A Comparison between the Heidelberg Catechism and the Westminster Confession Introduction, Shifts in theology
For the discussion of this topic we have chosen the retrospective method: we will look back at the Heidelberg Catechism from the perspective of the Westminster Confession and the Westminster Catechisms. We travel back in history, which passed through several stages between the publication of the Heidelberg Catechism in 1563 and the Westminster Assembly of 1643-1649.
During this 80-year period a shift in mindset took place in European history.1If we restrict ourselves solely to church and theology, a shift can be observed which became particularly manifest in three issues that were of primary importance to the Reformation.2In the sola fide (by faith alone) the Reformation found a steady foundation for the assurance of salvation. Assurance of faith was firmly grounded in the reliability of God’s promise.
Within a century after the Reformation the value of experience had become a prominent issue. On the continent, as well as in England, the sola fide had been asking for a complementary experience of faith. On the continent this became manifest in the rise of Pietism and the Second Reformation. In England Puritanism emerged, with the same longing for experience.3
Doctrine of justification
A second important issue, related to the first, was the doctrine of justification, which had received full attention from the Reformation. This was now joined by the issue of sanctification. It is not enough to be forgiven, a believer should also show signs of newness of life (novitas vitae), as evidence of the power of grace.
The third issue was the church, as the place where salvation is celebrated by the community. Due to certain developments, the individual with his personal needs had come more to the fore. The time in which the Westminster Assembly took place, shows clear evidence of this threefold shift in mindset as regards doctrine and experience. The problems that arose from this, are reflected in the decisions taken by the Assembly.4
These problems are much less prominent, however, in the Heidelberg Catechism.5After all, historically it stood closer to the Reformation and came into existence in a religious-political process of continuing reform. While it is true that the differentiation within Protestantism in the Palts had already adopted a specifically Reformed structure, the ground patterns of the Reformation itself were clearly recognizable in this Catechism, especially where the theological and practical value of the doctrines of justification, sanctification as well as the structure of the church are concerned.
The English background
We will now make an attempt to travel backwards from Westminster to Heidelberg. This method offers the possibility of briefly tracing the theological developments on certain issues. Generally speaking, we see that the breach with the Roman Catholic Church was accepted as a given fact. Both theological camps had expounded their views and defended them with arguments. Bellarmine had been refuted by almost every renowned Reformed and Lutheran theologian.6The Westminster Assembly was able to do its work at a time when the English monarchy, leaning towards Roman Catholicism, had lost most of its power.7Simultaneously, in England too the confrontation with the Anabaptists more or less came to an end.8Due to their opinions and behaviour they finally found themselves in positions outside of the Establishment, although their subjective ideas, be it in altered forms, were to play an important role after the Assembly.9Likewise, all attempts at normalizing the relations between the Reformed and the Lutherans turned out to be fruitless. Duraeus, who, on behalf of the English Parliament, travelled to the continent in an attempt to unify the two confessions (asking for more support from the English Parliament) was one of the members of the Assembly. However, he was not very welcome there and it was not until August 12th 1645 that he participated.10Apparently, the Assembly accepted the breach between the Lutherans and the Reformed. There was more than enough tension already in the international Reformed world, for example concerning the question of the extent of the atonement.11Baillie, a Scottish Commissioner, complained that the writings of Amyraut went from hand to hand in Westminster.12It is evident that in its decisions the Assembly took deviations from Reformed doctrine into account, although it carefully avoided mentioning them explicitly in its documents.
A plausible method?
The question to be evaluated later on is whether our method enables us better to examine if, in the light of the Heidelberg Catechism, the history of theology can be said to have taken a favourable course. While doing this, we must avoid using our Catechism as a norm for the purity of Westminster theology. The 80-year period that lies between the recording of both documents covers two generations. Every time has its own nearness to God. The reverse applies even more strongly. Our concern is with the theological kernels of the two Confessions, as well as with a comparison between both. A comparison can always be made, regardless of whether we feel called upon to express a judgement.
