A Textbook for the Church, Especially for the Youth
The Timeliness of the Heidelberg Catechism
In the previous article we have seen how the Heidelberg Catechism is first of all an inheritance from a faithful ancestry. More needs to be said, much more. The Catechism is not meant as a personal witness of faith, or even as a theological manual. The Catechism was written as a textbook for the church, and then especially for the youth of the Reformed church.
The Catechism was written with a view to educating the youth unto faith. It is a nurturing unto the faith that is articulated in an existential way in Lord’s Day 7 as a unity of knowing and trusting. Right from its beginning the Heidelberg Catechism has a pedagogical function. This has four aspects.
Summary of the Scriptures – Setup and Method
The first aspect is that the intent of the Heidelberg Catechism is to be a summary and an interpretation of the doctrine of the Holy Scriptures. If we want to build up the congregation we need to bring it to the foundations of grace. The people that drafted the Catechism have put those principles together in an orderly and understandable manner.
Naturally this interpretation from time to time reveals some historical characteristics. By the same token it reaches beyond its historical framework. It explains how the Catechism has withstood the past centuries.
The pedagogical function of the Heidelberg Catechism becomes clear also from the setup and method of the catechetical material.
The start of the textbook, the theme of our comfort, is chosen as the defining characteristic of the entire textbook. Question and Answer 1 do not function simply as an introduction that could just as well have been left out. Question and Answer 1 delineate the content of all that is to follow. It describes the Christian comfort as an all-encompassing reality, of which the secret is not held in our own hands, but lies in the faithfulness of our Saviour. This start is entirely Christological and Trinitarian in its character (salvation through Christ at the centre, embedded in the plan and execution of the triune God) and at the same time focused on the salvation of each person. It becomes immediately clear to the student as to what it’s all about: the relationship with Christ.
The method, that is, the organization that the authors chose, is linked closely to the setup. Through a method of questions and answers the great whole of the doctrine of salvation is subdivided into smaller parts. Yes, the doctrine is brought near to the student’s heart. The question-and-answer method is “not intended to be a cross-examination of the student by the teacher, but its object is to lead to a meditative personal conversation” (A. de Reuver). The doctrine that is conveyed focuses itself on both head and heart.
A Place in the Church Order – A Place in the Ecclesiastical Instruction
In the third place it is significant to note the position where the Catechism was placed in the church order of the Palatinate. It was placed between the regulations concerning baptism and the Lord’s Supper. In this way the Catechism became a pathway of learning, a connector between the two sacraments. The child that is baptized receives instruction so that he may arrive at the response to baptism and so be admitted to the use of the Lord’s Supper. All of this is embedded in a Reformed outlook on the essence of the congregation. It is a congregation where baptism is administered on the basis of God’s promises. At the same time, it is a congregation where the communion with Christ is exercised around the table of the covenant. Between these two stands the instruction provided by the Catechism, with no other purpose than to open the way to the Holy Supper to those who have publicly professed their faith.
In the fourth and final place the pedagogical function of the Heidelberg Catechism can be traced to the position that this textbook received in the ecclesiastical instruction. The church order of 1563 developed a sort of outline of a curriculum. In this plan, indications are included about reading and preaching from the Catechism. It was determined that in the afternoon worship services the Catechism would be explained. It became a learning opportunity for the entire congregation, with special attention to the youth. This service would be characterized as a public catechizing in instruction, discussion, queries or tests, and expositions. The learners, that is, the congregation, were to be guided toward the confession of grace, and to keep it by the way of faith.
In Our Time?
The subsequent question is this: can the Catechism in our time still function as textbook for the (youth of the) congregation? It is my deep conviction that the answer to this can only be affirmative. In the Heidelberg Catechism the truth of the gospel is articulated both essentially and existentially. With “essential” I mean to say that based on Christ’s work of salvation the core of salvation is articulated in a specific unity of doctrine and life, promise and faith, knowledge and trust.
With “existential” I refer to the fact that the Catechism stands in a living relationship with the life of the congregation and that of the individual in that church. To be sure, the source of the Catechism does not lie in the congregation but in Scripture. But having its starting point there, the textbook looks for a connection with the congregation. Especially with its choice of language, using a warm and personal approach, the Catechism seeks to cause us to experience and realize the faith that makes us know this salvation in an existential way.
Based on this essential and existential articulation of the preaching of the Scriptures, the Catechism as textbook for the congregation retains its worth and value, both for preaching as well as for catechesis.
Preaching from the Catechism
First of all let me say something about the use of the Catechism in the preaching. I plead for a catechetical preaching that does justice to three things: 1. to the Catechism itself; 2. to the nurturing character of the Catechism; 3. to the situation in which we find ourselves when we hear the gospel today.
In the first place we need a catechetical preaching that does justice to the Catechism itself. This is preaching that a. shows us that the doctrine is taken from Scripture; b. finds its centre in the love of God in Christ, who through reconciliation prompts the sinner to believe in him, and who wants to strengthen this faith; and c. is focused on building up the congregation.
There are times when the Catechism functions only as a “springboard” to the preaching. Yes, the theme for the sermon is borrowed from the Catechism, but in terms of the further elaboration the content of the Catechism is bypassed. On the other side, there can be evidence of catechetical preaching that only consists of repeating and declaring some old words and phrases. In both cases, no justice is done to the Catechism.
Further we need a catechetical preaching that does justice to its nurturing character. The Heidelberg Catechism is the textbook for the congregation, but then especially in the sense that it nurtures us to faith. In this way, catechetical preaching focuses specifically on the younger members. This textbook provides so many principles and ideas to reach out to the youth of the congregation with God’s Word. Good catechetical preaching is not dull and dry, but extremely practical and personal.
Finally, I plead for a catechetical preaching that does justice to the situation we find ourselves in as we hear the gospel today. This means actual and concrete Catechism preaching. As the authors articulated the truth of the gospel against the background of their situation in the time they were living, in the same way we are called to extend the principles to our situation and the times in which we are living today. The ministers of God should be on guard against a timeless catechetical preaching. Taking its starting point from the grace that is confessed in the Catechism, address today’s reality of life in this postmodern world.
Next we will pay attention to catechesis (or, the catechism classes). Compared to the time of the origin of the Heidelberg Catechism, much has changed in education. Current pedagogical methods make use of other means and possibilities. And yet, the Catechism retains great value for catechesis.
Its value is in the first place because the textbook shows us what it is all about, according to a Reformed understanding: to provide essential and existential (I use these words again!) biblical instruction to the baptized youth of the church so that the student under the blessing of God may be brought to confessing Jesus Christ. Catechesis, in the Reformed understanding of it, is more than explaining the doctrine of the church, and more than simply creating a meeting place where youth can chat about the Bible and about faith. The Heidelberg Catechism teaches us that catechesis is to communicate the truth of the gospel with a younger generation in a manner that is principled and pastoral, personal and practical.
As to how the Heidelberg Catechism will be given a specific place within the framework of the instruction of the church, this will depend to a large extent on the method used for catechesis, the personality of the catechete (the teacher), and the level of development of the catechism students. At any rate there are enough possibilities to allow the Catechism to function in catechesis. Let the catechetes make use of such variety.
This article was translated by Wim Kanis.