A Dutch Godfather to the Heidelberg Catechism
The thesis of this article is that Joannes Anastasius Geldrus – better known as Veluanus in the Netherlands – worked in the Electoral Palatinate (Kurpfalz) for the last fifteen years of his life and, as Superintendent, was involved in the introduction of the Heidelberg Catechism. Could this Dutchman’s perspective perhaps provide new insights?
Jan Gerritsz Versteeghen is well known as the author of Der Leken Wechwyser (‘The Guide for the Laity’, 1554). With this work the former priest from Garderen, in the Dutch province of Gelderland, wished to prove to his fellow countrymen that he had retracted his (enforced) recantation of the Reformed doctrine. I assume readers to be familiar with this period of his life. Thereafter, the minister Versteeghen employed the Latin version of his name to mark this new beginning: Joannes Anastasius, with the toponym Veluanus. The name Anastasius points to the family name Versteeghe (meaning ‘ascent’) and also to his rebirth from the earlier recantation of his faith, which he saw as a resurrection: Joannes, the resurrected ‘Veluan’ (meaning ‘from the Veluwe’, a wooded area in the Dutch province of Gelderland).
At this 450-year commemoration of the Heidelberg Catechism, we would like to focus attention on the period in his life when he was working across the border from the Netherlands, namely in the Electoral Palatinate in Germany. This concerns the years 1554 to 1570, the year of his death. During that time he was working in the parish of Bacharach, about 50 km south of Coblenz, on the west bank of the Rhine. In order to position Bacharach and Anastasius’ performance there, we should bear in mind that Bacharach lies quite a distance away from Heidelberg. Between the two lies the diocese of Mainz. Archbishop-Elector Daniel Brendel of Homburg (1555-1582) founded the Jesuit college at the University of Mainz in 1561. The Viertäleramt, as this area was called in which Bacharach was situated, lay very much on the outskirts of the fragmented territory of the County Palatine.
Little known is the fact that Anastasius, in his function of Superintendent in the Electoral Palatinate, was involved in the introduction of the Heidelberg Catechism in 1563. The method of instruction that (in its Dutch translation) was to have such an enormous influence in his homeland, was accepted and introduced with the cooperation of this representative of the Netherlands. In older research documents one finds the ornate sentence: ‘It must have granted him a glorious fulfilment to have been involved in the realization of the Heidelberger Catechismus’.
At the end of Die Alte Catholische Leyenbücher (“The Old Catholic Guide for the Laity”, written by Anastasius in 1566), Anastasius addresses his fellow countrymen, ‘An etliche gute Christenfreunde in dem Niederlandt’ (‘To various good Christian friends in the Netherlands’). He had intended to dedicate the book to the government and inhabitants of the principality of Gelder, which had suffered severely from the Spanish Inquisition. However, the book had to be composed in a limited time, and so he transferred this intention to a later book. But he did not conclude this earlier one without mentioning his prayers for the persecuted flock in the Netherlands (241).
Anastasius’ Earlier Catechismus
Inquiry into Anastasius’ contribution to the introduction of the Catechism concerns his own contribution to the didactic genre of the catechisms, and in what way this contributed to (the necessity of) the implementation of the Heidelberg Catechism. In particular, we will take a closer look at Anastasius’ work in Die Alte Catholische Leyenbücher, published in 1566. My thesis is that with this book, hastily published under specific circumstances in 1566, we are in fact dealing with the catechetical work of Anastasius himself. I assume that he used this material prior to the introduction of the Heidelberg Catechism, and that he processed this material for publication in 1566, because he then felt the need to defend the Electoral Palatinate’s policy.
The arrangement of Die Alte Catholische Leyenbücher is as follows: It is constructed as a discussion between two church founders, Ambrose and Augustine, where the former, in his role as teacher, asks the questions and the latter, in his role as (fully equipped) pupil, provides the answers. The didactic method of questions and answers is enlivened by turning it into a catechetical discussion between two people. He claims the catholicity of the doctrine of the faith by bringing the great church father Augustine and his reputed teacher Ambrose onto the stage, as it were.