Diversity in covenant thinking
While searching for the theological kernel of the Westminster symbols 13we soon discover that the framework of this theology consists of a widely fanned-out covenant structure. The confession is framed within its own system of coordinates, in which the Westminster theology is embedded. It is the system of the covenant.14The Irish Articles (1615) distinguish a covenant which was engraved in the heart of pre-fallen man, as a covenant of the Law, with the promise of eternal life on condition of perfect obedience and with the threat of death in case of disobedience.15In the Westminster Confession the covenant is part of the way in which God relates to man. The distance between God and man is infinitely great. As creatures of reason, we owe obedience to God. But the fruit of this, the enjoyment (frui) of God’s beauty (beatitudo) can only take place because God wholly voluntarily comes down to man: condescentio.16It pleased Him to express this by making a covenant with him.17
This first covenant was a covenant of works with the promise of eternal life and the condition of complete and personal obedience. After the fall God made a second covenant, usually called the covenant of grace. In this covenant He offers sinners salvation and eternal life through Jesus Christ. He demands faith in return for salvation and He promises all who were predestined to eternal life that He will grant them his Holy Spirit, who enables their will and gives power to believe. Here we see the relationship between covenant and predestination. At first sight, this looks at least like a narrowing down of the covenant of grace. However, we must not loose sight of the fact this kind of covenant thinking resonates within a very broad context that is characteristic of the Westminster Assembly. In Scotland a national covenant had been drawn up in 1638.18It was a religious covenant, adopted by the English Parliament on August 17th 1643 (with minor changes) as Solemn League and Covenant.19Thus, the concept of covenant was adopted with a political goal that was solemn enough to function within the context of the covenant of grace. The reverse applies too: the covenant of grace, confessing God’s condescentio, also functioned in society on a wider theocratic scale. Robert Baillie, a Scottish Commissioner, said that while the English preferred a civil league, the Scottish opted for a religious covenant.20
Within Puritanism there was also a ‘church covenant’, entered into by believers at the institution of a church.21It was similar to an independentist thesis and to a personal covenant with God, entered into on a strictly individual basis.22Examples of this are known. Thus, the idea of a covenant functioned within the reality of personal spirituality, the ecclesiastic and doctrinal sphere and even within a political context. Where this context is lacking, as was the case in later centuries, the theological value of covenant theology is seriously diminished. It is in danger of losing character and degenerating into a mere systematic theologoumenon. At the time of the Westminster Assembly, however, this was certainly not the case yet. There, covenant thinking functioned within a very broad structure of existential components.
A broad context
Moreover, it should be remembered that the Westminster symbols were part of a corpus doctrinae which – as is also the case with the Heidelberg Catechism – includes a church order and liturgy as well. We should mention the Directory for Public Worship, which includes an important treatise on preaching the Word of God.23In this homiletic treatise it becomes evident that doctrine loses some of its sharp edges in preaching, in the sense that it becomes truly transparent. In addition, there is the Form for Church Government. This document was sent to Parliament on July 7th 1645. Church government remained a difficult subject at the Assembly, causing tensions, not only within the Assembly itself, but also in the relationship with Parliament.24Doctrine stands further away from life than the church order, which, for the benefit of doctrine, takes a defensive stance.
The doctrine of Scripture
Part of the kernel of Westminster theology is also a reasonably detailed doctrine of Scripture.25It bears traces of scholastic theology, which is not surprising. In many ways the exposition is based on William Whitaker’s Disputations on Holy Scripture (1588), which were primarily meant as a refutation of Bellarmine on the issue of the authority of Scripture. In this work Whitaker operated completely within the evolving Reformed tradition.26Hieronymus Zanchius also began his lengthy Confession (1586) with a chapter on the authority of Scripture.27
And so did Salnar, who published his Harmonica Confessionum in Geneva in 1581, as a counterpart to the Lutheran Formula Concordia. In the first chapter, he presents a survey of what the Reformed symbols confess about Scripture. “The Scriptures are the Word of God”, so we read in the Larger Catechism. The Shorter Catechism only has two short questions. The purpose of the Scriptures is to direct us to glorify God and enjoy Him.
Apart from the doctrine of Scripture, the description of the Order of Salvation is also typical of the Westminster Theology. It is a pointed sketch of the appropriation of salvation in which predestination and the covenant play a role on the path to assurance of faith. At the very beginning stands ‘effectual calling’.28All those predestined to eternal life, and they alone, are powerfully called by the Word and the Spirit. This calling is based on God’s sovereign and particular grace, in which man is completely passive. This formulation is in some ways similar to what the Canons of Dordt say about conversion.29Man is passive until he is regenerated by the Holy Spirit and truly accepts the grace that is offered to him.
