As much as I enjoyed the catechisms of Luther and Westminster, the Heidelberg catechism is simply in a class by itself. Nothing else is remotely close to as good as it is. Heidelberg is a Reformed catechism, but it was intended in part to keep its sponsor from being executed by the Lutherans, so it is consciously ecumenical (Nothing against the Lutherans. Killing people over theological differences is just what you did in the 16th century). Reformed distinctives are present, but often not front-and-center. Election, which you would expect to be prominent in a Reformed catechism, is mentioned only twice in passing (qq 52, 54) – and even then the wording is drawn directly from the Bible. You’re unlikely to be offended by it if you aren’t offended by Paul.
This fidelity to the Bible is the defining characteristic of Heidelberg. The Scripture references are copious, and in strong contrast to Westminster it chooses plain Biblical language over abstract theological categories. Whereas Westminster speaks very specifically of the federal headship of Adam, Heidelberg says simply that our sin nature comes from “the fall and disobedience of our first parents”. Westminster describes the Trinity precisely, but Heidelberg simply affirms “these three distinct persons are the one, true, eternal God”.
This simplicity and clarity are its best features. Not only do they provide a theological grounding in the thought and language of the Bible itself, but the wording and concepts are easier for children to follow. It makes me wonder how much of an improvement systematic theology really is.
There is a warmth and joy throughout the catechism that speaks to a child and reminds me, as I read, that I must become like a child to inherit the kingdom of God. Its first question sets the tone for the whole catechism, and is even better than Westminster’s:
Q1 What is your only comfort in life and in death?
That I am not my own,
body and soul,
in life and in death—
to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.
He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood,
and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil.
He also watches over me in such a way
that not a hair can fall from my head
without the will of my Father in heaven:
in fact, all things must work together for my salvation.
Because I belong to him,
Christ, by his Holy Spirit,
assures me of eternal life
and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready
from now on to live for him.
You can just feel the warmth, joy, and delightfully evangelical spirit. That spirit is further on display in Q60 (“How are you right with God?”) and others.
I was surprised to hear hear echoes of John Piper’s Christian Hedonism in the catechism. Joy and comfort are the ever-present and motivating themes throughout, and it made me realize that Piper did not just hit upon a cool idea but is standing in a long Reformed tradition.
Following Colossians 1 and 2, the primacy of Jesus is evident throughout. He is the totality of God’s revelation to us. We know God the Father as the Father of Jesus (Q26), and the Spirit as the Spirit of Jesus (Q1). Our redemption is not just one of the things that God chose to do but the thing that He does, the only context in which we know Him and the lens through which we must understand everything about Him.
Heidelberg’s definition of faith is the best in any of the catechisms I read, and the only one to describe it rightly as a kind of knowledge:
Q21 What is true faith?
True faith is not only a knowledge and conviction that everything God reveals in his Word is true; it is also a deep-rooted assurance, created in me by the Holy Spirit through the gospel, that, out of sheer grace earned for us by Christ, not only others, but I too, have had my sins forgiven, have been made forever right with God, and have been granted salvation.
I cannot think of a better way to ground young children in theology than exposing them to the Heidelberg catechism. It is written to them, but rather than feeling watered down the gospel message actually feels concentrated and purified. Which makes sense when you think about it - the gospel is for children and a simple explanation in the simple language of the Bible is more powerful, more true, than a precise theological definition. And as I read it I feel like a child.