In this manner Anastasius deals first with the ‘vier Christliche Leyen Bücheren’ (four Christian Lay Guides), namely the Ten Commandments, the twelve articles of the Christian faith, the sacraments of Christ, and the Lord’s Prayer. Following these first four Lay Books, two concise and communal Lay Books were produced for everyday use, namely the book of Natural Conscience or Reason and the book of All God’s Wondrous Creations. As seventh and eighth books he mentions the hearing of a good sermon and the independent reading of the Bible. This second foursome, which Anastasius mentions only briefly, we will leave out of this study of his catechetical material. Lay people were ostensibly illiterate Christians who had had no schooling, and it was for them, specifically, that Anastasius dealt with the four principal issues. These texts were still being prescribed as mandatory in Ottheinrich’s (=the Elector Palatine, Otto Henry) church order.
A Complaint from Bacharach
What reason can there be to project a publication from the year 1566 back to the period preceding the introduction of the Heidelberg Catechism in 1563? We would draw attention to a letter to the Elector in which both the mayor and the council of the so-called ‘Viertell’ of Bacharach complain about their Superintendent. Anastasius held this function from 1561 in the parishes of Bacharach and Kaub, and, according to the letter, this was but a short while before. In the foreword of his work, Von dem waren Leib Christi (“Of the true Body of Christ”) published in 1561, Anastasius refers to ‘our Christians in the Vier thelen’ and to ‘all servants of the church in the parishes of Bacharach and Kaub’, thus seemingly addressing them as their Superintendent.
The aforementioned letter from the mayor and council is itself undated, but was located among the documents from the year 1562 in the presbytery protocols in Coblenz. The signatories charge this ‘servant of the church in Steg, Joannes Anastasius’ with
‘a variety of modernizations and strange alterations in churches and schools, which were unknown to us and cannot be implemented without aggravating fragmentation and discord in the community, and not without doing damage to the Christian doctrine’. The relevant innovations are spelled out clearly; this being accompanied by
- the removal of the statue of Christ,
- alterations through the introduction of an unusual or unorthodox catechism
- ‘in which is incorporated a number of offensive and atrocious comparisons regarding the Holy Supper of our Lord Jesus Christ’.
They attribute this to the ambitiousness of the overly zealous superintendent. The mayor and council were relying on the Elector’s intervention in order to return to the ‘pure doctrine of Christ and to Luther’s Small Catechism, which he wholly rejects and strives to forbid’. They stress their complaint by the rhetorical question: ‘Is it not true that both young and old can cite Luther’s Small Catechism, which has been taught here in the valleys for thirteen years?’ It is this complaint regarding Anastasius’ performance as Superintendent in the Electoral Palatinate that gives reason for further investigation of the Dutchman and his contribution to the catechetical instruction in the Palatinates.
The instruction for Superintendents from 1556 makes it quite clear what the function entails. There is talk of a specialis superattendent in every municipal parish. The adjective specialis indicates a surveyor who has special supervision over the other ministers in his area. He is to visit his colleagues, the schoolteacher, and the deacon twice a year. He is also, for example, to examine whether the minister ‘maintains the Catechism’, meaning whether it is proclaimed and taught. A Superintendent could also turn up unannounced in a church service to hear the minister preach. In this way Anastasius also supervised the work, catechism included, in the municipality of Bacharach.