Justification does not consist in an infusion of grace, but in the forgiveness of sin.30Christ’s obedience and atonement are accounted to us. Justification leads to adoption, shared by all God’s children. Justification thus becomes a treasure to every sinner that is powerfully called. Here, what Luther wrote about the justification of the sinner moves to the background. Luther was especially attached to the simultaneity (simul) of being justified and being a sinner. The Westminster Confession is more in line with Calvin, who applies the simul to the relationship between justification and sanctification. On this point the influence of both Puritanism and Calvin appears to be very strong. Where the Confession speaks of the path to assurance of faith, we recognize the tone of the Canons of Dordt. It is an infallible assurance of faith which is grounded in the reliability of God’s promise of salvation.31With John Murray, we can speak of a consensus of Reformed theology on this point.32
As far as Christology is concerned, we can say that it bears the same pattern, both in the Confession and the Shorter and Longer Catechisms, as we see in the Canons of Dordt. It is embedded in the structure of election and the covenant.33Christ Himself is a fruit of election. He himself was elect and receives, throughout all ages, a people who are to become his descendants. Here the covenant functions in a new way and not as an abstraction. In Christ eternal election takes shape in the course of time. Christ as Mediator, who in the course of time redeems, calls, justifies, sanctifies and, ultimately, glorifies.
Remarkably prevalent, both in the Confession as well as the Longer Catechism, are the ethics, worked out in detail. On this point, the Westminster symbols have been blamed with legalism, which was to become characteristic of Puritanism. It fits the strong emphasis which the Puritan movement placed on the sanctification of life. It is striking that the description of sanctification precedes that of saving faith.34In this way, ethics can easily lead a life of its own and become externalized. How explicit and balanced the discussion of ethics is in the Longer Catechism in particular, can be seen in the very detailed instructions for the Christian life. Questions and answers 91-151. The last question especially is an example of scholastic ethics.35
It is important to take note of the elements that received criticism. Apart from a very positive reception (Hodge, Warfield, John Murray) there is also careful but principled reservation (Torrance, Kendall and Rolston). Especially the older Scottish and Presbyterian systematic theologians testified their faithfulness to the Westminster symbols in their writings. Charles Hodge and his son Archibald Alexander Hodge recognized their ecclesiastic and theological authority, and staid within the bounds of the Westminster Confession in their dogmatic writings.36
The same can be said of the Scotsmen from the Free Church. James Bannerman wrote extensively about the authority of Scripture and ecclesiology in line with the Westminster Confession.37With his study on the Westminster Assembly, Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield produced a standard work that is still valuable today. John Murray, whose papers have been published by Banner of Truth, presented a very positive image of the Westminster Assembly and its documents, even though he voiced criticism on certain elements. Farreaching criticism came from J. B. Torrance in particular, who believed covenant theology as such to be a deviation from Reformed theology.38
For Th. T. Torrance the Westminster tradition was a ‘product of a formidable Protestant scholasticism’.39Others, like Kendall, Rolston and Bell were also of the opinion that Calvin’s line of thinking had been severed and exchanged for a theology that instilled doubt instead of assurance, due to too strong an emphasis on decree and election.40
A comparison between the Heidelberg Catechism and the Westminster Confession (II)
Comparing the symbols of the Westminster Assembly with the Heidelberg Catechism is a useful exercise, as long as we do not lose sight of the developments within reformed theology during the eighty years separating the two documents. These developments can be seen in matters such as faith and experience; justification and sanctification; and, within ecclesiology, the relation between the individual and the community.
The actual historical situation in England resonates in the Westminster records. Its covenant theology should therefore be considered against the political background, and, even more, within the ecclesiological and spiritual context of the time. The importance of subjective soteriology and the emphasis on ethics are highly significant. The Heidelberg Catechism, on the other hand, is closer to the early Reformation. The emphasis is on justification by faith, taking place within the communion with Christ. Assurance of faith cannot be dissociated from justification, nor from sanctification, which in this Catechism is built on a Christological foundation.
Reflections of an era
So what is the result of the comparison we are making between the Heidelberg Catechism and the Westminster symbols?[41Let us not forget that we are dealing with theological kernels. There is much in the political, philosophical and ecclesiastical context that has to be left aside. The danger of course is treating these documents as petrefacts lying around in history. But this is not how we come across them in reality. It is impossible to trace the influence that the Westminster symbols had – and still have – on church and education.[42Understandable though it is, another danger lies in the fact that we are prone to use one of these confessions as a standard for the other. However, both confessions are theological developments of the Reformation in their own right, one emerging earlier than the other.
