, for example, that Martin Luther preached through the Apostles' Creed, as did Ambrose and others before him. So if the case for catechism or creedal preaching can be made on the basis of historical precedence, the evidence in its favor is overwhelming.
But if we accept, for the sake of argument, that catechetical preaching is acceptable, is the preaching of the Heidelberg Catechism in particular still welcome? I imagine there might be some who embrace the idea of preaching ecclesiastically adopted doctrinal standards, but who resist this in the case of a document almost 450 years old.
The deficiencies of preaching the Catechism
About 25 years prior to the publication of the Heidelberger, the territory of the Palatinate had begun to shift in its religious commitments from Roman Catholicism to Lutheranism. The Lutheran Elector Frederick wanted to critique certain Lutheran ideas and unite other Protestant factions without violating the terms of the Peace of Augsburg or straying outside the bounds of the Augsburg Confession. The Heidelberg Catechism is the product of these ambitions.
All of this illustrates to what extent the content of the catechism is circumscribed by historical and provincial concerns. This is especially apparent in, for example, the catechism's treatment of the ascension of the Lord Jesus Christ – essentially a polemic with Lutherans – where it is correctly emphasized that Christ's human nature is in heaven, though his deity, majesty, grace and Spirit are not confined to the limits of his humanity. Perhaps a more obvious example would be the catechism's approach to the sacraments which seems simultaneously to critique Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Zwinglian and Anabaptistic ideas in a manner that strikes us today as overkill.
Were a Reformed catechism to be written today it would undoubtedly address the excesses of the charismatic movement, for example, or the individualism and Arminianism of evangelicalism. Moreover, we would see far more attention given to the doctrines of covenant, for example, and predestination. It seems to me that Reformed churches are far more threatened today by unwholesome evangelicalism than by Roman Catholicism, for example, or Lutheranism. A treatment of Christ's ascension today would undoubtedly stress how at this ascension Christ occupied the throne of his father David to initiate a millennial reign from heaven (contra the future reign of Christ in dispensationalism).
Moreover, the catechism is sometimes too reflective of the abstract scholasticism of its day. Given the description of our Mediator in Lord's Days 5 and 6, it's not hard to imagine a German Savior or an Armenian Redeemer. To neglect the Jewish genealogy of Jesus is to ignore something very central to his person and work, his identity and mission. One only wishes that the authors of the catechism had more of a redemptive-historical approach to the Bible (a notable and wonderful exception here would be Lord's Day 14, Q&A 35 “seed of David”, especially in contrast to overly scholastic Westminster catechisms). All of these concerns make preaching the Heidelberg Catechism challenging, but not impossible. Preachers shouldn't feel compelled to treat the subject matter addressed by the Lord's Day in exactly the same way the catechism does. One can preach the wonderful truth of Christ's ascension in Lord's Day 18, for example, without delving into the controversy with the Lutherans and by underscoring, in view of dispensationalism, the importance of Christ's present millennial reign.
The advantages of preaching the Catechism
One might expect given my exposé of the catechism's deficiencies that I would be something less than an enthusiastic proponent of catechetical preaching. Nothing could be farther from the truth. In my mind, the church is blessed in numerous ways by embracing this tradition. Like most ecclesiastical catechisms, the Heidelberg Catechism, first of all, goes through the fundamentals of the Christian faith, giving special attention to the Apostles' Creed, the Sacraments, the Ten Commandments and the Lord's Prayer. Here you have not only the Old Testament (Ten Words), the New Testament (Lord's Prayer) and the Church's confession (Creed/Sacraments), you have ethics (Ten Words), spirituality (Lord's Prayer) and theology (Creed/Sacraments).
It's a wonderful blessing in the life of the church to have all of these diverse subjects addressed annually. In churches without catechetical preaching it would be easy to persist for years without hearing a sermon on the Holy Spirit, for example, or justification, or infant baptism. In such a scenario one could possibly go a decade or two without hearing the Ten Words explained, even though they form the basis of Christian ethics today.
Catechism preaching, secondly, safeguards the church from both doctrinal obsession and doctrinal neglect. The pastor who preaches the catechism isn't going to have 15 sermons on justification and neglect sanctification altogether, or vice versa. Every year he's going to preach on the importance of justification and the importance of sanctification.
My last plug for catechism preaching is specifically for preaching the Heidelberg Catechism (what I say doesn't apply to the Westminster catechisms). The Heidelberg Catechism is not a cold theology textbook for the academically inclined; it's a warm book of comfort for believers. Time and again we are reminded that the issues of the Christian faith are not simply cerebral, but cardiological, matters of the heart and not just the mind. The catechism is never interested simply in the benefits of Christ's work for the church generally, but for you and me individually and personally.
In conclusion, I think it's important that we always keep Scripture front and center when we preach the catechism. In a day of increasing confessionalism within the Reformed orbit we need to remind ourselves time and again that the catechism is a human document, fallible and liable to overemphasis and neglect.
Frederick III would most certainly agree. He wanted the catechism to be “a fixed form and model” to regulate the preaching/teaching of the Church. Danger is in the wind when the catechism supplants Scripture as the norm for our faith and life.