Let us consider whether the material of that ‘unusual’ catechism can be found in the first four Lay Books of the Alte Catholische Leyenbücher. There is an irregularity in the composition that points in this direction. When Anastasius takes stock, he mentions ‘das Buch der zweien Sakrament’ (the Book of the second sacrament) as fourth, while he actually – against the common custom – dealt with the sacraments as third, and the Lord’s Prayer as fourth in the foregoing sequence of material. It is to be considered that he did indeed conclude his original catechism with the discussion of the second sacrament, the Lord’s Supper. Which ‘gleichnissen’ (comparisons) does he name there? One can find the paragraph in which he pleads for the use of ordinary bread and speaks in favour of abolishing ‘des päbstlichen Götzenbrots’ (the Papist bread idolatry) upon which many blind people fasten their hearts as if it were the Lord God, not only under Roman domination but also in many evangelical places. The Lutheran-minded people could easily have taken offence against comparison of the (reverence for the) Host with the Lord God Himself. In addition, he sums up examples of sacramental expressions in the Old Testament: ‘Such language has always been used in the world and is still being used is such a manner that one can name all sorts of simple indicators after the matter itself, to which they point’, for example, a painting of which one says that it is ‘The suffering of Christ’ (though it is no more than an image). Such everyday and biblical comparisons are extensively discussed. When read together with his firm assurance that Christ’s body is in heaven and not to be found in bread and wine, one can imagine how the faithful, who have made the transition from Roman-Catholic to Lutheran teaching, might find the comparisons very crude.
With the above, we believe we have demonstrated that the complaint from 1562, from the municipality of Bacharach addressed to Friedrich III, was directed at Anastasius’s own catechism. The treatment of the four books in Die Alte Catholische Leyenbücher fits the profile described in the complaint about his ‘ungepreuchlichen cathechismi’ (unorthodox catechism).
The Catechism in the Electoral Palatinate
Anastasius had become familiar with this regular sequence of the doctrines in the Lutheran Catechisms, spelled out in the church order of 1556 under the rule of Elector Palatine Ottheinrich (or Otto Henry). As a minister, he was pledged to follow this church order and teach the catechism in accordance with it. It is this order that provides the framework for Anastasius’ work, which came to us as Die Alte Katholische Leyenbücher.
One of the things for which the mayor and council of the Viertäleramt Bacharach reproached the Superintendent was that he ‘wholly rejected and refused to submit himself to the pure doctrine of Christ in Luther’s Small Catechism’. At various instances in Die Alte Katholische Leyenbücher we do indeed come across criticism of Luther, and especially Johannes Brenz. The criticism of Luther touches upon another point in the 1562 letter of complaint to the Elector, namely the ‘tearing down of statues of Christ’ from the church walls, that is, Anastasius’ criticism of Luther’s position concerning the second commandment. This begins with the question of how to count the Ten Commandments. ‘How should we count the Ten Commandments: according to the practice of the priests, or following Luther’s example?’ asks Ambrose in the Lay Book. And Augustine answers with reference to God’s sequence of the commandments in Exodus and Deuteronomy. Luther’s Small Catechism had used an abridged version of the Decalogue from the Middle Ages, in which the prohibition of holy statues and the extension (punishment and blessing) was lacking in the second, third and fourth commandments. Answering the question why Luther had not restored the second commandment to its full glory, it is said ‘The good man made a serious mistake regarding this issue’. In practice, in the Palatinate, the transition from Ottheinrich’s church order to the rule of Friedrich III made it possible to lay aside the Catechisms of Luther and Brenz and to abolish Lutheran customs such as crucifixes in the church. In his explanation of the second commandment, Anastasius allows God to speak, as it were: ‘Being man, you shall consider well the following: I will tolerate not a single image or idol in my service, no image of my own Divine Self, nor fantasy images of my Trinity...’ (183)
The Men behind the Heidelberg Catechism
There is nothing to indicate that Joannes Anastasius Geldrus belonged to the group of theologians that composed the Heidelberg Catechism itself. His parish was situated far from Heidelberg. Although he published on the Lord’s Supper in 1557 (Vom Nachtmal Christi) and also on Christology in 1561 (Bekanntenisz Joanniz Anastasii von dem waren Leib Christi), the work viewed as his catechism (Die Alte Catholische Leyenbücher) does not contain passages that can be considered a literary source for the texts in the Heidelberg Catechism.