Instruction book and creed
The original sketch of the Heidelberg Catechism was also embedded within a broad frame of political activity.43After the religious Peace of Augsburg (1555), Frederick III had made a choice for the Reformed confession, out of personal conviction. He himself was closely involved in the birth of the Catechism. He did not wish to be called a Calvinist and informed the Emperor that he had never read any of Calvin’s books.44
Calvin, who dedicated his Praelectiones in Ieremiam (1563) to Frederick, also distanced himself from the title “Calvinismus”. However, this is not to say that the Heidelberg Catechism does not contain elements that are directly borrowed from Calvin’s theology. This is particularly the case in the description of the mystery of the Lord’s Supper which reminds one of Calvin’s view on the communion with Christ. But even this view was common in Reformed theology. Zurich, Wittenberg, Geneva, Basel and Strasbourg are all present in the Heidelberg Catechism.
The choice that Frederick the Pious made can be characterized as an ecclesiastically reformed choice. This is obvious from the position the Catechism received, after it had been published as a separately printed document. Initially, it was not available in a single edition but was a chapter in the Church Order of the Palatinate, situated between the Form for Baptism and the Form for the Lord’s Supper. Not without reason. The road from the baptismal font to the table of the covenant is via teaching and profession of faith. It is also a road that touches on church discipline. The choice for this road was obviously not borrowed from Zurich but from Geneva. Frederick was personally involved in this. He was the one who gave the orders, also about the supplement on the papal Mass. He was the one who wanted the Bible references to be included and used his leadership to make it happen. This personal involvement matched with his piety, a piety that is reflected in the document as a result of his supervision of the authors.
Misery, Deliverance, Thankfulness: this is the threesome that we find both in the Form for Baptism and the Form for the Lord’s Supper. How could the catechism possibly do without it? This threesome became the ordering principle from start to finish, a principle directly based on Scripture. In this way an instruction book took shape which could simultaneously serve as a Creed. It offers comfort, not of a philosophical nature, as Ursinus reminds us in his exposition, but “biblical comfort.” This spirituality permeates the whole of the Catechism.45
No elaborate covenant theology
Compared to the Westminster Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism’s doctrine of Scripture is quite simple. There is no Locus de Sacra Scriptura by way of introduction. The instruction book itself aims to be an interpreter of Scripture. In this the Catechism displays a prominent feature: the history of revelation. God revealed Himself through the holy gospel: first of all in paradise and after that in a number of successive stages, until it was finally fulfilled in Christ.46What matters for the Heidelberg Catechism is the content of Scripture. We find no traces of biblicism, nor of legalism. The gospel is the means through which the Holy Spirit works knowledge and faith, not the law.
In the Heidelberg Catechism the distinction between the law and the gospel does not yet function in a covenant setting, in which the law is linked with the covenant of works and the gospel to the covenant of grace. The catechism is ignorant of this scheme of the two-fold covenant.47Adam is present, but as an antitype of Christ. The first Adam brings judgment, the second salvation. What is decisive is the bond with the second Adam, by incorporation in Him through true faith.48This means, that the appropriation of salvation takes place through incorporation in Christ. The attainment of salvation is the work of the Mediator. The same goes for the appropriation of salvation (or applicatio salutis), which – unlike in the Westminster Confession – is not discussed in connection with election and covenant. The complete ordo salutis is based on this incorporation in Christ.
Justification in communion with Christ
In this communion with Christ the miraculous exchange takes place which Scripture calls justification.49It is the fruit, or the benefit, of faith. Lord’s Day 23: “But what does it help you now that you believe all this? In Christ I am righteous before God and heir to life everlasting” (Q&A 59). In Christ justified by faith. In Christ I also share in the assurance of salvation, which is closely linked to justification. The Catechism deals with this assurance of salvation when discussing the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Here we find firm ground, accepted by faith as the only foundation for assurance. This is why the Heidelberg Catechism has no separate paragraph on the assurance of grace and salvation, as does the Westminster Confession.50There it functions as a kind of ‘encore’ to the order of salvation. The Heidelberg Catechism looks at this differently. Not only Christology, but the whole doctrine of salvation is, in line with Bucer and Calvin’s views, connected with the idea of the communio cum Christo.