His activities in the Palatinate do, however, illustrate the reason why the Elector decided upon composing a new Catechism. In the introduction of the Heidelberg Catechism, Friedrich III wrote in the foreword, dated January 1563: ‘the youth of our Electorate are being instructed carelessly, and sometimes not at all, in the Christian Doctrine; in part they are also being admonished and instructed very differently from, and not following, a thorough, trustworthy, and commonly accepted catechism’. Criticism also resounds in the lines following: sometimes the youth were being burdened with ‘elaborate and unnecessary questions’. The complaints from Bacharach against Anastasius’ catechism had also reached his notice. This visitation of the catechetical education, writes Friedrich III, ‘led to the decision, upon the advice of the whole theological faculty located here, in cooperation with all the superintendents and the most important servants of the church, to commission the composition and writing of a brief instruction book, or catechism, in both German and Latin’. When the concept of the new Catechism was complete, the superintendents of the Electorate, including Anastasius, were invited to be present on 12 January 1563 in Heidelberg. In the following week, from 13 to 18 January, the design of the new catechism was discussed. Following a communal worship service and celebration of the Lord’s Supper on Sunday, the Catechism was signed by all on 18 January. On 19 January, Friedrich III commissioned the Catechism to be printed. Elector Friedrich III was still in power when Anastasius died in 1570.
The Diet of Augsburg 1566
What inspired Joannes Anastasius Geldrus to publish his work Die Alte Catholische Leyenbücher in 1566 is now the remaining question, especially if we assume that it concerns the publication of catechetical material from before 1563. Walter Hollweg extensively described Anastasius’ publication as a defence of the confessional course of the Palatinate with a view to the Diet of 1566. The foreword in Die Alte Catholische Leyenbücher bears the date 12 March 1566, while the Diet was to be opened on 23 March. There, a statement was to be agreed on whether the Palatinate, with its catechism, could still participate in the 1555 religious Peace of Augsburg and, by impication, whether there was sufficient agreement with the Confessio Augustana (Augsburg Confession). Anastasius addresses his book to ‘the Emperor, Electors and States of the German Nation, now assembled at Augsburg’, and defines the content as ‘wie man Gott mit rechter Reformation nach heiliger Schrifft sälig solt dienen’. (‘How to gloriously serve God with true reformation according to the Holy Scripture’).
How could catechetical material serve to motivate representatives attending the Diet not to obstruct the confessional course of the Palatinate with reference to the Augsburg Confession? By proclaiming the old and catholic character of the so-called Lay Books and by giving it the subtitle: ‘On the true faith and life of the joyful Christian rulers and subordinates’, with a plea to the ministers: ‘with faithful admonishment to the Christians, lords and subordinates, in this dangerous discordance of faith, in all places’.
What, in summary, was the merit of Joannes Anastasius from Gelderland in the Netherlands, minister since about 1554 and Superintendent of the Palatinate since 1561, in the introduction of the Heidelberg catechism?
In the text of Die Alte Catholische Leyenbücher we find material of his own catechism, composed in German, that met with resistance from the (Gnesio-)Lutheran party. This served as an illustration to Friedrich III of the necessity of ongoing reformation.
Die Alte Catholische Leyenbücher, when read as his former Catechism, gives insight into the transition within the Palatinate from the use of Luther’s and Brenz’ Catechisms to more Calvinistic faith instruction.
In his publications, written during his years in the Palatinate, he proves himself to be a theologian who aligns himself upon the church founders and constantly attempts to demonstrate the catholic character of the Reformation. He was familiar with the confessional positions and debates of his time and participated in this debate, in particular concerning the doctrine on the Lord’s Supper and Christology. In the years prior to the composition of the Heidelberg Catechism, he had through his publications at the very least contributed to the forming of opinions of theologians in the Palatinate.
Anastasius cannot be seen as one of the fathers of the Heidelberg Catechism. Nevertheless, this Dutchman was present, as a godfather, when the Heidelberg Catechism was baptized in January 1563. He also accepted it personally, helped introduce it, and ultimately publicly defended it. His publications in 1557 and 1561 on the Lord’s Supper and Christology, belonging to the founding territory of the Heidelberg Catechism, deserve further research.