Sanctification too is defined from a Christological perspective. Ethics, therefore, becomes part of Christology and is thus transposed to a fruit of Christ’s work and appreciated as such. “Why (if there is grace) must we still do good works?”, the Catechism asks. The answer corrects the question: Christ is subject (Q&A 86). He renews us, having ransomed and redeemed us by his blood. This is the liberating message that the Heidelberg Catechism has learnt from the Letter to the Romans. Renewal of life follows from being implanted in Him, by sharing in his death and resurrection. True conversion is the fruit of communion with Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection. Comfort is the work of the Holy Spirit. But on a deeper level this comfort is nothing – or rather – nobody other than Jesus Christ who transforms us into Christians, by sharing His anointment with us.
The criticism levelled at the Heidelberg Catechism concerns a number of points that can also - to a stronger extent – be levelled at the Westminster Confession. The Heidelberg Catechism shows less characteristics of a scholastic method than the Westminster Confession. The Reformed Reformation borrowed certain things from the great theologies of the Middle Ages. Its theological activity did not originate from a simple form of biblicism. No wonder that in the sixties of the sixteenth century a certain form of scholastic theology turned up again. This may have to do with certain choices in the area of philosophy. The doctrine of atonement in the Heidelberg Catechism unmistakably smells of Anselm’s Cur deus homo, although it cannot be claimed that Lord’s Days 4-6 contain content directly borrowed from Anselm.51
As far as method is concerned, the Westminster Confession overrules the Heidelberg Catechism in that it is structured very schematically. The threesome of Misery, Salvation and Thankfulness used in the latter, is meant as a scheme for the set-up of the instruction book. It functions as a correlation principle, in which doctrine and life, doctrina and pietas, are continually involved with each another. In the Westminster Confession the method of the school is more prominent. The doctrina reaches the pulpit less easily than it does the lectern.
Having drawn these conclusions, we realize that it was the spirit of the century that required the application of a new scientific method. This concerned not only theology, but other disciplines as well. Everywhere, in Wittenberg, Strasbourg, even in Zurich, scholasticism emerged from its hiding place. We must not forget, however, that also the frame of covenant thinking can be applied in such a way that Scripture is fitted into a system. A scholastic system, with Aristotle as a rational guide, is not necessarily inferior to a system with covenant thinking as its leading principle. In this atmosphere as well, developments easily led to a situation reminiscent of the pre-reformation age, with its endless distinctions between attritio and contritio. The Heidelberg Catechism escaped this fate just in time. The Westminster Confession did not, at least not easily.
On one point, however, both confessions are in absolute agreement: the radical nature of grace. The Arminians had a conflict with the Heidelberg Catechism on the issue of the human will. The Westminster Assembly was intent on defending the free nature of grace against the School of Saumur. Despite the differences in method, on this issue there was a real unity of conception.
Similar criticism. Common ground pattern
Both confessions are faced with criticism, which is expressed rather easily nowadays, even more easily than at the time when Isaac Da Costa pointed out the omission of a theology of Israel and the need for an elaboration of the eschatology in relation to Israel. Particularly strong is the call for an extension of the confession on the doctrine of the Holy Spirit and his gifts for the church. The Heidelberg Catechism focuses strongly on Christ and all his benefits, as well as on the connection between the blood and the Spirit of Christ. This means that atonement and renewal go together.
As far as method is concerned, a comparison between the theological kernels of the Heidelberg Catechism and the Westminster Catechisms and Confession, leads to the conclusion that the Heidelberg Catechism scores better than the Westminster symbols. This judgment is mainly based on the progression of the history of theology. Around 1650, philosophical, theological and ecclesiastical factors played a role which they did not – or at least to a much lesser extent – in the preceding century when the Heidelberg Catechism came into existence.
But even if we take this into account, the Heidelberg Catechism undoubtedly has our preference. Its close link with the Reformation gives it a freshness which is characteristic of a life that enjoys the comfort of the gospel of God’s grace. This does not detract in any way from those memorable opening lines of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, which declare “to glorify God, and fully to enjoy Him forever” as the most important and highest goal of man (Q&A 1). Do they complement one another? God’s glory, our comfort and the enjoyment of God? All three belong to the great cause of the gospel, but are expressed in various ways at different times. In fact, they all three belong to the recognizable reality of God’s graceful condescension in this present time. Anyone who knows what Augustine meant by frui Deo, the enjoyment of God, (and what Calvin wrote about it) will now give glory to God, and be comforted both in life and death.